Saturday, June 24, 2017

Happy Flying Saucer Day!

Seventy years ago today, on June 24, 1947, the first flying saucers were seen near Mount Rainier in Washington State by private pilot Kenneth Arnold. That first sighting kicked off a worldwide phenomenon that continues to this day, even if it has diminished in recent decades. The flying saucer phenomenon is only one demonstration of how science fictional ideas have passed into the real world--and be assured, flying saucers come from science fiction and not from outer space. Raymond A. Palmer, editor of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures, an associate of Kenneth Arnold before the summer of 1947 was out, had a hand in that. In any case, I would like, on this seventieth anniversary, to wish everyone a Happy Flying Saucer Day! (And I would like to observe the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Frank Edwards, who died on June 23, 1967, in my home city of Indianapolis.)

A colorized picture from my coloring book Mothman, Aliens, & Flying Saucers. Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley.

Text and art copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Supernatural in Science

I don't want to overstate the idea that science fiction writers are progressives of the materialistic or atheistic type. To believe in earnest that human beings are nothing more than a soup of chemicals or bags of animated meat would seem to make art almost impossible, and any attempt at art by a person holding such a belief could hardly be received with any sympathy by readers. There has to be a ghost in the machine. Love, sadness, and all other human feelings must be treated as more than mere material forces if you expect anyone to read and like what you write. It seems to me that atheists must postulate the existence of a chemical soul: everything human beings feel might be real and valid at a chemical level; it simply lacks spirit. I also don't want to give the impression that writers of fantasy, weird fiction, etc., are deaf to the siren song of materialism, atheism, or Scientism. They obviously are not. But, again, how much heart can there be in the work of an author who believes in nothing? And who would read such a thing with any pleasure or hope of being uplifted or carried away, at least for a moment, from our quotidian existence?

Like I said, I'm reading To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History by Edmund Wilson (Doubleday Anchor, 1953). The book is an exploration of "the revolutionary tradition in Europe and the rise of socialism" (the blurb on the cover). Wilson expresses some admiration for Marx, specifically for the workings of his mind and Marx's written expression of his ideas. However, Wilson also points out weaknesses and flaws found therein. Here are long excerpts from a longer passage beginning on page 194:
The Dialectic then is a religious myth, disencumbered of divine personality and tied up with the history of mankind. "I hate all the gods," Marx had said in his youth; but he had also projected himself into the character of the resolute seaman who carried the authority of the gods in his breast and in one of his early Rheinische Zeitung articles on the freedom of the press, he declares that the writer must "in his way adopt the principles of the preacher of religion, adopt the principle, 'Obey God rather than man,' in relation to those human beings among whom he himself is confined by his human desires and needs." (1)
Karl Marx had identified his own will with the antithesis of the dialectical process. "The philosophers have only interpreted the world," he had written in his Theses on Feuerbach. "Our business is to change it." The will had always tended in German philosophy to play the role of a superhuman force; and this will had been salvaged by Marx and incorporated in Dialectical Materialism . . . .
For an active and purposeful man like Lenin it may be an added source of strength to have the conviction that history is with him, that he is certain of achieving his goal. The Dialectic so simplifies the whole picture: it seems to concentrate the complexities of society into an obvious protagonist and antagonist; it gives the confidence not only that the upshot of the struggle will certainly be successful, but that it will resolve all such struggles forever. . . . (2)
But conversion to the belief in a divine power does not have always an energizing effect. It was in vain that Marx tried to bar out Providence: "History does nothing," he had insisted in The Holy Family . . . . "History is nothing but the activity of man in pursuit of his ends." But as long as he keeps talking as if the proletariat were the chosen instrument of the Dialectic, as if victory were predetermined, (3) he does assume an extra-human power. . . . "History is the judge; its executioner, the proletarian" [Marx wrote]. There is then a higher tribunal for which the working class is only the hangman. There is a non-personal entity called "History" which accomplishes things on its own hook and which will make the human story come out right, no matter what you or your opponent may do. The doctrine of salvation by works, as the history of Christianity shows, is liable to pass all too readily into the doctrine of salvation by grace. All too naturally, by identifying himself with the antithesis of the Dialectic, that is, by professing a religious faith, the Marxist puts himself into the state of mind of a man going upstairs on an escalator. The Marxist Will, which once resolved to change the world, has been transformed into the invisible power which supplies the motive force to run the escalator . . . .
Karl Marx, with his rigorous morality and his international point of view, had tried to harness the primitive German Will to a movement which should lead all humanity to prosperity, happiness and freedom. But insofar as this movement involves, under the disguise of the Dialectic, a semi-divine principle of History, to which it is possible to shift the human responsibility for thinking, for deciding, for acting--and we are living at the present time [ca. 1940] in a period of decadence of Marxism--it lends itself to the repressions of the tyrant. The parent stream of the old German Will, which stayed at home and remained patriotic, became canalized as the philosophy of German imperialism and ultimately of the Nazi movement. Both the Russian and the German branches threw out all that had been good in Christianity along with all that had been bad. The demiurge of German idealism was never a God of love, nor did it recognize human imperfection: it did not recommend humility for oneself or charity towards one's fellows. Karl Marx, with his Old Testament sternness, did nothing to humanize its workings. He desired that humanity should be united and happy; but he put that off till the achievement of the synthesis, and for the present he did not believe in human brotherhood. He was closer than he could ever have imagined to that imperialistic Germany he detested. After all, the German Nazis, too--also, the agents of an historical mission--believe that humanity will be happy and united when it is all Aryan and all submissive to Hitler.
That's a lot to read, I know. The point is that even Karl Marx, a giant of materialism and a fierce atheist--"I hate all the gods," he wrote--seems to have believed in a non-material force, even a god, called "History" which guides human affairs. (We can all be readily forgiven if we profess our non-belief in this Marxist god.) And if Marx the materialist and atheist believed with a paradoxically religious intensity in a non-material force, what science fiction writer of the past or present can stand against him? I will restate my point: anyone who writes from the point of view of the strict materialist, atheist, or believer in Scientism will run up against limits. He will, in that case, have two options: first, to adhere to his faith and come away baffled by the non-material nature of human beings and human existence, or second, to give in and admit, however silently or implicitly, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy. The first choice is likely to result in the author's failure as an artist. The results of the second are less sure, but they may lead that author to some success as a human being.

