"More than human": the queer occult explorer of the fin-de-siecle.
--Weschcke, preface to The Golden Dawn
This quotation comes from one of the central oaths taken by members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn, which we might define as inhabiting a gray area between quasi-Masonic order, cabbalistic cult, and bachelor's fraternity, experienced a surge of popularity following its inception in 1888 through the end of the 1920s. Claiming descent from older occult or cabbalistic orders (including the Rosicrucians), the Golden Dawn began attracting a membership made up of artists, intellectuals, and writers in Britain at the fin-de-siecle, including well-known figures like W. B. Yeats, Algernon Swinburne, and the infamous Aleister Crowley. The existence of the Golden Dawn, and its popularity among intellectuals, is symptomatic of a larger trend in the late nineteenth century.
In this article, I aim to show how the larger societal desire for the irrational that was embedded in popular occult movements like the Golden Dawn was also explored in contemporary literature of the Gothic and the supernatural. Moreover, I will demonstrate that the yearning for irrationality displayed by occult groups like the Golden Dawn, and writers like Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and Robert Louis Stevenson, is an impulse marked by transgression and deviance that can only be described as queer.
My use of the word "queer" in this context is perhaps unusual, though not unprecedented. In their recent, groundbreaking volume, Queering the Gothic, William Hughes and Andrew Smith push our understanding of the term "queer" as it relates to the Gothic beyond sexual and interpersonal transgression, focusing attention on the "elusive" queerness of the Gothic that can be "taken outside of the sexual connotations" of the term "queer" (2-3). Following this lead, I suggest using the word "queer" in relation to the Gothic in a triple sense, reflecting the usage of the word before the various meanings differentiated themselves: the occult, Gothic tales of this period are therefore simultaneously (1) peculiar, (2) eerie, and (3) sexually or physically transgressive. These texts are thus marked by queer happenings that engage in this triple definition of the word queer, through the trope of irrationality and the occult.
Such a critical approach will thus help tease out the links between various cultural phenomena of the period (e.g., literature, religion, science) and show that the late Victorian and Edwardian era exemplify what Jasbir Puar has termed "queer times"--a period in which, after long repression, queer, transgressive ideologies become incorporated into heteronormative society; in this case through the figure of the occult explorer who attempts to exert mastery over the queer.
As Eric Hobsbawm has argued, rapid scientific advances since the Enlightenment (alongside increasing intellectualization of the bourgeois classes), by the late nineteenth century appeared to have banished all that was deemed to be "supernatural and miraculous," including "the ancient forces of religion," from the central place they had once held, and replaced them with a more materialist understanding of the universe and of humanity's place in it (244). As David Punter and Glennis Byron summarize, the period was marked by "discoveries in the sciences" like evolution and geology that "only served to aggravate a sense of alienation and further disturb notions of human identity" (20). And yet concurrent with this trend towards the material, by the late nineteenth century an "array of mental and physical oddities," such as theosophism, hypnotism, clairvoyance, spiritualism, and other occult phenomena, "helped convince a significant number of Victorian intellectuals (and an even greater number of nameless artisans) that the Enlightenment philosophes had been much too hasty in dismissing the miracles and prodigies of old as fable and hearsay" (Melechi 4). This renewed interest in the occult and the supernatural attracted numerous well-educated and influential non-scientist intellectuals, including artists, writers, politicians, and aristocrats, who were drawn to occult clubs like the Golden Dawn, the pseudo-scientific Society for Psychical Research, and to mystical groups like the Theosophists. In these new realms that bordered on the knowable, science, religion, and the occult fused in new and interesting ways.
Mark Morrisson notes that "a major aspect of the occult revival" during the fin-de-siecle "was an increasing interest in hermeticism, ritual magic, and other esoteric knowledge" (2). The Golden Dawn (which counted both Machen and Blackwood as members) was interested in the ways that esoteric knowledge could be used in "operations upon the self (2). This desire to reveal hidden secrets regarding the human condition permeates much of the Gothic fiction of this period, including the works of Stevenson, Machen, and Blackwood. While Stevenson was not an "occultist" like the latter two, the occult, the supernatural, and diabolical phenomena color some of his most famous works, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and "Markheim." (1) What is more, much Gothic literature of this period focuses on explorations of the effect of occult or supernatural knowledge and power on a single body, be it Jekyll/Hyde, Machen's Mary, or Blackwood's John Silence. An examination of these texts from the viewpoint of the occult explorer should reveal the way that the transgressive "queer" forces of the occult attempt to imaginatively engage with societal anxieties over religion, science, and humanity's place in the universe. These texts thus hold up a looking glass to some of fin-de-siecle Britain's darker cultural undercurrents.
The eagerness to accept supernatural phenomena as fact can be explained in part by the seemingly incommensurable void that had arisen between science and religion by the late nineteenth century. Patrick Brantlinger states that the presence of phenomena such as spiritualism and the occult in the literature of the period was "a reaction both against fictional realism and against scientific materialism" (xxiii). Karl Beckson seems to support this theory, arguing that for many late Victorians in a post-Darwinian world, "the impact of science on faith generated a sense of alienation and isolation" (318). Responding to the "Darwinian nightmare of a material world without ultimate meaning for humanity," intellectuals and artists "sought other means in their quest for a meaningful reality" (319). This anti-materialist, anti-positivist quest led them to the occult and the eternal/Otherworld that lay beyond the sensorial world claimed by the materialist trend that had dominated scientific thought since the Enlightenment (320). The occult thus offered late Victorian intellectuals a vision of "unity in all things" that could "reestablish a sense of coherence in their lives" (321), and in which marginalized belief in supernatural forces could be reorganized and re-amalgamated. Hence, the popularity of occult systems of belief--systems anchored in the irrational that provided an alternative worldview to the prevailing materialist trends of the day.
