Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Fyre Festival: We have been here before

Well, like everyone else in the western world, it seems, I duly watched the Netflix documentary on the absurd act of hubris that was the Fyre Festival. And like everyone else, I felt disgusted and sickened by the sheer grovelling stupidity of the whole saga: above all, by what it said about our celebrity-dominated culture - more so, surely, than any polity since Ancient Rome?

There was a strange familiarity about the whole thing, though. I began to realise that I'd heard this story before:

David Sinclair: The Land That Never Was (2003)

Sinclair, David. The Land That Never Was: Sir Gregor MacGregor and the Most Audacious Fraud in History. 2003. London: Headline Book Publishing, 2004.

The perpetrator of that earlier fraud, Sir Gregor MacGregor, was apparently every bit as charismatic as more recent conman Billy McFarland:

Billy McFarland (1991- )

True, the two events were two hundred years apart, but maybe that just goes to prove that there's nothing new under the sun. And don't you think that the two of them look very similar? Maybe there's a family connection - though the MacGregors hail mostly from Argyll, as I understand it, and the MacFarlands from the headwaters of Loch Lomond ...

Egregious though Billy MacFarland's crimes may appear at present, though, they don't really compare to Gregor MacGregor's. Billy invented a spurious island in the Bahamas, and alleged that he was able to mount a music festival there. Sir Gregor MacGregor invented an imaginary country out of whole cloth. He called it "Poyais," and alleged that it could be found in the Gulf of Honduras. More than 250 prospective settlers set sail for his chimerical kingdom in 1822. More than half of them died there.

Perhaps the most disconcerting moment in the netflix documentary came when one of the chuckleheads being interviewed revealed that he and his group of friends, after claiming one of the tents which were the only accommodation available onsite, proceeded to rampage around ripping and destroying all the other tents in their immediate vicinity so "they wouldn't have to put up with any close neighbours."

The grinning face of this creature, as he skited about how he'd personally pissed on as many mattresses as possible so they couln't be slept on, had to be seen to be believed. Along with the infamous shot of the cheese sandwich - the sole survivor of so many fake promises of luxury food and accommodation - this revelation of just how close we are to the skull beneath the skin was certainly arresting.

Things in Poyais were not much better, I'm afraid, when the first settlers arrived there in the early 1820s. MacGregor didn't own any of the land, for a start, but even if he had, the verdant acres and thriving towns he'd spoken of so eloquently were really tiny villages on the edge of a mosquito-infested swamp. And yet, after all, surely the author of this lovely Poyaisian vista had actually been there. Hadn't he? I mean, what more evidence could you need?

The most convincing thing of all, of course, was the Poyaisian currency and documentation MacGregor was so eager to hand out to his investors. So rich was the land, it was almost as if money grew on trees!

Today we're so much wiser, of course. Our currency of choice is frolicking models in bikinis:

Perhaps the saddest thing of all about the Poyais debacle was the fact that it constituted a kind of ghastly parody of a much sadder and infinitely more destructive event 130-odd years before: the Scottish Darien scheme of the late 1690s.

John Prebble: The Darien Disaster (1968)

The whole thing is too sad to joke about. I'll content myself with quoting the dignified simplicity of the Wikipedia summary, instead:
The Darien scheme was an unsuccessful attempt by the Kingdom of Scotland to become a world trading nation by establishing a colony called "Caledonia" on the Isthmus of Panama on the Gulf of Darién in the late 1690s. The aim was for the colony to have an overland route that connected the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. From its contemporary time to the present day, claims have been made that the undertaking was beset by poor planning and provisioning, divided leadership, a lack of demand for trade goods particularly caused by an English trade blockade, devastating epidemics of disease, collusion between the English East India Company and the English government to frustrate it, as well as a failure to anticipate the Spanish Empire's military response. It was finally abandoned in March 1700 after a siege by Spanish forces, which also blockaded the harbour.
All of this took place just a bit down the coast from the eventual site of 'Poyais', in fact. But why was it so devastating to the Sottish economy?
As the Company of Scotland was backed by approximately 20% of all the money circulating in Scotland, its failure left the entire Lowlands in substantial financial ruin and was an important factor in weakening their resistance to the Act of Union (completed in 1707). The land where the Darien colony was built, in the modern province of Guna Yala, is virtually uninhabited today.
In other words, whether by accident or (more probably) by design, William III and his ministers orchestrated the failure of the scheme in order to weaken the independent kingdom of Scotland to the point where virtually its only chance of survival was to surrender sovereignty in the 'Act of Union' (so-called). Ever wondered why the Scots feel so bitter towards those oh-so-friendly southern neighbours of theirs?

Mind you, the plan was pretty mad to start with, and it didn't take much to put a spanner in the works. The sheer petty spite with which the English sabotaged it doesn't make pretty reading, though, even three centuries later. So you can see that the prospect of another bunch of poor Scots travelling off to the fever-ridden swamps of Central America in the 1820s wasn't really seen as a subject for mirth at the time.

Why were they so dumb? Not from choice, that's for sure. The Celtic diaspora was well underway by this time, propelled in Scotland by a lovely thing called the Highland Clearances, subject of another heartbreaking book by John Prebble.

John Prebble: The Highland Clearances (1963)

It was, I think, Karl Marx who remarked that history does indeed repeat itself: "first as tragedy, then as farce." I don't know if there's really a precedent for this degree of repetition, though an old term from Star Trek does come to mind: "replicant fadeout" - the tendency of copies to become less and less successful over innumerable generations.

