Mika Waltari’s Dark Angel (1952) – A Novel for Our Time

Waltari 01 Dark Angel Cover

Early 1960s Paperback Edition

The name of the Finnish novelist Mika Waltari (1908 – 1979) reached the peak of its currency in the mid-1950s when many of his titles had transcended the isolation of their original language to come into print in English, French, German, Italian, and Swedish.  One of these, The Egyptian (1945), had reached the big screen in 1954 in a lavish Hollywood production directed by Michael Curtiz, with a cast including Edmund Purdom, Victor Mature, and Jean Simmons.  Curtiz’s film adhered closely to Waltari’s story, which concerns the attempted religious reforms of the pharaoh Akenaten, which Waltari, the son of a Lutheran minister and a serious student both of theology and philosophy, regarded as an early instance of ideology.  Basing his fiction on the best information available at the time, Waltari strove to show how, despite the sincere intention of the reformer, the reforms themselves so contradicted Egyptian tradition that they devastated the society.  The novel operates intellectually at a high level.  So does Curtiz’s cinematic version, which likely explains its poor box-office on release.  The Hollywood connection nevertheless boosted Waltari’s foreign-language sales and meant that his books would remain in print into the 1960s.  Today Waltari’s authorship is largely forgotten along with those of his Scandinavian contemporaries such as Lars Gyllensten, Martin A. Hansen, Pär Lagerkvist, Harry Martinson, Tarje Vesaas, and Sigrid Undset.  Anyone who has seen the film Barabbas (1961) with Anthony Quinn in the title role has, however, had contact with Lagerkvist, on whose novel director Richard Fleischer drew.

All of those writers might justly be characterized as Christian Existentialists, heavily influenced by Søren Kierkegaard, who saw their century, the Twentieth, as an era of extreme crisis at its basis spiritual, and who saw the ideologies – the rampant political cults – of their day as heretical false creeds that fomented zealous conflict.  It is unsurprising that such a conviction should have taken hold in Scandinavia.  Two of the Scandinavian nations, Denmark and Norway, had endured conquest and occupation by Germany in World War II.  Sweden avoided that fate, but as Undset wrote in her account of escaping the German invasion of Norway, most Swedes expected disaster to strike at any time from 1940 until the end of hostilities, either from the Germans or from the Russians – or possibly from both, with the nation becoming a battleground.  In Finland, which had only won its independence in 1918, first by rejecting Russian rule and then by defeating a Communist insurrection within its own borders, the sense of acute crisis realized itself in the Soviet attack in the winter of 1939 and 40, during which Waltari worked in Helsinki in the Finnish Government’s Information Bureau, and again in the subsequent Continuation War of 1941 through 1944.  These events are the immediate background to Waltari’s composition of The Egyptian, and they are by no means irrelevant to Dark Angel, published seven years later.

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Jack Vance’s Wyst: Alastor 1716 (A Socialist Dystopia)

Wyst

Current Spatterlight Edition of Wyst

Towards the end of a long life, the American genre writer – and merchant seaman, jazz-man, and master of many trades – Jack Vance (1916 – 2013) produced an amusing autobiography entitled This is Me, Jack Vance! (2009); the book also carried a parenthetical and apologetic subtitle, Or, More Properly, This is I.  In the subtitle Vance takes a jocund swipe at grammatical pedantry, and therefore at pedantry and Puritanism generally speaking, but he also affirms his passion for order, of which grammar is the linguistic species, without which (order, that is) freedom and justice, both of which he held as dear as anything, would be impossible.  There are a number of scholarly anthologies devoted to Vance’s authorship and at least one book-length single-author study of his fiction, Jack Rawlins’ Dissonant Worlds of Jack Vance (1986).  It is a pity, however, that no intellectual biography of Vance exists.  This is Me gives the essential details of its writer’s curriculum vitae, but it is largely bereft of information concerning Vance’s artistic-philosophical formation.  So is Rawlins’ study although it remains otherwise useful.  If only, like Henry Miller, Vance had written his version of The Books in my Life!  Concerning Vance’s artistic-philosophical formation, however, one might plausibly infer and arguably surmise a few probabilities.  A writer is liable to be a reader, a prolific writer a prolific reader.  A merchant seaman, as Vance remarks in his autobiography, finds himself with a good deal of time on his hands.  Vance, who had briefly studied English at the University of California Berkeley, spent long stretches at sea during the Second World War, with a good deal of time on his hands.  Two plausible guesses in respect of books that would have impressed themselves profoundly on Vance as he passed his time in their company are The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père and The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler.

