Tuesday, September 27, 2016

John Milton Binckley: "A Frolic in Space. A Darwinian Forecast" (1872), Part 2

[John Milton Binckley: "A Frolic in Space. A Darwinian Forecast." Lakeside Monthly (Chicago), Volume VIII, July to December, 1872, pages 446-455. Some additional paragraph breaks added to the originals for easier reading].

The compatibility of a pride felt as superhuman, with a self-renunciation perfectly abject, became a new revelation; while shame and fear, anxious and unmitigated, alone arose from thought of myself. The impulse to approach him was irrepressible. I rejoiced in being strong enough to creep. I could not lift my eyes, but hugged his ankles with tearful fervency. 

A single reflection crossed my mind: "This is not God; yet what is man, that even this being should regard him?" I abhorred my identity, that seemed to stand between my desire and its object. Divided between dread and joy, I felt a thrill of unprecedented tenderness in every fibre, heard a sound as of speech, but charged with a transmuting pathos, and then — peace. 

Without conscious volition, I now stood erect before the benign countenance of a master of my species. No terrible brightness now repelled me from the mysterious crest, in whose panel - like openings a sweet vicissitude of aspects pleased me, while making the discovery that I was beholding a part of his natural body, the organ of a superhuman sense. I must attempt a description.

The upper rim of the arch, which was perhaps nine or ten lines above the head of man, was studded with short, lustrous, firm, slightly spiral tufts, the intervals filled with similar but shorter hair, all issuing perpendicularly to the arch, the roots veiled in continual brightness, the tufts and all diminishing on either side, from the centre, until lost, with the arch, in the mazy curls of the temples. From under this growth and the rim of the arch, pearly membranes, yet of fitful opaline tints, like distant lightnings flashing from within an evening cloud, descended to attachments hidden by the hair over the forehead.

These membranes were five in number: one in the centre, marking the face of the organ with a peculiar median line; one which shut in and sank with each extremity ; and one, on either side, between. Then there was a single transverse membrane, of similar character, shaped like a thin crescent moon, which was hung prone under the arch from end to end, over the others. Between these crosswise membranes, and formed by their state of tension, lay the mysterious openings. Their number was four, a large and a small one on each side. Their form approached an upright parallelogram, the corners more or less obtuse, according to the state of membranous contraction, with corresponding increase or diminution of size, even to complete closure.

l had frequently experienced the disgust with which the imagination recoils from its own best attempts at improving the human form by any structural addition. But the accession of beauty and dignity from the real endowment before my eyes, extinguished on the spot, in my mind forever, the fitness of a body like mine to express superior personality.

As I stood facing this sovereign of my soul and body, I was ignorant of all volition; or, if the idea remained, it was as if my will pursued rather than incited action. I engaged mechanically in sundry exercises, not prompted by any visible sign from him, who seemed to be studying me with the curiosity of a naturalist contemplating a zoological discovery. I found that an itching at my nostrils was due to the attachment to them of flexible tubes of extreme tenuity, that passed over my shoulders. My emaciation had diminished, though I was still sensible of great debility; but, besides other ills and disagreeable novelties of sensation, I was burdened with an irksome and unaccountable mechanism about my person.

A throbbing turgescence of my tongue, mouth, and lips, and, in some degree, also, in my ears, under my nails, and wherever the investing dress could not closely bind my skin, was a painful annoyance. The close fit of my goggles pinched the edges of my orbits. My respiring tubes were so fixed that I inspired through one and expired through the other, or through my mouth. But I had to tightly close the latter, in order to make an inspiration. The congested condition of my mouth prevented the possibility of that speech which I was involuntarily but violently attempting.

My master watched me closely. The awful gleam again fell on me from that organ which renders the eye, at this day, an inglorious symbol of the All-Seeing. Presently the throbbing ceased, and only a be numbed, wooden feeling, if I may call it so, remained in my organs of articulation, of which the motory action seemed perfect ; for, though l could hardly hear my own voice in that thin air, I felt myself inspired, and poured forth a stream of words. Thoughts more colossal than I could remember ever to have entertained, marched from the depths of my intellect, forth in easy utterance, in language which I conceived to be of extraordinary grace and power. I pronounced slowly, and witnessed my master silently imitating my articulation.

Presently he recited, in very inaccurate but far sweeter English than I had ever heard before, long passages of my speech. Alternate repetitions between us, rapidly brought us to tolerable agreement. During this lesson, I observed that my super human pupil, by a process of selection profoundly surprising to me, though not in kind different from transcendent instances of human sagacity, reversed the natural order of an alien pupil. He first acquired my names of Deity, of His attributes, of time, space, matter, spirit, life, death, personal identity, and the like. Finally, he astonished me by stating, in intelligible and most musical English, my own ideas, including many I had not uttered, with much of my empirical knowledge, and some of my personal history in my native world. 

I was now for the first lime permitted to behold the scenery about me. 

I looked around. The landscape might admit of partial description, but not, I am afraid, without impracticable prolixity. Clouds, slowly involving each other, lay on a plane with my feet. Earth and heaven seemed mixed. Had a sunset sky, without change of look, fallen upon the ground, or did I, in middle age, stand in the clouds, realizing the simplest and earliest of the fancies of gazing childhood?

