Unpath'd Waters


This is Harris' third collection of short stories, published in 1913. It has a distinct flavour of the metaphysical about it - something of a weakness, I think, as Harris' talents are best displayed in narratives driven by emotional forces rather than spiritual ones.

The opening story, "The Miracle of the Stigmata" is an ironic story of Jesus. In the years after the crucifixion a middle-aged man, Joshua, marries a younger woman Judith, who becomes a Christian convert after hearing Paul speak. The irony is that Joshua is in fact Jesus, who had escaped from the cross. Some fun is then had at the expense of Paul, whose version of Christ's teaching is rejected by Joshua. In the end, when Joshua dies, the presence of the stigmata on his body is seen as a miracle, and promptly used by Paul as evidence of the rightness of his faith. Enjoyable and memorable, but not a great piece of work.

Next is "The Holy Man", a wearisome parable about the distinction between religiosity and spirituality. A Russian backwoods Holy Man - who knows nothing of the Bible - walks on water. (Gosh!)

"The King of the Jews" is another Jesus story, this time told as a playlet. Harris attempts to portray the (presumably) profound effect of personal contact with Jesus, in this case on the Jew who helped carry the cross. Bulgakov's The Master and Marguerita, with its scenes between Christ and Pilate, shows how this sort of thing can work - and I speak as an atheist here - but Harris had not the technique.

"The Irony of Chance" is better - a piece of science fiction in which its hero discovers a method for what we would now call psychokinesis - the power of mind to move matter, specifically a large metal ball of peculiar construction. Alas! the effect is unpredictable, so he resorts to trickery in his demonstrations and ends up exposed as a fraud. The psychology of the protagonist, the way that he convinces himself that the deception is justified, is very good. Where the story falls down - as Arnold Bennett pointed out to Harris in a letter - is in its 'scientific' background, which is treated in too much detail to disguise its implausibility - vaguer would have been better.

"An English Saint" is the longest and the best story in the volume, quietly witty and ironic. A weak man of little intelligence, yet handsome of face, is moulded, Pygmalion-like, by a woman who loves him, to such a degree that he - now a cleric - is taken for a saint, unworldly yet wise. When it looks as though he might escape her, inflamed as he is with a passion for a pretty actress, she uses her great cunning to win him back to her. They marry at last, travel together to the Holy Land, return to London, he is made a bishop, but then his health fails and he dies. "Perhaps he's as near a saint as we're likely to see" is how he is finally summed up by his Archbishop. (More about this story)

"Mr. Jacob's Philosophy" is Harris at his most worthlessly anti-semitic. Best forgotten.

"The Ring" is a throw-away piece which describes the workings of an auction ring. It has the quality of a newspaper expose rather than a piece of fiction.

"The Spider and the Fly" also has something of the Sunday paper about it. It is another Jew story - this time a financier who exploits a wealthy peer. The effect in this case is less unpleasant since the peer is so boneheaded one feels that he deserves what he gets.

"The Magic Glasses" - the full text of which is available here for reading online - is a parable about perception. What if the subjectivity of our vision were to be taken from us and we saw things as they truly are? Harris says that we would reject this true vision, indeed that we would not recognise it as such, and that the bringer of truth would be persecuted. There are some clumsy passages but overall it is a fine story.

Harris always complained that he found writing hard work - perhaps that is why he could not bear to dispose of his feebler efforts? If there were four stories here instead of nine, this would be an excellent collection.