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Science or Sorcery?: Klarkash-Ton and the Hobbitual Offender

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  • Science or Sorcery?: Klarkash-Ton and the Hobbitual Offender

    Who is this guy? I find this article an highly enjoyable piece of polemic - but there are so many odd, squinting views expressed within, that I'm not quite sure how to respond.

    Using Clark Ashton Smith as a cosh to beat over the head of dear old Professor Tolkien is a ruse designed to warm the twisted heart of every fantasy snob, myself included, but are we really comparing like to like?

    The "European" CAS vs. the "American" JRRT?

    Fantasy = a anti-rationalist rejection of democracy?

    CAS wrote for an aristocratic elite? (In "Weird Tales"??!!)

    Other points I warm to more, such as the analysis of Tolkien's class bias and the comparison with Robert E Howard. The epic which REH tragically knew he would never produce; "Doubtless I shall never write it." (Foreword to "Worms of the Earth") should really have overshadowed Tolkien's ever-so-English effort.

    I think this could start some great discussion.

    Science or Sorcery?: Interrogating the Supratextual Interface of Klarkash-Ton and the Hobbitual Offender

    Simon Whitechapel


    The scientific spirit, which cannot leave anything alone and aspires to draw the whole universe of objects, people, ideas and even feelings into its own dull, inhuman empire, was certain, sooner or later, to cast its screwed-up, calculating eyes on the splendour in the grass and the glory in the flower.

    Peter Simple, The Stretchford Chronicles (1980).1

    Oأ¹ sont les neiges d’antan? (Where are the snows of yesteryear?)

    Franأ§ois Villon, Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis (1461).

    If the earth were a human body, the United States of America might well be identified as its brain. There are three strong parallels: growth, greed, and influence. The human brain grows explosively, gobbles energy, and influences every organ in the body. Mutatis mutandis, the United States has done the same, growing in a couple of centuries from a tiny colony to a continental superpower that now consumes perhaps a fifth of the world’s resources with only a twentieth of the world’s population,2 and that exports its culture and language to every corner of the world. More and more people outside its borders are growing up to think, act, and talk like Americans, discarding their own histories and cultures as they do so. This American triumph has coincided with, and in part been built on, the triumph of modern science, and like science the United States is based on a rejection of tradition and a belief in the possibility, and even the necessity, of progress.

    But as Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), one of the founders of modern science, pointed out, for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. He was talking about physics, but actions have reactions in the fuzzier world of culture too and simultaneous with the rise of America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came the rise of the literary genre of fantasy. Like its coeval science fiction, fantasy represents a flight from the present, but where science fiction flies more or less optimistically into the future, fantasy flees more or less pessimistically into the past: it could be defined as an attempt to write as though America did not exist. America offers democracy, science, and rationalism; fantasy rejects them in favor of monarchy, magic, and mystery.

    And understandably so: like America itself, democracy, science, and rationalism are profoundly unnatural things, appearing very late in human life and truly accepted and appreciated by very few of us, for they do not appeal to the irrational and numinous aspects of our nature. America is unnatural because it is deracinated, a conscious, rational experiment in nation-building whose immigrant citizens are cut off from their roots in ancestral history and homeland, and the popularity of fantasy in America and the societies its rootless culture has most heavily influenced proves that millions of us feel the loss. Fantasy’s rejection of science and flight from the scientific American present can be summed up by these lines from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954-5), in which the wizard Gandalf describes his confrontation with the wizard Saruman, who has recently exchanged his white robes for robes of many colors:

    “I like white better,� I said.
    “White!� he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.�
    “In which case it no longer white,� said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.�
    3

    Isaac Newton broke white light in precisely that way with a prism, gaining knowledge as he discarded wisdom. But there was more to Tolkien’s rejection of Newtonian reductionism than simply science: Newton was also a Protestant, and America is a Protestant nation. Like science, Protestantism is based on a rejection of tradition, and because, like America, it is deracinated, it withers very readily: where its offspring rationalist secularism leads, Protestantism sooner or later follows.4 Tolkien (1892-1973) was Catholic, belonging to a church with deep roots, and though his books are early symptoms of her present decadence, they contain all the anti-rational, loss-assuaging ingredients listed above: monarchy, magic, and mystery. One of those books is, after all, called The Return of the King, and the pessimistic, future-fleeing aspects of fantasy are clearly symbolized by the way Tolkien sets his evil empire of Mordor in the east, where the sun rises, and his haven of peace in the west, where the sun sets.