One thing's for certain, though, there will be more of this sort of thing. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," as George Santayana somewhat sententiously observed. Maybe if a few of those queuing up to disburse their riches on luxury cabanas and private yacht parties at the Fyre Festival had been in the habit of cracking a book from time to time, the whole thing might have come as less of a surprise to them.

Enough negativity for a while, though. After all, there's always part two. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

Friday, January 25, 2019

The Mysteries of Ashburton

A lot of people have used that title - The Mysteries of ... [somewhere or other] - since Ann Radcliffe first dreamed it up in 1794. She may have been laughed off stage by Jane Austen in her early novel Northanger Abbey, but Radcliffe's Gothic cliffhangers remain surprisingly readable:

Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)

The most famous example of this would have to be Eugène Sue's phenomenally successful serial Les Mystères de Paris, which - when eventually collected in book-form - ran to over a thousand pages of blood-and-thunder romance:

Eugène Sue: The Mysteries of Paris (1842-43)

Eugène Sue's book also gave rise to the (so-called) "city mysteries" fictional subgenre, which eventually included:
  • George W. M. Reynolds' The Mysteries of London (1844)
  • Paul Féval's Les Mystères de Londres (1844)
  • August Brass's Die Mysterien von Berlin (1844)
  • L. van Eikenhorst's De Verborgenheden van Amsterdam (1844)
  • Johann Wilhelm Christern's Die Geheimnisse von Hamburg (1845)
  • Ned Buntline's The Mysteries and Miseries of New York (1848)
  • Camilo Castelo Branco's Os Mistérios de Lisboa (1854)
  • Émile Zola's Les Mystères de Marseille (1867)
  • Francesco Mastriani's I misteri di Napoli (1869-70)
and many, many others - culminating in Michael Chabon's affectionate hommage to the form, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988).

Michael Chabon: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988 / 2008)

But how does all this connect up with Ashburton, the ostensible subject of this post? Besides that extraordinary shot of the Ashburton Post Office above, there are many other reasons for finding Ashburton a strangely interesting place.

Ashburton Post Office - cut-down and changed - (1950s)

Or so we thought, at any rate, when we arranged to spend some time there earlier this month:

[unless otherwise attributed, the photos in this post are by Bronwyn Lloyd (7/1/19)]

What on earth is this extraordinary structure, for instance? A piece of monumental art? A public convenience? It certainly serves to mark off very emphatically the railway lines which run straight through the centre of town from the rest of the Ashburton CBD.

The rails run south-west

The rails run north-east

they're echoed by these curious ley-lines on the nearby domain

which led us to a grove of trees

with some stones to one side

disfigured by graffiti

Does the inscription read "f O R e s t"? Or could it be "f [infinity sign] r s t"? It's hard to tell. The first would certainly make the most sense, but that sideways eight does seem visible, also.

stone "Z" (or "V")

The stones, too, are in the shape of a symbol of some kind: perhaps an arrowhead? Is it pointing somewhere? Or is it indeed that "X marks the spot"?

musing on the connections

Unimpressive, you think? You were expecting a little more? Wait, there's more ...

Janet Frame: Living in the Maniototo (1979)

The idea of a grove of trees labelled "forest" reminds me a little of the moment in Janet Frame's late novel Living in the Maniototo when one of her characters, obsessed with the idea of taking a long journey through the desert, decides to undertake a short test-run near Berkeley, California. The other members of the group "deposit Roger beneath a road-sign marked ‘DESERT’." One of them comments:
it doesn’t seem real. In a country like the USA where public information is intimate and discursive, you don’t see abrupt signs like that! [171]
As Matt Harris unpacks the scene in his 2012 Doctoral thesis, Metafiction in New Zealand from the 1960s to the present day:
The sign is less designating a geographical region than it is a linguistic marking of the boundary between reality and the quixotic imagination. This is the ‘DESERT’, but not the desert Roger had idealised. ... Although he is certain that he will experience an epiphany, if not on this simulated journey then on a later journey across one of the great deserts, no such revelation is forthcoming and he begins to “feel irritated with himself for his engrossing concern for the “real” desert, the “real” journey so vivid in his mind …” [175] Perhaps unsurprisingly, Roger decides at the end of his sojourn that the real journey might not be necessary. “Why indeed go into a “real”, “utter” desert?” he asks himself. “It was in trying to test the reality that one met all the problems and failures, not only of the thing itself but of the mind that is occupied obsessively with dualism.” [185]

David Elliott: Hunting Snarks in the Antipathies (Ashburton Art Gallery: 5/11-18-10/2/19)

So what's so significant about Ashburton? What brings in visitors - besides those who simply stop in briefly on their way down the Coast Road from Christchurch to Dunedin? The main things Trip Advisor can find to mention are: the Ashburton Domain (pictured above), the Ashburton Art Gallery (which had on, during our stay, an intriguing exhibition called Snark: A Victorian Odyssey, inspired by Lewis Carroll's famous poem); The Plains Vintage Railway & Historical Museum; skydiving; and trout-fishing.

As well as all these, I'd add the fact that there's a rather marvellous bookshop just a few kilometres out of town:

Chertsey Book Barn (7/1/19)

What I didn't find in there, though, despite an extensive search, was a copy of Ashburton's principal literary claim to fame: the pioneering science fiction novel entitled The Great Romance (1881), published pseudonymously by someone describing himself simply as "The Inhabitant", and printed on the presses of the local newspaper.

