Saturday, July 2, 2011

"The New World Man" by Jonathan P. Hooper (chapter 5: Prophet in His Own Country)

I do not remember much of the journey from the park, for they injected me with some sort of drug that made me sleep. When I finally came to, I found myself blinking from an unbearably bright light that was shining into my face; thinking it belonged to the beam of the flying machine, I gave a start.

Then I took stock of my surroundings: I was seated in a chair, and there was one of those strange glowing lamps shining directly into my face from a low ceiling. I was in a bare, cell-like room, the walls of which were painted white; there was no decoration whatsoever, just the black plastic chair on which I was sitting, and in the wall nearest me a door with a small metal grill near the top.

There was very little air in the room. A profusion of sweat ran down my face and made my shirt damp. Thankfully, the handcuffs had been removed, and so I was able to take off my jacket and loosen the collar of my shirt. Still, it was very hard to breathe.

I had been able to hear, for several minutes now, muffled sounds from the other side of the grill in the door, just a few feet from where I was sitting. Getting up from the chair, I stepped closer to the door, but before I could speak a voice from the other side of the grill startled me.

“I met a traveller from an antique land,” it said, and fell to silence again.

It was a line from a poem by Shelley. I knew the poem, but I determined to say nothing until the man on the other side of the door paid me some courtesy.

The voice began again. It was a thin, cold, mirthless man’s voice, as precise as a surgeon’s knife. I wondered whether it belonged to the man from the flying machine. “So what is it?” he said. “Where is your home, antique traveller? Why so far from your own land? Your fingerprints came up blank. Which government do you gather secrets for?”

I was too busy pondering what my course of action would be to answer at once, so the speaker continued.

“Silence? Why, you have no need to protect yourself. We are not barbarians here. We have known, for some time, of the international conspiracy against our government. The game is up now. It is your lot to abide here, unless diplomacy should set you free.”

Coolly I said, breaking my silence, “What have you done with the girl?”

It was true that some vague chivalric sense had awoken in me, but it was not allowed to continue, for the speaker merely laughed sardonically, and replied, “So you do speak. I was beginning to think you would refuse to cooperate. It’s so tiresome when that happens. Don’t worry in the least about your companion. She is far from the things that will do her real harm.”

I felt anger rising to my throat, but I did not answer. Well, Dyson, I thought then, the people of our own age do not condone the capture of civilians on such charges; why should these people be so uncivilised?

“I am a philosopher,” I said at last. “I have dedicated my life to the pursuit of truth. Like Mr. Darwin I have propounded the cause of Materialism, and called for an end to the practices of Supernaturalism. We should be, then, on the same side.”

There was silence. Then the voice said: “Where do you come from? Are you claiming to be from one of the eastern block countries?”

“I am not claiming to be from anywhere, my man,” I said, making no attempt to conceal my irritation. I was growing weary of communicating with a voice, particular since I was not able to see the man to which it belonged.

“Yet if you call for an end to Supernaturalism, if you go against the tide, you must be in one of those countries that have not yet outlawed the practice of religion.”

“I don’t know anything about those countries,” I said, honestly. “How many countries have reformed themselves?”

“All the west is post-religious. My antique traveller, are you from the ends of the earth?”

I sighed. Through the grill, I could see a vague outline of a mouth and two dark points for eyes, but I noted none of the features of my antagonist. This was an unfortunate occurrence. Of course, I worried about the girl, and wanted to be assured of her safety. But there was little I could do, or should do, to change the future. I needed to return to the Time Machine, so that I could witness these things to Dyson, and continue with my works. A plan started to form in my mind. But first I would ask my inquisitor the right sorts of question, in order to discover more about this new society.

He had already ploughed on with his line of questioning. “You are a writer of polemics? Perhaps some of them have reached us through underground channels. What is your name?”

“Herbert West,” I told him. At first this was greeted with silence. Then: “Not the Herbert West, of course. If you are, you should be a long dead prophet.”