    But beside being Catholic and anti-rationalist, Tolkien was, more importantly, a bad writer. His most famous book, The Lord of the Rings, epitomizes what Europeans would see as the worst failings of American popular culture: it is sentimental, shallow, and two-dimensional.5 His attempt to flee the American present in some ways carries America with it, and that is one of the ironies of fantasy literature: its most popular, and least subtle, exponent is European, while one of its greatest and most subtle is not merely American but Californian, living and dying in the most “future-crazed�6 state of all: Clark Ashton Smith was born in 1893 in Long Valley, near Sacramento, and died in 1961 a few miles north in Auburn.

    But CAS had an English father and did not grow up in any of California’s cities, which may be much more important than it appears. California is one of the youngest states of one of the world’s youngest nations, but its landscape is ancient, and its landscape is what CAS was most familiar with: he grew up on his father’s “forty acres� of homestead.7 Straight lines and right angles are rare in nature, ubiquitous in modern cities, and they may have much stronger effects on our psychology than we realize.8 In the old worlds of Europe and Asia, where cities are thousands of years old, streets wind and twist, because the cities of Europe and Asia have grown rather like plants; in the new world of America, streets run in straight lines intersecting at right angles. American cities are planned, rational attempts to conquer and control unplanned, irrational geography, and perhaps the reputation of New Englanders for subtlety and guile rises from their environment. Cities like Boston are old enough to have grown in the winding, twisting old world fashion, and perhaps they train their modern inhabitants in the oblique and indirect. CAS’s friend and mentor H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was an urban New Englander: could he have developed his subtle, allusive fiction had he grown up in a city like Chicago or New York, where the streets may train the mind in linearity and directness?9 Could the rural CAS have developed his subtle, allusive fiction had he grown up in a city like San Francisco or Los Angeles?

    I would suggest not, but the insufficiency of physical environment for an artist’s growth is clearly proved by Tolkien, who lived in ancient, alinear England and wrote his crude fantasy amid the twisting, winding streets of Oxford. However, human beings inhabit social environments too, and though Lovecraft and CAS may have escaped the stultifying effects of American town-planning, perhaps they benefited from the liberating effects of American politics. The races of Tolkien’s world are clearly based on the English class system: the hobbits, for example, are the rural proletariat and minor bourgeoisie, the orcs are the industrial proletariat, and the elves are the aristocracy whose well-nourished scions Tolkien encountered at Oxford. Compare these passages, the first from Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford novel Brideshead Revisited (1945), the second from Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937):

    About six of them came into my room, the rest stood mouthing outside. My dear, they looked too extraordinary. They had been having one of their ridiculous club dinners, and they were all wearing coloured tail-coats — a sort of livery. �My dears,’ I said to them, �you look like a lot of most disorderly footmen.’ Then one of them, rather a juicy little piece, accused me of unnatural vices. �My dear,’ I said, �I may be inverted but I am not insatiable. Come back when you are alone.’10

    �Well, well!’ said a[n Elvish] voice. �Just look! Bilbo the hobbit on a pony, my dear! Isn't it delicious!’ �Most astonishing wonderful!’ Then off they went into another song as ridiculous as the one I have written down in full. At last one, a tall young fellow, came out from the trees and bowed to Gandalf and to Thorin.
    11