Dominic Alessio, ed. The Great Romance (1881 / 2008)

And, yes, it was that which drew me to Ashburton. Not that I expected to pick up any real clues about the identity of its author, or even - really - to flesh out any of its narrative details with local colour, but really just to get a sense of the place: 138 years later, admittedly, but sometimes you can catch a lucky break on these little expeditions.

Karl Tate: Inside the Planet Venus (2012)

Here are some extracts from "The Inhabitant"'s account of his heroes - Weir, Moxton and Hope's - approach to the planet Venus in their space ship Star Climber:
The poles of the planet Venus are at such an angle that about half the planet enjoys alternately a day of three months — a long dim day of twilight, and then night; as a natural consequence, the regions approaching this country are strangely affected. When we woke in the morning we saw the first proof of this in the low sun, still hanging at the same altitude, the live-long night he had been thus creeping around, so that here there was no day or night, morning or evening, and the waste of desert around us seemed as if made for these monotonous periods.

We spread out the wings of our vessel and went on our way ... We had determined to go right over the pole of the planet, but, as we did not like to shut ourselves up again, we were soon obliged by the rarified air to turn to the lower and warmer regions, going away swiftly till grass and wood and water again began to reign, then sailing slowly, and not too high, that we might observe if anything like humanity should appear — we saw troops of beasts, four-legged and two-legged—ape-like creatures — kangaroo, or more properly three-legged animals; but none of them seemed struck with wonder as we glided slowly above them — they all fed and played and fought, as though there were nothing new under their Heaven, and if we swept down near them went away with screams and cries to their shelters. Their forms were very strange — ever recalling something we knew, yet always differing from it; yet what we most noticed — what seemed to be an unvarying characteristic — was that, whether large or small, they all moved in troops and bands, all fed and fought together, and all seemed well provided for either attack or defense; but nothing human appeared, nought of a nature similar to our own.

I can hardly tell how much we wished — how our hearts would have gone out towards any living creature which should have risen above the level of the animal world, or how out thoughts wondered over the intellectual union which might arise, should two such experiences join their pleasures, their results; yet here there was enough to recall the wildest wandering thoughts, as we went hither and thither to and from every new object, everything that promised a revelation, over lakes and mountains, rivers and forests, till we felt ourselves in the tropical regions, with the high sun blazing overhead, and the great bush herbage, and vast trees all about us.
- The Great Romance, Volume One: chapter XII
Is it just me, or is there a certain sense of the Antipodes of our own planet in these descriptions? The kangaroos, and the 'great bush herbage, and vast trees all around us'?

Presumably, given the date of his story, this "inhabitant" must have been an immigrant to New Zealand, and his voyage from the cities of the future described in the first section of his novel, to these more verdant regions, does sound like lived experience, however much he's tried to mask the fact with these interplanetary trimmings.
Yet none of this would please Moxton, he would press on to the winter half of the planet, to the land of shadow, and we expected of ice and snow, for warm as the planet was, we thought that three months' exclusion from the sun's heat, would bring the temperature very low. Yet we could not help lingering, turning to each new beauty of flower and fruit, leaf, or herbage, skimming near the edge of the forest, or the waters of the rivers, hoping to see some new elephant or huge mastodon ... So we were borne steadily onward through the fresh air of the new world — were always eager to behold something fresh — unsatisfied with the wonders of Heaven — we seemed to forget the leagues that we had travelled, unmindful of our great fate, to run like older babes in the wood from flower to flower as fancy guided us.

Yet stopping often as we did, our immense speed led us fast from clime to clime, and before the natural day would decline the sun began to grow low on the northern horizon; the tropical forests to be replaced by grassy plains and rolling, scantily timbered hills. Sometimes, too, we came on arid sand — huge dry deserts without even the proverbial vulture to enliven them; then succeeded strange twilight, with the sun low down, and its beams striking along the world — the air seemed to grow vague and yellow, a thickness and foggyness pervaded everything. How changed seemed the vegetation — rotting leaves and bare boughs; huge stalked grass, half-decayed — and here, too, we saw more birds, great downy owls, and bats to which the devil of the middle ages was a mild creature, it also seemed the land of frogs and toads — huge speckled tawny creatures, not good to look at; and the vegetation altered fast now, the reign of the fungus seemed to have begun — the ground, the trees, the water, were covered with minute forms, and in the opener spaces huge growths stranger than the cactus or fungus of the world, immense groups of all shapes, so strange were they, that even Moxton agreed to come to a stand for a while.

Lake Heron, North Canterbury

After they land, it is agreed that Weir and Moxton will continue their explorations in Star Climber, while John Bentford Hope stays behind on the surface of Venus. The place they choose to leave him in is described as follows:

We had selected a spot some hundreds of feet above the common level, for here all the water seemed land-locked, standing like inland lakes at all sorts of heights, rising and falling, with the season, and with no general inter-communication. It was a fine sweeping plain within the tropics, but kept cool by its elevation, and by the fact that on the still higher ground spread a large lake. There were a few trees scattered here and there, sometimes in clumps, and under a near group I had a large tent fixed for comfort in the warmer weather. [64]

"There is no doubt we were fools," said Weir, "to arrange to leave you here. There [could be] many things on this planet of which we know nothing - even the beasts have almost sense enough to besiege you. If I were you I should not travel except in the air. You are quite safe in that little boat, and even when you are about here I would always keep a revolver in my hand - make a habit of it." [67]
As it turns out, though, Hope has no need to travel in order to find out more about the planet's inhabitants. Instead, they come calling on him: a pair of aliens, with "intelligence, knowledge, in every line of their features, and with low, strange voices" [71-2]:
I woke to the sense of their presence, to seem them gazing down, arms linked to each other, male and female, gazing with soft eyes on my yet recumbent figure, their fine bodies covered with a down - neither of bird nor animal - soft and dark, and their heavy, lithe limbs, such as might have developed form the earliest of prehistoric elephant, had not the heat of a younger world debased him, and nature's giant youth pushed him in her recklessness to balk rather than serve. [71]

Jean de Brunhoff: Babar & Celeste Camping (1931)

Judging from the description above, they sound a little like clones of Babar the Elephant. It's hard not to humanise them in one's own imagination, though.

