“The Man Who Went Too Far”

It’s another Pan story.

Review: “The Man Who Went Too Far”, E. F. Benson, 1904.

Saki’s “The Music on the Hill” uses Pan in a more restricted way than Benson does here. Saki’s Pan is the center of an old religion and keeps his association with hunting, fertility, and music.  Benson’s story is closer to E. M. Forester’s “The Story of a Panic”. Pan is terrifying because he blurs distinctions, goes against the Ancient Greek tendency and talent for categorizing the world.

The story is set near the village of St. Faith in Hampshire, England. Its pleasant, rural nature is somewhat marred, the narrator notes, with a local legend about a monstrous goat skipping with “hellish glee” in the woods. It is a story linked to a very handsome, in fact beautiful, young artist who lived there.

The tale the narrator will tell was related to him by Darcy, a mutual friend of that artist and our narrator. Darcy, who hasn’t seen the artist Frank Halton in six years, is convalescing after a bout of typhoid fever and goes to visit Frank in June. 

Just before Darcy arrivs, Frank is doing what he often does these days, lounging in a hummock in a meadow by a stream. His house is on the outskirts of town. 

Darcy is amazed at how much younger Frank looks than the last time he saw him. Frank says he has a lot to tell Darcy, and Darcy won’t believe it.

Darcy offers a cigarette to Frank who turns it down. He’s doesn’t smoke anymore. He supposes he’s given it up along with eating meat. Darcy jokingly asks if Frank is another victim on the “altar of vegetarianism”. Does he look like a victim, asks Frank? 

They catch up on Darcy’s life. His career as a portrait painter has taken off in the last few years.  Frank says he always knew Darcy would be successful. But has more money made him happier?   Happiness is “the only imperishable possession”. And how much has Darcy learned?  “Oh, I don’t mean in Art. Even I could have done well in that.” 

Darcy laughs. Everything Darcy knows about painting, he learned from Frank whose paintings fetch huge amounts of money. Doesn’t Frank paint anymore?  No, says Frank, he’s too busy. 

Darcy acknowledges Frank does look busy. Has he been reading or studying? Frank says he’s been doing nothing, but he’s never been so occuppied. Frank used to be two years young than Darcy, but he looks 20 instead of 35. Darcy jokes that Frank looks like he’s been occuppied in looking good like a “woman of fashion”. 

Yes, Frank says he’s become younger but that was just a side effect of his occupation. As he describes it: 

Think what youth means! It is the capacity for growth, mind, body, spirit, all grow, all get stronger, all have a fuller, firmer life every day. That is something, considering that every day that passes after the ordinary man reaches the full-blown flower of his strength, weakens his hold on life. 

Dusk is nearing, and Frank asks for a moment of silence. “The eternal imperishable current” of life runs strongest through him at this time of day. 

Frank continues

. . . we used often to talk about the decay of joy in the world. Many impulses, we settled, had contributed to this decay, some of which were good in themselves, others that were quite completely bad. Among the good things, I put what we may call certain Christian virtues, renunciation, resignation, sympathy with suffering, and the desire to relieve sufferers. But out of those things spring very bad ones, useless renunciations, asceticism for its own sake, mortification of the flesh with nothing to follow, no corresponding gain.

Frank seeks joy, the gift of the divine. There were too many distractions in the city. He had to find joy in nature. Not mere sensuality, but divine joy.

At first, he just sat in the forest, and nothing happened for a long time. Darcy, rather “quick-tempered”, asks impatiently why Frank thought anything would happen. Frank says he would have resented that comment years ago, but not now. 

“Has his “solitary sojournings” made Frank inhuman, asks Darcy? He has become more human, “less ape” replies Frank. 

This pursuit may seem a selfish quest, but it is also good for others.

When a man’s body dies, it passes into trees and flowers. Well, that is what I have been trying to do with my soul before death. 

After about three years of just waiting, one day, when Frank was at his usual spot near the river, he heard indescribably beautiful music, “Pan playing on his pipes, the voice of Nature . . . the life-melody, the world-melody”. 

