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Suspended Animation

It used to be thought that a man who said he liked dry champagne would say anything. In the same way, some persons may hold that a person who could believe in the recurrent Australian story of "suspended animation"--artificially produced in animals, and prolonged for months--could believe in anything. It does not do, however, to be too dogmatic about matters of opinion in this world. Perhaps the Australian tale of an invention by which sheep and oxen are first made lifeless, then rendered "stiff ones" by freezing, and then restored to life, and reproduced with gravy, may be like the genius of Beethoven. Very few persons (and these artists) believed in Beethoven at first, but now he is often considered to be the greatest of composers. Perhaps great discoveries, like the works of men of original genius, are certain to be received at first with incredulity and mockery. We will not, therefore, take up a dogmatic position, either about the painting or the preserved meats of the future; but will hope for the best. The ideally best, of course, is that the tale from Australia may prove true. In that case the poorest will be able to earn "three square meals a day," like the Australians themselves; and while English butchers suffer (for some one must suffer in all great revolutions), smiling Plenty will walk through our land studying a cookery-book. There are optimistic thinkers, who gravely argue that the serious desires of humanity are the pledges of their own future fulfilment. If that be correct, the Australian myth may be founded on fact. There is no desire more deep-rooted in our perishable nature than that which asks for plenty of beef and mutton at low prices. Again, humanity has so often turned over the idea of conveniently suspended animation before, that there must be something in that conception. If we examine the history of ideas we shall find that they at first exist "in the air." They float about, beautiful alluring visions, ready to be caught and made to serve mortal needs by the right man at the right moment. Thus Empedocles, Lucretius, and the author of "Vestiges of Creation," all found out Darwinism before Mr. Darwin. They spied the idea, but they left it floating; they did not trap it, and break it into scientific harness. Solomon De Caus, as all the world has heard, was put into a lunatic asylum for inventing the steam-engine, though no one would have doubted his sanity if he had offered to raise the devil, or to produce the philosopher's stone, or the elixir vitae. Now, these precious possessions have not been more in men's minds than a system of conveniently suspended animation. There is scarcely a peasantry in Europe that does not sing the ballad of the dead bride. This lady, in the legends, always loves the cavalier not selected by her parents, the detrimental cavalier. To avoid the wedding which is thrust on her, she gets an old witch to do what the Australian romancer professes to do--to suspend her animation, and so she is carried on an open bier to a chapel on the border of her lover's lands. There he rides, the right lover, with his men-at-arms, the bride revives just in time, is lifted on to his saddle-bow, and "they need swift steeds that follow" the fugitive pair. The sleeping beauty, who is thrown into so long a swoon by the prick of the fairy thorn, is another very old example, while "Snow-white," in her glass coffin, in the German nursery tale, is a third instance.

It is not only the early fancy of the ballad-mongers and fairy tale-tellers that has dwelt longingly on the idea of suspended animation. All the mystics, who all follow the same dim track that leads to nothing, have believed in various forms of the imaginary Australian experiment. The seers of most tribes, from Kamschatka to Zululand, and thence to Australia, are feigned to be able to send their souls away, while their bodies lie passive in the magical tent. The soul wanders over the earthly world, and even to the home of the dead, and returns, in the shape of a butterfly or of a serpent, to the body which has been lying motionless, but uncorruptible, in apparent death. The Indian Yogis can attain that third state of being, all three being unknown to Brahma, which is neither sleeping nor waking, but trance. To produce this ecstasy, to do for themselves what some people at the Antipodes pretend to do to sheep and cattle, is the ideal aim of the existence of the Yogi. The Neoplatonists were no wiser, and Greek legend tells a well-known story of a married mystic whose suspended animation began at last to bore his wife. "Dear Hermotimus"--that was his name, if we have not forgotten it--"is quite the most absent of men," his spouse would say, when her husband's soul left his body and took its walks abroad. On one occasion the philosopher's spiritual part remained abroad so long that his lady ceased to expect its return. She therefore went through the usual mourning, cut her hair, cried, and finally burned the body on the funeral- pyre. "We can do no more for miserable mortals, when once the spirit has left their bones," says Homer.

At that very moment the spirit returned, and found its uninsured tenement of clay reduced to ashes. The sequel may be found in a poem of the late Professor Aytoun's, and in the same volume occurs the wondrous tale of Colonel Townsend, who could suspend his animation at pleasure.

There is certainly a good deal of risk, as well as of convenience, in suspended animation. People do not always welcome Rip Van Winkle when he returns to life, as we would all welcome Mr. Jefferson if he revisited the glimpses of the footlights,


   "The hard heir strides about the lands,
   And will not yield them for a day."


There is the horrible chance of being buried alive, which was always present to the mind of Edgar Poe. It occurs in one of his half-humorous stories, where a cataleptic man, suddenly waking in a narrow bed, in the smell of earthy mould, believes he has been interred, but finds himself mistaken. In the "Fall of The House of Usher" the wretched brother, with his nervous intensity of sensation, hears his sister for four days stirring in her vault before she makes her escape. In the "Strange Effects of Mesmerism on a Dying Man," the animation is mesmerically suspended at the very instant when it was about naturally to cease. The results, when the passes were reversed, and the half fled life was half restored, are described in a passage not to be recommended to sensitive readers. M. About, uses the same general idea in the fantastic plot of his "L'Homme a l'Oreille Cassee," and the risk of breakage was insisted on by M. About as well as by the inventive Australian reporter. Mr. Clarke Russell has also frozen a Pirate. Thus the idea of suspended animation is "in the air," is floating among the visions of men of genius. It is, perhaps, for the great continent beneath the Southern Cross to realize the dreams of savages, of seers, of novelists, of poets, of Yogis, of Plotinus, of M. About, and of Swedenborg. Swedenborg, too, was a suspended animationist, if we may use the term. What else than suspension of outer life was his "internal breathing," by which his body existed while his soul was in heaven, hell, or the ends of the earth? When the Australian discovery is universally believed in (and acted on), then, and perhaps not till then, will be the time for the great unappreciated. They will go quietly to sleep, to waken a hundred years hence, and learn how posterity likes their pictures and poems. They may not always be satisfied with the results, but no artist will disbelieve in the favourable verdict of posterity till the supposed Australian method is applied to men as well as to sheep and kangaroos.


Andrew Lang