Vulgarity by G.K. Chesterton

Interior of a Tavern, Peasants Carousing (1635)
Master of the Large Jars
source ArtUK

I’ve been keen to read a Chesterton essay for awhile now, but have not drawn him for the Deal Me In challenge yet.  Luckily, this time, he’s my first draw of the year!

Wearing many hats, Chesterton is known for his poetry, philosophy, theology, orating, journalism, biographies, and literary and art criticism.  I haven’t read many of his essays, but of those I have, I’ve found his style entirely unique, a sort of meandering while at the same time being very pointed.  Reading this essay was similar to my previous experience.

Although more practical inventions such as telephones and aeroplanes have foreshadowings of their later inventions, vulgarity itself is so new that even its name is somewhat misleading.  The Latin word “vulgus” was generally used to describe “something that was not particularly common among the common people.”  In fact, the vulgar is not very common if one searches for evidence of it.  Farmers, peasants, the poor, and even savages are rarely vulgar.  This new “thing” requires a new name and definition and although Chesterton questions his ability to give it, because he has just been reading a book about love, he has a few ideas.  Curious ….. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.

Vulgarity consists of two elements: facility and familiarity.  The first means that a man may “gush”, that his words flow without any thought or self-control; they “stream from him like perspiration”.  He appears confident and admired but he “never need stop explaining himself, for he understands neither himself nor the limits of explanation.”  The second element can be defined as profanity, a “loss of holy fear and a sin against the mystical side of man.”  This man can “handle things confidently and contemptuously, without the sense that all things in their way are sacred things.”

“The point is that the fool is so subjective that it never occurs to him to be afraid of the subject.”  He can be both a Pagan fool and a Puritan fool, because each is so familiar with his subject that he becomes blind to the depths of it and loses his objectivity.  On the other hand, a man writing to the woman he loves or the saint writing of his sin, is able to view each with a clear perspective because he has a healthy respect for each and the complexities are clear to him.

Phew!  I certainly understood the gist of Chesterton’s points but following his train of thought can be challenging.  I suspect that I need more practice!

Next week for my Deal Me In Challenge, I’ll be reading the short story, A Little Woman by Franz Kafka, my first reading of Kafka ever.

Week 1 – Deal Me In Challenge – King of Spades

The Club of Queer Trades by G.K. Chesterton

The Club of Queer Trades is a “society consisting exclusively of people who have invented some new and curious way of making money,” and Chesterton’s delightful collection of fantastical tales give us a view of these entrepreneurs who ply their trades in perhaps an unorthodox manner and often with surprising results.

The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown: The subject of this title seeks out Rupert Grant, an amateur detective, and with the help of Swinburne, the narrator, and Grant’s brother, Basil, a former “mad” judge, they proceed to cleverly solve his dilemma.  Retired and living comfortably and quietly in a tiny picturesque villa, Major Brown has a mania for pansies.  One day while strolling down a lane, he meets a man pushing flowers in a wheelbarrow and is convinced to purchase the pansies among them.  Yet before departing, the man whispers that if the Major will only climb the garden wall, he will see the most admired pansies in the whole of England.  Against his nature, Major Brown accepts a boost up and is flabbergasted by what he sees.  It is not the pansies themselves that catch his attention but the arrangement of them, spelling out “Death to Major Brown.” Never one to quail in any situation, Brown introduces himself to the gardener of the house who takes him inside to meet a peculiar lady who is staring out the window, but he remembers to warn him beforehand not to mention the “jackal.”   They begin to converse but suddenly their conversation is cut short by a blood-curdling screech, “Major Brown, Major Brown, where does the jackal dwell?”  When the Major runs outside, he spies a coal-black decapitated head on the sidewalk, where apparently the screams are coming from.  What is going on?  Who is trying to kill the Major?  And why does idiosyncratic Basil seem unconcerned?   Chesterton ties up his story with his usual aplomb, and yet still leaves you wondering.  There is also a neat contrast between Basil and Rupert, the former using his intellect and the latter acting on impulse.  A very fun tale!

The Painful Fall of a Great Reputation:  Charles Swinburne, the narrator of the last tale, and Basil Grant are travelling on the top of a deserted tramcar, speaking philosophically about the plight of the poor and the perception of them.  Basil declares that in spite of their circumstances, the majority of the poor are good people and that “the very vileness of life of these ordered plebeian places bears witness to the victory of the human soul.”  No sooner has he uttered these words than he spies a man on the street and his astonishment is palpable.  He announces that he’s observing the most wicked man in the world.  When Swinburne requests to know the man’s sins, Grant admits that he has never seen him before this moment.  Swinburne is startlingly perplexed.  How has Basil made his assumption?  But there is no time to question as his friend grabs him and they are off on a chase after the most wicked man in the world.  In a world of fact versus impression and appearance versus reality, how are they to know whom to trust?

