Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 2

The First Phase

JOHN’S father, Thomas Wainwright, had reason to believe that Spaniards and Moroccans had long ago contributed to his making. There was indeed something of the Latin, even perhaps of the Arab, in his nature. Every one admitted that he had a certain brilliance; but he was odd, and was generally regarded as a failure. A medical practice in a North-country suburb gave little scope for his powers, and many opportunities of rubbing people up the wrong way. Several remarkable cures stood to his credit; but he had no bedside manner, and his patients never accorded him the trust which is so necessary for a doctor’s success.

His wife was no less a mongrel than her husband, but one of a very different kind. She was of Swedish extraction. Finns and Lapps were also among her ancestors. Scandinavian in appearance, she was a great sluggish blonde, who even as a matron dazzled the young male eye. It was originally through her attraction that I became the youthful friend of her husband, and later the slave of her more than brilliant son. Some said she was “just a magnificent female animal,” and so dull as to be subnormal. Certainly conversation with her was sometimes almost as one-sided as conversation with a cow. Yet she was no fool. Her house was always in good order, though she seemed to spend no thought upon it. With the same absent-minded skill she managed her rather difficult husband. He called her “Pax.” “So peaceful,” he would explain. Curiously her children also adopted this name for her. Their father they called invariably “Doc.” The two elder, girl and boy, affected to smile at their mother’s ignorance of the world; but they counted on her advice. John, the youngest by four years, once said something which suggested that we had all misjudged her. Some one had remarked on her extraordinary dumbness. Out flashed John’s disconcerting laugh, and then, “No one notices the things that interest Pax, and so she just doesn’t talk.”

John’s birth had put the great maternal animal to a severe strain. She carried her burden for eleven months, till the doctors decided that at all costs she must be relieved. Yet when the baby was at last brought to light, it had the grotesque appearance of a seven-months foetus. Only with great difficulty was it kept alive in an incubator. Not till a year after the forced birth was this artificial womb deemed no longer necessary.

I saw John frequently during his first year, for between me and the father, though he was many years my senior, there had by now grown up a curious intimacy based on common intellectual interests, and perhaps partly on a common admiration for Pax.

I can remember my shock of disgust when I first saw the thing they had called John. It seemed impossible that such an inert and pulpy bit of flesh could ever develop into a human being. It was like some obscene fruit, more vegetable than animal, save for an occasional incongruous spasm of activity.

When John was a year old, however, he looked almost like a normal new-born infant, save that his eyes were shut. At eighteen months he opened them; and it was as though a sleeping city had suddenly leapt into life. Formidable eyes they were for a baby, eyes seen under a magnifying glass, each great pupil like the mouth of a cave, the iris a mere rim, an edging of bright emerald. Strange how two black holes can gleam with life! It was shortly after his eyes had opened that Pax began to call her strange son “Odd John.” She gave the words a particular and subtle intonation which, though it scarcely varied, seemed to express sometimes merely affectionate apology for the creature’s oddity, but sometimes defiance, and sometimes triumph, and occasionally awe. The adjective stuck to John throughout his life.

Henceforth John was definitely a person and a very wide-awake person, too. Week by week he became more and more active and more and more interested. He was for ever busy with eyes and ears and limbs.

During the next two years John’s body developed precariously, but without disaster. There were always difficulties over feeding, but when he had reached the age of three he was a tolerably healthy child, though odd, and in appearance extremely backward. This backwardness distressed Thomas. Pax, however, insisted that most babies grew too fast. “They don’t give their minds a chance to knit themselves properly,” she declared. The unhappy father shook his head.

When John was in his fifth year I used to see him nearly every morning as I passed the Wainwrights’ house on my way to the railway station. He would be in his pram in the garden rioting with limbs and voice. The din, I thought, had an odd quality. It differed indescribably from the vocalization of any ordinary baby, as the call of one kind of monkey differs from that of another species. It was a rich and subtle shindy, full of quaint modulations and variations. One could scarcely believe that this was a backward child of four. Both behaviour and appearance suggested an extremely bright six-months infant. He was too wide awake to be backward, too backward to be four. It was not only that those prodigious eyes were so alert and penetrating. Even his clumsy efforts to manipulate his toys seemed purposeful beyond his years. Though he could not manage his fingers at all well, his mind seemed to be already setting them very definite and intelligent tasks. Their failure distressed him.