(1) Note the arrogance: the writer--presumably Marx himself--does not live on earth as a human being. He is in fact "confined" here among human beings and is presumably a superior being of some kind or other. Wilson acknowledges as much a few pages later: "Instinctively Marx thinks of himself as being set above their [men's] world." (p. 209)
(2) This is the same language used by our most recent former president, the assertion that certain people and ideas are "on the wrong side of history"--that history is a force that cannot be directed away from inevitable and irreversible outcomes. I should point out here that Bill Maher, an outspoken atheist, recognizes that former president as one of his co-religionists. I'll trust Mr. Maher's judgment. If there's such a thing as gaydar among atheists, he is likely to possess it. I should also point out that the goal of Marxism is an ultimate and unchanging society: complete stasis where there can be no further revolution, just as in the assertion made by one of the characters in Zamyatin's We.
(3) We should remember here that Friedrich Engels, Marx's close associate and collaborator, was the son of a staunch Calvinist.

Original text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Shoals of Reality

I'm back after having been gone for four weeks. I would like to pick up again on some of what I previously wrote about in "Skilled Destroyers," from May 20, 2017. In that entry, I wrote about how the conservative genres of fantasy, weird fiction, etc., are likely to continue easily enough as time goes by, whereas the more progressive genre of science fiction may run into problems, if it hasn't already. My supposition is that conservatism--not contemporary political conservatism but an older, non-political or anti-political conservatism--is more in tune with reality than is the fantasy of progressivism. More plainly, conservatism apprehends that we are fallen in our nature, whereas progressivism holds to human perfectibility as not only a possibility but as a natural and inevitable outcome of the irresistible force of history.

As I have thought more about all of that, it occurs to me that science fiction, because of its progressivism, inevitably runs into its own limits. In the 1930s, as science fiction emerged from the primordial soup of the scientific romance, things looked bright. Fans and authors of science fiction had faith in what Donald A. Wollheim called "the Infinite Future." There may have been good reason for that kind of faith in the 1930s, but by the 1980s or so, it seems to have soured. There was no longer an infinite future. Instead the future had shrunk. It had seemingly become delimited.

One of the things that has always bothered me about science fiction is its lack of human characterization--the sense that these are real human beings represented as characters and not mere mechanical parts of a plot. That lack of humanness may not be a bug of the genre, though. It may be a feature, for if science fiction is a progressive genre, and progressivism is essentially materialistic, seeing the individual as merely fodder for history and the unstoppable march of society or the State towards perfection, then the characters in a science fiction story are not especially important. They certainly don't have souls, as the human soul is an absurdity in a universe--and a genre--strictly governed by science and reason. Science and reason are among the limits about which I write today.

No science fiction author of any recent decade is foolish or naïve enough to attempt a nakedly progressive and utopian work as Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy (1888), but it seems to me that every progressivist science fiction story is likely to wreck itself upon the shoals of reality as utopianism has wherever it has been attempted, in literature or in life. Utopia is an impossibility. It is literally nowhere. The idea of progress is delusional at best (except perhaps in the Christian sense). A belief in materialism, atheism, or Scientism is, I think, extremely unlikely to lead anyone to any far frontier. Each is a dead end--a narrowing gyre leading inescapably into the bottomless black hole of the self, the despairing, self-loathing, humanity-loathing self. I think that a mind bound by science and reason is also likely to be bound in its abilities to explore questions of human nature, the human soul, and the nature of the universe. The science fiction author who subscribes to materialism, atheism, and Scientism is far more likely to come away baffled by his encounter with important questions. It seems far more likely to me that only those who believe in something outside themselves--something infinite, eternal, and non-material--will reach out of themselves and into the universe. I am reminded of a poem:

High Flight
by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds,--and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of--wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air . . . . 