"Their little attentions to each other ... were so new and original, that I was occupied with but watching them. These were not savages, and how far removed from animals" [72]

After they've visited with him for a bit, the two aliens - refusing his invitation to enter Hope's "castle" (as he calls it). Instead:

"They led me to the borders of the upland lake, and there under the tall herbage was a rude boat, or rather raft. They evidently wished me to embark with them, but to this I would not consent, and after a while they left me, promising, as far as signs could point, to return again." [73]

Instead, Hope himself fires up his airship, the Midge ("she could run, or fly, or swim" [76]) and pursues them to the upland lake they'd rowed across the previous day.

"What should I call them? By what name should I think of them? ... then I thought of the star, the planet of love, and determined to call them by it, namely, Venus, and by that name they were afterwards known." [76]

The Venuses lead him trustingly back to their home, "a small mossy cabin, with a strange, bird-like air pervading it," where they appear to live all on their own:
But were they indeed so completely alone? I thought and asked, as I looked out again and could see no sign of other habitations ... and as I looked at their provisions I divined the reason - if they lived without tillage on the fruits of the ground, they must need be few in number, and live far apart. [77]

"Hope left the two Venuses still on the beach, and sailed out in his boat on the lake down the long winding-like water." [85]

The idyll is broken by a sudden resurgence of the colonial mentality in Hope:
Yet, after all, it was they who had to learn. Their mind in its best phases had little that was superior to humanity. Some happier thoughts - some sweet companionship - some feelings of freedom and pleasure - new perhaps to any inhabitant of my native world; yet of that great body of thought which has arisen from our mechanical and omniverous [sic.] propensities, they knew nothing, and as I afterwards found out, were saved from stupidity and savageness by the long-continuing slowness of their mental emotions, and by their wonderful care of, and kindness to, each other. [77-78]
He promptly teaches them "the mystery of fire" and starts to plot their future subjugation. After all, he and his friends:
had come to find a future home for the growing millions of their native earth, and here all around the tropical zone was a region fitted with everything necessary, while the dim polar regions would serve to exercise all the latent ingenuity of the coming man. [88]
This rather chilling vision is exacerbated by the author's strange habit of switching from first person to third person narration in adjacent chapters. It's tempting to see in this a device for showing the divided nature of his protagonist, simultaneously attracted by and scornful of these gentle inhabitants of the new planet he is exploring. Certainly, at times, his thought processes are described in quite violent terms:
I laughed aloud as one in madness at what I knew not, except that all things jarred and frayed, and roughened all my spirit, and the Venuses sat on without turning a thought or eye towards me or my wild motions. [79]
The author's clumsiness of diction and general lack of narrative sophistication would seem to argue against this conclusion, but one would certainly have to acknowledge the intensely experimental nature of this piece of proto-science fiction. It is as if he is literally trying to invent a new genre as he goes along.

Another interesting aspect of Hope's courting of the Venuses is that it is juxtaposed with chapters describing Weir and Moxton's explorations among the asteroids. This second volume of his work (which must surely have been intended to have a sequel, even though no trace of it has ever been found) ends, in fact, on a literal cliffhanger, as Weir tumbles off the side of a planetoid, plummeting (as it turns out) forever:
Moxton saw him with arms wide-spread falling, falling and turning - good God! Would he never cease to fall? The huge rock fell and struck, and fell again - but Weir [...] out in space. Moxton thought his brain would burst. Would Weir never cease to fall? [102]
These are the last words of his story.

What then, is one to make of The Great Romance? Contemporary critics were pretty harsh:

Review of The Great Romance. By the Inhabitant. Vols. I and II. Dunedin: Printed at the Daily Times Office. Otago Daily Times, Issue 5247 (18 February 1882): 1.

This is evidently the work of a young and unpractised writer. It is full of crudities of style and matter which lay it open to criticism on almost every page; but there is something about it a little out of the common way. It exhibits an exuberant fancy, and an adroitness in avoiding obvious difficulties, that redeem it from absolute inanity, though the absurdities of its plan and the impossibilities of its details render it a fair mark for ridicule. The two “volumes” are, in reality, only pamphlets; and, as there is yet more to come, we can only faintly guess what the whole will be. The interest is well sustained so far, and lovers of Jules Verne’s delightful voyages of discovery into the unknown will find amusement for an hour or two in “The Great Romance,” even as far as it has gone. The writer, who takes the name of J. R. [for ‘B’] Hope, goes to sleep in 1950 under the influence of a chemical sleeping-draught of wondrous potency, and wakes up in 2143 in another state of existence. Finding his old friends and his ladylove greatly sublimed and glorified, he is naturally anxious to rise to the same level. He determines to start off with his friends, Weir and Moxton, in an aerial boat which he finds ready to hand, does so, and arrives at the planet Venus, where he is left by his friends, and is beginning his explorations when the second part closes. The descriptions of the voyage are ingenious, though we cannot say that the writer has the wonderful art possessed by Jules Verne of making everything appear quite natural.

