We’ve been hearing for years–decades, really–that art must be transgressive, deliberately breaking rules and flaunting that defiance in the face of stuffy conventionalism. Of course, such transgressiveness must align with standard liberal notions of “tolerance”; one need look no further than the furore over Pamela Gellar’s Draw Mohammed art contest and the college student who dared to lecture Jerry Seinfeld* on the nature of humor to find out that even those who say there are no rules insist that everyone else follow the rules they impose (and keep changing… it’s rather like Calvinball). Conversely, as discussed here this spring, a number of conservative artists find such a view repulsive. So it might come as no surprise to encounter the following exchange between two poets:
“I tell you,” went on Syme with passion, “that every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hairbreadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word ‘Victoria,’ it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed ‘Victoria’; it is the victory of Adam.”
“And even then,” he said, “we poets always ask the question, ‘And what is Victoria now that you have got there?’ You think Victoria is like the New Jerusalem. We know that the New Jerusalem will only be like Victoria. Yes, the poet will be discontented even in the streets of heaven. The poet is always in revolt.”
“There again,” said Syme irritably, “what is there poetical about being in revolt? You might as well say that it is poetical to be sea‑sick. Being sick is a revolt. Both being sick and being rebellious may be the wholesome thing on certain desperate occasions; but I’m hanged if I can see why they are poetical. Revolt in the abstract is—revolting. It’s mere vomiting. [. . .] It is things going right,” he cried, “that is poetical! Our digestions, for instance, going sacredly and silently right, that is the foundation of all poetry. Yes, the most poetical thing, more poetical than the flowers, more poetical than the stars—the most poetical thing in the world is not being sick.”
“Really,” said Gregory superciliously, “the examples you choose—”
“I beg your pardon,” said Syme grimly, “I forgot we had abolished all conventions.”
What may surprise you is that this exchange was written by G. K. Chesterton… in 1908.
The book in question is entitled The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. That subtitle is important, because there’s a nightmarish quality to the many twists and turns of the plot, which is difficult to summarize without spoiling. That dreamlikeness becomes even more pronounced in the last few chapters, and its ending is strange enough that it’s not the sort of book one can necessarily comprehend in one reading. But it is the sort of book that’s worth rereading so that, knowing what happens, you can begin to make sense of what it all means, the arguments hidden in the storyline about the nature of beauty, art, and order, about the folly of lawlessness, and about the limits of human understanding.
The beginning, on the other hand, is straightforward enough. Lucian Gregory, a self-professed anarchist poet, hosts a garden party at which he meets Gabriel Syme, who styles himself “a poet of respectability.” After sparring verbally with Syme and becoming sufficiently irritated, Gregory invites Syme to a meeting of his local anarchist society, at which he expects to be elected to represent his chapter in the Central Anarchist Council. But after swearing Gregory to silence and telling him a shocking secret, Syme manages to out-demagogue him and thus wins the election himself, and with it the code name Thursday.
That secret: while genuinely a poet, Syme is also an undercover detective, recruited by Scotland Yard to infiltrate the Central Anarchist Council and thwart the anarchists’ plans. Shortly after his election as Thursday, however, he finds out that he’s not the only detective on the council. And that’s when things really start to get strange, proving the truth of Syme’s assertion that a person who leaves a train station can do any number of things other than arriving safely at his destination. It’s zany. It’s funny. It’s suspenseful. It’s challenging.
But is it art? Ah, that, my friends, you must read and determine for yourselves.
* Note: I am not a Seinfeld fan by any stretch of the imagination, but that particular incident was textbook chutzpah.