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew--
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

To continue, any science fiction story with progressivism at its core seems likely to me to run into the more conservative genres if it is to have any satisfying conclusion. And I mean that in both senses of the word, meaning, to run into as in a collision and as colors run, one into another. Instead of materialism and atheism, instead of science and reason, all of which are inadequate to the task, I think, there will be, in any successful genre story, an arrival at the non-material and the supernatural, the magical, the mystical, and the irrational. I think of Gateway by Frederik Pohl (1977), a great work of the science fiction imagination (by a left-leaning author, no less) that turns on its conclusion to an implicit longing by the robot psychiatrist (literally, a materialist physician--see below) for a human soul. I think also of Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984), a science fiction novel--far less satisfying in my opinion than Gateway--best described I think as Gothic in its themes, mood, and imagery. (Neuromancer New Romancer, hence a return to the romantic origins of science fiction).

So is it the fate of every successful science fiction story to confront the reality of the human soul, of the persistence of mystery, and of the ultimate non-material nature of human existence? Does every successful science fiction story ultimately enter the realm of the more conservative form of the romance and the more conservative genres of fantasy, weird fiction, etc.? I guess that's what I'm saying. But does the evidence bear it out? Or has there been any successful and satisfying strictly materialist science fiction?

* * *

As a background to some what I have written here, I have some quotes from the book To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History by Edmund Wilson (Doubleday Anchor, 1953). I have this book from my aunt's house, from her estate which we have finally settled. The book sat on the floor of an upstairs bedroom of that Gothic house--Gothic in its atmosphere and in its decay--for years after thieves plundered it for everything of monetary value. (Thieves don't steal books.) I began reading it this week after returning here.

Early in his life, Karl Marx, that prize numbskull of the nineteenth century, wrote poetry. Edmund Wilson writes about the subjects of some of these poems:
There are doctors, damned Philistines, who think the world is a bag of bones, whose psychology is confined to the notion that our dreams are due to noodles and dumplings, whose metaphysics consists of the belief that if it were possible to locate the soul, a pill would quite easily expel it. (p. 114)
Marx's poems are a critique of medical doctors, but if doctors are materialists who believe they can treat the diseases and afflictions of the human soul with their potions, was not Marx equally a materialist? We can see the descent of the materialist physician in literature and life, from Marx's time to our own: the nihilist Bazarov in Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (1862); the technicians in We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924) who excise human "fancy," hence unhappiness, by performing an operation on men's brains; Doctor Stravinsky from The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1967), who reduces everything to a material explanation and joyfully goes about his work; Doctor George Hill Hodel, Jr., almost certainly a psychopath and possibly the Black Dahlia Murderer; and on and on. We are now in what is called a crisis of opioid addiction in this country. What else is the use of opioids--or any other drug for that matter--but a searching for a material solution to a non-material, i.e., spiritual, problem? Is not every person with an addiction merely a materialist physician prescribing for himself drugs in an attempt to treat his spiritual disquiet? Wouldn't it be easier to accept the non-material nature of our existence as a fact? I suppose not.

Next, in discussing Hegel, Wilson writes:
Hegel had held that society, "the State," was the realization of absolute reason, to which the individual must subordinate himself. He afterwards said that what he had meant was the perfect state . . . . (p. 120)
The emphasis is in the original, but if it hadn't been, I would have put it there, for what else is the perfect state but Utopia, the dream of progressivism in all of its forms, even today? Again, if you're looking for perfection, look for where it is rather than where it cannot be. (Is Hegel, then, the systematizer and theorizer of the leftist/socialist/statist program that has resulted in so much poverty, misery, and murder?)

Finally, Wilson mentions the French socialist Alexandre Théodore Dézamy (1808-1850) who "projected a somewhat new kind of community, based on materialism, atheism and science." (p. 145) Does that sound familiar? It does to me. We have the desire for the same kind of "community" today, perhaps in our science fiction, certainly in one of our major political parties. Subscribers to that party say conservative ideas are of no use because of their formulation (actually, discovery rather than formulation) by a bunch of dead white European men. Where do progressives think their ideas came from? A bunch of dead white European men wrote them down in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but don't they actually date from the first fall of man?

Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Reading the Pulps

Sunday, May 14

This afternoon, I finished re-reading Saul Bellow's first novel, Dangling Man, published in 1944. In its imagery of the twentieth-century American city and of life in that city, it makes me think of the stories of Fritz Leiber, Jr., for example, "Smoke Ghost" (1941), "The Hound" (Weird Tales, Nov. 1942), and "The Dreams of Albert Moreland" (1945). It also makes me think of another first novel, Hanger Stout, Awake! by Jack Matthews (1967), in its form (a series of journal entries), in one of its themes (a young man waiting to go into the army), and in the imagery of its title (dangling vs. hanging). The story in Dangling Man, such as it is, is of a man named Joseph, last name unknown (like Josef K. from Kafka's earlier novel The Trial). Dangling as he is between a kind of freedom in civilian life and regimentation in the military, Joseph spends his time reading the paper, walking from place to place, and talking--too often arguing and fighting--with his wife, his family, and his friends. He likes the comics and sometimes reads them twice in the same daily. He makes note of a lower form of art and literature, as well:

January 13
A DARK, burdensome day. I stormed up from sleep this morning, not knowing what to do first. . . . I fell back into bed and spent an hour or so collecting myself . . . . Then I rose. There were low clouds; the windows streamed. The surrounding roofs--green, raw red blackened brass--shone like potlids in a darkened kitchen.
          At eleven I had a haircut. I went as far as Sixty-third Street for lunch and ate at a white counter amid smells of frying fish, looking out on the iron piers in the street and the huge paving bricks like the plates of the boiler-room floor in a huge liner. Above the restaurant, on the other corner, a hamburger with arms and legs balanced on a fiery wire, leaned toward a jar of mustard. . . . I wandered through a ten-cent store, examining the comic valentines . . . . Next I was drawn into a shooting gallery . . . . Back in the street, I warmed myself at a salamander flaming in an oil drum near a newsstand with its wall of magazines erected under the shelter of the El. Scenes of love and horror. . . . (Meridian Books, 1960, p. 107)
In its description of a world so remote and alien from our own, this and other passages from Dangling Man are like something from science fiction, something that no longer exists, drawn from what is for us a fantasy approaching that of Coruscant in its galaxy far, far away, or an urbanized Mars of the future as in Total Recall.

The events in Dangling Man take place between December 1942 and April (the cruelest month) 1943. Joseph's entry quoted above, then, is for January 13, 1943. The magazines that Bellow's diarist might have seen on that newsstand under the El would probably have been dated February or March, but for the snapshot below of a month in the history of science fiction, fantasy, and horror pulps, I'll choose the month of January 1943. As you can see, a couple show the imagery of war. The rest might easily have come from a time of peace.

War looms over Dangling Man as it does over the January 1943 issue and cover of Weird Tales. Art by A.R. Tilburne.

War, too, on the cover of Amazing Stories. Art by J. Allen St. John.

Art by William Timmins.

Artist unknown.

Art by Robert Gibson Jones.

Art by Rudolph Belarski.

Artist unknown.

Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Long Time Ago . . .

(I wrote this article for my blog Indiana Illustrators and Hoosier Cartoonists and have posted it here for today's anniversary.)

Today's entry is eccentric. In its spinning and turning, it will catch a renowned artist, poet, and critic; a pop singer who cast herself as a witch; an actress who played a princess; two worldwide pop-cultural phenomena; a song about dreams; and the dreams themselves of countless young people--dreams of quest and conflict and a chance at becoming a hero in a battle that never ends. Among those who dream and who have dreamed were four boys who, on a day forty years ago, sat in a darkened theater in Indianapolis, eagerly awaiting the start of a movie that would prove unlike any before it, even if it was drawn from tales as old as storytelling. My older brother had seen the movie before. My younger brother, his friend Tom, and I had not, but we were excited in a way that only children can be excited to see a movie about which we had heard so much. Not long before that day at the Eastwood--a theater now laid low by the passage of time--the movie had opened across the country and had almost instantly become a sensation beyond any moviegoing experience before it. Nothing before and nothing after--not even Jaws from two summers before--would match what it became in the year and more following its release. It has since grown into a franchise, moreover, a worldwide phenomenon. The movie was of course Star Wars. It came out forty years ago today, on May 25, 1977.

Strange details stick in your head. I remember that as we waited to see Star Wars, a song played in the theater. (Those were the days before commercials were shown before the movie begins.) The song was "Dreams," by Fleetwood Mac, from the album Rumours. I didn't know it at the time, but Rumours was released on February 4, 1977, not long before Star Wars came out. It was a sensation, too, and became one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. "Dreams" reached number one on the pop-music charts on June 18, 1977, probably around the time the four of us went to see Star Wars. (Our seeing it was an early birthday present from my parents to my younger brother.) Another thing I probably didn't know at the time: "Dreams" was sung by Stevie Nicks.

Now comes the strange part--strange, then somewhat plausible, at least in my view. The heroine of Star Wars was of course Princess Leia, played by Carrie Fisher, who was only nineteen years old when filming began on Star Wars in March 1976--nineteen and completely convincing not only as a princess but also as an interstellar senator. Although she had been in movies before, Carrie Fisher became a household name with Star Wars. Millions mourned her death this past year. She was loved as few people in popular culture are truly loved. Stevie Nicks is also loved that way, by millions the world over. She who sang "Dreams" for us has, strangely enough, been named as a possible replacement for Carrie Fisher. This isn't just some lone fanboy's dream: it's actually a thing on the Internet. As soon as I heard about it, I thought That might actually work. Whereas some people seem to be saying that Stevie Nicks should just be a stand-in or a body double for Carrie Fisher, I think she could actually be Princess Leia. No one I can think of could fill the role, but Stevie is loved like Carrie was loved, and she has a similar stature, not just physically but also in pop-cultural terms. The pop culture of the 1970s is falling into pieces with age as all things do--sadly, neither Linda Ronstadt nor Steve Perry can sing anymore--but if you want to hold it up for at least a little longer, I say Why not? If she can act and if the deal can be swung, why shouldn't we have someone new in Stevie Nicks to play the forty-year-old part of Princess Leia? I realize that it's only a fantasy--a dream--to think that way, but what else is all of this but a dream and a fantasy?

