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 to disagree, whereby one might consider that he adds an element of awkwardness or even of kitsch 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 asserts 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]

Finlay 02 Illustrating C. Smith's Ballad of Lost C'mell Galaxy Oct. 1962

Virgil Finlay (1914 – 1971): Illustrating C. Smith’s Ballad of Lost C’Mell (Galaxy, Oct. 1962)

I. A baroque spirit pervades the creativity of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), arguably the innovator of the science fiction genre. Indeed, Poe’s oeuvre, in which his science fiction stories play a central role, constitutes a gigantic baroque structure comparable in its unity-in-variety to an instance of Palladian architecture or an extended variation-composition by Bach. Poe himself, increasingly aware of that unity-in-variety, planned his extravagant, speculative prose poem Eureka (1848) to be the belated theoretical foundation of what had come before it, subsuming all earlier productivity in its paradoxical reconciliation of Epicurean atomism with a distinctly Neoplatonic version of Plato’s Timaeus-cosmology.  In Eureka, applying Spengler to Poe, one might say that “the background… gains a preponderant importance,” but in Poe’s oeuvre many other baroque traits lend character to the individual stories.  In the early “MS. Found in a Bottle” (1833), for example, the first-person narration begins with an announcement of emissary status corresponding to the fugal, or centrifugal, or fugitive theme that belongs at once to the Simplicius story and to contrapuntal music.  “Of my country and my family I have little to say,” Poe’s narrator reports; “ill usage and length of years have driven me from one, and estranged me from the other.”[vi]

Mental exhaustion overwhelms Poe’s narrator, a self-reported condition that reappears as an exegetical trope in the prose of H. P. Lovecraft (1897-1937), often cited as Poe’s successor, and in that of Clark Ashton Smith.  A student since youth “of the German moralists” – presumably Gottfried Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, and F. W. J. Schelling – who admires their “eloquent madness,” Poe’s narrator remarks of his own intellect its “Pyrrhonism” or ultra-skepticism and its “aridity”.[vii]  He has relentlessly, systematically worked through the litany of received wisdom, critiquing each tenet of standing doctrine only to reject it, on “the principles of science.”[viii]  By an uncanny reciprocity, which makes him both pursuer and pursued, the narrator senses himself the prey of “a kind of nervous restlessness which haunted me like a fiend,”[ix] and which precipitates him geographically where he already is philosophically – irretrievably at sea.  The final image of “MS,” an all-devouring whirlpool into which the enigmatic ghost ship must plunge, becomes a Leitmotif of the Poe-esque, recurring in “A Descent into the Maelström” (1841) and, as a cosmological Ur-Phenomenon, in Eureka.  Baudelaire wrote of Poe that, “The opening passages of [his] writings always have a drawing power without violence, like a whirlpool,” the image corresponding to what the Symbolist calls the American’s “nervous tension”; to which Baudelaire adds, “the reader, as though in the grip of vertigo, is impelled to follow the author in his inviting deduction.”[x]

Poe’s interest in science is really his connoisseurship of the seventeenth-century natural-philosophical systems, such as those of Johannes Kepler (1671-1630) and Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), which carried over into the “Age of Enlightenment” select traits of Scholasticism and Neoplatonism.  In Eureka, Poe praises Kepler for having “guessed, that is to say… imagined” that the planetary orbits corresponded to the dual foci of a parabola and not to the long-assumed single focus of a true circle; and he lavishly distinguishes thinking in modo Kepleriano from what he calls thinking “Ram-ishly” and “Hog-ishly,” terms which belong to an elaborate lampoon of Aristotle and Francis Bacon.[xi]  As Borges writes, “the baroque is intellectual.”  Poe is an intellectual, sometimes shading into a wit; but he is a wit who elaborates his jokes exhaustively, the way that Bach exhausts the self-referential B.A.C.H. motif in The Art of the Fugue.  Baudelaire remarked Poe’s “knowledge of the harmonic terms of beauty,” but also his “hideous logic” and his ability “to express grief by laughter.”[xii]  Eureka begins in laughter, in the topsy-turvy rhetoric of a letter from the year 2848, and finds its climax in the annihilating “Oneness” into which the universe, as Poe argues, must inevitably collapse once its property of attraction overcomes its property of radiation so that the former resolves the multiplicity of divided atoms back into its primal de-ontological unity.[xiii]  Poe describes the mental tone attendant on imagining these events as the equivalent of what would be felt by a man who balances on the lip of a volcano “whirling on his heel.”[xiv]

