THE HAMPDENSHIRE WONDER (18)
June 17, 2022
HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize J.D. Beresford’s 1911 proto-sf novel The Hampdenshire Wonder for HILOBROW’s readers. The first sf novel of real importance about intelligence, it’s the ancestor of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan.
THE USES OF MYSTERY
Something Challis has told me; something I have learned for myself; and there is something which has come to me from an unknown source.
But here again we are confronted with the original difficulty — the difficulty that for some conceptions there is no verbal figure.
It is comprehensible, it is, indeed, obvious that the deeper abstract speculation of the Wonder’s thought cannot be set out by any metaphor that would be understood by a lesser intelligence.
We see that many philosophers, whose utterances have been recorded in human history — that record which floats like a drop of oil on the limitless ocean of eternity — have been confronted with this same difficulty, and have woven an intricate and tedious design of words in their attempt to convey some single conception — some conception which themselves could see but dimly when disguised in the masquerade of language; some figure that as it was limned grew ever more confused beneath the wrappings of metaphor, so that we who read can glimpse scarce a hint of its original shape and likeness. We see, also, that the very philosophers who caricatured their own eidolon, became intrigued with the logical abstraction of words and were led away into a wilderness of barren deduction — their one inspired vision of a stable premiss distorted and at last forgotten.
How then shall we hope to find words to adumbrate a philosophy which starts by the assumption that we can have no impression of reality until we have rid ourselves of the interposing and utterly false concepts of space and time, which delimit the whole world of human thought.
I admit that one cannot even begin to do this thing; within our present limitations our whole machinery of thought is built of these two original concepts. They are the only gauges wherewith we may measure every reality, every abstraction; wherewith we may give outline to any image or process of the mind. Only when we endeavour to grapple with that indeterminable mystery of consciousness can we conceive, however dimly, some idea of a pure abstraction uninfluenced by and independent of, those twin bases of our means of thought.
Here it is that Challis has paused. Here he says that we must wait, that no revelation can reveal what we are incapable of understanding, that only by the slow process of evolution can we attain to any understanding of the mystery we have sought to solve by our futile and primitive hypotheses.
“But then,” I have pressed him, “why do you hesitate to speak of what you heard on that afternoon?”
And once he answered me:
“I glimpsed a finality,” he said, “and that appalled me. Don’t you see that ignorance is the means of our intellectual pleasure? It is the solving of the problem that brings enjoyment — the solved problem has no further interest. So when all is known, the stimulus for action ceases; when all is known there is quiescence, nothingness. Perfect knowledge implies the peace of death, implies the state of being one — our pleasures are derived from action, from differences, from heterogeneity.
“Oh! pity the child,” said Challis, “for whom there could be no mystery. Is not mystery the first and greatest joy of life? Beyond the gate there is unexplored mystery for us in our childhood. When that is explored, there are new and wonderful possibilities beyond the hills, then beyond the seas, beyond the known world, in the everyday chances and movements of the unknown life in which we are circumstanced.
“Surely we should all perish through sheer inanity, or die desperately by suicide if no mystery remained in the world. Mystery takes a thousand beautiful shapes; it lurks even in the handiwork of man, in a stone god, or in some mighty, intricate machine, incomprehensibly deliberate and determined. The imagination endows the man-made thing with consciousness and powers, whether of reservation or aloofness; the similitude of meditation and profundity is wrought into stone. Is there not source for mystery to the uninstructed in the great machine registering the progress of its own achievement with each solemn, recurrent beat of its metal pulse?
“Behind all these things is the wonder of the imagination that never approaches more nearly to the creation of a hitherto unknown image than when it thus hesitates on the verge of mystery.
“There is yet so much, so very much cause for wondering speculation. Science gains ground so slowly. Slowly it has outlined, however vaguely, the uncertainties of our origin so far as this world is concerned, while the mystic has fought for his entrancing fairy tales one by one.
“The mystic still holds his enthralling belief in the succession of peoples who have risen and died — the succeeding world-races, red, black, yellow, and white, which have in turn dominated this planet. Science with its hammer and chisel may lay bare evidence, may collate material, date man’s appearance, call him the most recent of placental mammals, trace his superstitions and his first conceptions of a god from the elemental fears of the savage. But the mystic turns aside with an assumption of superior knowledge; he waves away objective evidence; he has a certainty impressed upon his mind.
“The mystic is a power; he compels a multitude of followers, because he offers an attraction greater than the facts of science; he tells of a mystery profounder than any problem solved by patient investigation, because his mystery is incomprehensible even by himself; and in fear lest any should comprehend it, he disguises the approach with an array of lesser mysteries, man-made; with terminologies, symbologies and high talk of esotericism too fearful for any save the initiate.
“But we must preserve our mystic in some form against the awful time when science shall have determined a limit; when the long history of evolution shall be written in full, and every stage of world-building shall be made plain. When the cycle of atomic dust to atomic dust is demonstrated, and the detail of the life-process is taught and understood, we shall have a fierce need for the mystic to save us from the futility of a world we understand, to lie to us if need be, to inspirit our material and regular minds with some breath of delicious madness. We shall need the mystic then, or the completeness of our knowledge will drive us at last to complete the dusty circle in our eagerness to escape from a world we understand….
“See how man clings to his old and useless traditions; see how he opposes at every step the awful force of progress. At each stage he protests that the thing that is, is good, or that the thing that was and has gone, was better. He despises new knowledge and fondly clings to the belief that once men were greater than they now are. He looks back to the more primitive, and endows it with that mystery he cannot find in his own times. So have men ever looked lingeringly behind them. It is an instinct, a great and wonderful inheritance that postpones the moment of disillusionment.
“We are still mercifully surrounded with the countless mysteries of every-day experience, all the evidences of the unimaginable stimulus we call life. Would you take them away? Would you resolve life into a disease of the ether — a disease of which you and I, all life and all matter, are symptoms? Would you teach that to the child, and explain to him that the wonder of life and growth is no wonder, but a demonstrable result of impeded force, to be evaluated by the application of an adequate formula?
“You and I,” said Challis, “are children in the infancy of the world. Let us to our play in the nursery of our own times. The day will come, perhaps, when humanity shall have grown and will have to take upon itself the heavy burden of knowledge. But you need not fear that that will be in our day, nor in a thousand years.
“Meanwhile leave us our childish fancies, our little imaginings, our hope — children that we are — of those impossible mysteries beyond the hills… beyond the hills.”
RADIUM AGE PROTO-SF: “Radium Age” is Josh Glenn’s name for the nascent sf genre’s c. 1900–1935 era, a period which saw the discovery of radioactivity, i.e., the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. More info here.
SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire” | Francis Stevens’s “Friend Island” | George C. Wallis’s “The Last Days of Earth” | Frank L. Pollock’s “Finis” | A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool | E. Nesbit’s “The Third Drug” | George Allan England’s “The Thing from — ‘Outside'” | Booth Tarkington’s “The Veiled Feminists of Atlantis” | H.G. Wells’s “The Land Ironclads” | J.D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder | Valery Bryusov’s “The Republic of the Southern Cross” | Algernon Blackwood’s “A Victim of Higher Space” | A. Merritt’s “The People of the Pit” | Max Brand’s The Untamed.