[I omit here a long extract from volume 1]

... It is useless to argue about probabilities when the whole plan of the romance is founded on impossibilities, else we should say the writer had a very crude idea of the Magellan clouds, and of the possibility of life outside an atmosphere, and so on. The “Coming Race” and a recent New Zealand work – “Erchomenon” – have familiarized the minds of most readers of this sort of literature to the possibilities of speculation, with electricity and the flying-machine for materials. These books have, however, a foundation of philosophy, and the great defect of the little work before us is that at present it seems to have little but wild fancy to commend it, and no substratum of philosophical ideas on which to build its shadowy superstructure, But, as we have said, there is more to come, and we have no desire to be hypercritical.
The only other contemporary comment laid emphasis solely on the primitive nature of the production, though it did do posterity the considerable service of naming the author for us (whether accurately or not is difficult to say - there seems no obvious reason to doubt the attribution, however):

'An Ashburton Author.’ The Christchurch Star, Issue 4276 (5 January 1882): 3.

AN ASHBURTON AUTHOR. – Mr. Henry Honor, a gentleman resident in Ashburton, has at present in the Press a work of imagination entitled “The Great Romance: by the Inhabitant.” The tale is an account of a perilous voyage amongst the stellar worlds, the voyageurs being three men, and their vessel a sort of half-and-half craft called the “Star Climber.” The first “volume,” a booklet of 55 octavo pages has been issued. It has suffered a good deal at the hands of the printer, whose work is decidedly not productive of a thing of beauty.
The principal modern critic of the story, Dominic Alessio, whose 2008 edition I have hitherto been quoting from, sees it in its contemporary context as:
a promotional piece encouraging emigration. As Clute and Nicholls point out [in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction], because of New Zealand’s distance from Old World centers of power, the colony became ‘a convenient setting for moral and Utopian tales’ … The emphasis on friendly aliens may even be part of a booster strategy intended to assure European readers concerned about rebellious Maori in the post-1860s New Zealand wars climate [xliv-v].
While Alessio is eager to claim that "The Great Romance ... demonstrates that western representations of the Other are often far more complex and ambiguous than Said’s [Orientalism] assumed" [xlvi], he is nevertheless forced to conclude that:
If one deconstructs the story as an alternative ontological history of contact between the Maori and the British over the course of the nineteenth century, one which merely uses the alien-human story as a surrogate for this relationship, then it is not surprising that things still turned out the way they did despite the initial optimism for cooperation that followed in the wake of the signing of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi [xlviii].

For myself, I hope that this post has made clear my sense that a lot of the haunting strangeness we can still feel in - especially - the second, Venusian, part of The Great Romance comes from its strong roots in the local landscape.

Of course I realise that Ashburton in 2019 has little in common with the town that stood here in 1881, but such prominent features as the still spectacular Lake Heron can have changed little in the intervening 140-odd years. It does seem strangely reminiscent of the 'Venuses' lake dwelling, while the basic lines of the town would not appear to have greatly altered either. And is it wrong of me to see something of Hope's "castle" in the extravagant lines of the local post-office?

Lewis Carroll: The Hunting of the Snark (1876)

More to the point, the feeling of intense dislocation which must have prompted the "inhabitant" (or should I say Mr. Henry Honor?) to start composing his interplanetary romance are still strongly in evidence for outside visitors. There seems something inevitable about the fact that a book based on that most puzzling of nineteenth-century poems, Lewis Carroll's immortal Hunting of the Snark (1876), should also have been written here, also after an 140-year gap: David Elliot's Snark: Being a True History of the Expedition That Discovered the Snark and the Jabberwock and Its Tragic Aftermath (2016).

David Elliot: Snark (2016)

The most surprising thing of all, perhaps, is the concerted efforts "the inhabitant" made to circulate his work. Volume One would appear to have been printed at the office of one of the local Ashburton newspapers (though volume Two was farmed out to the presses of the Otago Daily Times in Dunedin). It seems doubtful that a third volume will ever now emerge from the stacks, but if it does I'll certainly be eager to know whether Hope is compelled by the better angels of his nature to leave the poor Venuses in peace - more to the point, whether Weir can ever be rescued from his Lucifer-like fall off the asteroid.

I'll never know, I guess. To be honest, I'm a little surprised that no-one has - as yet - undertaken to write a continuation of the story. Dickens' posthumous mystery story Edwin Drood has been "finished" by numerous other authors. Why not The Great Romance?

Friday, January 18, 2019

Kipling and the Cross-Correspondences

Deborah Blum: Ghost Hunters (2006)

Among the founders of the British Society for Psychical Research in 1882 were psychologist Edmund Gurney (1847-1888), philosopher Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) and classicist Frederic W. H. Myers (1843-1901).

It was hoped, not unreasonably, that these learned and dedicated pioneers in the field of parapsychology might make some concerted attempt to "come through" after their deaths, given their sustained interest in the question of some kind of survival of bodily dissolution.

Myers' immense tome Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death was published posthumously, in 1903. He certainly believed that he had provided in its pages both strong evidence for survival and for the existence of a soul.

The strange phenomenon of the "cross-correspondences" (so-called) which unfolded over two decades, beginning with some automatic writing scripts by Cambridge Classics lecturer Margaret Verrall in 1901, is therefore either the strongest - albeit, also, one of the strangest - chains of evidence for human survival of bodily death, or else a colossal piece of delusion and self-deception afflicting some of the acutest minds of the time.