The Count of Monte Cristo would have supplied Vance with a plotline, that of righteous and carefully schemed vengeance against arrogant and powerful offenders, which he used in his own brilliant way many times.  Two books of Vance’s Alastor trilogy, Trullion (1973) and Marune (1975), are vengeance stories, as are all five volumes of The Demon Princes (1964 – 1981).  As it did for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, and science fiction writer James Blish, among innumerable others, The Decline of the West would have deepened Vance’s sense of meaning and large-scale patterning in history; and it would have stimulated his interest in the comparison of cultures.  In Spengler’s theory of the Great Cultures, as he called them, each Great Culture has a distinct physiognomy (Spengler’s term) that imprints and flavors its institutional manifestations and pervades the mental outlook of its every individual.  A major element of Vance’s fiction is to establish through detailed description the distinct physiognomy – or as he calls it in a coinage of his own, the esmeric – of each of his fictional worlds and their societies.  The Decline would also have honed Vance’s sensitivity to the crisis of European civilization, just as it had for Fitzgerald and Miller.  Once again, the breakdown of social structures and the descent of civilization into renewed barbarism interest Vance almost obsessively.  Vance’s authorship contains many other signs of Spengler’s background presence, not least in its tendency to insert extended philosophical discussions, sometimes as footnotes, into the unfolding story.  In Vance’s later work, commencing with The Demon Princes, references occur to a certain “Baron Bodissey,” who seems to have been the Spengler of the settled cosmos, or the “Gaean Reach,” in the long-colonized solar systems of which, and among immensely old societies, Vance’s stories tend to occur.  Spengler saw his Great Cultures as living entities.  Vance’s Ecce and Old Earth (1991) quotes Bodissey’s study of “The Morphology of Settled Places,” in which he argues that “towns behave in many respects like living organisms,” a decidedly Spenglerian proposition.

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Of Possible Interest

Wyst

My essay on the late Jack Vance’s 1978 dystopian Novel Wyst: Alastor 1716 appears at The Gates of Vienna, by the courtesy of its webmaster “Baron Bodissey.”  Wyst, the third installment of Vance’s “Alastor” trilogy is a carefully plotted thriller-satire that takes on the cliches of socialism and egalitarianism.  I give the first two paragraphs below. —

Towards the end of a long life, the American genre writer – and merchant seaman, jazz-man, and master of many trades – Jack Vance (1916 – 2013) produced an amusing autobiography entitled This is Me, Jack Vance! (2009); the book also carried a parenthetical and apologetic subtitle, Or, More Properly, This is I.  In the subtitle Vance takes a jocund swipe at grammatical pedantry, and therefore at pedantry and Puritanism generally speaking, but he also affirms his passion for order, of which grammar is the linguistic species, without which (order, that is) freedom and justice, both of which he held as dear as anything, would be impossible.  There are a number of scholarly anthologies devoted to Vance’s authorship and at least one book-length single-author study of his fiction, Jack Rawlins’ Dissonant Worlds of Jack Vance (1986).  It is a pity, however, that no intellectual biography of Vance exists.  This is Me gives the essential details of its writer’s curriculum vitae, but it is largely bereft of information concerning Vance’s artistic-philosophical formation.  So is Rawlins’ study although it remains otherwise useful.  If only, like Henry Miller, Vance had written his version of The Books in my Life!  Concerning Vance’s artistic-philosophical formation, however, one might plausibly infer and arguably surmise a few probabilities.  A writer is liable to be a reader, a prolific writer a prolific reader.  A merchant seaman, as Vance remarks in his autobiography, finds himself with a good deal of time on his hands.  Vance, who had briefly studied English at the University of California Berkeley, spent long stretches at sea during the Second World War, with a good deal of time on his hands.  Two plausible guesses in respect of books that would have impressed themselves profoundly on Vance as he passed his time in their company are The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père and The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler.
The Count of Monte Cristo would have supplied Vance with a plot-line, that of righteous and carefully schemed vengeance against arrogant and powerful offenders, which he used in his own brilliant way many times.  Two books of Vance’s Alastor trilogy, Trullion (1973) and Marune (1975), are vengeance stories, as are all five volumes of The Demon Princes (1964 – 1981).  As it did for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, and science fiction writer James Blish, among innumerable others, The Decline of the West would have deepened Vance’s sense of meaning and large-scale patterning in history; and it would have stimulated his interest in the comparison of cultures.  In Spengler’s theory of the Great Cultures, as he called them, each Great Culture has a distinct physiognomy (Spengler’s term) that imprints and flavors its institutional manifestations and pervades the mental outlook of its every individual.  A major element of Vance’s fiction is to establish through detailed description the distinct physiognomy – or as he calls it in a coinage of his own, the esmeric – of each of his fictional worlds and their societies.  The Decline would also have honed Vance’s sensitivity to the crisis of European civilization, just as it had for Fitzgerald and Miller.  Once again, the breakdown of social structures and the descent of civilization into renewed barbarism interest Vance almost obsessively.  Vance’s authorship contains many other signs of Spengler’s background presence, not least in its tendency to insert extended philosophical discussions, sometimes as footnotes, into the unfolding story.  In Vance’s later work, commencing with The Demon Princes, references occur to a certain “Baron Bodissey,” who seems to have been the Spengler of the settled cosmos, or the “Gaean Reach,” in the long-colonized solar systems of which, and among immensely old societies, Vance’s stories tend to occur.  Spengler saw his Great Cultures as living entities.  Vance’s Ecce and Old Earth (1991) quotes Bodissey’s study of “The Morphology of Settled Places,” in which he argues that “towns behave in many respects like living organisms,” a decidedly Spenglerian proposition.

