The Centaur by Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood’s The Centaur (1911) begins in “the year of Halley’s comet” — 1910 — with Terence O’Malley aboard a coastal steamer heading for the Levant and the Black Sea. O’Malley is an outsider, out of joint with his age:

“Not my century! … why, it’s not even my world! And I loathe, loathe the spirit of today with its cheap-jack inventions, and smother of sham universal culture, its murderous superfluities and sordid vulgarity, without enough real sense of beauty left to see that a daisy is nearer heaven than an airship—”

But his outsiderism is not of the dark, existential Colin Wilson kind. O’Malley is an outsider because, as the ship’s medic Dr Stahl tells him, he has “retained an almost unbelievable simplicity of heart—an innocence singularly undefiled—a sort of primal, spontaneous innocence that has kept you clean and open”. O’Malley finds refuge in Nature, and has managed to make a living writing travel articles about his wanderings, but still feels the need for a greater sense of belonging to Nature, both more personal and more spiritual:

“He had always ‘dreamed’ the Earth alive, a mothering organism to humanity; and himself, via his love of Nature, in some sweet close relation to her that other men had forgotten or ignored.”

And on board the ship he finds it, or at least the first hint it’s possible. Two of his fellow passengers, a big, quiet man he thinks of as “the Russian”, and a young boy in the Russian’s charge, attract his attention in an odd way: “They appeared so much bigger than they actually were”, yet when he focuses on them, he can’t see what creates this impression. He realises it’s a mental image of their inner natures, somehow communicating to his eyes (the other passengers mostly ignore them). They seem to feel a kinship with O’Malley, too, and he comes to realise, as he spends time with them, that they are no ordinary people, but “cosmic beings”, “strayed down among men in a form outwardly human”. Not aliens, but:

“…a direct expression of cosmic life. A little bit, a fragment, of the Soul of the World, and in that sense a survival—a survival of her youth.”

Dr Stahl has also noticed something about these two, and notes O’Malley’s interest in them. They are, he tells the Irishman, beings whose nature is similar to O’Malley’s own, “only developed, enormously developed… whose influence acting upon you at close quarters could not fail to arouse the latent mind-storms… always brewing in you just below the horizon.”

Stahl at first encourages O’Malley to interact with them, but almost immediately steps in with warnings about getting too close. O’Malley himself feels the tug of entering these two mysterious beings’ world, and thus losing his worldly self, though he soon realises that the “loss of personality” he instinctively fears would be “merely an extinction of some phantasmal illusion of self into the only true life”. Stahl urges him not to submit to the temptation of letting go of this world entirely, urging O’Malley to remember the watchwords of “Humanity and Civilisation”, not realising how little those words mean to him.

Blackwood wanted his friend Walford Graham Robertson to illustrate the novel. In the end, only this endpaper illustration appeared.

Stahl and the Russian are, in effect, the angel and devil on O’Malley’s shoulders, each urging him in an opposite direction. O’Malley already feels the attraction to the Russian’s world of greater unity with the Soul of the Earth; it’s Stahl who has to use persuasion to make him stay in our world. Stahl wants to study O’Malley, sure he’ll understand something about the man’s strangely innocent power. Stahl serves a second function, too, as one of Blackwood’s theorisers, using the quasi-scientific language of early 20th century spiritualism — “fluid” or “etheric” selves, and so on — as well as his own theories of an “Urmensch” to explain in technical detail the ideas behind this novel:

“Beings,” the doctor corrected him, “not men. The prefix Ur-, moreover, I use in a deeper sense than is usually attached to it as in Urwald, Urwelt, and the like. An Urmensch in the world today must suggest a survival of an almost incredible kind—a kind, too, utterly inadmissible and inexplicable to the materialist perhaps—”

Stahl brings in the philosophy of Gustav Fechner — William James’s lecture on him, later published in A Pluralistic Universe (1909), is explicitly cited — who believed that the Earth had a collective consciousness, a sum total of all her inhabitants’, plus something extra of her own. For eyes, she has our eyes; for ears, she has our ears. And from her come not only life forms such as ourselves, but “the gods and fairies of olden time”, as “emanations of her mighty central soul”. (And Earth in turn is a “Mood in the Consciousness of the Universe, [and] that Universe again was mothered by another vaster one … and the total that included them all was not the gods—but God.”)

The rest of the novel chronicles O’Malley’s journey deeper into union with the collective consciousness of the Earth, and then his return to civilisation, to teach what he has learned, in “a crusade that should preach peace and happiness to every living creature” — though one that is, of course, doomed to failure, as are all such dreamers’ crusades.