Acolytes of the occult thus incorporated scientific disciplinary methods into their occult explorations--as with Madame Blavatsky's attempts to scientize her brand of spiritualism--and thereby sought to rationalize the irrational. Occult knowledge was thus marked in equal parts by the thrill of scientific discovery and the awe and terror of the unknown Other or Otherworld.
Evidence of these occult explorations, and the crossing of occult and science, also emerges in the Gothic literature of the 1880s through the first decades of the 1900s. The literature of the period is rife with characters who believe that through a blend of science and the occult they might become somehow "more than human." Mirroring real-life occult pioneers like Blavatsky and Crowley, the Gothic literature of the fin-de-siecle introduces hybridized occult/scientific explorers in many guises and settings, from familiar figures like Bram Stoker's Van Helsing and H. G. Wells's Dr. Moreau, to lesser known characters like W. H. Hodgson's Carnacki the Ghost Finder or Richard Marsh's Paul Lessingham in The Beetle.
In this article, I will study the occult scientist at the center of this literary genre, which I will frame alongside some of the popular occult movements of the period that concurrently attempted to blend science and the occult. In his quest to become "more than human," the occult explorer struggles to assimilate or normalize the monstrous and the abnormal. I will examine Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Machen's "The Great God Pan," and Blackwood's John Silence stories. Each of these works or collection of works deals with the struggle of an intellectual or man of science who attempts to use science to normalize or to "straighten" a queer, monstrously abnormal occult. The success of the attempt to come to terms with the queer or abnormal, as well as the scientist's survival, depends upon the ability of the scientist to "queer" himself and/or his subject in preparation for the encounter with the occult Other. In other words, the occult explorer-scientist must identify this Other, and in doing so, he must attempt to become Other in order to access the powers that he seeks.
This preparation functions as an inoculation against the queer effects of the occult. In other words, straight, normative figures incorporate the queer occult into their being in order to build up resistance to its overpowering effects. A prior, carefully planned infection with the queer occult (in the form of occult training) allows characters, such as Blackwood's John Silence, to survive their encounters with stronger manifestations of the supernatural. Through this inoculation/training, Silence successfully becomes "more than human." Other figures, such as Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll, are insufficiently inoculated against the queer occult, and consequently find themselves in a struggle with the abnormal and the monstrous that ultimately leads to their death.
This queer inoculation thus functions as a means of harnessing and controlling queer, irrational ideologies, much in the same way that Puar describes the absorption of modern-day queer ideologies into the heteronormative to form what he terms "homonormative ideologies." The emergent, almost compulsory queerness (in the triple sense of the word) of late Victorian and Edwardian Gothic literature, and writers of this literature, seems a reflection of this absorption of the queer into heteronormative life as a point of variation, and not pure opposition, to the straight.
In the Gothic literature of this period, it is the learned man or scientist who absorbs the transgressive through queer inoculation. The survivors are those best prepared, and whose beings are most flexible or malleable to the queer effects of the occult. Such beings then become queer, hybrid, and even monstrous: occult explorers with one foot in normative science and another in the paranormal occult and the supernatural. Their pseudoscientific field of knowledge--occult science--is, moreover, both broad and unstable, resisting strict definition. It hovers between alchemy and chemistry (Stevenson's Henry Jekyll), "transcendental medicine" (Machen 1) and neurosurgery (Machen's Dr. Raymond), and parapsychology and psychology (Blackwood's John Silence). These hybridized figures, practitioners and repositories of queer, liminal sciences and fields of knowledge, haunt the edges of literary representation during the fin-de-siecle, and by their very presence force readers to confront the same uncomfortable void between reason and faith, the rational and irrational, that as occult explorers they have attempted to bridge through supernatural means.
Towards a Queerer Gothic
A brief theoretical clarification of my use of queer theory in reference to Gothic literature will, no doubt, be useful. In the article "Queer Gothic" (and a later book length study with the same title), George Haggerty uses the term "queer Gothic" to "evoke a queer world that attempts to transgress the binaries of sexual decorum" (383). Haggerty argues that the Gothic provides a space "in which all normative--heteronormative, if you will--configurations of human interaction are consistently challenged and in some cases significantly undermined" (384). Hughes and Smith locate the queer in difference"--a sense of difference not confined simply to sexual behavior but which may equally inform a systematic stylistic deviance from perceived norms in personal style or artistic preference" (3). Thus, deviancy that pushes the boundaries of societally accepted norms, sexual or otherwise, may be termed "queer," and "straight" may refer to adherence to societal norms, which are generally (though not always) heteronormative.
However, the alternative and transgressive queerness here implied functions as more than a simple straight/queer binary. Rather, the queer opens out from the single, straight path to a multiplicity of queer ones. The learned men of the fin-de-siecle Gothic can best be understood as queer explorers of multiple, transgressive pathways through what Sara Ahmed terms in Queer Phenomenology as "reorientation." These characters, through their inoculation with the queer forces of the occult, have reoriented themselves towards the occult, which, like a cracked mirror, reveals an array of new, queer perspectives to replace the single, straight one that was once reflected.