The Awful Reason of the Vicar’s Visit:  Swinburne is dressing to meet Basil Grant at a dinner party when suddenly the sound of the doorbell resounds through the house.  It is the Reverend Ellis Shorter who has heard of his friend, Major Brown’s adventures and has come to seek help.  Swinburne, impatient to be off to his engagement, gets impatient with the Vicar’s dodderings and prevaricating whereupon the Vicar gives him leave to go, but states if he does not hear him out before he does, a man will be dead!  He relates a queer story of being kidnapped by a women’s sewing club, and a subsequent photograph of himself that had never been taken.  Swinburne is perplexed and takes the vicar to Basil to sort out the mystery!

Reverend Oliver Maron, Vicar of Lancaster
George Romney 

The Singular Speculation of the House Agent:  Lieutenant Keith Drummond manages to excite Rupert’s suspicions and barely concealed contempt with his larger-than-life stories and exaggerated claims.  Upon Drummond requesting a loan from Basil and claiming a visit to a house-agent, Rupert near demands to accompany him in hopes of exposing sinister purposes.  All four men set off together, and after a curiously unintelligible conversation between the odd little house agent and Drummond, in which the agent presents a ferret, some lizards and a spider, Drummond escapes before the rest.  When they follow him, they come upon a commotion and find that there has been a brawl. Drummond has been part of it, with his clothes torn and his sword, which he commonly carries with him, drawn.  The police get his address, yet Swinburne, Basil and Rupert discover the next day that the address was a fake.  Rupert is exultant with the proof of his suspicions of Drummond’s disreputable character, but Basil merely laughs, claiming that Drummond his one of the most honest men and that truth can be stranger than fiction.  How can this be?  Is some of the mad judge’s madness finally showing through?  The truth will be discovered at the address that doesn’t exist.

Purley, Surrey (now south London)
source Wikipedia Commons

The Noticeable Conduct of Professor Chadd:  Basil Grant doesn’t have many friends, but the ones he does have are a motley collection of idiosyncratic characters.  One day, he is discussing with his friend, Professor Chadd, an eminent ethnologist and expert on the relation of language to savages, the impact of science on the observable knowledge of Zulus versus the knowledge gained by living like a Zulu.  Chadd, a stuffy academic, who has recently been appointed as curator of the Asiatic manuscripts at the British Museum, answers in stuffy, didactic prose.  The next morning, Basil receives a telegram from one of Chadd’s three sisters: Chadd has suffered a mental breakdown and Basil is entreated to come at once.  Upon his arrival, Basil discovers that the Professor will not communicate with anyone and, instead, will only move his legs in a kind of rigid, hopping dance.  The doctor is with him and when Basil approaches, he asks for a moment with his friend.  The observers are surprised to see the respectable Mr. Grant with a paper and pencil, following Chadd about and jotting notes as he goes.  They are further astounded when he begins to hop around in a parody of Chadd.  The situation is further complicated with the arrival of Mr. Bingham of the British Museum. Great Scots!  How can a lunatic be curator of the Asiatic manuscripts?!!  Yet Basil declares to Bingham that they need to pay Chadd £800 per year until he stops dancing.  What?  Has Basil gone mad as well?  Are there two lunatics, one or none?

Bedford Gardens, Bloomsbury
source Wikimedia Commons

The Eccentric Seclusion of the Old Lady:  Swinburne is walking with his friend, Rupert Grant, the amateur detective, when Grant spots a milkman walking ahead of them.  Suspicious because of the careless way the man carries his milk can, Grant swears that if they follow him, they will find a mystery at the end of the trail.  When the milkman disappears down area steps to a basement, Grant follows and emerges triumphant.  He has heard a cry for help in the downstairs room, repeating, “When shall I get out?  Will they ever let me out?”.  Determined to rescue the imprisoned lady, they enlist Basil’s help and with his usual aplomb, Basil gains entry to the house but when he emerges, he claims that the men inside are good chaps.  Incensed, both Rupert and Swinburne insist on entering the house themselves to find the victim.  The “chaps” allow them in but a fight ensues in which our three rescuers are pinned.  Will they get free to release the poor woman who’s been detained?  Yet with Basil Grant, nothing is every as it seems.

Milkman and cart 1900s
source Wikimedia Commons

In Basil Grant, Chesterton creates, not a scientifically brilliant detective like Sherlock Holmes, but one who is astute in the workings of human nature, which makes for truly fascinating cases.  Another fantastic effort by Chesterton who keeps the reader guessing, and never quite sure whether up is down or down is up in The Club of Queer Trades.

Father Brown: The Worst Crime in the World by G.K. Chesterton

Father Brown has plans to meet his niece in a picture gallery, but before he finds her, he encounters lawyer Granby who wants his opinion.  Should he trust a certain Captain Musgrove enough to advance him money on his father’s estate?  The estate is not entitled and it is not conclusive that Musgrove Jr. will be the heir.  Upon the arrival of his niece, Father Brown learns that she is planning to marry the same Musgrove and meets the young man himself.  Musgrove invites both Father Brown and Granby to his father’s castle, but then bows out of the trip at the last moment due to an arrival of a couple of shady characters in the background, but encourages the men to make the trip without him.