Bocklin’s “Centaurs” (1873) is mentioned in the novel

The Centaur was, according to Mike Ashley’s biography Starlight Man, one of Blackwood’s favourite among his own novels, and “closest to his own personal outlook”. It was difficult for Blackwood to finish (he broke off halfway to write another novel, Julius LaVallon), as he wrote to a friend:

“The theme, of course, is far beyond my powers, but it flames in me with such pain that I MUST get it out as best I can.”

Blackwood’s sympathies in The Centaur are clearly with O’Malley and the Russian. While he uses Dr Stahl as a mouthpiece to explain the theory he’s propounding, he also uses him as an externalisation of that part of O’Malley that can’t quite let go of “Humanity and Civilisation”, and so is held back from complete union with that massive-souled collective consciousness, Nature.

The novel reads, in a way, like an expanded version of one of my favourite Blackwood stories, “The Touch of Pan” (1917), whose narrator is led into the woods by the simple-souled nature-loving daughter of rich parents, there to find themselves transformed before Pan. The girl in that story is called an “idiot” by her parents for her refusal to be interested in their social world. In The Centaur, Blackwood at one point mentions “Sally Beauchamp No. 4” among other examples of the mysteries of human consciousness, this being the fourth personality of a multiple-personality patient studied by Morton Prince and detailed in his The Dissociation of Personality (1906). This fourth personality of “Sally Beauchamp” was also termed “the idiot” for her unawareness of details of Sally’s everyday life. Blackwood seems to take this idea of multiple personalities, and other aspects of what would be now thought of as mental illness, as hints of the sort of “Extensions of Human Faculty” that so fascinated him.

In some ways the novel shares something with Machen’s The Hill of Dreams, both being about the inner life of an imaginative and unworldly young man that touches on the supernatural, and who ultimately comes to a sad end — unworldliness crushed by the unrelenting worldliness of the world. Mythical creatures being emanations of a collective consciousness also make me think of the mythagos as emanations of humanity’s collective unconscious in Robert Holdstock’s work. And Blackwood’s novel even has an odd sort of connection with C S Lewis’s Interplanetary Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, etc.), in that both use the idea that (as Blackwood puts it) “if the heavens really are the home of angels, the heavenly bodies must be those very angels…”

The Centaur strays some way either side of the line between the sort of too-explicit occult technicalities that can spoil Blackwood’s stories for me, and the more successful poetic dreaminess of his shorter tales, like “The Dance of Death” or “The Old Man of Visions” (both from The Dance of Death, which also contains “The Touch of Pan”). His novels are not, really, standard weird fiction fare in the way some of his stories are. In his novels, the qualities that set him apart as a writer of the supernatural are much more evident: his belief in “the Extension of Human Faculty”, and the many strange directions it might take you.

Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson, from the back of Dreaming to Some Purpose

This week I’ve mostly been reading a recently-released collection of book reviews by Colin Wilson, Existential Criticism, from Paupers Press. (If the title sounds rather dry, the contents are anything but, as I several times found myself laughing out loud.) After finding his first book, The Outsider, in a bookshop in Tunbridge Wells and buying it on an impulse, I was instantly hooked on Wilson’s writing, and went through a period of reading everything by him I could get my hands on. In those pre-internet days, when the thrill of the hunt was a large part of book collecting, this, combined with the wide range of Wilson’s interests, resulted in my reading books on subjects I’d not normally be interested in, such as serial killers (in often rather grisly detail), cult leaders, and UFOs. Then, almost as abruptly, I suddenly had my fill of Wilson, got rid of most of the books by him I’d collected, and read him no more. Or almost no more, because I’d occasionally dip in when he released a new book (I reviewed The Angry Years on this blog a few years ago), and have slowly been warming to him again. When Existential Criticism arrived in the post last Saturday, I sat down for a quick dip-in and soon found myself absorbed as I remembered all the things I’d liked about his work from before.

Colin Wilson’s writing is incredibly moreish. Every so often I go through my bookshelves, pulling off books, flipping through, and asking what it is the authors have that makes their writing work, and I always end up with a Colin Wilson book in my hand. Other writers may have a characteristic prose style, or a unique imaginative world, but Wilson writes in a straightforward manner, and his best writing is as likely to be his non-fiction as his fiction; nevertheless, he’s compulsively readable.

