Posted by: Peadar Ban | November 14, 2013

Down the Nights and Down the Days

The Labyrinthine Ways
(Some Thoughts on Reading “The Man Who Was Thursday”)

I’ll not try to remember how much time passes during Syme’s nightmare in Chesterton’s novel.  Nightmares, most of them anyway, only have a duration of one night, and quite possibly may last only a few seconds.  Time, the orderly procession of instants that we have given the name Time, is turned to soup once the lights go out; chunks bobbing to the top and disappearing, slices partially seen, and all suspended in a flavorful broth of experience and imagination.  Chesterton doesn’t even have the fellow whose nightmare we think this is…or is it Chesterton’s own  ?.. this fellow Syme, fall to sleep and dream, or awaken from it, though.  So his nightmare, so called, begins with the words “A cloud was on the minds of men”?  And, perhaps because of this dedicatory verse to his friend, we may argue in favor of the nightmare really being one of Chesterton’s?  Nah.  That would be soo cinematic.

Well, as with dreams in general, and nightmares in particular…the ones I remember at least, and I have an enduring memory of one that occurred when I was about three…they begin anywhere, and the beginning might just as well suffice for it as the middle.  If that makes no sense, then that is what I mean by it.

Perhaps it could be said they begin before time, continue outside time (or as well within it, running forth and back and sideways) and finish God only knows where.

I was deceived by the book’s first few chapters, expecting what I did not get, not getting what I got instead.  I remember asking my wife  Mariellen, who was reading the book with me, if this was not the silliest ever detective story.  Though I don’t know now what her answer may have been I do recall that she was puzzled, too.  I kept forgetting that this “thing” was at least a dream if not a nightmare, and thinking that things should have been done with some logic, and wondering if I was reading a kind of more genial Kafkaesque piece about a fellow in a place with “up so many floating bells down”.  I wondered if it would all turn into a Chagall painting with floating cows (http://www.chagallpaintings.org/iandthevillage.html ), or something like this guy’s work ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJbOK2EGWXA) .

Then I thought of some kind of Mack Sennett/Keystone Cop comedy as a setting for the whole thing when I reached the part early on about the anarchists hurtling down into the long tunnel to their meeting room while Syme and Gregory pointed guns at each other in a room full of bombs.  I expected a Buster Keaton disaster scene, smoke and bits of buildings and Buster sitting forlorn and alone in the middle of a big mess when it all cleared.  This couldn’t be a nightmare.  How could I believe that this absurdity was about a bunch of fellows who seriously wanted to abolish right and wrong.  But of course there are plenty of folks around who think that is perfectly the right thing to do.  I was working in Law Enforcement in New York in the 1960’s and can attest, and I have relatives who were at work on Wall Street on 9/11/2001.

I read further in the book and began to see all of the nightmare elements emerging; the gradual discovery by Syme that all of the men whose name are days are themselves policeman as Syme is, recruited by Sunday, how in some of my own nightmares this same kind of thing happens.  He learns he is not alone (and they do, too).  He has allies.  Evil reveals itself at a desperate moment not to be evil, but a harmless vision; a mistake.  Remembered in the morning when fully awake, the nightmare becomes a kind of critical review of an important event, a fear faced, a problem that needs facing, a deep response…at least it seems to me…and perhaps a solution to problems or questions facing us all?

Several chapters into this novel, after many of the Days have been identified as police, philosophical police (though I’ve not bothered to figure out what ‘school’s of philosophy they each represent..who is the Aristotelian, who the Platonist, who the Thomist, who the Idealist, etc…has anyone?) I looked up in Genesis where Thursday would have been, and found it to be, well, what it is; the day the lights go on.  And, I figured out the plot.  I smiled and really did smack myself on the forehead.

But I still have some problem trying to figure out why Chesterton put six undercover agents of the philosophical police and their C.I.C., God, in as the Central Governing Council of the Anarchists. The only thing I can figure out is that the nightmare isn’t a nightmare at all.  It is a kind of nonsense tale where, as in Through the Looking Glass, nothing is quite going to be the way it seems, and a snickersnee will cut nothing more than cheese.

That’s what happens, anyway in the real world, the one controlled by a loving God, whom Sunday proves to be in the end.   We are saved and raised, higher than we can imagine.  Eye really cannt see.

I’m left on finishing the book with the picture from the poem that has possibly made the greatest impression on me, of the Holy Ghost who “over the bent world broods with warm breast and with, ahh, bright wings” and this,  something I saw many years ago before I’d read the poem, or the book but had thought about the whole matter:

The Mystery

I have glimpsed today the slow and constant dance,
Creations’ song, before the throne of might and glory,
The wheel and fire, the majesty of movement there
Repeated down to dust and atoms, out to planets
And blackest space.  Each part knows its place in adoration.
Birds and grasses fly and weave in windy syncopation.
Fish and waters far above primeval mud, move
Swift through spears and shafts of prismed light.
The aqueous ooze appears alive itself in fluvial movement
Endowed by ponderous gravity’s touch; while ancient
Sharks, coelacanths and cetacean monsters glide in
Balneal luxury through abyssal eternal dark.

Down through pressing heat to nucleal fire
Burning eternal at the molten core,
Iron and nickel, granite and basalt compact
Mash, re-petrify and slowly explode, expand, up
With glacial agony through aeonic rock
Renewing earth’s only skin over and over.

Always changing, ever new, outward swings
The dance of time, compass wide and atom deep,
Moving to the music of the Maker.
Through all of it pure angels move
The evidences of Love’s self knowing;
And you, and I and everyone growing
Into It, to Them, outstretched waiting
For return, for end, for beginning.
Seeing as They have seen.
Being as They have been.

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