“I’m not aware of any other Herbert West,” I told him, truthfully. The fact is I was shocked that he had recognised the name; the implications, however, struck me at once. Was it possible that he knew my name from my writings? Had they achieved immortality after my death?

“Of course,” the inquisitor went on, “you must be aware that your namesake wrote some of the greatest polemics against organized religion published in the last century.”

“Did he?” I said, barely able to keep pride from welling up.

“Oh yes. In fact, he looked ahead to our present state. Of course, he venerated nature, and at times he sounds like a pantheist, but that was the language of the times.”

“Indeed,” I said as the realisation that my efforts had been rewarded flooded over me. I must confess that at that moment little mattered to me: not my growing hunger and thirst, not the abandoned Time Machine, and not the fate of the girl. I sat down in silence, putting my life’s work into perspective, until I realised that the man, mysteriously, had gone.

Moments passed, but I knew little sense of time. I was trying to come to terms with the change in my sense of self this vindication had brought.

Finally, the door to my cell was pushed softly open. The man I had seen emerge from the flying machine was standing there, and there was a play of confusion on his face. Next to him stood an older man with a small, round face and red bespectacled eyes, studying me curiously.

“What is your name?” the older man asked in a tremulous voice, as I began to rise.

“Herbert West,” I said, the knowledge of what had happened to explain the speaker’s sudden disappearance dawning on me. Had he realised that I really was the West who had written all those polemics? The West who, he had said, died years ago?

Then it was that the import of those words, ‘long dead prophet’, broke upon me, submerging my pride at the immortality of my writings. This statement – that Herbert West was dead – how can I explain to the reader the effect of those words? They are the heaviest words one can hear upon a man’s lips. None of us, under any reasonable circumstances, will ever hear them. True, we might hear the pronouncement of a doctor, telling us we have cancer, predicting the days or weeks or months we have to live. Then, our fate stands open (or, nearer the case, shut) before us, and the words fall heavily. But there is nothing like hearing the declaration that the man we know ourselves to be has already died. The great abyss stands open before us then, and we quake.

I soon recovered myself, however, and it seemed clear to me what had taken place. My writings had formed the basis of this new state, a post-religious one. Thus I saw the older of the two men holding a book in his hand before him. He peered into the book, squinted at me through black-rimmed glasses, and then peered again at the picture.

“The spitting image, Masterson. How do you account for this? Is this man the grandson?”

They were both staring at me. It came to me then that, because of this fortuitous twist of fate, the chance to convince these people of my journeying through Time lay before me. Their reason could not deny it endlessly: here, before them, was the very man, his every utterance verifiable. My head was full of theories that I was destined to write down. Surely I could convince them.

“A look-alike,” the elder said suddenly. “If not the grandson, a look-alike. It is not unknown for those blessed with a strong resemblance to a living person, and particularly one long deceased, to act out the life of their subject.” He addressed me. “Tell me, man, where have you come from? You do a pretty good job of impersonating Herbert West.”

My thoughts had arrived at a conclusion. I stood up from the seat. “I am Herbert West,” I said. They were both silent, regarding me sceptically. “I have come from the past; I have travelled in Time, by means of a wondrous machine. I came to this place by chance, and now I find myself beholding the fruits of my knowledge. Gentlemen, sincerely, I see before me the vindication of my life’s work.”

I had started to feel dizzy, and so sat down again. Their faces, meanwhile, were a mass of suspicions and confusions. The elder muttered some things to the man who had questioned me. It turned out that I was to be brought into a second, larger room, so that a more in-depth interrogation could be conducted. I was soon to learn that this older man, Keller, had made his life’s work the study of my writings. These were the writings, of course, that for the most part I hadn’t even written yet. But I was buoyed up with confidence: the seeds of everything a man will think or say are already planted in the first years of his research, and it takes him the rest of his days simply to put things in an order that withstands scrutiny.

