Monstrous Theologies: The Theme of Anti-Sacrifice in the Sci-Fi Pulps – Part II

Finlay 03 Demonic Universe

Virgil Finlay (1914 – 1971): Illustrator of the Demonic Universe

[NOTE: This post is the continuation of the article — or sequence of linked essays — that begins in the post immediately preceding it. I published “Monstrous Theologies” in the mid-1990s in the journal Anthropoetics, but for this re-posting I have extensively edited and re-written it.]

III. Moore’s “Vintage Season” and Sacrificial Aesthetics. “Vintage Season” (1946) – attributed to Moore’s husband and collaborator Henry Kuttner but written in fact solely by Moore – deals with the creation of a work of art by an artist of the future who visits the earth in the immediate post-World War Two years, when the story was written.  But this act of creation is also an act of sacrifice, and the work of art that stems from the event has the character of an immolatory token. In fact, because “The Vintage Season” is a time-travel story involving the usual paradox, it resists any straightforward rehearsal. The basic elements of the narrative are, nevertheless, these: Oliver Wilson owns a house that three eccentric “vacationers” who call themselves the Sanciscos want to rent; to one of them, a woman named Kleph, Wilson feels considerable attraction, and he therefore lets the house despite the fact that he might garner a windfall from it if he sold it outright to a buyer. Wilson’s fiancée Sue pesters him to renege on the deal and to sell, but Oliver refuses.  The interest in this detail lies in Moore’s opposition of the market to the Bohemian group. The group represents culture and seems to promise something superior to the bourgeois world of exchange.  Moore’s Smith regrets leaving the comforts of marriage and participation in the nomos.  Moore’s Wilson, vulnerable to the temptations of art, cult, and difference, regrets his prior immersion in what strikes him now as the tediously normative.  He is an alienated bourgeois taking the usual route of opposition to the market for the mere sake of opposition.  If resentment is the sacred, as Girard so often intimates, then Wilson’s alienation renders him particularly vulnerable to the Bohemianism of the foreigners.

The Sanciscos behave like Wildean aesthetes: “There was an elegance about the way [their] garments fitted them which even to Oliver looked strikingly unusual”; and “the feeling of luxury which his first glance at them has evoked was confirmed by the richness of the hangings they had apparently brought with them”; Kleph’s coiffure strikes Wilson as perfectly sculpted, “as if it had been painted on, though the breeze from the window stirred now and then among the softly shining strands.”  From such behavior, Wilson infers that their depth of culture radically exceeds his own, an inference sustainable, as it turns out, in aesthetic terms only and not in any ethical sense. As in the case of the magic shawl in the Northwest Smith story, phenomenal beauty guarantees nothing about ethical acceptability. A certain type of intense beauty indeed radiates from a certain type of archaic violence, which the beauty tactically conceals. Kleph shows some reciprocal although, ultimately, only a condescending interest in Wilson, who visits her in her room one afternoon while the others are away. The foreign accouterments of Kleph’s room include a peculiar “picture of blue water” hung above her bed the marvels of which entrance Wilson. Describing Wilson’s response to this, Moore employs the language of of fascination: “The waves there were moving. More than that, the point of vision moved. Slowly the seascape drifted past, moving with the waves, following them toward the shore.”  The images compel Wilson’s attention; he cannot peel his eyes from them, and they in their turn temporarily absorb and obliterate his sense of self. Smith has the same problem when he gazes too intently at the weird shawl.

Vintage Season in Astound September 1946

Astounding September 1946 (Including “The Vintage Season”) – Cover by William Timmins (b. 1915)

