Science Fiction Studies

# 65 = Volume 22, Part 1 = March 1995




Robert M. Philmus

Kindred Spirits: Robert Crossley on Olaf Stapledon

Robert Crossley. Olaf Stapledon: Speaking for the Future. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1994. xviii+474. illus. $39.95.

This biography represents a great deal of labor--roughly a decade's worth, beginning in earnest in 1982 and going up to sometime in 1991 ("most of the book was drafted" in 1989-90 [xvii], but see 444 n.22). In the course of his research, Robert Crossley seems to have interviewed virtually every relative and friend of Stapledon's (then) still alive (starting with his widow and first cousin, Agnes, née Miller) and perused every surviving document that Stapledon himself ever wrote (along with much written to and/or about him). The result is a book, just under 400 closely-printed pages long (not counting another 50 pages of endnotes), which tells us just about everything that we are ever likely to know--or rather, that we ought to want to know--about Stapledon's outward life.

By my qualifying "ought...," I in part mean to convey that Crossley's is not a book that will hold much appeal for the kind of "inquiring mind" eager for the sensational "dirt" on those Hollywood stars and other claimants to fame who pass as our modern-day heroes. To focus momentarily on the notable pertinent example: we may in time learn the name of the woman whom Crossley, in deference to her wishes, refers to as "N.," the second and last of Stapledon's extramarital loves; but readers valuing such details will find precious little in Crossley's pages to satisfy their prurient curiosity. All of this is also to say that Crossley's biography is one that its subject, I think, would have approved at least as much as Brian Aldiss does when he writes that "Crossley brings out the engagement, courage, and--well, niceness of Stapledon's life" ("Foreword," xiii; emphasis in original).

Perhaps the best way of establishing the grounds for this claim of mine is by venturing to modify Aldiss' statement. Crossley's biography, in my view, doesn't only "bring out" certain qualities of "Stapledon's life"; it is itself informed by qualities that Stapledon the human being embodied. Such a consonance can, of course, be significantly tautological, the effect of the biographer convincingly making the subject over in his or her image. But in this case, the Stapledon Crossley presents us with largely--I would say, totally--accords with the impression any fair-minded reader gets from Stapledon's own writings. I would also rule out another, nugatory, tautological possibility: viz., that Stapledon has fundamentally influenced, changed, the character of his biographer, whose "engagement" with--or rather, moral affinity for--Stapledon I take to be an instance of pre-existent harmony, so to speak.

The Stapledon most to my point is not, however, the engaged and still less the courageous man (though, as Crossley implicitly demonstrates, Stapledon was, inextricably, both). I am thinking instead of the Stapledonian quality that Aldiss calls "niceness," which I prefer to see as a constellation of qualities specifiable by the terms decency, generosity, and honesty. Crossley provides more than enough instances of various sorts, dating back at least as far as service with a Quaker-sponsored ambulance corps in World War I, to justify that moral characterization of Stapledon. At the same time, his treatment of his subject makes it clear that he himself has a real moral sympathy with (not just for) Stapledon, something not confined to isolatable passages wherein Crossley diplomatically negotiates Stapledon's two "affairs," but evinced at large in the biographer's refusal to engage in the kind of analysis which discounts conscious motives as nothing more than a rationalizing overlay on un-/sub-conscious and irreducibly selfish drives.

I, for one, do not regret the absence of any impulse to "see through" a decent, generous, and honest man so as to discover some underlying ignobility an impulse which, in Stapledon's case (among others), must involve arrant projection on the part of the (would-be) analyst. There are, however, at least three points that Crossley himself brings up which deserve deeper scrutiny than he gives them.