As Max Fincher states in Queering the Gothic in the Romantic Age, "queering as a way of reading ... is intimately connected to the idea of crossing over or between places, making links that have perhaps gone unnoticed or are not immediately obvious.... A queer reading attempts to articulate these points of disruption in culture where the heteronormative is resisted" (12-13). Reading these works in this manner, I have paid particular attention to how normative relationships are undermined or twisted, and to how new, queer perspectives alter one's understanding of the world.
Queer theory thus provides "a vehicle through which difference of all kinds might conveniently be mobilized" (Hughes and Smith 4). This more open understanding of queerness and the queer allows us to dig deeper into the transgressive nature of the Gothic at the fin-de-siecle, and into the psyche of the occult explorer-scientist, who is himself a dark reflection of those whom Antonio Melechi terms the real-life "servants of the supernatural:" the members of groups like the Theosophical Society, the Society for Psychical Research, and the Golden Dawn.
That said, let us now turn to some of these queer supernatural servants.
Queer Gothic Bodies
In the fiction of the fin-de-siecle, the site of tension between the occult, religion, and scientific materialism (2) is the body of the researcher and/or that of his subject. Through external, occult intervention, these bodies become deviant, inhabiting the liminal space of the Gothic. As Judith Halberstam writes in Skin Shows, the Gothic is characterized by the "boundaries between good and evil, health and perversity, crime and punishment, truth and deception, inside and outside" (2). Drawing upon the energies of this struggle, the Gothic story pieces together "lumpen bodies ... out of the fabric of race, class, gender, and sexuality" (3). Within this liminal world, "the monster becomes a primary focus of interpretation and its monstrosity seems available for any number of meanings" (2). If we imagine the abnormal, deviant Gothic body as the fruit of the struggle between straightening and queering forces, the occult scientist is (paradoxically, and perhaps incestuously) father, midwife, and child of this union. The queer Gothic body, birthed through a mixture of scientific and occult knowledge, and monstrous as it may be, is the source of both horror and, occasionally, of salvation.
The deviant Gothic body that has been influenced by occult science is subject to a monstrosity that is not always immediately visible, but lurks beneath the surface. A kind of madness rooted in abnormality, and often linked to devolution, is the key symptom of this monstrosity. In Abnormal, Michel Foucault poses the question, "is the abnormal human instinct the resurrection of archaic human instincts?" (133). I would like to argue that in the case of the queer Gothic body, yes, it often is. One of the queer effects of the occult in these fictions is that it awakens a distant and seemingly forgotten past in a way akin to the Freudian uncanny. As Sigmund Freud argues, we experience the uncanny when "something happens in our lives that seems to confirm ... old, discarded beliefs" (154). This uncanny effect of the queer Gothic body--highlighting a living connection between distant past and present--is nowhere more obvious than in Darwin's evolutionary theory. Darwin's ideas had, by the late nineteenth century, already been widely disseminated. New theories spun off of evolutionary theory emerged in many different fields, one of which was criminology (Gould 132).
Cesare Lombroso, an Italian criminologist, studied the skulls of dead criminals looking for atavistic throwbacks to earlier evolutionary stages. For Lombroso, "in some unfortunate individuals, the past comes to life again" to destructive ends (Gould 133). In the Gothic fiction of the fin-de-siecle, dabblers in the dark, arcane knowledge of occult science, and their subjects, are more prone to atavism and degeneration. With this thought in mind, let us now turn to the most famous example of occult devolution in the literature of the period, Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
"Create in thyself two personalities"(Crowley)
While Stevenson does not seem to have taken a strong personal interest in the occult, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for its part, has fascinating links to the occult not only by way of subject matter, but also through Crowley, a seminal figure in the Order of the Golden Dawn. Crowley saw the implications of Stevenson's novella not simply as mere fantasy, but rather as a source of magical, occult inspiration. One of Crowley's magical books, the Liber Jugorum (or the Book of the Yoke), explores the possibility of multiple personae within the psyche (Sutin 84). As Lawrence Sutin recounts in Do What Thou Wilt, "Crowley credited the initial idea behind Liber Jugorum to Robert Louis Stevenson" (84). Indeed, Crowley attempted a magical experiment that sought to prove the duality (or even multiplicity) of the personae within the human psyche. Crowley sought to separate "one's daily persona," which deals with the mundane happenings of life, from the "essential consciousness within," which is a truer, purer reflection of the "higher will" that provides access to magical power (84). That Crowley would attempt a Jekyll-like experiment illustrates how receptive occultists were to queer ideas and possibilities outside of the byways of normative science.
The fictional Jekyll, for his part, takes a more physical, rather than psychological, approach to the queer occult. For most of his life, Dr. Jekyll has presented himself to his friends and colleagues as a sophisticated and cultured man of science--a perfect Victorian gentleman. And yet within Jekyll there is something not quite right-something that deviates from the straight path of genteel respectability that once stretched out before him. There is an abnormality: a darker, more sinister, queer side to his personality.
In Jekyll's full statement (revealed after Jekyll/Hyde's death to his friend Utterson), he says that he has long suffered from "a certain impatient gaiety of disposition" that makes it difficult for him to carry himself in the manner expected by the upper-class Victorian society in which he lives (Stevenson 75-76). Throughout his life, he "concealed [his] pleasures" and soon found that he "stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life" (76). In Sexual Anarchy, Elaine Showalter argues that the activities that Jekyll hides from straight Victorian society are distinctly non-heteronormative. Showalter contends that Jekyll and Hyde "can most persuasively be read as a fable of finde-siecle homosexual panic, the discovery and resistance of the homosexual self (107). This discovery is the mark that leads down queer avenues: Jekyll is disturbed by his need to lay "aside restraint and plunge in shame" (Stevenson 76), which later requires his "remorse" and "penitence" (77); and yet he is unable to stop these queer activities.
