Dog and Duck, by Arthur Machen

The Art of Unbelief

I have just been reading a very odd article in a Sunday paper. It is a series of extracts from a book called Lord Kitchener’s Lives. It tells you exactly how it all happened. It was dictated by Lord Kitchener’s ghost to an otherwise unknown person called ‘Ala Mana.’ The story begins with the great soldier’s embarkation on the Hampshire. It relates the odd behaviour of a cabin-boy:

‘I was attracted to a cabin-boy who darted out of a shadow, and as he did so, glanced at me sharply, an expression of peculiar guilt in his eyes.’

The tale goes on to describe the apparition of Lord Kitchener’s mother and her warning; the alarm of the submarine; Lord Kitchener’s exit from his cabin and return to it, when he finds that his papers have been disturbed; his hearing the click of the lock and finding that he is locked into the cabin; the shock of the fatal torpedo; and, when Lord Kitchener had pounded through the panels of the cabin door, the discovery of the cabin-boy, with a bullet in his brain and a revolver in his hand. Then comes death by drowning, the assumption of an ‘astral body’ and remarkable encounters in the world of spirits.

Now, let it be noted that the Sunday paper describes the work as ‘mediumistic balderdash.’ But it prints four columns of extracts. Why? This is a side issue of the main argument — we shall come to that before long — but the point is curious. The paper prints all these extracts because it realizes that there is a Kitchener Myth, and that many of its readers will be highly interested in anything which bears on it. Strange though it may seem, even in these later days when folk-lore and folk-songs are almost forgotten by the folk whose fathers made them; when the real folk memory is either gone or on the point of going; when all the old tales which were told of winter nights about the fire have become ‘subjects’ to be dissected and examined and theorized over by learned men; when students in far Western American Universities now gain degrees by writing learned theses on stories that once gladdened or terrified smock-frocked alehouse company by lonely English lanes; when the old myth-making faculty was, one would have said, a thing utterly ended; still, in these days the folk have made a myth about Kitchener. It was not so strange that the Ireland of a generation ago refused to believe that Parnell was dead. There were men in the Ireland of the ‘nineties of the last century — perhaps there are still — who were living in the world of a thousand years ago; and so the Men of the Hills, as Parnell himself called them, believed that the story of their leader’s death in a Brighton lodging-house was all a lie, a lie concocted by the Saxon and Tim Healy, most likely. Parnell was gone into some strange region to rest and be restored and healed of his grievous wounds — I don’t think the Men of the Hills had heard of Avalon, and probably they had the United States of America in their minds — but he would come again and rule once more, and as the old man in the Irish workhouse told Lady Gregory: ‘there would be no police at all, and every poet should have twenty pounds a year.’

I was saying that there are Irishmen to-day who are living in the world of a thousand years ago. I have just quoted an instance. The old man in the workhouse had no notion, I am sure, that he was repeating a Welsh prophecy of the twelfth century with slight variations of phrase. The Welsh writer was speaking of the golden age that was to be when Cadwaladyr Vendigeid should return: ‘then,’ he said, ‘Saxons shall be eradicated and Bards shall flourish.’

It was not wonderful then, that the men of Kerry and Connemara made a myth of the return of Parnell; and for all I know there may be old men and women of the hills who still look for it, in spite of Sinn Fein and the Free State. But we of England, we of London with our morning papers and our evening papers and our Sunday papers and our wireless and our broadcasting and all the rest of it — progress, I think, it is called — it is marvellous that we too still possess the old faculty. We must know in our hearts, you would think, that the Hampshire was blown out of the water and that Kitchener was drowned; but we will not have it so. I remember that in my very own house, one night about two years ago, I was saying innocently: ‘They tell me that there are really people who believe that Kitchener is still alive: is it possible that there are such people?’ Whereupon a young gentleman in company lifted up his hand and with an expression of fervid belief said boldly: ‘Here’s one of them.’ It struck me as wonderful; and all the more when I found that the Survival of Kitchener was only one article in a queer sort of Credo, as to the details of which I have become somewhat vague. I think that you were bound to believe that the failure — if it were a failure — of the British Fleet at Jutland was planned by the British Admiralty, and with that went a confession of the iniquity of ‘Salome,’ and faith in a mysterious volume, possessed by Germany, in which all our names were written. It was the oddest confusion of a creed that ever was, I verily believe. For a few days it turned the calmness and the decency of a British Court of Justice into a scandalous disorder and produced a most ridiculous verdict; and then all the nonsense was forgotten, or so I thought. But, evidently, it was not so. The popular Sunday paper still finds it profitable to quote stuff which it confesses to be ‘balderdash,’ because the said stuff is related to the Kitchener mythology. Note that mysterious cabin-boy, who behaves in the manner of what the stage calls the heavy man: he is in the famous vein of the myth-makers.