    Tolkien and Waugh were both snobs and both, as it happens, of below average height. Tall Lovecraft’s and tall CAS’s fiction does not suffer from this snobbery, and although the stories of their friend Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) — who grew up in rural Texas — continually pluck the chords of monarchy, magic, and mystery, his hero Conan becomes a king by brawn and brain, not by birth. But Howard, although a better writer than Tolkien, is the least interesting of the Weird Tales triumvirate, and CAS’s fiction is aristocratic in more than its mention of kings and emperors. He did not write for the canaille, which is why he used words like canaille:

    Yes, indeed, one could write numerous reams on the subject of style. The style — or lack of it — required by nearly all magazine editors, [sic] would require a separate treatise. The idea seems to be that everything should be phrased in a manner that will obviate mental effort on the part of the lowest grade moron. I was told the other day that my “Door to Saturn� could only be read with a dictionary.
    12

    One of the reasons popular American culture has been so successfully exported is that it has evolved to appeal to the lowest common denominator: it is “phrased� so to “obviate mental effort�, and ideally to bypass the intellect altogether. The simplicity and directness of an American export like rock’n’roll, whose appeal is based on strong rhythms and high volume, have their counterparts in the simplicity and directness of American exports like hamburgers and Coca-Cola, whose appeal is based on fat, salt, and sugar. In short, American culture is democratic and inclusive, not aristocratic and exclusive like European culture. And so a second irony of fantasy literature is that the European Tolkien is far more democratic and far more successfully exported than the Californian Clark Ashton Smith: Tolkien’s writing is crude and strongly flavored, the literary equivalent of hamburger and coke, while the haute cuisine of CAS remains unknown to many of the millions who read and re-read Lord of the Rings — or watch and re-watch its recent translation into film.

    And perhaps that is another part of the key to CAS: fiction that can be translated readily and successfully into film, as Tolkien’s has been, tends to be superficial and direct. CAS’s greatest stories could not be successfully translated into film without being transformed in fundamental ways; that is, without being mutilated. This is another way in which CAS is profoundly un-American. America’s most successful and most characteristic export, advertising its culture to the world, has been film, and film, because it is the most powerful of media, is also the most destructive, killing imagination and feeding passivity and voyeurism.13 Cinema’s inbred cousin, television, exaggerates cinema’s failings and commits the additional crimes of trivialization and superficiality: watching a film at the cinema at least has a sense of ritual and occasion, and lasts about as long as a religious service; watching the same film on video using a television does none of that.

    CAS, born blessedly long before television and no movie-goer, was defiantly logophile and logocentric, and in that sense is far more modern than artists who work in or are influenced by film: vision has existed for many millions of years among animals and the art based on it, appealing to universal simplicities, crosses boundaries of culture and even species with relative ease: recall the Greek tale of Zeuxis’s trompe l’oeil grapes pecked by birds. True language, on the other hand, appeared only with human beings and the art based on it, being far richer and far more subtle, does not cross barriers of culture with ease and without transformation and distortion. And here is a third irony of CAS’s relation to JRRT. Tolkien, the professional scholar of language in the homeland of English, wrote with far less sensitivity and richness, beating drums and blasting trumpets where CAS played flutes and citherأ¦. But if fantasy is an attempt to write as though America did not exist, perhaps it took an American to know precisely how best to perform the nullification.
    Notes

    1. The Stretchford Chronicles: 25 Years of Peter Simple, The Daily Telegraph, Purnell & Sons, Bristol, 1980, “A graded land�, pg. 165.

    2. A factoid often dragged out (with varying figures — sometimes consumption goes as high as two-thirds) by whining liberals and eco-puritans. The precise ratio is impossible to know, but America certainly out-consumes Europe, just as Europe out-consumes the Third World.

    3. The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, ch. II, “The Council of Elrond�.

    4. “Mark 4:5 And some [seed] fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: 6 But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away.� Because they have deep roots, Catholic and Orthodox Christianity resist the scorching sun of secularism much more effectively.