Essentially, by choosing your authority, you choose the view you will be encouraged to take of the story. If, for instance, you read Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death (2006), you will be left with a lingering sense of mystery and doubt surrounding the whole business.

Ruth Brandon: The Spiritualists (1983)

If, however, you read Ruth Brandon's trenchant The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1983), you may be left wondering why anyone could ever take seriously so bizarre a congerie of frauds and misfits?

The essence of the cross-correspondences was that it involved different mediums, on different continents, who separately received obscure and apparently nonsensical scripts which - when pieced together - produced more-or-less complete statements from (allegedly) specific individuals on "the other side."

The three principal conduits for these scripts were Mrs. Verrall (mentioned above), together with her daughter Helen; Mrs. Winifred Tennant (disguised under her professional name "Mrs. Willett"); and Mrs Alice Fleming, sister of Rudyard Kipling (who practised under the name of "Mrs Holland", thanks mainly to family disapproval).

As well as these, there was also some involvement from William James's favourite medium Leonora Piper in America. This geographical range from the United States to India has undoubtedly contributed something to the continuing fascination that still surrounds this psychic cause célèbre. And yet, what do these supposed "correspondences" actually amount to?

One of the earliest instances was noted by Alice Johnson, research officer of the Society for Psychical Research. While sorting through some of the papers held at their office in London, she noted some strange similarities between them:
in one case, Mrs. Forbes' script, purporting to come from her son, Talbot, stated that he must now leave her, since he was looking for a sensitive who wrote automatically, in order that he might obtain corroboration of her own writing. Mrs. Verrall, on the same day, wrote of a fir-tree planted in a garden, and the script was signed with a sword and a suspended bugle. The latter was part of the badge of the regiment to which Talbot Forbes had belonged, and Mrs. Forbes had in her garden some fir-trees, grown from seed sent to her by her son. These facts were unknown to Mrs. Verrall.
Taken alone, this might easily pass for coincidence, especially since, as she went on to say: "We have reason to believe that the idea of making a statement in one script complementary of a statement in another had not occurred to Mr. Myers in his lifetime — for there is no reference to it in any of his written utterances on the subject that I have been able to discover." However, in aggregate, she found the phenomenon less easy to dismiss:
Neither did those who have been investigating automatic script since his death invent this plan, if plan it be. It was not the automatists themselves that detected it, but a student of their scripts; it has every appearance of being an element imported from outside; it suggests an independent invention, an active intelligence constantly at work in the present, not a mere echo or remnant of individualities of the past.

Robert Browning: Abt Vogler (1864)

Another frequently mentioned example was the famous (or infamous) “Hope, Star, and Browning” correspondence. In this case three mediums made independent allusions to the poetry of Robert Browning. As Jill Galvan describes it:
First, Margaret Verrall wrote a script mentioning “anagram” and containing the phrases “rats star stars” and “tears stare,” along with a second script with the word “Aster,” which is both Greek for star and another anagram for tears and stare. Additionally, this second script contained a phrase beginning with the Greek word for passion and continuing, “the hope that leaves the earth for sky — Abt Vogler for earth too hard that found itself or lost itself — in the sky.” The investigators took the phrase to be an allusion to Browning’s “Abt Vogler” (1864), specifically to line 78, “The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky”; the script substitutes Browning’s original skyward “passion” with “hope.” Then, a couple of weeks later, a script by Piper asked if Margaret Verrall had gotten the message about “Hope Star and Browning.” Around the same time, Helen Verrall received a couple of scripts that each mentioned “star” and featured a drawing of one, as well as [alluding] to Browning’s “Pied Piper of Hamelin” (1842), and one of these scripts also offered anagrams for star in “arts” and “rats.”
This is the case which so impressed occult investigator Colin Wilson. And it does, on the face of it, seem difficult to interpret except as a series of allusions to essentially the same matter. Though precisely what was meant to be conveyed remains unclear.

One explanation for this, however, may be supplied by the sheer difficulty of transmission of ideas when one has left the earthly plain. Or so the defunct Frederic Myers explained at a séance with fellow psychical researcher Sir Oliver Lodge:
Lodge, it is not as easy as I thought in my impatience ... Gurney says I am getting on first rate. But I am short of breath ... I am more stupid than some of those I deal with ... It is funny to hear myself talking when it is not myself talking. It is not my whole self talking. When I am awake I know where I am.
He stated further:
We communicate an impression through the inner mind of the medium. It receives the impression in a curious way. It has to contribute to the body of the message; we furnish the spirit of it ... In other words, we send the thoughts and the words usually in which they must be framed, but the actual letters or spelling of the words is drawn from the medium’s memory. Sometimes we only send the thoughts and the medium’s unconscious mind clothes them in words.
Another explanation of the process came from another psychic researcher, Dr. Richard Hodgson, via American medium Leonora Piper:
I find now difficulties such as a blind man would experience in trying to find his hat, and I am not wholly conscious of my own utterances because they come out automatically, impressed upon the machine [the medium’s body] … I impress my thoughts on the machine which registers them at random, and which are at times doubtless difficult to understand. I understand so much better the modus operandi than I did when I was in your world.
The last word, though, must remain with Myers:
Oh, if I could only leave you the proof that I continue. Yet another attempt to run the blockade - to strive to get a message through. How can I make your hand docile enough - how can I convince them? I am trying, amid unspeakable difficulties. It is impossible for me to know how much of what I send reaches you. I feel as if I had presented my credentials - reiterated the proofs of my identity in a wearisomely repetitive manner. The nearest simile I can find to express the difficulty of sending a message is that I appear to be standing behind a sheet of frosted glass, which blurs sight and deadens sound, dictating feebly to a reluctant and somewhat obtuse secretary. A feeling of terrible impotence burdens me. Oh it is a dark road.