But this by the way. I read on; I read how after a severe struggle, after the ghost of Lord Kitchener had the mortification of seeing the fishes tear his dead body as it sank through the waves; I read how the ghost went up and was received by ‘guides’ who led it to its high appointed place. The ghost was immediately placed under a professor, who offers a choice of studies and the choicest company.

‘He said: “My brother is here too. He was once a man of distinguished rank.” He paused. “To-night we go to the banquet. Queen Mary of Scots, King Edward the Seventh and Queen Victoria will be present, also several other notables of the physical world. They are all doing their work here.”

‘I asked: “What are Queen Mary and Queen Victoria doing?”

‘He smiled. “Queen Mary is teaching young souls who are very tender and very spiritual. Each one has a message.” He paused. “Queen Victoria is doing some literary, medical, and also scientific work. She is a brilliant student. She will teach the higher souls in a class in medical science. Also, through her interest in the earth, she will be the means of inspiring many great souls there.”

‘We had by this time come to a very tall building. As we entered, the professor said, “We will go up now in the lightning elevator,”’

There is plenty more of the like sort: Queen Elizabeth, Tolstoi, Louis XVI are all encountered. But my point is this: by what faculty are we enabled to declare the whole farrago to be, as the paper rightly names it, balderdash; rubbish of the most hideous kind? For — let us be quite clear as to this point — we know nothing whatever as to the ghostly world. There may be people who think that they are quite certain that there is no such world, who think they are quite certain that when a man dies physically he dies utterly and for ever. I say ‘people who think that they are certain’ as to this and that advisedly; because it is certain that they are not certain: they know nothing whatever about it, and no human being can know anything about it. But, excluding these folks, and taking the rest of us, who are willing to admit that the human personality may persist after death in some manner which we cannot distinctly conceive, how, I ask, are we enabled to say decisively and finally that all this stuff that I have quoted about Kitchener and Queen Victoria and her literary and scientific studies and the rest of it is a lie?

For, as I say, we know nothing about the other world. For all we know it may be a world of balderdash; or, to go deeper still, this account of the studies and occupations of Queen Victoria and Mary Queen of Scots may not be balderdash at all. Let us remember: Dr. Johnson, a very great man and a very acute man, was quite sure that Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ was balderdash or something perilously near it. And Voltaire, a very great man and a very acute man, of quite a different sort from Dr. Johnson, would have put Dante into a lunatic asylum. Now, of course, we are quite sure that both these great men were monstrously wrong: but how about the verdict of two hundred years hence? Then there was poor John Keats and his little book of verses, published about a hundred years ago. The reviewers in Blackwood’s Magazine and the Quarterly Review, men of literary education and of accredited taste in literature, were quite certain that Keats’ verse was balderdash. ‘Go back to your gallipots, Master John’: that, I think, was the polite advice of the Blackwood’s authority. Yet, we have since come to the conclusion that Master John wrote some of the most exquisite poetry that has ever been written in English; I think we may be bold enough to say in any earthly tongue. So, dare we be confident as to what constitutes balderdash? Perhaps Queen Victoria is really making progress in her literary, scientific and medical studies. Of course it may be said that the whole tale is very unlikely. It is. But such unlikely things do happen sometimes. Suppose a prophet coming to those obscure solicitor people, the Buonapartes of Corsica, and telling them what the young Napoleon was to do in history. They would have said that the prophet’s story was a very unlikely one. And if you had told Robespierre, as he was resigning his judicial post, because it was against his conscience to sentence a criminal to death; if you had told him of the seas of innocent blood he was to spill; how indignant that mild young legal gentleman with his mild young verses would have been! And on the face of it, is there anything much more unlikely than the transmutation of a bloated caterpillar into the airy, exquisite butterfly?

Well, then, perhaps Mary Queen of Scots did exclaim to Lord Kitchener as in the printed story:

‘Oh, you should see King Edward’s work! He paints marvellously. Queen Victoria helps him in his training, and she is very clever in painting the eyes.’

And yet, we, we — I will put it brutally — who have any sense in our heads, know that all this and all other tales like to it are a farrago of ghastly imbecility, lying, fraud, delusion; these elements being mixed in varying proportions in various cases. We are perfectly certain that this is so: that nobody told the ghost of Kitchener that the ghost of King Edward VII is being helped to put in the eyes by the ghost of Queen Victoria. We are sure of all this: but how? Frankly, I do not know. Logically, as I think I have shown, we have no right to come to any conclusions whatever on the matter; we know nothing at all about it or of the final constitution of the universe.

Yet, we are sure, and when we cease to be sure, why, Heaven help us! And let it be remembered that there is this corollary: if we are justified in disbelieving certain tales, though we have no logical grounds for our disbelief, so also we are justified in believing certain other tales, though we have no logical grounds for our belief.

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:39