“The intense concentration of self in the middle of such an immensity, my God! Who can tell it?”
– Melville, Moby-Dick
(Ch. 93, “The Castaway”)
In my study of abnormal psychology I had encountered the strange case of a man named James Tilley Mathews, the first schizophrenic on record and a resident of the Bedlam asylum in London in the early part of the nineteenth century. Such was the clarity of his mind and strength of his belief in the delusions he espoused that a team of medical practitioners examined him and found no evidence of insanity (a diagnosis apparently bolstered by the fact that the stories which could be verified one way or the other—for example, his claim that he had been involved in the drafting of a secret peace treaty between Britain and France and thrown in jail to die by the prime minister—were invariably proven true).
Mathews believed he was privy to the machinations of a vast criminal conspiracy, centered in London but with tentacles spread throughout the British Isles, that was actively working to arrange a war between the major European powers with the ultimate goal of destroying the West. At the heart of this ruthless organization stood a small but nefarious band of Dickensian villains, four men and three women, who were stationed for many years in an apartment hard by London Wall. Among them were Bill, or “the King,” the leader of the band and foremost operator of the Air Loom Machine; Jack the Schoolmaster, so-called because he continuously recorded the gang’s doings in shorthand (merrier than the King, he was fond of remarking, “I’m here to see fair play!”); the Middle Man, an engineer and manufacturer of air looms; Augusta, a small, reedy woman with sharp features, who, though sunny and amiable to outward view, was savagely and incontestably temperamental when she failed to get her way; and Charlotte, a ruddy brunette, a “steady, persevering sort of person” who sometimes felt herself to be a prisoner, and lived in a state of perpetual remorse .
Mathews was determined to expose the secrets of this dastardly assembly to the world at large. However, he was prevented from doing so by means of the extraordinary machine that they operated. This machine was an air loom, a convoluted series of tubes and valves which could “assail” its victims with a warping fluid from a thousand feet away. The assailments were varied, but invariably effective. “Fluid-locking” held the tongue in check, preventing speech; “cutting soul from sense,” a chemical means of severing the mind and heart, dissociated memory and intellect; “kite-ing” lifted an irrelevant, ridiculous idea into the brain and made it hang there, like a kite borne high on the wind, to the exclusion of thoughts more purposeful and sane; “lengthening the brain” distorted any normal thoughts the brain might have and warped them into primal, agonizing forms; and “lobster-cracking” was a sudden, spontaneous assault on the entire nervous system, likely to result in death.
For years the “Air Loom Gang” had forestalled Mr. Mathews’ diligent attempts at exposure by “assailing” him with gruesome acts malign and shiny metal wands, which, being waved, would instantly transport them out of sight.
In my attempts to unravel what was happening at Alvin High School, and what had now grown, apparently, to incorporate at least one other person elsewhere (that I knew of), I had asked myself, “What if the religious explanation for this is the wrong one?” In other words, “What if there’s an explanation lying somewhere between ‘whacky coincidence’ and ‘cosmic warfare’ that I haven’t even thought of?” This, at least, was Booth’s initial opinion. While he found it odd, as I did, that events were stacking up in such a linear, literary manner, and for that reason thought it unlikely that this was all but a fevered coinage of my brain—especially not now that others were involved who could attest to having undergone experiences similar to mine—he was hesitant to frame the unexplainable in terms of my Judeo-Christian understanding.
“The universe is really vast,” he told me, in his probing, forthright manner. “And it has a lot of dimensions. I’m not saying that ‘weird’ things can’t happen, I just don’t think that we should confine our interpretations to something written by a small group of people living in the first century. Do you see how narrow that is?”
I conceded his point—it was certainly narrow. The problem was, if not coincidence, if not a case of mass psychosis, what other explanation was there but religious? I could lower the barriers of my epistemology only so far—then, after a certain point, I was living in Rapture Ready world, a perverse, illimitable, unguarded universe with no constraints, no rules, reasonless and void, where the explanation was as likely to be a wolf in a granny costume, or a group of baton-waving British conspirators, as anything else. It could be the Leviathan! It could be Zarathustra. It could be anything at all. I preferred not to live in that world. I would rather my novels remained my novels, not my whole existence. In short, the limitations on my reason, undergirded by religious (and specifically Christian) understanding, were what kept me sane. If I should lose that—if I drifted out into the boundless waste of all-permitting chaos—if I lost my sense of possibility and finitude—then I was utterly, completely lost.
Thus in a sense, I agreed with Booth, but not in the way that he intended. He was right, the universe is vast—too vast, I felt, to wander through it wantonly unguided, all alone. The narrowness of my worldview was among its chief attractions—as who should suggest to a shepherd that he “broaden” the borders of his sheepfold by removing its gates? There was a certain kind of safety in restriction. I tried to look at it as Booth suggested, but I simply couldn’t do it—it was frightening—and, after earnestly attempting for a time, eventually gave up in despair.