In order to absolve himself of guilt and resolve his existential crisis, Jekyll turns to the outer limits of science and the borders of the occult. In looking for a creative solution to his dilemma, Jekyll gradually becomes, according his old friend Lanyon, "too fanciful" and "unscientific" (38). Through occult science, the tension in Jekyll between straight and queer tips in favor of the latter, culminating in the irruption of queer abnormality that is Edward Hyde.
The nineteenth-century scientist Sir Humphry Davy writes that "Science has ... bestowed upon [man] powers which may be almost called creative; which have enabled him to change and modify the beings surrounding him" (272). Jekyll takes up this idea in his efforts to separate the two parts of his being, an act that functions as a queer inoculation that he hopes will save him from the queer forces that have caused his existential crisis and madness. Yet as Jekyll admits in his full statement, his "discoveries were incomplete" (Stevenson 77). Jekyll does not yet know enough about his own queer nature or the equally queer nature of the concoction (with its mysterious "salts" of indeterminate origin) safely to administer it--hence, the anxiety the first time he uses it, and the need to double or triple the dosage. The promise of queer occult science proves too great, and in his haste, Jekyll falls prey to his own hubristic fantasy of control over the queer occult. While he is successful in separating "the evil side of [his] nature" (79) in Hyde, a being of "pure evil" (79), the results are not as he had hoped. As Jekyll admits, his normative "good" side, like anyone else's, is not purely good but is "commingled out of good and evil" (79). Because his reasons for using the potion are not purely good or straight, the queer evil is "alert and swift to seize the occasion" (80), and projects itself with increasing strength in Hyde. Jekyll's personal flaws are thus amplified through the prism of the god-like but only partially controlled powers of occult science, producing evil out of someone who lived "nine tenths a life of effort, virtue, and control" (79). Ultimately, science has failed to deliver on its promises, and Jekyll's meddling has only queered nature's balance.
Jekyll is thus a man whose goodness and propriety are offset by a darker, repressed side of hidden, non-normative activities that are manifested in the queer Hyde. In losing himself to Hyde, Jekyll has been betrayed by his arrogant trust in occult science and by his inability to recognize the monstrous strength of the abnormal within himself. Jekyll cuts the bonds of straight life that once held him up as a paragon of propriety, and he becomes the liminal monster of which Jeffrey Cohen warns us to be wary.
This brings us to Hyde. Hyde is a queer Gothic body of "pure evil" (Stevenson 79) who embodies all the fears, anxieties, and failures of an unsuccessful attempt to adhere to the straight life. In sum, Hyde is what normative society has taught the Victorian to fear and repress: namely, the queer hybrid-a devolved, destructive Gothic monster within. As a scientific experiment gone haywire, Hyde represents the failure and dangers of meddling with occult science. And yet occult science did not create Hyde-rather, it merely unshackles him. In this Gothic world, there is a Hyde lurking within every Victorian gentleman. Most of the time, the Hyde in the average gentleman (such as Utterson, Enfield, and Lanyon), only emerges on occasion when such a man takes a culturally approved trip of debauchery to the gin mills and music halls of London's Soho neighborhood. Jekyll, through his impure scientific/occult concoction, has allowed his Hyde free rein over his being. All of Jekyll's non-normative, anti-societal queer energy--lust, fear, hatred, violence--is unleashed in Hyde. That is why people are repulsed by Hyde, for they see in him what they recognize as abnormal within themselves--the abject, disavowed part of the self.
Thus, as Stephen Arata states, "In Edward Hyde ... Stevenson [has] created a figure who embodies a bourgeois readership's worst fears about both a marauding and immoral underclass and a dissipated and immoral leisure class" (35). Hyde is a threat to the normative, but he is a threat that has long existed in a dormant state within (hetero)normative society, unleashed through the uncontrolled queer powers of occult science. Alone and impetuous in his study of occult science, Jekyll underestimates the powers that it can unleash, and thus suffers the consequences of hubris and overreaching. This fear of the potential pitfalls of amateur dabbling in the occult is perhaps one reason that occult societies such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn came into existence-to prevent Jekyll-like hubristic and dangerous solo forays into the world of the occult.
Spiritualism, the Golden Dawn, and the Final Frontier: Occult Societies at the Fin-de-Siecle
A key site of cross germination between occult and science was the occult society; and one of the most influential of these groups was the Theosophical Society, which grew out of the Anglo-American phenomenon of spiritualism. Spiritualism, with its promise of contact with the dead through seances and mediums, "had been meant to offer a way between the frustrating alternatives of pseudo-science and pseudo-religion, providing a true spiritual science" (Washington 46). However, it never lived up to this possibility, and by the 1870s, when much of the initial enthusiasm in spiritualism on both sides of the Atlantic had begun to burn out, the fascinating figure of Madame Blavatsky emerged to stoke the flames of popular interest in occult knowledge. Blavatsky published Isis Unveiled in 1877, which functioned as a kind of spiritualist textbook to occult knowledge, offering an alternative to materialist, Darwinian science (Washington 46). Blending a hodgepodge of Egyptian occultism, Buddhism, and Indian mysticism, Blavatsky sought not to oppose science and religion, but rather to "subsume those facts [presented by Victorian science] into a grand synthesis that makes religious wisdom not the enemy of scientific knowledge but its final goal" (52). In shaping this occult theory of science, Blavatsky thus attempted to impose a scholarly discipline to spiritualism and give it a veneer of intellectual respectability. Interestingly, this turn towards systemization moved spiritualism away from its populist roots "and set it on a path toward hermetic elitism" (Goldstein). This elitist streak in occultism culminated in the late 1880s and 1890s with the formation of occult societies like the Order of the Golden Dawn.
