Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

The time-flats of Trianon: temporal paradox in ‘The Childermass’

In Wyndham Lewis’s extraordinary 1928 satire The Childermass, recently deceased odd couple Pullman and Satterthwaite (a Don Quixote and Sancho Panza pairing, or aspects of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein if you prefer) wander the “Time-flats”, the unstable purgatorial landscapes of the hereafter, as they seek admission to the heavenly Magnetic City.

The Punch-like Bailiff surveys the Time-flats, in Michael Ayrton's cover for the 1956 edition

The Punch-like Bailiff surveys the Time-flats, in Michael Ayrton’s cover for the 1956 edition

In one more than averagely baffling episode Pulley and Satters find that they have meandered into a “Time-scene” where all becomes smaller in an artificially diminishing perspective, and – as in H G Wells’s 1901 story The New Accelerator – people and animals are frozen in immobility. Arriving at a living tableau straight out of Rowlandson, they identify the time as the late eighteenth century, and the place as Islington – specifically, the Old Red Lion Tavern where, as Pullman recalls, Tom Paine wrote his Rights of Man.

As childish Satters peeps into the garden of the tavern, he sees three men around a table, on which is placed “an object the size of a large hen’s egg, of bright ultramarine …” Fascinated, Satters tweaks the pigtail of one of the miniature figures, which, coming to life, upbraids him “with a slight American accent,” proving itself to be Paine. (The identity of the other two figures sat before the egg is not suggested, though the Williams Blake and Godwin might be a fair bet.)

Satters and Pulley, by Ayrton

Satters and Pulley, by Ayrton

Pullman, perhaps aware of the terrible dangers, familiar to all science fiction readers, that might result from interference with the past, is horrified. But he is powerless to restrain his companion, who, in a fit of spite, snatches up the miniature Paine and runs off with him. The mannikin sinks his teeth into Satters’s hand, who retaliates by trampling him “in an ecstasy of cruelty … into an inert flattened mass.” Having gratuitously killed off the Enlightenment and human rights, the pair are abruptly flung back into the present, or at least, what passes for time present in their shifting afterlife.

The episode is touched on by several commentators, but I’m not aware of much analysis of the details. In the novel as in his wider work, Lewis is concerned with what he sees as the deleterious cultural and political effects of “time philosophies”, and in particular the subjectivised model of time as creative flux promoted so influentially by the philosopher Henri Bergson. Alan Munton has noted how the instability of the landscape, much of it apparently invented by the grotesque Bailiff who presides over the entrance to the City, suggests the untrustworthy and contingent nature both of fiction itself and of the political structures embodied by the Bailiff. More recently Jonathan Goodwin has also highlighted the relevance of the novel to the political climate of the late ‘twenties.

But why the eighteenth century? And why Tom Paine? And what is the mysterious blue egg that so attracts Satterthwaite? Maybe this episode comes a bit more into focus when set alongside a possible source for Lewis, the bestselling An Adventure of 1911 and 1913 – the first hand accounts of the “Moberly-Jourdain incident,” sometimes tagged as “the ghosts of Versailles”. The incident is well covered in a Wikipedia entry, and the texts of both editions are available here and here, but the main points can be quickly outlined.

In August 1901 two English women, Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain, both teachers and daughters of clergy, visited Versailles. Losing their way on a walk to the Petit Trianon, they experienced, according to their own accounts, a sense of oppressive unreality. They encountered a number of people in more or less old fashioned clothing, but each also noticed, at a distance, figures that the other did not, including a woman sitting sketching whom Moberly later identified as Marie Antoinette.

an adventureComparing notes later, they agreed that the location had been in some sense haunted, and embarked on a decade of detailed research into the historical background. On return visits to Versailles they failed to recognise many features of the landscape they had walked through, but later claimed, on the basis of their research, that these had existed in the late eighteenth century. In 1911, as “Elizabeth Morison” and “Frances Lamont”, they first published their accounts and the exhaustive results of their research.

