Friday, December 9, 2016
Life after Death in Supernatural Fiction by Dorothy Scarborough 1917
Life after Death in Supernatural Fiction by Dorothy Scarborough 1917
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Mankind is immensely interested in heaven and hell, though he knows but little concerning these places. But man is a born traveler and gives much thought to distant countries, whether he definitely expects to go there or not. This interest is no new thing, for classical mythology is full of doleful accounts of the after life. The early English stage represented heaven and hell in addition to the earth, and Elizabethan drama shows many references to the underworld, with a strong Senecan influence. There are especially frequent allusions to certain famous sufferers in Hades, as Ixion, Tantalus, Sisyphus, and Tityus. Modern English fiction has likewise been influenced by the epic supernaturalism, reflecting the heaven and hell of Dante and Milton. Yet as in his own thinking each person lays out a Celestial City for himself and pictures his own inferno to fit his ideas of mercy and justice, peopling them with appropriate beings, changing and coloring the conceptions of Bunyan, for instance, to suit his own desires, so it is in fiction. Some think of heaven and hell as definite places, while to others they are states of mind. To some the devil is as real as in the darkey folk-song, where,
“Up stepped de debbil
Wid his iron wooden shubbil,
Tearin’ up de yearth wid his big-toe nail!”
while to others he is an iconoclastic new thought. Heaven and hell have been treated in every conceivable way in English fiction—conventionally, symbolically, humorously, and satirically, so that one may choose the type he prefers. There are enough kinds to go around.
Among the portrayers of the traditional heaven and hell Mrs. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward is prominent. Her works on contemporary immortality are said to have had a tremendous vogue in the period following the Civil War, when death had claimed so many that the living were thinking of the other world more than of this. Her pictures of heaven in Gates Ajar are comforting, for she assures to each person his own dearest wish in fulfillment, to the ambitious youth his books, to the young girl her piano, and to the small child her ginger-snaps instead of earthly bread and butter. In The Gates Between the physician, suddenly killed, finds himself embarrassed by immortality. He doesn’t know how to adjust himself to eternity and at first brings many of earth’s problems with him. In the third of the series, The Gates Beyond, she describes a very material yet spiritual heaven. Bodies are much like those on earth, not vaporous projections; there are museums, hospitals, universities, telephones, concerts and all up-to-date improvements and conveniences. The dead woman discovers that she remembers what she read on earth, takes pleasure in simple things such as the smell of mignonette, hears the birds sing a Te Deum, while a brook and a bird sing a duet, and the leaves are also vocal. There is a Universal Language which must be learned by each soul, and heaven holds all sorts of occupations, material, mental, and spiritual. She says that near earth are many earth-bound spirits occupied in low and coarse and selfish ways, who lack “spiritual momentum to get away.” “They loved nothing, lived for nothing, believed in nothing, they cultivated themselves for nothing but the earth,”—which may be compared with the state of the souls on Fifth Avenue, described by Granville Barker.
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Mrs. Ward’s pictures of heaven may seem sentimental and conventional to us to-day, yet to be appreciated they must be considered in relation to the religious thought of her time. She represented a reaction against the rigid theology, the stern concepts of an older generation than her own, and she wished to make heaven more homelike. She did have an influence in her day, as may be illustrated by a remark from a sermon recently delivered by a New York pastor, that the reading of her books had exerted a great influence over him, that they made heaven over for him.
Mrs. Oliphant is another of the conductors of fictive Cook’s tours through heaven and hell, after the fashion started by Dante and Milton, and modernized by Mrs. Ward. She devotes volumes to describing the future worlds in their relation to mortal destiny. One story tells of a soul that comes back from purgatory to be comforted by the old minister and sent away happy; another is the account of a spirit returning from heaven to right a wrong that her husband is doing another. Still another gives the experiences of a woman who is distressed when she finds herself in heaven, because she has hidden her will and her young niece is thereby left penniless, but she asks advice of various celestial authorities and finally succeeds in returning to earth and righting matters. A Beleaguered City is a peculiar story of a French town besieged by the dead, who drive out the inhabitants because of their cruelty toward some nuns. A strange gloom pervades the place, the cathedral bells ring of themselves, and flaming signs appear on the church doors, till after much penance the citizens are allowed to return and the invading hosts from eternity withdraw. In one story, Mrs. Oliphant gives her ideas of heaven, as a place of light, of rest, of joy, of service, where the great angel Pain helps the souls to wisdom. In a counter-picture, she shows hell, the world of the unhappy dead, where are cruelty, selfishness, suffering, a world filled with tears that drip from earth. Yet it is a hell as well-regulated, as thoroughly disciplined as a German municipality, with various punishments,—the most terrible being a lecture platform from which are delivered eternal addresses.
