Reading: Manalive, The Story of a Perfectly Wild Man

Manalive by G. K. Chesterton is the story of a man who blows in on a wild wind, straight into the garden of an English boarding house, bringing confusion and wildness. His effect on others is like a draught of wine that goes straight to the head, or the view from a tall tree just climbed. He fills others with wonder, and confidence, and desire for all the right things. He prompts people to say, as Michael Moon does, “Let us go and do some of the things we can’t do.”

He continues with:

“If you have heard that I am wild, you can contradict the rumour,” said Moon, with an extraordinary calm; “I am quite tame; I am about the tamest beast that crawls. I drink too much of the same kind of whisky at the same time every night. I even drink about the same amount too much. I go to the same number of public-houses. I meet the same damned women with mauve faces. I hear the same number of dirty stories – generally the same dirty stories. You may assure my friends, Inglewood, that you see before you a person whom civilization has thoroughly tamed.”

Innocent Smith, however, is entirely wild.

The boarding house becomes a center of games, enthusiasm, hobbies and laughter. Everything seems brighter and fuller; habit is shaken off and drabness falls away. It doesn’t take long for the boarders to realize that their old life was lacking. As Inglewood says to Diana Duke:

“All we do is preparations – your cleanliness, and my healthiness, and Warner’s scientific appliances. We’re always preparing for something-something that never comes off. I ventilate the house, and you sweep the house; but what is going to happen in the house?”

Like people who obsess about healthiness and fitness without ever wondering what it is for, these boarders have confused the means and the end. A fit body and a tidy home support a full life; but neither by itself produces happiness.

It is a game that shows us what the end is.

This game is the establishment of the High Court of Beacon, by which sovereign powers are claimed for this individual household. As Innocent says, “You believe in Home Rule for Ireland; I believe in Home Rule for homes!” It begins as a jest, with rules for the spilling of Worcestershire sauce on the tablecloth and rituals for the opening of windows. But, when Innocent Smith shoots at Dr. Warner – two shots through the hat, above the head – then it becomes a serious matter, as two criminologists arrive to take him away. Then the High Court of Beacon meets in earnest, to determine the fate of Innocent Smith, and whether he is a madman and a rogue or an innocent and a genius.

Learning to judge for oneself, to weigh the evidence, to toss away authority and embrace the unusual – that is what happens in the house, and what the ultimate end of life is.

The trial is a delight. The criminologist declares that Innocent Smith is clearly a brute with a natural tendency to murder; the defense counters that Dr. Warner is clearly a man with a natural tendency to be murdered.

There is too much here to cover it all, and anyway I don’t want to spoil it. The trial investigates the whole of Innocent Smith’s life. He is a man who breaks into his own home “in order to feel the same interest in his own affairs that he always felt in other people’s.” He tries to covet his own goods instead of his neighbor’s; he celebrates his marriage by pretending not to be married and having to woo his wife all over again; he circumnavigates the globe looking for his own home and garden, so that he might actually see it when he returns; in short, “he refuses to die while he is still alive. He seeks to remind himself by every  electric shock to the intellect, that he is still a man alive, walking on two legs about the world.”

“This man’s spiritual power has been precisely this, that he has distinguished between custom and creed. He has broken the conventions, but he has kept the commandments.”

Innocent sings this song:

“All is gold that glitters-

Tree and tower of brass;

Rolls the golden evening air

Down the golden grass.

Kick the cry to Jericho,

How yellow mud is sold;

All is gold that glitters

For the glitter is the gold.”

Which seems a direct reference to Tolkien’s song in Lord of the Rings (“All that is gold does not glitter”). Tolkien is suggesting hidden goodness, found only by the discerning eye. Chesterton says the opposite: the world is good, simply and wholly, and we just need to look to see it. “Gold” – or what is good – is not hidden, rare, lost or difficult to find. It is before our very eyes, always. 

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