De Selby

Of all the great philosophers, none perhaps is as elusive as De Selby.  Indeed, as one of his biographers states:

‘Like all the greater thinkers, he has been looked to for guidance on many of the major perplexities of existence.  The commentators, it is to be feared, have not succeeded in extracting from the vast store-house of his writings any consistent, cohesive or comprehensive corpus of spiritual belief and praxis.’

His ideas—that ‘human existence [is] an hallucination containing in itself the secondary hallucination of day and night (the latter an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air)’; that ‘(a) darkness was simply an accretion of “black air”, i.e., a staining of the atmosphere due to volcanic eruptions too fine to be seen with the naked eye and also to certain ‘regrettable’ industrial activities involving coal-tar by-products and vegetable dyes; and (b) that sleep was simply a succession of fainting-fits brought on by semi-asphyxiation due to (a)’; that ‘death is merely “the collapse of the  heart from the strain of a lifetime of fits and fainting”’; and that the earth is shaped like a sausage—have aroused much debate and controversy.  Grave and slanderous aspersions have been cast on his sanity (cf. Bassett, Lux Mundi), although he was unconditionally and absolutely discharged following a forcible medical examination.

The world’s leading expert on De Selby was a wooden legged man, who was engaged in writing the definitive critical work.  This work is believed lost along with its owner, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances.  This is regrettably not an uncommon fate to befall students of De Selby; the singular disappearance of Hatchjaw on the Continent and its connexion to the remarkable Kraus–du Garbandier impersonation scandal, and indeed the disappearance from all human ken of Kraus himself, will occur at once to any expert.

The reader is referred to The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, who has made a study of the case of the one-legged man.  Unfortunately, the results are not all that could be desired.  Instead of a sober and academic discussion, O’Brien has fictionalised the affair, and in so doing trivialised it.  Moreover, some of his allegations are libellous in the extreme.  He pretends to adopt the persona of the missing expert, and recounts the affair in the first person.  He alleges that this expert, together with another man—one Divney, of whom still little is known—conspired to murder a third man—a grave slur on the character of not only the unfortunate scholar, who is not in a position to defend himself, but on that of students of the great De Selby.  He proposes an improbable farrago of policemen, bicycles, talking souls, the element omnium, and the Atomic Theory, with musings on the nature of reality, the individual, the absurdity of life, and what appears to be a blasphemous and singularly misjudged reference to Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence.  Although not without its amusing side, this is misleading to the student and intellectually dangerous, and a distraction from the serious business of philosophy.  One suspects that O’Brien’s talents would be better suited to writing phantasmagorias of an intellectual sort.  It would be a better outlet for his undoubtedly powerful imagination, and he would do less damage there.

It is to be regretted, for interspersed with this fantastical and wilfully misleading material are some excellent passages discussing De Selby’s theories and the critical literature appertaining thereto.  It is for these that the work should be read.  This book does not substantially add to one’s knowledge of De Selby; rather, it only adds to the cloud of nebulous theories and academic slander surrounding the great man.  Of all the great philosophers, none perhaps is as elusive as De Selby.

Nick Fuller

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