German Metaphysics, Evolution and Dangerous Knowledge in Le Fanu’s “Green Tea” (1872)
by Mark Wallace
One of the first great masters of the horror story was Dublin-born J. Sheridan Le Fanu, and especially his collection In a Glass Darkly (1872; Wordsworth, 2008). The first story in the collection is “Green Tea”, an oft-anthologized tale whose themes involve some of the classic Victorian preoccupations and anxieties.
The story is of a Reverend Jennings, who tells his own story in his own words. Around this, the account by Dr Martin Hesselius provides a framing devise. A prologue introducing Dr Hesselius provides another frame. Hesselius is a “medical philosopher” (5) author of a volume on “Metaphysical Medicine” (7), devoted to uncovering the dark and mysterious forces at work in the world and in the mind. This recalls the Biblical quote that gives the volume its title:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Corinthians, 13:12 [KJV])
This quote seems to fit “Green Tea” far more than the other stories in the collection. It also fits the Hesselius frame. Hesselius himself is involved in the pursuit of esoteric knowledge, in the making clear that which appears obscure and only half-known. Similarly, Rev. Jennings is also involved in the search for a knowledge of a hidden and perhaps forbidden type.
Hesselius is a character who strongly prefigures Sherlock Holmes (first appearance: 1887). He’s a wanderer and a generalist who knows a lot about everything, and he is in “easy circumstances” (3), so can devote his energies to his interests. His procedure with a new case is to go through the stages of “analysis, diagnosis and illustration” (4). The method is scientific, but the material is precisely that which falls outside he realms of known science.
Like Holmes, he knows people very quickly by observing them:
I think I can tell you two or three things about him,” said I [Hesselius].
“Yes, to begin with, he’s unmarried.”
“Yes, that’s right—go on.”
“He has been writing, that is he was, but for two or three years perhaps, he has not gone on with his work, and the book was upon some rather abstract subject—perhaps theology.”
“Well, he was writing a book, as you say; I’m not quite sure what it was about, but only that it was nothing that I cared for; very likely you are right, and he certainly did stop—yes.”
“And although he only drank a little coffee here to-night, he likes tea, at least, did like it extravagantly.”
“Yes, that’s quite true.”
“He drank green tea, a good deal, didn’t he?” I pursued.
“Well, that’s very odd! Green tea was a subject on which we used almost to quarrel.”
“But he has quite given that up,” said I.
“So he has.”
“And, now, one more fact. His mother or his father, did you know them?”
“Yes, both; his father is only ten years dead, and their place is near Dawlbridge. We knew them very well,” she answered.
“Well, either his mother or his father—I should rather think his father, saw a ghost,” said I.
“Well, you really are a conjurer, Dr. Hesselius.” (8-9)
Except that Hesselius does not give his reasoning for arriving at this surprising knowledge, this could have come straight from a Sherlock Holmes story.
In the passage quoted above, Hesselius is discussing Rev. Jennings, who he has just met for the first time. Jennings is the protagonist of the story. Jennings mirrors Hesselius’ search for knowledge. In fact, he has read Hesselius’ Essays on Metaphysical Medicine and they have oriented his thought and reading.
Hesselius’ Essays on Metaphysical Medicine, we are told, were written in German and have not appeared in Engish. They are out of print. They are a sort of scientific Necronomicon, full of dangerous knowledge. It is no coincidence, too, that Hesselius works in German (and, presumably, is German). Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833-34) provides the most rhapsodic tribute to the Victorian idea that in an age when Christianity was losing its grip, a new religion, a new form of spiritual thought to bind society together would emerge from German metaphysical and abstract thought:
[H}ere, as in so many other cases, Germany, learned, indefatigable, deep-thinking Germany comes to our aid. It is, after all, a blessing that, in these revolutionary times, there should be one country where abstract Thought can still take shelter; that while the din and frenzy of Catholic Emancipations, and Rotten Boroughs, and Revolts of Paris, deafen every French and every English ear, the German can stand peaceful on his scientific watch-tower; and, to the raging, struggling multitude here and elsewhere, solemnly, from hour to hour, with preparatory blast of cow-horn, emit his Horet ihr Herren und lasset’s Euch sagen; in other words, tell the Universe, which so often forgets that fact, what o’clock it really is. (Bk. 1, Ch. 1., “Preliminary”)
Like the German metaphysicists, Hesselius is a dangerously post-Christian thinker. But he is circumspect: his Essays, he notes, “suggest more than they actually say” (7). Jennings, on the other hand, doesn’t know where to stop, following his speculations to dangerous excesses. From a few scattered notes we get from Jennings’ papers, we find that he is preoccupied with opening the “interior sight”/”internal sight” (11), and we surmise also that his efforts to do so necessarily lead him into contact with “evil spirits” (11).
