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 √©lite [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


  1. Excellent post!

    I had not heard of the Melville poem before. The excerpt strikes me as sort of an American version of Kipling's "The Gods of the Copybook Headings".

    There are certainly modern weird fiction writers, Mark Samuels comes to mind, who have an anti-modernistic bent.

    I wonder if attempting to construct a plausible future society, the ostensible end of much science fiction, constricts the presence of conservative works. Perhaps the author, unless they are going for political satire or apocalypticism, simply assumes modern trends will continue or, at least, will not reverse. A few exceptions occur, but I think that's the trend. There is a self-conscious effort around the publisher Castalia House to reverse that trend.

    The embedded conservative view, not expressing itself as didacticism or attempts at "social relevance", would seem to lead to a longer shelf life pace Edgar Rice Burroughs. Reformist, polemic science fiction usually gets its life shortened because "relevance" and didacticism (whether attempting to convey the author's notion of political or scientific education) is a fast moving target.

    Recently, I've seen conservative commentator Mark Steyn lament that political conservatives have abandoned attempts to influence culture. Perhaps the fantastic genres will provide a re-entry for them. Though one complaint I have about mainstream political conservatism is that it often, likes its ideological opposition, doesn't appreciate that life is tradeoffs. There are no utopian solutions, not in tax or fiscal policies or anything, in life. Some want will go unsatisfied.

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  2. Randy,

    Thank you. I hadn't read Melville's poem either before coming across the quote in Viereck's Conservatism. It's a really amazing bit of prediction (although I don't think "prediction" is the right word for these visions conservative writers have of the future). I found and read the Kipling poem you recommended. It can seemingly go in the same category of conservative visions of the future (or present).

    To restate my thoughts, I expect writers of weird fiction and fantasy to have a conservative, though not necessarily anti-modern, sensibility. Science fiction would seem a more comfortable genre for the liberal or progressive writer. However, I can also see possibilities for conservative writers of science fiction. Stories of apocalypse, post-apocalypse, and dystopia are only the most obvious of those possibilities, but conservative values I think easily carry through stories of exploration, space travel, war and conflict, etc. The quip that came to me is that liberals/progressives are unlikely to blaze a trail into outer space because they'll be too busy arguing what color their square wheels should be (a reference to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy).

    The durability of ERB's stories, which are fantasy more than science fiction, would seem evidence in favor of my hypothesis that the more conservative genres have what you call "a longer shelf life" than the more liberal/progressive genres.

    If conservatives "have abandoned attempts to influence culture," that may not have been a recent development. See Viereck's reference to conservatism as "lonely soul-searching by American artists," above. One of the reasons contemporary conservatives have given up on influencing culture is that they, like conservatives in so many spheres, are savaged by the opposition when they speak out. On the other hand, conservative authors (Cormac McCarthy), moviemakers (Clint Eastwood), singers (just about anybody with a twang), and others are still influential, while liberal/progressive artists and projects continue to fail. Many of them make the most painful of pratfalls. Beyond that, conservatism, which, by definition, conserves traditions and customs, still functions in culture. I can't think of any better examples than classical music and opera. I wouldn't be too pessimistic about these things.

    Thanks for writing.