Superimposed on the seascape, a man appears, singing: “He held an oddly archaic musical instrument, lute-shaped, its body striped light and dark like a melon and its long neck bent over its shoulder.” The tune is vaguely familiar, until Wilson recognizes it as “Make Believe” from the Jerome Kern musical Showboat, but treated to subtle and far-reaching variation that removes it from banality and gives it an air of the sublimely mysterious. Kleph says of the technique: “We call it kyling.” Then a “clown” replaces the singer and launches into a monologue “full of allusions that made Kleph smile, but were utterly unintelligible to Oliver.” The phantasmagoric quality of the display is amplified by the effects of a slightly hallucinogenic beverage that Wilson joins Kleph in drinking. Kleph herself dances “a formalized sort of dance.” Fascinated by Kleph’s unfathomable but undeniable beauty, Wilson fails to notice that she is mocking him in the way that some sadistic explorer might mock a bewildered aborigine. Eric Gans has referred to “the terrorizing effect of modern newness.” The incomprehensible mockery in Kleph’s seascape already indicates such terrorism. The Sansicos exhibit malign strangeness. They do and say things that make no sense in a familiar context. This is a difficult effect to pull off, and much science fiction that tries it, fails.  It should be added immediately that Moore also superbly records the exclusionary power of artistic devotion when transformed by atavism into a cult of mystic connoisseurship; or, in slightly different words, the sacrificial power of snobbery.

A work of art creates a community through being understood by those who attend to or contemplate it.  Wilson cannot, however, understand what he experiences in Kleph’s holokinetic “picture,” and Kleph herself makes no effort to enlighten him. The impasse of understanding effectively excludes him from the community.   While the Sansiscos make a deliberate effort to suggest to Wilson that they are including him, they are in fact casting him in the role of the victim: Wilson is being carefully set up – he will become the subject matter of one of the vacationers’ all-too-scrutable aesthetic projects.  Newly arriving compatriots gift Kleph with a red leather box, a new work by the artist Cenbe, “his latest” (23), but unfinished.  Kleph inquiring “what period” the piece represents, the messenger explains: “From November, 1664 . . . London, of course, though I think there may be some counterpoint from the November 1347.”  The box is a kind of music box.  When Kleph later plays it and Wilson overhears, he grasps that it “was music, in a way,” and yet it strikes him as “much more than music… and it was a terrible sound, the sounds of calamity and of all human reaction to calamity, everything from hysteria to heartbreak, from irrational joy to rationalized acceptance.” Says Walter F. Otto in Dionysus: Myth and Cult (1933): “The terrors of destruction, which make all of life tremble, belong also, as a horrible desire, to the kingdom of Dionysus.”  Walter Burkert refers in Homo Necans to the “terror, bliss, and recognition of an absolute authority, Mysterium tremendum, fascinans, and augustum” that inhabit the “holy,” and remarks that “the most thrilling and impressive combination of these elements occurs in sacrificial ritual: the shock of the deadly blow and flowing blood, the bodily and spiritual rapture of festive eating, the strict order surrounding the whole process – these are sacra par excellence.”

Pushing open Kleph’s door, Wilson confronts a “mist spinning with motion and sound” for which “he had no words.”  Moore adds that, “Basically, this was the attempt of a master composer to correlate every essential aspect of a vast human experience into something that could be conveyed in a few moments to every sense at once.”  The experience evokes, among other distressing responses, the memory of “secret things long ago walled off [behind] mental scar tissue.”  A certain distorted face constitutes a “recurring motif, always more tortured, more helpless than before.”  The effect of it all is anything but cathartic–the point seems to be the prolongation of distress without any promise of deliverance–and the unrelieved sadism of it emphasizes the violent otherness of Cenbe’s “dreadful symphony.”  Kleph confides that she should never have played it while there was any chance that Wilson, or any other human of the present day, might overhear: “I forgot what the effect might be on one who had never heard Cenbe’s symphonies before,” a statement whose proleptic irony Moore’s narrative will more than bear out.

Roger Berg City Burns

Roger Berg: The City Burns

Cenbe himself will soon arrive, along with increasing numbers of the decadent foreigners, and it presently becomes clear that they are in the city–in Wilson’s house–to witness some upcoming event of which they, being from the future, have in context exclusive knowledge. The dates provide a clue: Plague struck London in both years – 1347 and 1664. What strikes the city in which Kuttner sets “The Vintage Season” is a meteorite. It turns out that Wilson’s living room affords the best possible vantage for viewing the wholesale destruction. In his description, from Wilson’s stunned viewpoint as influenced by the Sansicos, Kuttner exploits the holocaust for aesthetic satisfaction (readers are to understand that what to us would be a horror is to the futurians a source of profound artistic satisfaction): “On the far skyline fire was already a solid mass, painting the low clouds crimson. That sulfurous light reflected back from the sky upon the city made clear the rows upon rows of flattened houses with flame beginning to lick up among them, and farther out the formless rubble of what had been houses a few moments ago and was now nothing at all.”  Such scenes of destruction have become the currency of Hollywood, about a third of whose product in any year has a “Post-Apocalyptic” setting. The aesthetics of destruction play a large role in contemporary popular culture.