    5. The Hobbit, with much less ambition, achieves much more.

    6. Peter Simple, The Stretchford Chronicles: 25 Years of Peter Simple, The Daily Telegraph, Purnell & Sons, Bristol, 1980, “Let them be left�, pg. 173: “Environmentalists, conservationists, anti-pollutionists: the dull, pseudo-scientific words, endlessly repeated — imports, like so much else, from future-crazed America — can arouse in certain moods a perverse rage to build oil-refineries all over Dartmoor.�

    7. “As I Remember Klarkash-Ton�, George F. Haas, from The Black Book of Clark Ashton Smith, Arkham House (see copy on-site).

    8. In one famous psychological experiment, Zulus who lived in round huts and ploughed in curves were found to be much less susceptible to certain optical illusions (e.g. the Mأ¼ller-Lyer arrow illusion). See, for example, the discussion in Eye and Brain: the Psychology of Seeing, R.L. Gregory.

    9. See Lovecraft’s short shory “Haunter of the Dark� (1936), set in the New England city of Providence but with a protagonist from the straight-lined, right-angled Wisconsin city of Milwaukee: “As Blake climbed higher, the region seemed stranger and stranger, with bewildering mazes of brooding brown alleys leading eternally off to the south. ... Twice he lost his way ...�

    10. Op. cit., Book One, “Et in Arcadia Ego�, ch. 2

    11. Op. cit., Chapter 3, “A Short Rest�.

    12. Clark Ashton Smith: Letters to H.P. Lovecraft, Necronomicon Press, West Warwick (Rhode Island), 1987, pg. 23, “c. mid-December 1930� (see copy on-site).

    13. In fantasy’s sister genre, horror, England and America again provide the most successful writer and one of the greatest, but this time England wins: the American Stephen King (1947- ), the most successful writer of horror, is a cinematic writer weaned on film and has nothing of the subtlety and depth of the English M.R. James (1862-1936) (see CAS’s appreciation “The Weird Works of M.R. James�).
    http://www.eldritchdark.com/bio/science_or_sorcery.html

    There is (a rather plodding, to my mind) response: http://www.eldritchdark.com/bio/demo...d_fantasy.html
    \"...an ape reft of his tail, and grown rusty at climbing, who yet feels himself to be a symbol and the frail representative of Omnipotence in a place that is not home.\" James Branch Cabell

  • #2
    To be quite honest with you, I've read the piece several times and can't find a coherent argument running through it at all. I do, however, think it's great fun because of the huge number of outrageous assertions and sweeping judgments it puts forward - each one of which sparks off some interesting thoughts.

    It seems to me that Whitechapel rather approves of rejecting the "American" values of rationality and science; which is why CAS comes out on top as the least "democratic" of the two writers. However, it does seem rather perverse to proclaim Tolkien as the apotheosis of American culture when he was in fact attempting to create "a mythology for England" and producing in effect a kind of suburbanised and portentous version of William Morris's prose romances (with a dash of Rider Haggard). CAS fits into a far more recognisable American tradition stretching back to Poe and forward to Paul Bowles; a decadent Orientalism with its roots in "The Arabian Nights" and the 19th C European Gothic novel.

    From the point of view of language, both writers were trying to achieve different things as well - Tolkien, as a scholar of Anglo-Saxon, deliberately strove to bring English back to its pre-latinised roots. CAS, on the other hand, described his linguistic intentions as follows;
    "As to my employment of an ornate style, using many words of classic origin and exotic color, I can only say that it is designed to produce effects of language and rhythm which could not possibly be achieved by a vocabulary restricted to what is known as "basic English." As Strachey points out, a style composed largely of words of Anglo-Saxon origin tends to a spondaic rhythm, "which by some mysterious law, reproduces the atmosphere of ordinary life." An atmosphere of remoteness, vastness, mystery and exoticism is more naturally evoked by a style with an admixture of Latinity, lending itself to more varied and sonorous rhythms, as well as to subtler shades, tints and nuances of meaning — all of which, of course, are wasted or worse than wasted on the average reader, even if presumably literate."
    With reference to the last point, it does seem ironic that CAS was writing for the pulps whilst JRRT, due to his academic stature, was aiming for the "literary" market. I'd be fascinated to see a demographic breakdown of the "Weird Tales" readership as compared to LotR's initial take-up.