So what does any of this have to do with Indiana and its artists? Well, as any Star Wars fan ought to know, Ralph McQuarrie (1929-2012), the conceptual artist behind the film and the franchise, was born in Gary, Indiana. He worked with director and screenwriter George Lucas as early as the spring of 1975, two years before the movie was released. He would go on to work on other films in the series. I would like to go beyond Ralph McQuarrie, though, and write about another Indiana artist who had nothing (or almost nothing) to do with Star Wars but by the turns of an eccentric idea can be caught in a discussion of the movie and its related phenomena.

A painting by Indiana illustrator Ralph McQuarrie for The Empire Strikes Back (1980). 

Kenneth Rexroth was born on December 22, 1905, in South Bend, Indiana. A home-schooled prodigy, then a teenaged orphan, he moved to Chicago to live with his aunt around 1919 or so. Although he is now known as a poet and critic, Rexroth studied at the Art Institute of Chicago in his youth. I would be surprised to find that any of his artwork survives. On the other hand, maybe there are drawings by Kenneth Rexroth hiding among his papers, wherever they might be housed.

Rexroth had a varied career as a traveler, friend, husband, lover, critic, essayist, poet, author, translator, activist, and associate of many famous people, including Beat Poets and other literary figures in San Francisco. You can read about him on the Internet and in those ancient artifacts known as "books." I'll note only that Kenneth Rexroth died in Santa Barbara, California, on June 6, 1982, at age seventy-six.

"Dorothy," a portrait by Andrée Dutcher (1902-1940), first wife of Kenneth Rexroth. 

Now comes a part about which I'm not sure, followed by some thoughts that I hope will stand on their own, even if I'm wrong about this connection to Kenneth Rexroth. And here is that connection, if it really is a connection: a long time ago, I read that there are only two kinds of stories, namely, the Iliad and the Odyssey. I think the quote was attributed to Kenneth Rexroth, but I can't be sure. As happens too often, when you lose a quote, it's hard to find again, even in this age of the Internet. But I have kept that thought in my head and have applied it to the analysis of books and movies over the years. It seems to hold up pretty well. Boiled down even further, the idea is that every story is either of a conflict--the Iliad--or of a quest or journey--the Odyssey. I would like to look into that idea in relation to two high-powered, pop-cultural franchises.

The cover (altered, I believe) of Poetry Readings in the Cellar (Fantasy, 1958), a spoken-word record with Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I wrote that there is no connection between Rexroth and Star Wars. Well, that's if you stop too soon. If you don't stop too soon, you'll learn that Lawrence Ferlinghetti (b. 1919) was friends with Erik Bauersfeld (1922-2016), voice of Admiral Ackbar and Bib Fortuna in the Star Wars movies.

Before Star Wars, there was Star Trek. Since the former came out in 1977, the two have lived side by side. One is fantasy. It appeals or is meant to appeal especially to children. The other is science fiction, though not always of the highest order. It appeals to children but also to adults, as the best entertainment of the 1960s and '70s did. I'm sure there is some overlap in the fandom associated with each, but the stereotype is that there are just two kinds of people: Star Wars fans and Star Trek fans. I'm not sure what these fans think of each other. If you fall back on stereotypes, you might say that Star Wars fans think that Star Trek is boring and that Star Trek fans think Star Wars is childish and one-dimensional. But those are stereotypes. Anyway, consider their titles: Star Wars. Star Trek. Take away the word Star and you're left with what? Wars--a conflict, the story told in the Iliad. Trek--a quest or journey, the story told in the Odyssey. There are wars in Star Trek and quests in Star Wars, but each is essentially of its own type. (With that in mind, might Princess Leia be Helen of Troy, with the Millennium Falcon as the Trojan Horse and the Death Star as the fortress city of Troy itself?) 

So just by their titles, these two franchises bear out the idea I have attributed here to Kenneth Rexroth. If there are only two kinds of stories, each must cover a lot of ground. The possibilities for storytelling would seem vast. However, there are limits in each. War eventually ceases. The journey finally reaches its end. Wars and journeys without end can only mean misery and despair. So what does that mean for a pop-cultural franchise? I saw part of the results in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). The moviemakers seem to have been recreating Star Wars for a new generation. That's fine. Star Wars is after all a story for children. Why shouldn't children now have the same chance we had--we four and millions more like us--in 1977 for an exciting fantasy of rushing from one star system to another towards a climactic battle against an evil empire?

But there's a crack in the Star Wars story. I say it as a fan, but there's a crack, for iStar Wars, there must always be an Empire and there must always be a Rebellion. The Empire can never at last be defeated, and the Rebellion must always be the underdog, even when it attains power. The Star Wars universe is vast and the possibilities for storytelling are theoretically endless, but the main action in every movie is the same: Imperial forces against Rebels, Sith against Jedi, the Dark Side against the Force. Without that conflict, Star Wars may well amount to nothing. So the war goes on, movie after movie, decade after decade, all with variations on a simple theme: the Empire or its equivalent always builds a big, impenetrable fortress and the Rebels or their equivalents always penetrate it and destroy it, often with what is seemingly the most powerful weapon in the universe, the X-wing fighter. Maybe Star Wars: The Force Awakens recapitulated the original trilogy not so much for a new generation of moviegoers but because it's the only story that can be told in the Star Wars universe. An entire universe and only one story to tell. And maybe Darth Vader returned in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) because of a further limitation: maybe only he makes a truly compelling villain and a suitable embodiment of the spirit of the Empire. One thing is for sure: he beats the heck out of his weak little tantrum-throwing emo grandson.

