Sunday 10 May 2015

In Search of the Miraculous #7: The Dividing of the Way

So in about 1883, in Northern California, in sight of the Cascade Mountains, there was this boy called Frederick Spenser Oliver. He was seventeen. And he began to hear voices. 

Or one voice in particular, anyway. Phylos was a "Thibetan", an Ascended Master, and he had chosen, he said, Frederick to be the vessel for his accounts of past lives. And for the next three years, Phylos dictated and Frederick wrote, out of sequence... a romantic novel.

It was called A Dweller on two Planets, or, The Dividing of the Way. It's still in print. It's... more or less impenetrable. Books by automatic writing were by no means uncommon in the 19th century. At about the same time American dentist John Ballou Newbrough was automatically writing his sci-fi pseudobible Oahspe, without which we'd never have had Scientology, Heaven's Gate, or a whole bunch of wacky cults.

What makes Oliver interesting is that he chose the form of a novel to express his (literal, certain) beliefs in a past life in Atlantis, all tangled in with a fervent American patriotism and an equally fervent Christianity. It has a love triangle. A life on Venus, journeys to distant lands. And, in the sequence set in the present day, an Atlantean temple under Mount Shasta. 

As a novel it is, by turns, pompous, preachy, sentimental, painfully slow, disjointed and actually sort of sweet in its way. Oliver's moralising is a bit tiring, but the heart of is Oliver's basic decency. Race, the bugbear of Atlantis stories, doesn't come in at all (there's a reference to "the coming race" right at the end but in context it's absolutely clear that he's talking about the future of the whole human race). The plot stops dead for him to describe Atlantean architecture, Atlantean technology, Atlantean labour relations and pay laws, Atlantean land registry, Atlantean grammar and terminology...The detail is jaw-dropping.

Like he's telling you about coin-operated airships? He gives you the exact way in which the coin goes into the machine and how that activates the mechanism.

Our friend took a small coin from his purse and dropped it into an aperture in a glass-fronted box at one end of the car, The coin could not miss falling in such a way as to rest in the bottom of a glass cylinder, a very little greater in diameter than the money itself. Two metal points which projected into the lower end of the cylinder, but did not approach each other nearer than a quarter of an inch, were in the bottom of the tube. When the coin fell upon these a little bell rang, and our friend then raised a lever in the carriage, which lever had a lock-bar over it until the bell rang. This bar had, With the closing of the circuit by the coin, automatically slipped back, at the same time ringing a bell as above noted, thus releasing the lever. When the latter was raised the car moved suddenly but easily out of the station. It swung from its over head rail, only the peripheries of its large suspensory wheels being visible, for together with their axles they were mostly hidden by a long metal case which extended from one wheel to the other, and within which, a low, humming whirr could be beard, a sound produced by the mechanism of the motory apparatus. The plan of making the passenger do duty as engineer and conductor also was a good one, seeing that the processes required so little knowledge or trouble. As we left the car at the main entrance depot below Agacoe terrace, our friend replaced the lever, the bell rang again, the coin dropped from sight into a strong box underneath, and the vehicle was ready for other passengers. 
"Phylos the Thibetan", A Dweller on Two Planets, p71
Oh, and the "friend"? A pre-incarnation of John the Baptist. I am not kidding.

The Atlanteans had telephones, levitating machines (he spends pages and pages explaining the scientific basis of antigravity - it's based on colour in the ultraviolet spectrum, as far as I can make out), and TV. In a book written in the 1880s.

In one sequence, a criminal is corrected by identifying his criminal tendencies with phrenology (they shave his head and find the lumps that correspond with the bad bits) and then operating on not just his brain but his actual soul to fix it. That's right, they give him a soul-lobotomy. With phrenology.  The entire novel is like a survey of nineteenth century pop-occultism and pseudoscience. For all its deficiencies in plot and dialogue, it presents a world in which the characters live.

Oliver caught 20th century imaginations. In 1932, the Los Angeles Star published a report declaring that a colony of Lemurians lived under Mount Shasta, and which had apparently drawn from A Dweller on Two Planets. The story, with no factual basis, grew. The psychic colony under Mount Shasta is today enshrined in Californian mythology. 

Phylos says the eventual corruption and downfall of Atlantis was because they stopped educating the people. Because the people stopped caring and they turned to selfishness and evil. Yeah, I can go with that.

More than anything, A Dweller on Two Planets is a work of outsider art, the inner life of an intelligent, widely-read, sweet-natured young man who just wrote this because he could do nothing else. Over the course of Oliver's short life, he revised it and added to it. In 1899, aged 33, he died. I cannot find any account of why, but it appears that as his monument his mum had the book published, six years after his death, in 1905. He was just a boy in a post-Gold Rush town. And yet he made something strange and frustrating and in its way beautiful.

What he's actually done is tap into the same thing that made the occult Atlantis so fascinating for me. It's a world without a real story, a world into which stories can be inserted. That's kind of the attraction of role-playing games, in part.

He'd be forgotten now, but for the spirit voice that made in him a compulsion to write a world.