The clamor of pained voices and the wail of sirens become “a terrible symphony that had, in its way, a strange, inhuman beauty.”  Wilson has, to this extent at least, become an initiate of the cult. Cenbe, who alone remains when the others, sated by the spectacle, have left, tells Oliver frankly that “I need – this.”  Oliver himself lies sick in bed – the meteor has brought with it a new disease, “the blue plague,” and Wilson is its first victim–while Cenbe explains: “I am a composer . . . I happen to be interested in interpreting certain forms of disaster into my own terms.”  Dying, Wilson comprehends that “the whole world of now” simply “is not quite real to Cenbe”; the creation of his symphony requires him to negate the reality of the other–to sacrifice his subjects so that they become nothing more than aesthetic material. Cenbe is a manipulator of the sacred whose aesthetic roots itself in murder.  Thus when Moore shifts the viewpoint and provides a straightforward account of Cenbe’s masterpiece situated in Cenbe’s own cultural framework, the effect is even more chilling than what has gone before; it is a review of the premiere: “Cenbe’s new symphonia was a crowning triumph . . . and the applause was an ovation. History itself, of course, was the artist’s subject, opening with the meteor that forecast the great plagues of the fourteenth century and closing with the climax Cenbe had caught on the threshold of modern times.” The reviewer adds that “only Cenbe could have interpreted it with such subtle power.”

In Moore’s stories, sacrifice is the vestige of an ancient order waiting to be revived; Northwest Smith, like Lucian’s voyager or the early saints, encounters these vestiges in remote outposts of the ecumene from which, however, they nevertheless unremittingly threaten to overwhelm the whole with their “subtle power.” In “The Vintage Season” sacrifice is the order into which a decadent society slips when Christian Revelation no longer tempers innate viciousness and no longer clarifies the human tendency to create social unity out of the invidious and lethal unanimity of a sacrificial ritual. Rarified notions of the beautiful can serve as a Lucretian “cruel master” just as well as an atavistic notion of godhead. Cenbe’s aesthetic society is just this type of primitive polity, its refined elegance, artistic sensitivity, and intolerable hauteur notwithstanding. These are not really aesthetic in a genuinely modern sense; they are hieratic. In “The Vintage Season,” Kleph, Cenbe, and the others, behave as though they themselves were gods, with the immeasurable rights accruing thereto. Cenbe’s “Symphonia” is the ensign of their own projected godhead.

Brackett Beast-Jewel of Mars

Reprint of Planet Stories Winter 1942 (Including “The Beast-Jewel of Mars”) – Cover by Allen Anderson (1908 – 1995)

IV. Leigh Brackett and the Sacrificial Atavism. Leigh Brackett belonged to the same story-telling generation as Moore; Brackett was married, in fact, to another science fiction writer, Edmond Hamilton, just as Moore was married to Kuttner. The four lived in and around Santa Monica in the 1930s through the 1950s and knew each other well. Responding, as Moore did, to Lovecraft’s opening of antique vistas and to Stanley G. Weinbaum’s opening of the solar system, Brackett wrote a series of tales involving the antiquated cultures of Mercury, Venus, Mars, and the Asteroids under the ecumenical dominion of a Terran Empire in its brash ascendancy. Brackett’s Martian stories parallel Bradbury’s, but are more brutal than his, granting a greater degree of robustness to the colonized Martians. Brackett nevertheless, like Moore, ever apologizes for the normative, and this means that she defines the difference between the ethically acceptable and the ethically unacceptable according to the absence or presence of sacrifice. It is significant that, in one of the few explanations that she offered of her interest in the popular forms, she said the following: “The so-called space opera is the folk-tale, the hero-tale, of our particular niche in history.” “The Beast-Jewel of Mars” (1948) is explicitly devoted to an examination of sacrifice and provocatively links sacrifice to the politics of resentment.