These would-be-realistic stories of heaven and hell somehow leave the reader cold, after Dante and Milton, however much one may feel the sincerity of the authors. Heaven and hell are such vast provinces that one cannot chart them in imagination sufficiently to grasp somebody else’s concept in story.
Other stories of life after death, given from the spirit-angle rather than from the mortal point of view as in most ghost stories, are among the recent types of supernaturalism. Alice Brown has several stories of the kind, in one showing a woman who comes to tell her friend not to be afraid of dying, because There is much like Here, and another symbolic of the power of love to come back even from the pit of blackness after death. Olivia Howard Dunbar’s The Shell of Sense gives the psychosis of a woman who cannot go to heaven because she is jealous of her husband. She sees the form of the wind, hears the roses open in the garden, and senses many things unknown to human beings, yet is actuated by very human motives. Katherine Butler suggests that death must be a painless process and the after life much like mortality, since the man doesn’t realize that he is dead but attempts to go about his affairs as usual.
The symbolic treatment of the theme of life after death is more effective and shows more literary art than the conventional pictures of Mrs. Ward’s and Mrs. Oliphant’s. No human vocabulary is able to describe immortality of glory or despair, hence it is more effective merely to suggest the thought by allegory or symbolism. Hawthorne gives us a symbolic morality in The Celestial Railroad, where he pictures the road between heaven and hell, drawing on Bunyan’s imagery to describe the landscape and characters. Apollyon is engineer and emits realistic blasts of smoke. Eugene Field tells of a mother just entering heaven who asks an angel where she may find her little baby, dead long ago, to whom the angel whispers that she is the babe, grown to maturity in Paradise. Julian Hawthorne’s Lovers in Heaven is a symbolic picture of the after life, where a man just dead goes in search of the beloved he lost long before. He sees her on the far slope of a heavenly hill, but before he can reach her the devil appears to him in his own double, “the Satan of mine own self, the part of me wherein God had no share.” This is a quite modern concept of diabolism. But love struggles to save him, and he resists his evil self.
Ahrinziman, by Anita Silvani, shows lurid pictures of the world to come. In the Inferno of the Dark Star the soul sees the attendant genii of his life, each symbolizing some passion of his nature. There are horrible astral birds and beasts and combinations unknown to mortal biology, while vultures hover overhead and a foul astral odor fills the air. The spirits are of peculiar substance, for they fight and slay each other, some being torn to pieces. The soul is supposed to progress toward the Silver and later the Golden Star. Marie Corelli’s Romance of Two Worlds is a queer production, preaching the doctrine of psychical electricity, which is to be a sort of wonder-working magician, and in other novels she gives theories of radio-activity, a theosophical cure-all for this world and the next.
A Vision of Judgment, by H. G. Wells, is a satire on man’s judgment of sin and character and of destiny after death, showing the pettiness and folly of Ahab, proud of his sins, and the hypocrisy of a so-called saint, conceited over his self-torture. “At last the two sat side by side, stark of all illusions, in the shadow of the robe of God’s charity, like brothers.” The picture of God and the throne vanish and they behold a land austere and beautiful, with the enlightened souls of men in clean bodies all about him. This symbolic allegory setting forth the shallowness of human judgment as set against God’s clarity of vision and charity of wisdom is like Oscar Wilde’s The House of Judgment, a terrible piece of symbolism expressed in a few words. A soul who has been altogether evil comes at last before God to be judged. God speaks to him of his vileness, his cruelty, his selfishness, to all of which the soul makes confession of guilt.
And God, closing the book of the man’s Life, said, “Surely I will send thee into Hell. Even unto Hell will I send thee.”
And the man cried out, “Thou canst not!”
And God said to the man, “Wherefore can I not send thee to Hell, and for what reason?”
“Because in Hell I have always lived,” answered the man.
And there was silence in the house of judgment.
And after a space God spake and said to the man, “Seeing that I may not send thee into Hell, I will send thee into Heaven. Surely unto Heaven I will send thee.”
And the man cried out, “Thou canst not!”