John was certainly intelligent. We were all now agreed on that point. Yet he showed no sign of crawling, and no sign of talking. Then suddenly, long before he had attempted to move about in his world, he became articulate. On a certain Tuesday he was merely babbling as usual. On Wednesday he was exceptionally quiet, and seemed for the first time to understand something of his mother’s baby-talk. On Thursday morning he startled the family by remarking very slowly but very correctly, “I— want — milk.” That afternoon he said to a visitor who no longer interested him, “Go — away. I— do — not — like — you — much.”

These linguistic achievements were obviously of quite a different type from the first remarks of ordinary children.

Friday and Saturday John spent in careful conversation with his delighted relatives. By the following Tuesday, a week after his first attempt, he was a better linguist than his seven-year-old brother, and speech had already begun to lose its novelty for him. It had ceased to be a new art, and had become merely a useful means of communication, to be extended and refined only as new spheres of experience came within his ken and demanded expression.

Now that John could talk, his parents learned one or two surprising facts about him. For instance, he could remember his birth. And immediately after that painful crisis, when he had been severed from his mother, he actually had to learn to breathe. Before any breathing reflex awoke, he had been kept alive by artificial respiration, and from this experience he had discovered how to control his lungs. With a prolonged and desperate effort of will he had, so to speak, cranked the engine, until at last it “fired” and acted spontaneously. His heart also, it appeared, was largely under voluntary control. Certain early “cardiac troubles,” very alarming to his parents, had in fact been voluntary interferences of a too daring nature. His emotional reflexes also were far more under control than in the rest of us. Thus if, in some anger-provoking situation, he did not wish to feel angry, he could easily inhibit the anger reflexes. And if anger seemed desirable he could produce it. He was indeed “Odd John.”

About nine months after John had learnt to speak, some one gave him a child’s abacus. For the rest of that day there was no talking, no hilarity; and meals were dismissed with impatience. John had suddenly discovered the intricate delights of number. Hour after hour he performed all manner of operations on the new toy. Then suddenly he flung it away and lay back staring at the ceiling.

His mother thought he was tired. She spoke to him. He took no notice. She gently shook his arm. No response. “John!” she cried in some alarm, and shook more violently. “Shut up, Pax,” he said, “I’m busy with numbers.”

Then, after a pause, “Pax, what do you call the numbers after twelve?” She counted up to twenty, then up to thirty. “You’re as stupid as that toy, Pax.” When she asked why, he found he had not words to explain himself; but after he had indicated various operations on the abacus, and she had told him the names of them, he said slowly and triumphantly, “You’re stupid, Pax, dear, because you (and the toy there) ‘count’ in tens and not in twelves. And that’s stupid because twelves have ‘fourths’ and ‘threeths’, I mean ‘thirds’, and tens have not.” When she explained that all men counted in tens because when counting began, they used their five fingers, he looked fixedly at her, then laughed his crackling, crowing laugh. Presently he said, “Then all men are stupid.”

This, I think, was John’s first realization of the stupidity of Homo sapiens, but not the last.

Thomas was jubilant over John’s mathematical shrewdness, and wanted to report his case to the British Psychological Society. But Pax showed an unexpected determination to “keep it all dark for the present.” “He shall not be experimented on,” she insisted. “They’d probably hurt him. And anyhow they’d make a silly fuss.” Thomas and I laughed at her fears, but she won the battle.

John was now nearly five, but still in appearance a mere baby. He could not walk. He could not, or would not, crawl. His legs were still those of an infant. Moreover, his walking was probably seriously delayed by mathematics, for during the next few months he could not be persuaded to give his attention to anything but numbers and the properties of space. He would lie in his pram in the garden by the hour doing “mental arithmetic” and “mental geometry,” never moving a muscle, never making a sound. This was most unhealthy for a growing child, and he began to ail. Yet nothing would induce him to live a more normal and active life.

Visitors often refused to believe that he was mentally active out there for all those hours. He looked pale and “absent.” They privately thought he was in a state of coma, and developing as an imbecile. But occasionally he would volunteer a few words which would confound them.

John’s attack upon geometry began with an interest in his brother’s box of bricks and in a diaper wallpaper. Then came a phase of cutting up cheese and soap into slabs, cubes, cones, and even into spheres and ovoids. At first John was extremely clumsy with a knife, cutting his fingers and greatly distressing his mother. But in a few days he had become amazingly dextrous. As usual, though he was backward in taking up a new activity, once he had set his mind to it, his progress was fantastically rapid. His next stage was to make use of his sister’s school-set of geometrical instruments. For a week he was enraptured, covering innumerable sheets.

