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The Ethics of Mystery: Detection and Dream Vision in The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, by Melanie East, University of Toronto

Victorians Institute Journal Digital Annex

The Moonstone contains two mysteries: the human mystery resolved at the conclusion when the thief is discovered, and a larger, cosmic mystery intimated in the closing words of the novel after the Moonstone is returned to its sacred place in the forehead of its deity. The open-ended questions at the close hinting at further adventure for the inscrutable stone, suggest that the mysteries of human behaviour may be solved, but the inexplicable workings of the universe cannot and should not be solved. In the wake of The Moonstone, the evolution of the detective novel from the mid-nineteenth century to the early years of the twentieth more or less focuses on human mystery, following the development of science as the dominant epistemological paradigm for understanding the material world. G.K. Chesterton, an often overlooked contemporary of Conan Doyle’s, worked outside this paradigm. Chesterton re-imagines detective fiction as romance in his 1908 novel The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, thereby drawing attention to the genre’s ideological constraints and insisting on a mysterious, divine realm beyond the reach of science and logic. His unique approach enchants the detective story by combining medieval and modern literary forms, illuminating a relationship between secular and spiritual mystery while questioning the genre’s commitment to materialism.
Chesterton’s engagement with detective fiction was lifelong and diverse. In addition to several critical essays, he wrote Thursday, as well as the Father Brown stories and the collection The Club of Queer Trades, both of which are closer to the classic model embodied by the Holmes stories.@ Anthologies and scholarly works on detective fiction credit Chesterton with one of the earliest definitions of the genre, yet Chesterton’s actual work receives far less attention than Doyle and slightly later canonical authors. In part, this is due to his overlap with Doyle’s overwhelming popularity, but also because in histories of the genre his resistance to the scientific rationality of the classical model often leaves him outside the tidy boundaries of generic themes and conventions. However, Chesterton was writing during the height of the Edwardian craze for mystery stories, which suggests that while Thursday transcends the classical formula, he could not ignore it altogether, but rather was critically engaging with it.
Altogether, the story combines quest, parable, allegory, spy thriller, dream vision, detective novel, and parody of all these things, mixing satire with the sacred and serious. As such, the most suitable label for Thursday is the metaphysical detective novel. Where Chesterton’s contribution to detective fiction is more frequently noticed, it is as a precursor to Borges and later postmodernist writers of this type of detective fiction. The metaphysical detective story subverts the conventions of its traditional counterpart to interrogate the nature of mystery, language, narrative and reading. While Chesterton’s Christian ethos may be far removed from Borges, Nabokov, Pynchon, and other metaphysical mystery writers, Thursday has in common with them an early post-modernist impulse towards self-reflexivity and a suspicion of linguistic and narrative certainty, despite the text’s ultimate suggestion that there are hope and meaning in the enigma of the divine.
Briefly, the novel follows a police detective undercover as a poet in search of anarchists. The detective, Gabriel Syme, embarks on what gradually appears to be a dream, joining the head council of the anarchists undercover, each member of which is named for a day of the week, (with Syme taking on the role of Thursday). The pessimistic Syme eventually learns that the team of anarchists is far less insidious than he has been led to believe—each of the members of the council is actually a fellow police detective in disguise. With the exception of their leader, the mysterious Sunday, Syme learns that most of the people he encounters are fundamentally good, which alters his perception of the world. Yet the confusion surrounding the character of Sunday remains a mystery. In the penultimate chapter, Sunday appears as a being vaguely resembling the Christian God, but retains a degree of unholy mystery even at the end. The novel is comfortable with this epistemological uncertainty that intentionally subverts the ethos of the popular detective fiction of Chesterton’s contemporaries, and the realism towards which the genre was striving.
The classic detective formula has traditionally been read as a sub-genre of realism based on its familiar reflection of society, noted in the seminal work of Stephen Knight and others. Heta Pyrhönen notes that the genre’s adherence to codes of realism depicts detection as conservative and reassuring, because it restores the order of everyday standards of perception, rather than challenging them.@ The erasure of mystery in the solution to the detective tale also follows the pattern of the modern narrative of disenchantment, in the Weberian sense of rationalization and secularization, which posits disillusionment as an effect of advances in science and technology that eliminate the magic of the unknown.