And God said to the man, “Wherefore can I not send thee unto Heaven, and for what reason?”
“Because, never, and in no place, have I been able to imagine it!” answered the man.
And there was silence in the house of judgment.
The fact that a man’s thoughts make his heaven or his hell is brought out in a recent book, The Case of John Smith, by Elizabeth Bisland, where the central character receives a revelation while working at his typewriter one day. The message says, “Oh, Peevish and Perverse! How know you that you have not died elsewhere and that this is not the Heaven which there you dreamed? How know you that your Hell may not lie only in not recognizing this as Heaven?”
In many recent examples of allegory and symbolism we get suggestive impressions of the other life, of the soul’s realities. Some of these have the inevitable words, the fatal phrases that seem to penetrate into the real heaven and hell for us. The most remarkable instance of symbolic treatment of the after-life is in Souls on Fifth, by Granville Barker, where the spirits of the dead are represented as unable to rise above the level of the ideals they had held in life, and drift endlessly up and down the Avenue, some in the form of tarnished gilt, some with white plague spots of cowardice, or blisters of slanderous thoughts, some horny with selfishness, some with lines of secret cruelty. There are few squares but mostly irregular shapes of sin.
The purely humorous treatment of life after death, the comic pictures of heaven and hell, are of a piece with the humorous treatment of other phases of supernaturalism, and are distinctly modern. The flippant way in which sacred subjects are handled is a far cry from the heaven and hell of Dante and Milton. Modern writers slap the devil on the back, make fun of the archangels and appeal to the ridiculous in one-time sacred situations, with a freedom that would have made the Puritans gasp. For instance, St. Peter has been the butt of so many jokes that he is really hackneyed.
The Flying Dutchman, whom Brander Matthews introduces in his Primer of Imaginary Geography, and who says that the Wandering Jew is the only person he can have any satisfactory chats with now, speaks of knowing Charon, “who keeps the ferry across the Styx. I met him last month and he was very proud of his new electric launch with its storage battery.” He says that hell is now lighted by electricity and that Pluto has put in all the modern improvements. John Kendrick Bangs, in his House-boat on the Styx, brings together the shades of many illustrious persons; Queen Elizabeth, Walter Raleigh, Socrates, Xantippe, Captain Kidd, and many others. From them we get pictures of the life after death and of their characteristic attitudes toward it and each other. He continues the situation in The Pursuit of the House-boat, as the redoubtable Captain Kidd makes off with the ship and the ladies, leaving all the men behind. But they follow the bold buccaneer and after exciting adventures reaching from the Styx to Paris, they recapture the fair. Carolyn Wells has recently given us a Styx River Anthology. In modern stories we visit the comic devil on his native heath, see him in his own home town, as in previous chapters we discussed him in his appearances on earth. Kipling’s The Last of the Stories shows us the Hades of literary endeavor, the limbo of lost characters, presided over by a large and luminous devil of fluent tongue. Kipling recognizes many persons from fiction, and sees various tortures in process. All do obeisance to the shade of Rabelais, the Master. Kipling is terrified by the characters he himself has brought into being and begs to hide his face from them. F. Marion Crawford gives us another glimpse of literary eternity, where the spirits of learned personages meet and discuss life. A recent poem describes a meeting and dialogue in Hades between Chaucer and Cressida.
It is possibly Bernard Shaw who would be most liable to prosecution by the devil for lèse-majesté, for in Man and Superman, Mine Host of the Pit is represented as an affable gentleman who tries to make hell attractive to his guests, and exercises not the least constraint on their movements. They are free to leave him and go to heaven if they like,—he only warns them that they will find it tiresome. He converses with Don Juan and a couple of other blasé mortals, uttering Shavian iconoclasms with an air of courteous boredom. He is very different from the sinister personage of conventional fiction.
Mark Twain has given humorous views of heaven in his Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven. A bluff, hearty old salt finds the celestial regions very different from the traditional descriptions of them. The heavenly citizens are a polite set, wishful for him to do what he likes, yet he tires of the things he thought paradise consisted of, lays aside his harp and crown, and takes his wings off for greater ease. He finds his pleasures in the meeting of an occasional patriarch, or prophet, and the excitement of the entry of a converted bartender from Jersey City. He changes his views on many points, saying for instance, “I begin to see a man’s got to be in his own heaven to be happy,” and again, “Happiness ain’t a thing in itself,—it’s only a contrast with something that ain’t pleasant.” Again Sandy, his friend, says, “I wish there was something in that miserable Spiritualism so we could send the folks word about it.”
