Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Fire or Ice?

In writing this blog, I am working with the idea that weird fiction and fantasy are genres about the past, while science fiction is a genre about the future. Weird fiction and fantasy are, I think, essentially romantic, also essentially conservative and backward-looking. They are descended in a large part from the Gothic romance, an eighteenth-century genre and a reaction to eighteenth-century reason and rationality. They tend to be about guilt, loss, transgression, moral or physical decay, and a falling away from some previous higher state. At their extreme, they are about extreme decadence, chaos, and catastrophe. The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Strange Eons by Robert Bloch are examples.

Science fiction, on the other hand, is essentially reasoned, rational, forward-looking, and progressive. Though also descended in part from the romance--the genre was called "scientific romance" in its early stages--science fiction pretty well broke with the romantic, Gothic, or non-rational past during the twentieth century. Even when it is set in the past or present, science fiction tends to be about the future--about progress and the limitless benefits of ever-advancing science and technology. At its extreme, it is about Dystopia, apocalypse, or dissolution. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell and On the Beach by Nevil Shute are examples.

At one time, there wasn't much of a difference between weird fiction or fantasy and science fiction. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" by Edgar Allan Poe are both Gothic and scientific--or at least protoscientific--in their mood and subject matter. Both came before real-world science was fully developed, however, before the seemingly irreconcilable split between the romantic and the rational occurred. Now, though, there seems to be a synthesis taking place, and it seems to have been going on since at least the early 1980s, about the time, by no coincidence, that science fiction began dying once again as it had done before. That development brings up questions. For example, can the extremes of weird fiction or fantasy lead to the extremes of science fiction? Is it possible for the world to be both decadent and progressive? Can a society be both wildly irrational and thoroughly well ordered? In other words, is a Gothic Dystopia possible?

* * *

On January 7, 2015, the same day that Islamic terrorists murdered the staff of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the publishing house Flammarion, also of Paris, issued Soumission, a novel by Michel Houellebecq. Soumission is set in the future, the near future to be sure, but the future nonetheless. I believe that makes it a work of science fiction. A year ago this week, Mark Lilla wrote about Soumission in The New York Review of Books. His review is entitled "Slouching Towards Mecca," and it is dated April 2, 2015. You can read it by clicking here. The review is lengthy but rich and readable. I can't say anything more about the book than what Mr. Lilla has said, as I have not read it.

The protagonist of Soumission is named François, and he is a professor of literature at the Sorbonne. In the year 2022, a Muslim political party, aligned with the Socialist party so that the Socialists can thwart the so-called right-wing party, comes to power in France. By turns, the nation is Islamicized, not by violence but by--what else--submission. By Mr. Lilla's description, there is little or no resistance, in fact no will to resist, including and especially in François. There are rumors of fighting between French nationalists and Islamists, but, in Mr. Lilla's words, "newspapers worried about rocking the multicultural boat have ceased reporting such things. At a cocktail party he [François] hears gunfire in the distance, but people pretend not to notice and find excuses to leave, so he does too." I am reminded of the restaurant scene in Brazil--and of our current President, who this week censored the comments of his French--yes, French--counterpart regarding Islamist terrorism.

Mark Lilla describes the protagonist of Soumission:
François is shipwrecked in the present. He doesn't understand why his students are so eager to get rich, or why journalists and politicians are so hollow, or why everyone, like him, is so alone. He believes that "only literature can give you that sensation of contact with another human spirit," but no one else cares about it. His sometime girlfriend Myriam genuinely loves him but he can't respond, and when she leaves to join her parents, who have emigrated to Israel because they feel unsafe in France, all he can think to say is: "There is no Israel for me."
François has a religious or mystical experience but then dismisses it with the impulses of a materialist: a spell of hypoglycemia has brought it on. In the end, he, too, submits, and converts to Islam.
Soumission [Mark Lilla writes] is not the story some expected of a coup d'état, and no one in it expresses hatred or even contempt of Muslims. It is about a man and a country who through indifference and exhaustion find themselves slouching toward Mecca. There is not even drama here--no clash of spiritual armies, no martyrdom, no final conflagration. Stuff just happens, as in all Houellebecq's fiction. All one hears at the end is a bone-chilling sigh of collective relief. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. Whatever.
The reviewer has a name for it: "Michel Houellebecq has created a new genre--the dystopian conversion tale."

So is a dystopian conversion tale a synthesis of backward-looking and forward-looking, of conservative and progressive, of the Gothic and the scientific? I'll leave that question unanswered.

* * *

In its November 16, 2015, issue, Time reviewed the English translation of Soumission, retitled Submission. The author is Daniel D'Addario. I'll bring up only a few of points from his review. First, Mr. D'Addario quotes the protagonist of Submission: "There was no reason that I should be spared from grief, illness, or suffering. But until now I had always hoped to leave this world without undue violence." (I would suggest that he seeks to leave this world without having lived.) Next, "the book ends with the professor's conversion to Islam, about which he feels little but a nihilistic comfort at having behaved in the socially correct manner." (Emphasis added.) Finally: "It's not Muslims whom Houellebecq is scared of. It's the future." That's hardly the attitude of a proper writer of science fiction, but it's not out of bounds for a conservative writer of weird fiction or fantasy. So which is Soumission, conservative or progressive? Maybe it defies categorization. Or maybe it is in fact a synthesis. By the way, M. Houellebecq has written science fiction. He also wrote an essay called "H. P. Lovecraft: Contre le monde, contre la vie," published in 1991.

