Saturday, April 16, 2016

Guest Post: Arthur Machen: Ants and Abysses by Dale Nelson

 “I want to show him a new abyss.” -- Pascal

In Orson Welles’ The Third Man, the corrupt and nihilistic Harry Lime, looking down from the top of a Ferris wheel, sees men as being like mere ants.  In Lafcadio Hearn’s “Dream of Akinosuke” and in Machen’s “Dr. Duthoit’s Vision,” ants are seen as men or as like men.  The espionage movie and the two weird tales jostle our habitual perspective.

In Machen’s brief tale, Duthoit, clergyman, bookworm, and rose grower, had befriended the young Machen and remained in touch as the latter became a middle-aged man.  Alluding in passing to his World War I-era composition “The Bowmen,” Machen says that the elderly Dr. Duthoit wrote to him about his own strange wartime experience.

An exasperated Duthoit had been staring at the mess of miniature “hills and valleys” that had replaced his beautifully level garden plot.  As he peered intently, he realized that the plot had been transformed into a bizarre  miniature of the Gallipoli peninsula.  Duthoit saw red ants fighting black ants across what seemed to be hill-ranges and precipices.  Individual ants committed seeming acts of heroism.  Then Duthoit was called away.  Later, he returned to the scene to find that the gardener had raked up a lot of dead ants.

Duthoit ended his letter with a Latin sentence meaning “That which is above is as that which is below.”  Machen muses that the Great War then raging “is a world battle in the sense which we do not appreciate.  There have been some who have held that the earthly conflict is but a reflection of the war in heaven.  What if it be reflected infinitely, if it penetrate to the uttermost depths of creation?  And if a speck of dust be a cosmos – the universe – of revolving worlds?  There may be battles between creatures that no microscope shall ever discover.”

The Pensées of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) contain a memorable passage that is virtually an expansion of Machen’s final paragraph, without Machen’s focus on war.  Pascal provokes our wonder as follows (from Krailsheimer’s translation, Penguin Classics, 1966, pp. 89-90):

Let man….contemplate the whole of nature in her full and lofty majesty, let him turn his gaze from the lovely objects around him; let him behold the dazzling light set like an eternal lamp to light up the universe, let him see the earth as a mere speck compared to the vast orbit described by this star, and let him marvel at finding this vast orbit itself no more than the tiniest point compared to that described by the stars revolving in the firmament.  But if our eyes stop there, let our imagination proceed further; it will grow weary of conceiving things before nature tires of producing them.  …Nature is an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere.  In short it is the greatest perceptible mark of God’s omnipotence that our imagination should lose itself in that thought.

Let man, returning to himself, consider what he is in comparison with what exists; let him regard himself as lost, and from this little dungeon, in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him learn to take the earth, its realms, its cities, its houses and himself at their proper value.

What is a man in the infinite?

But, to offer him a prodigy equally astounding, let him look into the tiniest things he knows.  Let a mite show him in its minute body incomparably more minute parts, legs with joints, veins in its legs, blood in the veins, humours in the blood, drops in the humours, vapours in the drops; let him divide these things still further until he has exhausted his powers of imagination, and let the last thing he comes down to now be the object of our discourse.  He will perhaps think that this is the ultimate of minuteness in nature.

I want to show him a new abyss.  I want to depict to him not only the visible universe, but all the conceivable immensity of nature enclosed in this miniature atom.  Let him see there an infinity of universes, each with its firmament, its planets, its earth, in the same proportions as in the visible world, and on that earth animals, and finally mites, in which he will find again the same results as in the first; and finding the same thing yet again in the others without end or respite, he will be lost in such wonders, as astounding in their minuteness as the others in their amplitude.  For who will not marvel that our body, a moment ago imperceptible in a universe, itself imperceptible in the bosom of the whole, should now be a colossus, a world, or rather a whole, compared to the nothingness beyond our reach?  Anyone who considers himself in this way will be terrified at himself, and, seeing his mass, as given him by nature, supporting him between these two abysses of infinity and nothingness, will tremble at these marvels. …For, after all, what is man in nature?  A nothing compared to the infinite, a whole compared to the nothing, a middle point between all and nothing, infinitely remote from an understanding of the extremes; the end of things and their principles are unattainably hidden from him in impenetrable secrecy.

In short -- Omnia exeunt in mysterium, as Machen was given to recalling.

Pascal’s word (as translated by Krailsheimer) colossus in this particular context will have reminded some readers of Donald Wandrei’s Astounding story from 1934, “Colossus.”  That “thought experiment” story, in turn, provided some inspiration for C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce; Lewis is certainly thinking of that story when he acknowledges his debt to American “scientifiction.”  In Lewis’s book, hell exists, but as something smaller than a pebble relative to our universe, and as scarcely a point relative to heaven.


“Dr. Duthoit’s Vision” is also known as “The Little Nations.”  It should be noted that Machen speculates about an infinite series of worlds, in all of which, perhaps, war is occurring, with each world in the series reflecting “war in haven” – which is on a different plane.  Lewis seems to imagine one “series” in which hell is at one extreme, as close to nonentity as possible, and heaven at the other, a sublime plenitude of being, with this terrene existence in a qualitative “midpoint” between them.  But Lewis expressly says, in his preface, that he is writing a fantasy and that he is not attempting to satisfy curiosity about the facts of the afterlife.  The Wandrei-Lewis connection is discussed in my article "A 'Scientifiction' Source for Lewis' The Great Divorce."  CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society 36 [sic; actually 37]:3 (May-June 2006; Whole Number 413): 18.

© 2016 Dale Nelson

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting article on cosmicism; you have given me new recommendations for reading. Man truly is nothing to the infinite nothingness of the universe.