Something of the same combination of humor and earnestness is found in Nicholas Vachell Lindsay’s poem, General William Booth Enters into Heaven.
“Booth led boldly with his big bass drum,
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
The saints smiled gravely as they said, ‘He’s come.’
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Walking lepers followed, rank on rank,
Lurching bravos from the ditches dank,
Drabs from the alley-ways and drug-fiends pale
Minds still passion-ridden, soul-power frail!
Vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath,
Unwashed legions with the ways of death,—
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
(Reverently sung—no instruments)
And while Booth halted by the curb for prayer
He saw his Master through the flag-filled air.
Christ came gently with a robe and crown
For Booth the soldier, while the crowd knelt down.
He saw King Jesus—they were face to face—
And he knelt a-weeping in that holy place.
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?”
This combination of realism with idealism, of homely details with celestial symbolism, is also seen in another recent poem, The Man with the Pigeons, by William Rose Benet, who shows us two pictures, the first of a tramp in Madison Square Garden, who loves the pigeons and has them ever clustering around him in devotion. The next is of heaven, with the celestial gardens, where among the goldhaired angels the old tramp stands at home, still wearing his rusty shoes and battered derby hat. The quaint commingling of fancy and fact reminds us of Hannele’s dreams of heaven, in Hauptmann’s Hannele, where the schoolmaster is confused with the angels, and heaven and the sordid little room are somehow united.
H. G. Wells, in A Wonderful Visit shows us another side of the picture, for he draws an angel down and lets him tell the citizens of the earth of the land he comes from. I make no attempt in this discussion to decide concerning the personality of angels, whether they are the spirits of the just made perfect or pre-Adamite creatures that never were and never could be man. For the present purpose, they are simply angels. This book of Wells’s is an example of the satiric treatment of heaven and earth that constitutes a special point of importance in the modern supernaturalism. It is a social satire, and a burlesque on the formal and insincere manifestations of religion. A vicar takes a pot shot at what he supposes is a rare bird, seeing a rainbow flash in the sky,—but instead, an angel comes tumbling down with a broken wing. This thrusts him upon the vicar as a guest for some time, and introduces complications in the village life. The parishioners do not believe in angels save in stained glass windows or in church on Sunday, and they make life difficult for the vicar and his guest. The angel shows a human sense of humor, that quaint philosophy of the incongruous which is the basis of all true humor, and his naïve comments on earthly conventions, his smiling wonder at the popular misconceptions in regard to his heaven—to which he is surprised to learn that mortals are thought to go, since he says he has never seen any there—make him a lovable character. But village custom compels him to fold his shining wings under a coat till he looks like a hunch-back, put boots on so that he “has hoofs like a hippogrif,” as he plaintively says to the vicar, and he finds conformity to convention a painful process. The novel ends sadly, symbolizing the world’s stupid harshness, for the angel is sent away from the village as unworthy to live among the people, and his heart is almost broken.
The same type of humor and satire may be found in James Stephens’s The Demi-Gods, and in Anatole France’s, The Revolt of the Angels. Stephens’s novel contains an insert of a short story of heaven previously published, which depicts a preliminary skirmish in heaven over a coin a corpse has had left in his hand and has taken to eternity with him. In each novel several angels come tumbling down from heaven and take up earthly life as they find it, engaging in affairs not considered angelic. Stephens, in addition to the two fighting celestials, gives us an archangel, a seraph, and a cherub. There is in both stories a certain embarrassment over clothes, the fallen ones arriving in a state of nudity. The necessity for donning earthly garments, the removal of the wings, and the adaptation to human life furnish complication and interest, with the added feminine element, though Stephens’s novel is not marred by the unclean imaginings of Anatole France.
The revolters in the French novel take up Parisian life, while Stephens’s angelic trio join an itinerant tinker and his daughter who are journeying aimlessly about, accompanied by a cart and a sad-eyed philosopher, an ass. They engage in activities and joys not conventionally archangelic, such as smoking corn-cob pipes, eating cold potatoes, and, when necessary, stealing the potatoes. The contrasts between heavenly ideas and Irish tramp life are inimitable. At last when the three, having decided to go back to heaven, don their wings and crowns and say good-bye, the cherub turns back for one more word of farewell with Mary. Seeing her tears over his going, he tears his shining wings to shreds and casts them from him, electing to stay on earth with the tinker’s cart, for the sake of love. It is really quite a demi-god-like thing to do.
