Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Violent Bear it Away

I've just reread A Voyage to Arcturus. I first encountered it in college, I forget how. Perhaps I came across one of C. S. Lewis' remarks on it. I seem to recall Lewis being critical of Lindsay's style, and it certainly has its defects. The dialogue is poorly contrived; the sentences are stiff and awkward and occasionally silly; there are a great many applications of useless adjectives like "mystic" and "grand." But in my opinion the concrete imagery and plunging pace more than make up for this. It's an exhausting, compelling read, intellectually stimulating and possessed of a terrible, glittering beauty. One could scarcely imagine it lengthened. The spirit would be unable to endure it. It torments the reader like the disintegrating glow of Alppain.

When I first read Voyage I hadn't read Plato or Oscar Wilde. The parallels between the tasteless ostentation of the séance and aestheticism of Poolingdred and the deceits of Crystalman escaped me. It worked on me without my being aware of it, aided by my ignorance. Reading books is dangerous when one is ignorant. What seized most upon my imagination was the savage inversion by which the devil of Tormance turned out to be Surtur, the guardian of Muspel, while the god of the aesthetes was revealed as the sordid, bestial enemy of the spirit. It left its mark on me. Never mind what it all meant. Since then I've become conscious of a certain gnostic strain in my thinking and reacted against it. But that savage inversion remains with me.

As I said, I think I was introduced to Lindsay by Lewis. It's well known that Lewis owned a conscious debt to Voyage for its use of interplanetary adventure as a means of spiritual exploration. On the other hand, he disparaged the book's philosophy as a species of diabolism. That's interesting to me, for, if Lindsay was my Krag, then Lewis was my Crystalman. I was much taken with Lewis at the time, and there's no author I've reacted more violently against than he. He was my master, if you will; one can hardly repudiate such a one without coming to hate him. Perhaps that's putting it too strongly. But I speak of him as a writer, not as a man. I revolted against his religious views as being tepid, unreal, glibly self-regarding, and horribly flat, as though ineffable truth had been projected onto a tabletop. It runs through his fiction and nonfiction alike. Perhaps an illustration will suffice to explain what I mean.

As a boy I was morbidly obsessed with the afterlife. I feared annihilation, yes, but I feared eternity more; this caused me to hate my own existence. I could conceive of nothing but a gray and endless serial progression of days. Surely you would get bored eventually, I thought, and then you would have the rest of eternity in which to be bored. At no point could you even be said to have begun. "When we've been there ten thousand years" and all the rest. An unending nightmare. The doom of Tithonus.

I first read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was ten. I remained blissfully unaware of their religious "message," but the final volume of the series, The Last Battle, always made me unaccountably depressed. It ends with the entry of the main characters into the afterlife, which is revealed as a sequence of concentric Narnias, each larger and more real, more "Narnian," than the last. "Higher up and further in." Plato is even named by one of the characters. Well, to me, that seemed only to replace an arithmetic with a geometric progression. The rungs of the ladder get grander and grander, okay, but what if one tires of the way in which they get grander? In the end it's still just a gnostic ladder. It's the kind of heaven a Crystalman would dream up. The imprisonment of a mystery within a concept.

Lindsay, on the other hand…well, Lindsay, a gnostic himself, opposes the spiritual to the material, which I certainly do not. But at any rate, for all his grim insistence, he knew his limits and didn't exceed them; that cannot be said of all writers. I feel that Lindsay would have seen the lie in Lewis's conceptions, the hollowness of his apologetics. Tolkien apparently had a profound distaste for the Narnia books and privately objected to Lewis' religious writings; though of a different philosophical bent, perhaps Lindsay would have concurred for some of the same reasons. The brutal, impetuous Maskull will always be closer to Muspel than the sedentary and peace-loving votary of Shaping.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Orwell's Rules of Writing

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

—George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language"

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Flannery O'Connor on the Grotesque

"Hawthorne knew his own problem and perhaps anticipated ours when he said he did not novels, he wrote romances… The writer who writes within what might be called the modern romance tradition may not be writing novels which in all respects partake of a novelistic orthodoxy; but as long as these works have vitality, as long as they present something that is alive, however eccentric its life may seem to the general reader, then they have to be dealt with; and they have to be dealt with on their own terms."

"When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque… In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe everyday, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life. We find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored… Yet the characters in these novels are alive in spite of these things. They have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected."

"…[I]f the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will aways be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where the adequate motivation and the adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don't understand rather than in what we do. He will be interested in possibility rather than in probability. He will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves—whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not. To the modern mind, this kind of character, and his creator, are typical Don Quixotes, tilting at what is not there.

"I would not like to suggest that this kind of writer, because his interest is predominantly in mystery, is able in any sense to slight the concrete. Fiction begins where human knowledge begins—with the senses—and every fiction writer is bound by this fundamental aspect of his medium. I do believe, however, that the kind of writer I am describing will use the concrete in a more drastic way. His way will much more obviously be the way of distortion."

"Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological… I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted… Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature."

