The Metaphysical Machine

Translated by Brian Stableford
Originally published 1877

***

Why do they say that I am insane?

Just because I am not like absolutely everyone else, just because I do not play my role like one of Panurge’s sheep, just because I remain indoors for weeks and months at a time–is that any reason to call me insane? On the contrary; I believe that thanks to the life I have led—above all to the great idea which that life has revealed to me—I am a sage. I was certainly not in the least insane when I first conceived that idea.

I had read a great deal, studied a great deal. I was particularly attracted to works of philosophy—but I do not like the philosophers of our own day, because they do not know how true philosophers must live. In order to conceive a philosophical system it is necessary to follow a contemplative lifestyle, solitary and absorbed. Now, how can you find such studious conditions in our hectic world, whose distractions seep into a man’s every pore? I therefore confined my studies to the pleasurable company of the ancient philosophers. I sought out those whose mutilated works are only known to us through fragments or translations: Leucippus, Democritus, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Parmenides. I felt a singular joy in reconstructing old systems of thought with the aid of their remaining debris, much as Cuvier has reconstructed antediluvian species from a few bones. Men who occupy themselves with decaying things are the only ones who will comprehend the happiness that I obtained by thus rediscovering the homoeomeric theory of Anaxagoras, and a few others. Alongside these fragments, I also cherished the complete but obscure systems of mystics and theologians: subtle depths into whose metaphysical exercises a wounded spirit plunges with delight. The Alexandrines, Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus have enraptured me, and I have tasted ineffable sensuality with St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas.

I do not offer this reading-list, any part of which would suffice to prove that I am a savant, out of vanity; I offer it partly to demonstrate that I have merely been a scholar, not a madman, and—more importantly—to explain how the great idea of which I spoke before first came to me.

This is it!

In the course of all this reading I was struck by one thing, which became the point of departure for my own system: the knowledge that in the midst of cosmogonic and theological hypotheses, the human spirit locates itself less by reasoning than by intuition. This is not a matter of logical deduction, since one does not move from “the assertion of what is known” to “the contents of the unknown”. It is a matter of positing the “contents of the unknown” directly—which is to say, in other words, of seeing the absolute. Proof is not an issue; the absolute must be seen. One sees, or one does not see. I might experience it myself at any moment.

Such an enlightenment, of which I had not previously been able to obtain any sensation, came to me suddenly after a long meditation. The absurd became an evident truth. I felt like a blind man, who had had the concept of colour explained to him at length without having any ability to understand it, whose eyes were suddenly opened to sensation.

If this process allowed me to understand the truths of metaphysics, it followed that they had also been discovered by this procedure: such was my first step. I inferred that the absolute was, for us, not a conclusion but an apparition. A fact which seemed at first to be bizarre and unreasonable was soon proven by me, by means of a superhuman sense which sometimes seizes words.

A word, or an assemblage of words—a phrase—is there before me; it becomes an absurdity, as if inscribed in hieroglyphics. I repeat the word—the phrase—without any longer being able to attach any meaning to it; somehow, I fix my spirit to the material form of the word, to the image of the alphabetical signs, to the sound of the syllables. For a week, a month, many months afterwards, I have arranged matters so that I am voluntarily haunted by an incomprehensible absurdity. Then, one fine day, the human sense of that absurdity obliterates itself, the form and the sound of the word become symbols, and I comprehend the incomprehensible.

I had found the key to metaphysics.

I shall not tell you how the idea was refined, little by little, to the point at which it condensed into a theory. That would take too long. The slow and shadowy transformations of an idea are a labyrinth of reflections, whose thread is lost even while one is extending it. Having shown how I arrived at the portal of the labyrinth, I will simply tell you what I sought to draw out of it: my system of perceptible metaphysics.

Until now, only three aspects of human inner life have been considered: sensation, consciousness and reason. To make the next part of my discourse clearer, I will call the senses by the correct term “external senses”, inasmuch as they apply themselves to external objects; and I will reunite consciousness and reason under the term “internal senses”, inasmuch as they both apply themselves to my interior self and its modifications.