“The Beast-Jewel of Mars.” Brackett’s “Beast-Jewel of Mars” revolves around Shanga, translatable as “the return” or “the going-back”, a cult “forbidden centuries ago by the city-states of Mars,” which has reappeared with the arrival of the earthmen. The cult thus corresponds to a Lucretian lapsus in antiquas religiones. The sacred objects of the cult, the Jewels of Shanga, date back reputedly to “a half a million years ago” when the priests of Caer Dhu carved them by a science now lost. The scheme resembles that in “The Dust of the Gods” by Moore, where a fragment of demonic Pharol’s vanished world turns up in the deep rubble of the polar mountains of Mars. Certain plotters, as we have seen, want artifacts from the anomaly, the ones that Smith and Yarol refuse to export but, rather, destroy in situ. In Brackett’s story, a Martian named Kor Hal tells protagonist Burk Winters that, despite having inaugurated Shanga as an escape from war and violence, the people of Caer Dhu quickly “perished” and “in one generation . . . vanished from the face of Mars.” Brackett gives us a sketch of the Lucretian notion of how the ennui of long-standing security makes the beneficiaries of earlier demonic banishments vulnerable to cultic revival. Only a continuously upheld psychic vigilance can keep such atavistic deformations at bay.

Because Shanga exerts an addictive attraction on those who indulge it, however, shame attaches to the habit. Winters himself seeks in Shanga an escape from romantic tragedy, namely, from the death of his fiancée, who herself frequented the cult.  Shanga addicts, like all addicts, crave their drug in ever stronger doses; no longer satisfied with the Shanga experience offered to urbane weaklings, Winters inquires about “the real thing.”  The price turns out to be much higher than expected.  Winters finds himself abducted by Kor Hal to Valkis.  This is a place “very evil, but not tired”, and one of the ancient Martian cities where earthmen do not come. The rays of the Jewels affect people in a particular way: They induce atavism, on the mental level at first, but then on the physical level; Shanga releases its subjects from neurosis by releasing them from the modernity of their minds, dragging them back to the animal level.  In its most potent form, the Jewels catalyze physical regression, from human to ape and beyond. Exposed to “the real thing,” people quickly degenerate into animal helplessness. Stripped of much of his intellect, Winters appears in confusion before Kor Hal and other Martians. Kor Hal makes a speech: “Captain Burk Winters, man of the tribe of Terra – lords of the spaceways, builders of the Trade Cities, masters of greed and rapine… Look at him, Oh men of Valkis! He is our master now.  His government kings it over the City-States of Mars.  Our pride is stripped, our wealth is gone.  What have we left, oh children of a dying world?”  Brackett continues: “The answer that rang from the walls of Valkis was soft and wordless, the opening chord of a hymn written in hell.  Someone threw a stone.”

Hannes Bok 01

Hannes Bok (1914 – 1964): Atavism at the Altar

Winters suddenly becomes the object of a classic lapidation and of other noticeably pharmakotic indignities. As does Moore in “The Scarlet Dream,” Brackett associates the demonic with crowds.  But the Valkisians postpone killing their victim, the better to prolong his humiliation, just as Cenbe, in Moore’s “Vintage Season,” lingers over the prolonged misery of those on whose misery he makes his art.  The cultists herd Winters into the chora of an immensely old amphitheater where they have confined other addicts of Shanga who at last foolishly asked for “the real thing.” Nightly, the Valkisians expose these unfortunates to further baths of the Shanga radiation, causing ever further degeneration. While Brackett’s text is not quite as dense with invention as Moore’s, she nevertheless grasps the basic function of sacrifice in a more schematically clear way than Moore. Sacrifice supplies the means whereby a threatened group vents its resentment against real or imaginary enemies and resolidifies itself in the face of imminent dissolution.  Fand, the queen and high priestess of Valkis, explains the Valkisian motive to Winters this way during one of his carefully planned lucid episodes: The earthmen, says Fand, made of Mars “a world that could not even die in decency and honor, because the carrion birds came flying to pick its bones, and the greedy rats suck away the last of its blood and pride.”  Shanga is private retribution. Winters calls Fand a “fanatic” and says that she goes “even beyond fanaticism.”  The whole of Valkis does seem bloodthirstily mad, as symbolized by Fand’s mother, a shriveled old woman with wild hair who chants in tongues like some mindless sibyl. Winters somewhat improbably contrives to kidnap Fand herself into the pit where, exposed to the radiation, she instantaneously reverts to the ancestral protomorph of the Martians. In the mêlée that follows Winters escapes.

