Allow me to briefly indulge my strong affection for Neoplatonism since the subject came up in the story and in the discussion. It should be noted that, until very recently, Neoplatonism was viewed with great suspicion, if it was viewed at all. There was something dangerous about it. In 1908, Cornford concluded his book 'From Religion to Philosophy' with a warning that Aristotle's contemplative life was one step removed from “the mystical trance" of Neoplatonic “ecstasy” in which “Thought denies itself; and Philosophy, sinking to the close of her splendid curving flight, folds her wings and drops into the darkness whence she arose—the gloomy Erebus of theurgy and magic.” This characterization was well within the mainstream of the period. For at least two centuries, there was great hostility towards perceived eclecticism and syncretism. The Platonists of Late Antiquity were thought to have fallen away from the purity of Plato. Neoplatonism integrated disparate strands of Hellenistic philosophy. It drew on alien texts like the Chaldean Oracles. Its adherents came to embrace theurgy, whereby ritual actions where undertaken to enter into divine activity--this was maligned as vulgar magic. That many of the later Platonists had Eastern backgrounds didn't help. After the closing of the Platonic Academy in Athens in 529, we are told the following philosophers were forced to leave the city: Damascius the Syrian, Simplicius the Cilician, Eulamius the Phrygian, Priscianus the Lydian, Hermias and Diogenes from Phoenicia, and Isidore of Ghaza. Here we might look at E. R. Dodds who really kicked off the reappraisal of Neoplatonism with his article The Parmenides of Plato and the Origin of the Neoplatonic 'One' in 1928. There wasn't much of a reaction at first, but by the 50's other scholars had taken note. By the late 60's, Neoplatonism had almost become a respectable area of study. I mention Dodds here for another reason too. He was very interested in the supernatural and the occult. His article 'Supernormal Phenomena in Classical Antiquity' is full of choice tidbits of some relevance like this passage on communication with the dead: The possibility of communication with the dead was seldom denied save by Epicureans and sceptics, but the prevalent pattern of belief did not encourage it. On the orthodox pagan view only the unquiet dead-those who had died untimely or by violence, or had failed of due burial-were earthbound and available. And since these were thought to be angry and dangerous spirits, their company was not as a rule desired; those who sought it were suspect of exploiting it for the unholy purpose of magical aggression. Or this footnote about ghosts: The tradition that earthbound spirits haunt their place of death or of burial is as old as Plato (Phaedo 81 c-d) and doubtless far older. It persisted throughout Antiquity and survived the advent of Christianity (cf., e.g., Origen, c. Cels. 7.5; Lactantius, div. inst. 2.2.6). The prototypical tale is that told by the younger Pliny (Epist. 7.27.4 ff.) of a haunted house at Athens and reproduced by Lucian (Philopseudes 3of.) with a different location and a few additional horrors. For other haunted houses see Plutarch apud schol. Eur. Alc. I I28 (the Brazen House at Sparta); Plutarch, Cimon I (house at Chaeronea, said still to produce 'alarming sights and sounds' in Plutarch's day); and Suetonius, Caligula 59.
I loved this story! But then I am a tragic goth at heart, so it was just my sort of thing. I can't even promise I wouldn't have done exactly what Devigne did! I agree, though, that we're not supposed to read Devigne as a sympathetic character at all (unlike when, say, Lovecraft writes this sort of protagonist as an author-self-insert). That said, I feel like the critique of white male privilege could have been a bit more explicit. That's one of my only criticisms of the story really (and I think you raised it in the episode too) - Nesbit brings up a lot of issues, but we never really get a sense of how she feels about them. Maybe that's being a twenty-first-century reader reading a nineteenth-century story though. For what it's worth, on the subject of class, I think through the story there's a critique of both the 'ignorant' lower classes who burn what they don't understand and the 'indolent' upper classes who waste their potential. And Glenn, on the historical accuracy of the witch burning, I feel like we just have to accept it for the sake of the story - it still kind of fits with the popular perception of the witch craze (the Devil painting a pre-Raphaelite portrait in the seventeenth century is oddly anachronistic too). There's a great weird prequel to be written about the learned seventeenth-century woman who delves deeper and deeper into occult knowledge and then sells her soul to the Devil. Although there's something almost anti-feminist about a such a strong female character selling her soul and giving up everything for the sake of love. Or maybe there isn't - that's how it seemed to me though. On the metaphysics of re-incarnation, I didn't see this as a muddled issue actually. If we assume a basis in Christian theology, as the story seems to have (albeit inspired by Indian belief systems), it doesn't follow that belief in re-incarnation means belief that everyone gets re-incarnated. Re-incarnation (in the sense of coming back to Earth to live another life) isn't really part of Christian theology after all. So maybe in seventeenth-century England you have to make a satanic pact to be able to re-incarnate, and this is something the woman has discovered in her increasingly occult studies. I know I sometimes complain about the abrupt and unsatisfying endings of some of these stories, but I'm going to defend this one. Devigne not having to make the choice of whether to sell his soul is the crux of the gothic tragedy. He now has to live a wholly mundane and unsatisfying life with a woman he doesn't really love love or appreciate instead of having Heaven on Earth with his soulmate - and he didn't even get a say in the matter, which makes it all even worse for someone of his self-importance. I do think he would have gone through with it though - it's easy to sell your soul when you don't believe in those sorts of things (even after being confronted by a woman emerging from a painting claiming to be your re-incarnated soulmate). Finally, good timing for this episode to air during Women in Horror Month: https://www.womeninhorrormonth.com/
One of my favorite of GW's stories, so I'm stoked you got to it. It always made me want to think that GW had read Wallace Stevens because there are so many fun connections between the image of Stevens as an insurance executive by day and dreamer by night. And I know that in the Afterward in _Best of..._, GW says that this is his tribute to men who work drudgery jobs, but I wonder how much of it was his experience, too, as an engineer/editor. And I promise to have questions later, but just wanted to ask if you (or anyone else) had ever read Thomas Ligotti's "My Work is Not Yet Done." It has a very similar vibe of "find the horror in the emptiness of office life." A few stories by Michael Cisco as well. In fact, maybe it's time for an anthology: "Cubicle Horror: Workplace Uncanniness in 20th century SF."