Athenaeum Meeting Minutes – February 8, 2003 – Dog & Duck Pub

Attending:  John Mays, Jimmy Martin, Alan Hunt, Bob Hardister, Pete Hansen, Stephen Hansen, Chris Mack, Skip Mencio, Eli Pickering

Book for Discussion:  The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton

Secretary’s Corner: Thanks to brother Mack from providing the Cuban cigars. Books, brews, and contraband. What a combination!


John: So what was this story all about? Who wants to start? How long did it take you to figure out the entire council was composed of the philosophical detectives?

Eli: Once Worms was revealed, I figured the whole Council of Anarchists were all detectives. And Sunday would also be revealed as the man in the dark room.

Alan: Same here, but the action in the French town was confusing. If they were all detectives, why were the Secretary and the entire town after the detectives?

John: G.K. Chesterton uses telescoping as a device to collapse time and space. In many scenes time was accelerated (exp: the described action does not account for the entire passage of time between Council Meetings), or space was reduced (exp: the spyglass showing the crowds marching across the field, or the cab chase).

Pete: The entire action between the first and second councils takes seven days.

Bob: The poem was easier to understand than the story. Also it offers a tremendous glimpse into many of the themes Chesterton is concerned with in Thursday.

Pete: Some of those themes are science leading to skepticism, art admiring decay, and honor as an object of shame; in a single phrase, the decay of truth.

Bob/Alan: The poem describes Chesterton’s, and his friend Bently’s, struggles with a period of doubt in which a battle of ideas raged in their minds and hearts.

John: They struggled to answer the question of evil. Why does a loving God allow evil to exist?

Pete: From the poem, “We have seen the City of Mansoul, even as it rocked, relieved - / Blessed are they who did not see, but being blind believed” This is a clear reference to Christ, another theme (perhaps the main theme?) with which Chesterton deals.

Eli: An essay by Youngberg from Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, vol 6 suggests, “The member of the Council of Anarchists present some of the many faces of modern pessimism, which for Chesterton is the New Anarchy”. Bull seems to represent the pessimism of science. As Syme and Worms ascend to the Dr.’s apartment, “[The stair’s] infinity was more like the empty infinity of arithmetic, something unthinkable, yet necessary to thought. Or it was like the stunning statements of astronomy about the distance of the fixed starts. He was ascending the house of reason, a thing more hideous than unreason.” What do the other detectives represent?

Jimmy: Worms convinces everyone he is the real Worms, and then is cast into a roll from which he can not separate.

Skip: This illustrates a desire to imitate. He searches for truth like the other philosophical detectives, but he searches not as himself, but as someone else, and so those truths can not satisfy him.

John: No doubt Chesterton’s stories are loaded with association. He speaks in Orthodoxy of the “mirth of God”. Ultimately, despite the pain we encounter in our mortal lives, he believes we will find that God has a lightness, a sense of humor. The personalities of the detectives developed over the course of the book, but we ought not attempt assign to each a distinct skepticism, but instead to each recognize the varied form of one skepticism…that of rationalism.

Skip: Most people, while trying to make sense of the story miss the obvious clue, the title. Or rather the subtitle, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. Chesterton noted many years after its publication this story was not intended to describe the world as it is, but only the world as some pessimists might see it in 1907.

John: Who is Sunday? At the end of the novel the Secretary asks that of Sunday and is told, “I am the Sabbath…I am the Peace of God”. The Secretary responds, “I know what you mean…and it is exactly that that I can not forgive you. I know you are contentment, optimism…an ultimate reconciliation. Well, I am not reconciled. If you were the man in the dark room, why were you also Sunday, an offence to the sunlight? If you were from the first our father and our friend, why were you also our greatest enemy? We wept, we fled in terror; the iron entered our souls-and you are the peace of God? Oh, I can forgive God his anger, though it destroys nations; but I cannot forgive Him His peace.”

Pete: Sunday is a Christ figure. But as Christ he is a paradoxical figure. Christ is the ultimate paradox; he is God and Man, and as such is both impassable and yet suffered.

Bob: How is the reader supposed to orient themselves, especially given those last two chapters?

Pete: Chesterton is a poet, and sees Sunday as Christ. He defies the wisdom of the world (reference the second meeting of the council quoted below), a stumbling block to many and yet savior of the world. The detectives hate Sunday, and yet love him.

John: Toward the end the detectives question Sunday, just as Job questions God.

Chris: I do not see Christ in Sunday.

Eli: In the final scene of Syme’s dream sequence Sunday’s face grows immense, and blots out the sky until everything fades to black. Then a disembodies voice is heard, “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?” These are Christ’s words.

John: In his forward, Chesterton refers to what I will call the “heresy of rationalism”…

Eli: What!?!?

