Monday, September 26, 2016

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

[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].

SOME years since, Dr. H., Professor of Chemistry and Toxicology in one of the foremost institutions of Edinburgh, a position to which his extraordinary talents had advanced him while yet quite young, surprised the outer world by suddenly retiring into solitude and obscurity at the very time when an illustrious career seemed opening before him. Various causes were surmised for this strange arrest of a brilliant progress, but the world remained ignorant of the facts; while the unhappy Professor's learned associates, to whom the case had no mystery, guarded the melancholy truth with the affectionate solicitude of hope for their gifted friend's revival. But they were disappointed. He died in a few years, leaving papers showing an experience which must have been one of the most thrilling and marvelous ever recorded.

In the following pages, we give some remarkable passages from this strange record, comprising conceptions of striking and wonderful originality. Prof. H's chemical researches had been most zealous and successful in the line of the narcotics and stimulants, and in common with Turner, Johnston, and others, his efforts compassed the detection of the chemical constitution of the ultimate substances or essences at the very verge of the mind.

Physiologists know that it is our own organs that mysteriously distill the subtle liquor that can alter the current of thought, etc., the office performed by the opium or the alcohol being only to incite the process in our bodies. To isolate and decompose this occult substance was Prof. H's known object. He had accepted the startling conclusion that a control over the conditions and quantity of this substance in the brain would give a control over the character, affections, opinions, religious faith, etc., of the subject; because all the operations of the mind normally derive their complexion from it. It is the pivot of the personality.

That control, he thought, the individual might attain, if, by being acquainted with the chemistry of the substance, he could influence its quality and quantity. Under the guidance of these fearful speculations, he became absorbed in experiments of the most complex and delicate character, upon the living organism; besides subjecting in turn every known narcotic agent to exhaustive analysis. At length he became satisfied that he was on the confines of the great discovery — an opinion which, it is said, many of the ablest savants shared; having ascertained how, as it were, to interpose an agent of his will between the mind and its physical basis.

But the awful consequences of his success were wholly unlooked for; viz.: The relation being broken between the mind and its physical basis — in part only, it is true — the unfortunate discoverer could no longer distinguish between ideas and facts. The rational faculty was entirely unaffected; but between premises superinduced and those normally arising from external impression, there remained no power of discrimination. In this deplorable condition, Prof. H recorded his experiences; nothing having been strong enough to detach him from an illusory creation which he made and kept up by his own will alone.

With this brief explanation, we proceed with the Professor's own record:

I was awakened by agony of some kind; then relapsed into a vague sense of numbness, with intervals of total unconsciousness. These diminished, until there came a continuous but variable aching, so obscure, however, that I was able only to realize a doubt whether or not I was dreaming. Next, though still very imperfectly, came a notion of something fearful, like a dissolving or disintegrating that the will might resist, and I have a comparatively clear recollection of my effort to do it. My sensations were strangely mixed and indefinite. A dull coldness began to pronounce itself, followed by a faint din in my ears and colored rings and spots in my sight. But all my notions were more or less blended and obscure.

Soon the relations of things began to revive; and with a clearer self-consciousness I distinctly felt cold and other suffering. Something horrible oppressed me, which I perceive it is nonsense to call by the fittest phrase I can frame — a fluctuant idea of death.

Gradually dim light came, while my distress somewhat diminished, and with it a constant and not unmusical roar. Cramps began to assail me, with a sensation of nervous twitches in various parts of my body. I got warmer, however, and taking up the opinion that I was suffering an attack of nightmare, reflected with relief that such were considered harmless.

My breathing was labored, and soon alarming palpitations, alternating with apparently total cessations of the heart's motion, renewed my terror. Meantime my sight improved, and naturally the first object that engaged it was my own suffering body. I found myself in the recumbent position, back and head slightly raised, and perfectly naked. Increasing light shocked me at the extreme emaciation of my usually robust frame, to which respiration communicated a ghastly, galvanized motion. Nevertheless, my skin appeared to have the exquisite roseate hue and tender texture of a babe's.

Looking about in my wonder, l saw no object in the dimness but several open tubes rising on either side near to me, while, instead of the walls and furniture of my bed-chamber, and the "Immaculate Conception" from Murillo, which should have hung to my right hand, nothing was in sight but a wide, silky looking, grayish sheet, through which the tubes protruded. On this I lay, slightly shaking it as I breathed. I looked above; but the spectacle there was so astonishing that I was convinced it was a dream, and that the matin kiss of my little daughter — my accustomed call to the day — would soon awaken me to love and joy. But this was transitory.

The growing light testified, and my eyes revolted, against my reason. I saw above me an unheard of sky. It was real. A constellation, consisting of one great orb with a strangely notched halo, and four smaller ones near it, glittered in silver splendor from the darkness. Two immense but less brilliant crescents adorned other quarters of the sky.

My eyes shrank from the now greatly increasing light. At length, opening them an instant and looking, as I lay, backward over my brows, they shut against an overwhelming radiance. The impression on my closed eyes was painful, its inconstancy not correctly indicating size, but the tremendous enormity of the segment painted on the retina constrained me to imagine a sun whose whole apparent diameter in the heavens would occupy seven or eight degrees!

