A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 20.

During the busy years of my professional career, I had snatched leisure for some professional treatises, which had made more or less sensation, and one of them, entitled “The Vital Principle; its Waste and Supply,” had gained a wide circulation among the general public. This last treatise contained the results of certain experiments, then new in chemistry, which were adduced in support of a theory I entertained as to the reinvigoration of the human system by principles similar to those which Liebig has applied to the replenishment of an exhausted soil — namely, the giving back to the frame those essentials to its nutrition, which it has lost by the action or accident of time; or supplying that special pabulum or energy in which the individual organism is constitutionally deficient; and neutralizing or counterbalancing that in which it super-abounds — a theory upon which some eminent physicians have more recently improved with signal success. But on these essays, slight and suggestive, rather than dogmatic, I set no value. I had been for the last two years engaged on a work of much wider range, endeared to me by a far bolder ambition — a work upon which I fondly hoped to found an enduring reputation as a severe and original physiologist. It was an Inquiry into Organic Life, similar in comprehensiveness of survey to that by which the illustrious Muller, of Berlin, has enriched the science of our age; however inferior, alas! to that august combination of thought and learning in the judgment which checks presumption, and the genius which adorns speculation. But at that day I was carried away by the ardour of composition, and I admired my performance because I loved my labour. This work had been entirely laid aside for the last agitated month; now that Lilian was gone, I resumed it earnestly, as the sole occupation that had power and charm enough to rouse me from the aching sense of void and loss.

The very night of the day she went, I reopened my manuscript. I had left off at the commencement of a chapter Upon Knowledge as derived from our Senses. As my convictions on this head were founded on the well-known arguments of Locke and Condillac against innate ideas, and on the reasonings by which Hume has resolved the combination of sensations into a general idea to an impulse arising merely out of habit, so I set myself to oppose, as a dangerous concession to the sentimentalities or mysticism of a pseudo-philosophy, the doctrine favoured by most of our recent physiologists, and of which some of the most eminent of German metaphysicians have accepted the substance, though refining into a subtlety its positive form — I mean the doctrine which Muller himself has expressed in these words:—

“That innate ideas may exist cannot in the slightest degree be denied: it is, indeed, a fact. All the ideas of animals, which are induced by instinct, are innate and immediate: something presented to the mind, a desire to attain which is at the same time given. The new-born lamb and foal have such innate ideas, which lead them to follow their mother and suck the teats. Is it not in some measure the same with the intellectual ideas of man?”8

To this question I answered with an indignant “No!” A “Yes” would have shaken my creed of materialism to the dust. I wrote on rapidly, warmly. I defined the properties and meted the limits of natural laws, which I would not admit that a Deity himself could alter. I clamped and soldered dogma to dogma in the links of my tinkered logic, till out from my page, to my own complacent eye, grew Intellectual Man, as the pure formation of his material senses; mind, or what is called soul, born from and nurtured by them alone; through them to act, and to perish with the machine they moved. Strange, that at the very time my love for Lilian might have taught me that there are mysteries in the core of the feelings which my analysis of ideas could not solve, I should so stubbornly have opposed as unreal all that could be referred to the spiritual! Strange, that at the very time when the thought that I might lose from this life the being I had known scarce a month had just before so appalled me, I should thus complacently sit down to prove that, according to the laws of the nature which my passion obeyed, I must lose for eternity the blessing I now hoped I had won to my life! But how distinctly dissimilar is man in his conduct from man in his systems! See the poet reclined under forest boughs, conning odes to his mistress; follow him out into the world; no mistress ever lived for him there!9 See the hard man of science, so austere in his passionless problems; follow him now where the brain rests from its toil, where the heart finds its Sabbath — what child is so tender, so yielding, and soft?

But I had proved to my own satisfaction that poet and sage are dust, and no more, when the pulse ceases to beat. And on that consolatory conclusion my pen stopped.

Suddenly, beside me I distinctly heard a sigh — a compassionate, mournful sigh. The sound was unmistakable. I started from my seat, looked round, amazed to discover no one — no living thing! The windows were closed, the night was still. That sigh was not the wail of the wind. But there, in the darker angle of the room, what was that? A silvery whiteness, vaguely shaped as a human form, receding, fading, gone! Why, I know not — for no face was visible, no form, if form it were, more distinct than the colourless outline — why, I know not, but I cried aloud, “Lilian! Lilian!” My voice came strangely back to my own ear; I paused, then smiled and blushed at my folly. “So I, too, have learned what is superstition,” I muttered to myself. “And here is an anecdote at my own expense (as Muller frankly tells us anecdotes of the illusions which would haunt his eyes, shut or open) — an anecdote I may quote when I come to my chapter on the Cheats of the Senses and Spectral Phantasms.” I went on with my book, and wrote till the lights waned in the gray of the dawn. And I said then, in the triumph of my pride, as I laid myself down to rest, “I have written that which allots with precision man’s place in the region of nature; written that which will found a school, form disciples; and race after race of those who cultivate truth through pure reason shall accept my bases if they enlarge my building.” And again I heard the sigh, but this time it caused no surprise. “Certainly,” I murmured, “a very strange thing is the nervous system!” So I turned on my pillow, and, wearied out, fell asleep.

8 Muller’s “Elements of Physiology,” vol. ii. p. 134. Translated by Dr. Baley.

9 Cowley, who wrote so elaborate a series of amatory poems, is said “never to have been in love but once, and then he never had resolution to tell his passion.”— Johnson’s “Lives of the Poets:” COWLEY.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31