Katherine Mansfield and the Numinous Machine

Katherine_Mansfield_and_the _Numinous

We don’t know why we’re here or what we are for. It’s necessary to live and comport ourselves as if we know what is happening, but anyone who says they know What is Happening is a liar or a nitwit or a Christ. In any case don’t give that person your Social Security number. Why do we have to be ‘for’ anything? Why must there be ‘purpose’? A friend and I tussle over this.  My pal holds that our idea that everything must be ‘doing something’ or that ‘there is a purpose’ is a quaint human construct that touchingly attempts to force sense onto what is essentially an ongoing and impenetrable accident. No. I mean, yes.

The universe is, if absolutely nothing else, a machine, like the heart. We didn’t invent the heart (the organ, not the romantic symbol). It effloresced within our collective ribcage over billions of years of organic trial and error (probably), and is a wet machine. Though we didn’t create the heart, it’s not blinkered human vanity to suggest that it’s ‘for ‘ something. Any 5th grader will tell you it’s for pumping oxygen around to our guts. In the same way, the universe is for something; it can’t help but be.  It is lumbering helplessly forward and the zany bits are falling away through disuse and the whole affair is becoming incrementally more useful. It doesn’t have to be a mindful construct, or a planned event, or something being steered by a ghost. It’s a machine, though, as in ‘quantum mechanics’.

What is the universe doing, and what is it for? What is it perfecting? What are We for in that scheme? What are gnats for? Why C02? Why the Van Allen Radiation Belt? Why dirt? Are The Life Force, Consciousness and Cognition useless parts that have no final utility in the Machine, soon to become vestigial and go the way of the appendix, the Passenger Pigeon and the MGM musical? These are the questions. We can’t Know the answers. We keep trying. Some of our confused, frustrated attempts involve meat cleavers, Improvised Roadside Devices, inebriated fisticuffs around Thanksgiving dinner, genocide. The bottom line, though; I don’t know What’s Going On. Neither do you. Our present station could well be at the behest of the famous Jesus Christ, or possibly The Creator is Hoss Cartwright, the large, amiable, horse-like of the three Cartwright brothers on the hit 60s television western Bonanza.

The writer Katherine Mansfield died at 34 in 1923, but not before taking up the modernist mantle and wondering aloud about the swirling wonderland. She sums it up with heartrending clarity in one of her stories and I turn to it with regularity for a good brief cry, and to be jarred. In it a wealthy, cosseted young lass named Laura, who anyway seems to show symptoms of being more directly connected to the Mystery than her dismissive contemporaries, is made to run an errand of mercy to a poor family whose young patriarch lies dead on a cot in a filthy ramshackle cottage in the steppes below the family mansion. She’s to take them a commiserating basket of leftovers from the wealthy family’s garden party. The errand, which Laura’s mother seems to foist on her as punishment for giving a crap, changes Laura completely, or validates what she always suspected but was never able to name. The curtain parts. Spoiler alert; below is the ending of the story. Mansfield sensed, as do we all, that Something is going on. What is it? It is Something and not Nothing, that’s what. It may be driven by ‘mindless’ mechanics. But it is Something, and often the heat and light it throws off are glorifying. As usual I thank you for your patience. If you’re still reading. Hello?


Laura only wanted to get out, to get away. She was back in the passage. The door opened. She walked straight through into the bedroom, where the dead man was lying.

“You’d like a look at ‘im, wouldn’t you?” said Em’s sister, and she brushed past Laura over to the bed. “Don’t be afraid, my lass,” – and now her voice sounded fond and sly, and fondly she drew down the sheet–“‘e looks a picture. There’s nothing to show. Come along, my dear.”

Laura came.

There lay a young man, fast asleep – sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy … happy … All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.

But all the same you had to cry, and she couldn’t go out of the room without saying something to him. Laura gave a loud childish sob.

“Forgive my hat,” she said.

And this time she didn’t wait for Em’s sister. She found her way out of the door, down the path, past all those dark people. At the corner of the lane she met Laurie.

He stepped out of the shadow. “Is that you, Laura?”


“Mother was getting anxious. Was it all right?”

“Yes, quite. Oh, Laurie!” She took his arm, she pressed up against him.

“I say, you’re not crying, are you?” asked her brother.

Laura shook her head. She was.

Laurie put his arm round her shoulder. “Don’t cry,” he said in his warm, loving voice. “Was it awful?”

“No,” sobbed Laura. “It was simply marvellous. But Laurie–” She stopped, she looked at her brother. “Isn’t life,” she stammered, “isn’t life–” But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.

“Isn’t it, darling?” said Laurie.

2 thoughts on “Katherine Mansfield and the Numinous Machine

  1. I like your thinking. A lot. But evidence of growing connectedness is scant. We’re still stuck in the Ego phase, I think. And it’s probably not just a phase. I think. It’s an anthropological imperative.


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