Sacrifice is the secret shame of Brackett’s Mars, deplored even by most Martians. In the late and luridly titled “Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon” (1964), an earthman named Bentham and a Martian named Firsa Mak try to enlist the help of a young official of the Colonial government, Harvey Selden, to expose and abrogate the secret of the Mad Moon cult. Bentham, Mak, and their confederates must overcome the problem that no one believes in the existence of sacrifice. Selden, who has been schooled on earth in Martian history and culture, rehearses the textbook statement that the imputation of blood rites was merely a case of mistaken interpretation on the part of early explorers who did not correctly grasp the metaphorical content of certain Martian tales: “The early accounts,” Selden says, “resulted from distortions of folklore, misinterpretation of local customs, pure ignorance [and] in some cases… downright lies”; and this would be because “we don’t believe in the Rites of the Purple Priestess and all that nonsense.”  Selden continues: “The men who did the serious research, the anthropologists and sociologists who came after the . . . uh . . . adventurers, were far better qualified to evaluate the data. They completely demolished the idea that the rites involved human sacrifice, and then of course the monstrous Dark Lord [whom] the priestess was supposed to serve was merely the memory of an ancient Earth-god . . . Mars-god, I should say, but you know what I mean, a primitive nature-thing, like sky or wind. [There was a rite] but the experts proved that it was purely vestigial, like, well . . . like our children dancing around the May-pole.”

Finlay 06 Sacred Landscape

Virgil Finlay (1914 – 1971): Recrudescent Sacred

Selden goes so far as to denounce the first phases of humanity on Mars as “strictly piratical,” to which Firsa Mak poses an unexpected rejoinder: “Why is it that all you young Earthmen are so ready to cry down the things your people have done?”  Like Winters in “The Beast-Jewel of Mars,” Selden finds himself kidnapped, but not by someone bent on sacrificing him to assuage envy; rather, by Mak and by another earthman, Altman (Mak’s brother-in-law), who, at great risk to themselves, wish to prove to their captive that the rumors of human sacrifice in the cult of the Mad Moon stem from fact, not from any “distortions of folklore.” Mak represents the faction of Mars that prefers the orderliness of secular, rationally administered, bourgeois society to the “iniquity” of archaic culture. As long as the old cults persist, as Mak and Altman see it, just so long does the danger of a planetary lapsus in antiquas religiones persist along with it. Notice Brackett’s doubling of the Lucretian superstition-science dichotomy. At the first level, there is the Mad Moon Cult itself, a repulsive phenomenon of archaic times, superseded by a rational and non-violent order; at the second level, there is the scientistic superstition that denies the presence, in past ages, of sacrificial practice, a position opposed by the genuine knowledge that such practices did indeed exist and can enjoy a resurgence.

Helpful to such resurgence is the idea that such things do not now and never did exist – that they are a prejudicial fantasy of the modern mind. Brackett’s too-sophisticated fictional world thus has its own version of Rousseauvianism. The savages cannot have been savages, Selden says in effect, but must have been noble; there are signs, vestiges, of sacrifice, but no actual sacrifice exists behind these misleading tokens, the signs being mere symbols. It is a form of deconstructive nescience ensconced among the bureaucracy, on which Girard remarks pertinently in Violence and the Sacred: “The failure of modern man to grasp the nature of religion has served to perpetuate its effects. Our lack of belief serves the same function in our society that religion serves in societies more directly exposed to essential violence.” Girard adds that, “We persist in disregarding the power of violence in human societies; that is why we are reluctant to admit that violence and the sacred are one and the same thing.” The modern haughty dismissal of Christianity plays a role in this delusion. The critic of the New Testament invariably holds up the ancient and savage cults as models of authenticity, whereas for him, in a self-congratulatory way, Christianity, not the ancient and savage cults, qualifies as superstition.