"The Southern writer is forced from all sides to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm which is the concern of prophets and poets. When Hawthorne said that he wrote romances, he was attempting, in effect, to keep for fiction some of its freedom from social determinisms and to steer it in the direction of poetry. I think this tradition of the dark and divisive romance-novel has combined with the comic grotesque tradition and with the lessons all writers have learned from the naturalists, to preserve our Southern literature at least for a while..."

—Flannery O'Connor, "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction"

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Dark Knight

I left off my previous post by asking the origins and significance of the Man With No Name. Well, to me it seems clear that he's the modern version of the quest-knight, but with an ironic twist.
The subtext of Chandler's The Big Sleep is heralded by its opening description:
Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying.
This anticipates the moment when Marlowe comes home to his apartment to find the vicious, lascivious Carmen Sternwood, his damsel in distress, naked in his bed:
I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights.
The quest-knight of the twentieth century is no knight in shining armor, but a dark knight, an anti-knight. He is conscious of no code of honor but his detachment and self-consistency. His quest is a hopeless one, its object meaningless like the Maltese Falcon or destructive like the Great Whatsit of Alderich's Kiss Me Deadly. And yet he pursues his path to the bitter end. His literary ancestor is the hero of Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," who struggles alone across a tortured landscape to an end without hope, yet rings out his challenge defiantly in the face of certain doom. That Stephen King professes his Gunslinger to have been inspired by both Browning's poem and the protagonist of the "Dollars Trilogy" underscores this connection.
And what of the significance of the Man With No Name? Why are we so obsessed with him? Does it really need to be explicated? The answer is all too clear. The wasteland of the modern quest is our civilization.
     The river's tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Malory's blighted land fell into ruin through its king receiving the Dolorous Stroke, an echo of the Eden myth. But in our time man in his perversity has engineered his own dolorous stroke, has sown the sere fields with the seeds of his own destruction.
And more than that—a furlong on—why, there!
     What bad use was that engine for, that wheel,
     Or brake, not wheel—that harrow fit to reel
Men's bodies out like silk? with all the air
Of Tophet's tool, on earth left unaware,
     Or brought to sharpen its rusty teeth of steel.
Atom bombs and napalm; strip mines, pollution, and mass extinction; abortion and genocide and voluntary sterility; mind-shattering drugs; the fragmentation of culture, the confusion of tongues, the dissolution of the family, the ebbing of faith. Man's imprisoned demons have burst free and now stride across the landscape like giants.
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Across this dark landscape the Man With No Name advances. Like Galahad, he is an outsider, his identity an enigma. Like Galahad, he has a magic touch when it comes to getting things done. He cuts through the red tape of institutions grown impotent or corrupt, throws down the tyrant, and sets the captives free. His activity is a kind of harrowing of hell. Lily-white he's not, but there is an integrity to his blackness. He is self-transfixed like Percival, sullied like Bors, excluded like Lancelot at the waste chapel. There is no Grail at the end of his quest, and yet he still goes on and on. His cynical idealism is a substitute for faith, his detached persistence a substitute for hope, his vigorous action a substitute for love. He's not the knight the world needs, but the knight it deserves.
People are too apt to view the quest for the Holy Grail as a relic from an age of chivalric idealism. The earthy fabric of which Malory's Arthurian tapestry is woven gives the lie to this, but modern readers still tend to forget that the context of Le Mort d'Arthur is not the fifth century, but the fifteenth. It was an era of impending dissolution. The medieval social order was crumbling. There were signs and portents, wars and rumors of wars. Corruption was rife. Princes pursued their ambitions apart from any moral code. Malory himself was something of a social outcast, a man of violence who ravished women, abused clergymen, and single-handedly fought his way out of prison, the living archetype of the Man With No Name.
Predictions of an immanent apocalypse are pretty common these days. They come from all quarters, from religious fundamentalists and climate scientists, from New Agers and politicians, from tabloid journalists and mainstream filmmakers. But ours isn't the first era of such social anxiety. The end was looked for in pre-Reformation Europe, and also during the Danish invasions. They say too that the reign of Justinian was troubled by bearded stars, earthquakes, and pestilences. It was a time of disorientation and transformation. Europe was entering the Dark Ages. What if anything do our own anxieties presage?
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Man With No Name

There is a certain vein of twentieth-century stories and films that I find myself returning to over and over again. I've mentioned how watching Mad Max and The Road Warrior was something of an epiphany to me. I eventually discovered that its protagonist is but one incarnation of a stock figure of twentieth-century mythology: the Man With No Name. Other versions include Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op (most memorably in Red Harvest), Akira Kurasawa's nameless samurai (Yojimbo, Sanjuro), the protagonist of Sergio Leone's "Dollars Trilogy" (e.g., A Fistful of Dollars), Stephen King's Gunslinger, and the latter-day Batman of Christopher Nolan. Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Hammett's Sam Spade also come to mind.