Then suddenly he refused to take any further interest in visual geometry. He preferred to lie back and meditate. One morning he was troubled by some question which he could not formulate. Pax could make nothing of his efforts, but later his father helped him to extend his vocabulary enough to ask, “Why are there only three dimensions? When I grow up shall I find more?”

Some weeks later came a much more startling question. “If you went in a straight line, on and on and on, how far would you have to go to get right back here?”

We laughed, and Pax exclaimed, “Odd John!” This was early in 1915. Then Thomas remembered some talk about a “theory of relativity” that was upsetting all the old ideas of geometry. In time he became so impressed by this odd question of John’s, and others like it, that he insisted on bringing a mathematician from the university to talk to the child.

Pax protested, but not even she guessed that the result would be disastrous.

The visitor was at first patronizing, then enthusiastic, then bewildered; then, with obvious relief, patronizing again; then badly flustered. When Pax tactfully persuaded him to go (for the child’s sake, of course), he asked if he might come again, with a colleague.

A few days later the two of them turned up and remained in conference with the baby for hours. Thomas was unfortunately going the round of his patients. Pax sat beside John’s high chair, silently knitting, and occasionally trying to help her child to express himself. But the conversation was far beyond her depth. During a pause for a cup of tea, one of the visitors said, “It’s the child’s imaginative power that is so amazing. He knows none of the jargon and none of the history, but he has seen it all already for himself. It’s incredible. He seems to visualize what can’t be visualized.”

Later in the afternoon, so Pax reported, the visitors began to grow rather agitated, and even angry; and John’s irritatingly quiet laugh seemed to make matters worse. When at last she insisted on putting a stop to the discussion, as it was John’s bedtime, she noticed that both the guests were definitely out of control. “There was a wild look about them both,” she said, “and when I shooed them out of the garden they were still wrangling; and they never said good-bye.”

But it was a shock to learn, a few days later, that two mathematicians on the university staff had been found sitting under a street lamp together at 2 a.m. drawing diagrams on the pavement and disputing about “the curvature of space.”

Thomas regarded his youngest child simply as an exceptionally striking case of the “infant prodigy.” His favourite comment was, “Of course, it will all fizzle out when he gets older.” But Pax would say, “I wonder.”

John worried mathematics for another month, then suddenly put it all behind him. When his father asked him why he had given it up, he said, “There’s not much in number really. Of course, it’s marvellously pretty, but when you’ve done it all — well, that’s that. I’ve finished number. I know all there is in that game. I want another. You can’t suck the same piece of sugar for ever.”

During the next twelve months John gave his parents no further surprises. It is true he learned to read and write, and took no more than a week to outstrip his brother and sister. But after his mathematical triumphs this was only a modest achievement. The surprising thing was that the will to read should have developed so late. Pax often read aloud to him out of books belonging to the elder children, and apparently he did not see why she should be relieved of this duty.

But there came a time when Anne, his sister, was ill, and his mother was too occupied to read to him. One day he clamoured for her to start a new book, but she would not. “Well, show me how to read before you go,” he demanded. She smiled, and said, “It’s a long job. When Anne’s better I’ll show you.”

In a few days she began the task, in the orthodox manner. But John had no patience with the orthodox manner. He invented a method of his own. He made Pax read aloud to him and pass her finger along the line as she read, so that he could follow, word by word. Pax could not help laughing at the barbarousness of this method, but with John it worked. He simply remembered the “look” of every “noise” that she made, for his power of retention seemed to be infallible. Presently, without stopping her, he began analysing out the sounds of the different letters, and was soon cursing the illogicality of English spelling. By the end of the lesson John could read, though of course his vocabulary was limited. During the following week he devoured all the children’s books in the house, and even a few “grown-up” books. These, of course, meant almost nothing to him, even though the words were mostly familiar. He soon gave them up in disgust. One day he picked up his sister’s school geometry, but tossed it aside in five minutes with the remark, “Baby book!”

Henceforth John was able to read anything that interested him; but he showed no sign of becoming a book-worm. Reading was an occupation fit only for times of inaction, when his over-taxed hands demanded repose. For he had now entered a phase of almost passionate manual constructiveness, and was making all manner of ingenious models out of cardboard, wire, wood, plasticine, and any other material that came to hand. Drawing, also, occupied much of his time.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30