On April 24, 1907, while in trance in the United States, ... Mrs [Leonora] Piper three times uttered the word Thanatos, a Greek word meaning "death," despite the fact that she had no knowledge of Greek. Such repetitions were often a signal that cross-correspondences were about to begin. But it had begun already. About a week earlier, in India, Mrs Holland [ie: Alice Kipling] had done some automatic writing, and in that script the following enigmatic communication had appeared: "Mors [Latin for death]. And with that the shadow of death fell upon his limbs." On April 29th, in England, Mrs Verrall, writing automatically, produced the words: "Warmed both hands before the fire of life. It fades and I am ready to depart." This is a quotation from a poem by nineteenth-century English poet, Walter [Savage] Landor. Mrs Verrall next drew a triangle. This could be Delta, the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet. She had always considered it a symbol of death. She then wrote: "Manibus date lilia plenis" [give lilies with full hands]. This is a quotation from Virgil's Aeneid, in which an early death is foretold. This was followed by the statement: "Come away, come away, Pallida mors [Latin for pale death]," and, finally, an explicit statement from the communicator: "You have got the word plainly written all along in your writing. Look back." The "word," or "theme," was quite obvious when these fragments, given in the same month to three mediums thousands of miles apart, were put together and scrutinized. And in view of the lifelong interest of the communicator, it was certainly an appropriate theme. Death.

Rudyard and John Lockwood Kipling (c.1880)

When asked whether there was any basis to spiritualism,
Kipling replied “There is; I know. Have nothing to do with it.”
- George M. Johnson. Mourning and Mysticism in First World War Literature and Beyond: Grappling with Ghosts. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Kipling's famous poem "En-dor" (1919) warns sternly of the dangers of false comfort from spirits - or, rather, their dubious lieutenants, mediums:
The road to En-dor is easy to tread
For Mother or yearning Wife.
There, it is sure, we shall meet our Dead
As they were even in life.
Earth has not dreamed of the blessing in store
For desolate hearts on the road to En-dor.
He was himself no stranger to the subject. The death of his son John in combat at the Battle of Loos in 1915 was a blow he never really recovered from. It was made worse by the fact that he had had to exert all his special influence to ensure that John would be allowed to serve. He had already been rejected for active service due to his poor eyesight.

His poem "My Boy Jack," though ostensibly about the drowned dead of the Battle of Jutland, seems to refer obliquely to his own grief, also:
“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.
There's an almost Modernist fragmentedness about the gradual breakdown of the ballad form in this poem: a grief too great for the traditional forms Kipling had hitherto been sedulous in preserving.

Charles Sturridge, dir.: FairyTale (1997)

If you want some sense of the contemporary atmosphere of a kind of half-life lived in the shadow of these immense crowds of thronging war dead, Charles Sturridge's 1997 film FairyTale - about the strange saga of the Cottingley Fairies - does a wonderful job of conveying it. Virtually all the literature of the time, the immediate post-war era - not simply such obvious examples as Eliot's Waste Land or Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" - should be read with this in mind.

Kipling's own short stories and poems chart his own steadily less unavailing attempts to come to term with his own intolerable loss. From the harsh "Mary Postgate" (1915) he moved through the healing mechanisms of "A Madonna of the Trenches" and "The Janeites" (both 1924) to his most emotional and heartbreaking story of all, "The Gardener" (1925).

John Radcliffe & John McGivering's 2011 notes on “En-dor” (on the Kipling Society website) record the history of Kipling's engagements with spiritualism and the occult in general:

This ranges from his early story "The Sending of Dana Da" (Plain Tales from the Hills, 1888) - inspired by his father's scepticism about the claims of Madame Blavatsky, one of whose séances he attended in 1880 - to "They" (1904), whose unnamed narrator suggests that the company of the dead may be permitted to those who have not known them in life, but not to those who (like himself) are searching for a particular dead child. This story appears to have been inspired by the death from pneumonia of his elder daughter Josephine, or "Josie" (1892-1899).

Kipling was, it seems, only too aware of the presence in himself of something resembling the "second sight" common among the MacDonalds, on his mother's side of the family. He wrote sceptically of this ability in his autobiography, Something of Myself (1937), but is careful - if one reads between the lines - not so much to deny its existence as to disavow its usefulness to the living:
... there is a type of mind that dives after what it calls ‘psychical experiences.’ And I am in no way ‘psychic.’ Dealing as I have done with large, superficial areas of incident and occasion, one is bound to make a few lucky hits or happy deductions. But there is no need to drag in the ‘clairvoyance,’ or the rest of the modern jargon. I have seen too much evil and sorrow and wreck of good minds on the road to Endor to take one step along that perilous track.
Any unbiassed reader of his work will find it difficult to ignore the obvious fascination with telepathy, precognition, and other paranormal gifts which lies behind such stories as "Wireless" (1902), "The Wish House" (1924) and (perhaps most autobiographical of all) "The House Surgeon" (1909).

Nor would it be true to say that the perils of the "Road to En-dor" were more apparent to him after the First World War than before it. His simultaneous attraction-repulsion towards the occult seems to date from all stages of his career as a writer.