The affair hardly deserves a place in the museum of hoaxes alongside the Cottingley Fairies and so forth, if only because, barring outright fabrication, which appears unlikely, the precise nature of the matter eludes satisfactory definition. The two most respectable “solutions” later offered – (1) a folie à deux triggered by repressed lesbian desires, and (2) that the pair wandered unwittingly into a fancy dress charade organised by neighbouring decadent Robert de Montesquiou – are both so fantastical as to make the suggestion of time travel seem entirely moderate.

Charlotte Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain

Charlotte Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain

Both women owned “the faith of our fathers”, found ghosts “unconvincing”, and “studiously avoid[ed]” spiritualism as “utterly lowering”. However, Moberly did confess to “powers of second sight” and to other, less substantial, psychic moments. In 1902, the year after the event, they submitted their accounts to the Society for Psychical Research, though a later review of their book in the Proceedings of the Society was sceptical, suggesting a misinterpretation of actual events. But Moberly and Jourdain concluded that in some way “we had entered into the working of the Queen’s memory while she was still alive.” Their experience had not been of time travel pure and simple, nor of a haunting, but of some sort of historical-psychological slippage.

An Adventure became, briefly, a best seller, and lodged itself for some time in the popular consciousness as a psychic cause célèbre. (I remember being told about it by a teacher on a visit to Versailles in the ‘sixties.) Lewis would almost certainly have known of the book, and its relevance for his vision of Bergsonian time in The Childermass is clear. There are several similarities.

In both cases the landscape is unrecognisable and landmarks altered. Moberly and Jourdain recall passing over a small rustic bridge over a waterfall leading to a small pool. On subsequent visits they could find no evidence of these features. Conversely, Pullman and Satters can see no sign of an expected river, the one “real” landmark by which they hope to find their way.

Both landscapes feel artificial. Moberly: “In front of us was a wood … Everything suddenly looked unnatural, therefore unpleasant; even the trees behind the building seemed to have become flat and lifeless, like a wood worked in tapestry. There were no effects of light and shade, and no wind stirred the trees. It was all intensely still.” Lewis: “‘It’s like a picture,’ Satters suggests … Nothing seems to be moving on its surface … It is a little faded like a very much enlarged rustic colour-print.” And: “’It’s a panorama! Look at that hedge. Do you see its perspective? It’s built in a diminishing perspective.’”

While Moberly and Jourdain converse freely with some of those they meet, Jourdain also carefully notes the near immobility of others seen at a distance: “The woman was standing on the steps, bending slightly forward, holding a jug in her hand. The girl was looking up at her from below with her hands raised, but nothing in them … I remember that both seemed to pause for an instant, as in a tableau vivant; but we passed on, and I did not see the end.” Compare with Lewis: “A group of posturing figures, with the silhouettes of ancient fashion-plates, pivot and point to all quarters of the compass, occupied with the view. Their arms stand outstretched, as stiff as cannons, or travel slowly across what they are surveying.”

In each case disconnected or disembodied sounds are experienced. Moberly and Jourdain hear the sound of a running man some time before his “sudden” appearance. On a second, solo visit the following year Jourdain heard the rustling of silk dresses and voices speaking in French: “I turned round sharply to see who they were, but saw no one … Faint music, as of a band, not far off, was audible … Both voices and music were diminished in tone, as in a phonograph, unnaturally. The pitch of the band was lower than usual. The sounds were intermittent …” Pullman and Satters hear an “ominous hollow thumping”, which “sounds rather near” but fluctuates. Pullman points out that here “near and far are very relative”, and interprets the sound as the hammering of a sculptor, which perhaps suggests the fabrication of the landscape.

Moberly and Jourdain eventually concluded that “… if we have entered into an act of memory, it may well have been first made on the terrible 10th of August, 1792, though the memory itself was occupied … with the events of October 5th, 1789 … There is an incoherence … which seems to require combination within a single mind, and the only mind to which they could all have been present would have been that of the Queen … she may … have seen the trees, as one sees trees in recollection, like a picture without life, depth or movement.” Their narrative may have struck Lewis as a text-book case of time experienced in the Bergsonian mode. As already mentioned, the women submitted their accounts to the Society for Psychical Research; in 1913, the year of the second edition of An Adventure, Bergson accepted the presidency of that Society.