The Hermetic Order of Golden Dawn was officially founded in 1888 when it opened its first temple in London, which was coincidentally only two years after the publication of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Ashley 40). The Golden Dawn "taught the theory and practice of ritual magic or practical occultism without any of the hesitations and prevarications of the Theosophical Society" (Owen 51). The Golden Dawn aimed to bring about the "dawning of a new spiritually enlightened era" through "the study of the intelligent forces behind Nature, the constitution of Man, and his relation to God" (76). The Golden Dawn thus offered its teachings as an alternative to both post-Darwinian science and the Judeo-Christian tradition.
In contrast with the less formally structured Theosophical Society, the Golden Dawn promised education and mentoring in occult practices through a tightly organized hierarchy with increasing knowledge and responsibility at each subsequent level. "The purpose of the Golden Dawn," writes Mike Ashley, "was to study the occult sciences, especially Hebrew magic and the Kabbala" (110). In order to promote this occult knowledge, the leaders of the Golden Dawn "established a succession of grades through which the student could progress by study and examination" (110-11). Secrets were revealed gradually rather than all at once to allow the initiate time to absorb the knowledge.
This scholarly, pseudo-scientific approach to occult knowledge should not be thought unusual for the period. As Jarlath Killeen writes, "the occult, in all its bewildering complexity and variety of manifestations, was both a scientific and a spiritual zone" (128). For many people, the occult was a final frontier waiting to be understood. The light of science could shine there, but it must be a new manifestation of science shaped by a "paradigm shift"--a situation described by Killeen:
[when] the anomalies thrown up by [scientific] experimentation and observation are too great to be accommodated; what happens then is a "paradigm shift," as a new model, which seems to account better for the anomalies, takes over. The new model is not necessarily more "true" than the old, it just appears to account better for the anomalies. (126)
Occult beliefs-in mediums, seances, fairies, animal magnetism, etc.--were the anomalies. Supposedly backed by irrefutable (though usually anecdotal or circumstantial) evidence, these occult anomalies provided the basis for a paradigm shift--and occult societies like the Golden Dawn came to fill in the knowledge gaps where the Royal Society dared not tread. Given this rich background, filled as it was with new ideas and deep metaphysical uncertainty, "no major Victorian thinker or writer," states Killeen, "from the Brontes to the Brownings, from Dickens to Darwin, was unconcerned about the occult" (124). It should come as no surprise, then, that two of the writers of late Gothic tales that I have selected to examine in this article were members of the Order of the Golden Dawn.
Although late in life Machen denigrated the Golden Dawn as "pure foolishness" (Ashley 118), during the 1890s and early 1900s, both he and Blackwood were active members, eventually rising into mid-ranks of the hierarchy (113). Close in age and "both self-confessed mystics" (Joshi, Weird Tale 88), Machen and Blackwood met and became friends through the Golden Dawn and their mutual acquaintance and Golden Dawn brother, W. B. Yeats. As Blackwood's biographer Ashley notes, both Machen and Blackwood made use of the results of their study of the occult in their fiction-Blackwood particularly so in his John Silence stories (Ashley 114). And though later in life Machen returned spiritually to his Anglo-Catholic roots (Joshi, Weird Tale 14), Blackwood, according to Punter and Byron, "is one of the few writers of Gothic fiction actually to have believed in the supernatural: an early adherence to Buddhism is modified into an interest in the Order of the Golden Dawn, and subsequently into a personal brand of mysticism which is intensified rather than challenged by extensive reading in psychology" (90). Machen, for his part, mixed his own early mysticism with an interest in "the opposite of Darwinian evolution, the hypothesis that a primitive capacity for evil and horror survives in us all and can, under the right circumstances, drive us to commit the most dreadful of deeds" (146). Nowhere is this conception more evident than in Machen's 1894 novella "The Great God Pan."
Science and the Old Gods
Machen's "The Great God Pan" revolves around the aftermath of an experiment in occult science gone awry. The story opens with Dr. Raymond, a brain specialist, and his friend, Clarke, discussing Raymond's recent research. Raymond has made enormous strides in his understanding of brain physiology and is preparing to test his surgical theory through "a trifling rearrangement of certain cells, a microscopical alteration that would escape the attention of ninety-nine brain specialists out of a hundred" (2). What Raymond hopes to achieve through this surgical procedure is not to relieve a medical condition or cure disease. Rather, it is a bold attempt (through a proxy subject) to escape the boundaries of the restrictive, normative world and allow open access to the queer occult world inhabited by ancient gods and spirits (including the Greco-Roman god Pan)--a world that is for Raymond the "real world." The subject of his experiment is a young girl of seventeen named Mary, who, as Raymond states, "I rescued ... from the gutter, and from almost starvation, when she was a child; I think her life is mine to use as I see fit" (4). She is a willing subject in that she submits only out of her sense of obligation to Raymond. Ironically, it is through compulsion that Raymond hopes to strip away the trappings of restrictive normativity from his subject.
