The Unseen World and Other Essays
By John Fiske

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Few of those who find pleasure in frequenting bookstores can have failed to come across one or more of the profusely illustrated volumes in which M. Louis Figuier has sought to render dry science entertaining to the multitude. And of those who may have casually turned over their pages, there are probably none, competent to form an opinion, who have not speedily perceived that these pretentious books belong to the class of pests and unmitigated nuisances in literature. Antiquated views, utter lack of comprehension of the subjects treated, and shameless unscrupulousness as to accuracy of statement, are faults but ill atoned for by sensational pictures of the “dragons of the prime that tare each other in their slime,” or of the Newton-like brow and silken curls of that primitive man in contrast with whom the said dragons have been likened to “mellow music.”

Nevertheless, the sort of scientific reputation which these discreditable performances have gained for M. Figuier among an uncritical public is such as to justify us in devoting a few paragraphs to a book[13] which, on its own merits, is unworthy of any notice whatever. “The To-morrow of Death"—if one were to put his trust in the translator’s prefatory note—discusses a grave question upon “purely scientific methods.” We are glad to see this remark, because it shows what notions may be entertained by persons of average intelligence with reference to “scientific methods.” Those—and they are many—who vaguely think that science is something different from common-sense, and that any book is scientific which talks about perihelia and asymptotes and cetacea, will find their vague notions here well corroborated. Quite different will be the impression made upon those—and they are yet too few—who have learned that the method of science is the common-sense method of cautiously weighing evidence and withholding judgment where evidence is not forthcoming. If talking about remote and difficult subjects suffice to make one scientific, then is M. Figuier scientific to a quite terrible degree. He writes about the starry heavens as if he had been present at the hour of creation, or had at least accompanied the Arabian prophet on his famous night-journey. Nor is his knowledge of physiology and other abstruse sciences at all less remarkable. But these things will cease to surprise us when we learn the sources, hitherto suspected only in mythology, from which favoured mortals can obtain a knowledge of what is going on outside of our planet.

[13] The To-morrow of Death; or, The Future Life according to Science. By Louis Figuier. Translated from the French by S. R. Crocker. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1872.

The four inner planets being nearly alike in size (?) and in length of day, M. Figuier infers, by strictly scientific methods, that whatever is true of one of them, as our earth, will be true of the others (p. 34). Hence, they are all inhabited by human beings. It is true that human beings must find Venus rather warm, and are not unlikely to be seriously incommoded by the tropical climate of Mercury. But we must remember that “the men of Venus and Mercury are made by nature to resist heat, as those of Jupiter and Saturn are made to endure cold, and those of the Earth and Mars to live in a mean temperature: OTHERWISE THEY COULD NOT EXIST” (p. 72). In view of this charming specimen of a truly scientific inference, it is almost too bad to call attention to the fact that M. Figuier is quite behind the age in his statement of facts. So far from Jupiter and Saturn being cold, observation plainly indicates that they are prodigiously hot, if not even incandescent and partly self-luminous; the explanation being that, by reason of their huge bulk, they still retain much of the primitive heat which smaller planets have more quickly radiated away. As for M. Figuier’s statement, that polar snows have been witnessed on these planets, it is simply untrue; no such thing has ever been seen there. Mars, on the other hand, has been observed to resemble in many important respects its near neighbour, the Earth; whence our author declares that if an aeronaut were to shoot clear of terrestrial gravitation and land upon Mars, he would unquestionably suppose himself to be still upon the earth. For aerolites, it seems, are somehow fired down upon our planet both from Mars and from Venus; and aerolites sometimes contain vegetable matter (?). Therefore, Mars has a vegetation, and very likely its red colour is caused by its luxuriant autumnal foliage! (p. 47.) To return to Jupiter: this planet, indeed, has inconveniently short days. “In his ’Picture of the Heavens,’ the German astronomer, Littrow (these Germans think of nothing but gormandizing), asks how the people of Jupiter order their meals in the short interval of five hours." Nevertheless, says our author, the great planet is compensated for this inconvenience by its equable and delicious climate.

In view, however, of our author’s more striking and original disclosures, one would suppose that all this discussion of the physical conditions of existence on the various planets might have been passed over without detriment to the argument. After these efforts at proving (for M. Figuier presumably regards this rigmarole as proof) that all the members of our solar system are habitable, the interplanetary ether is forthwith peopled thickly with “souls,” without any resort to argument. This, we suppose, is one of those scientific truths which as M. Figuier tells us, precede and underlie demonstration. Upon this impregnable basis is reared the scientific theory of a future life. When we die our soul passes into some other terrestrial body, unless we have been very good, in which case we at once soar aloft and join the noble fraternity of the ether-folk. Bad men and young children, on dying, must undergo renewed probation here below, but ultimately all pass away into the interplanetary ether. The dweller in ether is chiefly distinguished from the mundane mortal by his acute senses and his ability to subsist without food. He can see as if through a telescope and microscope combined. His intelligence is so great that in comparison an Aristotle would seem idiotic. It should not be forgotten, too, that he possesses eighty-five per cent of soul to fifteen per cent of body, whereas in terrestrial man the two elements are mixed in equal proportions. There is no sex among the ether-folk, their numbers being kept up by the influx of souls from the various planets. “Alimentation, that necessity which tyrannizes over men and animals, is not imposed upon the inhabitants of ether. Their bodies must be repaired and sustained by the simple respiration of the fluid in which they are immersed, that is, of ether.” Most likely, continues our scientific author, the physiological functions of the ether-folk are confined to respiration, and that it is possible to breathe “without numerous organs is proved by the fact that in all of a whole class of animals—the batrachians—the mere bare skin constitutes the whole machinery of respiration” (p. 95). Allowing for the unfortunate slip of the pen by which “batrachians” are substituted for “fresh-water polyps,” how can we fail to admire the severity of the scientific method employed in reaching these interesting conclusions?

But the King of Serendib must die, nor will the relentless scythe of Time spare our Etherians, with all their exalted attributes. They will die repeatedly; and after having through sundry periods of probation attained spiritual perfection, they will all pour into the sun. Since it is the sun which originates life and feeling and thought upon the surface of our earth, “why may we not declare that the rays transmitted by the sun to the earth and the other planets are nothing more nor less than the emanations of these souls?” And now we may begin to form an adequate conception, of the rigorously scientific character of our author’s method. There have been many hypotheses by which to account for the supply of solar radiance. One of the most ingenious and probable of these hypotheses is that of Helmholtz, according to which the solar radiance is due to the arrested motion of the sun’s constituent particles toward their common centre of gravity. But this is too fanciful to satisfy M. Figuier. The speculations of Helmholtz “have the disadvantage of resting on the idea of the sun’s nebulosity,—an hypothesis which would need to be more closely examined before serving as a basis for so important a deduction.” Accordingly, M. Figuier propounds an explanation which possesses the signal advantage that there is nothing hypothetical in it. “In our opinion, the solar radiation is sustained by the continual influx of souls into the sun." This, as the reader will perceive, is the well-known theory of Mayer, that the solar heat is due to a perennial bombardment of the sun by meteors, save that, in place of gross materialistic meteors, M. Figuier puts ethereal souls. The ether-folk are daily raining into the solar orb in untold millions, and to the unceasing concussion is due the radiation which maintains life in the planets, and thus the circle is complete.

In spite of their exalted position, the ether-folk do not disdain to mingle with the affairs of terrestrial mortals. They give us counsel in dreams, and it is from this source, we presume, that our author has derived his rigid notions as to scientific method. In evidence of this dream-theory we have the usual array of cases, “a celebrated journalist, M. R——,” “M. L——, a lawyer," etc., etc., as in most books of this kind.

M. Figuier is not a Darwinian: the derivation of our bodies from the bodies of apes is a conception too grossly materialistic for him. Our souls, however, he is quite willing to derive from the souls of lower animals. Obviously we have pre-existed; how are we to account for Mozart’s precocity save by supposing his pre-existence? He brought with him the musical skill acquired in a previous life. In general, the souls of musical children come from nightingales, while the souls of great architects have passed into them from beavers (p. 247). We do not remember these past existences, it is true; but when we become ether-folk, we shall be able to look back in recollection over the whole series.

Amid these sublime inquiries, M. Figuier is sometimes notably oblivious of humbler truths, as might indeed be expected. Thus he repeatedly alludes to Locke as the author of the doctrine of innate ideas (!!),[14] and he informs us that Kepler never quitted Protestant England (p. 336), though we believe that the nearest Kepler ever came to living in England was the refusing of Sir Henry Wotton’s request that he should move thither.

[14] Pages 251, 252, 287. So in the twenty-first century some avatar of M. Figuier will perhaps describe the late professor Agassiz as the author of the Darwinian theory.

And lastly, we are treated to a real dialogue, with quite a dramatic mise en scene. The author’s imaginary friend, Theophilus, enters, “seats himself in a comfortable chair, places an ottoman under his feet, a book under his elbow to support it, and a cigarette of Turkish tobacco between his lips, and sets himself to the task of listening with a grave air of collectedness, relieved by a certain touch of suspicious severity, as becomes the arbiter in a literary and philosophic matter.” “And so,” begins our author, “you wish to know, my dear Theophilus, WHERE I LOCATE GOD? I locate him in the centre of the universe, or, in better phrase, at the central focus, which must exist somewhere, of all the stars that make the universe, and which, borne onward in a common movement, gravitate together around this focus.”

Much more, of an equally scientific character, follows; but in fairness to the reader, who is already blaming us for wasting the precious moments over such sorry trash, we may as well conclude our sketch of this new line of speculation.

  May, 1872.



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