I have had some slight contact with Chesterton through his ‘Father Brown’ stories and The Napoleon of Notting Hill, a fantastical novel about that distant year of futurity, 1984. So I came to this eager to see what he made of politics and aesthetes in Edwardian London.
An aesthete is recruited to an anarchist conspiracy. As he digs further, there are multiple reveals and life and events get stranger and stranger. Finally, it turns into a shaggy God story and then the main protagonist wakes up – the book is, after all, sub-titled “A Nightmare”.
Many have commented on the religious allegory in this book, which is a little obvious but not unexpected for a story from such a man in such a society. What I found interesting was the political perspective. There is a critique of capitalism in this book barely acknowledged by a lot of people; and a perspective on anarchism no less unexpected – especially as the initial premise, that there is a “Central Council of Anarchists”, is either massively tongue in cheek or horrendously misguided as to the true nature of anarchism. (I’m reminded of a university Anarchists Society I once encountered, which was required by the university to register its rules. They literally had to produce their one and only rule, which said ‘The First Rule of the Anarchist Society is that the Society shall have no rules.’) Chesterton then goes on to make some telling points that we would do well to remember in our modern times; that the poor have never been in favour of anarchism; it is always the rich who are the greatest exponents of total anarchy, as laws are far too restrictive upon their own freedom to act as they choose in the pursuit of their own interests.
Many writers of the fantastic have tried over the years to depict anarchist societies; few have succeeded well, in that they always need some sort of body that allocates resources or makes some sort of policy decisions for the whole society. Those who have depicted truly libertarian societies have ended up showing us unpleasant alternatives where the strong prey on the weak at all levels, and even if resources are scarce and no-one can acquire very much more than anyone else, that doesn’t stop some individuals getting better positions in life than others, unless the society starts out from a very low base of material availability. Descriptions of the purest form of an anarchist society, which has no central law-making or law-enforcing bodies, but who devise laws for themselves from within communities and enforce them equally from within those communities, are rare. Chesterton starts out by adhering to the popular image of the 19th century anarchist, opposing all forms of governance and fighting governments with bombs and individual acts of violence; yet that is only possible with a degree of leadership and organisation that operates entirely counter to the whole concept of anarchy.
The situation of the protagonist. who, one by one, finds that all the anarchists are, like him, actually policemen, is well described and gave me a good picture of the aesthetic life of the era – until surrealism took over. Those who recollect Patrick McGoohan’s 1960s tv series The Prisoner will warm to the ever-escalating levels of weirdness; and then will be perhaps a little surprised to find God standing behind it all as protagonist , instigator and nemesis.
My edition was the 2001 US Modern Library edition, with various critical commentaries by modern and contemporary writers, and a set of discussion points for ‘reading groups’ which made me feel as though I’d opened a very slick-looking school textbook.