The first of these has to do with a passage Crossley quotes from Last Men in London (LMiL, 1932) wherein Paul concludes: "To fight for one's nation against other nations in a world insane with nationalism, is an offence against the spirit." Crossley properly connects this sentiment to what he has already clearly delineated as Stapledon's profound inner conflict over his role during World War I. But in his comment ("Because the Great War was being fought to preserve an exhausted and pharisaical status quo, refusal to fight was the honorable course": 132), Crossley seems to be suggesting that Paul's resolution was the one that Stapledon had arrived at almost 20 years earlier rather than a considerably ex post facto product of mature reflection which also rationalizes away a nevertheless durable ambivalence, a chronic division (a possibility encouraged by LMiL's testimony that Stapledon, in the writing of that sequel to Last and First Men [LFM, 1930], was continuing to struggle with his attitude[s] toward the War).

Conceived thus, as involving some emotional self-deception on Stapledon's part, this instance is relatable to another which is far more consequential: his conduct towards the women in his life. After roughly 20 years of marriage to Agnes, he became romantically attached first to Evelyn Wood Gibson and then to "N." (both of them rather younger than he, "N." by almost 30 years). And to all three women he behaved badly. How badly and in what way can be inferred from a brief excerpt from a letter of his to Agnes about his relationship with her and Evelyn: "...above all it hurts so much to have hurt you. Oh my dearest of all, forgive me, love me happily again. And while we are away from one another, remember that I shall be thinking very much of you. And even while I am glad to see Evelyn again I shall be longing to see you again and to know that all is well in spite of the muddle." Crossley, while quoting the letter in question at length (286-87), confines his appraisal of it to remarking on the fact that Stapledon "mustered only bloodless generalities" "about the present realities of his marriage" (285). Yet surely that letter, fundamentally representative as it is of Stapledon's mindset--his emotional doublethink--in both of his "affairs," demands some explanatory context that might preserve the overall image of him Crossley seeks to convey at a juncture--or junctures--wherein, without such a context, Stapledon's behavior appears as quite indecent.

Though in itself beyond extenuation, Stapledon's insensitive treatment, at times, of the three women in his life is an understandable--even predictable--consequence of one further quality belonging in the constellation I've already identified: innocence. The letter to Agnes I've quoted from above, in so far as it evinces surprise, perhaps, that she feels unhappy and certainly supposes that she can put the hurtful cause out of her mind, illustrates the particular sort of innocence at stake. This fits in with a speculative answer to a question that Crossley raises but leaves unanswered: How did Agnes find out about Evelyn? Because (according to my guess) Stapledon told her. But, on a larger scale, it also comports with an interpretation of Stapledon's personal history as essentially resembling Odd John's. Like that creation of his, Stapledon's mental evolution appears to have been unusually gradual and protracted, and even more markedly so on the emotional side. The realizations that became, through a process of skeptical self-scrutiny, the basis for his ongoing intellectual development he did not clearly arrive at until sometime in his late 30s, at which point he had not advanced nearly as far emotionally as he had elsewise from the 17-year-old who "fell in love" (his words: 60) with his cousin, age nine. It is safe to conclude, moreover, that the critical self-awareness he brought to bear on his thoughts did not extend to his feelings, so that his affective grasp of human psychology (his own included) never quite equaled his intellectual vision.

The third instance calling for more attention than Crossley gives it has to do with what I take to be the most significant of the connections that he makes between Stapledon the man and Stapledon the writer. Most connections of this sort that the biographer points to bear on local correspondences between certain fictional details and discrete moments in the author's life (e.g., LFM's Seal Men and the seals Stapledon actually observed on the cliffs of Wales: 186-87), and hence do not substantially alter our view of the work in question. The case with Sirius is different. Here Crossley offers two pieces of information that can serve as grounds for a new psychological reading of the book: first, that Sirius owes much to Rip, a fox-terrier that Stapledon was attached to in childhood; and second, that Plaxy is modeled on Evelyn Gibson. (The latter assertion, coming as it does from a contemporary note of Gibson's on the manuscript Stapledon gave her, can be taken as a matter of fact; and the former, while technically hearsay, acquires the same status once Crossley explains that Stapledon addressed letters to Rip while the dog was absent--for most of its life--in Egypt with his father. The only thing that seems odd in all of this is that no other dog figures in this biography, even though Stapledon spent his last dozen years at a country house.) In briefly sketching the "new dimension" these identifications open up, Crossley speaks of Sirius as "reverberating with Olaf's troubled extramarital love...when the book was being written" (310); but by focusing finally on Robert as "represent[ing] an alternative version of Olaf himself," Crossley distracts attention somewhat from the strange psychological vistas accompanying Stapledon's fictional self-portrait as a canine. My point is not that Crossley is wrong to see the Plaxy-Sirius-Robert love-triangle as "reminiscent of...the Evelyn-Olaf- Agnes trio" (310), but rather that the Sirius-Stapledon nexus (as defined in part by the relationship with Plaxy) is the really curious one, also in so far as it resists our tendency to anthropomorphose Sirius and thereby indicates how radical a recasting of Odd John [1935] Sirius [1944] is.

As may already be obvious from my three examples, Crossley's biography accommodates understandings different from his own. This is most evident with regard to Stapledon's relationship with his parents. Crossley ultimately endorses Stapledon's last explicit statement about them, written after their deaths, according to which his father "respected [him] as a fellow human being of distinctive character and capacity" while his mother didn't want to allow him "to be myself" (105). Yet Stapledon may have owed the formation of his social and political ideas as much to the "Ruskinite" mother (26) he here represents to be "conventional" as to the shipping magnate father who (none the less) made at least one (charitable) contribution to the Liverpool University Settlement (113). And, more certainly, it doesn't take a Freud to see that Stapledon's 1940s' rendition of his relationship with his father is at variance with the one suggested by an episode occurring shortly after LFM appeared: when Olaf, somewhat inebriated and "brandish[ing] a copy of his book," exclaimed, "This will finally show him!" (193-94).

On the whole, Crossley's account is entirely consonant with the hypothesis that Stapledon's life has, in the ways I've already touched upon, a profound resemblance to Odd John's (with or without the modifications which Sirius may suggest). But although at least one remark of Crossley's hints at such a pattern (he speaks of the "breathlessly adolescent" "eroticism" of a poem of Stapledon's as "another reminder of what a late bloomer Olaf, at thirty-seven, was": 158), neither that thesis nor any other informs this biography in its entirety. Crossley, in other words, does not follow Stapledon's example as a writer whose fictions are always more or less conception-governed (in the way illustrated most simply, perhaps, by LFM with regard to the Spenglerian "organic" trajectory of the various civilizations it depicts). Instead, the only principle operative in this biography overall is pretty much that of chronological order (save for an initial chapter wherein we see Stapledon arriving at New York's La Guardia Airport in 1949, a year before his death, and the almost equally unnotable exception of the reprise of Rip that I previously mentioned).

This departure from a Stapledonian model makes for a twofold problem. One aspect arises from the fact--by no means unique to this particular author- subject--that Stapledon's was not a life "crowded with incident" (not even in Lady Bracknell's--or rather, Oscar Wilde's--sardonic sense of those words). Nor can the uneventfulness of his life be relieved by recurrent flashes of (let's say) Shavian verbal brilliance or of an otherwise luminous personality. Crossley himself asserts, once, that Stapledon "had...charisma" (331); but none of his interviewees chooses that word (or any akin to it); and I daresay there's nothing in his pages to support the belief that Stapledon the man had any more of the immediate prepossessing impact necessary to charisma than he does as the literary stylist whom Rebecca West (reviewing Darkness and the Light, 1942) caricatured--with the unfairness but also, I think, the accuracy of good caricature--as reading like "Paradise Lost'...rewritten by the author of Bradshaw's Railway Guide" (quoted on p. 277). In short, nowhere in Crossley's 400 pages does Stapledon come across as vividly as H.G. Wells does in a single brief utterance: "It is all balls to suggest First & Last Men [sic]...owes anything to my writings. I wish it did" (198). I don't mean to insinuate that Stapledon's life must inevitably appear boring, still less that Crossley makes it so. My point, rather, is that that life as a whole is not inherently gripping, and not easy to vivify without taking novelistic liberties, which Crossley eschews. Confining himself to the facts, just the facts, Crossley nevertheless does succeed at moments in making Stapledon come alive, especially when appropriately enough, by an image more than by the words expressing that image he describes the future author of LFM and Star Maker (1937) recreating a boyhood experience by carrying "his own small telescope" to his attic in 1926 to view the stars through a skylight he had installed for the purpose (176). This is not, however, typical of Crossley re-creations, which are generally peripheral to Stapledon the man and even (though to a lesser extent) to Stapledon the writer of SF.