John: Rationalism is heretical.

Pete: But God is rational.

John: I chose not take that on at this time.

Eli: Gardner’s essay on Thursday describes Sunday as God’s Immanence. The terrible Back of God that we see in the course of our life and fail to understand. Sunday is “the problem of evil”.

John: Just as the world is beautiful, and yet dangerous.

Skip: CS Lewis captures this Divine quality in the Chronicles, with his description of Aslan. He may represent a loving ruler, but he’s still a lion, and therefore not safe.

John: Despite his supernatural size, Sunday still bounds and bounces. There is a lightness, or mirth to his character that Chesterton ascribes to God.

Bob: Chesterton himself was a big fat guy!

John: And did you notice the sword stick, brandy flask, and cloak worn by Syme as Thursday were articles that Chesterton himself was known to wear?

Pete: Gregory in chapter two says this about the President of the Council of Anarchists, “We generally call him Sunday…You see, there are seven members of the Central Anarchists Council, and they are named after the days of the week. He is called Sunday, by some of his admires Bloody Sunday.”

Chris: Prescient given the events in Ireland many years later.

Skip: Did anyone notice that Sunday is not the 7th day of the week? Day seven would be Saturday.

Bob: Chesterton is taking some allowance here. Footnotes indicate he has adjusted the start of the week to make Sunday the seventh day.

Eli: Gardner’s analysis of Sunday as God’s Immanence is excellent, but Pete is also correct in his association of Sunday as Christ. It is no coincidence that after the detectives’ wild and climatic chase through London and the English countryside they find themselves tired, befouled, and broken. It is only then that Sunday sends for them, cleans them, clothes them, and gives them rest, just as the Christian finds rest in Christ.

Alan: Sunday has been described as a type of Christ and God, but Syme is also a type of Moses. When Syme receives his card, and is interviewed by Sunday upon entrance to the philosophical police force he is told, “Are you a new recruit? All right. You are engaged” / “I really have no experience” / “No one has any experience of the Battle of Armageddon” / “But I’m really unfit – “ / “You are willing, that is enough” / "I don’t know any profession of which mere willingness is the final test.” / "I do, martyrs. I am condemning you to death. Good day.”

John: Here is a portion of the lantern scene, “’Do you see this lantern?’ cried Syme in a terrible voice. ‘Do you see the cross carved on it, and flame inside? You did not make it. You did not light it. Better men than you, men who could believe and obey, twisted the entrails of iron and preserved the ledged of fire…You can make nothing. You can only destroy. You will destroy mankind; you will destroy the world. Let that suffice you. Yet this old Christian lantern you shall not destroy. It shall go where your empire of apes will never have the wit to find it.’ He struck the Secretary once with the lantern so that he staggered; and then whirling it twice round his head, sent it flying far out to see, where it flared like a roaring rocket and fell.”

Chris: You guys read far too much into the story. The more obvious thing is that the evil they are so concerned about is all in their heads. After all, they are chasing an anarchist’s council that does not exist. Where are the anarchists in the story?

Pete: It is the philosophies of pessimism that are evil.

Skip: Chris may have a point.

Alan: Syme and Gregory are in the anarchist’s club. Perhaps it is just the Council that is not truly evil.

John: Gregory stands as the accuser in the very end. Gregory, as a Satan figure, is an anarchist. Satan is the true anarchist, the destroyer of the world.

Bob: The final chapters force us to admit this is not simply an ironical comedy, or a fanciful dream. The depth of those chapters demand that we confront the deeper issues Chesterton is addressing.

Skip: But Syme and Gregory do not pick up where they left off. They are not Gabriel and Satan in the presence of God, but friends. The action between the first and last page are a dream sequence totally in the mind of Syme. The evil is in his head.

Chris: Freud posits in The Interpretation of Dreams that all characters in our dreams are reflections of ourselves. With this understanding, Sunday and the rest of the council reflect the fear of evil within Syme.

Eli: While that may be true, one can not say there were no true anarchists, or that evil doesn’t really exist. Chesterton may have chosen to tell his story in a dreamscape, but that does not mean evil is strictly a fantasy.

Chris: Still, there are no acts of evil in the entire story.

John: The poem in the beginning would intimate Syme’s struggle is an internal struggle.


Pete: One of my favorite sections, “Gabriel Syme was not merely a detective who pretended to be a poet; he was really a poet who had become a detective. Nor was his hatred of anarchy hypocritical. He was one of those driven early in life into too conservative an attitude by the bewildering folly of most revolutionists…One of his uncles always walked around without a hat, and another had made an attempt to walk around with a hat and nothing else. His father cultivated art and self-realization; his mother went for in for simplicity and hygiene. Hence the child, during his tender years, was wholly unacquainted with any drink between absinth and cocoa, of both of which he had a healthy dislike. The more his mother preached a more than Puritan abstinence the more did his father expand into more than a pagan latitude; and by the time the former had come to enforce vegetarianism, the latter had pretty well reached the point of defending cannibalism.”

