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In 'The Story of My Heart' (1883) Richard Jefferies coined the term ultra-humanity to describe how

...a great part, perhaps the whole, of nature and of the universe is distinctly anti-human. The term inhuman does not express my meaning, anti-human is better; outre-human, in the sense of beyond, outside, almost grotesque in its attitude towards, would nearly convey it.

John Fowles paid homage to it in 'The Tree' to explain human uneasiness with wilderness, and our impulse to domesticate or destroy it. "It may sound paradoxical," he wrote, "but we shall not cease to be alienated - by our knowledge, by our greed, by our vanity - from nature until we grant it its unconscious alienation from us."

'The Story of My Heart' is a strange book. It could be called a spiritual autobiography, part nature mysticism, part homegrown philosophy - or what Jefferies himself calls "soul-thought". The beginning especially reads like an English 'Walden', but by a writer whose illness made him obsessed with vigor (he even attempts to reason mankind to immortality). The youthful exuberance of novels like 'Bevis' has here become a defiant vitalism, like a tragic character in D.H. Lawrence or Knut Hamsun.

The book contains reminiscences of his experiences in the country and the human "vortex" of London, as well as several chapters of metaphysical speculation. Though these are less surefooted, it's fascinating to follow his struggle with putting the ineffable into words.

For Jefferies the idea of ultra-humanity is connected with the lack of design he perceives in nature, in a universe ruled by chance. Hence it also implies the absence of a god. From this atheist position, however, he looks for some controlling instance that is

...not force in the sense of electricity, nor a deity as god, nor a spirit, not even an intelligence, but a power quite different to anything yet imagined.

Here he clearly runs into the limit of expressibility. (This happens several times in the book, until the claim that what he means is "quite different to anything yet imagined" starts sounding a bit childish.) But it's almost as if he wants to deify the physical laws of the universe. Again, he imagines

...a force without a mind. I wish to indicate something more subtle than electricity, but absolutely devoid of consciousness, and with no more feeling than the force which lifts the tides.

His attempt to find a new balance of abstract divinity ultimately fails, simply because the moment he gives his idea any attributes it topples over to one of either sides, physical or divine. For instance when he describes it as "something better than a god. There is something superior, higher, more good" - without realizing this would threaten an infinite regress of "deities all the way up", instead of "turtles all the way down".

'The Story of My Heart' confirmed Jefferies' reputation as both an atheist and a mystic - no doubt equally scandalous in Victorian England. Evelyn Underhill, in her work on mysticism, later reproved him for what he "apprehended in these moments of insight, yet somehow contrived to miss". But his attempt to express his intuitions in his own terms, completely outside the Christian mystical vocabulary, anno 1883, is still heroic.

The Story of My Heart
The earth and sun were to me like my flesh and blood, and the air of the sea life.
With all the greater existence I drew from them I prayed for a bodily life equal to it, for a soul-life beyond my thought, for my inexpressible desire of more than I could shape even into idea. There was something higher than idea, invisible to thought as air to the eye...

Woodcut illustration by Gertrude Hermes (from an aging Penguin).


the midsummer hum

Boom! They started. Mark lifted his spear, Bevis his bow. A deep, low, and slow sound, like thunder, toned from its many mutterings to a mighty sob, filled their ears for a moment. It might have been very distant thunder, or a cannon in… Read the full post »

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