Martini, Alberto Illustrating Poe's Eiros and Charmion (1906)

Alberto Martini (1876 – 1954): Illustrating E. A. Poe’s Conversation of Eiros and Charmion

Cosmic vertigo attends the pyrotic end-of-the-world in “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” (1839), one of Poe’s short stories in the form of a Platonic dialogue.  Prototype of the fin-du-monde genre, and generically affiliated with Reformation-era apocalyptic, “Eiros and Charmion” records the death of humanity when, the chemistry of a comet’s tail withdrawing nitrogen from the earth’s atmosphere, the concentration of oxygen incites the stretto-like global spontaneous combustion of living matter.  Eiros, the narrator, describes “A combustion irresistible, all-devouring, omni-prevalent, immediate… the entire fulfillment… of the fiery and horror-inspiring denunciations of the prophecies of the Holy Book.”[xv]  Yet there is a narrator.  The “furious delirium” and “wild lurid light” of what seemed the last moment were not extinction, but rather translation to a non-supernatural higher realm, “Aidenn,” where the “conversation” occurs.[xvi]  In the cosmology of Poe’s Eureka, as in that of Swedenborg’s Arcana Coelestia (1747), the soul ascends through a hierarchy of dimensions, the lower being grossly material with the higher tending towards pure spirit.  Poe, however, like Epicurus, distinguishes spirit from matter only by the fineness of its atomic basis, a notion foreign to Swedenborg.  In “The Colloquy of Monos and Una” (1841), another Platonic dialogue, Monos details the post-mortem decay of his interred corpse and the liberation from fleshly trammels of the finer spiritual part of his existence.  But the real interest in “Monos and Una” lies in the glimpse of industrial futurity and the defense of imagination against the scorn of a merely utilitarian logic.

The world of the Twenty-Fifth Century is, as Monos remembers it to Una, one of triumphant “Democracy” and “huge smoking cities… innumerable,” in which a few prophet-critics had “ventured to doubt the propriety of the term ‘improvement,’ as applied to the progress of our civilization.”[xvii]  Monos says: “Occasionally the poetic intellect – that intellect which we now feel to have been the most exalted of all – since these truths which to us were of the most enduring importance could only be reached by that analogy which speaks in proof-tones to the imagination alone, and to the unaided reason bears no weight – occasionally did this poetic intellect proceed a step farther in the evolving of the vague idea of the philosophic.”[xviii]  The “utilitarian” minded majority insisted, however, on the sole epistemological legitimacy of its own “infantine imbecility,” as Monos calls it; that insistence issuing fatally in “a diseased commotion, moral and physical.”[xix]  The malady of manic agitation increased as humanity “grew infected with system, and with abstraction” until the afflicted social order fulfilled the law that, “widest ruin [is] the price of the highest civilization.”[xx]  Poe’s ornate sentences and anti-positivist leaps of logic validate Borges’ observation on the epistemology of the baroque.  The classical age condemned the baroque age for its dubious syllogisms, especially for those rooted in Scholasticism, which argued that things in the City of Man are analogous to things in the City of God.  Aristotelian though it tended to be, Scholasticism nevertheless incorporated what Poe calls “the majestic intuition of Plato,” and it understood that the cosmos resonated with “the μoυσίχή” [music] that only a finely attuned “moral sense” can apperceive.[xxi]

II. The rubric of the baroque in science fiction entails at least one imbroglio. Poe, the true atavus of the science fiction genre, while baroque in style and temperament, is nevertheless not central to any contemporary understanding of that genre, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells having usurped that station. Yet Poe inspired a multitude of followers not only directly but also indirectly via the curious roundabout of French Symbolist poetry.  Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), Camille Flammarion (1842-1925), and M. P. Shiel (1865-1947) were more or less direct successors of the master.  So also were the members of a coterie of American writers who, notwithstanding their connoisseurship of Poe, followed the quirky ambition of translating the poetic sensibility of Baudelaire – along with that of Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1897) and Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) – into fantastic narrative.  The Symbolist school revered Poe, just as it revered the writers of the French Baroque.  The American Symbolist-imitators for their part drew additionally on two quirky themes that originally became topical in the seventeenth century.  Atlantology was one; the theory of cycles of civilization, of an unknown history before history, was another.  The notion that a high civilization might also be a precarious one in its final dazzling efflorescence before catastrophic dissolution appears in Poe’s “Colloquy of Monos and Una.”  The associated idea that our own civilization might not be the first to perfect science and technique, and that it will not be the last, appears famously in Giambattista Vico’s New Science (1720) and, less famously but more provocatively, in Olof Rydbeck’s Atland eller Manheim (four volumes, 1679-1702).