The same themes seem to crop up in each case. The backdrop is invariably post-apocalyptic, sometimes fully realized and sometimes not. There's the hellish, hopelessly corrupt mining town of Personville ("Poisonville"); chaotic, post-feudal Japan; the practically extinct border hamlet of San Miguel; the post-apocalyptic Australian Outback; the dark streets of Gotham where powerless city officials are overruled by grotesque mass-murderers. Raymond Chandler laid his finger on this common theme when, in a discussion of the pulp detective story, he wrote:
Their characters lived in a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction, and was learning how to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun.
This found its most striking expression in Robert Alderich's darkly ironic film noir Kiss Me Deadly, in which the protagonist moves through an incoherent ruined culture and achieves the goal of his quest in a mushroom cloud.

The Man With No Name is always an alienated loner. Usually he is a wandering stranger or outcast with no preexisting ties to the community; even when he is not, he has an alter ego to make himself one. His appearance speaks a close kinship to the common enemy and cynicism toward the goods of civilization, leading the "citizens" to distrust him. Thus Max wears the black leather of the vermin of the wasteland, not the white garments of the commune-dwellers he is called upon to protect. He regards the nascent community with scarcely concealed derision. The parallels between Batman and the Joker are touched on in Tim Burton's Batman and brought to the fore in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Or again, Sanjuro ends with the confrontation between the nameless samurai and his dark counterpart; they own their kinship but fight to the death, the protagonist killing his opponent in a shocking fountain of blood.

The Man With No Name is an agent of chaos, not an agent of order, and must depart as soon as his work is done—or even be driven out as unclean, as Batman is in The Dark Knight. His modus operandi is aptly described in Red Harvest:
"Plans are all right sometimes," I said. "And sometimes just stirring things up is all right—if you're tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you see what you want when it comes to the top."
Whence this modern myth-cycle? What is its significance? I'll attempt to describe what I think about it in the next post.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Hawthorne on Inner Truth and Reality

"It is the unspeakable misery of a life so false…, that it steals the pith and substance out of whatever realities there are around us, and which were meant by Heaven to be the spirit's joy and nutriment. To the untrue man, the whole universe is false,—it is impalpable,—it shrinks to nothing within his grasp. And he himself, in so far as he shows himself in a false light, becomes a shadow, or, indeed, ceases to exist."

—Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Sunday, March 11, 2012

John Carter of Mars

I don't go to the movies much. The last time I went was about five years ago, and that was to see a documentary about Carthusian monks.  But the opening of John Carter proved sufficient move me to hitch up the mules and drive all the way to the Big City. I'm glad I went. It was a delight to watch and faithful to Burroughs' vision of life on Barsoom. The imagery was quite evocative, better than I had imagined. And the plot was much closer than I had expected, too.

The trouble with movies made from books, though, is that the writers are apt to deviate from the plot for some reason or other (which can be justifiable given the medium), but usually leave everything else exactly as they found it, no matter how illogical or out-of-character. John Carter suffers from this quite a bit. If you try to sort out what's going on, none of the characters' actions really make a lot of sense. And that's too bad. I'm a fan of the Mars books, but it isn't as though A Princess of Mars couldn't have been improved on. Instead the filmmakers just succeeded in making it incoherent.

Take the changes made to Dejah Thoris' character. This is a Disney movie, and she is in fact a princess, so of course she had to become a clever free-spirit with a doting but buffoonish widowed father who must-just-must be free to follow her heart in matrimonial matters. Now, to me, the Dejah Thoris of the book was always much more than a damsel in distress. She's like something out of the Iliad or the Icelandic sagas. A great woman of the old school. But Disney, which vulgarizes whatever it touches (and, let's face it, the Mars books are already pretty vulgar), simply tacked on a few superficial attributes while discarding nobility. The Dejah of the movie lies to John Carter (more than once) in order to manipulate and use him. She abandons the duties that attend the privileges of her office, willing to let her nation be destroyed rather than marry against her wishes. Yes, they give her a new prowess in fighting (see, girls can disembowel their enemies, too!) and make her discover the ninth ray (see, girls can do pseudo-physics, too!), but these are add-ons that don't concern the plot (or her character) in the least. The writers were obviously a little uncomfortable with the moral implications, and make it out that Dejah just feels that something bad would happen if she marries whats-his-name. Again, typical Disney fare. If I were a woman (and I'm not), I'd be more annoyed by what Disney apparently thinks should please women than I would have been by a faithful representation of a great woman in a pagan patriarchal culture.

The mark of Disney is also felt in the movie's reduction of everything to a fight of good versus evil, with Helium fighting for the cause ("our cause! our cause!") of saving the planet, and evil represented by extremely annoying stock villains. The real enemy in A Princess of Mars isn't this or that nation or jed. It's the slow but inexorable death of the planet. The movie makes it out that the nation of Zodanga is somehow responsible for the state of the planet, but doesn't explain this in the least. It can't, of course. To do so would make nonsense of other things.

Finally, to wrap up this little rant, I'd like to say that I personally can't stand computer-animated special effects. It looks like a big video game and is about as exciting. (I don't play video games.) The graphics don't add anything and tend to look ridiculous. Give me backlot sets and models and painted backgrounds and ingenuity and Frank Oz. Has anyone ever complained about how hokey The Empire Strikes Back* was? Or 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or Alien? Blade RunnerMetropolis, for goodness' sake?

Well, and so that's why I don't go to the movies. I'm a cranky curmudgeon.

*Before being defaced by its maker!