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.

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

Bramer Leonaert (1596 - 1670) - Sacrifice of Iphigenia c. 1623

Leonaert Bramer (1596 – 1670): Iphigenia at Aulis (1630)

[NOTE: This article — or sequence of linked essays — appeared in the journal Anthropoetics nearly twenty-five years ago. Its prose leaned too heavily by far on the first person and in re-reading it, it came across to me, on that account, as a bit narcissistic. It was also burdened by too many sidebars. Nevertheless, the main argument and the literary analyses seemed to me to retain their validity. I have extensively edited and re-written the original in order to present it here, in a more seemly form, at The Orthosphere. This is Part I — Part II will follow immediately.]

Science fiction is by widespread consensus the prose genre devoted to representing the precepts of the physical sciences – the precepts of materialism – in narrative: Standard definitions of science fiction typically explicate the genre under the related rubrics of extrapolation and plausibility.  Those seeking to understand science fiction in its generic particulars will therefore find its paradigm, according to this received definition, in the texts of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. In confronting the recalcitrant physicality of the ocean’s depths, Verne for his part carefully imagines a device, Nemo’s submarine, which can subdue watery resistance and lay clear abyssal mysteries; the Nautilus does this, importantly according to the consensus, without violating any known limitations of physics or mechanics. In speculating on the future of warfare, H. G. Wells for his part posits slight increases in the dependability of traction-engines and in the versatility of dirigible airships and he then puts in prospect, in “The Land Ironclads” (1897) and The War in the Air (1906), eminently credible scenarios of technologically enhanced combat in the European near future of the time.  This branch of “hard” science fiction finds extended life, and indeed appears to become the core of the genre, in the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s, especially in John W. Campbell’s Astounding, where Campbell himself, E. E. Smith, and Eric Frank Russell enthralled readers by describing the instrumentality of space travel, planetary conquest, and interstellar warfare. Campbell’s planetary machinery might be less “plausible” than Verne’s submarine or Wells’s battle-tanks, but the principle of story-construction remains the same: The saga finds its purpose in the careful delineation of mechanical details and in the equally minute depiction of spectacular havoc.

I. The Discovery of Superstition. It is important, in fact, to assert what criticism commonly denies: Namely that science fiction originates not in industrial modernity, although that is when the genre, latent for many centuries, at last fully revived, but in Late Antiquity and that it is cognate with the advanced forms of speculation of those days.But Late-Antique fantastic narrative also partakes in the spiritual developments of the time, especially in the consolidation of the mystery-cults and the proliferation of Gnostic systems. Whereas the speculation of a materialist like Epicurus creates a picture of the universe as a plurality of worlds, the speculation of religious thinkers, like Plutarch and Valentinus, creates a world-feeling somewhat paranoid in its basic attitude, distrustful of a cosmic dispensation that it finds inhospitable, and vigilant against demonic forces. In the words of Hans Jonas from his study of Gnostic religion: “Cosmos thus becomes… an emphatically negative concept, perhaps more strongly because more emotionally charged than it had been a positive concept in the [older] Greek conception.”  The Epicurean and Plutarchian worlds are the same world, differentiated through divergent evaluations.  Plutarch is neither so unscientific nor Epicurus so de-divinized as casual acquaintance might imply.  There are religious elements in atomism and scientific elements in neo-Platonism.  Plutarch, for example, contributes to astronomical speculation in his dialogue On the Face in the Moon and to itinerary fantasy, a voyage to remote islands, in the dialogue On the Decline of Oracles.

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The Sigil of the Orthosphere

Thanks to InfoGalactic, I learned the other day a bit about Chaos Magic. I had searched on “egregor” – the Greek for “watcher,” a topic of some interest to me – and found out that it is a term of art in that discussion. In Chaos Magic, an egregor is an artificial spirit, created by a magician as at first a heuristic hypostatization, a “thought form,” devised for his own convenient internal usages, of some nexus of impulses within himself – sometimes nice, sometimes not so nice (as, say, a besetting temptation) – so as to identify and, above all, simply *notice it,* and thus address it more aptly; and then at some point publicly promulgated, so that it then engages the interest and attention of other practitioners, who find it useful and adopt it for their own internal operations, so that it then informs their activities. A meme, in other words, but a meme that has some intrinsic characteristics that lend it suasive and informative powers, so that it can seem to take on a life of its own, and become the apparent animating spirit of a whole group of people. Widely disparate people, not communicating with each other at all (so far as we can know), can evoke the response to current events of an egregor that has possessed them without any outward coordination, and in a unison of spirit and even of diction that is truly wonderful, even spooky.

There is much truth in this notion. Consider, e.g., anthropogenic global warming. Or transsexuality. Or Trump Derangement Syndrome. Or Communism. Or for that matter any fad or trend or notion, any ideology, that has little objective correlate or reason outside the merely social world.

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The World is Waiting for the Sunrise

The World is Waiting for the Sunrise (1918) by Lockhart and Seitz has been covered on disc, according to the Wikipedia, more than one hundred times – by Mary Ford and Les Paul, The Chris Barber Band (in New Orleans style), and Bing Crosby (in his characterless “crooning” style), among many others.  The lyrics express the post-War-to-End-Wars hope that the Allies had established a permanent peace and that the League of Nations would usher in a golden age of prosperity and security. My favorite version of Waiting for the Sunrise is the one made by radio comedian Stan Freberg from the early 1950s.  I post it (above) because Freberg’s satiric take, in the aftermath that other war, and in the early phase of the Cold War, addresses itself to a manic world coming apart at the seams. It therefore, like many things from the past, whether remote or recent, speaks to the insanity of the present moment.  Enjoy.

