Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu is generally viewed as one of the quainter oddities of the quaint, odd 19th century. While some writers and critics (e.g., M.R. James) considered him an underrated author with true skill at evoking an atmosphere of dread, and others (e.g., H.P. Lovecraft) most certainly did not, on the whole he has been ignored by the critical establishment and left to gather dust on the shelves of a Dublin curiosity shop, and indeed it is only recently that critics have tried to take the full measure of his art. Among his more noted stories, “Green Tea” (1872) calls for a careful and close reading indeed, as this article will show.
A brief synopsis for the reader too lazy or stubborn to read it herself: The outer narrator is a former surgeon who served as secretary to Dr. Hesselius, who was also a scholar with an abiding interest in occult medical phenomena. The heart of the story consists of a letter concerning one of his cases, an English clergyman named Jennings who in a fit of scholarly industry began drinking green tea until he began to be visited by an evil black monkey that only he could see, with shining red eyes and an ambient halo reminiscent of hellfire. For many months the monkey merely stared at him relentlessly, but eventually, following the usual petty-
Taken in such a bare-
Cobb is indeed representative of the recent critical response to “Green Tea,” though only in the sense that his heretical brand of Really Shiny New Historicism is, like all the others, a seventeenth-
The first thing to note is that on his first visit to Jennings, Hesselius was ushered into his study, where he stopped to read passages in Emanuel Swedenborg’s Arcana Celestia about the creatures of the spirit world; these passages are quoted in the story. As is well known to scholars, at least outside of English departments, Swedenborg was a scientist who in middle age suddenly began receiving visions of angels and spirits, about which he wrote copiously. Angels, he insisted, did not communicate in human language but rather by expressing psychically the fundamental logical elements of thought.
Here we have the key to the story. Angels express the logical form of their thoughts without any necessity to generate a phonetic form. Le Fanu (and for that matter Swedenborg) therefore clearly foresaw the rise of the minimalist brand of Chomskyan linguistics, but
Green tea, therefore, represents the wrong turn away from Chomsky and into the clutches of the dark side. The monkey is first speechless (for such theories have nothing true to say), then abusive and foul (which results whenever adherents of these theories try to challenge the true doctrine), then drives its victims to suicide (for intellectually that is what structuralism and stratificationalism surely are); and that is one of the deep ironies of functionalism, that it renders its victims unable actually to function as real linguists, just as Jennings was unable to preach sermons with the monkey standing on his Bible shouting obscenities at him (the spitting image of every functionalist this author has ever met). This also helps explain Hesselius’ insistence on green tea causing spirit visitation as a neurological phenomenon: “It is the story of the process of a poison, a poison which excites the reciprocal action of spirit and nerve, and paralyses the tissue that separates those cognate functions of the senses, the external and the interior.” Stratificationalism, after all, is just structuralism plus neural nets. Le Fanu’s insistent harping upon nerves is not a half-