The relationship between science and classic detective fiction is obvious in that both rely on clues and evidence in the physical world to make meaning. Such a relationship is most explicit as Sherlock Holmes exploits forensic evidence to create order out of the chaos of crime, and provides his audience with an illusion of the mastery and control of science over the material world. Most criticism on the Holmesian model reiterates this same connection between science and rationality, though some scholars are now re-evaluating such a straightforward understanding. Examining the curious longevity and power of the Holmes myth, Michael Saler has recently revived the term “New Romance” to describe the way in which certain types of romance appealed to realism, rationality, and secularity for their enchantment. He regards many of Chesterton’s contemporaries such as Stevenson, Haggard, Kipling, and in particular, Conan Doyle and his Holmes stories as part of a vein of New Romance, which he claims “emphasized analysis as much as fancy” and grounded itself in realism through tactics that increased verisimilitude such as the use of footnotes, charts, appendices, and photographs.@ The goal of these romancers was to use enough scientific detail that readers could let their imaginations fly away with the wonders of fantasy while retaining an ironic degree of believability. Yet arguably, Holmes’ “romance of reason,” as Saler calls it,@ while providing temporary excitement, does not perpetuate a new perspective that would re-enchant perception: rather, it resembles a temporary relief from boredom. At the end of “The Red-Headed League,” for example, Holmes responds to Watson’s marvel at his reasoning with characteristic nonchalance: “‘It saved me from ennui,’ he answered, yawning. ‘Alas! I already feel it closing in upon me. My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence.’”@ Holmes is able to find temporary re-enchantment in solving mystery, but once it is solved and mystery dissipates, the enchantment is gone. The very reason that Saler contends is used as a tool for re-enchantment, is actually a tool for disenchantment in the same way Weber argues in the first place. Ultimately, Holmes can only provide temporary transcendence within a secular world where wonder ceases as soon as the mystery is solved.
Looking for transcendence and re-enchantment in this same secular world, Chesterton’s medieval imagination infused the modern detective story with older romance by highlighting continuity in the battle between chaos and order. Accordingly, he elevates the detective to hero-status as detective-knight. When the protagonist, Syme, joins the special detective force he is even given a small blue identification card that reads: “The Last Crusade” (40). As he advances in his adventure and dons the disguise of an anarchist, he imagines himself as St. George out to slay the dragon, wandering in a wasteland. Syme’s incarnation as St. George is a metafictional reflection: he is a police detective fighting pessimism in his city streets in the guise of a paragon of romance. Syme’s characterization resonates with Chesterton’s explication of the genre in his essay “A Defence of Detective Stories” which appeared in 1902. In Chesterton’s view, police detectives are modern knights of civilization fighting for order over chaos. He writes:
The romance of the police force is thus the whole romance of man. It is based on the fact that morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies. It reminds us that the whole noiseless and unnoticeable police management by which we are ruled and protected is only a successful knight-errantry.@
Chesterton’s creative engagement with the genre here is to heighten the mundanity of the modern detective plot to mythic proportions, thereby adding the enchantment of romance, and heightening mystery to a cosmic one that cannot be solved.