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The Music of E. J. Moeran

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E. J. Moeran (1894 – 1950) circa 1940

The opening bars of Ernest John Moeran’s Symphony in  G-Minor (completed in 1937) etched themselves in my memory when I first heard them in the early 1970s in Neville Dilke’s 1970 EMI recording with the English Sinfonia – and they have haunted me ever since.  Over a four-four ostinato based in the horns, the violins play a sweeping, folksong-like melody with a character both heroic and tragic; it is a melody strongly vocal in its outline, but full of developmental implication, which the composer ingeniously exploits.  According to Geoffrey Self’s 1986 study of Moeran (1894 – 1950), work on the Symphony began as early as 1924, but its author it aside for a decade before resuming it.  Moeran worked initially on what would become the Symphony’s slow movement, deriving his motifs, as Self informs his readers, from a traditional Norfolk melody, The Shooting of his Dear, which he had arranged previously for chorus.  Self argues that The Shooting of his Dear appealed to Moeran more due to the pathos of its lyrics than to its inherent melodiousness.  The song tells the story of a young fowler who accidentally kills his beloved while out hunting and how her ghost appears at his trial to plead clemency.  The murder of the innocent, as Self sees it, figured centrally in Moeran’s conscience, as he had served in the British Army in the Great War, in which he had been severely wounded.  Moeran’s symphony thus began with the folksong, on the basis of which the slow movement builds an elegiac fantasia; and when Moeran took up the score again a nucleus of motifs derived from the same Norfolk tune informed the thematic material of the other movements, including the sweeping theme at the commencement of the first movement’s Allegro.  In Self’s analysis, the Symphony in G-Minor constitutes itself as a subtly and ingeniously worked out musical unity, as complex in its construction as any other major musical work of the mid-Twentieth Century.

No doubt but the derivation of the score’s thematic material from a few basic melodic cells conveys itself unconsciously to the lay listener.  The main laical reaction to Moeran’s score, however, consists in feeling oneself overwhelmed by the work’s lyrical richness and its constant implication of carrying forward a musical narrative endowed with a powerful meaning.  Self points out that the Symphony in G-Minor partakes in complexity and meaning in another way – through its pattern of allusions to other symphonic scores.  He names Jean Sibelius, and in particular his Second, Third, and Fourth Symphonies as generating echoes in Moeran’s partitur; and Peter Tchaikovsky’s Sixth and Sir Edward Elgar’s Second Symphony and his tone-poem Falstaff.  Self poses a rhetorical question: “What if [Moeran’s] music were to work by using our knowledge of other, specific works, and ones which are accepted loci classici for particular emotional gestures?”  Self believes that Moeran often consciously made musical allusions so that musically astute listeners “would take account not only of the Moeran passage, but also of its model.”  In this way “the total listening experience would be compounded of Moeran heard in light of the model – on occasion, indeed, the Moeran [passage] might make ironic comment on the model.”  Elsewhere in his book, Self gives evidence that Moeran extended this practice to the large-scale works that succeeded the Symphony, and in so doing aligned himself with the mid-century convention of literary allusion, as in the novels of James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence or the poetry of T. S. Eliot.

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Alfvén’s Midsommarvaka

Hugo Alfvén (1872 – 1960) jumpstarted the genuinely Swedish school of concert music in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century and sustained his effort during the first half of the Twentieth Century. Following the example of the Russian composers, the ones denominated as “The Mighty Five,” Alfvén assimilated the heady tradition of Swedish folk music to the conventions of symphonic music. Alfvén wrote three “Swedish Rhapsodies.” The first, from 1908, celebrates the vestigially Catholic and vestigially Pagan festival of “May Eve.” The composition imitates Swedish folk-tunes, but all of the thematic material in Midsommarvaka is original to Alfvén. The composition falls on the ear as spontaneous and “natural,” but the score is brilliantly unified. Midsommarvaka is, in effect, a short symphony, in four movements, on Swedish themes. I have loved it since I first heard it in the early 1970s and I am happy to share it with the community of the Orthosphere.

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Actual Identity

The performances of the Russian, St.-Petersburg based, musical group Otava Yo, whose self-explanation is accessible here, much impress me. We live in an age where actual identity, that of the living person, finds itself in opposition to identity politics, which obliterates the living person for the sake of a wicked abstraction. Otava roots itself in the soulful tradition of Russian and (I believe) Ukrainian folksong. The old Cossack ditty, Oy Dusiya, Oy Marusiya, in lezhginka rhythm, taps into the richness of an authentic ethnic tradition. The moment in the video when the young woman sees herself in the mirror in traditional costume is particularly moving. Whoever directed the video directed it well. From the folk-costumes to the reference, through several historical layers of recorded music, to the lore of song, and to the fashioning of folk-instruments, the visuals tell a story of the debt to ancestry. Those who repudiate tradition condemn themselves to a shallow plagiarism of the prevailing correct opinion, while those who embrace the patrimony find themselves endowed with originality and creativity. Otava Yo’s women fetch me especially. They seem unembarrassed in being beautiful, which they are extraordinarily – and they pay tribute to feminine beauty in a powerful way, not least in their ritual hauteur. If anyone could explain the samovar subplot, I would welcome enlightenment.

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What Every Little Girl Dreams of These Days

On the train last evening I spotted – or perhaps I should say, I was assaulted by – a placard advertising a music festival. I thought: Is this what women really want for themselves? Is this supposed to be attractive?

Honestly, the woman looks like she’s being tortured. Fun!