That most unique of scenarios, one I suspect that never could have occurred until Dyson’s invention of the Time Machine (a device that unfortunately would be consigned to a forgotten room of history, as you will hear), then began to be enacted. The student who has spent all of his life tracing the lines of thought and delving into the life of a second, greater figure, a historical figure long passed away, finds himself in a position to meet and interrogate his lifelong subject. So Keller faced me across a plain wooden desk, his weak, watery eyes blinking, his face suspicious, doubting, but evidently intrigued. The merest possibility that this fantastic scenario might be true played out over his features, and made for a captivating spectacle.

He opened with: “What were the names of your grandparents?” The tone was that which one would adopt with a child. Here, with this simplest of questions, he could topple my claim to be their prophet.

I told him the names of both my maternal and paternal grandparents, but of course I wasn’t going to leave things there, or wait for further questions. I plunged into a long monologue about my childhood, knowing little of how much my biography would be known to future generations. At first Keller’s face was passive, but it quickly began to register shock. I watched his resistance being eroded and took a certain private satisfaction from it. Behind him, the younger man, who, I recalled, was named Masterson, entered the room at intervals to watch his colleague’s gradual conversion.

Before long, in the midst of my sermonising against religion, he was won. He knew that I, truly, was the man whose work he’d studied all his professional life.

“But how?” he began. “Time travel? How is it that we do not have this secret, if your own age possesses it?”

“That, I cannot explain. My colleague, Dyson, perfected the machine at the end of the century, but I do not know when he will make it public – excuse me, gentlemen, for speaking of my own time in the present, but it is a habit hard to dispense with. Tell me – what exactly is the date?”

Keller blinked, then answered: “Two thousand and forty one. Welcome to the city of Cambridge, site of your most famous triumphs.”

“A hundred and forty one years! So it has all survived, then. My work. One could never imagine.”

“You changed the world,” Keller said breathlessly. “Your theories – well, you see it all about you.”

“But listen,” I said. “The girl they captured. The one I fled with from the protest rally. Why did they capture her? Was what the speaker said true? Do you incarcerate people?”

“You mean the other militants they have captured? You must realise, Dr. West, that this is a group that openly flaunts their dissent, that organises religious meetings where acts – acts of charlatanism and deceit, geared towards the weak minded, are performed. But don’t worry, we’ll not harm her. We are not animals. We do what we must, what you yourself would recommend, I am convinced, given the circumstances.”

“That is your reading of my work?”

The old man became uncomfortable. Masterson, who meanwhile had disappeared into another room, emerged bearing a tray with refreshments.

“What exactly did I predict?” I said then, as I tasted my first cup of hot tea in many hours. “That society would evolve from a spiritual to a materialist viewpoint, that I know, for the papers are already written. But did I go on to advocate the use of force?”

Keller nodded assent. “You argued for strict controls against the dissemination of religious ideas, including the use of force to subdue dissidents. You made the claim, in The Dictatorship of Reason, that that it would become necessary, given the nature of the Church’s politicism, to silence objections altogether.”

“The Dictatorship of Reason,” I said, letting the sound play on my tongue. “Yes, I see. Is that one of my well-known books? One for which I am best remembered?”

“That, and many others. I wrote a long critique of the work myself. Please do not be alarmed by the word; it was more of a celebration, a vindication of your ideas…”

I was still alone with my thoughts. Then, unexpectedly, the image of Marion returned to memory, startling me. I saw her face lit by the beams of the searchlight. “What do you do with them?” I asked Keller. “You do incarcerate people, then?”

Keller wiped his brow with his handkerchief. “What else would you have us do? It could not be achieved, in practical terms, in any other way. Even now we face repercussions. The state is in constant battle with these dissidents. Dr. West, if you want us to protect the girl…”

“The resistance will not last long,” I said, slumping down, mind full of The Dictatorship of Reason. “That is the key to it. It cannot. Supernaturalism will die.”

“It is already dying. These insurrectionary acts that you see are its last thrashings. Even if it comes to bloodshed, we cannot turn back. We cannot undo the work. We have laid a path, and we must continue putting down the stones.”

“I would like to know more,” I said, finishing the tea. “More about the Department, about the government. It may be that I have insight into things that could help you. We can start by looking at some of my published work. Perhaps I can explicate them.”

Masterson went out and returned carrying a stack of books. He laid them out on the table before me. I glanced at their covers, leafed enthusiastically through the pages, and experienced a thrill that can scarce be described. To think, these were books that I would go on to write. The sensation is one that few, if any, have known. It is like the epiphany, the cradle of the sleeping Christ-child, that the Magi were blessed to see.

I sat back in the chair, my hand resting on The Perfectibility of Man, while Keller went through his notes in another of the books, searching for a quote he particularly cared for. At length he located the passage he wanted, and began to read: “For true happiness, such as it is, is fleeting, and comes not from the gratification of certain sublimated desires, but by the light of progress, to which all men must aspire. By the continued pursuit of enlightenment and the intellectual pleasure of putting things into the proper order we will perfect the creature man. Spiritual belief, which men from the first civilised ages have professed, is thus a form of delusion, an opiate of the mind, and does not bring true and lasting happiness.”

I sat back in my chair, deeply sated on these words, while Masterson brought a second tea. After a time spent perusing these books of mine, I said, “It may not always be a blessing for a prophet to see the outcome of his predictions. But I confess that I hold no qualms.”

Keller nodded. “The prophet sees what is true, he sees behind the veil of appearances. He sees the workings of the machine before it has started up; and so he can predict the pattern of its rise and fall.”

Masterson, standing behind him, said: “Even so, he is not without honour, save in his own country.”

I smiled ironically, recognising the Biblical quotation for what it was. I realised, not for the first time, that this Masterson was an unknown quantity. Keller I could handle – his knowledge of my work, his enthusiasm, all made for an easy relationship, but Masterson was another matter. At some point, it would be interesting to try to plumb the depths of his knowledge, or so I decided.

I was given a suite of rooms later that day, in one of the highest buildings in the Department complex, and a programme was drawn up for me to meet all the leading philosophers and professors of the day (the University, my university, was just a short ride away by hover car, and Keller one of its most esteemed professors). The machine, meanwhile, was transported under my instruction to a hangar in the Department complex; I supervised its transit by military truck. It caused more of a stir than my own presence, but I instructed no one to tamper with it and it looked to me, at that time, that they would oblige.

In the closed conference that followed my first round of private meetings and interviews, I was announced beforehand as ‘the prophet’. I had already walked for a whole morning around the University buildings, marvelling at how much had changed, but also at how much remained familiar. There was a great deal of scepticism in the air, I could see before I walked to the podium, and many in the select crowd had come expecting a ruse or farce. As I began to speak, I felt myself being scrutinized like something in a circus sideshow. The speech I had prepared was pitched at the right level, with what I thought were the proper degree of professional modesty and mutual respect (in hindsight these formalities, belonging to my own time, must have seemed stilted to my audience), but my voice wavered and I did not start out by convincing. “It is with great honour that I stand before you, at the invitation of your esteemed professors, as an ambassador from my own time,” I stammered under their stares. “I am privileged to be able to bear witness to the proper fulfilment of certain theories I held as an academic in what you refer to as the late Victorian era. There is no greater reward that a man can have than to live to see history validate his idea of truth. I thank you for this privilege.”

It was not enough, to dispel the air of scepticism, but the idea that I, whether prophet from the past or impostor steeped in the life of West, was setting myself up as authority was enough to silence the crowds for the course of my speech. It was afterwards, as the floor was opened to questions, that I faced the real test.

“What proof have you?” one of the academics bellowed. “What positive, irrefutable proof? I see before me a man who bears a strong resemblance to Herbert West, one who is steeped in the theories West propounded, but I do not see a man from a past age. Bring us the machine, so that we may put your claims to the test.”

At this moment, Keller interrupted, saying: “The time will soon be ripe for such practical verification, Dr. Jansen. For today, please restrict yourself to questions pertaining to Dr. West and his theories, and it may be that you will draw a conclusion based on this evidence alone.”

The man called Jansen scoffed, and his eyes bore into me as he said: “What of the paradoxes? The West we know, the West whose books we have studied for our professional lives, was not a traveller in Time. His friend Dyson did not invent a Time Machine. So tell me – how can this be?”

“You are right to term them paradoxes,” I said before Keller could counter him. “That is precisely what we are faced with. How could the books refer to my visit if it hadn’t yet taken place? Now the knowledge of the Time Machine enters your history, and when I return to my own time it may be that the knowledge of my visit will be written there. But we live, as always, in the eternal present, and that is what we must ourselves concern with.”

Keller was getting impatient. “As I said, Dr. Jansen, this is not the time and the place. Restrict yourself to the life of Dr. Herbert West.”

I left the conference that day thinking I had made few converts, despite expounding every theory in full and offering all but the most intimate details of my life. Nevertheless, Keller insisted that I had done a splendid job of arousing their interest. I was given another set of rooms at my old college, and spent my time commuting between the university and the Department complex. As my first week passed among the great minds of the time, it soon became obvious that I could acquire more knowledge to take back to my own time than I could impart to them. I learned about atomic power, about unlocking the keys to life in DNA, about the development of the microchip and the replacement of the internal combustion engine with electric hover vehicles. It was difficult, however, to get them to speak on these subjects, so taken were they with the idea that a prophet, or one claiming to be a prophet, was in their midst.

Keller became my constant companion. It was inevitable that we at last found ourselves standing before the Time Machine. Keller told me the thoughts of the university staff about this great discovery: the physicists, unsurprisingly, were eager to examine the machine. The great irony was that their prophet did not know its first principles, the architect of this wonder being back in my own time. They were forced, in the circumstances, to request licence to examine it instead, a licence that, given the risk, I elected not to grant.

“I will bring Dyson,” I tried to assure Keller, hoping that they would honour my wish. “He will impart the knowledge to you. As to why his achievements became buried, and my own so influential…”

Keller seemed somewhat restless, I noticed, and he barely answered me. Masterson, whenever he appeared, was secretive too. Did I imagine it, or were they now beginning to shift their attention from me to the machine? I could not credit it, knowing that Keller had made my writings his lifework. But then it occurred to me that the Department was putting pressure on him to extract as much as possible about the machine, even without my being aware. It would be only a matter of time before they acted without my consent, I concluded, and so I put it in my head to set off again within a few days. Choosing the right time, however, would prove more difficult, given that Keller had become my constant companion, and my profile was now so public. I had little doubt, in any case, that they would try to prevent my leaving.

Let me fill the reader in here with more of what I learned about the state of things in this future of mine, especially concerning spiritualism (one cannot be said, of course, to possess the future, but if one becomes its architect or initiator the relationship is closer than that of simple witness). Much here will seem a vindication of my own theories, but of course there are others I should credit if I had the space. First of all, it has been determined without question that religion is rooted in the savage man’s primitive response to his environment, and is in particular a response to the utter inexplicability of death and change. It seems that we are programmed to respond to our development in a way that elevates our parents, and particularly our father, to the position of lawgiver and ultimate authority. This, then, is the key to our tendency to believe in a higher power, a creator. It has also been concluded that the seasons of the earth, as the seasons of man, are invested with a desire for the negation of death. Thus evolved the reincarnated god scenario common to several religions, of which Jesus Christ happens to be just one form, administering to our wish for the unchanging, for the unceasing comfort of a parent and the earth’s bounty. The problem with religion is not least in the individual’s mistaken belief that his so-called spiritual fervor is anything other than a sublimated primitive psychological response. Even in their time of enlightenment, there were still those desperate enough to cling to such wish fulfilment. The tyranny of a god, so long left hanging over our heads, had finally been lifted, and I beheld a society that, in its leaders at least, chose reason as its guiding principle. It had not been seen to be enough to divide the public and the private sphere, and to tolerate the private practice of religion. Religion had to be cut out at the root. Perhaps I was right after all – that mankind would eventually cure itself of that mass delusion that is religion; but the process needed hurrying up. So I heard about the European Materialist Council, which had voted to curtail the practice of religious worship, and the establishment in Britain of the Department of Supernaturalism, with its role of enforcing the laws first drawn up by the Council.

“The idea of God is derived in childhood, and comes from a longing for a father’s protection,” Keller was telling me over morning coffee in my rooms. “Your own theses first groped towards that idea, and Dr. Freud built his own theories upon it. As the desire for the parent to be ever present exists in infancy, so the human race in its infancy desires the protection of a deity. We are convinced, however, that the race is now ready to reach adulthood. We shall see how long resistance lasts.”

“Which countries belong to the Council of which you spoke?” I asked.

Keller lit a pipe. Near him, a breeze wafted in through the open windows. “America is divided on the question. Europe largely belongs to the enlightened ones. East, that’s where the resistance to progress lies.”

“How many is it, Keller, that the Department arrests every year?”

“Several dozen finish up serving long term sentences, or are silenced.”

The sound of his last word was chilling, but I chose, for the moment, not to press it further. Instead I said, “Tell me, Keller, did you ever believe?”

He looked at me curiously. “Dr. West. This is a much more enlightened age than your own. Most of the men you see around you were raised as atheists. No, I was a materialist from the womb, and I have never wavered.”

“I have known few such men,” I admitted. “And even those ones who were raised in atheist families could not escape the wider environment of belief. Doesn’t atheism breed immoral men? That was among the primary fears, I suspect, that lay behind so much opposition in my time. Without religion, wherefore morality?”

“Morality may be simply expedient, but we cannot outgrow it. Not yet. As Freud says, it may be just a conditioned response, but what is our alternative? One person’s happiness achieved at the misery of many? We can have only one super-being, one god, walking the earth, while the rest are bent to his will. A dictator, then.”

As the days passed, I learned that the nations belonging to the European Alliance were engaged in a war with the Mohammedans on the eastern frontier. It was a war of primitive faith versus reason and progress, and each month brought fresh casualties. There was also conflict in the colonies, and occasional outbreaks of fighting in the city itself. From the windows of my rooms in the Department I could see the perimeter fence that separated us from the civilians, and the military trucks coming and going through the gate. Both the Department and the university, to a large degree, were closed off from the rest of the social world, and I desired to see something more of the city. Thus I convinced Keller to give me a tour of the city. Although he declined to come himself, for reasons unknown to me, he agreed that Masterson should be my guide.

Masterson took me into the centre in a hover car, and we alighted on a landing platform atop one of the tallest buildings, a towering building of glass hundreds of feet high. I cannot describe the feeling of looking down from such a height; one only gets it from peering down a mountain’s side, and even then the sensation is not so vertiginous. It was nearing sunset, and the western sky was lit with flashes of red fire. I staggered back towards the hover car in awe: below me I had glimpsed, albeit fleetingly, a city swarming with industrious human insects, a dizzying complex of industry and technology moving like the mechanism of an enormous clock. The whole city resembled a machine, not an organic thing, unless it was an organic thing as regimented as an anthill. It was a wonder none of the men in my age were privileged to see, and the shock was almost too much.

Suddenly Masterson turned to me and he said, in a voice that was like a declamation, “Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them. And he saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”

I eyed him askance, for I knew he was quoting directly from the Bible; also, there was something in his voice that disturbed me, even though I was still weak from vertigo. Then he said, “Here then, Dr. West, is your kingdom. I hope you are pleased with it.”

My voice was thin, and I felt sick. “It is not my kingdom, Masterson. It is the world as it is. I merely predicted what would happen when man lost his religion.”

He smiled secretly, as if to himself, and opened the door of the hover car for me. “But is it not fine? Isn’t it a place you would like to be?” he said as we flew back to the Department complex, and I had no choice but to admit that it was.

On our return, I asked him if I might see Marion and, though reluctant, he consented to let me see her the very next day.

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