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Watchers on the Threshold

Glen Cavaliero

Chapter 3 of The Supernatural and English Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 57-90

Man has made mathematics, but God reality.
(W.B. Yeats, On the Boiler)
{57} The more materialistic the outlook, the more readily does it fall prey to preternatural dread. Once the concept of the supernatural has been departmentalized and reified, it becomes unmanageable, as much an occasion for black comedy as for fear -- a fact on which the sardonic intelligence of D. H. Lawrence fastened in 'The Lovely Lady', a tale of a selfish woman hounded to death by what she takes for spectral voices. Her gullibility, compounded, as in the case of Collins's Countess Narona, by a guilty conscience, is encompassed by her inventor's scorn: a disagreeable satire on literal-mindedness, the story provides a signal instance of what a truly supernaturalist tale is not.

Lawrence both despised and mistrusted the occult. The sense of hiddenness to which it appealed embodied all that he viewed as rotten in contemporary attitudes to religion and to sexuality; and though he was sympathetic to that yearning for spiritual power and wisdom which motivates hermetic studies, none the less he was sceptical as to the results of such inquiries. Yeats's 'half-read wisdom of demonic images' is a phrase that should warn off the literal-minded. The urge to belong to some body of secret gnosis, in order to assert and define one's own identity, provides frequent instances of how the concept of the supernatural can be distorted by human insecurity. Such aspirations are materialistic at heart, for they attempt the systematizing of the {58} immeasurable. The declaration enshrined in the Athanasian Creed that the Incarnation constitutes a taking of Manhood into God, rather than the conversion of Godhead into flesh, defines precisely the difference between a religious understanding of the supernatural and that held by occultists interested in magic and in manipulative spiritual ceremonies.

While both theologians and students of the occult regard material objects as potential vehicles for the operations of the supernatural, the latter study them primarily in the hope of understanding them and participating in their energy: Theirs is a scientific spirituality. Theology, the divine science, is contemplative; it focuses upon awareness of the indwelling divine order which constitutes beatitude. While affirming the hermetic belief in a materially operative immanence, it simultaneously recognizes the utter transcendence of the Absolute -- Judaism's gift to Christianity. Failure to distinguish between these two responses, the hermetic and the religious, complicates the reactions of subscribers to materialistic philosophies when confronted, say, with Blake's 'matter-of-fact hold of spiritual things'1 and the systematic study of occult lore undertaken by Yeats. They necessarily view such preoccupations as either the arbitrary adoption of convenient symbolism or simply as plain foolishness. Yeats's ambivalent commitments and, still more, the dazzling certainties of Blake, have become (indeed, always were) sources of embarrassment. Both writers were drawing on bodies of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century esoteric writings which rationalistic philosophy on its own premisses had necessarily to disown. Even late twentieth-century readers, with their inbuilt simplistic reflexes of either/or where spirit and body are concerned (Blake's indictment of Bacon, Locke, and Newton mythologizes the dichotomy), are resistant to these matters being taken seriously; and the results, where literary criticism is concerned, is an evasiveness amounting to an ironic comedy, one that veers towards the tragic.


For ours may indeed be a tragic age, even when we decline to take it seriously: the self-conscious satire of our contemporaries is no defence against the nemesis of history. Confronted with the ecological results of commercialized materialism, one turns back to nineteenth-century writers with a renewed sense of the continuity of their concerns with our own. Although the Victorian age may not have seen itself as tragic, it did take itself seriously: the tragedy there, perhaps, was that, save in a few dissentient voices (Carlyle, Arnold, George Eliot, Hardy), irony was rarely in evidence as a moral weapon, and its implications not popularly accepted. But such seriousness was not a question merely of dedicated, optimistic resolution: it had darker undertones, for the surface prosperity of the age was recognized by its more prophetic thinkers as being the crust above an abyss of physical disintegration and spiritual chaos. That the situation should be analysed in prose as eloquent as that of Ruskin or Carlyle may only have furthered in their readers' minds an exhilarating sense of the drama of their days; and a rhetorical novelist like Dickens could make his protests so enjoyable that his admirers must have been tempted to overlook the consequences to themselves of the social conditions that were those protests' terrible occasion. But it was the disturbance of religious belief which proved more immediately unsettling, especially to the queasy puritanism that shackled Protestant and Catholic alike. The tension between reasons for disbelief in the master-God and the penalties attendant on apostasy is illustrated in a dream recorded by John Addington Symonds, who as poet, aesthete, and self-tormented homosexual, was a peculiarly vulnerable subject for such a visitation.
I dreamed that we were all seated in our well-lit drawing-room, when the door opened of itself, just enough to admit a little finger. The finger, disconnected from any hand, crept slowly into the room, and moved about through the air, crooking its joints and beckoning. No one saw it but myself.2
The associations with the story of Belshazzar's Feast are subtly denigrated: this is like something out of Le Fanu. The sexual implications of the intrusion are sickeningly clear.