The results of this experiment are horrific, though successful in so far as it lifts the veil between the normative and non-normative occult world. Mary sees Pan, and after a frightful-looking internal struggle, she becomes, in Raymond's words, "a hopeless idiot" (7). In her transformation into a queer societal outcast, Mary has been subjected to what Foucault terms in History of Madness "antique images" that have "resurfaced" (358). Here, Foucauldian "unreason" (358), embodied by the ancient, incomprehensible god Pan, comes face to face with modern medical knowledge, and ultimately leads to madness and death.
Nine months after the operation, Mary gives birth to a girl (whom Raymond names Helen), and subsequently Mary dies, never having regained her senses after Raymond's operation. Helen is "the daughter of a human woman, a nonhuman force, and experimental neurosurgery" (Hurley 191), and her subsequent life follows a path as queer as her origins. As Punter summarizes, Mary's "child, born of her union with Pan, proceeds to confront a series of other people with visions of the horror which underlies the quiet surface of life" (22). Helen, the queer Gothic body, exerts a profound, dangerous influence on all those around her. Raymond, sensing this, sends her away to live with a surrogate family. In her new surroundings, Helen uses her queer charms to seduce first a small boy and then a young woman, whom she presents to her father, the god Pan. The boy is permanently traumatized by the sight, while the young woman, in addition to losing her mind, shows signs of having been raped (whether by Pan or Helen, or both, is unclear).
As a child of occult science, Helen thus becomes a queer force of nonnormative sexuality and consequently is a mental and physical danger to all of those around her. Aware that Clarke and others have attempted to track her down, as Helen grows into adulthood she is forced to move and change her identity frequently. Ultimately, Helen becomes a monstrous femme fatale who wreaks havoc upon London high society, using her various identities to lure straight, aristocratic men to queer suicidal deaths: "There was a horror in the air, and men looked at one another's faces when they met, each wondering whether the other was to be the victim of the [next] nameless tragedy ... no man knew when or where the blow would next light" (34). Helen's power comes from her ability simultaneously to defy the dominant male will and to attract and repel male desire. She can perhaps best be understood through the lens of Cohen's "Monster Culture." In Thesis VI, Cohen argues that because the monster is linked to forbidden practices, it evokes "potent escapist fantasies; the linking of monstrosity with the forbidden makes the monster all the more appealing as a temporary egress from constraint" (16-17). Like the ladies who tempt Sir Bors in Arthurian legend, Helen is a demon "in lascivious disguise" (19). Helen seduces her victims at the same time that she frightens them. As Machen's amateur detective Austin states: "Every one who saw [Helen] at the police court said she was at once the most beautiful woman and the most repulsive they had ever set eyes on.... She seems to have been a sort of enigma" (20). Jack the Ripper terrorized London only a few years before Machen wrote this story, and it would not be farfetched to hypothesize that Machen had stories of the Ripper in mind when he wrote "The Great God Pan." Glennis Byron suggests that Machen one-upped the real-life killer, as Helen's crimes "seem to exceed even the 'East End Horrors'" of Jack the Ripper (136). Jack the Ripper, too, is believed to have seduced some of his victims before murdering them. Helen is essentially a female, aristocratic Jack the Ripper-figure-a queer, refracted mirror image of both sexual attraction and horror that undermines the normative structure of late Victorian London.
Dr. Raymond has, like Jekyll before him, overreached out of his desire to confront the non-normative. In pursuing his occult research, Raymond has torn away the buffer of civilization and unleashed ancient forces beyond his control, which wreak havoc on the world until a sense of order can be reinstated by two young aristocratic amateur detectives, Austin and Villiers. With Clarke's assistance, Austin and Villiers follow a series of cryptic clues and track Helen down, giving her the option of death by her own hand or by that of the hangman. Helen chooses suicide, and subsequently, her body is turned over to Dr. Matheson (interestingly, another man of science) for examination.
The fragmentary structure of Machen's novella leaves many details to the imagination, but according to a letter from Dr. Matheson, it appears that immediately after her (compelled) suicide, Helen's Gothic body is subjected to medical examination. In other words, Dr. Matheson (with Clarke and Villiers in attendance) endeavors to impose "civilized" normativity on Helen through a "straight" scientific procedure--this effort to anatomize and rationalize her difference is an attempt to discipline its extremity.
But unlike the normative body of her mother Mary, Helen's queer Gothic body (born as it is to a human mother and a supernatural father) resists this procedure, undergoing a monstrous transformation before the eyes of the straight men of science. As Dr. Matheson describes in his fragmentary manuscript, "The skin, and the flesh, and the muscles, and the bones, and the firm structure of the human body that I had thought to be unchangeable, and permanent as adamant, began to melt and dissolve.... For here there was some internal force, of which I knew nothing, that caused dissolution and change" (46). This fascinating description highlights the essential queerness of Helen's Gothic body, as it resists all limitations of size, shape, and sex. It is a body beyond evolution, beyond structure, and beyond time. As Susan Navarette notes, "the protoplasm into which Helen's outward form eventually melts is the sublimely abject substance--indefinite, unstable, amorphous--and thus betrays its origins" in the union of an ancient, supernatural god and a human woman, made possible by the intervention of occult science (190). This repulsive queer protoplasm is the very essence of unrestrained life--the source of much of Machen's horror.
