Thursday, March 17, 2016

Guest Post: Machen’s Teilo in “The Tree of Life” and the Talosian Situation by Dale Nelson

In the Star Trek pilot “The Cage,” a spaceship crashed and only a child survived.  Inhabitants of Talos IV raised the girl, Vina, as well as they could, but she is severely maimed.  However, thanks to their powers of illusion, she can seem, to herself and others, young and lissome.  Given the chance to leave the planet with the crew of the Enterprise, which would mean losing her dream of health and beauty, Vina chooses to stay on Talos.  The captain, the only member of the crew who is aware of the situation, agrees with her choice.

In Machen’s 1936 tale “The Tree of Life,” Teilo Morgan had a few boyhood years of health in the Welsh hills, but he’s stricken by sudden illness and becomes an invalid and recluse.  Teilo’s father had been a rakehell before he discovered the young girl he took to himself and on whom he fathered the boy.  Years later, an elderly clubman remembers him mourning his innocent son’s plight; “’He used to talk about his sins finding him out.’”

Teilo suffers mental impairment as well as ruined physical health.  At his father’s direction, the boy’s tutor “teaches” him in such a way that learning is a delight, even if riddled with error.  However, when the father dies, it turns out that the boy’s mother has no proof of marriage, and she and her son end up in a London slum.  Later, Harry Morgan, who inherits the property, tracks them down, not in time to save the mother’s life, but bringing Teilo back to Wales, and instructing the estate agent, Captain Vaughan, to keep him in the illusion that he is lord of the property and to encourage him in his fanciful notions about agricultural improvement.  Teilo loves thinking of clever innovations that will benefit everyone in the area, e.g. relating to growing pineapples, and talking his ideas over on Vaughan’s weekly visits.  Vaughan plays his role right up to Teilo’s death, conjuring vivid images of the land round about, which Teilo relishes.  (One thinks of the dog in Ray Bradbury’s “The Emissary.”)  The story ends with a strong affirmation of Vaughan and Morgan’s compassionate deception, voiced by a major who has listened to the story.

The Star Trek pilot and “The Tree of Life” make a strong emotion-based case to justify deception.  The utilitarian principle implied: Lying is justified when it promotes the happiness of someone evidently incurably doomed otherwise to misery.  But “hard cases make bad laws.”  Is the principle really just?  There are several objections to be made.

First, in The Abolition of Man C. S. Lewis demonstrated the existence of a perennial and transcultural moral awareness, which he called the Tao.  Lewis’s short book is a defense of the natural law.  The Tao forbids lying. 

Second, before one assents to the utilitarian principle just stated, one should ask: Whom would you trust to decide for you whether you should know the truth or be deceived?  How painful does the situation have to be in order to “justify” lying?   These who and how questions are only two of the questions that proliferate if one allows the principle and wishes to implement it.  Vina, at least, did know the truth eventually, and chose the easier way.  Teilo never was allowed to choose.  His guardians might reply that no choice was possible: once he was told the truth, he could not recover the happy illusion as Vina could.  But isn’t pity for him overriding considerations of his dignity as he is deceived?  His guardians might respond that Teilo didn’t have the mental capacity to assess the situation.  At any rate he didn’t have the opportunity, so we’ll never know what capacity he might have demonstrated, or might have developed, to deal with reality.  Most of his life will have been spent in a “cage” created by others who have made assumptions about him that he never had the chance to challenge.

Third, one may ask: cui bono?  who again is it who benefits here?  In “The Cage,” it transpires that Vina’s benefactors are also voyeurs, highly intellectual telepaths who are gratified by vicariously savoring the passions of their subjects when they believe they are fighting enemies or enjoying erotic embraces.  Telepathy doesn’t come into the story of Vaughan and Teilo, but is at least part of the appeal of the deceiving of Teilo the appeal of convenience, thus not so much a matter of disinterested kind-heartedness as it seems?  If Teilo is happy in his delusion, he will be more manageable than he might be if here were not deluded.  (Of course, Harry Morgan and Captain Vaughan cannot really know how Teilo would have responded to the truth, or if his response to it would have been the same from one year to another.)  

Also: the story leads us to be confident that Morgan’s and Vaughan’s wishes are for Teilo’s happiness; they wish to make the best of a rotten situation for Teilo’s sake.  Yet it may be pointed out that neither of them doubts that Teilo genuinely is his father’s son.  True, as (possibly) a bastard, Teilo’s legal claim to the estate may be uncertain.  Indeed, in court an attorney might argue successfully that Teilo has no legal rights vis-à-vis the estate at all, since his mother’s marriage is (so far!) undocumented; why, “anybody” could be Teilo’s father!  But Harry Morgan evidently can have no doubt that on the point of paternity, Teilo is the heir, not himself.  The arrangement shown in the story lets Morgan enjoy ownership of the property without the inconveniences of possible legal inquiry.  The fact is that (from motives of admirable compassion) he has appointed himself the invalid’s guardian.  But a court could determine that there’s a conflict of interest here, and also that a determined search should be made for possible documentation of Teilo’s parents being married after all.  (“’I fancy the truth was that [Teilo’s parents] were married in some forgotten little chapel up in the mountains by a hedge preacher or somebody of that kind, who didn’t know enough to get in the registrar.’”)  The agreement between Harry Morgan and Captain Vaughan implies that any such search will not be made.

(By the way, readers who haven’t traipsed the story’s location can trace some places in the story by perusing the 1:25,000 topographic British Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 152 Newport & Pontypool.)

© 2016 Dale Nelson

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