Sunday, February 18, 2007

The devil and Enoch Soames

I have a weakness for high school and college lit textbooks. My favorites are the literature anthologies from the thirties, forties and fifties written by professors at Catholic universities for the education of Catholic high school and college students. This was before the challenge of the sixties, the sexual revolution, and Vatican II, at which time Catholic schools became self-conscious and started bending over backwards not to teach anything that smacked of Catholic parochialism. Unfortunately that lead to the "butterflies and flowers" textbooks for religious ed that featured thumbs-up Buddy Christ tripping through Galilee with his hippie disciples. And Catholic lit anthologies became as overstuffed with existentialists, nihilists, atheists, modernists and post-modernists as anything written for the public schools and universities. Those were the days when we were ashamed to claim any form of Catholic culture whatsoever.

Today I picked up a textbook from 1948 titled "Literature: The Channel of Culture" by Francis X. Connolly from Fordham University. In it I read Max Beerbohm for the first time. It was a short story called "Enoch Soames", about an unsuccessful English writer who makes a deal with the devil to travel 100 years in the future so he can read the effusive appreciation posterity has towards his artistic genius. Let me tease you with the making of the deal. If you want to read more, Project Gutenberg has the whole text online and downloadable.

From "Enoch Soames" by Max Beerbohm:
"I am a man of business," [the devil] said, "and always I would put things through 'right now,' as they say in the States. You are a poet. Les affaires--you detest them. So be it. But with me you will deal, eh? What you have said just now gives me furiously to hope."

Soames had not moved except to light a fresh cigarette. He sat crouched forward, with his elbows squared on the table, and his head just above the level of his hands, staring up at the devil.

"Go on," he nodded. I had no remnant of laughter in me now.

"It will be the more pleasant, our little deal," the devil went on, "because you are--I mistake not?--a diabolist."

"A Catholic diabolist," said Soames.

The devil accepted the reservation genially.

"You wish," he resumed, "to visit now--this afternoon as-ever-is --the reading-room of the British Museum, yes? But of a hundred years hence, yes? Parfaitement. Time--an illusion. Past and future--they are as ever present as the present, or at any rate only what you call 'just round the corner.' I switch you on to any date. I project you--pouf! You wish to be in the reading-room just as it will be on the afternoon of June 3, 1997? You wish to find yourself standing in that room, just past the swing-doors, this very minute, yes? And to stay there till closing-time? Am I right?"

Soames nodded.

The devil looked at his watch. "Ten past two," he said. "Closing-time in summer same then as now--seven o'clock. That will give you almost five hours. At seven o'clock--pouf!--you find yourself again here, sitting at this table. I am dining to-night dans le monde--dans le higlif. That concludes my present visit to your great city. I come and fetch you here, Mr. Soames, on my way home."

"Home?" I echoed.

"Be it never so humble!" said the devil, lightly.

"All right," said Soames.

"Soames!" I entreated. But my friend moved not a muscle.

The devil had made as though to stretch forth his hand across the table, but he paused in his gesture.

"A hundred years hence, as now," he smiled, "no smoking allowed in the reading-room. You would better therefore--"

Soames removed the cigarette from his mouth and dropped it into his glass of Sauterne.

"Soames!" again I cried. "Can't you"--but the devil had now stretched forth his hand across the table. He brought it slowly down on the table-cloth. Soames's chair was empty. His cigarette floated sodden in his wine-glass. There was no other trace of him.

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