Smith Poseidonis

Gervasio Gallardo (born 1934): Cover for Poseidonis (Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, 1973)

The Dean of Atlantologists Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901) owed much to Vico, Rydbeck, and Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680).  Donnelly’s Ante-Diluvian World (1882) and Ragnarok (1883) popularized the idea that the known ancient civilizations stemmed from a prehistoric high civilization of which those historic ones were mere paltry survivals.  C. J. Cutcliffe-Hyne’s Lost Continent (1899) tells a sword-and-sandals story set in the decadence of Atlantean civilization and reaches its climax with the famed cataclysmic disappearance of the accursed island-kingdom.  The subgenre of Atlantean fantasy reached perfection, however, in the authorship of the Californian Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961), who once wrote to Lovecraft regarding Donnelly that The Ante-Diluvian World struck him as being “quite solidly done.”[xxii]  Smith often added to the Atlantean formula another baroque trope, the Faustian alchemist or necromancer.  An Anglophone Symbolist who idolized Baudelaire, Smith created variants of Atlantis.  His “Poseidonis” stories take place among the degenerate polities of the last-surviving splinters of the “Lost Continent,” whereas his “Zothique” stories have for their milieu the dusky geography of earth’s remote future.  Even when Smith spins an extraterrestrial yarn, his interest lies in archaeological survivals.  Smith’s stories, most of them published in Weird Tales beginning in 1930, continue in prose the import of his early Baudelairean poems, evoking fantastic landscapes and architectural imagery using the Gallic resources of English with an occasional Saxon archaism for heightened flavor.  Religious turmoil, inquisition, transcendent yearning, and exile structure the tale frequently.

In “The Monster of Prophecy” (1929), in Smith’s own summary, “A starving poet who is about to throw himself into the river… is approached by a stranger who befriends him and afterwards introduces himself as a scientist from a world of Antares.”[xxiii]  In one of his first glimpses of the Antarean civilization, Alvor, the world-weary poet, sees “a perspective of hills and plains all marked out in geometric diamonds and squares and triangles, with a large lake in their midst,” while “far in the distance, more than a hundred leagues away, were the gleaming domes and towers of some baroque city, towards which the enormous orb of the sun was now declining.”[xxiv]  The use of the adjective baroque implies less than does Smith’s evocation of twilight (elsewhere dawn) and distance, typical qualities of seventeenth century landscape painting, according to Spengler; typical qualities of Symbolist verse, and the symbols par excellence of Faustian yearning.  Alvor’s sojourn on the alien world amounts to “an experience beyond the visionary resources of any terrestrial drug,” part of which is the poet’s awareness “of an unimaginably old and alien… life.”[xxv]  The Antarean scientist tells Alvor: “We are a very old people,” among whom “religious sentiment and veneration of the past have always been dominant factors.”[xxvi]  Alvor soon finds himself the object of priestly inquisition and ends up an asylum seeker among another Antarean people who “had mastered the ultra-civilized art of minding their own business.”[xxvii]

In the “Poseidonis” story “The Death of Malygris” (1934) Smith describes the master necromancer’s chamber: “Everywhere, by the light of opulent lamps… were tables of ebony wrought with sorcerous runes of pearl and white coral; webs of silver and samite, cunningly pictured; caskets of electrum overflowing with talismanic jewels; tiny gods of jade an agate; and tall chryselephantine demons.”[xxviii]  The Baudelairean piling-up of luxuriant and luminous figures aims at overloading the readerly imagination so as to simulate rhetorically what Baudelaire himself, in the poem “Correspondences,” referred to as l’expansion des choses infinies… qui chantent le transport de l’esprit et des senses.”  The botanical imagery in another “Poseidonis” story, “A Voyage to Sfanomoë” (1931), strives towards the same Symbolist effect.  The only two survivors of “Poseidonis” arrive on Venus where they experience “torrid heat… dazzling color… overwhelming perfume”; they see “flowers everywhere… of unearthly forms, of supermundane size and beauty and variety, with scrolls and volutes of petals many-hued” that exhale “perfumes… like elixirs and opiates.”[xxix]  The phenomena in “Malygris” and “Sfanomoë” dazzle their respective protagonists immediately before they nastily die, Smith having borrowed the Baudelairean assumption that violently overloading the sensorium likely entails the (sacrificial) demise of the subject-percipient.

