Surrealpolitik: G.K. Chesterton and the Terrorist God Outside Modernism

Author: Robert L. Caserio

Quick Summary

In an anthology of essays about Chesterton, Caserio's piece focuses on what he calls "double-writing" which is a kind of polysemous ambiguity, that leads ultimately to a higher disambiguation, for example the blurring of meanings and roles of policemen and terrorists resolving into an appreciation of their shared passion for what they see as justice. Has quite a few good references to useful novels, talks about Mao II a bit, modernism and postmodernism. Dense but interesting. Caserio posits a modernist-to-postmodernist continuity of tradition around anarcho-terrorism. In support of this notion he offers the following novels, which (he argues) all exhibit this ambiguity-into-higher-certainty of double-writing: 1) The Man Who Was Thursday (1908); 2) Charles Williams's All-Hallow's Eve (1947; descended from Thursday according to T.S. Eliot); 3) Robert Coates's The Eater of Darkness (1929); 4) Muriel Sparks's The Only Problem (1984); and 5) DeLillo's Mao II (1991).


There are 12 quotes currently associated with this book.

G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) purports to differentiate modernist insiders and anti-modernist outsiders; and to expound the difference in terms of religious belief, art and politics. According to the book's spokesman for modernism, Lucian Gregory, modernists are anarchist-terrorists, whose priority involves 'the lawlessness of art and the art of lawlessness'...Opposed to these claims, which Chesterton calls the product of 'dirty modern thinkers' is Chesterton's protagonist Gabriel Syme, who apparently is outside modernism. He is 'a poet of law' and order and respectability -- a detective, in other words! -- and he becomes an undercover agent in order to hunt down 'Sunday', the secret head of a powerful international modernist-anarchist-terrorist group. (page 151-152)
Tags: [Terror, Literary/Poetic]
The narrative [of Thursday] intends to argue that terrorists and anarchists do not exist, that only the fear of the existence of anarchy and terrorism exists; even so, the narrative itself, despite its intentional argumentation, makes God still look like a terrorist. It thereby makes the anti-modernist poet of law and order also look like his opposite. (page 153)
Tags: [Terror, Literary/Poetic, Ambiguity]
I would like to pursue another hypothesis: namely, that Chesterton in 1908 as well as in 1936 wants his definite reading of his own book to mean that the path of definiteness can only be arrived at through double or multiple ambiguous and equivocal meanings, which are the necessary detour whereby a sure direction or aim, and a certain belief, are discovered and achieved. A hierarchy is intended: the means to certainty is equivocal, but only equivocation can clear a path for certainty, which then subordinates equivocation...It is necessary to be lost in order to be found might be another formula for this process. (page 153-154)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Literary/Poetic, Ambiguity]
I think it is useful to differentiate between two kinds of doubleness in Chesterton's work because in the long run the differentiation might help us think about what is inside or outside modernism, and also help us think about our beliefs concerning modernism -- and concerning belief. What the anarchist Gregory stands for is the equivocal discourse associated by Chesterton with error -- with the kind of error that identifies God and 'elemental elf'. Double meaning never resolves, or exits from, the realm of equivocation and multiple significances. But what Syme stands for, after all, is both the detour of writing into double or multiple meaning and also writing's detour-transformed emergence into a new definiteness. I propose calling this second form of equivocation 'double-writing'...Double-writing uses indefiniteness and ambiguity to produce analytic revelations or thoughts about states of affairs whose direct portrayal can not be achieved without their being twinned, for a long albeit finally limited time, by an indirect portrayal. (page 154-155)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Literary/Poetic]
Modernism tends to stand for the cultivation of equivocal and multiple meanings, not for 'double-writing'. If modernism rightly stands for a cultural breakthrough of a new emphasis on indefiniteness...then Chesterton's double-writing is outside modernism. But I have found myself wondering, thanks to Chesterton, if modernism is not also outside of itself....Chesterton wouldn't be an outsider at all, if the supposition were tenable. To be tenable, we should have to discover two sides or simultaneous structures in notable modernist works: a side that is multiple and ambiguous in meaning, and a side in which there is a contrasting unequivocal resolution of multiplicity and ambiguity. I think the more we look for these simultaneously present structures the more we will find them; we tend not to find them, I suggest, because we insist that one side is modernist, and the other is outside modernism. In modern narratives about anarchist-terrorism these two sides are most prominent; indeed, this particular political thematics, I suggest, magnetizes narrative artists because it makes vivid the tense conflict and collaboration of ambiguous meaning and disambiguating resolution. (page 155)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Literary/Poetic, Ambiguity]
The supposition that modernism as we have known it is inside out, so that we haven't known it much; that it has the two-sided structure just proposed gains in credibility once the proposal is brought to bear on literary history. Terrorism (which Chesterton conflates, rightly or wrongly, with anarchism) is a central formal inspiration and a central thematics of Anglo-American and international fiction, throughout the century. Ignorance of the continuity has helped create another outside to modernism, our so-called postmodernism; but the continuity and the impact of anarchist terrorism on literary culture suggests that we have only various modernisms to contemplate, and not a divide between one modernism and another, of course, because Chesterton identifies, as the original terrorist, the god who blows up Job, Chesterton thinks there is more to modernism than modernity. (page 155-156)
Tags: [Surrealism, Politics & Novels, Postmodernism, Terror, Literary/Poetic, Ambiguity]
[Offered in support of the notion of a continuous, central tradition around anarcho-terrorism from modernist to postmodernist literature], excerpted from postmodern remarks made to a novelist by a spokesman for terrorism...:

"The only possible heroes for our willingly with death...Terror is the only meaningful act... Who do we take seriously? Only the lethal believer... Everything else is absorbed... Only the terrorist stands outside. The culture hasn't figured out how to assimilate him. It's confusing when [terrorists] kill the innocent. But this is...the language of being noticed, the only language the West understands... It's the novelist who understands the secret life, the rage that underlies obscurity and neglect. You're half murderers, most of you [novelists]."

These remarks from Don DeLillo's Mao II (1991) hark back to Chesterton's anarchist-terrorist poet Gregy, whose personal atmosphere is 'violent secrecy. The very empyrean [over his] head seemed to be a secret' , and who speaks on behalf of pairing 'the lawless of art and the art of lawlessness'. Chesterton calls what Gregy speaks up for as 'old cant' perhaps because in 1908 it was already a while since Alfred Jarry had taken to brandishing guns at literary banquets, where he put on an act as a terrorist. (page 156)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
Terrorism insists that everyday randomness shall be transformed, shall be made to express overwhelming political certainty: the personal is the political, terrorism declares with a vengeance. The insistence makes everything which is casual and random, everything which is indefinite, speak the univocal definiteness of political conviction, or religious conviction too. Like writing that uses multiple meanings to disclose a new single determination of thought or reality, terrorism's disruption of what is quotidian insists that we grasp reality in the shocking light of a novel all-unifying determination. (page 157)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Everyday Life, Terror, Conspiracy]
Such scepticism [i.e., about terrorism] is exemplified in Walter Laqueur's The Age of Terrorism (1987). In spite of naming an era of terrorism, Laqueur uses his book to reduce 'the age' to something like a figment of collective imagination. Under his scrutiny, the meaning of terrorism is decentred -- even exploded. So detached is he from respect for, or from belief in, his terrorists subjects that he seems curiously anarchistic himself -- that is, when he is not appearing to be as certain as any terrorist in his judgment that terrorism is only contemporary nonsense, however lethal. (page 160)
Tags: [Terror, Ambiguity]
What Syme sees now [in Chesterton's Thursday] is not indeterminacy, but new certainty. The anarchist and the ruler are alike, not because they are each other's doubles, but because each of them separately doubles a third -- and very surprising -- figure: the figure of a besieged but fierce and also generous justice, itself the product of obedience to law. Justice is the law-serving energy, the passion and force which we miseries by the names anarchism and terrorism. We are wrong to think terrorism is the opposite of justice. The character of the latter is for Chesterton -- and for Syme in his moment of 'seeing' -- unambiguously the same as the character of the former. But the 'one burst of blazing light', the ultimate revelation (digging deeper and blowing higher) -- that this is what there is to see, that justice too is terror -- arrives only thanks to the proliferation of double or multiple meanings...the product of strayed meanings is new meaning. (page 162)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Literary/Poetic, Ambiguity]
Each [pursuer of Sunday in Chesterton's Thursday] is stunned and enraged by the message he receives, because the messages implicate the detective-receiver in what appear to be stories at once bewildering and precise. For example, one message to a pursuer reads 'Fly at once. The truth about you trouser-stretchers is known -- A FRIEND'; another reads, 'The word, I fancy, should be "pink"'; a third, from Sunday to a male pursuer: 'Your beauty has not left me indifferent.--From LITTLE SNOWDROP' (157, 161, 163). Now these surreal messages, these tender buttons of notes, are God's improvisations; they exhibit the bravado of meaningful meaningless. But they are also meaning-full. The precise specificity of the notes makes them feel as if they are intelligible particulars dropped from a comprehensive and intelligible tale no less certain than the note of certainty characteristically struck by each folded wad. It is the ability of ambiguity to strike certain notes, to issue in certainty, that enrages Sunday's pursuers. But, most significantly, it is the same ability of ambiguity to strike a certain note that leads Syme, two chapters later, to grasp the sight of everything, to know that the dynamiter is as blessed as the detective. Double-writing has its consummation here. Improvisation and ambiguity unveil a definitive apocalypse. (page 164)
Tags: [Surrealism, Terror, Literary/Poetic, Ambiguity]
[With reference to The Eater of Darkness] As the narrative unfolds, as if to intermit and oppose the unambiguous certainty of knowledge and power encoded in the weapon and its artist-inventor, the form of the unfolding ambiguities the tale's elements. The identity of the terrorist and of the narrator both lose outline and coherence; the inventor is frustrated by the narrator, and the attempt to capture the inventor and to bring him to justice fissions into multiple indeterminate plots. But there is a final surprise, one that exhibits the way Coates's typically modernist experimentation resolves itself into a double-writing. The ambiguation of the narrative reverses itself. We become more and more certain that the narrator's involvement with the terrorist and his invention has displaced the narrator's aggressions towards the beloved woman he's left behind in Paris. The resolution of the displacement brings the narrative elements out of the realm of ambiguous and uncertain impressions. In this result the machine is destroyed. But in a sense it is re-built: as the new sureness of knowledge the narrator has reached concerning his desires, with which he now is directly in touch, and in which he now fully trusts. The machine was the wrong model of this certain knowledge, but it was and remains a model, nevertheless. The light of sure knowledge not surprisingly is an eater of darkness. (page 167-168)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Literary/Poetic, Ambiguity]