In Jekkara, one of the forbidden cities, Mak and Altman smuggle Selden into the nocturnal rites. Brackett does a creditable job of garbing a Dionysian rout, culminating with a troglodyte sparagmos, in exotic Martian detail. A chorus laments and harps strum manic rhythms as Deimos, known in Martian as Denderon, appears in the night sky above Jekkara’s central square. One might call this, borrowing a phrase from “the Vintage Season,” “a dreadful symphony.” But worse is to come. The revelers march off to a Jekkaran cavern, the disguised interlopers following discreetly. Like Northwest Smith, Selden senses the pull of the very thing that frightens and disgusts him: “A strange and rather terrible eagerness began to stir in him – and this he could not explain at all.” We can explain it, of course, as mimesis. When the choral singing stops, Selden sees six revelers cull themselves submissively from the crowd, as if hypnotized or drugged, and stand with a priestess on a dais in the remotest depth of the cave. A monstrous cyclopean form manifests itself in the gloom; the six victims vanish in a manner which Selden either does not see or immediately forgets. Selden reluctantly understands that his kidnappers want him to “tell the Bureau about . . . about that.

Back in the safety of civilized Mars, however, Selden reverts to the pure bureaucrat and skeptic. He cannot bear to contradict the textbook lesson that declares the blood-rites to be an ethnocentric slur on a foreign and subject people. Disturbed, he nevertheless keeps his peace and gradually comes to believe what the psychiatrists tell him when he complains of ineradicable anxiety rooted in his recent official posting on the Red Planet: “The whole affair had been a sex fantasy induced by drugs with the priestess and mother-image. The eye which looked at him then and which still peered unwinking out of his recurring dreams was symbolic of the female generative principle, and the feeling of horror that it aroused in him was due to the guilt complex he had because he was a latent homosexual: “Selden was enormously comforted.” Of the two strands of Martian culture–the one that consists of rites like Shanga and the Mad Moon and the one that, as we read in “The Beast Jewel of Mars,” deliberately suppressed such Dionysianisms–Selden sides effectively with the former. Notice that, as Brackett explains in “The Beast-Jewel of Mars,” it was the City-States that banned sacrifice. Brackett thus defines her Martian civilization according to the same anti-sacrificial criterion which appears in the stories of Moore and Kuttner. In the polis, the elders have banned ritual violence and the Furies have become the Supplicants, as they have also in Aeschylus. Selden petulantly refuses to fill the Promethean role, ascribed by Lucretius to Epicurus, of a deliverer-from-superstition; in this, he is the opposite type of Northwest Smith.

V. Conclusions. René Girard reminds his readers, in The Scapegoat(1981), that Christianity is an explicitly anti-sacrificial religion, and that the whole of the Passion and its aftermath serve the purpose of laying clear the hitherto repressed facts about persecution and victimage so as to deliver humanity from the vicious cycle. This impulse was not, as the case of Lucretius shows, unique to Christianity, which, in any case, owed its critique of the pagan cults to Judaism; the revelation of sacrifice had been gathering force since the Prophets. But the Gospels do seem to crystallize the insight in a dramatic and cogent way. The name Satan,Girard remarks, means “persecutor.” Satan is also a slanderer (this is the meaning of the Greek Diabolos) and a tempter, whom the Gospels consistently associate with crowds. The collocation persecutor-slanderer-tempter is appropriate and telling because persecution requires vilification and is an almost unavoidable temptation for human beings. The crowds in the Old Testament are invariably lynch-mobs, as they are in the rites of Dionysus in Heraclitus’ anti-sacrificial polemic: “Paraders by night, magicians, Bacchantes, leapers to the flute and drum, initiates in the Mysteries–what men call the Mysteries are unholy disturbances of the peace” (Fragment 76); “And Dionysus, through whom they go into a trance and speak in tongues and for whom they beat the drum, do they realize that he is the same god as Hades, Lord of the Dead?” (Fragment 77); “they cleanse themselves with blood: as if a man fallen into the pigsty should wash himself with slop. To one who does not know what’s happening, the religious man at his rites seems to be a man who has lost his mind.” (Fragment 78)

