02 November 2012

West of the Moon, East of the Sun

Charles Morgan (1894-1958) was a writer who expressed a kind of psychology that is suppressed or outcast in the modern world. This comes across most clearly in his novel Sparkenbroke, published in 1936.

There is a sense of incalculable possibility that human psychology may lead to something different, which was also expressed by J.R.R. Tolkien in a poem in The Lord of the Rings, and by H.G. Wells in his short story The Door in the Wall.

As Tolkien’s poem1 puts it,
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.
In H.G. Wells’s story, a boy finds a door which leads into an enchanted garden, and throughout his life is haunted by glimpses of it, but is always prevented from entering by some urgent consideration of his normal life.

The following extract2 from Charles Morgan’s Sparkenbroke shows that in 1936 it was not yet unfashionable to admire genius, nor to entertain ideas about the possibilities of human psychology, which now might be called ‘elitist’.
“Do you remember where Lord Sparkenbroke wrote this?” [Mary] asked, and quoted his words. [“The gods offer their own nature to all of us, but only a god knows how to accept.”]

[The Rector] said at last, answering her unspoken question … “When he says that the gods offer their own nature to all of us, he’s writing what most people will deny. They deny the offer because they can’t bear to remember their refusal of it; but I think it’s true that the offer is made. I know it was made to me. There was a moment in my life when I was capable of changing my nature, perhaps of becoming a saint. It was partly my curiosity for mankind, and partly – by an odd paradox – my love of it, that prevented me, and instead of a saint made new I became what you see – a scholar, something of a pedant; a parish priest, a little puffed up by the simplicity of my life; not a failure, not unhappy, but not what Piers [Sparkenbroke] calls ‘a god.’ ‘Only a god ... knows how to accept.’ It’s a hard saying, and harder for Piers than for the rest of us; he knows how to accept but cannot. The offer was made to him when he was a child. It is made to him continually, it is always open to him – that’s the meaning of genius. But because his genius and his life are incomplete he can’t fully accept.”

“But everyone?” she said. “He – yes. And you. But everyone?” … He said instantly: “I think so. To me it’s one of the Christian evidences, though Piers wouldn’t see it as such. Everyone – usually when very young – goes through a kind of spiritual crisis. It varies greatly in intensity and it arises in form with the temper of the age, but in its essence the thing doesn’t change. Sick of a world seemingly stuck fast in the mud of human nature, the young man believes, in certain instants, that he alone has wings. In those instants, he does indeed possess them. He has power to tread the air as St. Peter the water. He cries out, like St. Paul, ‘Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ and for answer, the gods, as Piers says, offer their nature to him. No one knew this better than Paul himself, but even he couldn’t accept fully, even his great genius was incomplete. And the rest of us? In the very impulse of flight the young man remembers the earth and fears it and desires what he fears. …

We turn away because we have not yet power to cast off our own natures, and are, as it were, stagnant, standing apart from that principle of energy, of movement, of perpetual becoming which, as Heraclitus conceived of it, is an essential principle of the universe:

Man is a king in exile.
All his greatness
Consists in knowledge of that Kingdom lost
Which, in degree of quickness, is his fate
And character on earth.
We are in exile. We have lost our power to ‘become’ because we haven’t the genius to die and be reborn – that is Piers’s idea. If the genius of death fail us while we live; if – as he puts it – we can’t die of ourselves; if we’re so weak that we can’t seize any of the opportunities of transcendence, then death itself will accomplish what we cannot, endowing us with the resurrection.” …

And, pursuing the line of his own thought, he began to speak to her of Voltaire and of the value of scepticism in driving faith back upon its sources.
Sparkenbroke was published about twenty years before the onset of the oppressive (Welfare) state in 1945, at which time Morgan appears still to have been a well known, prestigious and even fashionable writer. When I was at Somerville some ten years later, he was still well known: other undergraduates had heard of him and had opinions about some of his books. But by now the opinions were becoming dismissive. He was not down-to-earth; what he wrote was divorced from real life.

Any idea of relating human life to something beyond itself had become annoying, and was treated with hostility.

I aroused hostility myself, partly no doubt on account of my high IQ, but also in part because my motivation was driven by internal determinants, not by a wish to comply with social pressures.

Mary Adams of the BBC, atheist socialist, and friend of the Principal of Somerville (who was also an atheist and a socialist) said, when I mentioned Morgan’s name, that he was ‘insanely Christian’. My own drive to get on with doing research was also ascribed by her to pathological psychology. I was supposedly ‘schizoid’ and ‘reclusive’. She said of me that I wanted to do research ‘not for any sensible reason, but because she thinks she is divinely suited to it’.

Before the onset of egalitarian ideology, an interest in transcending normal experience was not associated with social dysfunctionality. The man in H.G. Wells’s story, for example, who is haunted by the memory of his door in the wall, is a successful politician and Cabinet Minister.

Nowadays, any motivation other than that of social conformity is automatically diagnosed as pathological and ‘autistic’.

1. The Return of the King, George Allen & Unwin, 1955, p.308
2. Sparkenbroke, Macmillan, 1936, pp.284-287