Globalism as Sacrificial Crisis: Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s Mark of the Sacred

Dupuy 06 Wicker Man

The Wicker Man of the Pagan Celts

Gregory Copley has argued in his study of Un-Civilization (2014) that the global human arrangement, a creeping improvisation of the last three or four centuries, nowadays has outlived its ad hoc semi-functionality so that it totters on the verge of a radical spontaneous reconstruction whose survivors will have experienced it as nothing less than a catastrophe.  Eric Cline, in his recent study of The Year Civilization Collapsed (2014), underscores the likelihood of such a calamity as the one that Copley predicts.  Cline marshals the details of an archaeologically attestable prototype of “systems collapse” that occurred around the date 1177 BC when a vast swath of the civilized Eastern Mediterranean literally went up in flames, inaugurating a “dark age” that in some places lasted four hundred years.  That it has happened increases the possibility that it might happen.  Jean-Pierre Dupuy, like Copley and Cline, is a student of crises, but unlike them he is primarily a religious thinker, one who takes seriously the insights of the man whom he calls the Albert Einstein of Twentieth-Century social science, René Girard.  Dupuy’s title, The Mark of the Sacred (2008; English, 2013), recalls the title of Girard’s seminal Violence and the Sacred (1966; English, 1972).  In that work, Girard discovered, in myth, ritual, and tragic poetry, the signs of a “sacrificial crisis” ubiquitously and regularly afflicting archaic societies.  In the sacrificial crisis, the social group suffers structural breakdown in rampant, violent mimesis or imitation that resolves itself through the production of an arbitrarily selected victim; the victim’s immolation then promotes him to godhead and generates the basic forms of culture.

One might think analogously of the basic architecture of the pyramid in relation to death-by-stoning: The former results from the latter, concealing the victim under an aesthetically pleasing form that dissimulates its own origin.

As Girard sees it, and as Dupuy reiterates, this “scapegoat mechanism” made humanity, but it also entrapped humanity in the closed epistemology, gory practice, and mendacious rhetoric, stomach-churning to inspect, of the sacred.  In Girard’s argument, which Dupuy again adopts, people could not begin to escape the delusion of the sacred until the decisive event of Christ’s Passion, as recorded in the four Gospels.  In The Mark of the Sacred, Dupuy explores the implications of this – to him – persuasive view.  Those implications entail, among other things, a reassessment of existing normative models of economics, political theory, cognitive science, and, indeed, modernity’s total view of itself.  The prideful, deforming error of modernity, as Dupuy demonstrates in a series of five topically various but logically closely-related chapters, is to believe fanatically in its own claim to be thoroughly and justifiably secular, thus licensing itself to reject everything that it categorizes as religious or irrational.  In itself, Dupuy’s case is hardly unprecedented.  Among others and as early as the beginning of the Nineteenth Century S. T. Coleridge and Joseph de Maistre identified the Revolution, that declaration of an absolute break with all tradition, as essentially religious, but as by no means an advance beyond the Christianity that it condemned.  Yet Dupuy, assimilating Girard, takes this argument in new directions.

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Reading Count Gobineau

Gobineau 01 Gobineau Seated

Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau (1816 – 1882)

The name of Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau (1816 – 1882) rarely appears nowadays except in a context of moral dudgeon.  The first sentence of the Wikipedia article devoted to Gobineau perhaps unsurprisingly informs the reader, in rather lazy prose, that “Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau… was a French aristocrat who was best known by his contemporaries as a novelist, diplomat, and travel writer but is today most remembered for developing the theory of the Aryan master race and helping to legitimise racism by scientific racist theory and racial demography.”  (Punctuation corrected.)  The term “scientific racist theory” especially courts self-condemnation through its editorial heavy-handedness and its retrojection of a contemporary item of ideological cant: Objectively, Gobineau sought only to articulate a scientific racial theory or a scientific theory of race.  The term “master-race” moreover is foreign to Gobineau’s text; and “Aryan,” as Gobineau properly uses it, is an ancient tribal self-designation.  Had someone accused Gobineau of racism, or of being a racist, the term would have baffled him entirely.  The reliably left-leaning Wikipedia is not alone, however, in treating Gobineau as thoroughly toxic.  The New World Encyclopedia, in its online version, asseverates that “although [Gobineau’s] racial theories did not receive immediate attention in Europe,” nevertheless “it was through the influence of the Bayreuth circle and Richard Wagner that his views became popular, and his anti-Semitic theories developed.”  The Encyclopedia’s rhetorical maneuver draws on the widely circulated notion that National Socialism began proleptically with Wagner, who therefore qualifies himself as morally pernicious, and it extends Wagner’s supposed vileness backwards to the one who planted the seed of wickedness in Wagner’s mind – namely Gobineau in his proper person.  That reading Gobineau’s prose inspired Wagner to be a rabid anti-Semite and led to the Holocaust seems to be the implication.

Leaving aside the imputation that Wagner was a Proto-Hitler, which while of considerable interest belongs in another discussion, these slick mischaracterizations of Gobineau’s treatise on The Inequality of the Human Races (1854) reveal themselves as being based on prejudicial and superficial readings of that book; or perhaps on a universal omission to read it.  What then would a careful and unprejudiced reading of The Inequality of the Human Races yield?  The present essay proposes to answer that question.  (Note: Inequality is a work in four extensive volumes that touch on a variety of topics and that in many ways establish the science of comparative ethnography; the first volume, however, functions as an extended introduction to the other three, summarizing their contents in advance.  For the sake of tractability, I confine my remarks to that first volume.)

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Writing about Literature Revisited (Coleridge)

Xanadu

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan…”

I wrote previously about student responses in my “Writing about Literature” course to Percy Shelley’s famous sonnet “Ozymandias,” which I set them to interpret on the basis of workshops in identifying the formal and meaningful  elements of poems.  Last week I set the same students to write up in class an interpretation of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (1797), a rather more challenging poem than “Ozymandias,” although Shelley proved challenge enough, but at the same time possibly easier to interpret because its phantasmagoria allows for considerable play on the part of the reader.  Coleridge’s poem has its origin in a bizarre and unrepeatable incident.  In September 1797 while a house guest of his friend William Wordsworth, who had taken him in because he found himself in a phase of indigence, Coleridge one morning took a dose of opium, as was his wont, and fell into a visionary trance.  A major ode of some two hundred lines manifested itself to Coleridge, complete, during the psychedelic phase, and as he returned to ordinary consciousness he began to transcribe it.  At that moment, one of Coleridge’s creditors came knocking loudly at Wordsworth’s door, and in the shock of hearing it, the majority of those two hundred finished lines slipped away from the poet’s grasp into oblivion.  Coleridge could rescue only thirty-six lines, which constitute Part I of the poem as it was published, finally, in 1816.

The poem appears in its paradoxical truncated entirety below. –

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Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

Ozymandias

“Half sunk, a shattered visage lies.”

My department pays me fairly handsomely to teach a particularly futile course – one among no few others – that styles itself as “Writing about Literature.”  The course is futile at both ends: Public education produces nowadays only an uneducated public, many individuals of whom, including those who are invited to college or university to matriculate, write only at the level of functional illiteracy; and none of whom has ever read anything that might qualify as literature.  I approach the course as a fully remedial one because that, in effect, is what it must be.  Dedicating the first half of the semester to “writing about poetry,” I offer up as fare for mental nourishment short poems, mostly sonnets, by writers of the Romantic generations of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries.  I run the class-sessions as workshops in careful reading, or close reading, for which a sonnet by William Wordsworth or Samuel Taylor Coleridge or John Keats or Percy Bysshe Shelley is meet.  I ask the students to begin by noticing the periods or full stops that divide the poem into its sentences and to notice, for example, that, in verse, lines and sentences do not necessarily correspond, so that their interaction must be carefully worked out.  I ask them to notice the grammatical features of each poem.  In what person is the poem couched?  Whom does the speaker address?  What setting is implied? What argument does the speaker make in his sequence of figures and images?  I want students to see that language can function at a higher level than it does in a campus newspaper article or in the instructions for the latest cell phone.  Readers of poems must slow down their thought processes so as to notice everything and they must let the poem provoke them into thinking word by word and line by line.

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Linguistic Subscendence

Dunce - Let's Play Dunce

No Caption Necessary

It is the end of the term, so my life consists of tall stacks of student papers, which I must read and evaluate.  A number of patterns – or maybe a better term would be grammatical de-patternings – have forced themselves on my attention.  There is, for example, the almost invariable “they” employed as the subsequent of a singular subject in a sentence.  A half-dozen of these, at least, appear in every four-page theme, even in papers written by English majors.  Twenty years ago, in a journal article, I referred to this as gemination – the one and only child miraculously becomes a set of twins.  Many among the English professoriate no longer bother to correct this, but I do, insistently.  While English is a latitudinous language in terms of its regularity, the logic of its pronominal system is rigorous.  Someone is, precisely, one, not two people or more.  Ditto anyone, everyone, and no one or none, the last being the contraction of its syntactic precursor in the sentence.  In the real world, neither a person nor the man can suddenly become they or them.  To write so, however, is surely to think so; and to think so is bad arithmetic even in the first grade.  It is perhaps not an unrelated fact that when I give my students the instruction to subtract the number of questions they answered wrongly on the quiz from the total number of questions and to post the result as their score – they reach that result with glacial slowness through grimacing, dull effort.

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First-Day Lecture to the Lit Crit Students

Lecture Hall

Ideal, Free-Range College Students

Let us begin with two questions – what is literary criticism and who or what is a literary critic?  The true answers to these questions might surprise someone who attends college and who associates literature almost solely with what is called academic or scholarly interest.  Very possibly, only a few academicians or scholars are today genuinely deserving of the title literary critic.  The humanities departments, having become all at once thoroughly and fanatically political and thoroughly and fanatically bureaucratic, what passes in them for literary criticism is largely the imposition of predetermined and stereotyped ideological matrices on novels, plays, poems, and stories such that, in the main, the novels, plays, poems, and stories disappear and all that remains is the ideological matrix.  Practices still calling themselves literary and critical will work themselves out as though they were self-actuating algorithms (“apps” in contemporary parlance), in the functioning of which, no human intervention is necessary.  The sole interests are hierarchy, which everyone knows to be “bad” and which everyone therefore loves to denounce, and the somatic attribute, conceived in the narrowest way, and assumed to distribute itself according to a moral hierarchy. * Such a practice can only issue in a debilitating self-contradiction, which is exactly what happens.  Missing in the “deconstructive,” “postmodern,” “feminist,” “classist,” and related English-Department discourses concerning novels, plays, poems, and stories is any scintilla of Eros – that is to say of passion, desire, or love – and any sense that the critic might be far less significant than the object of his interest.  We have, of course, not yet answered the two questions, but clearing away certain misconceptions is a necessary prequel to furnishing those answers.

Literary criticism – to tackle the first question – is best grasped as a subject’s passion, desire, or love for novels, plays, poems, and stories.  The passion, desire, or love is so great that the subject, gradually forming himself into a critic, relinquishes his ego entirely to his transcendent project of understanding the object as itself, in its beauty, its meaning, and, as entailed by those, in the total organic relation of its parts to its whole.  More than that, literary criticism, nourishing itself on individual items that inflame its ego-dissolving passion, develops an interest in the generic relation of one item to another, thus also in the distinctions of the genres, and in the history of those genres.  The ultimate object of literary criticism would be literature in itself, or the essence of the literary, but the ultimate object would not be identical to the ultimate aim, the telos, of literary-critical vitality.  The ultimate aim or telos of that activity would constitute itself in the transformation of the subject – his raising of himself to a higher level of conscious awareness.  There is an old saying that intelligent readers never, in fact read books; rather, intelligent readers let the books read them.  No serious person who reads a serious book should expect to be the same person afterwards.  Reading, supposed by college students on the basis of their secondary school experience to be a tedious obligation, has been understood by bibliophiles since the Fourth Century BC to resemble mystic initiation, a rite de passage, one of many such in the unwinding journey between birth and death.  We must return to these themes, Eros and so forth, reading as a rite de passage, but let us first tackle the second of the two questions, who or what is a literary critic.

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