Consequently, The Man Who Was Thursday belongs to the late-Victorian romance revival at the turn of the century, proponents of which viewed themselves as writing in reaction to the hegemony of realism. Despite the more recent critical turn most notable in the work of George Levine and others identifying the concern for ethics in realism, Chesterton, along with several of his literary peers, not only saw realism as a foil to romance, but felt romance to be the more ethical mode. In fact, he once claimed, “Romance is perhaps the highest point of human expression, except indeed religion, to which it is closely allied.”@ Both his fiction and non-fiction insist that romance is a moral imperative based on its cultivation of wonder and altered perception, and in particular, that mystery in romance is essential to these. Writing in his book Orthodoxy, in the same year as Thursday, he suggests “As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity.”@
While romance is often viewed as escapist, Jean-Michel Ganteau has shown how some writers from the late nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries have used romance as an ethical strategy to present an open encounter with the Other, and with the “far and the strange,” in order to disrupt readers’ established conceptions. Ganteau notes the strategies of parody and enchanted foreignness in the novels he examines, which are also present in Thursday, and which he claims are used to undermine traditional closure and promote “multiplicity and alternative truth.”@ While Chesterton’s ethical system certainly differed from many of his contemporaries, he shares an interest in romance as an ethical mode. Chesterton does not simply incorporate vaguely Christian themes into his romance, but he explores the multiple and even conflicting aspects of the Christian God, resting comfortably in an uncertain engagement with the unknown and wholly Other. In Thursday, this becomes an encounter between the modern detective and the mysterium tremendum et fascinans—an experience of the divine that both attracts and repels.
Such an encounter is the purview of romance, but is incorporated into the realism of the detective story by moving it into the realm of the oneiric. In particular, the novel resurrects the medieval form of the dream vision, which acts as a frame to the detective story and elevates the narrative through its association with revelation, but still returns it to contemporary reality. Chesterton draws on the medievalism so prevalent in the romance revival, but not nostalgically so, as might be argued about William Morris’ earlier dream visions. The dream vision allows for the type of numinous experience that the strangeness of romance easily accommodates, while at the same time relegating such an experience to the dream world and re-affirming the modern space of Edwardian London.
While Thursday has been described as dream-like, or even metaphorically as a dream, critics have not recognized its close affiliation with the medieval dream vision. Generally, when the subtitle “a nightmare” is remembered, or the presence of the dream is discussed, it is treated merely as a device to heighten the atmosphere. But more than simply a tool for sensationalism or a device for character development, the dream frame functions paradoxically to order the narrative by enclosing it within tidy borders, while also introducing the disorder of the oneiric. The dream, which lacks the first person narration that would suggest the interior development of a character, seems to originate externally, hinting at prophetic or divine meaning that comes from a source outside the self. Chesterton recognizes the potential of the literary dream, not for its ability to explore interiority, but for its allegorical potential and its challenge to scientism and realism as a way to provide his audience with an older but vital mode of thinking and of perceiving the world.
The medieval dream vision often contained romance themes, and frequently featured aesthetic and epistemological questions similar to those surrounding romance and realism at the fin de siècle. In addition, the later Middle Ages saw the rise of new philosophical and theological movements that shifted attention from the divine to the human and introduced conflict between science and faith not wholly unlike the conflict late Victorians felt in their vastly more secular society, and which Chesterton certainly felt very keenly. Thus, though an odd marriage of genres, the choice is not random. Both the dream vision and the detective story also share a common preoccupation with the interpretation of mysterious events: the medieval belief in the working of divine providence required a sort of detection of dreams, in the form of interpreting their content for divine guidance. Despite this commonality between dream visions and the detective story, there is also an important tension between the two. Dream visions, on the one hand, typically offer little explicit explanation, and though there is a hint at higher meaning, the reader is left with more mystery than solution; the narrative frame may offer a type of closure, but the potential multiplicity of meanings behind dream symbols remains. Detective fiction, on the other hand, solves mystery and supplies a logical, linear model of explanation that dispels mystery altogether and provides complete closure. Thursday exploits this tension to explore both the limits and potential of detection as a source of mystery and romance.
Though often overlooked, several of the conventions of the dream vision are present throughout the novel. The first notable marker of the dream vision is the dreamer’s angst in the opening frame. The dreamer is often disturbed about something, which initiates the bizarre dream sequence. In Thursday, we learn that Syme fell into his job on the special force because of extreme angst about the growing number of anarchists.
Additionally, the opening frame of a dream vision often begins with a debate of some sort on the nature of poetry, which sets up aesthetic questions that ensue in the dream report. Thursday follows this pattern by foregrounding a debate in the opening frame over the function of the artist and the nature of art. Another related convention is the bat, or less formal conversations with one or more characters throughout the dream report. Accordingly, in the middle of police action, Thursday frequently features conversations and debates between the six detectives over large metaphysical questions, which is less customary for a romance than a novel, and especially for one with as few properties of realism as this one.
