Science Fiction Studies

#49 = Volume 16, Part 3 = November 1989


An Apology for Apocalyptic

Frederick A. Kreuziger. The Religion of Science Fiction. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State UP, 1986. 166pp. $19.95 (cloth), $9.95 (paper)

One should note right away that this book is not about religion. The author pays little attention to the universal elements of religion to be found in the symbols and stories of SF--including ritual, mysticism, and the sacred. Instead, Frederick Kreuziger has written a small book analyzing a narrower theme in monotheistic theology: the apocalypse. Whatever their differences, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share an expectation of some cataclysmic culmination of the current epoch or eon of human history. As they see it, God is "Lord of history." He creates, sustains, and ultimately judges history through its destruction or catastrophic renewal. Apocalyptic, which means "the revealed," is usually an account of the when and where of this climactic event.

Kreuziger claims that apocalyptic has taken on a secular form, one in which it is stripped of its overt theological content but not of its thrust. Both kinds of visions, secular and sacred, attempt to understand the meaning of the present age in terms of how it ends. Theology insists that the apocalypse is the consequence of an act of God. Secular apocalyptic simply displaces the cause from the supernatural to some other source or even to inherent tendencies of destruction or transformation.

SF provides a fertile source for secular apocalyptic since it is very often about the future. In this sense, the Book of Revelation and SF have much in common. They are stories of things to come in which the present moment and immediate future become history to be analyzed from a vantage point of some decisive cosmic event yet to be.

Within this powerful proleptic hermeneutic, Kreuziger examines a wide range of SF literature and other sources of secular apocalyptic. For example, he speaks knowledgeably about the popular music of the 1960s and '70s whose lyrics prophetically announced the immediate end of the present age.

However, Kreuziger moves quickly from description to criticism. His approach tacitly conveys his conviction that secular apocalyptic alone is too weak to interpret its own depths. The author introduces biblical or theological considerations to assist him in this task. The Apocalypse of John, or Revelation--a very daunting and difficult book at best--is his ideal model of this genre. John, he maintains, is "darkly optimistic" and therefore reflects with great accuracy the proper stance of the apocalyptic position. Despite his popular image, the apocalyptic prophet does not foretell the impending and utter destruction of this age at the hand of a righteous and outraged God. The message of John, according to the author, is that there is indeed great cause for disillusionment. Our collective fortunes will continue to decline irreversibly. Yet (and this is the cosmic "Yet" of hope) the promise of God will not remain eternally frustrated. This age is doomed, but the unimaginable future awaits its demise with hope that retribution will be coupled with redemption in some unimaginable process of transformation.

Secular apocalyptic is all too secular because it assays the present and immediate future from the limited resources of history itself. Hence, history carries within itself either the seeds of its own destruction or the power to repair itself. The choice is darkness or optimism, but not (as in the Apocalypse of John) both. Hope in the face of impending disaster never arises. Doomsday or Utopia is forever. This orientation, according to Kreuziger, represents a mere extrapolation of present trends into a consistent future until some final state is reached. In contrast, theological apocalyptic affirms both extreme options in good Lutheran fashion: simil doomsday et salvation, the soteriological "now-nevertheless."

The author carries his dialectic further. The end of history is not only at its end. It is in the present as well. He collapses imminence and immanence. Doomsday is today. "The future both arises out of the present and breaks into the present" (p. 73). Each moment is a mix of creation and destruction, hope and despair, birth and death, and countless additional polarities which characterize human experience. Here the reader senses the contributions of Augustine--we are all a blend of being and non-being--and this accounts for the ambiguous, bewildering, and duplex character of the world. Secular apocalyptic often insists on denying one pole of a pair of opposites while affirming the other. It places too much stock in destructive tendencies now irreversibly at work or in constructive human instrumentalities, science and technology, that overcome debilitating tendencies and lead society to some static utopian state of affairs.

In his last chapter, and after conceding that "Building theoretical models is always a dubious exercise" (p. 137), Kreuziger proceeds to build one of his own. He typologizes various futures. They are of two sorts: the future as arising out of the present (conjunctive) and the future as breaking into the present (disjunctive). Politicians and technocrats are the messianic figures of the conjunctive category. They salvage the future from destruction through acts of the will or inventive ingenuity, respectively. In either case, history contains its own sources of deliverance.

The other model, the disjunctive approach, sees history proceeding necessarily to its dreadful catastrophic finale. But that event is welcomed in hope because it also represents the redemptive fulfillment of "this crooked age." Kreuziger favors the latter vision since it displays the appropriate "dark optimism" of John that refuses to negate either history or its end.

Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov are regnant voices of the conjunctive vision, while Arthur C. Clarke, because he emphasizes transcendent extra-terrestrial powers that come upon the Earth from beyond and hence represent the novum breaking unpredictably into history, is the chief exemplar of the disjunctive approach. Kreuziger's preference for Clarke should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with modern Protestant theology, and especially the Neo-Orthodox school as represented in the thought of Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Tillich's contribution is his claim that religion, in its broader forms, is the stuff of culture. Barth insists on a consistent dialectic of the holy and the mundane. Niebuhr sees history as the arena of the perplexing and ambiguous in which we must do our best until the Kingdom come. Neo-Orthodox theology takes history seriously as the arena for God's actions, but it reserves the end of any particular epoch to the divine prerogative; only God can culminate, but not eliminate, history by breaking into it at the moment of his choosing, not ours.

Kreuziger's insightful application of theological models of apocalyptic to SF is a splendid example of fruitful interdisciplinary thinking. He goes beyond that, however, by engaging in prescriptive analysis as well. He assigns a definitive and normative status to the disjunctive model. Yet his reasoning--that to do otherwise would be to rob either history or its end of meaning--is neither persuasive nor compelling. There is no fundamental justification for Kreuziger to deny the validity of the conjunctive approach--a conclusion which follows only from his prior commitment to the theological foundations of the preferred disjunctive model. These foundations include: the understanding that human efforts to rescue history on our own is a kind of undesirable hubris (the stuff of sin as rebellion); the claim that the end of history, as violent and dreadful as it may be, is nonetheless a fulfillment as well as a judgment; and the hope that God and God alone enters from "beyond," suddenly and without appointment, to initiate and complete the transformation of this age into some other. SF which is theologically self-conscious might well abide by these sentiments, but there is no persuasive argument why secular SF should follow suit.

Two relatively minor matters also deserve mention. In an extended section, the author appeals to the thought of the Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin to justify his contention that even a scientist-theologian committed to evolutionary processes requires the presence of a divine directive agency to keep things ascending to an ultimate goal. He uses "Chardin" repeatedly to refer to Teilhard. The man's name is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and so the appropriate reference is to "Teilhard" not "Chardin." Also four pages of charts in the final chapter listing the various categories of the disjunctive and conjunctive models appear to be out of order. This is unfortunate since they succinctly sum up the author's comparative analysis.

The Religion of Science Fiction merits careful reading as a creative exploration into SF apocalyptic using tools taken from theology. Most readers will find Kreuziger's remarks to be revealing and suggestive, especially if they realize that his insights may be accepted without repudiating secular interests. But he remains to the end an apologist for apocalyptic, the kind of apocalyptic that insists, in keeping with his favorite prophet, Arthur Clarke, that "We are not alone."

--James E. Huchingson  Florida International University

Imprisoned in a Tesseract: Two Views

David Ketterer. Imprisoned in a Tesseract: The Life and Work of James Blish. Kent, OH & London: Kent State UP, 1987. 410pp. $29.50

This fine book is the first full-scale critical and biographical account of a contemporary SF author. In writing it, David Ketterer made good use of the Blish Papers at the New Bodleian Library, Oxford, and the archives of Faber and Faber, James Blish's chief English publisher, as well as contacting a host of people who knew Blish--e.g., Paul Shackley, who provided the long letters he had received from JB.

The book begins with a detailed account of JB's life. He was born in humble circumstances at East Orange, New Jersey, an only child; eventually, he was to fight his way through to financial security, independence, and retirement in England, not far from his beloved Oxford.

We are told that JB never learned to love his mother, Dorothea, a talented pianist whom he regarded as a "stupid and phenomenally selfish woman." Later, while he himself was wracked by cancer, his dislike deepened into something not far short of hatred. This may well explain his rather cool estimate of women, an attitude falling far short of his hero, James Branch Cabell, with his concept of woman-worship expressed at its best in his novel Domnei (1920). This part of JB's makeup may well explain his major weakness: an inability to describe and embody worthwhile, authentic females in his fiction.

It is possible that JB's feelings for his mother, or lack of them, were responsible for making him the somewhat icy man he became. Yet we should not take this too far. When I met him in England, in 1968, he was a self-controlled man, happy in his writing and in his retirement, however much this was to be marred by illness. Also, Paul Spencer, editor of Kalki (to which JB had contributed so much) described him to me, in a letter of July 5, 1989, as "extremely friendly, genial and enthusiastic." His first wife, Virginia Kidd, now a literary agent in Milford, Pennsylvania, in a letter to me of June 4, 1989, said: "I loved the man, learned a great deal from him during the 19 years we were together and we saw eye-to-eye on most matters until the very end of that stretch of time." Fans of JB will be able to study these matters in depth by reading Ketterer's book.

To understand and appreciate any writer, it is essential first to come to grips with his or her thought or philosophy of life, if he or she has one. JB regarded himself as an agnostic, keeping an open mind on the question of a Creator. But, as Ketterer makes clear, he was imbued with a profound religious awareness. JB's close friend and confidant, Josephine Saxton, noted to him: "If it were possible to be a Jesuit, a Calvinist and an Atheist all at once, then James Blish would have been all three " (p. 321). His sense of the numinous is paramount in nearly all his writings and is confirmed by Brian M. Stableford, who quotes a reiterated phrase from JB's The Science in Science Fiction: "In my opinion--in my profoundly religious opinion..." (A Clash of Symbols [San Bernadino, CA: 1979], p. 3; JB's emphasis). This religious awareness bordering on the mystical helps to account for JB's stature.

Another aspect of his thought is dealt with very thoroughly in Ketterer's sixth chapter, "Wagnerian Spenglerian Space Opera." This concerns JB's sense of history, which he derives from Oswald Spengler's work on the cyclical ebb and flow of civilization. Where Arnold Toybee, in his philosophical A Study of History, is positive and on the whole hopeful, Spengler is pessimistic. This is in tune with JB's thinking and gives it shape. Thus JB improves upon Isaac Asimov's use of Gibbon's Decline and Fall... in his "Foundation" Series. (R.D. Mullen, in his Afterword to the one-volume version of the "Cities in Flight" tetralogy [London: Arrow Books, 1987], explains in great detail just how JB used Spengler's concept of history.)

Ketterer's seventh chapter, dealing with Doctor Mirabilis, notes that with this novel "Blish proved conclusively that he could write a novel of artistic value that was not science fiction" (p. 192). In accordance with much 20th-century realism, Mirabilis is often harrowing in depicting the life and times of Roger Bacon against the vividly realized background of 13th-century England, France, and Italy. Roger, along with such as Francis Bacon, a sometimes rather dubious Lord Chief Justice of England, pioneered the modern scientific method which is transforming life. They ran great risks for daring to think for themselves. The many revisions of this novel testify to Blish's tenacity.

Reviewing Mirabilis, The New Scientist referred to JB's "immense scholarship and patience" and said he is "a master at weaving fact and fantasy inextricably together"--which brings us to an important aspect of JB's thought. He was a Romantic in that he saw clearly what ought to be as opposed to what is. His writing has biting satire and irony when it comes to life as it is at all levels of society. But he is not a Romantic when it comes to exalting feminity as worthy of worship. There is a rare exception to this in the chapter of Mirabilis called "The Bowl of Belisarius." Roger, acting for the Lord Pope, meets Eleanor. He registers "her spare strange beauty...not that of a woman, nor even of a statue but that of the Platonic absolute of which all beauty is but a shadow in a cave..." (Mirabilis, [London: Arrow Books, 1984], 13:267). This places JB firmly in the tradition that includes Dante (whom JB greatly admired) and his Beatrice.

Another aspect of JB that Ketterer explores very effectively is his interest in music. Ketterer deals with this in chapter 9, where we are told about JB's knowledge of this field. Ketterer specifies a book-length manuscript, The Sense of Music, subtitled "studies towards an operational aesthetics including analyses of the semantic content of five familiar compositions..." Evidently Blish was not one to do things by halves! He hated atonal and no-tonal music, as he made clear in a 1964 article in Playboy called "Music of the Absurd." Ketterer observes: "Here we have Blish at his most reactionary" (p. 286).

He was very fond of Richard Strauss, who finds himself "resurrected" in the body of a healthy 50-year-old New Yorker, in 2161, in Blish's "A Work of Art" (1956). This illustrates JB's great ingenuity; he deals with the creative process itself as the composer finds he cannot escape from his old methods and ideas. In seeming to applaud him, his audience is really applauding the "art of mind sculpture" that had given him a new body. Ketterer says JB's treatment of this ancient theme "far outreaches...other predecessors," including the Asimov of "The Immortal Bard" (1954) and the Ray Bradbury of "Forever and the Earth" (1950). In doing this, JB gives his SF genuine literary value and status.

Mention of the absurd brings us to another important element in Blish's writing: surrealism. Surrealism has both made and marred much 20th-century art; it can so easily deteriorate into decadence, the hopeless despairing feeling that life has no purpose or direction. This element can be seen clearly in A Case of Conscience (1958), where it is featured in a very wild and most skillfully described party in New York. (Conscience, Ketterer points out, was received enthusiastically in England, where it was published by Faber and Faber in 1959 after being rejected by Putnam's, which could not see a market "for a book which marries SF and the serious novel."

A Case of Conscience, with its Christian allusions and imagery, well illustrates JB's constant religious preoccupation. This is dealt with in the section "The Case for Catholicism?" The story features the planet Lithia in 2049, located in the constellation Aries, some 50 light years from Earth; with the Father Ruiz-Sanchez are three scientists who wish to exploit the gentle Lithians and their great mineral wealth. A young Lithian is brought back to Earth and is eventually given his own TV program in New York! According to the Father, religion gives life meaning; it is not incompatible with science; and without it, life is empty. This agrees with Einstein. Because of JB's use of alternative possibilities in regard to these matters, Ketterer calls him "the Nathaniel Hawthorne of SF writers." We might also compare him to Graham Greene.

In chapter 9, "The Branching Tree: Juveniles, Poetry, Criticism, Miscellany," we are told about JB's "Star Trek" contracts with Bantam Books--an effort which was financially rewarding and brought him much reassuring mail from the young. His book for adolescents, The Star Dwellers, is, as always, dealt with thoroughly-- in this case, as "a fable of maturation." Nearly all writers have special themes which bring out the best in them. One of these special themes attaches to the "Angels" that the 17-year-old Jack Loftus, fellow cadet Jerry ("Sandbag") Stevens, and their compatriots encounter in the Coal Sack Nebula. In The Star Dwellers, these "Angels" serve to combine physics with metaphysics, science with religion. Ketterer writes that they are "heart symbols, symbols of life, love, and maturity in emotional, intellectual and spiritual terms, the Haertel (heart-intellect) ideal" (p. 251). It is a challenge to personify such creatures, but JB succeeds, capturing something of the awesome spirit of the Universe in which we sometimes find ourselves in the position of mice facing an enigmatic cat. We are told that Jack and Sandbag "must strive for the balance of wisdom and empathy that their supervisors supposedly exhibit" (p. 252).

It is impossible to do full justice here to the depth and breadth of JB's writing, to the many further religious, literary, and scientific implications so vital to us all, and to his concern for philosophy from the idealism of Berkeley, through the Hegelian search for freedom, to the Logical Positivists and their insistence on empirical objectivity.

Considering the technical expertise and imaginative insight with which Ketterer delves into all aspects of the man and his writing, all fans of James Blish, including students and scholars, will enjoy Imprisoned in a Tesseract. The book concludes with excellent bibliographies and an index providing all the means necessary for a comprehensive appreciation of one of the most thoughtful and literate writers of SF.

Desmond Tarrant Poole, Dorset

James Blish is one of the patron saints of serious SF criticism; and it is therefore appropriate that this critical biography should be of a quality that sets new, though not unsurpassable, standards for biographies of SF writers. Ketterer has been thorough in his researching of Blish's life and is usually acute in his judgment of the work; the odd cavilling note in what follows is to be taken as minor and having to do with blemishes that are especially regrettable because what they diminish is work of so high an order.

Ketterer's book is arranged in a moderately unconventional fashion and one which makes a linear reading through not always the appropriate one. He begins with a crisp account of the facts of Blish's life and then breaks his discussion of the work into pursuits, often involving back-tracks, of three trains of thought he has detected in Blish's work. The account of the life is precise and balances carefully the needs of the scholar and the rights of his subject's survivors: Ketterer is discreet about Blish's sometimes tangled emotional life while telling us most of what we need to know in order to understand his work. His use of the large legacy of Blish's personal papers is thorough but economic; he never allows a sheer piling up of paper to swamp his own authority as biographer.

His discussion of Blish's work breaks down, as I have said, into three strands, each of them seen to some extent as culminating in one of the works Blish regarded as parts of a trilogy: A Case of Conscience, Doctor Mirabilis, and the Black Easter/Day after Judgement diptych. Ketterer portrays the three as following through, respectively, on Blish's interest in science, in historicity and historical inevitability, and in culture, philosophy, and religion overall.

Ketterer's decision to accept what Blish saw as his most important work is open to question, simply because it is not necessarily the case that at all times in his career he saw things as clearly in terms of this structure. There is also a real probability that Ketterer's decision to argue that these three works were a trilogy has as much to do with a quest for serious literary credibility as with the straightforward truth of the matter. True, they can all be seen as dealing with the moral ambiguity of the quest for knowledge that the series title Blish gave them, "After Such Knowledge," can be seen at one level as referring to. Further, they all to some extent use Blish's complex relationship with the religion he rejected at an intellectual level but was drawn to creatively and emotionally to play complex games of having things both ways. In Black Easter, for example, Blish is entertained by the possibility that the white magician Father Domenico is as damned for his petty conjurations as Theron Ware was for his active pursuit of malevolence, that the pursuit of virtue is a damnable exercise of the will in search of personal improvement.

But in different ways and with a different set of emphases and discourses, the theme of "damned if you do and damned if you don't"--a sort of existential despair at the shifts the illusion of free will puts us to--dominates the whole of Blish's work, and I would like to have seen from Ketterer a more detailed critical explication of why we are necessarily to accept Blish's own judgment as to which of his works are the most accomplished embodiment of it. The "Cities in Flight" sequence, for example, has a note of jouissance in the possibilities of Blish's chosen generic form that is altogether different from the sometimes labored invokes and indulged conceits of Black Easter.

(Ketterer is gently ironic at the attempt by Blish to impose a future-history schema retrospectively on a number of his juveniles and minor works; he is freed to do so by the lack of entire seriousness with which Blish engaged in this, but might usefully have brought a similar cynicism to bear on the more pretentious scheme of "After Such Knowledge." The work which fits the templates alike of future history and of series which works through a set of intellectual conceits aspiring to be ideas is the work which from an early date was intended to do so--Cities in Flight. One fears that the fact it is also a space opera compelled Blish to step back from claiming it as a favored, rather than secondary, child.)

Ketterer has adopted, seemingly, as one of his ground rules, Blish's own assessment of how matters stood. He acknowledges the extent of Blish's heterosexual misogyny, his tendency to patronize individual women in his life and denigrate or exclude them in his art; but avoids not only making any kind of moral judgment on this, but pursuing its psychological consequences. Clearly Blish was much loved by some remarkable and able women in spite of these attitudes, but Ketterer does not to any serious extent move from noticing those attitudes to discussing how they may have limited Blish as an artist--been defects, rather than givens merely, in his emotional health.

Further, Ketterer takes Blish uncritically at his own estimate in the area of his dilettante and largely autodidact scholarship. It is interesting to know about Blish's work concerning the semantic content of music (though in the absence of its publication we could do with a slightly more detailed account of Blish's theories than Ketterer offers and a more detailed estimate than the highly favorable one offered by a musicologist), but Ketterer does not discuss with any real critical insight the contentious parts of Blish's views on music. For example, Blish, while loving the work of Richard Strauss, held to the view (expressed by him most memorably in the short story "A Work of Art") that the later work of Strauss is, simply, a falling off from the high point of Der Rosenkavalier; and Ketterer has not taken on board the fact that many critics and performers think entirely otherwise. Blish had limitations, and Ketterer is not always prepared to acknowledge or consider them. More importantly, a significant part of the auctorial persona which looms from every one of the serious works is Blish's sense of himself as a scholar of real attainments, and we are entitled to expect that Ketterer more explicitly evaluate this claim as genuine or a bluff.

Nor indeed does he really come to terms with the sheer crankiness of many of Blish's intellectual preoccupations. Blish was interested in areas of study where he could carve out territory for himself as much as in the actual quality of what is studied. Of course, many of those areas were of real worth and paid him dividends in insights into culture and the act of writing: one would certainly never wish that Blish had not been the amateur Joyce scholar that he was. It is possible, though, to wish that Ketterer had been a little more intellectually abrasive in his attitude to Blish's studies of, say, Spengler, which provided him with a somewhat self-serving template of historical inevitability against which he could judge his status as writer and human being, as well as giving him material for the plots of space operas.

One could also wish that Ketterer had engaged even more deeply with Blish the critic and theoretician of SF; he could usefully have considered more deeply Blish's critical judgments on others as a permanent contribution to study as well as a check brought to bear on the understanding of Blish's. It is to Blish that we owe much of our understanding of the complex relationship in SF of author and editor, and of the ways in which the operation of the market affects the production of work. Ketterer has a certain amount to say about Blish's close creative relationship with John W. Campbell over the "Cities in Flight" sequence and about the friendship with Charles Monteith, his highly literary editor at Faber: but one could have done with more information about other editors. Questions of space may well have dictated the brevity of Ketterer's discussion of Blish the critic, scholar, and musicologist, but that brevity is nonetheless a matter for regret.

In the more important matter of Ketterer's discussion of Blish's fiction, with the sole exception to his acceptance of Blish's ranking of his work and imposition of a pattern on what he regarded as its most significant portion, Ketterer is thorough and occasionally excellent. He is keen to move expeditiously through the work and so there are few surprise re-assessments on offer. The late "Star Trek" novelizations get appropriately short shrift with the exception of the linked but original Spock Must Die, which Ketterer sees as a parable about Blish's mortal illness and affirmation of his will to survive. Ketterer's assessment of the minor Blish novels is attentive, judicious, and generous; he has such interesting but flawed works as The Night Shapes and The Frozen Year thoroughly placed. His accounts of the major works are solid statements both of his own critical assessments and of the work on those texts of other scholars and critics.

He is acute on the way in which Blish feinted at ideas in minor work before coming to terms with them from a different angle in superior fictions. He is perhaps less acute on the extent to which, like many other SF writers of his generation, Blish echoed and transformed in passing interesting ideas in other writer's stories. The hallucinations experienced by the star-traveler in "Common Time," for example, are--among all the other more metaphorical things they are (as Ketterer so sensitively demonstrates)--a refinement of the antic hallucinations experienced by the star-travelers in Asimov's earlier story "Escape!" as part of a series of practical jokes. His discussion of The Frozen Year, while otherwise good at the way the novel exploits the ambiguity of textual authority, neglects the extent to which this tale of the discoveries made by an Antarctic expedition feints at two earlier such: Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" and John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?" Part of the job of the critic of genre fiction is to delineate for those scholars less acquainted with the genre at hand the extent to which authors play the game of wrong-footing the expectations of even intelligently wary readers.

Ketterer also tends to give Blish a sort of hindsight benefit of the doubt. It is undoubtedly the case that A Case of Conscience is built around a set of alternative explanations of a set of phenomena and derives much of its complex emotional appeal from the interplay of interpretations, but it is not necessarily appropriate to yield to the temptations offered by Ruiz- Sanchez's study of the casuistic paradox from Finnegan's Wake and see Blish to quite this extent as a ludic post-modernist avant la lettre. It is rather more appropriate to see Blish solving the problems implicit in expanding his original story, a closed entity, by redefining the rules so that that closure is no longer the case. This has a lot more to do with the growth of the "fix-up" as a feature of SF publishing, and with reconciling that with artistic demands, than it does with Blish's being at the cutting edge of fictional experiment.

One could multiply cavils. One could also complain about the slight flatness of Ketterer's style and the limited extent to which, for all his quotations from Blish's letters, he succeeds in giving that three-dimensional sense of Blish the man which characterizes the very greatest of biographies. In the last analysis, though, these cavils are made necessary by the generally high level of the work; Ketterer has managed to keep a large number of biographical topics in the air at once and has written a book which it will be difficult, though possible, to surpass.

--Roz Kaveney London, England

Pragmatic Distinctions

S.L. Varnado. Haunted Presence: The Numinous in Gothic Fiction. Tuscaloosa & London: Alabama UP, 1987. 160pp. $19.95

At a time when few informed critics speak confidently of the presence of anything, let alone ghosts, Varnado's refreshingly straightforward book cannot but seem a trifle dated. Certainly there is no indication in it that his critical principles have been in any way unsettled by post-structuralist doubts. Consequently, we have here a clear, perhaps simplistic, but--to my mind--useful message. Varnado claims that the analysis of the "numinous" in The Idea of the Holy (1923--a date which curiously he fails to supply) by Rudolf Otto (1860-1937) "illuminates...the very essence of the supernatural tale" (p. 1) and "stands at the center of Gothic literature" (p. 6). "The numinous...can be summed up as an affective state in which the percipient--through feelings of awe, mystery, and fascination [Otto elaborates on the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans]--becomes aware of an objective spiritual presence" (p. 15). With its associated categories of the sacred and the profane, the numinous accounts for both the ethical and the aesthetic value of Gothic or supernatural fiction.

It follows that the supernatural tale--of which the ghost story is the stereotypical example-- occupies "an ontological plane different from other kinds of fantasy" (p. 4). The numinous element, which provides an "ontological challenge" (p. 6) to the realistic context in which it must be embedded, itself implies a broader or higher reality: "The ghost story stands or falls on its power to convince the reader that the feeling of the supernatural corresponds to some element in reality" (p. 5; emphasis in original). In New Worlds for Old (1974), I proposed that non-mimetic forms of literature--what are today often lumped together under the term "fantastic literature"--can be coherently grouped into two master categories depending on whether or not the "other world" described or invoked is in some literal sense concordant with, or incorporative of, consensual reality. The first grouping includes works of what I termed the "apocalyptic imagination"; the second--somewhat unfortunately given today's usage--works of the "fantastic imagination" (the term "hermetic imagination" would be preferable, and I shall use it subsequently). Clearly, the supernatural tale, as understood by Varnado, is a species of fantasy that belongs, along with SF, in the apocalyptic category, while there are other forms of fantasy (by no means all) which belong in the hermetic category. Since the value of this quite basic distinction--all forms of "genre" fantasy and all forms of "mainstream" fantastic literature are, in respect to emphasis and tendency, amenable to it--is insufficiently appreciated, Varnado is to be commended for both employing it and refining our conception of it.

He might, however, have worked a little harder at clarifying the distinction between the numinous and the sublime--or rather, the various kinds of sublime. As it is, when Varnado refers to Horace Walpole's "raising the sublime to the numinous" (p. 31), the reader is confused as to exactly where the difference lies--and here the two citations from Otto do not help much. Later, Varnado maintains, apropos a quotation from Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows," that "Blackwood explicitly differentiates the sublime from the numinous..." (p. 121). But whatever he may be doing implicitly, explicitly he is doing no such thing.

After two chapters defining his subject and approach, Varnado turns in the ensuing six to the analysis of particular examples. In these analyses, Otto is frequently supplemented by Jung. Given the key criterion that the numinous element must be central, Varnado treats the classic Gothic romances (The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and The Monk), Frankenstein, the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James's "The Ghostly Rental" and The Turn of the Screw, Dracula, and the work of three modern Gothic writers: Arthur Machen, Blackwood, and H.P. Lovecraft. Unfortunately, Varnado's individual readings are invariable superficial and rather obvious--the result, perhaps, of expanding what might have been an excellent article into what, as one reads on, becomes a repetitive book of rather mixed qualities. My own further comments will be confined to the chapters on Frankenstein and Poe, since both illustrate particularly well the "apocalyptic" affinity that SF has with Gothic fiction.

Regarding Frankenstein, Varnado argues that "Mary Shelley uses the concepts of the sacred and the profane to repudiate a central myth of the nineteenth century: the all-sufficiency of man when he cuts himself loose from tradition and relies on science and raw rationality" (p. 48). Here, as elsewhere, Varnado fixates on a flat and unambiguous interpretation. Is it true, one might ask, that "[b]y his original act of sacrilege, even if it was not wholly intentional, Frankenstein has produced a nightmare that must be destroyed" (p. 57)? Is the Moon in Frankenstein to be accurately or totally accounted for as a "symbol of the false act of creation" (p. 58)? Might it not also be a symbol of the sublime, the numinous, or the feminine? In asserting that "the creator and the creation perish" at the end of Frankenstein, Varnado closes what Mary Shelley leaves intriguingly open. Before disappearing, the monster has spoken only of his intention to immolate himself. One should not assume unequivocally that he does so. And in this chapter--again as elsewhere--the reader will also occasionally balk at Varnado's scrambled sense, as in this case: "Like many of his later progeny, Frankenstein is perhaps the first of many 'mad scientists' in literature..." (p. 48; emphasis added).

Varnado's Poe is pretty much a straightforward mystic or visionary. Readings of "MS. [not 'Manuscript'] Found in a Bottle" and "A Descent into the Maelstrom" demonstrate what Varnado takes to be the characteristic pattern in Poe's texts, "a kind of ontological search for the sacred" (p. 71)--a process whereby a rationalist is initiated into the numinous. This is reasonable enough as far as it goes; what is missing is any awareness of skeptical complication on Poe's part. It is in this area that Varnado's book would most definitely have benefitted from a greater openness to contemporary criticism and literary theory. The question of the seriousness of Poe's belief in supernatural reality--a central issue in Poe criticism for some time now--is relegated to a footnote reference to G.R. Thompson's 1973 volume, Poe's Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales. And there is absolutely no indication that Varnado is aware of the significant body of Reconstructive commentary that has battened on Poe's writings. If nothing else, Varnado needed to face the fact that Reconstruction could undermine what I value most about his book: the pragmatic distinction between "apocalyptic" reality fantasy and "hermetic" fantasy fantasy (so to speak).

--David Ketterer Concordia University

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