But the texture of this mist reserved it from any of the classes which have received names through analysis of terrestrial vapors; though the chemical laboratory sometimes affords glimpses of that peculiar fluorescent yet beautifully translucent vapor, in which formless diffuseness is vaguely reconciled with a sort of crystalline effect. Here and there a kind of nucleus would give more body, shot with shadows of soft, trembling purple. On every hand, vegetable forms of diversity, equally magnificent and novel, showed through the swaying, changeful mist; a semi-transparency confounding some of them, in places, with their own shadows — others being as opaque and green as befits the flora of nature.

Colors were innumerable in contrast, but mostly indescribable by mere recourse to the primaries of the rainbow. Green mingled freely in the varied and sportive confusion of foliage, but, though lustrous, was seldom very positive. The ground was covered by what I took to be a carpet, of a pile endued with strange properties of hue and motion; but I discovered it was planted in the soil. No object was heavy or massive. Groups of trees arranged themselves here and there with the freedom of chance, yet with the striking effects of art. They were of varied altitude and style; some rising on smooth stems to a vast height. Vines sweeping in and out of the luminous dimness, as they were gently moved, showed extraordinary subtlety; some adorned with flowers, displaying, as they swung toward other objects, or under casual incidence of light, the chameleon property, in colors of infinite variety, both of hue and depth.

Far and near, no inelegant object appeared, while the exquisitely low, soft hum which penetrated to my covered ears, was spiritual in the utmost fullness of the metaphor. Fitly that music expressed the perfect immaculateness of all I saw, bringing me the painful conceit that I was myself some sole unseemly substance amidst universal purity.

The place was populous. Moving about, standing in groups, reclining on the ground, or otherwise occupied, I saw fading in the distance, multitudes of beings like my master. None were near. But in the diversity of action and position, the spectacle resembled a city scene on earth, save that there were no houses. From their heads in the distance shot now and then a delicate gleam, as a firefly's spark cleaves the twilight, but in a manner mysteriously imposing. The unknown potency awed me as I gazed. Music, unheard and unimagined before, in soft, leaping tones, broke the low, constant roar, inexpressibly hallowing to my poor human spirit.

All was motion. Tall trees slowly waved, festoons of flowery vines shifted from side to side, boughs nodded, and in the delightful miscellany of detail, everything gently palpitated through the dreamy haze. But I felt no breeze. Presently I found myself involuntarily posturing, and surrendered to the pleasing persuasion that my motions, which I performed in an elaborate, regular order, corresponded with those of visible objects, in a rhythmical series to which I shortly perceived a correspondence of the sounds also. Was this scene all delusion ? I plucked a pale flower, ruptured its stem, and picked its petals to shreds. It did not seem to evolve sap, yet something in its contact stained my vesture. l stamped the firm ground with my own foot. I was not deceived. It was enchantment made real as I stood in my flesh. I looked above.

Over all, silent, motionless, without cloud, galaxy, or nebula, the great heavens stood. The stars were not those that Abraham saw when God bade him count in the Chaldean heavens the fruition of his promise. The sky was blue. That color was the first untempered one I had seen in this marvelous world, and was positive. Yet I must be taken to be accurate in declaring that no blackness I had ever before conceived of was so dark. The great sun, of whose colossal disk I had previously acquired some notion, was not visible, but constellations of unimaginable glory strewed the darkness, without a trace of those which have blessed the meek awe of man from the beginning of the world. 

The deep of the universe seemed visibly infinite, for the sense of vastness I there acquired has ever since made heaven appear the dome it is called. Five celestial bodies in one constellation, apparently the same I had previously beheld, though standing now in different relative positions, besides two others, revealed their immense globes. But this quintuple group, a spectacle of stupendous grandeur, I must attempt to describe.

The smallest of the five seemed less than our moon, the great central one being so vast that I reckoned its apparent diameter at full five degrees, and that of its wonderful aureola at two degrees or more in addition. The next, perhaps half its size, lay upon it in occultation — infancy and maturity, the earliest and greatest of allegories, worshipped even yet in the world. Behind the central globe again another was half disclosed, while the fourth stood apart. Across the whole an eclipse was creeping, the shadow already covering one third of the central body and half of the one which lay upon her bosom.

The illuminated part of the great orb was white as our moon, but with a metallic burnish which quite supplanted her as the silvery orb. It was the shaded part, however, that seized me with a spell. Within it, the great white moon, elsewhere without spot, disclosed that fortuitous mixture of all shapes which constructive imagination delights in, with a disorder so complete as to make a chaos of form infinitely perfect as such, wherein, with a startling though transitory fidelity, I saw my every thought figured. 

If aught could augment this splendor, it was color. Within the shadow, the hue was purple, bright, clear, yet low in tone at the penumbra on the great white face, high where it contrasted with the dark spectral gray of the near orb, of which the illuminated part again was dark, compared with the glittering silver of the great orb.

These effects were, without being obscured, further complicated by the most magnificent and astonishing of all these splendors — the wonderful aureola. It was serrated, as if concentric circles had been crossed by radii of something obeying some law of unequal but regular emission, by which groups of them shot into space beyond the average distance; and some law of refraction by which their radiance flashed into sight only on a line at right angles to the line of vision. So the mediaeval [medieval] astrologers, borrowing from a forgotten lore the imagery only of some lost theory of physics, figured the sun.

[To be continued]. 

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