Machen's text repeatedly breaks down in the middle of the description of Helen's queer shifting body, as though her remains are too queer for the straight Dr. Matheson to comprehend, or for language to describe and adequately record in a scientific manuscript. As Navarette writes, "Helen's body becomes the quintessential site of Gothic horrors" for audiences at the time who, immersed in evolutionary debates, would have been especially disturbed by the idea that the human body could be encroached by the "frontier of a brute kingdom" (190). Dr. Raymond and Dr. Matheson, like Dr. Jekyll, have failed properly to prepare themselves, or society, for the queer irruption of a monstrous Other that throws into question the very nature of humanity, and defies all attempts to pin down human agency. Raymond's experiment leads only to existential chaos, madness, and death, and stands as a dire warning against dabbling with forces beyond the pale of normative knowledge and science.
John Silence, Queer Occult Savior
Given the failed experiments of Dr. Raymond and Dr. Jekyll, one might be excused for thinking that writers of late Victorian and Edwardian Gothic fiction believed that occult knowledge led only to danger and ruin. Yet Blackwood's John Silence is a figure representative of a different trend in the period's Gothic fiction. He is a queer occult savior, a man who has carefully and painstakingly prepared himself to deal with the occult, and as such is able to help others who are struggling with queer, unknown forces.
Silence is a self-described psychic detective. Unlike his more famous contemporary, Sherlock Holmes, Silence's cases always deal with the supernatural. As Ashley states, "the character of John Silence was not the first occult detective in fiction. The idea of a specialist investigator of the occult had been developing in Victorian fiction since ... as far back as 1833" (135). Some of Silence's predecessors include Sheridan Le Fanu's Dr. Martin Hesselius, and E. and H. Heron's ghost hunter Flaxman Low (135), as well as Stoker's Van Helsing (Joshi, Introduction vi). However, Blackwood's John Silence differs from these predecessors in that he is not merely sensitive to, or knowledgeable about, the supernatural; rather, he is the first of these psychic detectives actually to have supernatural abilities.
Interestingly, Blackwood dedicates the 1908 John Silence collection "To M. L. W. The Original of John Silence and My Companion in Many Adventures." Was there a real John Silence wandering around Edwardian London, investigating supernatural phenomena? Ashley gives many possible identities of the mysterious "M. L. W.," but I think the most intriguing conjecture is the possibility that the "real" John Silence was a fellow member of an occult splinter group that Blackwood, Machen, and others formed after growing dissatisfied with the Golden Dawn (Joshi, Introduction viii). We may never know the identity of the "real" John Silence; nevertheless, from a reader's standpoint, the dedication of the work is certainly eye-catching and makes one pause and wonder if what you are about to read is fact, fiction, or some queer ground in between. The end effect is that before the reader even gets to the first page of John Silence, Physician Extraordinary, expectations are blurred and interest is piqued.
Blackwood delves into the history and background of the fictional character Silence in only one of the stories, "A Psychical Invasion." There are other hints and clues to Silence's past scattered around other stories, but this tale contains his most vivid portrait (Ashley 131). By examining Blackwood's portrayal of his detective in this seminal story, as well as some further examples of Silence's adventures, I hope to show that Silence, while taking similar risks to our other occult scientists, manages to make use of occult science to harness queer, supernatural forces and to ultimately bring balance to a world that threatens to fall out of sync because of phenomena like the queer, "psychical invasion" from which the first Silence story takes its title.
One of the first things that we learn about Silence is that he has a deep interest in humanity:
By his friends John Silence was regarded as an eccentric, because he was rich by accident, and by choice--a doctor. That a man of independent means should devote his time to doctoring, chiefly doctoring folk who could not pay, passed their comprehension entirely. The native nobility of a soul whose first desire was to help those who could not help themselves, puzzled them. (1-2)
Silence's nobility of character is in keeping with his portrayal as a gentlemanscholar. As a doctor, Silence has had a traditional education. But he has also chosen to deal with other, occult forms of knowledge: "for the cases that especially appeal to him were of no ordinary kind, but rather of that intangible, elusive, and difficult nature best described as psychical afflictions.... It was beyond question that he was known more or less generally as the 'Psychic Doctor'" (2). In order to fulfill his chosen profession, Silence must furthermore undergo an alternative, queer education that is as obscure as the cases which attract him:
In order to grapple with cases of this peculiar kind, he had submitted himself to a long and severe training, at once physical, mental, and spiritual. What precisely this training had been, or where undergone, no one seemed to know ... It had involved a total disappearance from the world for five years ... his singular practice ... spoke much for the seriousness of his strange quest and also for the genuineness of his attainments. (2)
Silence's interest in the "peculiar" and the "singular," his "severe training" and "genuineness," mark him as both an acolyte of the unusual as well as a man seriously devoted to his queer profession. It is thus that Silence's mysterious and unorthodox, yet thorough, training in the occult acts as a queer inoculation against the harmful effects of supernatural occult forces.
In the story "A Psychical Invasion," Silence comes to the aid of Mr. Pender, a once-successful writer of comic stories who has, since moving house, been haunted by a queer influence that has gradually taken possession of his being. The haunting begins after Pender's first experimentation with hashish in his new home. From that point on, Pender becomes susceptible to the "psychical invasion" of demonic forces. Initially, this is manifested in Pender's creative output--his writings and sketches. Where he was once a popular humorist, everything that he writes or draws now is twisted in some queer way, and is reminiscent of a Jekyll/Hyde duality. When reading over something he had written while under this queer invasive influence, Pender is amazed:
It was so distorted. The words, indeed, were mine so far as I could remember, but the meanings seemed strange. It frightened me. The sense was so altered.... [O]nly curious emotions of sinister amusement resulted. Dreadful innuendos had managed to creep into the phrases. There was laughter of a kind, but it was bizarre, horrible, distressing. (15)
The same effect is achieved in Pender's sketches, which become "'nothing but ... lines and blots and wriggles" (17). Ultimately, the queer forces at work here alter Pender's notion of temporality and sensation: "Each step seemed to take five minutes" (11), and "I experienced a curious changing of the senses, so that I perceived external things through one large main sense-channel instead of through the five divisions.... I tell you that I heard sights and saw sounds" (16). Pender is becoming abnormal--a queer Gothic body interacting with occult powers.