    What do you make of the point about looking backwards to a feudal social order - sci-fi looking forward and fantasy turning back? Whitechapel seems to forget that CAS also wrote science fiction; inconvenient for his argument, I suppose. Lovecraft was determinedly a scientific rationalist, I'm not sure about CAS. His agenda was definitely an "escapist" revolt against mundane reality, however.
    \"...an ape reft of his tail, and grown rusty at climbing, who yet feels himself to be a symbol and the frail representative of Omnipotence in a place that is not home.\" James Branch Cabell

    Comment


    • #3
      Originally posted by TheAdlerian
      I sounds like he is trying to say that urban planning leads to a kind of mental illness that causes people to seek out fantasy as an escape. Personally, I don’t think of New Englanders as being any more wily that anyone else. However, he said something about the evolved rather than planned city of Boston being good for mental development. So, it sounds like he is saying that planned life has created a junk fantasy culture because of its lack of stimulation.
      But then he completely confounds his own argument by taking Tolkien as his exemplar of "junk" fantasy; a well known lover of winding country roads (and don't we know it, if we've read "The Fellowship of the Ring"!) Perhaps he should have picked Disney instead of Tolkien for his arguments to really have bite.

      As regards "escapism"; as you know, I see myself as a bit of an activist, but need that consign to a worthy diet of "kitchen sink" realism? I really feel very little need to justify what I read, although the contents of my bookshelf might raise one or two eyebrows from those who know me as a tower of political correctness!

      But who wrote this?

      Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time,
      Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?
      The idle singer of an empty day.
      Stand up, comrade William Morris - revolutionary socialist and writer of quasi-mediaeval romances and Norse sagas; the "Earthly Paradox", as some of his contemporaries described him...

      Interesting bit from Hitchens about US movies. I was aware of the "quota" system, whereby a certain proportion of films screened in the UK had be British-made, but thought this was just a protectionist measure to shelter the industry. Perhaps some sort of "moral" reason had to be concocted to justify protecting consumers from their own choices? However, US culture certainly was seen as a corrupting influence. The Communist Party of Great Britain led a moral panic against American horror comics in the 1950s. I hardly think that Lovecraft and Smith would have met with approval from that quarter, however winding their streets!

      However, I still subscribe to the theory of "cultural imperialism" to some extent, although it's a fairly complex issue. Are you honestly telling me that you think Coca Cola tastes better than all the indigenous fruits of Latin America? Phosphoric acid and sugar? Or is the reason why so many Colombians choose to consume it in any way related to why so many of their women choose to bleach their hair blonde? Interesting.
      \"...an ape reft of his tail, and grown rusty at climbing, who yet feels himself to be a symbol and the frail representative of Omnipotence in a place that is not home.\" James Branch Cabell

      Comment


      • #4
        Originally posted by TheAdlerian
        .I believe that they have chosen to do this because they view our culture as more potent and successful than theirs.
        This, I think, is the point. The tie is an excellent example. Even I have been known to enjoy an ice-cold Cola laced with some form of alcohol. There is no intrinsic pleasure to be gained from wearing a useless piece of cloth round one's neck. A more extreme example is Eastern people having cosmetic surgery to make their eyes look less slanted. It's like the whole marketting mystique around brand labels. "Commodity fetishism", Marx called it. It's the same primitive impulse that says if a tribal hunter wears the skin of an animal he will absorb the the qualities of speed or courage. Humans aren't that rational.

