Monday, January 22, 2018

Weird Fiction Against Materialism

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 
--from Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Lovecraft aside, weird fiction is a warning against materialism, for it is a genre that lives in a pre-science, pre-Enlightenment age, one in which magic and supernatural monsters are still possible. Its materialist characters are science-minded, working in physics, chemistry, medicine, and so on. The materialist himself is arrogant, superior, sure of himself in his beliefs and dismissive of anything that can't be measured, quantified, or described by a mathematical equation or an abstruse theory. Moreover, he lacks imagination and sensitivity. His mind is unbending. And because it doesn't bend, it breaks as he comes face to face with the non-material. Some examples:

From "May Day Eve" by Algernon Blackwood (1907):
It was in the spring when I at last found time from the hospital work to visit my friend, the old folk-lorist [sic], in his country isolation, and I rather chuckled to myself, because in my bag I was taking down a book that utterly refuted all his tiresome pet theories of magic and the powers of the soul. These theories were many and various, and had often troubled me. In the first place, I scorned them for professional reasons, and, in the second, because I had never been able to argue quite well enough to convince or to shake his faith, in even the smallest details, and any scientific knowledge I brought to bear only fed him with confirmatory data. To find such a book, therefore, and to know that it was safely in my bag, wrapped up in brown paper and addressed to him, was a deep and satisfactory joy, and I speculated a good deal during the journey how he would deal with the overwhelming arguments it contained against the existence of any important region outside the world of sensory perceptions.
From "Smith: An Episode in a Lodging-House" by Algernon Blackwood (1907):
"I was at that time, moreover, in the heavy, unquestioning state of materialism which is common to medical students when they begin to understand something of the human anatomy and nervous system, and jump at once to the conclusion that they control the universe and hold in their forceps the last word of life and death. I 'knew it all,' and regarded a belief in anything beyond matter as the wanderings of weak, or at best, untrained minds. And this condition of mind, of course, added to the strength of this upsetting fear which emanated from the floor below and began slowly to take possession of me."
From "The Eighth Green Man" by G.G. Pendarves (Weird Tales, March 1928):
I was frightfully embarrassed. How explain to such a rank materialist as Nicholas Birkett that instinct alone warned me against that road? How make a man so insensitive and practical believe in any danger he could not see or handle? He believed in neither God nor Devil! He had only a passionate belief in himself, his wealth, his business acumen, and above all, the physical perfection that went to make his life easy and pleasant.
There is of course Han Solo in Star Wars (1977), too:
Han Solo: Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.
Luke: You don't believe in the Force, do you?
Han Solo: Kid, I've flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I've seen a lot of strange stuff, but I've never seen anything to make me believe that there's one all-powerful force controlling everything. There's no mystical energy field controls my destiny. It's all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense. (1)
Every one of these characters gets his comeuppance, of course. Han Solo, not overtly a materialist, gets the best of outcomes. He may not accept things exactly, but he bends, out of friendship and, soon enough, love. Birkett, from G.G. Pendarves' story, gets the worst of outcomes here. All are shown that their materialism and skepticism are inadequate in the face of the true nature of the universe.

You might say that the materialist (or skeptic) in each of these examples is a kind of strawman, set up only so he can be knocked down again. You might say also that the non-materialist uses material means to show the materialist that the universe is at its base non-materialist. In other words, the materialist is shown to be wrong in his beliefs by his encountering physical (i.e., material) manifestations of non-material phenomena. The point is that weird fiction is very often a whisper of dissent in the great halls of Scientism and materialism. Given the current popularity of weird fiction and fantasy over science fiction, the idea that the universe is not strictly material may be an attractive one for both writers and readers of these genres.

(1) Star Wars is sometimes labeled as science fiction when it clearly isn't a part of that genre, spaceships, robots, aliens, and blasters aside. Star Wars isn't weird fiction, either, but it is fantasy, and it is descended in part--Han Solo especially-- from the tales of Northwest Smith written by C.L. Moore and published in Weird Tales from 1933 to 1936. By the way, the last Northwest Smith story in Weird Tales, was "The Tree of Life" from October 1936. I have written within the past couple of weeks about the Tree of Life as a myth that may have influenced George Lucas in his making of Star Wars.

Northwest of Earth by C.L. Moore (Gnome Press, 1954), with cover art by Ric Binkley. The image is conventional and not an especially good one. (Notice how long Northwest Smith's thighs are in relation to the rest of his body.) Nonetheless, C.L. Moore's planetary adventurer can be considered a progenitor of Han Solo. He's even wearing a vest and wielding a "good blaster."

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

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