Existential Criticism by Colin Wilson

Why? It comes down, I think, to two things. The first is his intense interest in what he’s writing. Whatever he’s writing about, he goes at it like a hungry fox eyeing the fat rabbit on the other side of the field — wily, but determinedly singleminded. Wilson is also tremendously knowledgeable. At times, he seems to have read just about every book in existence — and not just the ones that would make him “well-read”, but the dregs, too, and read with no preconceptions, meaning he’s found value where others wouldn’t stoop to look, and been unimpressed by what others universally praise. There’s a real feeling of the stuff-of-life in Wilson’s writing. He’s willing to throw every element into the pot — and that means the tawdry, quirky, gossipy messiness of it as much as the idealistic striving. Whether he’s writing about murderers or philosophers, science or the occult, he accords it all equal value as a source of potential understanding, of ideas. (And this may be the reason he’s not as appreciated as he ought to be — his more culturally po-faced critics get embarrassed by his serious approach to things they think beneath them.) This leads to the second essential element that powers his writing, the easy-going confidence that is, perhaps, its most attractive quality.

But what was it that stopped me reading Wilson’s work? Weirdly, it’s the thing that Wilson himself would consider the most important element in his writing: the existentialism.

I don’t disagree at all with the philosophical element of Colin Wilson’s writing, which basically comes down to the idea that boredom, or the deeper feeling of purposelessness or meaninglessness, isn’t (as it was taken to be by Existentialists such as Sartre) an essential fact of human existence. It can be overcome, simply by making the effort. And the effort involves merely making yourself interested in something. The more intense the interest, the more meaningful life will seem. Wilson has obviously achieved this. Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, identifies this finding a focus in life, this creating a meaning from the inside rather than waiting for it to arrive from the outside, as a key factor determining which of his fellow-prisoners survived the concentration camps of the Second World War.

As I say, I had no problem with this idea, and was happy for Wilson to bend every subject he treated round to it, as he inevitably did, so he could rehearse its main points. I had no problems, either, with him treating the writings of the likes of Rilke or Sartre — who I haven’t read and don’t intend to — as testing grounds for his philosophy. But it started to grate when he turned his attention to writers whose work I love, and almost always found them seriously wanting. H P Lovecraft, for example, was damned pretty thoroughly in The Strength to Dream. And though Wilson was a key figure in rescuing David Lindsay‘s A Voyage to Arcturus from near-oblivion, his interpretation of Lindsay’s work has, as a result, sometimes been taken as the only interpretation, one that seems to me quite reductive, particularly when applied to Lindsay’s second novel, The Haunted Woman. All this began to grate on me, and the feeling returned when I read, in Existential Criticism (p. 57): “Borges is not a great writer because he is not a mature writer. He has remained in a kind of perpetual adolescence.”

Back when I first encountered these criticisms, I couldn’t get over them. I felt Wilson had missed the point, but overawed as I was at the time by his evident intelligence and confidence, I couldn’t bring myself to admit this. Instead, I gave up reading him. Now, though, I find it easier to simply say, “I beg to differ,” and read on, still enjoying the Wilson I used to enjoy, and taking the rest as a challenge to what I’ve since come to think. Because, yes, it’s easy to criticise Lovecraft for being a pessimist, for being overwhelmed by the threatening bleakness of the universe. And no, Lovecraft didn’t provide an answer to the existential problem of life’s apparent meaninglessness, but what he did do was encapsulate the problem in an entirely new imaginative form. This can only be regarded as a failure if you treat fiction as a form of philosophy. But I think it’s the other way round. Aesthetics contains philosophy, not vice versa. And this, I think, is one of Jorge Luis Borges’s strengths. Borges takes obscure philosophical ideas and plays with them as easily as a poet plays with words. Wilson may take this as evidence that Borges didn’t believe in anything with any conviction; I’d say it means Borges believed that the world is not one thing, with one single interpretation, but a manifold thing worthy of a million interpretations, none of which is wholly right nor wholly wrong — a multiverse rather than a universe — which is a very Borgesian idea (the Aleph, the Book of Sand, and Shakespeare’s Memory are also many-things-in-one), but also, surely, the same as the existential idea that “meaning is not in the world, but one’s head” (as my version of Alice puts it). In fact, if you want to get properly philosophical about it, it’s the idea William James (a frequent Colin Wilson touchstone) wrote about back in 1907, in A Pluralistic Universe.

In the Borges review, Wilson does go on to say that he enjoys Borges as a writer, just finds him lacking in an existentialist sense. Wilson has even dedicated a book to him (The Philosopher’s Stone), and has written stories in the Lovecraftian mode (“Return of the Lloigor”). So, I’m going to get over it, and carry on enjoying Wilson, having left him alone, I think, for too long.