Yet, at the moment, Frank says he was terrified. 

“Nature, force, God, call it what you will, had drawn across my face a little gossamer web of essential life.” 

Because he was frightened, the manifestation withdrew for six months. Then he heard the piping again. But he wasn’t afraid then. He hears it often now. 

“And never yet have they played the same tune, it is always something new, something fuller, richer, more complete than before.” Frank affects an open, receptive attitude now. Animals come to him unafraid. 

And Frank says one thing more will happen. He will have a final revelation, “a complete and blinding stroke”, that will give him the full knowledge that he is one with life. It may kill him. It may mean immortal life. 

In truth, though, Frank says that he and Darcy don’t exist. “Everything is part of the one and only thing which is life”. He fears that final revelation, but he won’t be afraid when it comes. 

After their talk, Darcy says he is so wound up he won’t be able to sleep.  Frank, “in a rather bored tone”, says he can make Darcy sleep and tells him to go to his room. Ten minutes later, he’s at Darcy’s side. He talks to him of sleeping birds, the sleeping sea, the slow swinging stars.  Darcy goes right out. 

The next morning, Frank reveals he learned hypnotism at the side of the river. Darcy is even more astounded, and Frank even looks younger than the day before. 

Darcy says Frank talked a “great deal of nonsense” last night. He wants to ask Frank more questions, and Frank agrees. 

Frank reveals that his contemplation of nature mostly came by lying naked on the banks of the river. Darcy asks him if the Greeks thought seeing Pan would be fatal. That could be true, says Frank. The Greeks were often right.  But he may become younger and more vital. 

One morning an incident happens rather similar to something Eustace does in Forester’s later “A Story of a Panic”: Frank stops to kiss an old woman. Then he runs from an injured child crying. 

He explains to Darcy that he can’t abide to be aroudn “that sort of thing, pain, anger, anything unlovely”. 

Darcy hangs out with Frank several weeks. Once, Frank asks him if he hears the music. Darcy doesn’t. Frank just keeps looking better as Darcy recovers from his fever. 

One day in July, it rains, and Darcy stays inside, but Frank goes out. In fact, Frank slept out that night though, when asked about it, he seems to have trouble recalling he was in his hammock by the place where he hears the music. 

As they talk that night, Darcy gets to the heart of the problem, the set up for the story’s conclusion: 

The radical unsoundness of your idea. It is this: All nature from highest to lowest is full, crammed full of suffering; every living organism in nature preys on another, yet in your aim to get close to, to be one with nature, you leave suffering altogether out; you run away from it, you refuse to recognize it. . . . Cannot you guess then when the final revelation will be? In joy you are supreme, I grant you that; I did not know a man could be so master of it. You have learned perhaps practically all that nature can teach. And if, as you think, the final revelation is coming to you, it will be the revelation of horror, suffering, death, pain in all its hideous forms.

Surprisngly, this idea hadn’t occurred to Frank. But, if he is to be shown all suffering, he is prepared. That day he’s heard the pipes without pause. He even saw a piece of Pan’s face in the bushes. 

Some days later, after walking in the hot sun with Frank, Darcy goes to bed, a thunderstorm distant in the night. Then, all of a sudden, he wakes up hearing a “scream of supreme and despairing terror”. A voice, Frank’s, calls “My God, oh, my God; oh Christ!” 

It’s interesting that Frank calls out to God when the pagan Pan is fully revealed. It is almost as if his dalliance with paganism has repelled him and he seeks refuge in the traditional faith of the age. Darcy also hears a “mocking, bleating laugh” in the night. 

Frank’s servant and Darcy find Frank in his hammock. But, on the way, they see a “black shadow” jumping into the air, hear the sound of hooves. Frank’s face is contorted with terror. 

By the time they get him inside, he’s dead. There are strange discolorations on Frank’s chest, marks of “pointed prints like some “monstrous goat had leaped and stamped on him”. 

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