John: And one of mine is Sunday at the second Council meeting, “I? What am I?...You want to know what I am, do you? Bull you are a man of science. Grub into the roots of those trees and find out about them. Syme, you are a poet. Stare at those morning clouds. But I tell you this, that you will have found out the truth of the last tree and the topmost clouds before the truth about me. You will understand the sea, and I shall still be a riddle; you shall know where the stars are, and not know what I am. Since the beginning of the world all men have hunted me like a wolf-kings and sages, and poets and law-givers, all the churches, and all the philosophies. But I have never been caught yet, and the skies will fall in the time I turn to bay. I have given them a good run for their money, and I will now.”

Jimmy: Here is a conversation between Worms and Syme, in which Worms accuses Syme of being afraid of Sunday, “Yes…you are right. I am afraid of him. Therefore I swear by God that I will seek out this man whom I fear until I find him, and strike him on the mouth. If heaven were his throne and earth his footstool, I swear I would pull him down, I swear that I will pull him down.” Note the biblical allusion to Psalm 110.

Eli: As Syme and Ratcliffe square off in the duel, Chesterton departs from the light tone of the novel thus far, and creates a scene with foreboding and tension, “When the jar of the joined iron ran up Syme’s arm, all the fantastic fears that have been the subject of this story so far fell from him like dreams from a man waking in his bed. He remembered them clearly and in order as mere delusions of the nerves – how the fear of the Professor had been the fear of the tyrannic accidents of nightmare, and how the fear of the Doctor had been the fear of the airless vacuum of science. The first was the old fear that any miracle might happen, the second the more hopeless modern fear that no miracle can ever happen…For as soon as he had seen the sunlight run down the channel of his foe’s foreshortened blade, and as soon as he had felt the two tongues of steel touch, vibrating like two living things, he knew his enemy was a terrible fighter, and that probably his last hour had come.”

Pete: In contrast to Bull and Worms, Gogol may represent the philosophy of existentialism. Notice Syme comments he could not see him at all when they first met at the first Council meeting.

Chris: It is ironic that there existed honor among anarchists. They all took an oath of silence, which they all keep unto the end.

Skip: Even Gregory was true to his word. Syme’s deceit to enter the Council as Thursday would have been laid to bear if Gregory had only revealed Syme’s secret to all. But he was bound to silence by an oath.

Pete: And what kind of anarchists depend on councils and passwords, when these are they very things they are out to destroy?

Eli: What about those notes Sunday threw to each of the detectives during the final chase? Can anyone make sense of just one of them?

All: They meant nothing. Complete nonsense.

Bob: They did drive the men on to catch Sunday. It’s almost as if the had to catch him, just to understand what he was telling them. It is reminiscent of Barret in The Last Gentlemen as he reads Dr. Sutter’s journal. It drives him on without providing any real answers.

Steve: The scene in which Syme taunts the Marquise into a duel is pure comedy, “’And you are the Marquis de Saint Eustache. Permit me to pull your nose…This man has insulted me!’ / ‘Insulted you…When!’ / ‘Oh just now…He insulted my mother’ / ‘Insulted you mother!’ / ‘Well, anyhow…my aunt’ / ‘But how can the Marquis have insulted your aunt just now…He has been sitting here all the time.’ / ‘Ah, it was what he said!’ / ‘I said nothing at all…except something about the band. I only said that I liked Wagner played well.’ / ‘It was an illusion to my family…My aunt played Wagner badly. It was a painful subject. We are always being insulted about it.’”

Pete: Syme gets to the heart of the book when he comments on the nature of Sunday, “…that has been the mystery of Sunday, and it is also the mystery of the world. When I see the horrible back, I am sure the noble face is but a mask. When I see the face but for an instant, I know the back is only a jest. Bad is so bad, that we cannot but think good is an accident; good is so good, that we feel certain that evil could be explained…Listen to me…Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping a face? If we could only get around to the front-“

Eli: Just like Plato’s cave. We do not, can not see the world as it is, but instead we see shadows of replicas. Likewise, we do not know the ways of God, or why he has allowed evil to torment us in this life. We will never get around to the front until we see the face of Christ, and find our rest.

Voting for April:

The Aeneid
Paradise Lost
Zen and the Art of
Motorcycle Maintenance
Snow Crash
The Screwtape Letters
Philebus / Apology
Blood Meridian

Next Meeting:

March 8th at the Dog and Duck Pub

March The Sound and The Fury, William Faulkner

April Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig

Athenaeum Meeting Minutes