“What does ‘literature’ have to do with saving one’s soul?” This question surely has a long and distinguished lineage, all the way back to the Church Father Tertullian, who asked a similar question about the value of pagan philosophy for Christian study: “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Far from being an obstacle to a spiritual life or even a harmless accessory, reading the right kind of stories can be critical to moral formation. The successful parrying and defeat of sin is too adventurous a thing to be fully described in a catechism or completely prepared for by paging through a spiritual writer. Catechisms and spiritual writers are important, but men need stories too. One such tale is Manalive, one of G.K. Chesterton’s most joyful novels and a battle-cry against a deadly sin.
The deadly sin in question is acedia, or “sloth,” as it is most commonly known. While the Fathers of the Church—from the first desert hermits to St. Thomas Aquinas—have always understood and taught that acedia could manifest itself in many more subtle ways than mere “laziness,” the nefarious nature of this sin has been less appreciated by most spiritual writers since the middle ages. Recently, however, prescient writers have begun to look more closely at acedia again. Among these scholars is the Abbot of Wandrille, France, Fr. Jean-Charles Nault. While Fr. Nault’s book on the subject is itself a useful work on the spiritual life, I want to consider the parts of St. Thomas’s thought that he highlights. Fr. Nault points out that St. Thomas gives two definitions of acedia: “Sadness about spiritual good” and “Disgust with activity.”
Spiritual good and joyful activity happen to be the most important themes of Manalive. The opening scene is at Beacon House, a boarding establishment in north London. We are introduced to “five inmates standing disconsolately”; sad about the good and disgusted with activity. The men in the party ask themselves horrible questions such as “Have you any friends?” Into this stalemate of human relationships erupts a giant man with a small head who chases hats for sport, who selects wines based on bottle-color alone, and who picnics on roofs. The small-headed man extends his stay and draws the inmates into his world of constant activity. Yet, this world is not marked by the constant activity of modernity, that of filing reports, or interminable meetings, the world of dreary work for dreary purposes. Rather, it is marked by the activity of play, play that is continually occupied with the wonderful, strange things of life such as the moral use of double exposure on film or the aesthetic combination of chalk and gowns. The most significant of these games is the founding of the High Court of Beacon, a joke from which follows “the string of solid and startling events—which were to include a hansom cab, a detective, a pistol, and a marriage licence” which carry the book to its end.
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As play seeps into the souls of the men and women of Beacon House, disgust diminishes and joy increases. “All that glitters is gold” proclaims the madcap giant. Far from being his or Chesterton’s endorsement of superficiality, it is a simple statement that when eyes are opened by joy, spiritually good things such as marriage and pageantry and the rights and rites of the home are finally seen as the golden things that they are. Almost half-way through the book, it appears that all will be set right by the ebullience of one man. But can happiness endure on such a foundation? What if joy is an attractive but ultimately untrue vision of what the world is actually like? And who is this man anyway? The characters and the reader receive a terrible jolt midway through the book, and reader and character alike begin to doubt whether the palace that Beacon House has become is just a castle in the air. Is this man a thief? A sadist? A polygamist? A psychotic criminal? A murderer?
The hilarious unfolding of events that follows contains a serious answer to the main question of the book: is joy insane? Considering the Latin meaning of insanus, “unhealthy,” is joy unhealthy, because there is no spiritual good to be joyful about? Is life really, as one of the characters puts it: “all rather flat and a failure?” Is the world just “made like that … it’s all survival?”
The real value of such questions lies not in their tone of despair but in their appreciation of the fact that joy and activity are too often associated with false ideals or even downright chicanery. In a world where the mantles of “orthodox Catholic” or “traditional Catholic” or “faithful to the magisterium” can hide both foolishness and deceit, and lead men and women who sincerely wish to follow Christ astray, joy seems even more a chimera now than it did in Chesterton’s time. And yet Chesterton by turns follows and leads his protagonists to true hope and invites us to accompany him.
The last half the book rollicks to a kind of resounding trial of the man who brought joy to Beacon House. He does not defend himself by words but by actions. These actions are the rebuttals to every accusation that the modern world can throw at him: that he is an escapist, that he is a cynic, that he is an idiot, that he is a criminal mastermind, that he is a philanderer, that he is thief, that he is a killer. Whether or not the life of this one man can be vindicated becomes a question of whether or not happiness itself can be defended; whether this life is farce or comedy.
Manalive is a parable of the struggle with acedia, and every part of it in some way wrestles with one of the hydra-heads of this vice. Each head is squarely aimed at with a loaded gun that “deals life” instead of death.
Editor’s note: The image above is the dust jacket illustration of the first American edition of Manalive written by G.K. Chesterton.