Silence's diagnosis fascinatingly mingles straight science with occult beliefs: "the hashish has partially opened another world to you by increasing your rate of psychical vibration, and thus rendering you abnormally sensitive. Ancient forces attached to this house have attacked you" (14). As a cure, Silence decides to confront these forces himself, explaining to the frightened Pender "my studies and training have taken me far outside these orthodox [ideas], and I have made experiments that I could scarcely speak to you about in language that would be intelligible to you" (19). Silence stays in the house accompanied only by a cat and a dog, for he believes that animals are "more often, and more truly, clairvoyant than human beings" (22). Silence then explains the concept of "animal clairvoyance," an occult belief that he describes in almost scientific terms.
With the animals acting as his early warning system, Silence defeats this "psychical invasion" by stepping between the queer attacker and Pender, "deflecting its course upon himself" (39). And yet Silence can only do this successfully because of his queer training and ability to absorb the queer without being overwhelmed by it: "after passing through the purifying filter of his own unselfishness these energies could only add to his store of experience, of knowledge, and therefore of power" (39). Though "the struggle was severe" (39), Silence ultimately triumphs and restores the balance between the normative and the non-normative.
John Silence is a hybrid being--knowledgeable in both traditional scientific and occult learning. He is also a savior, a last resort for abnormal beings that seek normative lives. In another story, "The Camp of the Dog," Silence helps Peter Sangree, who (unbeknownst even to himself) transforms into a werewolf at night because of his unrequited desire for Joan Maloney, who is herself a reincarnated soul. Silence helps to bring the man/werewolf and woman together into a heteronormative relationship, thus curing Sangree's case of lycanthropy. In "A Victim of Higher Space," Silence comes to the rescue of Mr. Mudge, who is constantly fading into the fourth dimension. In this queer "higher space," Mudge loses all sense of three dimensional space and normative temporality. Silence instructs Mudge in occult techniques that help to ground him in the normative third dimension--in effect providing Mudge with a queer inoculation against his own queer disease.
Silence's own abnormality thus makes him capable of using occult science to enforce heteronormative order. But he also differs from Jekyll and Raymond on a more basic level. Silence is often described as "unselfish" and sympathetic. He is "at heart a genuine philanthropist" (2), interested in helping others. Jekyll and Raymond, on the other hand, are primarily interested in their own ends, and the world suffers for it. Indeed, had Jekyll or Raymond been able to come to Silence for help, perhaps their stories would have ended differently. Silence stands on the opposite end of the spectrum from these more tragic characters, as psychical doctor, occult scientist, and queer savior.
Conclusion: Towards a Queer Future
Hobsbawm has compared the zeitgeist of the late Victorian and Edwardian period to the feeling one might have on a train headed to an unknown destination through an unfamiliar landscape (244). Irrational occult science, as it manifested itself in both cultural movements and in literature, was an attempt by the travelers on this train to orient themselves in the Ahmedian sense--to find a point of stability that reconciled the conflicting human need for the irrational with the desire for rationality. This was an attempt to make sense of an unknown future by redefining it on one's own terms.
As physically embodied by characters like John Silence, irrational occult science is an attempt to "straighten" the occult to the statutes of one of Puar's homonormative ideologies. This immensely difficult task results in new queer humans (such as Hyde or Helen) or queer states of human being (such as Helen's final moment of transformation, or Jekyll's increasingly unstable and uncontrollable transformations) that draw on both materialist science and the irrational occult to exist. This hybridized, homonormative occult science acts as a pathway that promises power but threatens madness. All who will pass along this path to power must run a gauntlet of madness. In Gothic literature, this gauntlet has taken many different forms; in the works of Stevenson, Machen, and Blackwood, the human body itself becomes a pathway and barrier to occult knowledge, and is simultaneously the site of the struggle with madness and death.
Significantly, the queer occult scientist approaches the quest for occult knowledge as an extension (or perhaps colonization) on the part of rational thought into non-normative space. This invasion into non-normative space is destabilizing and threatens to alienate the occult scientist from the normative world. However, this sort of experimentation often goes awry and brings him to the edge of the abyss of madness. Whether he falls into the abyss depends on his skill, his devotion to his mission, and his understanding of the queer or abnormal that is alloyed with his heteronormative drives. If he survives this hybridization, he becomes more than human: more powerful than he ever could have imagined (much like John Silence). But if he fails, the occult scientist becomes akin to Foucault's leper-rejected and haunting the margins of society, and doomed to be held responsible for the queer monster that he has unleashed on the normative world.
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(1.) Indeed, Stevenson is reported to have "recorded his own subjective states during fevers" for theorists at the Society for Psychical Research (Luckhurst xix).
(2.) Robert Mighall defines scientific materialism as "the mechanistic, rationalistic, and secular approach to natural phenomena which emerged with the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, and which sought to conquer such irrational superstitions as belief in witches, demons, and vampires" (274).
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|Author:||De Cicco, Mark|
|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2012|
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