* * *

Now another quote from Mark Lilla:
For all Houellebecq's knowingness about contemporary culture--the way we love, the way we work, the way we die--the focus in his novels is always on the historical longue durée. He appears genuinely to believe that France has, regrettably and irretrievably, lost its sense of self, but not because of immigration or the European Union or globalization. Those are just symptoms of a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be.
Here again, I think, is a difference between the Conservative and the Progressive: Progressivism is essentially a quest for the perfect society, for only in a perfect society can the individual be happy. A perfect society--in other words, a Utopia--requires that the shackles of the past be thrown off. That's what the Progressive or Leftist defines as freedom. A perfect society is also of course a perfectly ordered society--in other words, a Dystopia. To the extreme Progressive, i.e., the Totalitarian seeking perfect order, freedom--true freedom bestowed by our Creator and not by the State--is intolerable because it is disorderly or even chaotic. The Conservative, being essentially non-rational, is not uncomfortable with the disorder or chaos of freedom. The Conservative also understands that there can be no guarantee of happiness in this world, only the right to pursue it.

* * *

I have written in the past week or so about the situation in Europe. I should clarify that I don't think that Muslims in Europe are the problem. They are only a symptom of a problem created wholly by Europeans. As I wrote, if it were not Islam, it would be something else. Here is an enlightening quote from Peter Hitchens, from an opinion piece called "How I Am Partly to Blame for Mass Immigration," dated April 1, 2013, and originally in The Daily Mail (here):
When I was a Revolutionary Marxist, we were all in favour of as much immigration as possible. 
It wasn't because we liked immigrants, but because we didn't like Britain. We saw immigrants--from anywhere--as allies against the staid, settled, conservative society that our country still was at the end of the Sixties. 
As in the novel Soumission, leftists in the 1960s attempted to ally themselves with non-Europeans (or at least non-Britons) so as to deny power to the people for whom they felt real antipathy, i.e., their own conservative countrymen. It seems to me that people like Mr. Hitchens (in his younger days) would sooner see Europe destroyed than for it to live--freely, I might add--with conservatives in its midst, let alone in power. To them, immigrants are the myrmidons to be used for the destruction of the opposition. The mistake that people like Mr. Hitchens (in his younger days) make is to think that they can control a population that: a) Outnumbers them; b) Is reproducing faster than they are (not a hard thing to do); c) Fundamentally disagrees with them on all issues of significance; and, most importantly, d) Is not old, tired, worn out, bored, or lacking in confidence, passion, conviction, or vigor, in other words, not like François in Soumission and countless other Europeans. As I have written before, leftists in Europe are like Mensheviks, and they will be wiped out by the true believers they have invited into their midst.

* * *

I wrote that Europeans appear to be suicidal. I meant that they are suicidal in reference to their society, culture, and civilization. Individually, they are without a doubt suicidal. Here is the abstract of an article called "Give Me Liberty and Give Me Death: Belgium's Brave New Euthanasia Regime" by Robert Carle, dated September 8, 2015, and posted on the website of The Public Discourse of The Witherspoon Institute (here):
Belgium has the most permissive euthanasia laws in the world, and one of every twenty deaths in Belgium is now deliberately caused. Suicide is becoming a moral obligation in a culture that promotes euthanasia as a dignified exit that offers relief to caregivers.
And a quote from the main body:
Jan Bernheim, a professor of medicine at the Free University of Brussels, sees euthanasia as part of a philosophy of autonomy in which people improve the objective conditions for happiness. "There is an arrow of evolution that goes toward ever more reducing of suffering and maximizing of enjoyment," Bernheim wrote. Belgian philosopher Etienne Vermeersch writes that Belgium's efforts to increasing the store of human happiness and decrease suffering places that country, "ethically, at the top of the world."
Note the echoes from previous quotes from and about the novel Soumission. Note also the horrifying moral inversion that places Belgium, because of its embrace of euthanasia, "ethically, at the top of the world." If Belgium is at the forefront of euthanasia, then it is also at the forefront of a nihilist cult of death and self-destruction. It can't be any wonder at all that a suicide bomber would have so little respect or regard for the lives of Belgians--or Europeans at large--when they cannot bring forth even a pisspot full of it for themselves. 

Please excuse my French.

* * *

Finally, more works of the artist:

The Second Coming
by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Fire and Ice
by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Original text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Houellebecq also wrote a book on Lovecraft though I haven't read it.

    Speaking of suicidal decadence: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3402836/The-white-knuckle-ride-death-Euthanasia-rollercoaster-thrill-experts-warn-spend-final-moments-feeling-SICK.html

    I've seen the concept referenced in a recent science fiction story -- and I'm not sure the endorsement was ironic.

    Another discussion of Submission is at http://2kevins.com/archives/197

  2. Dear Marzaat,

    Thanks for the links. The first, about a roller-coaster ride to high-G suicide, is almost unbelievable until you realize just how depraved Europeans have become. They try so hard to distance themselves from the Nazi and Fascist regimes of the past, yet they are seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are equally depraved as those who came before them. The difference is that their depravity is mostly intellectual (for now) rather than practical.

    As for Soumission (Submission), one thing I left out of my discussion is that we in the West who care about such things can take heart that Arab/Muslim society is also decadent. (One indicator: the fertility rate in Iran has dropped below replacement rate, just like in Europe.) So in this race, who will reach bottom first, Europe or Islam? I suspect it will be Islam.

    Another question: Europeans are the creators, heirs, and beneficiaries of the greatest civilization the world has ever known, yet they hate themselves and wish themselves to be destroyed. Why? Was Freud right? Is there such a thing as a death wish? (He called it a death instinct, I think.)

    Thanks for writing.