The metaphysical error which still weighs us down thus becomes palpable: the materialists apply the external senses, and the spiritualists the internal senses, to the absolute—but the absolute is neither in me nor in the objects exterior to me. There is the reason for the impotence of human research into the absolute—an impotence that has remained constant throughout the ages. The sceptics have set metaphysical questions aside. Sincere searchers have tried to escape the error, the mystics by means of ecstasy and the theologians by means of faith; they were in the right in searching for a new means, but both fell back into error by subjecting ecstasy and faith to the procedures of reason.

Only one man, prior to myself, has glimpsed the infallible procedure which leads to the Absolute. That was the theologian Thomassin, who wrote these words:

Mens, sola sibi reddita, naturae suae ingenium et praestantiam totam obtinens, naturaliter ominatur SENSIT que summum aliquid et INEXCOGITABILE principium.

Which means:

The soul, reduced to itself alone, in possession of all its being and all its power, perceives naturally and SENSES that something, that sovereign principle, which is INACCESSIBLE TO REASON.

The words are clear, and I think that even the most vulgar intelligence can understand them. This quotation renders in simple terms all that remains for me to say in completing my theory, which can now be summarized in a single affirmation:

Besides the external senses and the internal senses, there is another sense, internal and external at the same time, knowing its object as the external senses do, immaterial as the internal senses are, but having absolutely nothing in common with either of them—and that is the SENSE OF THE ABSOLUTE.

But what am I saying? What have I written there? To tell the truth, I am afraid. I have kept my mind as calm as I could in order to explain my discovery in simple terms. Now that task is complete, I am terrified. Have I read the meaning of what I have written? It is as if I have written that human beings have a third eye! Worse than that–I have written that human beings have a new sense. A monstrosity!

It seems to me that I can hear laughter all around me, and voices saying: mad, mad, mad! I am, however, perfectly lucid. My intellect is sound—I am certain of it. No, I am not mad; that is not true. I can see—I tell you. I can see. But they will not believe that I can see, because they are blind. How unfortunate! Who, then, will hear me without laughing? How can I show that?

That is nothing in itself. The eyes cannot see it; the ears cannot hear it; the fingers cannot touch it; consciousness cannot speak of it. What horror! Reason itself cannot comprehend it. Ah! You see, you admit that you are beyond reason—you must be mad! No, no, a thousand times no. Who calls me mad, then? You lie! The whole world is laughing, isn’t it? Oh well—if I am mad, I might as well go all the way; I’ll die of it if I have to—but that which I see, you will see too.

My sense of the absolute is real; it exists; it is. I shall exercise this new sense; I shall sacrifice everything in its cause; I shall write down the things that it has revealed to me, and those things will be so prodigious, so resplendent, so true, that the world will be dazzled by them. They will have to listen to me when they hear about the manifest Apocalypse!

An analogy immediately suggested a means by which I might exercise this new sense vigorously. I observed that blind men have an extremely delicate sense of touch, and that men who become deaf are recompensed by tracking the movements of the lips with their eyes, thus coming to understand the words which they do not hear. It is easy enough to conclude that the atrophy of one sense makes the others sharper.

I understood, then, why the priests of Buddha are compelled to seek solitary and silent immobility, and I no longer found the situation of those seers who absorbed in contemplation of their navels ridiculous. They seek in contemplative ecstasy to forget the sensible world. Unfortunately, ecstasy does not last; and in spite of their heroism, these immobile ones experience sensations between their cataleptic fits. Nor are they limited to indistinct and confused sensations; they are eternally confined within the workings of Consciousness and Reason, so they are perpetually distracted, if not by the external senses, at least by the internal ones.

It was necessary, therefore, to find a state in which the mind was unoccupied either by sensations or by thoughts.

Was that possible?

