Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Violent Bear it Away

I've just reread A Voyage to Arcturus. I first encountered it in college, I forget how. Perhaps I came across one of C. S. Lewis' remarks on it. I seem to recall Lewis being critical of Lindsay's style, and it certainly has its defects. The dialogue is poorly contrived; the sentences are stiff and awkward and occasionally silly; there are a great many applications of useless adjectives like "mystic" and "grand." But in my opinion the concrete imagery and plunging pace more than make up for this. It's an exhausting, compelling read, intellectually stimulating and possessed of a terrible, glittering beauty. One could scarcely imagine it lengthened. The spirit would be unable to endure it. It torments the reader like the disintegrating glow of Alppain.

When I first read Voyage I hadn't read Plato or Oscar Wilde. The parallels between the tasteless ostentation of the séance and aestheticism of Poolingdred and the deceits of Crystalman escaped me. It worked on me without my being aware of it, aided by my ignorance. Reading books is dangerous when one is ignorant. What seized most upon my imagination was the savage inversion by which the devil of Tormance turned out to be Surtur, the guardian of Muspel, while the god of the aesthetes was revealed as the sordid, bestial enemy of the spirit. It left its mark on me. Never mind what it all meant. Since then I've become conscious of a certain gnostic strain in my thinking and reacted against it. But that savage inversion remains with me.

As I said, I think I was introduced to Lindsay by Lewis. It's well known that Lewis owned a conscious debt to Voyage for its use of interplanetary adventure as a means of spiritual exploration. On the other hand, he disparaged the book's philosophy as a species of diabolism. That's interesting to me, for, if Lindsay was my Krag, then Lewis was my Crystalman. I was much taken with Lewis at the time, and there's no author I've reacted more violently against than he. He was my master, if you will; one can hardly repudiate such a one without coming to hate him. Perhaps that's putting it too strongly. But I speak of him as a writer, not as a man. I revolted against his religious views as being tepid, unreal, glibly self-regarding, and horribly flat, as though ineffable truth had been projected onto a tabletop. It runs through his fiction and nonfiction alike. Perhaps an illustration will suffice to explain what I mean.

As a boy I was morbidly obsessed with the afterlife. I feared annihilation, yes, but I feared eternity more; this caused me to hate my own existence. I could conceive of nothing but a gray and endless serial progression of days. Surely you would get bored eventually, I thought, and then you would have the rest of eternity in which to be bored. At no point could you even be said to have begun. "When we've been there ten thousand years" and all the rest. An unending nightmare. The doom of Tithonus.

I first read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was ten. I remained blissfully unaware of their religious "message," but the final volume of the series, The Last Battle, always made me unaccountably depressed. It ends with the entry of the main characters into the afterlife, which is revealed as a sequence of concentric Narnias, each larger and more real, more "Narnian," than the last. "Higher up and further in." Plato is even named by one of the characters. Well, to me, that seemed only to replace an arithmetic with a geometric progression. The rungs of the ladder get grander and grander, okay, but what if one tires of the way in which they get grander? In the end it's still just a gnostic ladder. It's the kind of heaven a Crystalman would dream up. The imprisonment of a mystery within a concept.

Lindsay, on the other hand…well, Lindsay, a gnostic himself, opposes the spiritual to the material, which I certainly do not. But at any rate, for all his grim insistence, he knew his limits and didn't exceed them; that cannot be said of all writers. I feel that Lindsay would have seen the lie in Lewis's conceptions, the hollowness of his apologetics. Tolkien apparently had a profound distaste for the Narnia books and privately objected to Lewis' religious writings; though of a different philosophical bent, perhaps Lindsay would have concurred for some of the same reasons. The brutal, impetuous Maskull will always be closer to Muspel than the sedentary and peace-loving votary of Shaping.

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