Smith Zothique

Gervasio Gallardo (born 1934): Cover for Zothique (Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, 1970)

Balcoth, the sculptor-protagonist of “The Plutonian Drug” (1934), tells the pharmacist-physician Manners that in his “romantic days” on provocation by “Gautier and Baudelaire” he had experimented with mind-altering pharmacopeia, such as “Cannabis Indica”; whereupon Manners convinces him to try “Plutonium,” the story’s titular substance.[xxx]  Dr. Manners recommends “Plutonium” over “cthini” and “mnophka,” two other extraterrestrial narcotics, for its lack of a “bad aftermath” and as the stimulus to awaken “some rudimentary organ” with the resultant “metamorphosis of sensations.”[xxxi]  Ingesting the potion, concocted from fossilized vegetation immensely old, Balcoth finds himself drawn down into a Poe-esque “whirlpool of prismatic splendor” out of the “infinite chaos” of which emerges coherently an “infinite vista.”[xxxii]  Balcoth, like the characters in “Malygris” and “Sfanomoë,” must pay with his life.  Philip Hastane, narrator of “Beyond the Singing Flame” (1931), makes the transition from a lonely ridge high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to an unknown world, the most remarkable feature of which is the sacred flamboyance of the title, the object of fervent worship in a phantasmagoric city of “solemn architectural music.”[xxxiii]  Alien beings venerate the Flame, which Maelström-like compels its devotees to throw themselves into its maw.  Hastane taking the plunge malgré lui grows conscious of “god-like union with the flame”; he reports latterly that, “every atom of [his body] had undergone transcendental expansion.”[xxxiv]  Not perishing, but like Poe’s Eiros and Charmion entering a higher order of existence, Hastane immediately confronts “endless avenues of super-prismatic opal and jacinth, arches and pillars of ultra-violet gems, of transcendent sapphire, of unearthly ruby and amethyst, all suffused with a multi-tinted splendor.”[xxxv]

Jump to Part II…


[i] Jorge Luis Borges (translated by A. Hurley), A Universal History of Iniquity, Penguin 2009, 4.
[ii] 4.
[iii] 4.
[iv] Oswald Spengler (translated by C. F. Atkinson), The Decline of the West, Vol. I, Form and Actuality, Knopf 1932, 239.
[v] 239.
[vi] The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (edited by H. Beaver), Penguin 1976, 1.
[vii] 1.
[viii] 1.
[ix] 1.
[x] Charles Baudelaire (translated by P. E. Charvet), Selected Writings on Art and Literature, Penguin 1992, 185.
[xi] 220.
[xii] Baudelaire, 185.
[xiii] Poe, 227.
[xiv] 212.
[xv] 70.
[xvi] 70.
[xvii] 91 & 90.
[xviii] 90.
[xix] 91.
[xx] 92.
[xxi] 92.
[xxii] Clark Ashton Smith (edited by D. E. Schultz and S. Connors), Collected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith, Arkham House 2003, 135.
[xxiii] Clark Ashton Smith (edited by S. Connors and R. Hilger), The End of the Story (Collected Fantasies, Vol. I), Nightshade Books 2006, 264.
[xxiv] 100.
[xxv] 107 & 105.
[xxvi] 102.
[xxvii] 116.
[xxviii] Clark Ashton Smith (edited by J. Vandermeer), Lost Worlds, University of Nebraska 2006, 107-108.
[xxix] 98.
[xxx] Clark Ashton Smith (edited by S. Connors and R. Hilger), The Vintage from Atlantis (Collected Fantasies, Vol. 3), Nightshade Books 2007, 242.
[xxxi] 241.
[xxxii] 243.
[xxxiii] 34.
[xxxiv] 38.
[xxxv] 38.

4 thoughts on “The Baroque in Science Fiction – Part I

  1. Pingback: The Baroque in Science Fiction – Part I | Reaction Times


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.