There are no reliable accounts of his own return from beyond the grave to answer any of the many questions raised by his works. His own comment on that is unequivocal. His late poem "The Appeal" - first published in 1939 - reads as follows:
It I have given you delight
By aught that I have done,
Let me lie quiet in that night
Which shall be yours anon:

And for the little, little, span
The dead are born in mind,
Seek not to question other than
The books I leave behind.

Rudyard Kipling: Something of Myself (1937)

The fear of such "unknown forces" was certainly great in Rudyard Kipling, but the temptation to write about them was evidently greater.

His younger sister Alice, known to the family as "Trix," who shared with him the appalling experiences of child-abuse and neglect - recorded in his classic story "Baa Baa Black Sheep" (1888) - which occurred when they were sent "home" to England from India in 1870, and who showed almost equal literary promise in her youth, took a rather different approach.

On her return to India at the age of 16, she married British army officer John Fleming, and, in 1893, "initially experimented with automatic writing." Her biography in the Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology remarks somewhat euphemistically:
After a long illness she returned to England in 1902 and in the following year read the classic study Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, by F. W. H. Myers. As a result she contacted the secretary of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), London, regarding her own automatic writing.
This "long illness" is presumably the "recurrent mental illness" referred to in Radcliffe & McGivering's notes on her brother's poem "En-dor" (quoted above), which overtook her in "her thirtieth year":
Trix's family linked her madness with her psychic interests. When asked whether he thought there was anything in spiritualism, Rudyard Kipling replied "with a shudder": "There is; I know. Have nothing to do with it." He is presumed to have been thinking of his sister.
The Society for Psychical Research appears to have treated her abilities equally seriously, but rather more analytically, as is evidenced by a series of papers on the "cross-correspondences" controversy published by their research officer Alice Johnson in the Society's Proceedings:
  • "On the Automatic Writing of Mrs. Holland." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 21 (1908).
  • "Second Report on Mrs. Holland's Script." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 24 (1910).
  • "Supplementary Notes on Mrs. Holland's Scripts." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 22 (1909).
  • "Third Report on Mrs. Holland's Scripts." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 25 (1911).
Then (as now) we are left with a stark choice: either to follow the hints, the half-stated truths "known to nobody else", and the endlessly frustrating lack of definitive, convincing evidence of "survival" - or else to reject the whole business as cruel deception on the part of "sensitives" together with wish-fulfilment on the part of the client. Dr Johnson perhaps summed it up best, when remarking of ghosts:
It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.
- Boswell: Life of Johnson (1791)

James Boswell: The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791)

And yet, and yet ... thirty years before, in Rasselas (1759) he had commented with almost equal cogency:
That the dead are seen no more ... I will not undertake to maintain, against the concurrent and unvaried testimony of all ages and all nations. There is no people, rude or learned, among whom apparitions of the dead are not related and believed. This opinion, which perhaps prevails as far as human nature is diffused, could become universal only by its truth; those that never heard of one another would not have agreed in a tale which nothing but experience can make credible. That it is doubted by single cavillers can very little weaken the general evidence; and some who deny it with their tongues confess it by their fears.
"Some who deny it with their tongues, confess it by their fears." Kipling was very afraid of mental disturbances in the late 1890s, in the middle of a devastating quarrel with one of his wife's brothers (the "unstable" Beatty Balestier) which threatened to undermine his and Carrie's experiment of living in the United States.

His sister's mental illness, followed swiftly by the death of the Kiplings' daughter Josie, must have constituted a great temptation to give in to what Sigmund Freud, in 1910, referred to as "the black tide of mud of occultism." That temptation is already achingly strong in the story "They," and after John's avoidable death ten years later at the Battle of Loos, it may have seemed almost overwhelming.

The poem "En-Dor," then, is simply one instalment in that ongoing struggle with himself and with circumstances. For all the cogency of its description of spiritualism, one can't avoid the fact that - unlike Robert Browning, whose "Mr. Sludge, 'The Medium'" (1864) comes from a place of total non-belief - Kipling's resistance to communication with the dead seems to arise more from his conviction of its dangers to the living than from any inherent improbability in its claims:

Dmitry Nikiforovich Martynov: The Witch of Endor (1857)

Whispers shall comfort us out of the dark —
Hands — ah, God! — that we knew!
Visions and voices — look and hark! —
Shall prove that the tale is true,
And that those who have passed to the further shore
May be hailed — at a price — on the road to En-dor.

But they are so deep in their new eclipse
Nothing they say can reach,
Unless it be uttered by alien lips
And framed in a stranger's speech.
The son must send word to the mother that bore,
Through an hireling's mouth. 'Tis the rule of En-dor.
And what better summary of the cross-correspondences themselves can be found than the one contained in the following stanza?
Even so, we have need of faith
And patience to follow the clue.
Often, at first, what the dear one saith
Is babble, or jest, or untrue.
(Lying spirits perplex us sore
Till our loves — and their lives — are well-known at En-dor)....

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)

"All argument is against it; but all belief is for it." Quite so. There are no atheists in foxholes, as the saying has it. It's not that the question is - or, it seems, ever can be - definitively settled. But I think Ursula Le Guin was right to say, in the third book of her "Earthsea" series, The Farthest Shore:
The counsel of the dead is not profitable to the living.
Rudyard Kipling, I suspect, would have agreed with her wholeheartedly.

Ursula Le Guin: The Farthest Shore (1972)