Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Man Who Went Too Far

Fiction ~ short story
Published in Pall Mall Magazine, June 1904
Collected in The Room in the Tower and Other Stories (1912)
8,385 words
(First read 15/02/2012) 

The Man Who Went Too Far is quite a comical tale, though it's not meant to be.  U.N. tells the story of his pal Darcy¹ going to visit his pal Frank Halton.  Darcy, 37, is recovering from a bout of typhoid; Halton, 35, lives in an obscure corner of the New Forest (Hampshire); both men are successful painters.
Frank embodies that philosophy or mode of living which recurs fairly often in the work of E. F. Benson, which might loosely be called paganism, or more precisely Pan-worship, or in more modern terms Back-to-Nature-ism.  He's long since given up painting and, buried in his rural backwater, has devoted the last six years to the business of
communing with nature so much and so deeply that, according to his theory, he will ~ inevitably and very soon ~ become one with it, be absorbed into it ... that kind of thing, y'know.  Frank's theory is generally more or less soundish ~ he even manages somehow to work 'God' into it, though obviously it's not the same one who suffered on the Cross and regularly took tea with the Archbishop of Canterbury².  Its main defect, which Darcy eventually hits on, is this:
The radical unsoundness of your idea [...] is this: "All nature from highest to lowest is full, crammed full of suffering, every living organism in Nature preys on another, yet in your aim to get close to, to be one with Nature, you leave suffering altogether out; you run away from it, you refuse to recognise it.
According to the Darcian hypothesis, when Frank's 'final revelation' comes
it will be the revelation of horror, suffering, death, pain in all its hideous forms.
"So be it," says Frank.  And it is.
Uncharmed moorhen
The Man Who Went Too Far is really only interesting³ in that it contains a full exposition of EFB's theories about Man's relationship with Nature, a theme he was always keen to explore.  But Benson, no matter how much he might have yearned for a closer connexion with Mother Nature, was ever the worldling: this is reflected (probably unintentionally) in the fact that Frank Halton ~ he who sleeps outside in a hammock in all weathers, who swims in freezing-cold streams, who can charm squirrels⁴, and so on ~ nonetheless keeps a young manservant, who glides in and out of shot, undignified even by a name, whenever his master needs a very heavy towel bringing to him or someone fancies a whisky and soda.
Apart from the 'climax', which is pathetic, the story's main fault is its absolutely inordinate length: it goes on forever.  It's available online here.

¹ This is the only name he appears to have. 
² I'm sure EFB's dad would've been appalled by this story.  To say that the presence of God in Halton's theory is something of an afterthought would be an understatement.  At one point he goes so far as to drop this bombshell, in response to Darcy's criticism that his ideas are unchristian:
"I can't accept [Christianity].  I can't believe in any creed of which the central doctrine is that God who is Joy should have had to suffer.  Perhaps it was so; in some inscrutable way I believe it may have been so, but I don't understand how it was possible.  So I leave it alone; my affair is joy.
I reckon these are very close to Benson's own feelings on the subject.
³ As a spook or horror story it's a complete flop: it's so slow and gabby that when the climax finally arrives, the modern reader can only be stupefied with boredom. 
⁴ It's actually a moorhen we see him charming, but I'm sure he could charm squirrels if they were available.  Baffled? ~ see under The Inheritor (1930). 


I forgot to mention that one of the side-effects, so to speak, of Halton's renaturing is that it rejuvenates him, allowing EFB once more to go into homoerotic overdrive to describe him:
He was of medium height and rather slender in build, but the supple ease and grace of his movements gave the impression of great physical strength: even his descent from the hammock was not an awkward performance.  His face and hands were of very dark complexion, either from constant exposure to wind and sun, or, as his black hair and dark eyes tended to show, from some strain of southern blood.  His head was small, his face of an exquisite beauty of modelling, while the smoothness of its contour would have led you to believe that he was a beardless lad still in his teens.  But something, some look which living and experience alone can give, seemed to contradict that, and finding yourself completely puzzled as to his age, you would next moment probably cease to think about that, and only look at this glorious specimen of young manhood with wondering satisfaction.
The E. F. Benson Credo ~ again.  Frank speaking:
Think what youth means!  It is the capacity for growth, mind, body, spirit, all grow, all get stronger, all have a fuller, firmer life every day.
Piggyback sensualists (gratuitous)
Another E. F. Benson Credo ~ again.  Darcy is the first to speak here:
"Ah, but what makes birds and animals happy?" he asked.  "Food, food and mating."
Frank laughed gently in the stillness.
"Do not think I became a sensualist," [Frank] said.  "I did not make that mistake.  For the sensualist carries his miseries pick-a-back, and round his feet is wound the shroud that shall soon enwrap him.  I may be mad, it is true, but I am not so stupid anyhow as to have tried that."
Frank finds his pal unable to sleep and, sitting on the edge of his bed, speaks to him this lullaby ~ which works so instantaneously that he doesn't even need to finish it:
"The birds are sleeping in the brake," said Frank softly, "and the winds are asleep.  The sea sleeps, and the tides are but the heaving of its breast.  The stars swing low, rocked in the great cradle of the Heavens, and ~"

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