A New Respect for Veils

I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to Gretel Murchie Porter (deceased), her brother Barnaby, and Gretel’s son Samuel Goldsmith for their time, patience, and trouble. Thanks to Sam in particular for granting me permission to copy his grandfather’s manuscript “The Veil of Glory,” in order that I might be able to read it. Thanks, finally, to the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center for preserving Guy Murchie’s materials and making them available.

I’m a Guy Murchie fan. I respect his popular works on science and though I am no longer a Bahá’í I consider his magnum opus, “The Seven Mysteries of Life,” the best presentation of the Bahá’í Faith ever made for a modern audience. It follows naturally that when I discovered that Murchie had been working on a history of the Bahá’í Faith in his late years (ca. 1980 to 1988) I wanted to see if some hidden gem had been waiting to be discovered; a gem, if nothing else, for Bahá’í readers. Yes, I think I can suspend my disbelief long enough to dig up a gem that is only of value to someone else, but this is easy when the memory of an author whom I admire is involved. Continue reading

Guy on the Horizon

Guy Murchie, Jr. had big shoes to fill, and a big name to live up to. He lived as though he was keenly aware of his father’s figurative shoe size.

While a student at Harvard, Guy was a member of the school’s prestigious rowing team. He graduated from Harvard in 1929, at age 22. He left before commencement ceremonies for a trip featuring Alaska, Hawaii, East Asia, and Russia that lasted about a year. His plan was to pay his way by working as he went, sailing “before the mast” as did Ishmael in Moby-Dick, though he paid his way as a conventional traveler much of the way. He kept a trip journal that would become the book, Men on the Horizon, published in 1932. The book was something of a success, making the New York Times “Best Sellers” list for nonfiction. [1]

The Stock Market Crash of October 1929 would strike while Murchie was just getting work in the engine room of a liner from Honolulu to Kobe, Japan. Though he discussed economics at length throughout the book and throughout the Soviet Union, he seemed to do so as an open-minded but proud and optimistic American, utterly oblivious to the mounting economic catastrophe at home. But though he may have been a patriot, he delivered a pointed message of international brotherhood.

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Misters Roosevelt, Churchill, and Murchie

The American Empire, it might well be said, was born on the day Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders defeated the Spanish in Cuba. Roosevelt was surely the first American Emperor — though a democratic emperor, and his Cuban adventure was the heroic gesture that crowned him. Largely ignoring the Constitution, Teddy expanded the powers of the Presidency so as to rein in monopolies. He made the United States a world power, and the United States and the world have not been the same since.

One of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders was Teddy’s Harvard classmate, Guy Murchie. Roosevelt wrote of Murchie:[1][2]

The Harvard contingent was practically raised by Guy Murchie, of Maine. He saw all the fighting and did his duty with the utmost gallantry, …

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One Guy’s Macrocosm

I just had the pleasure of reading the first volume of Guy Murchie’s Music of the Spheres, titled The Macrocosm, and I can see that a lot has been learned about Earth, the Moon, and planets since I was born. Take this sectional illustration of Earth’s crust for example:

A rather outdated cross section of California

A rather outdated cross section of California

Note the complete absence of tectonic plates. Note that the Sierra Nevada is represented as a folded range, which it’s not. Furthermore, today we don’t think there’s a basalt layer beneath North America, and in fact, we don’t think there’s any root at all beneath the southern Sierra. That last bit has been discovered rather recently.

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Guy Murchie’s Unpublished Opus

Guy Murchie’s final book, The Soul School: Confessions of a Passenger on Planet Earth, which he called his autobiography, reads more like a diary or a journal, with as much frankness and honesty as any diary, and almost as lacking in compositional flow. Given this impression, I don’t intend to read all 657 pages of it, but I have picked up a theme or two that I’d like to share.

The book was published in 1995, but it only covers Murchie’s life up to an 1989 epilogue, at which time he was about 82 years old. He went on to live another eight years.

One interesting thing I learned from The Soul School is that Murchie had been working on a short history of the Bahá’í Faith for general audiences — which he titled The Veil of Glory — on and off for 25 years, not long after completing his Music of the Spheres. He began by visiting Bahá’í historic sites throughout the Middle East in 1964, turned his efforts toward his next book, The Seven Mysteries of Life, and finally completed the manuscript of the history in May 1985, but was unable to find a non-Bahá’í publisher. The major Bahá’í publishers were all interested, but the book was rejected at least twice by the Universal House of Justice, who feared that Murchie’s book, which was not fully sourced, would “muddy the waters of Bahá’í history.” He continued to make efforts to “adapt [his] Bahá’í history to the Universal House’s specifications” through the late 1980s. The last we hear of such efforts was in the fall of 1988, in the closing paragraph of the final chapter, Impotence and Cancer, 1987–1988.

Large and revealing as Murchie’s self-styled autobiography is, it is not a proper autobiography, for the compositional reasons I have already stated. With this in mind, his Bahá’í history appears to have been the major project of his late career as a writer. It seems a shame that the book will probably never be published.

The Soul School includes several revealing passages pertaining to Murchie’s personal religion. Several years after the publication of The Seven Mysteries of Life, he was questioned about his beliefs by Gloria Faizi, a Bahá’í author and the wife of a Bahá’í leader:

Gloria brought up the question of God in relation to my Seven Mysteries, which she had read, and asked if my concept of God was pantheistic or plural in any sense? I guess my discussion of the degrees of Divinity and the relativity of it prompted her question. I told her that I thought the matter of singularity or plurality was only a semantic issue if God is, and as the Baha’is say, an “unknowable essence.” (1979)

Murchie also discusses his personal religion in a chapter regarding his Bahá’í activities in Alaska:

I had been a Baha’i for forty-three years. The organizational aspects had never greatly attracted me, but the warm philosophy did, … (1981)

Later in the same chapter, he relates:

A Baha’i … wanted to correspond about philosophy, particularly about the Baha’i doctrine of infallibility. I said I thought there was a relativity to it, …

And from his time in England, during World War II:

Remembering one day that I was a member of the worldwide Baha’i Faith, I looked it up in the telephone directory and went to the address given, only to find that it was merely a booth containing literature but with no one attending. I filled out a form, mailed it and got no response. However my life was full and there was the war, which the Baha’is seemed not to believe in, so I put off thinking about religion and considered instead the more promising matter of replenishing my own uncertain supply of girl friends in England. (1940)