        Coca-cola would have been better in its original form, with cocaine. My Colombian friend tells me that Coca leaves are still transported to the States for adding (in a deactivated form) to Coke. I would like more information about this. It adds to the irony of the situation in Colombia, where the US "war on drugs" means that peasants' coca fields are sprayed with toxic defoliants. Coca, of course, is a traditional part of the Andean culture, as the ideal tonic for those living at high altitudes. It is also an ideal export crop following the collapse of coffee prices.

        Anyway - all this takes us miles away from Clark Ashton Smith and Tolkien!

        I've checked up on Simon Whitechapel, by the way, and his particular oeuvre seems to focus on books about serial killers and sado-masochism. So perhaps it was him you saw at the spanking club! There are some murky undercurrents of S&M and necrophilia in CAS, so perhaps this would explain the attraction. Tolkien's work is devoid of any form of sexuality - I can't see how this could have gone unmentioned when comparing the two.
        \"...an ape reft of his tail, and grown rusty at climbing, who yet feels himself to be a symbol and the frail representative of Omnipotence in a place that is not home.\" James Branch Cabell

        Comment


        • #5
          Originally posted by Mikey_C

          It seems to me that Whitechapel rather approves of rejecting the "American" values of rationality and science; which is why CAS comes out on top as the least "democratic" of the two writers. However, it does seem rather perverse to proclaim Tolkien as the apotheosis of American culture when he was in fact attempting to create "a mythology for England" and producing in effect a kind of suburbanised and portentous version of William Morris's prose romances (with a dash of Rider Haggard). CAS fits into a far more recognisable American tradition stretching back to Poe and forward to Paul Bowles; a decadent Orientalism with its roots in "The Arabian Nights" and the 19th C European Gothic novel.

          From the point of view of language, both writers were trying to achieve different things as well - Tolkien, as a scholar of Anglo-Saxon, deliberately strove to bring English back to its pre-latinised roots. CAS, on the other hand, described his linguistic intentions as follows;
          "As to my employment of an ornate style, using many words of classic origin and exotic color, I can only say that it is designed to produce effects of language and rhythm which could not possibly be achieved by a vocabulary restricted to what is known as "basic English." As Strachey points out, a style composed largely of words of Anglo-Saxon origin tends to a spondaic rhythm, "which by some mysterious law, reproduces the atmosphere of ordinary life." An atmosphere of remoteness, vastness, mystery and exoticism is more naturally evoked by a style with an admixture of Latinity, lending itself to more varied and sonorous rhythms, as well as to subtler shades, tints and nuances of meaning ? all of which, of course, are wasted or worse than wasted on the average reader, even if presumably literate."
          With reference to the last point, it does seem ironic that CAS was writing for the pulps whilst JRRT, due to his academic stature, was aiming for the "literary" market. I'd be fascinated to see a demographic breakdown of the "Weird Tales" readership as compared to LotR's initial take-up.

          What do you make of the point about looking backwards to a feudal social order - sci-fi looking forward and fantasy turning back? Whitechapel seems to forget that CAS also wrote science fiction; inconvenient for his argument, I suppose. Lovecraft was determinedly a scientific rationalist, I'm not sure about CAS. His agenda was definitely an "escapist" revolt against mundane reality, however.
          It's always seemed to me that hard sci-fi embraced modernism completely (whether or not modernism is mostly an American phenomenon is a completely different topic, of course), while other fantasy and science fiction rejected it. Tolkien's rejection of modernism led him to see retreat as a solution to modernism's problems, in part out of fear, but "pulpier" stuff rejected parts of modernism on different grounds, but in a way that forced writers to engage in modernism's issues. Of course, New Worlds and MM were part of this. I don't think it's an accident that many literary stars like Chabon and Eggers celebrate, emulate, and embrace the pulps, while many hacks have recycled Tolkien continuously, subsequently forcing much of fantasy and sci-fi to the dark corners of the literary world. An ironic turn of events, given Tolkien's enormous ambitions.

          Comment


          • #6
            Clark Ashton Smith versus Tolkien: interesting, albeit slightly strained comparison, I think. I'm reminded of assignments from secondary school: "Compare and contrast the attitudes, subject matter, and style of CAS and Tolkien." The original essay follows that tack, mostly, via the writer's subjective reactions.

            Tolkien's approach is well-known and needs little explication, but I'm going to do it anyway. :lol:

            Tolkien was a university professor who taught at provincial universities, but who was eventually granted a chair at Oxford; he did translations and wrote scholarly articles on Anglo-Saxon; he was learned in Norse sagas, the Kalevala, and (I believe) Welsh. Read French and Latin, too, of course. Out of that scholarship and his Luddite tendencies, he built a substantial imaginary world. His literary touchstones were venerable, and his intentions were populist in a manner that inherently affirms the status quo: the Hobbits, the men, the dwarves and elves and orcs all "know their place," as it were. He shows us the aristocracy, but from a vantage point that seems to say, "This is above you, and you must show it respect." I have very mixed feelings about the final result. If I had to pick a book that it reminds of of (in a way), I'd say a weird combination of La Morte d'Arthur, The Wind in the Willows, and Winnie the Pooh.

            CAS didn't possess Tolkien's academic resumأ©. In fact, if memory serves, he dropped out of school when quite young and was "educated at home" via reading. Autodidactic as he was, his knowledge reflects the sort of distortions common to such individuals. In literature, he was quite knowledgeable, especially in poetry. He taught himself languages (chiefly French) so he could translate Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and other Symbolistes. Some of his work resembles that of those writers, as well as various members of French Decadence -- Joris-Karl Huysmans
            comes to mind. The prose can be purple, but it can also be original, evocative, and effective. CAS didn't seem interested at all in mythopoetic writing or fairy tales. The stories (the best ones, anyway), are for grown ups, and depend on irony, black humor, erotic, and thanatotic impulses. These are not the sort of stories you would read to your ten year old at night (something I used to do with Tolkien's book). CAS's attitude is aristocratic in the way that Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's was. I can't imagine Tolkien writing anything resembling that writer's "La torture par l'espأ©rance," but I could easily imagine CAS writing something like it. In fact, he did; take a look at CAS's story, "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros." Villiers de L'Isle-Adam is a nice comparison (I believe) because of the "aristocratic" connection: remember "Axأ«l," the famous symboliste drama by that writer? Edmund Wilson, seeking a title for his book on the modernist movement, called it Axأ«l's Castle, with excellent justification. The aristocratic protagonists of that strange play, at the end, escape from life by committing suicide. "Life?" said Axأ«l. "Our servants will live it for us." (My translation to avoid objections from Dee, who ragged me that I don't write in English. )

            The characters in Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's play would not be out of place in a CAS story. Think of "aristocracy" as a dying breed rather than the current Windsors, and you might say that writers whose Weltanschauung leans in this direction are "aristocratic" -- in a sort of old-fashioned, fin de siأ¨cle way.

            Tolkien's verse is, for the most part, pedestrian, with a few good lines here and there. CAS is a substantial minor poet in a belated-decadent manner. He leans on Bierce and George Sterling a little, maybe Keats and perhaps Beddoes (whom he also resembles somewhat), and a little from Baudelaire and Rimbaud; but ultimately, he has his own voice. The verse may be at times overwrought, but I wouldn't call it pedestrian.

            My 10 centimes on the subject.

            LSN

            Comment


            • #7
              Originally posted by L_Stearns_Newburg
              thanatotic impulses
              Dig those words, man! Thanatos, god of death (as an utter digression, I hear the fastest growing cult in Mexico at present is that of "La Santa Muerte", how CAS would have loved that...) I think you've summed up very well, although I haven't had the pleasure of reading Villiers de L'Isle-Adam.

              To my mind (although who am I, a mere prole, to judge!) the "aristocratic" tone in fantasy is best represented in the works of E R Eddison, appreciated by Tolkien, who, however, expressed "scorn" for his values.

