Chapter 83

It is a remarkable fact that physical phenomena of an appropriate character frequently accompany a spiritual event. I fail to see any special significance, from a magical point of view, in the experience now to be related; but it is highly interesting in itself, and there is unquestionably a striking correlation between it and the vision just described.

One morning I had started before dawn for the upper reaches of the lake. The day was breathlessly intense, the calm was somehow positive rather than negative, and seemed to conceal some huge menace. It was as if the heart of the world had stopped. I felt an indescribable awe, overwhelming in its solemnity. The act of paddling seemed almost a blasphemy. However, I made a fire on a rocky islet and cooked and ate my lunch, returning to the cottage in a curiously exhausted state. It was one of those days when the electrical conditions seem to abstract every particle of energy from one's nerves. The condition is familiar enough to me, and I understood that it foretold an approaching thunderstorm; in fact, an hour later, as I sprawled lazily on the verandah, I saw the imminence of the tempest. I realized that, wharf or no wharf, my canoe could not possibly live through what was coming. I dashed down to the water's edge at the exact moment when the first drop of rain fell, and although the distance was barely a hundred and fifty yards in all, and I picked up the canoe and tucked it under my arm like an umbrella, I was soaked and dripping before I got back to shelter. At this moment, a dog-cart, occupied by a man, a woman and a child, was hastily backed up away from the road, and they asked leave to take refuge till the rain stopped. I showed them into the main room, staying outside myself to watch the wonder of the storm. Daylight had disappeared with the utmost suddenness. A pall of purple black drove down the valley at a height of scarce a hundred feet above the water, and this pall was veined with a network of incessant lightning. Beneath it the air seemed praeternaturally clear. It was the most spectacular performance I had ever seen. Ahead of the storm, the vast blue sky stood speckless above the unrippled sheen of the lake. Then the advance guard of the tempest, the hail and the rain splashed down in giant drops like bullets. Then came the berry purple of the cloud, and under it the wind lashed the lake into tempestuous froth so fiercely that no water remained visible.

The storm struck deadly chill: and, having been reminded recently of the lurking malaria in my blood, I decided to put on dry clothes. {812}

I must give a brief description of the construction of the cottage. It was of wood, built round a chimney stack and fireplace of brick. The main room faced the lake; and on the other side of the stack were a bedroom which I did not use and the kitchen. The main room, where I slept, being occupied by my guests, I had to take my dry clothes into the bedroom. This room had two small windows. I forget whether they were both closed; but if open, the slit was not more than two or three inches wide. There was a door, also closed, leading into the kitchen. The other door which led to the main room may possibly have been a little ajar. To put on my stockings, I sat down on a chair close to the brickwork of the chimney stack. As I bent down, I noticed, with what I can only describe as calm amazement, that a dazzling globe of electric fire, apparently between six and twelve inches in diameter, was stationary about six inches below and to the right of my right knee. As I looked at it, it exploded with a sharp report quite impossible to confuse with the continuous turmoil of the lightning, thunder and hail, or that of the lashed water and smashed wood which was creating a pandemonium outside the cottage. I felt a very slight shock in the middle of my right hand, which was closer to the globe than any other part of my body. I must emphasize that I was not in the slightest degree alarmed or otherwise mentally disturbed. It will be remembered that I had been struck by lightning on the Pillar Mountain many years earlier. I have always felt extreme oppression while an electrical storm is gathering and a corresponding exhilaration the moment it breaks. I have a powerful instinctive feeling that I am myself an wholly electrical phenomenon, and the wilder the storm, the more completely do I feel myself in my element. I am impelled to physical enthusiasm expressed in delightedly triumphant magical gestures and outbursts of ecstatically religious incantations. I am thrilled to the marrow by the mere full title of the Tarot Card called the Knight of Wands, “The Lord of the Flame and the Lightning, the King of the Spirits of Fire!” I want to shout aloud the superb Enochian invocation of that force. Something of that exaltation may be divined from the rhythm and swing of the lyric into which I have introduced this title:

By the Brood of the Bysses of Brightening, whose
         God was my sire;
By the Lord of the Flame and the Lightning, the King
         of the Spirits of Fire …

This spiritually sublime intensity does not in any way interfere with my intellectual activity. On the contrary, I become more alert than in almost any other conditions. It is as if the illumination of the flash interpenetrated my spirit, as if my mental faculties entered into enjoyment of their ideal nourishment and simulation thereby. {813}

I was consequently in the best possible condition to observe. My perfectly impersonal interest, and of course my scientific training, stood me in excellent stead. My time sense was markedly altered, much as I have described in the account of the attack on me in Calcutta. I was thus able to observe the events of what was probably not more than five seconds as if it had been as many minutes.

