Sometimes, when the particular moment in time into which you happened to have been born seems dumb beyond relief, time travel is the only option. Watching what we understand to be our civilization tumbling into a bottomless pit of despair, we may be forgiven for wondering if this is just a passing phase and if the future, bless it, is likely to be any better.
The answer, of course, is no.
This is the lesson delivered one hundred years ago by Max Beerbohm—caricaturist, humorist, sharp dresser, repressed homosexual, closeted Jew—in a short story called “Enoch Soames.” Its protagonist, the titular Enoch, is a miserable wretch: The only thing more inelegant than his misshapen waterproof black cape is his prose, which, to the modern reader, may evoke the assaults against elegance perpetrated daily at any of our college campuses. Soames, tragically, fancies himself one of the greats, a mind so towering as to gaze down on Shelley and find him wanting. He totters about London, always at the side of whatever smart set happens to be congregating at galleries or cafés or parties, attempting to assert some prominence.
The story’s narrator, Beerbohm himself, observes Soames with awe at first, then with a pity that deepens as Beerbohm’s own literary success grows. And just when you think you’re reading a touching little dramatic slice of fin de siècle bohemian London, Beerbohm turns the tables. Quite literally: As Soames and the narrator are supping in a small and cheap restaurant, the failed writer moans that he would give anything to thrust himself one hundred years into the future, so that he may learn if posterity was any kinder to his reputation than the present day. A gentleman dining nearby eavesdrops on their conversation, pushes his table over, and introduces himself as the Devil. He will send Soames precisely a century into the unknown, he says, in exchange for the usual price mortals pay when they strike a deal with the Morning Star.
Soames agrees—could he really have done otherwise?—and is awarded five hours in the year 1997. The narrator tries to dissuade him, but the promise of seeing his own suffering vindicated by eternal literary glory is too much for Soames to resist. He agrees to the Devil’s terms, and, in a flash, disappears.
When he returns, he is—could it have been any different?—a profoundly broken man. Having rushed to the British Library to look himself up in its catalogue, he finds but one mention of Soames, Enoch. It’s in a book titled English Literature 1890-1990. Or, rather, Inglish Littracher 1890-1990, as the English-speaking peoples seem to communicate now in a phonetically spelled language reduced to its most elemental structures. Looking for himself in that definitive anthology, Soames . . . learns that he would henceforth be remembered not as a living human being but only as a fictional character created by his friend Beerbohm.
. . . .
Beerbohm anxiously walks the streets of London, waiting for Soames to reappear. When the time-traveler finally materializes back in the same cheap restaurant, Beerbohm begs him to run away. Soames, he suggests with the master’s sly touch, should abscond to the south of France; even the Devil himself wouldn’t look for him there. But Soames refuses. Somberly, he sits and waits for Satan to show up and claim his due. Eventually, the Horned One pops by and grabs his wretched prey. As Soames is being rushed past the door and on to eternal damnation, he turns to his friend with one parting wish: “Try,” he begs, “to make them know that I did exist!”
Link to the rest at Tablet and thanks to Julia for the tip.