In Star Trek, on the other hand, there are always new horizons of outer space where no man has gone before. Storytelling in the Star Trek universe is far less limited than in the Star Wars universe if only because it isn't framed and delineated by war, which has, significantly, a classic narrative structure. There is always a Federation and the starships of the Federation, but beyond that, only the writer's imagination places bounds upon what stories might be told. Star Trek, as Kenneth Rexroth wrote of the Odyssey, "is a collection of adventures, of little melodramas." There are limitations even here, though. One is that in the Star Trek universe, there isn't the classic narrative structure as in a story of war. The story just goes on and on, with all parts being equal to all other parts. There isn't any growth or development in the characters. They simply live out their lives in stasis, returned at the beginning of each episode to where they were at the beginning of the last episode, despite anything that might have happened in between. Captain Kirk might have great adventures, but he doesn't grow. Luke Skywalker, on the other hand, might grow (in addition to being a story of conflict, Star Wars can be considered a Bildungsroman), but he can never have peace in a universe that must always be at war. Maybe that explains his retreat to a monastery on top of a rocky island off the coast of Ireland where he will forever look at Rey and she will forever hold out to him his lightsaber. At least it seemed like forever at the movie theater.

So which limitation is worse? I can't say. A better way might be to look at possibilities rather than limitations. Star Wars and Star Trek have both told great stories. When they have not told great stories, it hasn't been because of the limitations of their respective types. And I would say that neither franchise has reached the bounds of possibility. There are still more stories to tell, and it's nice to think that forty years from now there will still be excited children waiting in the dark, waiting for the words Space: the final frontier . . . or A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . .

Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley
Happy 60th Wedding Anniversary to My Parents!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Skilled Destroyers

It becomes more and more plain to me that genre fiction in America is descended mostly from conservative writers--not conservative in the contemporary political sense, but in an older, non-political or even anti-political sense. One exception among the various genres might be science fiction, which tends to be, in its purest or original forms, progressive, forward-looking, and optimistic. But then you could make a case that Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) was a founder of science fiction in America (maybe the founder), and Poe was no liberal or progressive.

In reading Poe and reading about Poe recently, I came across the following quote again, from Conservatism: From John Adams to Churchill by Peter Viereck (D. Van Nostrand Company, 1956, pp. 102-103):
Cultural Conservatives: Melville, Hawthorne. But, although a narrowly political conservatism in America may today require such a business élite [discussed in the previous section], conservatism need not be political at all. Instead, its characteristic American form may be a lonely soul-searching by American artists to transcend what Melville called "the impieties of progress." (1) Many of America's greatest literary figures have been cultural conservatives in their anti-optimism, their qualms about external reforms--for example, James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), Herman Melville (1819-1891), Henry James (1843-1916), [and] William Faulkner (1897-    ). Hyatt Waggoner's Hawthorne, 1955, represents the latest research of those scholars who see the real American cultural tradition as a conservative "tragic sense," affirming Original Sin and rejecting liberal illusions about progress and human nature. These liberal illusions, concludes Waggoner, "were useless for any artist who would not wilfully [sic] blind himself to the existence of tragedy. . . . The 'evolutionary optimism' of . . . nineteenth-century liberalism was affronted by anyone who concerned himself with the 'deeper psychology.'" [. . . .] The ideal inspiring America's cultural conservatives has been best expressed by a little-known quatrain of Melville:
.                    "Not magnitude, not lavishness,
                     But Form--the site;
                     Not innovating wilfulness, 
                     But reverence for the Archetype." (2)

My own notes:
(1) The quote is from Melville's epic Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), from Canto 21, "Ungar and Rolfe." In its original, the phrase is:
The impieties of "Progress" . . .
(2) That quatrain is the poem "Greek Architecture" in its entirety.

If you read a little more of "Ungar and Rolfe," you will find the following lines of dialogue. Ungar, a Catholic and a believer, speaks first. He is questioned by the more skeptical Rolfe, who is Protestant:

"True heart do ye bear

In this discussion? or but trim
To draw my monomania out,
For monomania, past doubt,
Some of ye deem it. Yet I'll on.
Yours seems a reasonable tone;
But in the New World things make haste:
Not only men, the state lives fast--
Fast breeds the pregnant eggs and shells,
The slumberous combustibles
Sure to explode. 'Twill come, 'twill come!
One demagogue can trouble much:
How of a hundred thousand such?
And universal suffrage lent
To back them with brute element
Overwhelming? What shall bind these seas
Of rival sharp communities
Unchristianized? Yea, but 'twill come!"
"What come? "
"Your Thirty Years (of) War."
"Should fortune's favorable star
Avert it?"
"Fortune? nay, 'tis doom."
"Then what comes after? spasms but tend
Ever, at last, to quiet."
Whatever happen in the end,
Be sure 'twill yield to one and all
New confirmation of the fall
Of Adam. Sequel may ensue,
Indeed, whose germs one now may view:
Myriads playing pygmy parts--
Debased into equality:
In glut of all material arts
A civic barbarism may be:
Man disennobled--brutalized
By popular science--Atheized
Into a smatterer--"
"Oh, oh!"
"Yet knowing all self need to know
In self's base little fallacy;
Dead level of rank commonplace:
An Anglo-Saxon China, see,
May on your vast plains shame the race
In the Dark Ages of Democracy."