I thought the phenomenon of sufficient interest to record; and wrote a brief description to the New York Times. The result was surprising. I found myself inundated with letters of inquiry from so many electrical students that I had at last to have an account multigraphed to send out.

I had supposed that globular electricity was a well-known and undoubted, if rare, phenomenon, and was amazed to learn that until then it had never been seen by any reliable and competent observer. I had quite an elaborate correspondence with with Professor Elihu Thompson, one of the greatest living authorities on electricity, about it. It appeared that previous accounts were the statements of common sailors. They left considerable room for doubting the existence of globular electricity at all. This doubt was strengthened by the extreme difficulty of framing any satisfactory hypothesis to explain the occurrence. My observation turned out, therefore, to be (in its way) a matter of primary importance. I ventured to suggest an explanation of my own; but Professor Thompson felt that, while it covered the facts of the case and even those of previous observations, it involved a conception of electricity which was not easy to reconcile with the implications of certain other phenomena.

In the course of our correspondence, Professor Thompson communicated several extremely subtle and stimulating ideas as to the nature of matter, electricity and indeed of nature in general. They perhaps helped me to envisage consciously, for the first time, a strictly formal identification of the results of rational intellection with those of immediate intuition. I had felt, not without severe qualms, that the data of Neschamah might be in irreconcilable antagonism with those of Ruach. I was not in any way shaken in my opinion that the crown of Ruach (Daäth, Knowledge) had no true place on the Tree of Life, that it was essentially illusory and self-contradictory. It had been my constant preoccupation to find a means of expression for the truth of spiritual illumination in terms of rational comprehension, and moreover to justify the former without denying the validity of the later. Professor Thompson's remarks filled me with hope. It must be remembered that at the period when I studied science most exclusively, the reaction against mysticism was in full swing. The persecution of Darwin was like an unhealed scar; its contemplation bred resentment against the very root of any religious interpretation of the universe. I had been forced into the awkward position of having to be ready to go to the stake with Maudsley, {814} Ray Lankester and Haeckel, as against superstitious religion, and yet to attack their conclusions with the utmost vehemence in the interests of the impregnable spiritual position which I had built on the rock of my own actual experience. At last it had become conceivable that this antinomy might be overcome, and that in the best way, in the way indicated by the symbolism of the Cabbalah itself; that is to say, the eyes of science were opening gradually to the perception that the results of observation and experiment demanded an interpretation as repugnant to common sense (as understood by the man in the street and the Rationalist Press Association) as the utmost conceptions of Pythagoras, Paracelsus and that Great Order itself of which I was an initiate. My subsequent researches have been almost exclusively determined by considerations of this kind. While I have done my utmost to advance directly towards truth by the regular traditional magical and mystical methods which The Book of the Law had perfected, I have constantly sought pari passu to correlate my results with those of modern intellectual progress; indeed, to demonstrate that the deepest thinkers are unwittingly approaching the apprehension of initiated ideas, and are in fact, despite themselves, being compelled to extend their definition of the Ruach to include conceptions proper to Neschamah, that they are, in other words, becoming initiates in our sense of the word without suspecting that they are committing high treason against the majesty of materialism.

