The Great Problem of Power

“It is far more powerful than I ever dared to think at first, so powerful that in the end it would utterly overcome anyone of mortal race who possessed it. It would possess him.”

J. R. R. Tolkein, The Fellowship of the Ring (1954)

So Gandalf says of the Great Ring of Power when he explains its dire potency to Frodo.  Anyone who believes that he possesses the Ring will be in time possessed by the Ring.  Anyone who employs the Ring to do his bidding will in time do the bidding of the Ring.  And good and well-meaning mortals will not escape enslavement by the Ring of Power, because “neither strength nor good purpose will last—sooner or later the dark power will devour him.” Continue reading

The Baroque in Science Fiction – Part II

Finlay 04 Back Cover Weird Tales Sept. 1952

Virgil Finlay (1914 – 1971): Back Cover (Weird Tales, Sept. 1952)

III. Weird Tales served as the main venue of baroque science fiction although most critics regard that magazine as something other than and inferior to a science fiction periodical.  To the extent that John W. Campbell’s vision defined the genre then perhaps Weird Tales really was not science-fictional.  Nevertheless, Lovecraft published there, who admitted no supernatural elements in his fiction, along with Smith and Robert E. Howard.  Indiana born Catherine L. Moore (1911-1987), linked to Lovecraft through her correspondence with him, seems however closer to Smith than to H. P. L. in more ways than one, beginning with her interest in intensely visual figuration, often architectural or ornamental, voluntary derangement as an antidote to unbearable ennui, and the emissary protagonist, all of which one can only classify as Symbolist.  Now Symbolist aesthetics is related to baroque aesthetics, both by direct affiliation (Swedenborg to Baudelaire and Mallarmé) and in view of a persistent determination on the part of the individual artist to fill his canvas with detail and to impregnate every detail with meaning.  The non-baroque artist regards his baroque co-practitioner as decadent, extravagant, self-indulgent, illogical, and repetitious – someone who pushes too many adjectives against his nouns.  The baroque artist sees his critic as a Calvinist and a prude.  Moore’s Northwest Smith, like Poe’s narrator in “MS. Found in a Bottle,” fulfills the roles both of pursuer and pursued; he too is fugitive, freethinking, not at all prudish, and never a Calvinist.  He sits in bars viewing the traffic like a Baudelairean flaneur, consumes potions like a shaman, plumbs the depths of despair and ecstasy, and, last but not least, acts a knight-errant in defending victims against the sacrificial madness of crowds, wicked cabals, and cults.

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The Baroque in Science Fiction – Part I

Finlay 01 Illustrating Leinster's Mad Planet Fantastic Novels Nov. 48

Virgil Finlay (1914 – 1971): illustrating M. Leinster’s Mad Planet (Fantastic Novels, Nov. 1948)

In the 1954 Preface to his Universal History of Iniquity, Jorge Luis Borges defined the baroque as “the style that deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its own possibilities, and that borders on self-caricature.”[i] The baroque is therefore a self-conscious style par excellence.  According to Borges’ definition: “The baroque is intellectual, and Bernard Shaw has said that all intellectual labor is inherently humorous”; and “this humor is unintentional in the works of Baltasar Graciàn but intentional, even indulged, in the works of John Donne.”[ii]  In the manner, then, of seventeenth-century church architecture – it might be in Spain or Bavaria – the spirit of the baroque piles ornament relentlessly on ornament, while cultivating trompe-l’œil for its illusion of depth, and while obsessively re-cuing every curlicue in anticipation of the fractal geometry of a Mandelbrot algorithm.  The baroque in music refers to the fugal style, in which again the artist, preeminently J. S. Bach, raises self-imitation to a structural principle.  Yet fugue also refers to a state of social disintegration and to an accompanying panicked mentality that drives forth the individual refugee from the incendiarism and bloodletting of civic breakdown.  Europe’s baroque centuries saw the religious wars, Puritanism, agitation of the protesting masses, and the inevitable massacres, for which music offers a counterpart in the stretto of the fugue.  Here the competing voices figuratively tear the subject to shreds in an aesthetic refinement of the Dionysiac sparagmos.