As for sensations, yes. Nothing is easier, given a firm and resolute will, than to render oneself blind, deaf and dumb. It is a matter of paralysing the nerves, nothing more. When the day came, I could deprive myself of my senses, conserving only touch, so that I would be able to write down my visions in the dark. Eventually, I would arrive at the point of having no more memories of sensations—they would be effaced, little by little, from a mind that was no longer cultivated in that manner.

As for thoughts, that was not so easy. If one ceases to think, does one not cease to be? Yes, in the everyday sense of the word—but not in mine. What need had I of the modes of thought in common usage? What did reasoning matter to me, in all its forms? So, it was necessary to cease to think, or at least to think as little as possible. To cure me of that particular malady, I had a remedy already: obsession. Obsession atrophies all other ideas, leaving one and one only in possession of the mind. That would complement the atrophy of the senses within my mental regime.

That regime, which would soon be mine, was therefore reduced to this: to annihilate, as far as was possible, all my internal and external senses, in order to allow free play and give an exceeding acuity to the sense of the absolute.

It remained, before undertaking the great work, to identify the precise circumstances in which that sense is at its most vigorous, and in which it could be most comfortably exerted. My reflections and researches on this point were lengthy. A memory of my youth put me on the track of that which I was trying to find. Delicate as the subject of this memory is, I must insist on its introduction here, in the interests of science and better to understand the means that I believed I had to employ.

Everyone knows that in the course of pleasurable excitation there is a brief—and, in consequence, very little studied—moment, during which one’s entire being melts, like a filament of metal in an electric current. It is like a flash of lightning in which a human being is engulfed in a substance, of which it is at that moment a sort of conductor. All of creation is alive in that flash; it is, if I might express it in such terms, the microcosm of the absolute. I discovered this subtle explication while recalling to mind the sensation itself.

On the other hand, I had to consider that the moment in question is, as I have said, a mere flash. There is no way of making that kind of flash last indefinitely—but I took note of the fact that this pleasurable excitation possesses its strange property, not because it is pleasurable, but because it is an excitation. The Orientals have prolonged it by introducing pain into the ecstasy. By the excitation of pain, in effect, the flash becomes less vivid but more durable. One can produce by this means an agitation in which everything is annihilated, a kind of current that melts humanity. This, then, is the exact state in which the startled mind can attain the absolute.

I had only to imagine a kind of continuous pain, powerful enough to throw me into that state, and an apparatus that, while making it utterly impossible for me to escape the pain in question, would permit me to write down my visions. The kind of pain that I eventually settled on was the prolonged irritation of the dental nerves, and the choice inspired me in no time at all to devise the ingenious apparatus within which I was soon seated.

So, this is what is firmly decided at the present moment: I shall deliver myself to the absolute. After fifteen years spent working on my system and putting my regime into effect, I believe that I have finally brought about the conditions necessary for an attempt of the last and greatest experiences of all. I have subjected myself to all the necessary mutilations. I am blind and deaf. I have not spoken a single word for fifteen years. I have renounced the use of gross and imperfect senses, including Consciousness and Reason, which might constrain my new sense. I have kept nothing of the old humanity but attention and will. I know how to write in the dark; the words I shall write will provide illumination!

My first experience will last about an hour. It is now seven o’clock in the morning. My old manservant will come to my room at eight. There, he will find my written instructions, as he is accustomed to do every day. In these instructions I tell him to descend to the basement of my house, which he has never entered, and I explain how he can let me out of the apparatus if he finds me unconscious. I write all these details so as to establish firmly that I act entirely freely and knowing perfectly well what I am doing.

As I could die during the experience, I have also taken the opportunity to record the history of my theory briefly and clearly. For the same reason, desirous of leaving no mystery behind me, I shall now describe my metaphysical apparatus.

It is a mechanical chair, all of whose parts I have made and assembled myself. My legs will be immobilised by a sheath into which I will introduce them as I sit down. Once seated, I shall place my left arm on the arm of the chair, and my head upon an earflap to the right. In this position, I shall open my mouth, which will be kept open by a solid leather plug covered in India-rubber, which I can bite without breaking my jaws. Beside the earflap, in the gap made by my open mouth, I shall place the little mechanism which will produce the pain, which comprises a drill-bit that moves back and forth rapidly and continuously.