Far from being an age of comfortable spiritual materialism, the Victorian period was one of great mental upheavals in which ancient religious trends and traditions surfaced once again. Rational eighteenth-century Deistic Christianity was subverted not only by the other-worldly fervour of Evangelicalism and the revived Catholic spirituality of the Oxford Movement, but also by the growth of interest in mental aberrations, in dreams such as that endured by Symonds, and in spiritualism, mesmerism, {60} theosophy, and other occult philosophies and pseudo-sciences. The growth in communications and the break-up of static, and therefore stable, social units, together with the continued post-Romantic exaltation of the individual and of individual experience, fuelled what amounted to a general personalized recoil from the implicit mechanism and inhumanity of Benthamite social presuppositions, such a recoil as Dickens expressed in novel after novel, most cogently in Hard Times (1852): 'Society, considered as it had been in the Age of Reason, as it was in the scientific age, implied naturalism, rationalism, a fixed code of behaviour; this state of affairs by which the bourgeois made his money and sold his soul through a virtuous cynicism was simply unacceptable.'3

The various occult traditions, while they looked back to long-established spiritual systems deriving from the Eastern religions and from the Jewish cabbala, also had a contemporary reference. They included a blend of gnosticism, Neoplatonism, alchemy, astrology, and ritual magic. Theosophy, for instance, could be regarded as one method of turning personal spiritual experience into a scientific method, through the kind of eclectic comprehensiveness that made up Madame Blavatsky's widely read compendium, Isis Unveiled (1877), a system that provided a hopeful, optimistic counterpoint to the bleaker implications of scientific evolution. Towards the end of the century the aesthetic movement and the cultivation of a self-referential decadence were further protests against the dead hand of materialism. More systematic and scientific in approach was the Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882: among its members were to be the Cambridge scholar Henry Sidgwick, the critic Andrew Lang, the politician Arthur Balfour, and the doctor and writer of detective stories, Arthur Conan Doyle -- a highly respectable cross-section of the ruling social and cultural elite.

But the foundation of much of this interest had been laid earlier in the century with the Romantic Revival and its cult of various kinds of superman, omniscient sage, and master of the elixir of life. Even the arch-naturalist Balzac had in L'Elixir de longue vie (1830) and La Peau de chagrin (1831) betrayed an interest in the paranormal; while the remarkable success of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818) was evidence of a similar interest among British readers. Indeed, if Dracula has become the most durable myth to arise out of the Tale of Terror school, then Frankenstein has surely acquired a comparable status {61} in the field of the occult sciences. And yet the book is hard to classify. Is it to be read as a piece of embryonic science fiction? Or as a philosophical romance? Or as a tale of the supernatural, a parable concerning human nature? The plot contains elements which would lend themselves to each of these interpretations.

Mary Shelley was steeped in the humanistic ideas of her poet husband and of her novelist father, William Godwin; she was emulous as well as discipular when she began to write. Her book is as much of historical as of narrative interest. This was a period when vitalist ideas were subsuming ideas of the supernatural into a belief in the paranormal that formed a stage between the magical doctrines expounded in alchemy and cabbalistical tradition, and the advances of contemporary science. Many eighteenth century thinkers held that

man is endowed with a special sensorium operating independently of the five senses . . . The sixth sense of mesmerists . . . and the sympathetic nervous system of Romantic vitalists established rapport with nature by picking up impulses from a magnetic, electrical, or vital power diffused throughout the universe.4
Central to much scientific and philosophic thinking of the time was the attempt 'to reduce the mysteries of life to one basic principle, to identify a single animating agent that at once sustains life and figures as its chief cause'.5 It is this attempt which forms the subject-matter of more than one piece of magical and occultist fiction.