The novel arises with the baroque, in the Simplicius and Eulenspiegel narratives, in picaresque, and in the moralizing abyss of Don Quixote, where Part One is a topic of discussion, mostly inane, among the characters in Part Two.  The baroque therefore peculiarly trumps the modern in its exploitation of formal complexity; the modernist writers might match, but they never excel, their two- or three-century precursors in self-allusion and abyssal autoscopy.  Indeed, the Parisian Symbolists, those first modernists, remained keenly aware of their debt to the seventeenth century “Parnassians,” Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé assiduously practicing the sonnet, as though writing in the time of Louis XIII.  Later Max Reger (1873-1916) and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) mimicked baroque-era models in music, as did M. C. Escher in graphic media.  Borges, in his Preface, “would venture to say that the baroque is the final stage of art,” a stage which some would call decadent.[iii]  Borges notes that the eighteenth century, which coined the term baroque, considered the seventeenth century, which invented the style, to have been in bad taste.  Borges omits contradiction, whereby one might consider that he adds it to the repertory of the baroque, as perhaps a studious awkwardness or an occasional deliberate pedantry in the articulation.  In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler says that the Western baroque strove towards the dissolution of genre in a movement of synesthesia: “Painting becomes polyphonic, ‘picturesque,’ infinity-seeking,” while “the colours become tones” and  “the art of the brush claims kinship with the style of cantata and madrigal.”[iv]  Again, “the background, hitherto casually put in, regarded as fill-up and, as space, almost shuffled out of sight, gains a preponderant importance.”[v]

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Stop Yer Griping

“The river, they claim, is turbid and dark,
The river is grimed and gray.”

F. O. Sylvester, “The Father’s Smile” (1911)

You may not see it in what I write here, but I have a constitutional aversion to gripers.  This aversion may, I suppose, arise from an instinct of self-preservation and the knowledge that I am not immune to the fatal griping disease, but I tend to leave the room when people start bellyaching. Continue reading

The Seed of the Serpent and the Children of God

“But holiest thoughts may yet be sideways drawn,
And that which seemed so fair at early dawn,
May be, ere nightfall, blurred by Satan’s spawn.”

A. J. Christie, The End of Man (1886)

Many ostensibly Christian churches have taken to preaching that all homo sapiens are equally children of God.  This novel dogma is offered as a cheering correction to the longstanding and, some say, fallacious doctrine that mankind has sprung from two fathers, and that the children of God are mingled in this world with the sons and daughters of Satan.  Albany James Christie was a member of the Oxford Movement who crossed the Tiber with John Henry Newman, and in my epigram he refers to the offspring of the evil one as Satan’s spawn. Continue reading

Nostalgia

1

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come Continue reading

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

The perfect is the enemy of the good means that aiming at perfection can mean not doing the good that can be done. It is a mixture of the spoiled brat who wants to get things all his way, utopian idealism, and megalomania. It is human, but unreasonable, to think that if the number of people it is possible to help is limited then the entire exercise is pointless. For instance, someone could decide not to volunteer to be a foster parent to emotionally damaged and neglected children because there is a never-ending stream of such children in need of help. A professor might have a reading that he is convinced has Dorea definitively positive impact on his students, the students might universally agree, but since he teaches just a few dozen students each semester he influences a negligible percentage of all students. A policeman might arrest dastardly criminals, but must face the fact that criminality will continue more or less unabated, the justice system is imperfect, and the public often ungrateful. However, it is strange and perverse to want to abandon the good that you could do because perfect goodness and a final solution to all such problems is not achievable. People must resign themselves to taking splinters out of fingers and feet as they arise rather than eliminating splinters once and for all. Continue reading

Leg Bail and Land Security

“In all the trade of war, no feat
Is nobler than a brave retreat.”

Samuel Butler Hudibras (1684)

When a man preserved his freedom by running away, he was once said to have “given leg bail.”  The word “bail” originally denoted a person who legally took an indicted man from the custody of the sheriff, and this “bail” was allowed to take custody because he bonded himself, by word or security, to ensure that the indicted man would appear in court to face trial.  Thus a late seventeenth-century handbook for English sheriffs tells us: Continue reading

The Uses of Impartiality

Impartiality takes three forms. The first is an accidental impartiality that occurs when it just so happens that I am uninvolved in the contest, dispute or conflict. I call this form accidental because it does not require any special gift of disinterested judgment on my part. If circumstances had been otherwise and I had been involved, I would likely be cheering, aiding and abetting one side. It must be added that accidental impartiality necessarily entails profound ignorance of the contest, dispute or conflict, and thus pronouncements from the position of accidental impartiality are usually beside the point and irrelevant. Continue reading

Pangs and Fury of Despair

“I will indulge my sorrows, and give way
To all the pangs and fury of despair.”

Joseph Addison, Cato (1712)

You may have seen that the conservative gadfly Mike Adams took his own life after being forced into early retirement, at the age of 55, by the University of North Carolina—Wilmington.  I had forgotten about Adams, but his lampoons of the politically correct university were one of the first things I read on the internet.  Adams was what I would call a right liberal, and I stopped reading his blog when his gags grew stale, but I was saddened by the news that he at last put a gun to his head. Continue reading