The other aspect of the problem with Crossley's strictly chronological account is that much of Stapledon's early life--the first 35 years or so of it, to be more exact--hold very little interest of any kind in themselves, except perhaps as they might enter in with the Odd John hypothesis about him. Yet Crossley's biography, largely by dint of its chronological scheme, devotes to those years, comprising a little more than half of Stapledon's life, a roughly proportionate number of pages--i.e., almost 200. This dictates, among other consequences, that Crossley attend at some considerable length to Stapledon's chief published output from that period, his poems, even though he rightly judges the poetic vehicle Stapledon fashioned to have been a "ricketty wagon" (162).

Though not directed from beginning to end by a Stapledonian conception of its material, Crossley's book offers more than a chronological account of Stapledon's life. It is also, for one thing, a literary biography. We are given the outward circumstances, always, and sometimes a glimpse of the inner mental processes attending the genesis of each of Stapledon's published works, along with sample comments exemplifying the reception each got from reviewers. In addition, Crossley provides a certain amount of interpretative observation of his own, albeit without engaging in any full and detailed exegesis. Often his critical insights take the form of one-sentence epitomes. He characterizes Philosophy and Living, for instance, an an "idiosyncratic" "introduction to its discipline" (255), LMiL as "a telepathic Bildungsroman, a science-fictional portrait of the artist as a young man" (200), and LFM as Paradise Lost "with Miltonic theology edited out" (189); and in every case what he says is worth reckoning with, even if it provoke disagreement (as the last and most aphoristic of the pronouncements quoted will for anyone who thinks of "Miltonic theology" as being fundamentally involved with a Boëthian interplay of Destiny and Free Will). Equally suggestive are the parallels and/or influences he brings up: between LMiL and "Erich Maria Remarque's" All Quiet on the Western Front (200), for one, and between Darkness and the Light and a small host of utopian and dystopian visions such as John Cowper Powys's Morwyn, Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night, and James Hilton's Lost Horizon (276), for another. Finally (in this department) there are discussions, dictated by and oriented towards the point of Crossley's subtitle, wherein he analyzes the "future" (i.e., present) relevance and validity of passages that he quotes at some length, mostly from minor works discussions which will persuade many of his readers to look, or look again, into the likes of Waking World (1934), say.

Cognate to that achievement of Crossley's is another, belonging to the realm of the socio-political historian rather than that of the literary biographer. In the course of detailing what Stapledon was up to at any given moment, Crossley often realizes that moment in larger terms. The most successful of these re-creations, to my mind, are to be found in the two final chapters (ßß18-19) and in the one headed "But Today the Struggle, 1936-1937" (ß12). The latter gives us a feel for the controversy--or controversies--over pacificism in the mid-'30s, the other two for the complications and ambiguities attaching to the Peace Movement in the early years of the Cold War. (Crossley's account of the Peace Conferences Stapledon participated in at Wroclaw and New York is remarkable not just for its evocation of the atmosphere in and around them, but also for being free from mean spirited partisanship no easy feat, given that they were the arena for the machinations of Moscow from within and Washington's dirty tricks from without, acting chiefly in the persons of Alexander Fadeyev and Sidney Hook, respectively.)

Besides decency, generosity, and honesty (all of them perfectly consistent, I think, with the judgment that Fadeyev and Hook were villains), Crossley evinces at least one other notable Stapledonian virtue: a certain modest comprehensiveness. Readers of this biography may be surprised to discover, as I was, how much "research"--book-reading and interrogations of scientist-colleagues--Stapledon put into his science fiction (a term, we find out, that Stapledon came to accept sometime in the '40s). And no small part of that surprise is owing to the unobtrusiveness of that knowledge as it enters into the fiction. The same is true for his biographer. Crossley gives the impression that he has assimilated a large number of texts above and beyond every surviving scrap of Stapledon's own writing, but he does so without ever overwhelming the reader with "information." His book on the whole, then, is "user-friendly": despite having a cast of characters--or names, at least--of War and Peace proportions, Crossley doesn't leave us at a loss to identify who's who and what's what in relation to Stapledon. That last phrase, however, occasionally amounts to an important qualification. The man who took Stapledon-the-poet as his protégé, for example, is the same Fowler Wright who authored SF in the 1920s and '30s, but Crossley refers to him only as a poet(aster). And there is also another, more significant kind of exception to the rule of user-friendliness. In the chapter devoted to the years of the First World War, Crossley mentions a manuscript that Stapledon worked on for about a decade, something that in 1917-18 he was calling "In a Glass Darkly" (139). But Crossley gives some description of the contents of "In a Glass Darkly" only the following chapter, 15 pages later (154-56), and in terms of its next incarnation, "The Sleeping Beauty." This isn't necessarily a problem in itself; what makes it so is that only someone who looks up 139 n.47 and recalls it later on will know that the two utterly different titles apply to essentially the same work (a distant prototype of LFM).

That last kind of exception to the rule of user-friendliness is, so far as I have determined, all but unique. At the same time, that lapse is associable with omissions of a somewhat different sort. Having pored over Stapledon's diaries (records, in part, of his inner thoughts from his teens until sometime around the outbreak of WWI and thereafter apparently little more than appointment books), Crossley tells us, inter alia, that Stapledon in his youth read Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues... (61). Since he also enjoyed it, it seems unlikely that he looked into nothing else of its kind; but Crossley is silent on the matter, despite its being of some import with regard to Stapledon's own testimony (made suspect by the Verne datum and also perhaps by his connection with Fowler Wright) that he was virtually an ignoramus about SF at the time he wrote LFM. So, too, there is one noteworthy omission in Crossley's account of Stapledon the philosopher. Though, as I've said, he accurately sums up Philosophy and Living, the page or so he devotes to its contents does not mention that that book contains Stapledon's fullest outright exposition of such concepts of his as "personality-in-community" and "thinking-feeling- striving" (wherein lies its "idiosyncracy"). Finally, most students of Stapledon's SF will want to know more than Crossley tells us about the multitude of unpublished MSS. and the like that he refers to.

That even a 400-page long biography should not be self-sufficient with regard to those MSS. is understandable (and, we may hope, remediable through their publication, preferably under Crossley's editorship). And many of the other omissions I've indicated could no doubt have been made so. Which is also to say that what is most wanting, strangely enough, is a proper Preface, not just Acknowledgments and someone else's Foreword. Enterprises of Crossley's, like just about any other, creative kind are, after all, the product of an act of inclusion which--as a corollary to the Angenot-Suvin "Not Only But Also" Principle--is (perforce) is an act of exclusion as well. And certainly--as most of my criticisms have been in part intended to demonstrate--even with a project of this one's magnitude Crossley has ruled out some possible directions in pursuing another or others. If, however, he has thereby not followed the example of the Stapledon who, arguably, was self-critical to the verge of self-repudiation--or beyond (see the block quotation on p. 323)--Crossley has given us as "definitive" a biography of the man as I imagine we're ever likely to get; and in the process he has dropped many hints-- especially about where Stapledon is coming from, literarily speaking and otherwise--which will no doubt prove profitable in the years to come.

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