Mary Shelley's own intention was clear enough, both as enunciated in her Introduction to the reprint of Frankenstein in 1830 and in the original Preface which her husband wrote for the first edition. Initially her aim had been to write a story 'which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror' [Introduction 7]. A conversation with Byron and her husband concerning the possibility of bringing the dead to life through galvanism resulted in a nightmare, the climax arriving when the experimenter awakens to find a monster by his bedside looking down on him with 'yellow, watery, but speculative eyes' Introduction 10]. But as Shelley himself remarks in the Preface,

The event on which the interest of the story depends is exempt from the disadvantages of a mere tale of spectres or enchantment. It was recommended by the novelty of the situations which it developes; and however impossible as a physical fact, affords a point of view to the imagination {62} for the delineating of human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of existing events can yield. [Preface 1]
He goes on to cite the Iliad, The Tempest, Paradise Lost, and other works as conforming to this rule, and in so doing sets out the foundations for much subsequent supernaturalist fiction of a serious kind.

In Frankenstein the 'scientific' angle is scarcely laboured: the author wisely eschews details beyond her competence, but the hints she drops as to the physical constituents of the eight-foot high man that Victor Frankenstein creates are macabre enough to be worthy even of 'Monk' Lewis. Moreover it is noteworthy that Victor's research and his discovery of the principles of life arise out of his previous immersion in the discredited magical science of alchemy and the writings of the medieval cabbalists. Frankenstein has its roots in occult tradition.

The book is in fact less concerned with the marvellous as such than with the philosophical issues for which the marvellous tale affords expression. Frankenstein himself is clear as to the moral of his story: 'Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow' (ch. 4). In this respect the author's imagination (as the imagination by its very nature is apt to do) goes beyond what her reason has delimited. For the story is not simply about Victor Frankenstein; it is about the being which -- or whom? -- he has created. How monstrous is the monster?

The answer would seem to be initially that he is a perversion made out of dead men's bones, and worse; and the fact that his maker has the stomach for the job is in part attributed to a rejection of the occult and the preternatural.

In my education my father had taken the greatest precautions that my mind should be impressed with no supernatural honors. I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition, or to have feared the apparition of a spirit. Darkness had no effect upon my fancy; and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm. (ch. 4)
It is this insensitivity which enables Victor to forget that its ugliness will repel any human response to the monster, whose {63} own potentially good nature is thus queered by its appearance. From this perspective Frankenstein may be read as a parable of the unjust creation, a theodicy concerning the intrinsically unlovable. But this aspect of the book is not developed until the close -- and even here the role of the monster is ambiguous.

The connection between creature and creator evolves into the kind of reciprocal relationship described by the author's father, William Godwin, in Caleb Williams (1794) as existing between Caleb and his persecutor Falkland. Moreover, the brave project of creating a living being degenerates into the accidental raising of a demon: the natural and the occult are set at odds:

'I considered the being whom I had cast among mankind, and endowed with the will and power to effect purposes of horror . . . nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me' (ch. 7).
The heroics of Victor Frankenstein have become the obscenities of Count Dracula; the monster becomes the image of his creator's baser self. At the book's close, with Frankenstein dead, the monster determines to kill himself, since he has no more reason to live. Having been given an objective status through his conversation at Victor's deathbed with the book's primary narrator, the Arctic explorer Captain Walton, he achieves -- or recovers -- a kind of pathos. His prospective end on a burning pyre upon the ice has a fitting and almost redemptive grandeur. As for Frankenstein, he begins to redeem himself when he accepts responsibility for his creature's deeds, and for 'the first hapless victims to my unhallowed arts' [1.7.10]. The language is no longer that of scientific inquiry, but that of the occult. Significantly, the occult is concerned not so much with exploring new knowledge as with the recovery of a lost one: whereas science is open to all, cabbalistic wisdom is the province of the few. But in their late nineteenth-century heyday hermetic studies were hailed as being departments of science, and as such could be regarded as valid subjects for naturalistic fiction -- an attempt to heal in literary terms the conflict dramatized in Frankenstein.


1. Alexander Gilchrist, The Life of William Blake (1863), ch. 13.

2. Horatio F. Brown, John Addington Symonds: A Biography (1895), 7-8.

3. James Webb, The Flight from Reason (1971), 101.

4. Marie M. Tatar, Spellbound: Essays on Mesmerism and Literature (Princeton, NJ, 1978), 47-8.

5. Ibid., 49.