On October 5 1789 the royal couple were expelled from Versailles; August 10 1792 was the day of the insurrectionary occupation of the Tuileries that effectively ended the monarchy. In March 1791, about halfway between these two events, Tom Paine’s Rights of Man was published, in part a defence of the French Revolution. Lewis has Pullman and Satters slip through time to a point of influence symmetrical with the events across the Channel re-remembered by Moberly and Jourdain.

Later in The Childermass, Pullman and Satterthwaite listen to the lengthy, ranting pronouncements of the Bailiff before his audience of appellants, clamouring to enter Heaven. At one point the Bailiff explains that “… you are entirely without rights. For your share you shall have the right of petitioning! That my poor friends is your Bill of Rights – so it has been, so it shall always be – in that I can alter nothing. Call it a Bill of Wrongs, I cannot help you! I am not the Legislator.” Pullman, whose sympathies are with the Bailiff, responds by shouting out impulsively: “Well come that’s something!”

Lewis’s italics are a direct quote from Paine, whose original irony is compounded by our realisation that, as the Bailiff puts it, “so it has been, so it shall always be.” The world of despotism figureheaded by the Bailiff is a world where the constitutional rights advocated by Paine have never been won, because Paine, thanks to Satters’s moment of puerile anger, has ceased to exist.

I have not been able to find a reference to such a “temporal paradox” theme in any science fiction before the 1940’s. If this is the case, Lewis appears to have been the first writer to use the idea.

great mogulBut what of the ultramarine egg on Paine’s table that stirs up the “kindergarten intensity” of Satters’s inquisitiveness? Lewis tells us: “It is the egg stolen from the Great Mogul the Virgin egg.” The missing punctuation (so effective when Lewis reproduces the rhythms of vernacular speech) is not helpful here, and the two terms require separation. The fabulous Great Mogul diamond, cut in the shape of an egg and of a bluish tinge, disappeared in 1747, believed stolen on the assassination of its possessor, Nadir Shah of Persia. The Mogul is the diamond, not the owner, though the confusion here may be on the part of Satters rather than of Lewis. Satters at first assumes that the object must be a large jewel, but in reality it is the “Virgin egg” whose effluence both attracts and repels him, for “to touch it spells discovery”.

The term “Virgin egg” is Theosophical jargon. In Blavatsky’s tediously convoluted symbolic cosmology, it is the egg of pre-cosmic, undifferentiated matter, now penetrated by the ray from the Logos and descending to the plane of manifestation. It contains in itself the promise of the entire universe, and so can be identified with the Akashic (aetheric) egg, sometimes shown as blue or purple. In Theosophy the “Akashic Records” are the energetic imprint on the Akasha of all experiences of all lifetimes in all realities, an accessible holographic repository of past occurrences and future potentials. Essentially, the Egg is an image of the Bergsonian time-flux, condensed.

What business has it in the hands of the rationalist Paine? As Lewis must have been aware, and as an online search will speedily confirm, Theosophists have long claimed Paine as an adept, if only for his universalist deism and his interest in freemasonry. In the moments immediately preceding his premature demise beneath the football boots of the “psychic clown” Satters, Lewis has Paine in adoration of the essence of the very time-philosophy that enables the two interlopers to cancel out his existence. It is a fine Lewisian irony.

The eighteenth century misadventure of Pulley and Satters is less science fiction than parable. For Lewis, subjectivist time philosophies of the Bergsonian and Theosophist kind, becoming dominant in the twentieth century, are far from progressive. They are sympathetic to a fiction-making that redefines the past, and the present and future in terms of that past, setting cultural forces at the service of ideological control. As the Bailiff’s antagonist Hyperides puts it: “That Time-factor … that you have put back to obsess, with its movement, everything – … what is that accomplishing except the breaking-down of all our concrete world into a dynamical flux, whose inhuman behests we must follow, instead of it waiting on us?”


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