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01 Apr

de Selby, the philosopher preserved by Flann O’Brien

Arch at Selby Abbey (c) Irenicrhonda/Flickr

Wheel-like arch, Selby Abbey
(c) Irenicrhonda/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Human existence being an hallucination containing in itself the secondary hallucinations of day and night (the latter an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air) it ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusory approach of the supreme hallucination known as death.

de Selby. An epigraph from the frontispiece of The Third Policeman

de Selby is included in Wikipedia’s Irish Philosopher category. We have no good evidence for his being Irish but due to the fact the vast majority of the evidence of his existence comes from an Irish source, I believe he deserves inclusion here.

Despite living a good twenty centuries later, de Selby has suffered the same fate as the preSocratics, with his original books being completely lost. In addition all original copies of the copious secondary literature on de Selby is no longer available. The vast majority of what remains is the material, both original and secondary, collected in a series of footnotes in a quasi-autobiographical work credited to a Flann O’Brien (1). Due to the patchwork nature of the references in this tertiary work it is impossible to trace the development of de Selby’s thought or get a sense of his system, if he had one. However we can piece together a small account of the theories of de Selby with a few of his epigrams and get a sense of the interest and controversy surrounding his work.(2)

Biographical details are sparse. de Selby is described as a “physicist, ballistician, philosopher and psychologist.” O’Brien describes him as belonging to “distant days”, and a quote from Le Fournier places de Selby’s work before (and as a cause of) the Great War (3). Other details of de Selby’s life suggest he was active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (for example his theory of human existence based on cinematograph film and his acceptance that light travelled at a fixed speed.) We learn that even in O’Brien’s time de Selby’s family was “mysterious”, the most we learn of his mother being that she was “a very distinguished gentleman” and “a man of stern habits” (Basset, Lux Mundi quoted in O’Brien). Of his father apparently no mention is made. de Selby was not of good health, suffering from gall bladder disorders. He also frequently fell asleep in public (often in the midst of scientific debates), and could not tell women from men (see the description of his mother above). de Selby lived at least for a time in England, based on his movements alluded to by O’Brien. The name might suggest an ancient connection with the English town of Selby.

From O’Brien’s text and footnotes we can piece together an list of de Selby’s works (undated and with no indication of order). These include Golden Hours (O’Brien’s first introduction to de Selby), The Country Album, A Memoir of Garcia, Layman’s Atlas and the much disputed Codex of which at least two versions and four interpretations existed. The Bassett-Hackjaw school offered the most influential interpretation of his work, with both Bassett and Hackjaw also writing biographies (Lux Mundi: A memoir of de Selby and de Selby’s Life and Times respectively, both now lost). Other important commentators were the French Le Fournier, the (supposedly) French du Garbandier, the (supposedly) German Kraus and the Swiss Le Clerque. Of these four, O’Brien rates Le Fournier as reliable, Le Clerque as modest and the other two as unreliable. For the dramatic and on occasion baroque account of the disputes between these six (supposed) contributors, the reader should consult O’Brien directly.

de Selby’s possibly most interesting theory was that human existence is “a succession of static experiences each infinitely brief” (unattributed quote, TTP.4). From this he determined that any progression in life was impossible and insisted that time as commonly understood was not real. This is exemplified in his aphorism, “a journey is a hallucination” (quote attributed to Country Album, TTP.4). A trip from A to B is, per de Selby, in fact a series of infinitesimal pauses. Thus at no point is the “traveller” in motion. He points to the photograph as proof of this thesis. This was not merely theoretical; he is alleged to have put it into practice by travelling from Bath to Folkestone though the use of picture postcards of the supposed route, barometric instruments, clocks and a device to regulate gaslight to simulate sunlight at various “times” of day.

Another theory of de Selby’s was that mirrors held the secret to eternity. His starting point was the reflection that, “[i]f a man stands before a mirror and sees in it his reflection, what he sees is not a true reproduction of himself but a picture of himself when he was a younger man” (O’Brien, TTP.5). This is due to light travelling at a fixed speed – thus the image must be of a (very slightly) younger man. de Selby claimed that by utilising this insight and creating a huge array of parallel mirrors, he succeeded in seeing his own face as a boy of twelve.

It is not clear how this relates to de Selby’s assertion that “bereavement, old age, love, sin, death and the other saliences of existence” were “unnecessary” (O’Brien, TTP.7). de Selby argued that though we believe we can travel spatially in four directions, in fact north and south, and east and west are equivalent if we are truly are on a sphere. de Selby argues that, given whatever direction we choose to travel in we eventually arrive at the point we started from, we cannot therefore be certain we are on a sphere. He postulates that human beings are constrained to travel in a single direction around a sausage shaped Earth, while believing themselves free to travel in any direction. If humans could, somehow, travel along the ‘barrel’ of the sausage, “[n]ew and unimaginable dimensions will supersede the present order and the manifold ‘unnecessaries’ of ‘onedimensional’ existence will disappear” (O’Brien, TTP.7).

As is clear to the casual reader, attempting to reconcile these three theses will result in a mire of contradictions. Presumably de Selby’s thought developed over time, but which is the early thought and which later is lost to us.

Among de Selby’s other ideas referenced are the association of water with the ideal state (a modification of Thales?), that houses are the root cause of degradation of the human race, and that all names originate in personal descriptions made in prehistoric grunts (so are capable of being decoded to ascertain another’s appearance). The famous footnote attributing the existence of night to clouds of black pollution, with sleep being a faint brought on by the bad air is available online here.

It is difficult to know what to say when confronted by de Selby’s thought en mass (4). For most, perhaps de Selby’s greatest gift to philosophy is that identified by the commentator O’Brien calls “the eccentric du Garbandier” (TTP.7):

The beauty of reading a page of de Selby is that it leads one inescapably to the happy conviction that one is not, of all nincompoops, the greatest.

A very happy Myles Day to you all.

(1) “I knew that if my name was to remembered, it would be remembered with de Selby’s” as the author poignantly remarks in the book, “The Third Policeman”, in which de Selby’s contribution is recorded for posterity. I think it is not too farfetched to call O’Brien in this (if not, sadly, in his own contributions) the “Aristotle” to de Selby. Additional data is apparently available in the Dalkey Archive and from a single American author – these will not be dealt with here.
(2) Sadly, the author’s major opus (much like Aristotle’s dialogues or de Selby’s own work) is lost to us. He tells us that his de Selby Index collected the views of all commentators on de Selby and (according to the author) demonstrated how many common beliefs on de Selby were misapprehensions due to misreadings of his works. (TTP.2)
(3) Due to his eccentric beliefs unsettling the common people’s minds “On ne saura jamais jusquà quel point de Selby fut cause de la Grande Guerre, mais, mais, sans aucun doute […] ses théories excentriques auraient leffet de produire un trouble profond dans les masses.” (Le Fournier, Homme ou Dieu, quoted in footnote 4 to TTP.2)
(4) But some have tried. For a more detailed treatment of the philosophy played with by Flann O’Brien in The Third Policeman see the chapter At Swim in the Field of Folly in Building castles in the bog: Fantastic fiction and the modernization of the Irish mind by Jason R. Drake. A introduction to the work of Flann O’Brien/Myles na gCopaleen nee Brian O’Nolan is here. A more biographical piece in the Wall Street Journal is here. A discussion of and extract from The Third Policeman is here: “The Funniest, and Scariest, Book Ever Written”.

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3 thoughts on “de Selby, the philosopher preserved by Flann O’Brien

  1. Terry Gilliam, if you are listening; please film The Third Policeman… or The King of Ireland’s Son – either would be yours alone.

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