              I've discovered an essay about Howard, which sums up CAS's appeal quite well:

              In their best material Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith displayed a vision that lifted them above the pulp hack grinding out a living on penny-a-word rates.... Smith is more difficult for critics to deal with; he was possessed of a unique, mordant cosmic viewpoint that Lovecraft himself considered "unexcelled." It is this "cosmic" quality that distinguishes Lovecraft and Smith from their peers, a quality which Lovecraft in a letter to Smith, October 17, 1930, defined as the "capacity to feel profoundly regarding the cosmos and the disturbing and fascinating quality of the extraterrestrial and perpetually unknown."...The cosmic story serves well as a vehicle for Lovecraft’s mechanistic philosophy and nicely suited Smith’s sense of irony.
              This piece, "The Dark Barbarian" by Don Herron, by the way, is excellent, and succeeds fully in my opinion, where the article above fails (that reminds me of some of the pretetious ramblings I used to soak up in music rags when I was young):
              http://www.barbariankeep.com/darkbarb2.html. There's some fascinating stuff at the end about Derleth's and de Camp's additions to the Lovecraft and Howard canons, how they came about and why they fail. People may be interested to note that Herron singles out "Red Nails" as one of the best Conan tales.
              \"...an ape reft of his tail, and grown rusty at climbing, who yet feels himself to be a symbol and the frail representative of Omnipotence in a place that is not home.\" James Branch Cabell

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              • #8
                Originally posted by Mikey_C
                Originally posted by L_Stearns_Newburg
                thanatotic impulses
                Dig those words, man! Thanatos, god of death (as an utter digression, I hear the fastest growing cult in Mexico at present is that of "La Santa Muerte", how CAS would have loved that...)
                Perfectly simple, ordinary word. As for "La Santa Muerta," I agree CAS might have been interested. D.H. Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent seems not too far away, too.

                Originally posted by Mikey_C
                I think you've summed up very well, although I haven't had the pleasure of reading Villiers de L'Isle-Adam.
                An interesting writer, but I make no recommendations. Unfortunately, if you don't read French, you're probably out of luck. I'm aware of no currently available translations for many of his stories, including many of the best ones. A few things were in print the last time I checked. (Translations of Contes Cruels and a L'Eve future.) But that's not much. Still, his work isn't to everyone's taste, so I make no categorical assertions about its excellence.

                Originally posted by Mikey_C
                To my mind (although who am I, a mere prole, to judge!) the "aristocratic" tone in fantasy is best represented in the works of E R Eddison, appreciated by Tolkien, who, however, expressed "scorn" for his values.
                The term "aristocratic" is open to multiple interpretations, it seems to me. There's the "doomed aristocrat and his tradition" attitude, that is found in Villiers de L'Isle-Adam and (I believe) CAS. Eddison worked from a different interpretation, a sort of legendary "heroic" tradition. The Worm Ouroboros definitely contains a view of one's place in the universe that could be called "aristocratic" by that tradition. The "lower classes" are virtually invisible. As James Stephens once remarked of Eddison's books, even his "varlets are powerful." It's even more pronounced in Mistress of Mistresses and A Fish Dinner in Memison. The two later books are less magical than The Worm..., but partake of a similar spirit and attitude, raised to a higher power at times. Think of Machiavelli as hero. It's more like Marlowe or Middleton than Villiers de L'Isle-Adam.

                (The later books are also burdened to some extent with a somewhat convoluted philosophical basis, but that's a different matter.)

                Incidentally, the essay you cited on CAS, Lovecraft, and Howard is interesting. I say this despite my perception of Howard's story "Red Nails" -- a perception very much at variance with that of the author of the essay. Sometime, if I can find the time and desire, I suppose I'll need to write a little essay that takes that tale apart and puts all its questionable appendages in labeled bottles. Unfortunately, I'm a bit pressed for free time these days, and that would be a labor of not inconsiderable effort, and for a story I don't even like.

                LSN

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