Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Boreham on Humankind as a Recurring Decimal

I really believe that, if a visitor from Mars were suddenly to light upon this planet, none of our extraordinary antics or bewildering contrivances would astound him half as much as our infinite capacity for leaving our ghastly tragedies behind us and calmly beginning afresh. It stands out from all our other achievements as a mountain stands out from the molehills. It is the most audacious phenomenon in the solar system. Man is simply endless; you can never exhaust him; he breaks out in a fresh place and begins all over again. His endings always lead to beginnings, his dark evenings to cloudless mornings. He is like the proverbial cat with her nine lives, except that in his case the paltry numeral must be indefinitely multiplied. He is like the phoenix of mythology; you can burn him to ashes, but he will rise most gloriously from the smouldering embers and turn his face once more to the skies. He is like Drummond's monkey that would not kill; he is always startling you by his unexpected appearances and his new tricks.

Napoleon said that the worst of the English was that they never knew when they were beaten. Just at the critical moment at which, by "every law of military etiquette, they ought to have owned themselves conquered and have surrendered to their foes, they simply adopted some entirely new tactics and drove their antagonists from the field. The English may, in this respect, be sinners above all men on the face of the earth; but it is only a matter of degree.… It is nothing less than the very sign and hallmark of our humanity. To quote Nietzsche's famous phrase, ‘Man is a recurring decimal.’ He will never work out. You may divide and divide to your heart's content, but each fresh product of your arithmetic leaves you as far as ever from finality. Each figure, so far from being the end, is simply a new beginning. It starts the whole thing going again. Man is invincible, impregnable, invulnerable, indestructible. You think that you have thrown him down; but he will bounce like a ball. You fancy that you have killed and buried him; but he will rise from the dust and laugh at you.

In his Life of Milton, Mark Pattison tells us that, at the age of forty-three, blindness fell upon the poet like the sentence of death, and he fancied for awhile that he had reached the end of everything. His only gleam of comfort lay in the fact that he had written, during his last year of eyesight, a pamphlet on the civil war! 'He could not foresee,' his biographer remarks, 'that in less than ten years his pamphlet would be merged in the obsolete mass of civil war tracts, and only be mentioned because it had been written by the author of Paradise Lost! Yet so it was. Milton began life all over again in the darkness and gave us the work that has secured him deathless fame. That is Man all over. He is the most inveterate and incorrigible beginner that the universe has seen. He is a faggot of thunderbolts.

F W Boreham, ‘A Faggot of Thunderbolts’, The Golden Milestone (London: Charles H Kelly, 1915), 25-27.

Image: ‘Man is a recurring decimal.’