Light and heat intensified, and I became more acutely miserable. Racking cramps, involuntary twitchings, fitful pulsation, hiccoughs, etc., tormented me. Perspiration came to my relief. After what seemed a long, confused dream, I opened my eyes with comparative impunity. I tried my voice, and was surprised to find by its reverberations, and by familiar optical effects, that I was not in the open air, but in what seemed a large transparent sphere; I attempted to touch the hammock or sheet on which I lay, and found it had the extraordinary property of repelling contact, as if some palpable but invisible elastic medium interposed between its surface and my finger. I felt a welcome languor subduing me, and the last thing l recollect is a slight sense of hunger.

When I awoke, it was to but a partial consciousness. I felt myself comfortably covered, and assuming all I have described to have been the troubled dream of a night now past, I sank into delicious listlessness. That pleasing confusion of reflection with imagery which constitutes the familiar but mysterious phenomenon of reverie (as far as my own experience responds to the word ) was happily upon me, with all its exquisite interchange of attributes of things without consciousness of inconsistency, and its subtle, note less music. 'This indulgence had been a forbidden bliss for years. Now, l abandoned myself once more to the sweet beatitude of my musing youth. But the melody was getting insensible and therefore incomparably grosser sweetness. It grew louder. I opened my eyes, and was astounded.

Before me stood a being who, I instantly saw, did not belong to the earth. He was not my fellow man, for the ideal highest in my imagination fell short of such manhood as this. He was sublime; formed, nevertheless, as he seemed, to human type, though visibly glorified by a distinct emanation in the nature of light. His reality was too obvious to admit the most transient suspicion of optical error, or that he was not as material as I was. His garb, of which I observed mostly the general effect of simplicity and grandeur, was composed out of picturesque arrangements of drapery in different thicknesses of a translucent, lustrous stuff, artfully and unequally distributed so as to produce a changeful variety of hues by a constantly changing accumulation in spots of the transmitted light. 

These colors were so tempered that I could have given no name to any of them, though they contrasted in all their variety with the boldness of those of the spectrum. As a whole, the dress was unlike in design all the typical costumes of nations or the ideal drapery of classic art. The neck, and half way thence to either shoulder, the throat, and breast down to the edge over the pit of the stomach, were bare, the exposed part of the bosom being triangular, with the acute point down, where a blazing gem, curiously wrought, violet in color, but with an aureate burnish, seemed contrived as a fastening for the whole. His right arm and leg were less draped than their fellows, and all his limbs were neatly covered, including hands and feet, with a sheeny, pellucid, adhering fabric, of faint, changeable color, supplemented in the soles and palms with some more opaque and firm but compressible lining. 

A very abundant beard, in shining, irregular ringlets, fine and soft as the curls of infancy, rolled down a breast of warm, living white, fairer, I was going to say, than Eve shrinking from the zephyr that made her first breath. After this, I cannot describe the hair — flowing in profuse but studied freedom about the neck of this godlike being, exposing his temples by insensible gradations, and hovering vague on his shoulder like a morning cloud on a white peak.

His stature seemed exalted above man; yet taking size from symmetry and from apparent dimensions of features and limbs, he was hardly as tall as I, and not of half my weight. His frame in general and in detail, even to the half concealed nails of hands and feet, was slighter and more refined than that of any earthly woman; yet the figure plainly indicated within, the firm, articulated skeleton, and was strikingly masculine; revealing in every motion the muscular energy of instinct manhood, tense yet elastic, graceful and powerful. But these particulars must be forborne for something yet more wonderful.

The head of this marvelous being towered higher than that of man, and more abundantly emitted something like a slight phosphorescence, which surrounded his whole body, brightening almost to a flash when he moved. Upon his head, between the vertex and brow, was situated a glorious and almost indescribable object. It was like a coronal, chaplet, or crest, of in conceivable majesty and splendor. I have observed, in the art of mankind, as it may be studied in the archaeological affluence of modern antiquaries, a significant uniformity in the tendency to introduce upon that part of the human head something in the nature of a crest or chaplet of gems, or of stellar or foliate design, whenever, and only when, from the nature of his subject, the effort of the artist was to endow his production with a superhuman dignity. 

In the actual head before me, the crest, if I may so call it, emerged from the hair of the temples, advancing and rising, bolder and broader, until, in the middle, it stood high above and back of the forehead. In its facade, square-like openings seemed windows of glory. I could not then closely scrutinize this amazing object, dazzled by a flickering, flashing radiance, at tended with a mysterious awe in my very soul's seat. 

No inorganic substances I am acquainted with could possibly manifest, by pyrotechnic skill or otherwise, such properties — such trembling, softening, palpitating, beautiful, and terrible light. I dared a bolder inspection: a gleam smote me down like a blast from Deity. 

In blindness and terror, I tried to ask myself whether I was not under some resplendent but fearful hallucination. But I could not think. Among a few distorted, swift, and tumultuous ideas and emotions, as I lay, one new, mighty, and overwhelming desire absorbed me. With mingled terror and delight, I suffered myself to be transported by this powerful desire. It was toward the awful and beautiful being before me: it was love.

[To be continued]

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