Monday, October 14, 2013

Hodgson’s Passion Play

Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani (1919) was first published almost a year after the end of World War I.  Though flawed, it is one of William Hope Hodgson’s most distinctive and daringly imaginative stories.  Even the title, which is the Greek rendering of Jesus Christ’s famous words on the cross, (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) is provocative.  On first glance, it might be taken metaphorically as a lament over the nearly four and a half years of devastation that the Great War brought to Europe.  The terror of the war is certainly on the author’s mind.  But something much deeper and more horrifying is the focus of Hodgson’s tale.

Devout readers may feel that the content of the story is blasphemous.  However, Hodgson is respectful of Christian religion throughout the story, and Christian principles generally underlay much of his work.  Because the story of Christ’s crucifixion is so well known, and indeed is an indelible mark on our cultural roots, the images in Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani are powerful and very disturbing.

The story opens in a men’s club, where several friends have gathered to discuss current events.  A large explosion has been reported in Berlin, followed by a period of unusual darkness.  It appears that this is the result of a secret weapon, a new and powerful explosive developed by a brilliant chemist named Baumoff.  (This story is also known as Baumoff’s Explosive.) 

But Baumoff is known to be a devout Christian—how could he have devised such an awful means of destruction?  One of the party, a medical doctor who knew Baumoff closely, rises to the defense of his friend, who is now deceased.  He tells the group about the troubled scientist’s last hours.  The doctor, a man named ‘John’ Stafford, was with him at the end.  (Alert readers will note that it was the Apostle John—the ‘Beloved Disciple’—who was with Jesus Christ at the crucifixion.)

Stafford expounds a unique theory that Baumoff had about the darkness that reportedly occurred around the time and vicinity of Christ’s death.  It is related to a belief at the time that light energy was essentially a vibration of the ‘Aether’.  This vibration occurs at certain wave frequencies, which in the retinas of our eyes produce the sensation of light or vision.  Baumoff believed that the darkness at Christ’s death was due to the disruption of light energy in his immediate location because of his great suffering.  (In fact, Baumoff believes that ordinary human suffering causes a similar but infinitesimal reduction of light in the immediate surroundings—a kind of poignant physics of light waves.)

Baumoff has been able to isolate a chemical substance that replicates this disruption of light energy.  He takes out a small grain of it to show Stafford.  Crushing it and adding just a little water to make a fine paste, he ignites the substance with the glowing hot end of a gold needle.  An eerie optical effect draws almost all of the light out of the room for a few moments.  Stafford is amazed.  “That stuff,” says Baumoff, “would be a tremendous explosive, under certain conditions.”

The chemist would have been wise to stop here, but his hubris leads him on.  He has one more demonstration to make.  Mixing a larger portion of the material in a glass of water, he drinks it and presumes to show his friend “one of the great wonders of Christ’s death reproduced on a miniature scale.”  The subsequent steps he takes in this blasphemous experiment grow ever more horrific and gruesome.  In the end, it is clear even in the deep supernatural gloom, that it is not Christ Baumoff is imitating, but someone else.

Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani speaks to several issues: the supposed conflict between science and religion, the meaning of human suffering, the hazards of idolatry and vanity.  In my view it is one of Hodgson's most haunting and memorable stories.  Overarching the whole story is that awful question—“Where is God?”—that millions must have been asking in the ruins of the Great War.  Why has He forsaken us?  How could He let this terrible disaster happen?  The people Hodgson wrote stories for in 1919 could not have known that this was the First World War, and that even greater horrors were coming.

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