Unlike France’s book, which is a blasting satire on religion, these two English novels are amusing, with a certain measure of satire, yet with a whimsicality that does not antagonize. France’s angels remain on earth and become more corrupt than men, and Wells’s wonderful visitor is banished from the village as an undesirable alien. Stephens’s archangel and seraph go back to heaven after their vacation, while the cherub turns his back on immortal glory rather than break a woman’s heart. In all three of these books we notice the same leveling tendency shown in characterization of the angels that we have observed heretofore in the case of ghosts and devils, werewolves, and witches. The angels are human, with charming personality and a piquant sense of humor, whose attempts to understand mortal conventions reveal the essential absurdity of earthly ideas in many instances. The three taken together constitute an interesting case of literary parallelism and it would be gratifying to discover whether France was influenced by Wells and Stephens, or Stephens by Wells and France,—but in any event Wells can prove a clear alibi as to imitation, since his novel appeared a number of years before the others. The possible inspiration for all of these in Byron’s Heaven and Earth suggests an interesting investigation. A more recent story, The Ticket-of-Leave Angel, brings an angel down to a New York apartment, where he has peculiar experiences and illustrates a new type of angelic psychology. The tendency to satirize immortality has crept even into poetry, for in a recent volume by Rupert Brooke there are several satiric studies. One, entitled On Certain Proceedings of the Psychical Research Society, ridicules the idea that spirits would return to earth to deliver the trivial messages attributed to them, and another, Heaven, is a vitriolic thrust at the hope of a better life after death, sneering at it with unpleasant imagery.
One of the recent instances of satiric pictures of the hereafter is Lord Dunsany’s The Glittering Gate, a one-act drama, where Bill and Jim, two burglars, crack the gate of heaven to get in. Sardonic laughter sounds while they are engaged in the effort to effect an entrance, and wondering what heaven will be like. Bill thinks that his mother will be there.
“I don’t know if they want a good mother in there who would be kind to the angels and sit and smile at them when they sing, and soothe them if they were cross. (Suddenly) Jim, they won’t have brought me up against her, will they?”
Jim: “It would be just like them to. Very like them.”
When the glittering gate of heaven swings open and the two toughs enter eagerly, they find nothing—absolutely nothing but empty space, and the sardonic laughter sounds in their ears. Bill cries out, “It is just like them! Very like them”!
Was not this suggested by Rupert Brooke’s poem, Failure?
In the stories treating satirically or humorously of the future life we find the purpose in reality to be to image this life by illustration of the other. Eternity is described in order that we may understand time a little better. Angels and devils are made like men, to show mortal potentialities either way. The absurdities of mankind are illustrated as seen by angel eyes, the follies as satirized by devils. The tendency now is to treat supernatural life humorously, satirically or symbolically, rather than with the conventional methods of the past. Commonplace treatment of great subjects is liable to be unsatisfactory, and any serious treatment, other than symbolically simple, of heaven or hell seems flat after Dante and Milton.
In considering these various types of stories dealing with supernatural life, whether continued beyond the mortal span on earth, renewed by reincarnation, or taken up in another world after death, we find that several facts seem to appear with reference to the type chosen for treatment by men as distinct from women, and vice versa. So far as my search has gone, I have found no instance in English literature where a woman has used either the motif of the Wandering Jew or the Elixir of Life. I do not say that no such instances exist, but I have not found them. Carmen Sylva is the only woman I know of at all who has taken up the characterization of the Wandering Jew. On the other hand, women write often of heaven, most of the stories of conventional ideas of heaven being by women. Where men have pictured heaven or hell they have done it for the most part humorously, satirically or symbolically. They seem to curve round the subject rather than to approach it directly. Yet where it is a question of continuing life here in this world, by means of an elixir or other method, or as an ever-living being like the Jew, men have used the theme frequently. Since fiction does reflect our thought-life and our individual as well as racial preferences, the conclusions that might be drawn, if one were sure of their basis, would be interesting. Can it be that men are more deeply interested in this life on earth and cling to it in thought more tenaciously than women, and that women are more truly citizens of the other world? Are men skeptical of the existence of any but a satiric or symbolic heaven, or merely doubtful of reaching there?