This drill will plunge into a hollow tooth, progressing automatically to a depth of half a centimetre in the course of an hour. Another mechanism will gradually unwind a scroll of parchment under my right hand, on which I shall record continuously whatever I see.

To avoid the natural laxity of humanity, which might incite me to stop the drilling-mechanism, I have arranged the whole machine in the following manner: one button is situated within range of my left hand; to the first pressure I exert the machine will respond and I shall immediately be secured to the chair by shackles of iron which will encircle my arms and fix my head. At the same time, the two mechanisms will begin to operate; once started, it will be impossible for me to stop them.

The clockwork movement is set for one hour.

***

….I am here–everything is going well….

     ….I am writing this on the scroll, as a trial….

     ….atrocious pain–good–the beginning….

     ….I’m waiting….

     ….joy–horror–absolute–absolute–words?–I can see at last–inexcogitabile—mad—mad—mad—joy—joy….

     ….words to express?—obvious—of course—yes….

……………………………………………………

…………………………………………………….

enough—triangle—enough….

     ….absolute—here it is—at last—here it is—here it is….

…………………………………………………….

…………………………………………………….

***

At eight o’clock the old manservant went into his master’s room, found the written instructions and went down into the basement.

The madman was in his chair. He was dead.

The convulsions of his legs had twisted the sheath without being able to get out. The wrist of his left hand was badly torn by the iron bracelet, against which it had strained in vain. Flayed tendons were visible, taut as violin strings. The right arm was restrained between the shoulder to the elbow but free from the elbow to the wrist. The hand, unable to reach as far as the head, was stuck to the breast, which it had clawed repeatedly with its fingernails. Two of the fingers were embedded to the depth of the first knuckle. The head, half-turned around but maintained in its position by the earflap, displayed a hideous grimace. Bloody froth oozed from the gums. The teeth had cut through the rubber and had broken in their anguished mastication of the plug within.

The roller was still advancing the parchment, and the drill was still boring implacably into a molar, making an almost imperceptible grinding sound: bzi, bzi, bzi.

It was the laughter of the absolute.

Jean Richepin (1849-1926) was a French author who worked in a variety of forms, including poetry, novels, and plays. He remained largely unknown until 1876, when he was briefly jailed for indecency in connection to his volume of verse, La Chanson des gueux (sometimes translated as Songs of the Down and Out). The following year saw the publication of Les Morts Bizarres, a collection of short works focusing on strange and macabre demises, and which contains “The Metaphysical Machine.” When preparing his defense against the charge of indecency, Richepin described his writing as work that exposes “the ugliness of social reality,” and although the story reprinted here is less concerned with the “social,” there is plenty of concern over the “ugliness of reality.”

Throughout his career, Richepin enjoyed a moderate amount of public recognition and numerous literary successes, primarily in the theatre, with many of his works being performed at the Comédie-Française. In 1907, he was elected to the French Academy, the most prestigious official honor that France can issue to a writer. Brilliantly paced for such a short work, “The Metaphysical Machine” calls to mind something that resembles an obsessed protagonist from Poe encountering the bizarre, methodical, and brutal means of self-punishment found in some of Kafka’s works, situating the story neatly within the Weird tradition and many of its preoccupations.
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Best known as the author of nearly eighty novels of science fiction, Brian Stableford has also translated dozens of works, primarily from French into English. In 2011, he received a special award from the inaugural year of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards in recognition of the excellence of his work. In addition to works by Jean Richepin, such as The Wing and The Crazy Corner, Stableford has also translated works by Paul Féval, Jean Lorrain, and Judith Gautier. He has edited several anthologies, such as The Dedalus Book of British Fantasy: The 19th Century, and authored numerous nonfiction works, many of which examine sociological aspects of speculative fiction. From 1979 to 1988, he worked as lecturer in sociology at the University of Reading, after which he became a full-time writer and part-time lecturer.