The sight metaphor used by Jennings’ recalls Le Fanu’s title, which posits the idea of seeing clearly, and opposes it to the general human condition of seeing through a glass, darkly. The Bible quote evidently sees this clarity of seeing as a condition of paradise. La Fanu takes the opposing view through his presentation of Jennings: to see clearly is a hellish predicament.
Jennings’ horror begins when he spies a monkey on an omnibus. This monkey has burning eyes and a hypnotic gaze. It produces in Jennings a feeling of loathing and horror. The unattractive primate begins to follow Jennings around almost continually. Nobody else sees the monkey, but as Jennings is a bachelor of a retiring disposition, they don’t get much chance to.
The haunting of Jennings appears in “Green Tea” to be overdetermined. There are a number of reasons suggested in the text to explain Jennings’ predicament. Jennings’s lifestyle is conducive to horror on several grounds:
1) Green Tea: The title of the story suggests this is an important element, and Jennings admits taking this beverage in great quantities.
“I believe, that every one who sets about writing in earnest does his work, as a friend of mine phrased it, on something—tea, or coffee, or tobacco. I suppose there is a material waste that must be hourly supplied in such occupations, or that we should grow too abstracted, and the mind, as it were, pass out of the body, unless it were reminded often enough of the connection by actual sensation. At all events, I felt the want, and I supplied it. Tea was my companion—at first the ordinary black tea, made in the usual way, not too strong: but I drank a good deal, and increased its strength as I went on. I never experienced an uncomfortable symptom from it. I began to take a little green tea. I found the effect pleasanter, it cleared and intensified the power of thought so, I had come to take it frequently, but not stronger than one might take it for pleasure. I wrote a great deal out here, it was so quiet, and in this room. I used to sit up very late, and it became a habit with me to sip my tea—green tea—every now and then as my work proceeded. I had a little kettle on my table, that swung over a lamp, and made tea two or three times between eleven o’clock and two or three in the morning, my hours of going to bed. I used to go into town every day. I was not a monk, and, although I spent an hour or two in a library, hunting up authorities and looking out lights upon my theme, I was in no morbid state as far as I can judge. I met my friends pretty much as usual and enjoyed their society, and, on the whole, existence had never been, I think, so pleasant before. (17-18)
2) Writing: As the above quoted indicates, writing and green tea go together for Jennings, and they lead him into keeping very odd hours. Jennings suggests that writing cannot be done without a stimulant, so it is an inherently dangerous activity.
3) Late hours: Jennings writing is done at nighttime. The monkey first arrives in darkness, too, and is most often associated with it. In “Green Tea”, it is made clear that the arrival of the monkey coincides with an extended period of writing, green tea, and later hours.
4) Metaphysical speculation: We have dealt with this above. Jennings’ insistence on opening his “interior sight” is one whose danger is recognized by Hesselius, who has seen the importance of merely hinting rather than openly discussing such matters.
5) Solitude: Jennings is a bachelor, and spends most of his time alone with his books. On reading Swedenborg, Jennings says: “I think they are rather likely to make a solitary man nervous” (13). Solitude is in itself a dangerous situation. Indeed, in late 19th-century ghost stories, horror was the province of the bachelor. Think of the entire oeuvre of M.R. James. Bachelors who live quiet and studious lives are at particular risk of being tormented by evil spirits. “Green Tea” is perhaps the locus classicus of this trope.
So, we see that green tea; writing and late hours; the tendency towards metaphysical speculation; and a solitary lifestyle combine to create in Jennings the perfect storm for supernatural visitation.
At the back of it all, perhaps, is the dread and anxiety created by Darwinian theory, much debated from 1860 onwards. Hence the figure of the monkey, newly discovered to be a close relative of ours: “Mr. Darwin boldly traces out the genealogy of man, the monkey is his brother, and the horse his cousin, and the oyster his remote ancestor.” Rather than godlike, man must acknowledge that he is monkeylike. He is haunted by this knowledge. The more he tries to attain enlightenment and exaltation through knowledge, the more he is brought up against the unholy and undignified truth that he is but a monkey. The traumatic enormity of this discover is brought home by reading “Green Tea”. By reading it, we gain an appreciation of the emotional force of evolutionary theory to the religious temperament of the 19th century. Jennings tries to pray, but it has become an impotent formula.
Hesselius adds in the postscript that he could have saved Jennings:
I have not, I repeat, the slightest doubt that I should have first dimmed and ultimately sealed that inner eye which Mr. Jennings had inadvertently opened. The same senses are opened in delirium tremens, and entirely shut up again when the overaction of the cerebral heart, and the prodigious nervous congestions that attend it, are terminated by a decided change in the state of the body. It is by acting steadily upon the body, by a simple process, that this result is produced—and inevitably produced—I have never yet failed. (32)
Interestingly, while the symptoms are mental, the cure is physical. Thought is the disease; action is the cure. The moral of Le Fanu’s story is: You can’t think your way out of post-Darwinian existential horror. You can only stop thinking about it.