I have written before--or maybe I have just passed on the observation--that conservatives, though their eyes be directed on the past, are far better at predictions and prognostications than are liberals with their "illusions about progress and human nature." (See what happens when you read classic literature? You start using the subjunctive mood.) Look what Melville foresaw and look what we have now as night falls on the Dark Ages of Democracy: A fast-breeding state . . . a hundred thousand demagogues leading rival sharp communities . . . a civic barbarism of men, myriads of them playing their pygmy parts, all existing at a dead level of rank commonplace . . . unchristianized, disennobled, brutalized by popular science, atheized, debased into equality, yet each knowing all the self need know in self's base little fallacy. And though we don't yet have war, there are at least rumors of war among us. And all of it new confirmation of the fall of Adam, as if we needed any further evidence that we are indeed fallen.

In reading further in Viereck's book, I came on a section on George Santayana (1863-1952) and liberalism:

In Dominations and Powers, 1951, Santayana pointed out the paradoxical consequences of idealistic nineteenth-century liberalism: it either ended in twentieth-century anarchy or, to avoid anarchy, imposed its will on an unliberal world. But by imposing its will, it ceased to be liberal, became despotic. Because of these equally deadly alternatives, Santayana pronounced the history of liberalism "virtually closed." (p. 105)
I have written before, too, about these two alternatives, anarchy (or chaos, or, alternatively, apocalypse) and despotism (or tyranny, or, alternatively, dystopia). In drawing further distinctions, I think you could say that anarchy and despotism are real-world conditions, while apocalypse and dystopia are more nearly fantasies. And because they are fantasies of the future, apocalypse and dystopia can be considered science fiction, and it is within that genre that stories of this kind ordinarily reside.

It occurs to me now that both apocalypse and dystopia are outgrowths of a Christian worldview. Apocalypse is of course another name for the biblical Book of Revelation, which describes, by some interpretations, Christian end times. That's easy enough. Dystopia is a little tougher, but once you realize that Utopia is Dystopia, and that Utopia is simply either a Heaven or a Garden of Eden on Earth (both are called Paradise), then you can see that Dystopia is just another variation on what seems to me a Christian notion that time is an arrow rather than a circle and that it is flying fast and straight, inexorably towards the Millennium. In other words, history is a chronicle of progress, with the benighted pre-Christian era in the past and a glorious Millennial future awaiting us. Science fiction may be an outgrowth of a secular age of reason, but would it have been possible without the Christian concept of progress and of a looking forward to a glorious (and earthly) future?

* * *

I know I have written a lot here, but I can't pass up the opportunity to quote George Santayana at length. Again, from Conservatism, pp. 183-184, originally in Dominations and Powers (1951):
The hope of a profound peace was one of the chief motives in the liberal movement. The traditional order, which was pregnant with all sorts of wars, civil, foreign, religious, and domestic, was to be relaxed precisely for the sake of peace. . . . When we have conceded everything that anybody clamors for, everyone will be satisfied. . . . Swimming in the holiday pond of a universal tolerance, we may confidently call our souls our own. . . . So, all grievances being righted and everyone quite free, we hoped in the nineteenth century to remain for ever in unchallengeable enjoyment of our private property, our private religions, and our private morals.
But there was a canker in this rose. The dearest friend and ally of the liberal was the reformer; perhaps even in his own inmost self was a prepotent Will, not by any means content with being let alone, but aspiring to dominate everything. Why were all those traditional constraints so irksome? Why were all those old ideas so ridiculous? Because I had a Will of my own to satisfy and an opinion of my own to proclaim. Relaxing the order of society, so as to allow me to live, is by no means enough, if the old absurdities and the old institutions continue to flourish. . . . No pond is large enough for this celestial swan . . . no scurry into backwaters will save the ducks and geese from annihilation. How should I live safe or happy in the midst of such creatures? . . . [Hence] the price of peace, as men are actually constituted, is the suppression of almost all liberties. The history of liberalism, now virtually closed, illustrates this paradox.
Again, a conservative writer and thinker foresaw the future, the future in which we now live, and one in which the liberal reformer, possessed of a "prepotent will," seeks not only to live free from traditional constraints but also to destroy traditional order and traditional institutions because he finds their continued existence so intolerable. There is peace in Dystopia and no freedom.
If Santayana was wrong about anything in the quote above, it may be that the history of liberalism is not yet closed. We see that every day, every time one among Melville's myriads playing his pygmy part throws a rock through the window of a person whose rights or property he covets . . . shoots pepper spray into the eyes of the woman who opposes his ideas . . . sets fire to a car or building at a protest against violence and hatred . . . silences by force the speaker with whom he disagrees . . . requires someone to labor for him under threat of legal penalty . . . revolts at any perceived contraction of the power of the State . . . and on and on. I suspect that the history of liberalism may never be closed, as liberalism as a state of mind is just one more bit of confirmation of the fall of Adam. If we exist in a fallen state, then we will continue to aspire to godhood and to order the universe in accordance with our own dark whims and desires. There will always be within each of us a skilled destroyer and a ruthless tyrant.