Both Moore and Brackett likewise, by pure intuition, as it seems, associate ritual violence and bloodletting with crowds. Neither seems to have been a particularly religious person, yet both, in their role as story-tellers, thought a good deal about what makes the primitive, primitive. Both wanted to make their tales exotic by exhibiting something authentically primitive at the narrative cynosure. The same can be said of Moore in “The Vintage Season.” Nevertheless, the West owes to Christianity, to the Gospels, its definitive summation of the problem. Christianity opposes to the Persecutor-Slanderer-Tempter the Paraclete, a word which can be translated as “advocate” and “protector.” The Paraclete stands for the continuity and dispersion of Revelation, in this case, the Revelation of sacrifice as a tragic form of eternal recurrence involving the murder of arbitrarily selected victims, and a way of life which closes off all nobler possibilities. Moore’s Northwest Smith and Brackett’s Burk Winters are, in their minor, pulp-fiction way, Paracletic heroes. Harvey Selden, by contrast, is conspicuously complicit with the persecution of victims and is, in essence, “anti-Paracletic.”

The real definition of science fiction is not the genre that deals with the social consequences of physical science, but the genre that deals with theological questions in an age which, officially, has little use for theology. While finding Voegelin’s interesting comments on the genre useful, I nevertheless differ from him in thinking that the modern fantastic story, while clearly expressing the intellectual and spiritual confusion of the times, also occasionally arrives at unexpected clarity. God, in other words, is the condition of social existence. But this condition is itself subject to historical alteration. Girard argues that all archeological and historical cults before Judaism and Christianity were sacrificial, based on the scapegoating mechanism and requiring serial victims; Judaism and Christianity reveal the scapegoating mechanism as the background of the social structure and reveal, at the same time, its arbitrary and murderous nature. This revelation demands the discarding of the sacrificial “condition” in favor of a new, non-sacrificial “condition.” Antique narrative – from the Plato’s Apology through Lucretius’ casting of Epicurus in the Promethean role to Augustine’s biography and Athanasius’ hagiography – focuses obsessively on the pressing need for this transformation.

In The Scapegoat, Girard argues that: “The failure of mythological genesis, in the case of the martyrs, makes it possible for historians to understand in a rational light for the first time and on a large scale the representations of persecution and their corresponding acts of violence. We come upon crowds in their course of their mythopoeic activity, and it is not a pretty a sight as our theoreticians of myth and literature imagine. Fortunately for anti-Christian humanism, it is still possible to deny the presence of the process that gives birth to mythology in every other context.”  Girard also permits us to understand the limit of the Epicurean or Lucretian epistemology: “The invention of science is not the reason that there are no longer witch-hunts, but the fact that there are no longer witch-hunts is the reason that science has been invented” (204). Epicurus could invent the scientific view of the world because he followed a line of thinkers stretching back to Heraclitus who had performed a massive critique of the Greek sacred. Yet Lucretius remains correct in his assumption that the return of the sacrificial idea of the gods would in effect mean the banishment of the rational order. Science fiction writers can only do the same, and have done the same. Not all of them, of course, but the best of them, including even the pulp writers that this series of essays has celebrated.

2 thoughts on “Monstrous Theologies: The Theme of Anti-Sacrifice in the Sci-Fi Pulps – Part II

  1. Pingback: Monstrous Theologies: The Theme of Anti-Sacrifice in the Sci-Fi Pulps – Part I – The Orthosphere

  2. Pingback: Monstrous Theologies: The Theme of Anti-Sacrifice in the Sci-Fi Pulps – Part II | Reaction Times


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