The ill-starred Titanic’s bandleader Wallace Hartley drowned in the frigid Atlantic the night the ship went down, music box strapped to his chest as he and the ship’s seven other musicians played on the sloping deck for passengers strapping on vests and swarming into life boats. Survivors recall hearing the popular upbeat, syncopated ragtime tunes of the day, the hymn “Nearer my God to Thee,” and the haunting “Dream of Autumn”:
Reports conflict as to which was the very last song the band played before they all went under, but we don’t need to know to be moved by the fact that eight men would—knowing that they were in their last hour of life—choose to create something beautiful for others. It’s a tragedy, but awe-inspiring in the most honest sense of the word.
That’s the story—and sentiment—that came to mind as I read Noah K. Mullette-Gillman’s novel of “spiritual mythology,” The White Hairs. The book follows the physical and mental journeys of a mysterious, non-human snow creature called Farshoul, whose people have learned to loose their souls from their bodies and travel the astral plane. Their self-proclaimed status as the most “advanced” race on the planet comes not from science, technology, or the other trappings of human civilization, but from this mystical ability to see straight to the soul. The humans, on the other hand, are “The Unconscious Ones” or “The Mindless.”
Very simply, of Farshoul—“He had been told they lived unexamined lives.”
But Farshoul is a snow-Socrates who thinks perhaps there’s more to the human than meets the eye—or rather, that meets the anatomical, biological, physical and physiological eye.
My favorite scene in the book comes when Farshoul uses his spirit eyes to travel far from his home on the snowy slopes of a mountain range out to sea, where a human ship is caught in a desperate position: just minutes away from capsizing in a massive storm. Initially, Farshoul pities them their frantic prayers and pleas for help—
“Farshoul’s people knew that souls die when their bodies die… It was as if their next world was supposed to make everything that was wrong in the current one all right.”
It doesn’t help the human reputation, either, that the captain shoots half of his men as they lay strapped in their beds—a quicker death than drowning, he explains over their helpless protests. And yet, as Farshoul continues to eavesdrop on the sailors’ last moments, he witnesses something more elevated: they begin to sing.
“They were crying and they all knew they were dying and they chose to spend their last moments of consciousness making something beautiful. He hadn’t thought they were capable of anything so wise and advanced.”
It could have been ragtime, and it could have been “Nearer My God to Thee,” but either way it was something sublime, a reminder of a fact we so often forget: there are beautiful facets of human nature too.
The White Hairs is fiction (though, if you want to believe that the abominable snowman is a soul-traveling, mystic superhero, go right ahead). There is, however, a lot of truth to it. The rest of the novel might not have so perfect an historical cognate as the story of Wallace Hartley and the Titanic’s orchestra, but there is absolutely no way to read this book and not see it as a parable for our own very material-centric world.
Farshoul’s “society was set up around their relationship with the intangible,” Mullette-Gillman writes—putting very clearly what the first sentence of the book already hinted at:
Farshoul watched as the long white hairs on his arms became translucent. He watched as they faded away.
What the author does in The White Hairs (the name of the mysterious snow race, in case you were wondering) is give us a story about stripping away all the superfluous aspects of our own lives to find other examples of human spiritual beauty in such a cluttered, materialistic world.
Without that ability, Farshoul learns at one point—after losing his own spirit eyes in a fight with a vicious dog made of hateful red energy—life becomes empty and hollow: “He was not capable of seeing the most beautiful qualities of anyone after his injuries. He was incapable of love.”
But even for us most Unconscious Ones, all is not lost. As Farshoul’s mother tells him (proving, perhaps, that wisdom does come with white hairs):
“You didn’t lose anything you can’t find again.”