R.H. Benson, “The Necromancers,” Pt I

My own view, for what it may be worth, is that most writers who dismiss Benson’s novels out of hand have simply not read them. I have already extracted some passages from Lord of the World, one of the best books I have ever read (at least in my opinion). I shall have much more to say about that novel in the future. I wish to now draw your attention to The Necromancers. First published in 1909, it is one of the most original stories I have ever come across. Laurie Baxter, who converted to Catholicism at Oxford, and had for a time been contemplating the priesthood, was desperately in love with Amy Nugent, who died rather suddenly. His respected mother had been averse to his conversion, but had reconciled herself to it with the hope that he might marry her adopted daughter Margaret, herself a Catholic. She had, however, been resolutely opposed to any union with Miss Nugent, the daughter of a Baptist grocer, so it was something of a relief for her when Amy passed away. However, the distraught Laurie turned to spiritualists (the “necromancers” of the title) to speak with Amy. At the resulting seances, there were definite supernatural occurrences, and these build up to the almost understated yet stunning close of the novel, when the supernatural breaks its bounds and threatens to invade the natural order and steal Laurie’s life – both physical and spiritual. I will not give the ending away, but the story as a whole, and many of Benson’s asides along the way, are quite remarkable. Some of these “asides” are quite enlightening.

Consider this account of Laurie going into a sleep charged with visions: “There followed that smooth rush into gulfs of sleep that provides perhaps the most exquisitely physical sensation known to man, as the veils fall thicker and softer every instant, and the consciousness gathers itself inwards from hands and feet and limbs, like a dog curling himself up for rest; yet retains itself in continuous being, and is able to regard its own comfort. All this he remembered perfectly half an hour later; but there followed in his memory that inevitable gap in which self loses itself before emerging into the phantom land of dreams, or returning to reality.” (chapter 7.3 in all editions, p.129 of the 1909 edition, p.99 of the 1974).

Then, in that dream, he seems himself in his room. He “sees” everything vividly, but with the “steady medium” of his attention rather than his sight: “It was at that moment that he understood that he saw no longer with eyes, but with that faculty of perception to which sight is only analogous – that faculty which underlies and is common to all the senses alike. His reasoning powers, too, at this moment, seemed to have gone from him like a husk. He did not argue or deduce, he simply understood. And, in a flash, simultaneous with the whole vision, he perceived that he was behind all the slow processes of the world, by which this is added to that, and a conclusion drawn; by which light travels, and sounds resolve themselves, and emotions run their course, He had reached, he thought, the ultimate secret. … It was This that lay behind everything. Now it is impossible to set down, except progressively, all this sum of experiences that occupied for him for one interminable instant. Neither did he remember afterwards the order in which they presented themselves; for it seemed to him that there was no order; all was simultaneous” (pp.130-131)

This can be explained by nothing so well as Gurdjieff’s psychology, and by supposing that Benson himself had experienced the reality of which he writes: that is, he had an access to the contents of higher emotional centre. More than that, he had an experience of real I. That I stands above the formatory apparatus – which he describes here as arguing, deducing, and adding this to that. This is extraordinarily perceptive for someone who did not know Gurdjieff’s discoveries. Also mentioned here is the different speeds of time on the higher plane: and the fact that our ordinary faculties have to and can only represent what is perceived by higher centres as if it was all sequential, when the sequence is in reality at a time so much faster it seems to us simultaneous. The insight that HE was behind all this, meaning I, and the lack of extraneous or incorrect details, is almost astounding.

Note, too, Benson has a theory that I lies behind and permeates all our diverse senses, and that our ordinary reason does not exist at that fundamental level, but at a more superficial one. The superficial dimension of the world is what he calls the “slow processes,” for the true world is virtually instantaneous, that is, it is in eternity. Benson continues: “… he understood plainly by intuition, that all was open to him. Space no longer existed for him; nothing, to his perception, separated this from that. He was able, he saw, without stirring form his attitude to see in an instant any place or person towards which he chose to exercise his attention. It seemed a marvellously simple point , this – that space was little more than an illusion; that it was, after all, nothing else but a translation into rather coarse terms of what may be called “differences.” “Here” and “there” were but relative terms; certainly they corresponded to facts, but they were not those facts themselves … And since he now stood behind them he saw them on the inner side, as a man standing in the interior of a globe may be said to be equally present to every point upon its surface.” (p.131)

This is redolent of Gurdjieff’s idea of an “omnipresent platform,” something which Mr Adie described in a way which coincides with Benson’s. It is all consistent with the Christian ideas of the soul and eternity. There may also be influence from modern philosophy, but I am not certain. Benson’s ideas seem to me to be most fundamentally based on Benson’s own experience. I have no proof for this, that is my “intuition,” to employ Benson’s word. And it is an interesting one. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology states that it means “spiritual perception, insight, immediate knowledge … perception without reasoning …” (p.541). It comes from the Latin intueri, from in- at  or on, plus tueri to look, to watch over. The idea of perception without reasoning is interesting: it means reasoning with higher parts of the intellect than the formatory apparatus.

What I think is unique in Benson, for a writer in 1909, is how accurate his understanding. The idea that in dreams we can come to know a deep truth which no mind could work its way to by analysis, is old. But what Benson saw in his dreams and contemplation was true – that is remarkable – and it completely accords with Gurdjieff’s psychology, even if Gurdjieff went far beyond Benson, and saw how access to higher faculties can be reached outside of dreams, drugs, and contemplation.

Joseph Azize, 30 June 2020


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