So that brings me back to Poe as a founder of genres of fiction. (I just finished reading The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which is, in its final sequences, first, a story of Lost Worlds, then, a strange and mysterious dream-vision or apocalyptic fantasy.) If conservatism is in some apprehension of the truth about human nature, then the genres of fiction that tend towards a conservative worldview--weird fiction, supernatural fiction, horror, fantasy, historical fiction, romance--will go on easily enough. And if conservatism is right about the liberalism which rages against it, then the more liberal or progressive genres--namely, science fiction--will continue to struggle. You might consider the success or un-success of various genres to be a test of this hypothesis.

One alternative to a struggling science fiction is for there to be conservative version of the genre, a seeming contradiction, but not out of the question. There has been conservative science fiction before, and I imagine there is still some now, as well. Two examples from past and present are the very sub-genres about which I have written here, that is, apocalypse (or post-apocalypse) and dystopia. Both seem to be doing fine, and because the contemporary liberal or progressive in America has broken the mirror in which he might view himself, the latter--stories of dystopia--seem to be flourishing. Never mind that they tend to be descriptions of liberal rather than conservative excess, just as George Santayana implicitly predicted. The liberal or progressive reader likes them just the same and seems blissful to read them in his ignorance.
A picture illustrating the very last strange and mysterious words in the main action of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe (1838). Illustration by the British artist Arthur David McCormick (1860-1943).
 Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Earl Pierce, Jr. (1910-1982)

Earl Monroe Pierce, Jr.
Aka Earl Pierce; Earl Peirce, Jr.; Earl Peirce
Born June 7, 1910, San Francisco County, California
Died March 14, 1982, Alameda County, California

Earl Pierce is a fairly common name. Locating him might not be easy, but I think I have the right Earl Pierce for this article. I base this on the fact that the Earl Pierce, Jr., in question here lived, like his collaborator Bruce Bryan (1906-2004), in Washington, D.C., as did Everil Worrell (1893-1969). All wrote for Weird Tales and all apparently knew each other and associated with each other in the nation's capital. Seabury Quinn was also in their group. With that in mind, I'll offer a very brief biography of the Earl Pierce, Jr., I have found with the assumption that he wrote for Weird Tales.

His name was Earl Pierce, Jr. I can say that with almost certainty, as I don't believe Peirce is at all a correct spelling. I wonder now if Pierce misspelled his own name to distance himself in some way from his family or his past. If I have the right Earl, and he was born in San Francisco, then Washington, D.C., is about as far as he could have gone from home while remaining in the United States. That's mere speculation. More likely, the misspelling of his name is a simple typographical error. The Earl Pierce, Jr., I have was Earl Monroe Pierce, Jr., born on June 7, 1910, in San Francisco County, California, to Earl Pierce, Sr., an interior decorator and furniture salesman, and Lizinette (Hoyle) Pierce. Earl Pierce, Jr., had one younger sister as far as I can tell.

In 1920, the Pierce family was in San Francisco. Earl, Jr., presumably graduated from Berkeley High School in 1928. In what would have been his senior year, or shortly after his graduation, he got his name in the papers by having a loud party at his parents' house, complete with wine, women, and song. That was in September 1928. In 1930, Pierce was still living in Berkeley with his family and working as a typist for a railway company. By 1940, he was on the other end of the continent, in Washington, D.C., and employed as the manager of an apartment building. Half of those years, 1935 to 1941, more or less coincided with his career as a fan and author of weird fiction and other popular stories. He had ten stories and three letters in the pulp magazines of the time. Seven of those stories and all of the letters were in Weird Tales. And then he fell silent. In later years, Earl Pierce, Jr., lived in the area of San Francisco and Oakland. He died on March 14, 1982, in Alameda County, California, at age seventy-one. With him died all of the hopes, dreams, and pleasures of his youth. His successes--his ten stories--remain for us to read today where we can find them.

Earl Pierce, Junior's Stories in Weird Fiction Magazines
"Doom of the House of Duryea" in Weird Tales (Oct. 1936)
"The Last Archer" in Weird Tales (Mar. 1937; reprinted in Startling Mystery Stories, Summer 1968)
"The Death Mask" in Weird Tales (Apr. 1937)
"The Homicidal Diary" in Weird Tales (Oct. 1937)
"The White Rat," with Bruce Bryan, in Weird Tales (Sept. 1938) 
"Satan Fills the Morgue" in Strange Detective Mysteries (Nov./Dec. 1938)
"The Stroke of Twelve" in Weird Tales (June/July 1939)
"Portrait of a Bride" in Weird Tales (Jan. 1940)
"Legacy of the Dead" in Terror Tales (July 1940) 
"The Shadow of Nirvana" in Strange Stories (Feb. 1941)

Letters to "The Eyrie"
Nov. 1935
Nov. 1936
July 1937, from Earl Peirce, Jr.

Earl Pierce, Jr., from the Berkeley High School yearbook, 1927.

Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley