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JOHN AND THE AUTHOR
WHEN I told John that I intended to write his biography, he laughed. "My dear man!" he said, "But of course it was inevitable." The word "man" on John's lips was often equivalent to "fool."
"Well," I protested, "a cat may look at a king."
He replied, "Yes, but can it really see the king? Can you, puss, really see me?"
This from a queer child to a full-grown man.
John was right. Though I had known him since he was a baby, and was in a sense intimate with him, I knew almost nothing of the inner, the real John. To this day I know little but the amazing facts of his career. I know that he never walked till he was six, that before he was ten he committed several burglaries and killed a policeman, that at eighteen, when he still looked a young boy, he founded his preposterous colony in the South Seas, and that at twenty-three, in appearance but little altered, he outwitted the six warships that six Great Powers had sent to seize him. I know also how John and all his followers died.
Such facts I know; and even at the risk of destruction by one or other of the six Great Powers, I shall tell the world all that I can remember.
Something else I know, which will be very difficult to explain. In a confused way I know why he founded his colony. I know too that although he gave his whole energy to this task, he never seriously expected to succeed. He was convinced that sooner or later the world would find him out and destroy his work. "Our chance," he once said, "is not as much as one in a million." And then he laughed.
John's laugh was strangely disturbing. It was a low, rapid, crisp chuckle. It reminded me of that whispered crackling prelude which sometimes precedes a really great crash of thunder. But no thunder followed it, only a moment's silence; and for his hearers an odd tingling of the scalp.
I believe that this inhuman, this ruthless but never malicious laugh of John's contained the key to all that baffles me in his character. Again and again I asked myself why he laughed just then, what precisely was he laughing at, what did his laughter really mean, was that strange noise really laughter at all, or some emotional reaction incomprehensible to my kind? Why, for instance, did the infant John laugh through his tears when he had upset a kettle and was badly scalded? I was not present at his death, but I feel sure that, when his end came, his last breath spent itself in zestful laughter. Why?
In failing to answer these questions, I fail to understand the essential John. His laughter, I am convinced, sprang from some aspect of his experience entirely beyond my vision. I am therefore, of course, as John affirmed, a very incompetent biographer. But if I keep silence, the facts of his unique career will be lost for ever. In spite of my incompetence, I must record all that I can, in the hope that, if these pages fall into the hands of some being of John's own stature, he may imaginatively see through them to the strange but glorious spirit of John himself.
That others of his kind, or approximately of his kind, are now alive, and that yet others will appear, is at least probable. But as John himself discovered, the great majority of these very rare supernormals, whom John sometimes called "wide-awakes," are either so delicate physically or so unbalanced mentally that they leave no considerable mark on the world. How pathetically one-sided the supernormal development may be is revealed in Mr. J. D. Beresford's account of the unhappy Victor Stott. I hope that the following brief record will at least suggest a mind at once more strikingly "superhuman" and more broadly human.
That the reader may look for something more than an intellectual prodigy I will here at the outset try to give an impression of John's appearance in his twenty-third and last summer.
He was indeed far more like a boy than a man, though in some moods his youthful face would assume a curiously experienced and even patriarchal expression. Slender, long limbed, and with that unfinished coltish look characteristic of puberty, he had also a curiously finished grace all his own. Indeed to those who had come to know him he seemed a creature of ever-novel beauty. But strangers were often revolted by his uncouth proportions. They called him spiderish. His body, they complained, was so insignificant, his legs and arms so long and lithe, his head all eye and brow.
Now that I have set down these characters I cannot conceive how they might make for beauty. But in John they did, at least for those of us who could look at him without preconceptions derived from Greek gods, or film stars. With characteristic lack of false modesty, John once said to me, "My looks are a rough test of people. If they don't begin to see me beautiful when they have had a chance to learn, I know they're dead inside, and dangerous."
But let me complete the description. Like his fellow-colonists, John mostly went naked. His maleness, thus revealed, was immature in spite of his twenty-three years. His skin, burnt by the Polynesian sun, was of a grey, almost a green, brown, warming to a ruddier tint in the cheeks. His hands were extremely large and sinewy. Somehow they seemed more mature than the rest of his body. "Spiderish" seemed appropriate in this connexion also. His head was certainly large but not out of proportion to his long limbs. Evidently the unique development of his brain depended more on manifold convolutions than on sheer bulk. All the same his was a much larger head than it looked, for its visible bulk was scarcely at all occupied by the hair, which was but a close skull-cap, a mere superficies of negroid but almost white wool. His nose was small but broad, rather Mongolian perhaps. His lips, large but definite, were always active. They expressed a kind of running commentary on his thoughts and feelings. Yet many a time I have seen those lips harden into granitic stubbornness. John's eyes were indeed, according to ordinary standards, much too big for his face, which acquired thus a strangely cat-like or falcon-like expression. This was emphasized by the low and level eyebrows, but often completely abolished by a thoroughly boyish and even mischievous smile. The whites of John's eyes were almost invisible. The pupils were immense. The oddly green irises were as a rule mere filaments. But in tropical sunshine the pupils narrowed to mere pinpricks. Altogether, his eyes were the most obviously "queer" part of him. His glance, however, had none of that weirdly compelling power recorded in the case of Victor Stott. Or rather, to feel their magic, one needed to have already learnt something of the formidable spirit that used them.CHAPTER 2
THE FIRST PHASE
JOHN'S father, Thomas Wainwright, had reason to believe that Spaniards and Moroccans had long ago contributed to his making. There was indeed something of the Latin, even perhaps of the Arab, in his nature. Every one admitted that he had a certain brilliance; but he was odd, and was generally regarded as a failure. A medical practice in a North- country suburb gave little scope for his powers, and many opportunities of rubbing people up the wrong way. Several remarkable cures stood to his credit; but he had no bedside manner, and his patients never accorded him the trust which is so necessary for a doctor's success.
His wife was no less a mongrel than her husband, but one of a very different kind. She was of Swedish extraction. Finns and Lapps were also among her ancestors. Scandinavian in appearance, she was a great sluggish blonde, who even as a matron dazzled the young male eye. It was originally through her attraction that I became the youthful friend of her husband, and later the slave of her more than brilliant son. Some said she was "just a magnificent female animal," and so dull as to be subnormal. Certainly conversation with her was sometimes almost as one-sided as conversation with a cow. Yet she was no fool. Her house was always in good order, though she seemed to spend no thought upon it. With the same absent-minded skill she managed her rather difficult husband. He called her "Pax." "So peaceful," he would explain. Curiously her children also adopted this name for her. Their father they called invariably "Doc." The two elder, girl and boy, affected to smile at their mother's ignorance of the world; but they counted on her advice. John, the youngest by four years, once said something which suggested that we had all misjudged her. Some one had remarked on her extraordinary dumbness. Out flashed John's disconcerting laugh, and then, "No one notices the things that interest Pax, and so she just doesn't talk."
John's birth had put the great maternal animal to a severe strain. She carried her burden for eleven months, till the doctors decided that at all costs she must be relieved. Yet when the baby was at last brought to light, it had the grotesque appearance of a seven-months fetus. Only with great difficulty was it kept alive in an incubator. Not till a year after the forced birth was this artificial womb deemed no longer necessary.
I saw John frequently during his first year, for between me and the father, though he was many years my senior, there had by now grown up a curious intimacy based on common intellectual interests, and perhaps partly on a common admiration for Pax.
I can remember my shock of disgust when I first saw the thing they had called John. It seemed impossible that such an inert and pulpy bit of flesh could ever develop into a human being. It was like some obscene fruit, more vegetable than animal, save for an occasional incongruous spasm of activity.
When John was a year old, however, he looked almost like a normal new-born infant, save that his eyes were shut. At eighteen months he opened them; and it was as though a sleeping city had suddenly leapt into life. Formidable eyes they were for a baby, eyes seen under a magnifying glass, each great pupil like the mouth of a cave, the iris a mere rim, an edging of bright emerald. Strange how two black holes can gleam with life! It was shortly after his eyes had opened that Pax began to call her strange son "Odd John." She gave the words a particular and subtle intonation which, though it scarcely varied, seemed to express sometimes merely affectionate apology for the creature's oddity, but sometimes defiance, and sometimes triumph, and occasionally awe. The adjective stuck to John throughout his life.
Henceforth John was definitely a person and a very wide-awake person, too. Week by week he became more and more active and more and more interested. He was for ever busy with eyes and ears and limbs.
During the next two years John's body developed precariously, but without disaster. There were always difficulties over feeding, but when he had reached the age of three he was a tolerably healthy child, though odd, and in appearance extremely backward. This backwardness distressed Thomas. Pax, however, insisted that most babies grew too fast. "They don't give their minds a chance to knit themselves properly," she declared. The unhappy father shook his head.
When John was in his fifth year I used to see him nearly every morning as I passed the Wainwrights' house on my way to the railway station. He would be in his pram in the garden rioting with limbs and voice. The din, I thought, had an odd quality. It differed indescribably from the vocalization of any ordinary baby, as the call of one kind of monkey differs from that of another species. It was a rich and subtle shindy, full of quaint modulations and variations. One could scarcely believe that this was a backward child of four. Both behaviour and appearance suggested an extremely bright six-months infant. He was too wide awake to be backward, too backward to be four. It was not only that those prodigious eyes were so alert and penetrating. Even his clumsy efforts to manipulate his toys seemed purposeful beyond his years. Though he could not manage his fingers at all well, his mind seemed to be already setting them very definite and intelligent tasks. Their failure distressed him.
John was certainly intelligent. We were all now agreed on that point. Yet he showed no sign of crawling, and no sign of talking. Then suddenly, long before he had attempted to move about in his world, he became articulate. On a certain Tuesday he was merely babbling as usual. On Wednesday he was exceptionally quiet, and seemed for the first time to understand something of his mother's baby-talk. On Thursday morning he startled the family by remarking very slowly but very correctly, "I—want—milk." That afternoon he said to a visitor who no longer interested him, "Go—away. I—do—not—like—you—much."
These linguistic achievements were obviously of quite a different type from the first remarks of ordinary children.
Friday and Saturday John spent in careful conversation with his delighted relatives. By the following Tuesday, a week after his first attempt, he was a better linguist than his seven- year-old brother, and speech had already begun to lose its novelty for him. It had ceased to be a new art, and had become merely a useful means of communication, to be extended and refined only as new spheres of experience came within his ken and demanded expression.
Now that John could talk, his parents learned one or two surprising facts about him. For instance, he could remember his birth. And immediately after that painful crisis, when he had been severed from his mother, he actually had to learn to breathe. Before any breathing reflex awoke, he had been kept alive by artificial respiration, and from this experience he had discovered how to control his lungs. With a prolonged and desperate effort of will he had, so to speak, cranked the engine, until at last it "fired" and acted spontaneously. His heart also, it appeared, was largely under voluntary control. Certain early "cardiac troubles," very alarming to his parents, had in fact been voluntary interferences of a too daring nature. His emotional reflexes also were far more under control than in the rest of us. Thus if, in some anger-provoking situation, he did not wish to feel angry, he could easily inhibit the anger reflexes. And if anger seemed desirable he could produce it. He was indeed "Odd John."
About nine months after John had learnt to speak, some one gave him a child's abacus. For the rest of that day there was no talking, no hilarity; and meals were dismissed with impatience. John had suddenly discovered the intricate delights of number. Hour after hour he performed all manner of operations on the new toy. Then suddenly he flung it away and lay back staring at the ceiling.
His mother thought he was tired. She spoke to him. He took no notice. She gently shook his arm. No response. "John!" she cried in some alarm, and shook more violently. "Shut up, Pax," he said, "I'm busy with numbers."
Then, after a pause, "Pax, what do you call the numbers after twelve?" She counted up to twenty, then up to thirty. "You're as stupid as that toy, Pax." When she asked why, he found he had not words to explain himself; but after he had indicated various operations on the abacus, and she had told him the names of them, he said slowly and triumphantly, "You're stupid, Pax, dear, because you (and the toy there) 'count' in tens and not in twelves. And that's stupid because twelves have 'fourths' and 'threeths', I mean 'thirds', and tens have not." When she explained that all men counted in tens because when counting began, they used their five fingers, he looked fixedly at her, then laughed his crackling, crowing laugh. Presently he said, "Then all men are stupid."
This, I think, was John's first realization of the stupidity of Homo sapiens, but not the last.
Thomas was jubilant over John's mathematical shrewdness, and wanted to report his case to the British Psychological Society. But Pax showed an unexpected determination to "keep it all dark for the present." "He shall not be experimented on," she insisted. "They'd probably hurt him. And anyhow they'd make a silly fuss." Thomas and I laughed at her fears, but she won the battle.
John was now nearly five, but still in appearance a mere baby. He could not walk. He could not, or would not, crawl. His legs were still those of an infant. Moreover, his walking was probably seriously delayed by mathematics, for during the next few months he could not be persuaded to give his attention to anything but numbers and the properties of space. He would lie in his pram in the garden by the hour doing "mental arithmetic" and "mental geometry," never moving a muscle, never making a sound. This was most unhealthy for a growing child, and he began to ail. Yet nothing would induce him to live a more normal and active life.
Visitors often refused to believe that he was mentally active out there for all those hours. He looked pale and "absent." They privately thought he was in a state of coma, and developing as an imbecile. But occasionally he would volunteer a few words which would confound them.
Excerpted from ODD JOHN & SIRIUS by Olaf Stapledon. Copyright © 1972 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of DOVER PUBLICATIONS, INC.
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