The Baroque in Science Fiction – Part II

Finlay 04 Back Cover Weird Tales Sept. 1952

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

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

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The Baroque in Science Fiction – Part I

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

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

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

The novel arises with the baroque, in the Simplicius and Eulenspiegel narratives, in picaresque, and in the moralizing abyss of Don Quixote, where Part One is a topic of discussion, mostly inane, among the characters in Part Two.  The baroque therefore peculiarly trumps the modern in its exploitation of formal complexity; the modernist writers might match, but they never excel, their two- or three-century precursors in self-allusion and abyssal autoscopy.  Indeed, the Parisian Symbolists, those first modernists, remained keenly aware of their debt to the seventeenth century “Parnassians,” Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé assiduously practicing the sonnet, as though writing in the time of Louis XIII.  Later Max Reger (1873-1916) and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) mimicked baroque-era models in music, as did M. C. Escher in graphic media.  Borges, in his Preface, “would venture to say that the baroque is the final stage of art,” a stage which some would call decadent.[iii]  Borges notes that the eighteenth century, which coined the term baroque, considered the seventeenth century, which invented the style, to have been in bad taste.  Borges omits 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]

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Visions of the Wasteland – Part II

Charles Ernest Cundall (1890 - 1971) - St Paul's Cathedral during the Blitz (1941)

Charles Ernest Cundall  (1890 – 1971): St. Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz (1941)

Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920) comments that in the Thirteenth-Century Quest of the Holy Grail, the wasteland motif has largely contracted into the figure of the maimed king.  The wasteland motif is, despite Weston’s assertion, present in that text.  In a “Waste Forest,” for example, Lancelot and Perceval seek refuge in a chapel, “abandoned and ruinous,” near “a stone cross which stood on a lonely heath at the parting of two ways.”  (Matarasso’s translation)  A wounded knight, whom the Quest author identifies as the “Fisher King,” comes carried in a litter to the shrine.  He prays God before the cross, “shall my suffering never be abated”; inquires after the “Holy Vessel” that will alleviate his agony; and passes inside through the chapel door.  Later, Lancelot witnesses the healing apparition of the Grail before the stricken man.  Later still, resuming the saddle, he overhears an indicting voice.  It invokes his adultery with Queen Guinevere and orders him, “Get thee hence, for the stench of thy presence fouls this place.”  In one of the adventures involving Perceval’s sister, she willingly, but fatally, gives her blood to cure a noble lady who has fallen victim to leprosy and whose restoration signifies the restored integrity of her realm.  The images intercommunicate.  The maimed king received his wound because he once sinned in ritual discourtesy to the Grail.  Lancelot’s wound, while not physical, nevertheless festers obnoxiously and makes him persona non grata in sacred places.  Before he may properly seek the Grail, he must undertake to purify his tainted soul.  The cause of the noble lady’s disfigurement goes unrevealed, but the cure, the sister’s Christ-like act of self-sacrifice, gives back to the people the undisfigured figure of their sovereignty.  The characters in the Quest differ from those in Geoffrey’s History in that they have risen to self-awareness.  They understand vae desolatione as not exclusively a worldly but more so as a spiritual problem.

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Visions of the Wasteland – Part I

Caspar David Friedrich (1774 - 1840) - Abbey-in-the-Oakwood (1810)

Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840): Abbey in the Oakwood (1810)

Homer bequeaths to posterity one of the earliest visions of a wasteland, anticipating T. S. Eliot by three millennia.  Eliot, incidentally, acknowledges his debt to Homer by allusions to him in the fabric of his foundationally modern, but also highly anti-modern, poem.  Now in Odyssey, Book IX, his Phaeacian hosts having guessed his identity, Odysseus honors the guest’s role under hospitality by telling his story in full.  He relates the unpublished details of his post-Trojan voyages thus far.  After the finale at Troy, Odysseus sailed his fleet of twelve ships on a piratical raid against the Ciconians, the rashness of which cost him dearly (some seventy dead); he dragged his men away from the narcotic forgetfulness of Lotus Land; and then, after contrary weather drove him off course, he entered the natural harbor of an uninhabited island lying opposite what would prove to be the insular domain of those anthropophagous troglodytes, the Cyclopes.  Odysseus describes to King Alcinous and Queen Arete the fatness of the unpeopled skerry, where he went ashore to revictual his armada.  “Covered with trees,” as Odysseus says, “on it innumerable wild goats breed; no tread of man disturbs them; none comes here to follow hounds, to toil through woods and climb the crests of hills.” (Palmer’s translation)  Odysseus adds that “the island is not held for flocks or tillage, but all unsown, untilled, it evermore is bare of men and feeds the bleating goats.”  As though to convey his dismay in the unfulfillment of it, Odysseus emphasizes that: “Here are meadows on the banks of the grey sea, moist, with soft soil; here vines could never die; here is smooth ploughing-land; a very heavy crop, and always well in season, might be reaped, for the undersoil is rich.”  Homer depicts Ithaca, by contrast, as a hard-scrabble economy.

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Raising the Fallen World: Richard Wagner and the Scenic Imagination

Giuseppi Tvoli (1854 1925) - Richard Wagner (ca. 1865)

Giuseppe Tivoli (1854 – 1925): Portrait of R. Wagner (ca. 1865)

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) intended his mid-Nineteenth Century innovation of Music Drama to instigate a thorough renewal, not simply of art, but rather of the human situation, as writ large, in society and culture; he foresaw in the late 1840s that his work would require a theoretical basis in metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics.  As it happens, all three parts of this theory entail, although Wagner does not employ the terms, both an anthropology, and a theory of representation.  Finally, Wagner’s theory of representation derives a type of primordial signification from an event in which the unavoidable beauty of a token or talisman disarms a threatening violence.  Wagner worked out this anthropology, and the accompanying theory of representation, borrowing his vocabulary and some few notions from G. W. F. Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach, in a series of essays and pamphlets in the 1840s and 50s.  In these documents, Wagner prescribed the “mimetic,” “poetic,” and “tonal” (that is to say, the combined dramatic) characteristics that would body themselves forth in Tannhäuser, The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan and Isolde, The Mastersingers, and Parsifal.  These operas – or rather these Gesamtkunstwerke, as their author called them, using his own coinage – would recreate on the modern stage an “earliest utterance of consciousness.”[i] Their performance would inaugurate a new “breaking loose from unconscious life,”[ii] to quote from their author’s post-Idealist terminology; enacting the Gesamtkunstwerk would thus revitalize society by rescuing it from the degradations of fashion and the rabble, two of Wagner’s reliable pejoratives, in which an anthropologically acute reader will discern the theme of cultural breakdown in thoughtless spreading imitation and the unconsciousness of the crowd.

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Lectures du Printemps (Sélections)

Evola Bow and the Club

Julius Evola (1898 – 1974), The Bow and the Club (in Italian, 1968; English translation by Sergio Knipe, 2018): Julius Evola gained notoriety with his Revolt Against the Modern World (1934), a trenchant book as apposite to the current phase of modernity in the 2020s as it was to the inter-war phase in whose midst it appeared.  Men among the Ruins (1953) and Ride the Tiger (1961) carried forward the analyses and conclusions of Revolt.  Evola’s authorship looms large, encompassing works major and minor.  A late entry in Evola’s bibliography, The Bow and the Club, which perhaps qualifies only as a minor one, anthologizes nineteen independent essays from the 1950s through the 1960s, rewriting them with some cross-references, so as to lend unity to their collocation.  “The Psychoanalysis of Skiing” illustrates Evola’s acumen in cultural analysis: Diversion although trivial can testify to the social condition and to the pervasive attitude.  Evola remarks the recentness of skiing as a popular sport even while casting doubt on its sportive status.  Whereas mountaineering, also recent, requires strength, courage, and skill, skiing, in Evola’s view, simply makes use of gravity.  One emphasizes the ascent – the other the descent.  The skier must, of course, ascend before he descends, but “the problem has been solved by building cableways, chair lifts, and sledge lifts that meet the real interest of skiers by effortlessly taking them up.”  The very mechanization of skiing ranks it, as Evola writes, “among those [activities] most devoid of any relation to the symbols of the previous world-view.”  Evola detects in skiing an essential passivity.  The thrill of the downhill run reflects the general “collapse and downfall” of the modern world, to which the skier gleefully submits.  Evola relates skiing to “naturism,” his word for nudism.  A demon of shamelessness indeed hovers over the piste.  The notorious hot-tubs of the Sierra-Nevada ski lodges, although they post-date Evola’s death, affirm his intuition.

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Red Mist and Ruins: The Symbolist Prose of Leigh Brackett

Brackett 11 PS 1946 SM Lorelei

The French remember Leigh Brackett, comme une maitresse “aux space-operas flamboyants,” to quote the words of paperback anthologist Jacques Sadoul.[i]  Stephen Haffner, of the Haffner Press in Royal Oak, Michigan, remembers her, too.  He has invested entrepreneurially in putting the best of her work, her contributions to Planet Stories, back into print in hard covers, after many decades of relegation to the second-hand market, in an act of genuine devotion.[ii]  Otherwise, like many others, Brackett runs the risk of vanishing into oblivion – for that is where all matter goes that is printed on the cheap, acid-rich paper that gave its name to the eminently perishable pulps. The slightest exposure to moisture crumbles them; sunlight bleaches the covers and makes the pages brittle and prone to disintegrate. Even the paperbacks of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, which reprinted the authors of the pulp era, including Brackett, must sooner or later suffer the same fate as the fragile magazines. Efforts of aficionados to preserve vintage genre fiction in an enduring form express a proper devotion to a robust literary past that looms over an insipid contemporaneity.  These efforts also qualify themselves as implicit, but strong, judgments on the present.  What accounts for Sadoul’s or Haffner’s dedication?  Admirers of elegant prose that manages to evoke lavishly imagined settings, in a style unexpectedly and strongly informed by the Symbolist and Impressionist writers of the fin de siècle, ought to commemorate Brackett (1915 – 1978), who deserves the multiple titles of the True Queen of the Pulps and the undeniable Empress, as it were, of Planet Stories.

In her heyday of the 1940s Brackett’s contribution could be counted on almost invariably to “get the cover,” as the publisher-argot of the time put it.[iii]  Brackett also saw print regularly in the double-columns of Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, and Astounding, where again she often “got the cover.”  But it was Planet Stories that heartily encouraged her strong suit of heroic romance in an extraterrestrial setting, usually Mars or Venus, with plentiful action.  Brackett’s stories in that hyperbolically romantic venue set the artistic benchmark for others, and many were the others who imitated her. Brackett’s stories furthermore always inspired the cover-illustrators to their lurid and enthralling best: Who could not have wanted to devour the récit implied by the Planet Stories cover of the Summer 1946 number illustrating Brackett’s Lorelei of the Red Mist?  Ray Bradbury had finished the last third of Lorelei when cinema auteur Howard Hawks invited the saga’s primary author to write dialogue with William Faulkner for The Big Sleep.[iv]  Hawks had read Brackett’s No Good from a Corpse, a hard-boiled detective novel that appeared in 1944.  He wanted its wordsmith for the tough-guy film he was then developing as a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart.  Hawks, assuming the name Leigh to belong to a man, expressed surprise when a slight but athletic woman in her early thirties showed up at his office.[v]

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Stuart Holroyd, Gnosticism, & the Occult Wave (Part II)

Holroyd Elements

First and Only Edition of The Elements of Gnosticism

III. Holroyd’s case for Gnosticism remains nevertheless a measured one.  Unlike Pagels, Holroyd’s attitude is not, against Orthodoxy, an angry one.  In Elements, Chapter 1, in setting forth the common propositions of the numerous Gnostic systems, Holroyd remarks that “the idea that the world was the work of an incompetent or malevolent deity” figures among them.  He adds that, “stated thus baldly, it seems a merely perverse idea, or an attempt to exonerate human iniquity by putting the blame on God.”  He immediately tries to downplay the perversity by explaining that the Gnostic systems posit two deities: The inferior Demiurge who, envying the creative potency of the superior deity, authors the botched world; and that selfsame superior deity, sometimes referred to as the Father.  Holroyd notes that the “transcendent God does not, and never did, act, in the sense of willing something and bringing it about.”  Rather than create, as does the God of Genesis, the Father emanates the lower levels of the metacosmic hierarchy in which he dwells, whatever that means.  Thus, to think like the Gnostics, “we have to substitute the idea of divine emanation, or ‘bringing forth,’ for the idea of divine action.”  In Gnostic rhetoric, the Demiurge is the “abortion” of Sophia or Wisdom.  When the Demiurge came forth from Sophia, then, in Holroyd’s words, “he imagined himself to be the absolute God.”  Holroyd makes a good job of conveying to his readership the baroque complexity of the Gnostic myth, with its many levels of divine and demonic beings and its multi-stage causality that brings about the world as men know it.

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