Sunday, May 8, 2016

Guest Post: Machen, Kipling, and Two English Ladies at Versailles: Stories Not Quite Told, by Dale Nelson

Spiritualism is never a wise and wholesome business.  I think of the career of Israel’s King Saul or my family’s unpleasant Auntie Pete.  In Machen’s “The Exalted Omega” (1936), the cheating medium, Mrs. Ladislaw, with her “black and greasy hair done in a sort of structure on top of her head,” and her ever more downscale clients, are duper and duped; and then things get worse.  She writes without her will being in control and endures racking, shaming seizures.  The women of the séance group have to look after her.

However, “The Exalted Omega” is evidently not a weird story about spiritualistic “contacts from beyond the grave” although that’s how it might look to the casual reader.  It seems to me less interesting if that is how it is read.

For one thing, the story’s early references to the seemingly paranormal experiences of the two English ladies at Versailles become irrelevant, if we are to take it that “The Exalted Omega” is simply a ghost story in which the dead Mr. Mansel fumblingly tried to communicate a clue about a murder, based on things he had psychically overheard while alive, to the hapless fraudster Mrs. Ladislaw.  If Machen wanted to write a ghost story, Mansel’s own bizarre experiences prior to his death could have been replaced with one conventional scene in which he overhears the plotters.  And why should he, after his death, attempt to communicate with Mrs. Ladislaw?  If Machen had wanted to write a thriller about a ghost informing someone about a successful poisoning attempt, why emphasize that she is a fake?

It seems the story is actually about people having “transference” experiences that suggest ordinary ways of thinking about time and thought are inadequate.   At least for the purposes of this story, Machen took the experiences of the two English ladies to have been real apprehensions of a late eighteenth-century scene.

Four people engage our interest in “The Exalted Omega.”  The two English ladies walked into their disorienting episode at the Petit Trianon and saw Marie Antoinette and other elegant people dressed according to a bygone fashion; Mr. Mansel slipped from lonely reverie into “out of body” experiences that led up to a “glare of light” and a feeling of disorientation; and fraudulent Mrs. Ladislaw was wrung out by agonizing and evidently humiliating fits, during which she experienced a peculiar mental state.   It seems that Mansel’s inadvertent psychic eavesdropping on two people plotting murder is the content of thought that is transferred to Mrs. Ladislaw. 

This involves a garbled quotation from Shakespeare.  Why?  Here I speculate.  It appears that when Mansell “overheard” the plotters, he was reminded of something he’d read, “the potent poison quite o’ercrows my spirit” (Hamlet V:2).  Mrs. Ladislaw, who though a bogus medium is, like Mansell, “receptive” to thought-impressions, receives something of his lingering thought-cluster, scribbles an approximation of the quotation, and draws the monogram, based on Greek Ω and perhaps resembling the Roman letter M for “Mansell,”  with which Mansell had marked his library of indifferent editions of good authors.  Perhaps the story suggests that strong thought-impressions may exist as data independent of the persons who originally thought them, and may register in the consciousnesses of others sooner or later, in a situation analogous to that by which radio waves that have left the earth continue to travel in space.  But I haven’t accounted for everything in this story, which is one that readers must work out for themselves.  Perhaps some Wormwoodiana readers will set out their own readings of “The Exalted Omega.” 

That Shakespeare-quotation element reminds one of Kipling’s well-known story “’Wireless,’” in which conditions, by accident, were just right for an unpoetic but lovesmitten and consumptive young man to tune in on Keats’s composition of “The Eve of St. Agnes,” written while the poet, infected with tuberculosis, was in love with Fanny Brawne.  Kipling’s Mr. Shaynor is a young drugstore chemist in love with the unworthy Fanny Brand.  He  begins to write down phrases, recognizable to readers of “The Eve,” but not to himself.  Most readers will prefer the sympathetic and clever Kipling story to Machen’s piece, which may owe something to it.  The perfunctory murder plot in Machen’s story, which involves ptomaine poisoning, seems like something borrowed from a mystery magazine of the time.

Had Machen picked up something of the elusive narrative style that Kipling occasionally employed (though not particularly in “’Wireless’”)?  C. S. Lewis (in “Kipling’s World”) said that sometimes a Kipling story may have been pared down too much, so that in its final form it is “not quite told.” As an example, Lewis cited the notorious “Mrs. Bathurst,” which appears shortly after “’Wireless’” in the Traffics and Discoveries collection (1904).  “I still do not know exactly what happened in ‘Mrs. Bathurst,’” Lewis confessed.  Readers of “The Exalted Omega” may agree with the narrator’s concluding reference to lingering “difficulties and obscurities,” some of which I haven’t mentioned.
An Adventure (1911 and subsequent editions) by the Misses Jourdain and Moberly (“Morison” and “Lamont”) was once a favorite of readers interested in the paranormal.  Their Versailles experience was subjected to gentle debunking in Dame Joan Evans’s “An End to An Adventure:  Solving the Mystery of the Trianon” in Encounter for Oct. 1976, pp. 33-47.  A noted historian, Dr. Evans knew the two ladies well and they gave Evans the copyright of their book.  After their deaths, she declined to authorize further reprints, although she was certain they had never intended to deceive their readers.

Intriguing use of an interpenetrating times-theme is made in Eugene Vodolazkin’s superlative Laurus (English translation 2015), which would be my nomination for a Mythopoeic Society award for adult fiction.

Evans’s article is available online here.  

© 2016 Dale Nelson

1 comment:

  1. The remarkable thing about the Exalted Omega, if i remember correctly, is that the first part describes Mansell's ghostly state with a close third-person narration, while the rest is a clear testimony/account, which has always led me to infer that the tale was somehow a vindication of the fiction writer's craft which, through artifice and imagination, arrives at a more complete picture of the truth than the materialistic/scientific approach (albeit of the psychic variety). Of course it is doubtful that Machen himself would agree with such a metatextual interpretation, but as the author of The White People at least, he was, after all, somewhat of a closet Modernist...Another interpretation might be that surely Machen knew and loved his Scripture enough to use the Omega less lightly than implied by the text, so the Omega, exalted, also signifies Mansell's deeds in death being of more importance or consequence than those during his life? Spirit, raised above Matter?
    Well, just my two cents'.