The remaining Chokmah days of the initiation proper seemed to be devoted principally to showing the candidate the material on which he is to work. I hope it will not sound too strange if I say that up to this time of my life I had been to a certain extent living in a fool's paradise. In one way or another, either by actual shelter, by the protection of social and financial resources, by my own poetic rose-coloured spectacles, or by the singularly happy choice that I had made of the people among whom I dwell, I had not seen in all its naked nastiness the world of mankind. I had seen a good deal of cruelty, stupidity and callousness; I realized how ignoble were the lives of the average man and woman, but there had been practically always a reasonable amount of compensation. It is necessary to live in the United States and know the people well to get a really clear view of hell with the lid off. I had already been some time in the country, but the truth about New York had been camouflaged. I, being who I was, had come into contact with the very cream of the city, and on my travels about the Union, I had seen little more than the superficial life of the people as it appears to the wanderer whose tent is a pullman car, a swagger hotel, or the abode of some friend who by that very fact is not truly representative of his community. I was soon to be brought into intimate relations with a society so primitive that it had no means of knowing who I was or recognizing the {815} class I represented; to experience what the French rather neatly call le-struggle-for-lifeisme; and that with the absolute moral certainty of being completely beaten from the very nature of things. In a country where the most week and ignorant, the least intelligent and resourceful, find it easy enough on the whole to earn a fairly decent living, and where the slightest capacity of almost any sort makes it a safe bet that ten years will put its possessor in Easy Street, I was to find myself a candidate for complete destitution. For many months I was, for the first time in my life, constantly preoccupied with the problem of keeping myself alive, and did so only by the operations of periodical windfalls. Again and again my coracle sank under me and each time those responsible for the conduct of my initiation handed out something to go on with from some totally unexpected source, in order to keep me on that psychological razor-edge whence one can always see the abyss as one can no longer do when one is in it. In this way, I saw all classes and all races, but no longer from the privileged standpoint, with the result that I was able to understand thoroughly what they were like to themselves and to each other. The horror and loathsomeness of those conditions left a permanent mark upon my character. It went far to destroy my capacity for lyrical expression, or perhaps rather to make impossible the point of view necessary to that kind of creative impulse. Love itself was to appear in a totally new form. I had never before understood its roots in the moral weakness and physical incompetence of our breed of monkeys. I had been familiar enough with its romantic and spiritual implication, with the social and economic complications which degrade its ideal, and even with the brutalities and blasphemies which lust and greed impose upon it. I had never understood it as the expression of the bitter need of desperation which is after all its true nature so far as all but a very few individuals rari nantes in gurgito vasto are concerned.

It would be impossible for me even to attempt the merest outline of the abomination of desolation upon which the Chiefs forced me to gaze during these long dreary dreadful days. It was not that I saw only the vilest and basest elements in society; on the contrary, I was deeply impressed by the essential virtue which forms part of every human being, and the poison upon the barb of my experience was the fact that ignorance, unskilfulness, moral weakness and the like made the helplessness and hopelessness of virtue utterly complete. Everywhere I saw unspeakably loathsome and inhuman vices triumphing with scarce a show of resistance; commerce in its uncleanliest forms had harnessed morality, religion and even science to its Jaganath car. Every decent instinct, whether of the individual or of the community, was the prey of this ghoul. In another chapter I shall give instances of the kind of thing which was not wholly dominant but practically universal. I have said enough to convey a general idea of the nature of the ordeal through {816} which I was passed at this period. I need only record a few of the actual magical results.

The misery which I underwent at this time had done much to cloud my memory. I do not clearly remember, for example, my reasons for going to New Orleans almost immediately after returning from Lake Pasquaney. It was my last glimpse of beauty for a long while. The old French-Spanish quarter of the city is the only decent inhabited district that I discovered in America. From the architecture to the manners of the people, their clothes, their customs and their cookery, all was delightful. It was like being back in Europe again with the added charm of a certain wildness and romance; it was a civilization sui generis, with its own peculiar adornment in the way of history. It enabled me to realize the spirit of the Middle Ages as even the most remote and time-honoured towns of Europe rarely do. I took a room conveniently close to the Old Absinthe House, where one could get real absinthe prepared in fountains whose marble was worn by ninety years' continual dripping. The result was that I was seized by another of my spasms of literary creation, and this time, the definite sexual stimulus which I had imagined as partly responsible for such attacks was, if not absent, at least related to an atmosphere rather than to an individual.

It lasted, if I remember rightly, some seventeen days. I completely lost track of the properties of times and place. I walked over to the Absinthe House in my shirt sleeves on one occasion without being in the slightest degree aware of the fact. My best work was an essay “The Green Goddess”, descriptive of the Old Absinthe House itself in particular, and the atmosphere of the quarter in general. It may be regarded as the only rival to “The Heart of Holy Russia” for literary excellence and psychological insight. I wrote also The Scrutinies of Simon Iff, a series of six more or less detective stories; two or three less important essays; some short stories, of which I may mention “Every Precaution” for its local colour; and all but the last two or three chapters of my first serious attempt at a long novel, The Net. I also began from the very depths of my spiritual misery a very strange book of an entirely new kind; so much so that I describe it as “A Novelissim”.1) Its title is Not the Life and Adventure of Sir Roger Bloxam. It remains unfinished to this day; in fact it is hardly theoretically possible to finish it, strictly speaking. I have indeed serious qualms as to whether I have not overstepped the limits of truth in saying that I began it. To be safe, I should be content to say I wrote a good deal of it.