Foregrounding debates, multiple points of view, and unanswered questions is antithetical to the formula of the solitary detective genius, such as Auguste Dupin or Sherlock Holmes, and much closer to the pattern of The Moonstone. As a detective mystery set within the strange realm of dreamland, the novel is replete with riddles and nonsensical communication that remain unsolved and frustrate the expectations of the detective genre for both characters and readers. This confusion is a typical feature of the metaphysical detective story, which often draws attention to the process of deciphering and solving its mystery, but it is also a quality of the dream vision. Thursday, not unlike Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess, repeatedly features miscommunication and misunderstanding through secret codes and language games, underscoring the contingency of language and frustrating the detective’s ability to create a linear narrative that dispels mystery. This quality clearly marks a departure from the traditional rationality of the detective genre where readers witness Sherlock Holmes enumerate facts in order, literally checking them off on his fingers as he goes,@ or relying on language to clear up mystery as he assures a client, “It would cease to be a danger if we could define it.”@ In contrast, Chesterton’s novel intentionally depicts the difficulty of naming and solving mystery with rational language. One such instance occurs when two characters invent a secret code to communicate by tapping out words with their fingers. The absurd linguistic play undermines the tension of the scene lending language an irrational quality within the dream world, and emphasizing its inability to name and solve mystery.
While it is difficult to define and convey meaning in this nightmare vision, there is still something there to communicate, which is clear from the glimmer of hope in the “impossible good news” of which Syme is in possession at the conclusion. If there is any stable meaning to be garnered from the text, however, it resides in the allegorical, which is also a convention of the dream vision. Yet rather than viewing the allegorical mode of Thursday as simple didacticism, it is useful to see it as emphasizing a state of mind. A sub-species of allegory that functions as an extended metaphor is the parable, which Thursday may also be considered in its surface allegory as a brief human narrative about the limits of pessimism. Parables are traditionally considered simple rhetorical tools, but Joshua Landy makes the case for the parable as an enchanted literary form. He focuses on the parables of Jesus found in the Gospel of Mark to argue, paradoxically, that Mark’s Jesus employs parables to bar easy access to the truth, and instead to teach the initiate “to dwell in metaphors” by which he means to see the world as “a shadowing-forth of a higher plane of experience.”@ “To dwell in metaphors” is to permit mystery to remain, or to allow an approximate understanding of reality, or an approximate language to describe the world, rather than reducing metaphor and approximate thinking to the exactitude demanded by science. Thursday’s metaphysical project is to enchant the detective genre by such a dwelling in metaphor and the mysteries of language in response to naming, labeling, and categorizing mystery in order to dispel it. For Chesterton, though, it is essential that metaphor still be attached to meaning, even if the meaning is multiple, rather than becoming an empty symbol or a game. Though Sunday may have multiple referents, it is clear that his purpose is not to destabilize or subtract meaning, but to proliferate it. Sunday seemingly represents the mysteries of God and the multiple aspects of His character such as His wrath, His goodness, and at the end, His ability to suffer. Syme is able to accept these mysterious multiplicities when he awakens, remembering swooning in the face of Sunday, but no longer feeling fear despite lacking any clear resolution.
The closing of the novel intimates the ultimate mystery—the mystery of God’s existence. This hint of the divine weaves the different generic strands of the text together, connecting the dream vision and detective elements through their literary roots. William David Spencer traces the etymology of the word mystery to its Greek root mysterion, outlining its biblical usage as spiritual mystery and spiritual knowledge, such as that granted Daniel of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams. Notably, this early incarnation of mystery as spiritual mystery is linked to the oneiric, which has echoes in the dream vision format of Thursday. Chesterton’s text, then, reconnects the secularized detective mystery to its spiritual roots through the type of knowledge granted by the dream vision. Thursday ultimately offers a meditation on the various types of mystery, secular and spiritual, suggesting that they are more related than they at first seem.
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