W. B. Yeats during the mid-Thirties remarked that the spiritual forces dominating humanity could be divided into three ages: first, the religious-ritualistic age of Greek antiquity; second, the modern political age through which we are now passing. He said the third and last age would be that of communication with the past in which the world would be directed by the dead. “And that,” he added gloatingly, “will be the worst age of all.”
Works of imagination which have been published since the Thirties (notably Wyndham Lewis’s trilogy The Human Age) lend uncanny force to Yeats’s (serious? not serious?) prophecy. James Merrill’s long poem of which the first section, The Book of Ephraim, was published in 1976 in the volume Divine Comedies (brilliantly discussed in The New York Review by Helen Vendler* ) and which is now continued in Mirabell: Books of Number, takes a further step in the same direction. Books of Number in fact consists largely of pronouncements made by powers who, although described as “the bad angels” of the Fall, are also extremely vocal translators of the symbolism of the Book of Genesis into the terminology of popularized nuclear physics. They have their vision of the evolutionary future of the human race in the nuclear age.
If we were to believe both in the complete authenticity of the messages transcribed from the Ouija board by James Merrill and his friend David Jackson and also in the posthumous immortality of the spirits with whom they communicate, then the future of history will consist of the setting up on earth of communication centers with the dead and the carrying out by a political bureaucracy of instructions from a bureaucracy in the Beyond. It is relevant here to point out that such an idea does correspond to some wish we harbor in our hearts, some Science Fiction One World fantasy that humanity, so hopelessly at odds with itself, could be directed by some judging, objective, scientific will.
Yet nothing could be further from James Merrill’s intent than that his poem should be taken literally as religious revelation of this kind. All here is in question. At one point the Powers who are his instructors say (they always speak in capital letters):
WE ARE U YOU ARE WE EACH OTHERS DREAM
Literal truth to which we can cling as historic fact is that James Merrill and David Jackson, living in their house in Stonington, Connecticut, did get the Ouija board apparatus and spent many months transcribing its communications:
Properties: A milk glass tabletop.
A blue-and-white cup from the Five & Ten.
Pencil, paper. Heavy cardboard sheet
Over which the letters A to Z
Spread in an arc, our covenant
With whom it would concern; also
The Arabic numerals, and YES and NO.
They get in touch with—or are got in touch with by—a Greek Jew called Ephraim who was born AD 8 at Xanthos. He informs them that…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.