After they arrive at the castle (having to leap the moat due to a rusty, disabled drawbridge), they meet Old Musgrove, who assures them that his son will inherit, yet he will never speak to him again, due to the fact that he perpetrated the worst crime in the world.  Granby returns to town, secure in his knowledge, but Father Brown remains in the village, determined to discover the details of this dastardly crime.  Will he be able to discover the truth in time to save his niece from the clutches of a villain, or is the old man merely playing with him and there is nothing sinister about his son?  You will only find out, if you read the full story which can be found here:  The Worst Crime in the World – G.K. Chesterton

source Wikimedia Commons

I love Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries and this one does not disappoint.

Deal Me In Challenge #12 – Seven of Clubs

The Man Who Was Thursday, A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton

“The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset.”

Why, oh why, does Chesterton confuse me so?  At first this book appeared to start as a mystery.  Two poets meet in Saffron Park, one, Lucian Gregory, a creative anarchist, the other, Gabriel Syme, a conservative poet and undercover police detective.  By his wit and resources, Syme infiltrates the anarchist’s group called the Central Anarchist Council, getting himself named one of its seven members, christened “Thursday”.  Yet can he stop the assassination attempt the group is planning and expose this dastardly anarchical organization?

The book is much more than a mystery, which readily becomes apparent as the reader makes his way through the entertaining yet confusing prose. There was an initial discussion about anarchy and art, yet I soon realized that the two poets were comparing anarchy and law.  As I read my way through, various questions arose.  Why were the council members named after the days of the week?  Does this point towards some sort of creation story?  Why do all the members who appear evil are not as they seem? What are they really fighting against?  Why is the subtitle “A Nightmare”?  And what was the point of Syme’s promise to Gregory? It is mentioned numerous times so it should have some importance.

Yet the big question that hangs over the characters and the reader alike is: Who is the leader of the group, Sunday?  The Professor, named Friday, reveals:

“I confess that I should feel a bit afraid of asking Sunday who he really is.” 

“Why,” asked the Secretary, “for fear of bombs?” 

“No,” said the Professor, “for fear that he might tell me.”

In one review, the reviewer claimed that Sunday represents Nature.  Well, perhaps.  He is both benign and frightening, as this description shows:

“You would not know [his name] ……  That is his greatness.  Caesar and Napoleon put all their genius into being heard of, and they were heard of.  He puts all his genius into not being heard of, and his is not heard of.  But you cannot be for five minutes in the room with him without feeling that Caesar and Napoleon would have been children in his hands.”

Sunday’s words about himself are even more chilling:

“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 philosophers.  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 ……….  There’s one thing I’ll tell you though about who I am.  I am the man in the dark room, who made you all policemen.”

After its publication in 1908, The Man Who Was Thursday came under a storm of critical approval.  Frighteningly complex, it has been  hailed as “amazingly clever”,  “shamelessly beautiful prose”, “a remarkable acrobatic performance” and “a scurrying, door-slamming farce that ends like a chapter in the Apocalypse.”  One reader declared himself “dazed” at the end of it, which perfectly described my puzzled demeanor as I closed the last page.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1909)
source Wikipedia

As you see, reading the book brought about more questions than answers, so instead I will leave you with a taste of what others have said about this novel:

“Roughly speaking, it’s about anarchists …… And roughly speaking, it’s a mystery story.  It can be guaranteed that you will never, never guess the solution until you get to the end —- it is even feared that you may not guess it then.  You may never guess what The Man Who Was Thursday is about.  But definitely, if you don’t, you’ll ask. “ 

                                                                     ~  Orson Welles  ~

“…… mystery and allegory take their turn in the scene.  Life, huge, shapeless, cruel and loving, killing and saving, full of antitheses, appearing to each one under a different aspect, measuring each man according to the strength of his soul, turns its strange face upon us.  Life, whose soul is law, nature, whose expression is law, confront the frantic lawlessness of struggling man —- and behold, those very struggles prove to be based on law again.  And when at the last you sit on the thrones with the Council of Days, you see the mad, miraculous world dance by, moving to a harmony none the less invincible because only half heard.”
                                                ~  Hildegarde Hawthorne  ~

I highly recommend this book to ……….. well, to anyone!  Read it as a mystery, read it as a commentary, read it as philosophy,  read it as a fantasy, read it as theology —- it has something for everyone. Perhaps it should be described as a mystery without end, a true symphony of brilliance by Chesterton, in which nothing is ever how it seems!

If you’ve read The Man Who Was Thursday, what do you think the story was about?

Further Reading: