Saturday, July 2, 2011

"The New World Man" by Jonathan P. Hooper (chapter 6: Illumination)

I was taken down by means of an elevator (a novelty for me) to the underground levels of the Department, where all the transgressors, cranks and religious fundamentalists were kept that had not been transferred to a state prison. Keller was my guide and as we walked together he again brought up the matter of the Time Machine.

“So you are certain that two people cannot travel at once?” he said gravely, as if a lot was on his mind.

“Dyson stipulated that only one could be accommodated. But listen, I myself have used the machine. I believe it is impossible, given the way one travels, for two people to be present.”

“Can you be certain?”

“Not completely, perhaps. But understand that it is not travelling in the conventional sense. You do not simply sit in the machine while it begins to move. Something entirely different happens.”

“Can you describe the process?”

“Not adequately. Mere words will not suffice. It affects the consciousness like a dream or a hallucination. Something akin to being immersed in water, I think that comes closest to what happened in my case. Of all the things, it made me think of swimming in a kind of soup. It must sound absurd to you.”

“I will admit that I cannot grasp what you mean. Perhaps one has to experience it, and that’s that.”

In the corridor ahead, we suddenly glimpsed Masterson, standing before a plain metal door. While we were still some distance away, he gave a sign to be quiet, and so we approached him silently. There was a grill in the upper part of the door, and he seemed to be hesitating before turning on the light in the room, his finger poised above the exterior light switch. He gestured for me to listen, and so I put my ear against the grill and heard a voice coming from the darkness.

“Hear the voice of my supplications, when I cry unto thee, when I lift up my hands toward thy holy oracle. Draw me not away with the wicked, and with the workers of iniquity, who speak peace to their neighbours, but mischief is in their hearts. Give them according to their deeds, and according to the wickedness of their endeavours: give them after the work of their hands; render to them their desert. Because they regard not the works of the Lord, nor the operation of his hands, he shall destroy them, and not build them up.”

It was a woman’s voice, and the words were vaguely familiar to me; I guessed, rightly it seemed, that this was a passage from the Psalms.

Masterson was looking at me with a cool, penetrating gaze. “Do you hear it?” he said at once, breaking our silence. “The whole thing committed to memory. The wisdom of forbidden books. Would you credit it? A mere child. Mindful of psalms and ancient supplications.”

He had already flicked the light switch and was making his way through the door. Keller and I came slowly behind him, somewhat disconcerted. The cell was bare, like the one into which I had been brought that first day, with nothing except a chair in the middle and a lamp shining down from the ceiling. Marion was seated, her eyes blinkingly trying to adjust to the light. She saw me standing behind Masterson, but her face registered no surprise. Despite her ragged look, I was again disconcerted by the dignity with which she held up her head.

“Where did you learn that?” Masterson began. “Don’t be reticent and claim ignorance about what you recited. We have known for a long time of your underground print works. Hymn books turn up from time to time. Even whole Bibles.”

Marion said nothing, and at that point Masterson turned to me and said, “We have a method called Illumination, which I would like you to see, Dr. West. I call it, ‘letting the light in’. Marion is due to undergo the operation in a few days, but for your benefit I will bring it forward. In fact, I will arrange for our subject to be brought to the surgery at once, so that you may witness it. Lowering his voice, he said: “You may not know this, because in your time surgery techniques were, if you’ll forgive me, rather less well-developed. You see, it has been discovered, and proved beyond any doubt, that the brain – or, I should say, a certain kind of brain – comes at birth pre-programmed for supernaturalism. There is a fault in such brains that leaves room for so-called spiritual experiences, what is in fact a kind of externalisation of certain psychic phenomena. In extreme cases, this may lead to epilepsy, which is what St. Paul experienced on the road to Damascus. In other words, some people are born pre-disposed to religiosity. They are born with a hunger for spirit food, but we can remove that hunger.

“Advanced micro-surgery techniques have given us the ability to ‘correct’ the part of the brain where the disposition to spiritualism lies. We can, if you follow, prevent the release of the neurotransmitter that creates the feeling of √©lan, the joy, or spiritual elation felt by subjects. It lies in the area of the temporal lobe. We have found the seat of the spirit in consciousness. This is the fate for all these fanatics and dreamers, Dr. West.”

My emotions were a mixture of distaste and growing excitement. I admit that I felt a deep dread at his reference to micro-surgery, but the knowledge now presented to me was too tantalising to forbear. What did it mean – that incarceration was not the ultimate fate of dissidents like Marion?

“You will release her then?” I said.

“It is not quite as simple as that. The process of readjustment takes longer in some cases than in others. It is theoretically possible for a subject to still harbour religious ideas, even to continue in insurrectionary practices, long after their ‘joy’ and their visions have left them. But, in theory anyway, when the feeling diminishes, so does the belief, and the desire to practice the belief.”

During all this, Marion had remained quiet, but it was not hard to see that she was afraid, though evidently she had heard little of the account Masterson had given me. For a moment, I looked in her eyes, and she met mine; there was the briefest look there, communicated to me half in secret: it was not quite a look of hate, more, I thought, of contempt. In truth, I did feel something strong for her, and wished that Masterson would select another subject for surgery. It seemed, however, that he had chosen this specific case because of the connection that existed between us.

“Is there a risk?” I demanded, my chivalric sense about to make itself felt.

“There is no risk to her health, Dr. West. The remotest risk, perhaps, that one runs at any minor operation. But tell me – why do you so desire her safety?”

I had no answer for such a question, it was true. I myself could hardly come to terms with it – I put my interest down to mere attraction. I was too old and experienced to be swayed by romantic ideas, and so I dismissed my thoughts of her and decided to witness what Masterson had to show me.

From the cell Keller and I were led into a larger room with a bed against one wall, and around it a mass of machines and banks of computer screens. While Masterson and his doctors busied themselves getting ready their things, a couple of nurses brought Marion in and laid her upon the bed. She was already unconscious – I was relieved that, at least, I would not witness surgery on a conscious patient. We were told, later, that Marion had had an epileptic fit just after we left her. When the nurses had tried to inject her with anaesthetic, she had gone into a fit and not emerged again for several minutes.

When he was ready, Masterson positioned himself behind a desk some distance from the bed and the patient. Keller and I stood beside him as the doctors began the work. I did not understand the principle behind their use of the computers – still I am unable to grasp the rudiments of microchip technology, man of my own time that I am – but I watched in fascinated dread as they controlled a robotic device that swung down from the machine next to Marion’s bed and shone a crimson light directly on her fine, delicate skull. It called for intense concentration, and I saw the surgeon controlling the device break out into a sweat as he worked. He made some adjustments, realigned the crosshairs as he traversed an x-ray map of Marion’s skull, and eventually slumped back in his chair in apparent resignation.

“He did not succeed?” I asked Masterson, in a voice of shocked challenge.

“He did,” he said, “but, Dr. West, you must understand the difficulty of the task. The neurotransmitter that predisposes us to spiritualism is a mere blip, a ghost in the machine, and much is at risk. But she will recover, I am sure.”

This seemed a bald contradiction of his earlier claim. It appeared that Marion had been in some danger after all.

“I am surprised, Masterson, that you did not need to seek sanction for your work.”

“We already have state approval, otherwise I would not have brought you here,” he said, rising. “And the operation would not have been carried out. Dr. West, it seems you established some sort of relationship with our subject. I would like you to visit her in her cell, after she has recovered from the anaesthesia. It would do me, and our work here, a great service if you would observe and record for posterity the change in the patient’s disposition.” Here he glanced at Keller. “That is, if the professors do not count your time too precious for such matters.”

I agreed to do so, and so it was that I found myself waiting for Marion’s recovery, driven to distraction by Keller’s persistent interest in the machine. How long could he – could I – hold off the scientists from tampering with the machine, from cutting off my only means of return? I admitted to myself that I would not take flight before seeing the difference in Marion, before assuring myself of the validity of Masterson’s science (not to mention her safety). But my escape would have to happen soon. To reassure myself, I reached into my pocket. The brass key was still there, untouched. What worried me, however, was whether they would try to break into the machine if they could not open the door, and whether that would render it useless.

Observing the change in Marion would require ample time spent together, since her belief in my treachery had rendered her silent. I half expected to see her struck down again by epilepsy when I entered her cell, but she just lay on a mattress in a semi-comatose position, staring at the lamp in the ceiling. It left me with a feeling of distaste and injustice: like in the interrogation cell, there was no bed, and the only means of relaxation was the mattress on the floor. There were no fixtures either, except the small toilet in an adjoining room.

I asked Keller, who had accompanied me, if the interview might be conducted in more comfortable quarters and he went away to bring the nurses. In the meanwhile, I lay beside Marion, who did not seem to notice me, and said, “They have removed your impulse to faith. It will take a little time, I suppose, to adjust.”

I found myself looking long upon her, impressed with her stoic silence, but more so with something I could not quite pin down – I guess I could have called it a kind of surety, a kind of belief, that impressed me even though I knew it was misguided. She was beautiful, too, but the fact is I believed myself impartial. True, I admired her grace in the midst of adversity, but it was necessary to tell myself that my admiration was professional and not rooted ultimately in mere desire.

Marion went on staring at the light in the ceiling while the nurses entered and we were brought, Marion being half-lifted, to a second room with chairs and a comfortable leather sofa. She was made to lie on the sofa while I sat on the chair next to the window and lit my pipe. For a while she simply closed her eyes, and I had the feeling she would refuse to co-operate. I had received her case history from Masterson – I had the papers in a folder on my lap. She was an educated girl, the daughter of an ex-theology professor, and she’d studied Italian literature at Oxford, specialising in Renaissance writers (they suspected access to Dante, who, even in his most heavily censored form, reeked of the beliefs of the high Middle Ages). However, there was the history of the epilepsy and more – friends had come forward since her capture and the investigation to say she’d claimed to receive religious visitations, some of which put her into a state of seizure.

What was the nature of the visitations? An intense spiritual feeling, accompanied by a belief that there was a supernatural presence in the room with her. Masterson had pressed the matter: what kind of being did she believe had visited her? Her answer: one of the hierarchy of angels.

Marion, it turned out, had fallen in with an underground supernaturalist group while still at Oxford, a group currently being investigated, the members of which were still being sought. Masterson thought that Marion could lead them to the others. Wasn’t this group the same one that met at the rally, I’d asked? Apparently not, for the rally I’d attended was simply a meeting of spiritualists, mystics and political dissidents whereas the elect group to which Marion belonged was a much more clandestine affair. The name of this secret society of spiritualists was, as Marion had already intimated, The Nazarenes. I’d heard the name before – of course, they had been a group of painters that had influenced the Pre-Raphaelites of my own time. But these were named for the Nazarene, Jesus, and were a Christian society. The Department had been following Marion for some time, and our flight from the square had obviously been tracked.

“How do you feel?” I asked her after it was clear she had opened her eyes and was staring at the ceiling, her head propped up by pillows.

She did not answer at first, but then, just as I was about to resume the questioning, she said, “What did they do to me? What did you mean about an ‘impulse to faith’?”

Masterson had failed to mention whether I should confront Marion with the reality. However, I chose to do so, and I began to explain the process with the ‘laser’ – so Masterson had termed it. Marion looked at me. She did not seem as shaken, now that I came to think of it, as I expected.

“He claims to have located the source in the brain of what humans believe is spiritual joy,” I said, finding the explanation uncomfortable. “He has removed the neurotransmitter in your brain that predisposes you to spiritual visions.”

Marion had sat up on the sofa, and was reaching for a glass of water from the nearby table. Her movements being unsteady, I helped her by raising the glass to her lips. She made no attempt to reproach me for my gentlemanly conduct, and I wondered whether she might be feigning tolerance in order to avenge my betrayal in more propitious circumstances.

“Spiritual belief,” she began to say, “Can be inherited. It can also be intellectual.”

“Yes, but Masterson claims that we invent logical explanations to support a ‘spiritualist’ impulse that resides in the temporal lobe. If religious belief is inherited, it may be abandoned in adulthood, when the individual is able to distinguish between reason and fancy. And if it is intellectually based, it is likely to be preceded, however unconsciously, by a longing, a wish-fulfilment. Of course, the very idea that religious feeling can be intellectually based is an outmoded idea in any case.”

Marion remained impassive. “So what does he believe he has achieved? That he has altered a part of my brain?”

Put like that, I had to admit that it sounded simply grotesque: a Frankensteinian scenario. “You feel no different?” I asked again.

“I prayed just now,” Marion said. “Under my breath. When I was lying there. I didn’t move my lips, but I heard the words in my head. God listens.”

“Aren’t you afraid of what has happened to you?” I queried, genuinely concerned.

“I have prayed for strength, and expected capture, for a long time now.”

I reached for my notepad and made a few notes. Of course, it was perfectly explicable. As Masterson had told me, Marion would be likely to continue in her ways for the present; the process of readjustment would take some time.

“Tell me, Marion, do you still believe in angels?” She did not need to answer, of course; I knew her delusion persisted. Instead, I changed the line to: “Tell me about one of these angelic visitations. What does an angel look like?”

She was staring into space; staring at nothing. “A spiritual being is not visible to the senses,” she said, speaking in a low murmur. “You wouldn’t understand. It will not stand up to your empiricism. You cannot trace the origins and development of one that is of the species of angels.”

“So you felt the presence of this being? If being is the right word. More than that, you actually saw what you believe is a spiritual being.” I interpreted her silence as assent. “You are an epileptic, Marion,” I said. “Do you think perhaps that your epileptic fits may be in some way connected with your propensity to experience spiritual events?”

She did not answer this. Instead she turned to me and said: “So you are the father of all this? The creator?”

I was, I freely admit, taken aback. Had Masterson told her the role of my works in their society? If so, what had his purpose been? I recovered quickly, and asked, “Do you believe I am who they claim?”

“Herbert West? I do not doubt you are he. I have witnessed many miracles.”

“So you believe I have travelled through Time? You believe I have come from the past? Doesn’t that conflict with your own beliefs?”

“In what way?”

“Time – surely Time is something, according to the tenets of Christianity, that is given us by God. Imagine a being that can traverse Time, for whom history is as a map laid out before him in perfect relief. Such a man is not bound by ordinary laws. Do you understand what that entails, Marion? Such a man may become as a god himself. He may cheat death, constantly flee from the end. Surely, history, in your conception, is something that has flowed by according to God’s will. What then of the man, such as myself, who is able to bend Time to his own whims?”

Marion spoke slowly, determinedly, as she said, “If it has been permitted, then it has been permitted for a reason.”

I smiled. “What reason do you have in mind?”

“I don’t pretend to know what God wills. But I do know that you are in a privileged position, Dr. West, to seek the meaning behind all things. To find out, beyond doubt, the answer that has puzzled your professors of philosophy.”

“What question is that? The question of God, I take it. Will I find God in Time?”

“You will. In Palestine. At that moment in human history when the divine came down to us, when he descended to the clay and the passions and the senses, and rose again up in perfection.”

“You expect me to find God in history thus?”

You will not find God in that way. Not according to your account. You could, if you allowed the scales to fall from your eyes. But, just as the people of that time did not believe they saw God in the flesh, neither would you see him. What I would give to be offered that chance. Do you see my point, Dr. West? If the men of the time crucified him, what difference will your witnessing make? You will go seeking a man, and you will not see the divine. No, I am not talking about seeking God Himself in Time. There is another way to answer the question. You can answer the question of God by seeking the answer to His works.”

“God, the great watchmaker? What can we learn of the so-called architect of nature, now that science has discredited the argument from design?”

“You have the opportunity, Dr. West, to go forward or to go back. To reach the end or the beginning of mankind’s life on this planet. There is your answer.”

The import of this began to sink in. I sat back, pondering what she had said. “Six thousand years. That was Bishop Ussher’s estimate, wasn’t it? So you are suggesting that I travel to the time of origins, to the moment of history’s conception, or else to the world’s end? Shall I go back, then, to those primal seas long before man? I have all the geological ages of the earth from which to pick. I can see first hand the great encircling ocean, Tethys, and its single continent, Pangaea; I can stand before those leviathans, the dinosaurs. If I choose my moment well, I can even go back to that moment when our primate ancestors first walked upright and emerged from the trees. Yes, that would be the thing to witness.”

Marion was looking out the window. At length she said: “You understand, don’t you, that Masterson doubts? That he would like to go in your place. He wants the secret of the Time Machine, and he sends Keller in his place because you are closer to trusting him. After all this time, you should realise, he still doubts that his conception of history – your conception of history – is true. In the depths of his heart, Dr. West; in the depths of his soul, he cannot believe that nature is all. So your coming to him has been a kind of wish-fulfilment. A miraculous event. He wants to believe, with all the strength of his will, that nature is all. That your materialist conception of history is right. If he could, he would go back to witness the emergence of order from chaos, the universe from nothing. Just to satisfy the dread that haunts him.”

“How do you know this?” I said, my voice raised in alarm. “How can you know what Masterson believes? What Masterson wants?”

She answered, without the smugness one would expect, without a trace of vindictiveness: “It does not matter to me whether you or Masterson find the answers to these questions. I hope, in finding them, you will trust at least the evidence of your senses. I do not need to seek the answers. I have found them already. Now, you have been charged with recording my progress. You want to know whether I am still deluded? Whether I have lost the inclination to spiritualism?” I nodded, still shaken. “Did you know there is, at this very moment, an angel in the room?”

I looked shocked, then broke into laughter. “You are trying to fool me.”

“It is true. There is an angel here, sent to guard me. What do you think? Am I deluded? You see, Masterson believes he can remove this propensity, and it is true that my spiritual vision has left me, but his theories are based on the premise that these visitations are entirely subjective, that they are a product of delusion. There is a neurotransmitter that controls spiritual sight, as he supposes, but that does not mean that the visions are subjective. There is an angel here. Standing beside me at this hour. I know it by faith.”

I laughed again, awkwardly. The way she was gesturing to her side made me uncomfortable. “Well, Marion, I see nothing. I feel nothing. We are quite alone here. But I thank you sincerely – you have given me more than enough material to bring to Masterson.”

“Nevertheless, the angel remains. It strengthens me, it lays a hand on my shoulder, just as the angel did in Gethsemane, when my Lord laboured through the hours of darkness. I do not need to see it or feel’s its radiance. Do you know what I think? I think that you were chosen to travel in Time for a purpose. I believe that God has selected you for a particular reason. If this is the case, go to your machine. Go and seek your answer.”

“I am like you. I have found my answers already.”

“If you are so sure, then, return to your own time, and write up your findings. But if some doubt, even the smallest doubt, remains – go and find out, before Masterson takes the means from you.”

These were the last words she spoke to me that day; I returned to my rooms and brooded over the warning, unexpected as it had come, that Masterson might try to take the machine for himself. I also thought about her challenge: to travel to mankind’s beginning or end. Had I, after all, found certain answers to the question of existence? Had science really

banished all of my superstitious longings? Surely there could be no harm in it – a visit to the beginnings of history would banish forever any doubts that might surface in my later life, when death seemed nearer (assuming, of course, that recourse to the machine’s life-prolonging gift were denied me by Dyson). Then it occurred to me also that I need not return the machine to Dyson – I could thus cheat death by travelling endlessly, ensuring that he would never reclaim his miracle.

All history was before me, then. This thought became a comfort to me as I lay down to sleep that night in my college rooms. Nevertheless the lingering doubt – that I needed to learn the origin of things, to conclusively answer the question of God – returned to keep me from rest.

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