The lyrical faculty remained almost entirely dormant, no doubt owing to the fact that in a quarter where almost every woman attracted me intensely, I was quite unable to fix my affection on a single specimen. Perhaps also it was inhibited by the iron which was entering my soul inch by inch and being twisted in my heart by the pitiless love of the Secret Chiefs of the Order. {817}

It was this, without doubt, which threw a monkey-wrench into my creative machinery and its destructive energy may be measured by the frightful circumstance which must next be recorded.

The city of New Orleans is divided into two main sections by a broad thoroughfare. On one side is the Spanish quarter, on the outskirts of which was a large and picturesque red light section; one of the most interesting places of its kind that I have ever seen. In fact, if we except Cairo, it would have been hard to beat. Across the main street was the modern commercial Americanized section where hardly a brick but screamed an obscene blasphemy against everything that might delight a poet, arouse enthusiasm in a lover, or abstain from revolting the instincts of a gentleman. Before I had been long in the city, it had become obvious that this cancer was eating away the breast of the beautiful city, and the conviction was stamped into my soul by a very definite hoof-mark of the mule morality.

A millionaire with a very large interest in the racecourse at Havana bethought him that it would be good business to do away with the competition of New Orleans in that form of sport. He therefore proceeded to organize what is called a “clean-up” of the city. He bribed prominent pulpits to awake the consciences of sincere puritans, squared the politicians and the newspapers, brought blackmail to bear on any honest people that seemed likely to stand in his way, and in every other respect fulfilled the conditions requisite for plundering the city and persecuting the poor, in the name of righteousness according to the most approved methods. His most spectacular success was to shut up the red light district, so far as the poorest classes were concerned. The effect of these proceedings was brought home to me by an incident which, happening in the United States, appeared to me vastly comic. I had been to the library in Lee Circle to get a book and descending the steps was accosted by a woman with a request for charity. I recognized her as one of the denizens of the wooden shanties of the red light district. My sympathy was aroused by the shameful cruelty to which she had been subjected by the hypocritical and dishonest manoeuvres of the millionaire and his myrmidons. Her case was peculiarly pathetic as she was suffering from an active and contagious form of disease. The most elementary common sense and decency would have come to her rescue long before, in the interest of her clients, no less than her own. I asked her what she was going to do now that her office had been closed. To my surprise, she was perfectly cheerful. The relief which she sought was only temporary, for she had got a good position as a nursemaid in a family of three young children for the following week!

Such was one of the innumerable similar symptoms of the foul disease which is ravaging the United States, and has already destroyed almost every vestige of the political, religious and individual liberty which was the very essence of the original American idea. My spirit sank under the contemplation {818} of the irremediable calamity which threatens to engulf the whole of humanity since it is now an accepted principle of business to endeavour to make tyranny international, to suppress all customs of historical interest, and indeed everything which lends variety or distraction to human society in the interest of making a market for standardized products. The moral excuse for these activities is miserably thin, for the element which it is most important to suppress is originality as such, even when the question concerns the very idea of craftsmanship in itself. The idea at the back of puritanism is the reduction of the mass of humanity to a degree of slavery which has never previously been so much as contemplated by the most malignant tyrants in history; for it aims at completing the helplessness of the workman by minimizing his capacity. He must no more be permitted to exercise the creative craftsmanship involved in making a pair of boots; he must be rendered unable to do more than repeat mechanically, year in, year out, one meaningless item in the manufacture, so that when the pinch comes it shall be impossible for anyone to have boots at all except through the complex industrial conspiracy of the trusts. This idea, consciously or subconsciously, lies underneath all attempts to extend “civilization”. The progress of this pestilence is only too visible all over the world. Standardized hotels and standardized merchandise have invaded the remotest districts, and these would be economically impossible unless supported by the forcible suppression of local competition. When, therefore, we find the newspapers indignant at Mohammedan morality, we may suspect the real trouble is that American hatters see no hope of disposing of their surplus stock, as long as the wicked Oriental sticks to his turban or tarbush. The exquisite, dignified and comfortable clothes of remote people, from Sicily to Japan, must give way to the vile shoddy products of foreign factories, and the motive is supplied by a worldwide campaign on behalf of social snobbery. The people are persuaded that they ought to try to look like a sporting duke or a bank president. Such plans obviously depend on the destruction of everything that makes for originality, self-respect, the love of beauty or the reverence for history.

