Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Gap in the Curtain: John Buchan nails it once again

The Gap in the Curtain is not one of John Buchan’s best known works. It is not a story of excitement and adventure either: no thriller, it has a supernatural or paranormal theme and has been described as borderline science fiction.

The Gap in the Curtain features the lawyer Sir Edward Leithen, another of Buchan’s heroes and narrator of the story, and Professor August Moe, a brilliant physicist and mathematician.

The story starts with a dinner party. Leithen, who is extremely tired from overworking and close to the end of his tether, had been in two minds about accepting the invitation. He feels a little better when he notices that several other guests around the table are not looking too good either: they seem nervous, under the weather, ill, tired or even exhausted.

I was free to look about me. Suddenly I got a queer impression. A dividing line seemed to zigzag in and out among us, separating the vital from the devitalised. There was a steady cackle of talk, but I felt that there were silent spaces in it. Most of the people were cheerful, eupeptic souls who were enjoying life...But I realised that there were people here who were as much at odds with life as myself…”

Leithen is introduced to fellow country-house guest Professor Moe, a huge, eccentric man who knows that he is dying.

Professor Moe believes that he has found a way of training people to see into the future, as if through ‘a gap in the curtain’, and has come to the house party seeking the right kind of volunteers for his experiments in precognition. What I find most interesting about Moe is what he looks for when selecting people to help him finish his life’s work.

As Leithen notices:

He had chosen exactly those whom I had selected at dinner the previous night as the care-full as opposed to the care-free. He wanted people whose physical vitality was low, and who were living on the edge of their nerves, and he had picked them unerringly out of Sally's house-party.”

Leithen learns this from Professor Moe:

He needed several people for his experiment—the more the better, for he wanted a variety of temperaments, and he said something, too, about the advantage of a communal psychical effort... But they must be the right kind of people— people with highly developed nervous systems—not men too deeply sunk in matter. ..He deprecated exuberant physical health or abounding vitality, since such endowments meant that their possessors would be padlocked to the narrower sensory world.

He ran over his selection again, dwelling on each, summing each up with what seemed to me astounding shrewdness, considering that he had met them for the first time two days before. He wanted the hungry and the forward-looking. Tavanger and Mayot. "They will never be content," he said, "and their hunger is of the spirit, though maybe an earthy spirit... " Myself. He turned his hollow eyes on me, but was too polite to particularise what my kind of hunger might be... Charles Ottery. "He is unhappy, and that means that his hold on the present is loose... " Sally Flambard. "That gracious lady lives always sur la branche—is it not so? She is like a bird, and has no heavy flesh to clog her. Assuredly she must be one." Rather to my surprise he added Reggie Daker. Reggie's recent concussion, for some reason which I did not follow, made him a suitable object...”

The story continues with the experiments and their outcomes, most of which is not relevant to this article.

The two worlds of mind and matter
But they must be the right kind of people— people with highly developed nervous systems—not men too deeply sunk in matter. ..He deprecated exuberant physical health or abounding vitality, since such endowments meant that their possessors would be padlocked to the narrower sensory world.”

Once again, Buchan is spot on.

It is all very well for people who are not troubled by or in contact with inner worlds and other dimensions: they can give their entire beings to operating effectively in this world. They are grounded, shielded and insulated from unseen influences. They can be people of action as opposed to people of introspection. They just function and get on with their lives.

I have always envied strong and healthy people, people with strong nervous systems, good co-ordination and large amounts of vital energy. They make me feel weak and incompetent, unreal even. They get things done; they deal with the demands of everyday life far better than I can. However, they can’t operate in my world, and they can’t see what I can see.

Early in the story, someone asks Leithen to have a word with his god-daughter, who has turned against the idea of marrying a very suitable young man:

I wanted to say that I was feeling like a ghost from another
sphere, and that it was no good asking a tenuous spectre to meddle with the affairs of warm flesh and blood."

Exactly. People who feel unreal are not able to have the impact in this world that normally-functioning people can have.

I spent the intervals with a rod beside the Arm, and there I first became conscious of certain physical symptoms. An almost morbid nervous alertness was accompanied by a good deal of bodily lassitude. This could not be due merely to the diet and lack of exercise, for I had often been sedentary for a week on end and lived chiefly on bread and cheese. Rather it seemed that I was using my nervous energy so lavishly in one direction that I had little left for the ordinary purposes of life...
Well, in the little fishing I did that day, I found my eyes as good as ever, but I noted one remarkable defect.  I saw the trout perfectly clearly, but I could not put a fly neatly over him.  There was nothing wrong with my casting; the trouble was in my eye, which had somehow lost its liaison with the rest of my body." 

Exactly. John Buchan understands. He nails it in one sentence.

It is not possible to be in two places at once. Time and effort given to the inner world is spent at the expense of time and effort in the outer world. Competency in one world often entails lack of competency in the other.

When we live in the inner world, we are detached, dissociated even, and may feel that we are operating ourselves remotely: no wonder that Leithen couldn’t put his fly where he wanted it to go.

Stuck between the two worlds
Being creative, having access to powers, gifts, ideas and insights that normal people never see, being able to use one’s wisdom to help others may be some compensation for the lack or loss, temporary or otherwise, of the ability to function well in this world. 

Conversely, people may not miss what they have never seen, so normal people may find satisfaction in living their lives well and not worry about being unable to access other dimensions. People who are able to give 100% of their efforts to this world may be very successful.

But what about people who don’t function well in either world, people who have nothing to show for their efforts? A previous article shows that John Buchan understood this problem too.

Operating well in many worlds
John Buchan was a delicate boy, but he grew up to become both a man of action and a man of ideas. He was a novelist, a historian, a politician and a diplomat.

I had been a miserable headachy little boy, but at the age of five I had a serious carriage accident, when my skull was fractured, and I lay for the better part of a year in bed. I arose a new child, and throughout all my youth I was as hardy as a seal; indeed, apart from dysentery and a slight malaria in South Africa, I scarcely had an ailment until the War. I was lean and tough in body, accustomed to sleep out of doors in any weather, including December frosts, and, though never an athlete, capable of a good deal of physical endurance. Once I walked sixty-three miles on end in the Galloway hills. It was my custom in the long vacations to bury myself in the moorlands, taking up my quarters in a shepherd’s cottage. There I rose early, worked for five or six hours, and then went fishing until the summer midnight. I throve on a diet of oatmeal, mutton and strong tea, and, with the habit to which I have already referred of linking philosophy with terrestrial objects, the works of Aristotle are for ever bound up for me with the smell of peat reek and certain stretches of granite and heather.”

From his autobiographical work Memory Hold-the-Door, which is said to be President John. F. Kennedy’s favourite book.

His work in this world, at which he was very successful, gave him much material for his books. His books have given me much material for articles. There is more to be said about the ideas he presented in The Gap in the Curtain.

Some of these ideas do not apply to Buchan himself. His grandson James Buchan said:

In a life of 65 years, beginning in Perth in 1875 and ending at Montreal in 1940, John Buchan was a scholar, colonial administrator, lawyer, journalist, fisherman, mountaineer, spy, publicist, businessman, squire, historian, poet, novelist, diplomatist and viceroy.”

So the theory that operating well in the inner world precludes operating well in the outer world does not always hold true.

John Buchan died on 11th February 1940, so today is the 76th anniversary of his death. More information about Buchan and his works can be found on the website of the John Buchan Society.