It took me a long while before I could formulate consciously this idea, so protean are its disguises and so subtly sinister its stratagems. But I have always possessed the instinct, I have always reacted automatically against this principle whenever I found it. It should be obvious that “Do what thou wilt” cuts diametrically athwart this modern civilization to destroy the distinctions which constitute the sole hope of humanity to make real progress by the selection and variation which are the means of evolution. It may be said that my own work is in the nature of missionary enterprise; and that this is, in fact, the very thing to which I object, since its idea is to persuade people to abandon their established beliefs and customs. This criticism is invalid. I do, as a matter of fact, object to missionary enterprise as such, whether it take the {819} form of imposing the cult of Osiris on the worshippers of Adonis, of persuading the Chinese to eat with knives and forks, or of making Eastern women obscenely ridiculous by changing their superb and suitable robes for frocks which pretend to have been made in Paris. But my message differs fundamentally from all previously promulgated precisely at this point. My predecessors have invariably said, “My belief is right and yours is wrong; my customs are worthy, yours are ignoble; my dress is decent, yours is not; think as I think, talk as I talk, do as I do, or you will be wretched, poor, sick, disgraced and damned; besides which, I shall cut your head off, burn you alive, starve you, imprison you, ostracize you and otherwise make you sorry you did not agree to be a good boy.” The essence of every missionary message has been to assimilate the taught to the teacher; and it has always been accompanied by bribes and threats. My message is exactly opposed to any of this. I say to each man and woman, “You are unique and sovereign, the centre of an universe. However right I may be in thinking as I do, you may be equally right in thinking otherwise. You can only accomplish your object in life by complete disregard of the opinions of other people. You must not even take the outward signs of success as indications that the course of action which has produced them would serve your turn. For one thing, my coronet might not suit your complexion but give you a headache; for another, the measures which I took to obtain that coronet might not succeed in your case.”

My mission is, in short, to bring everyone to the realization and enjoyment of his own kingship, and my apparent interference with him amounts to no more than advice to him not to suffer interference. It may appear from this as if I were opposed to joint action directed to the attainment of a common purpose. But, of course, this is not the case. The advantages, not merely of cooperation but of disciplined union are the same as they were with previous theories of life. Yet there is a certain practical difference which, by the way, is curiously illustrated by the parallel of military discipline. In primitive warfare, the nexus between comrades is practically limited to an agreement to forget their individual quarrels in face of the common enemy. The training of a soldier thus amounted to encouraging his personal prowess. It was gradually seen that some sort of plan for combined action made for victory, so that one leader or chieftain should be detailed to carry out a definite duty. It soon became clear that isolated action was dangerous to the whole army; and the consequent tendency was developed to the point at which the Prussian drill sergeant was invaluable. The aim was to reduce the soldier to a brainless bulk of brawn, to be manipulated as mechanically as a chessman, exercising his inherent energies without the slightest wish or power to think or act for himself. (This stage corresponds to that which we are rapidly approaching in industry.) Now at least we have reached a further stage. The complexity of a battle and its mere extent in space have made it impossible for {820} a single man to handle his troops as was done by Marlborough and Napoleon, and therefore it has become once more necessary for the subordinate officer, and even, to some extent, the private soldier to understand his responsibility, to exercise initiative within limits, and also to train himself to be able to carry out a variety of operations demanding very varied knowledge and skill, instead of, as before, being confined to a highly specialized task demanding blind obedience and the suppression of all intelligence. The Charge of the Light Brigade has in fact become impossible. We are moving intelligently enough back in the direction of Sir Launcelot and Crillon. The necessities of warfare are the more truly instructive in that the military type of mind is so contemptible. The commander-in-chief is always hopelessly incompetent either to conceive or to perceive correctly the very elements of his business. The progress of military science is imposed upon stupidly by the facts; and it affords us, therefore, the best possible illustration of the blind workings of evolution. That is why industry, whose chiefs are just one degree less brainless than the Kitcheners and Frenches, is actually behind war in its biological adaptation to environment. Industrial crises are not so immediately fatal as those of tactics. Necessity has not so free a hand with the birch rod; and so, conditions alter more slowly, and their significance is less easy to interpret.


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WEH note: Actually, it's a shaggy dog story.


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