#58 = Volume 19, Part 3 = November 1992
Grove's Version of Pastoral Utopianism
Edited by RMP
I love Nature more than Man.—F.P.
Grove, Over Prairie Trails
It’s not impossible, but it’s
inhuman.—Anonymous Italian street poet2
1. Frederick Philip Grove (1879-1948),
born in Germany as Felix Paul Greve and emigrating to Canada around 1910, has
received over the years rather divergent critical appraisals, ranging from
patriotico-chauvinistic embalmment to patronizing dismissal. Even so, he is
generally considered an outstanding figure in pre-World War II English-Canadian
prose. He is also the author of one utopian SF novel, Consider Her Ways
(1947), initially well received by reviewers,3 but quite neglected in
the following decades in the field of Canadian studies and totally ignored by SF
Far from being an occasional excursus
into the genre, Consider Her Ways is a crucial part of Grove’s literary
discourse. In his German period, Herr Greve had translated Wells (The Time
Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and The First Men in the Moon,
among other texts) along with works by other practitioners of satire and
allegory such as Swift and Wilde.5 Nor does his interest in Wells
presently disappear: one of Grove’s very first post-emigration writings, a
narrative poem called "The Legend of the Planet Mars" (cf.
"Poems" 82-89), offers a variation on the theme of Wells’s "The
Star," wherein the holocaust of a global Martian war is interpreted by
Earth’s astronomers as an attempt at interplanetary communication.
The most important conceptual
antecedent of Consider Her Ways, however, is Grove’s own The Master
of the Mill (1944). The writing of these two novels kept Grove busy for a
large part of his Canadian career;6 and they can be seen as a
culmination of the tensions and oscillations present through his entire opus. In
both texts the evocation of SF and utopia, á la Wells and Bellamy,
becomes a link connecting the Naturalist novel (with which Grove is often
associated) and the horizons of some post-World War II North American cultural
tendencies (in both the so-called highbrow and lowbrow realms). My specific
argument is that Grove’s works stem from a syncretic (indeed multicultural)
ideological cluster—a mixture of pastoralism, utopianism, and Darwinism—and
that this leads him (an individualistic, quasi-Fabian, social democrat facing
the growing industrialization of Canada, but also the crises of the Depression
and the War) to question in his books any opening for human agency within
history. Consider Her Ways is, in this regard, his bleakest novel. It was
also, literally, his last work (he revised its Introduction just before he
died). But, as I intend to demonstrate, after such a book only literary silence
could have followed.
2. The Master is a naturalist
novel, a family saga dealing
with Western Canadian economic history between 1888 and 1938. Consider Her
Ways, an SF novel whose apparent playfulness thinly disguises its ultimate
bleakness, recounts the adventures of Wawa-quee, an intelligent ant from
Venezuela, during a scientific expedition from the Orinoco valley to the New
York Public Library. But despite their obvious generic differences, the two
works essentially say the same things.
Grove is trying to use a philosophical
point of view explicitly revolving around Rousseau and Thoreau (cf. Stobie Grove)
to make sense of the potent contradiction he is facing in the New World of rural
Canada. If, in his period, the pioneering homesteaders were still part of the
present experience, "Canadian economic life...[was growing] along highly
centralized and semi-monopolistic lines" (McNaught 193); Big Business had
clearly established itself as dominant factor in the tensions of the country
(westward expansion included), and the farmers were going to be one of the
groups more severely hit by post-Depression poverty.7 The general
picture of Canada’s economic structure, in other words, was similar to that of
many other developed countries of the Western hemisphere.
Some popular mythologies about the
West, we should add, were among the casualties of those years. In this respect,
we should be aware of some basic differences between the perception of the
"frontier issue" in the mainstreams of Canadian and American
historiography (cf. Cross’s anthology and Berger ). In the States,
starting with Frederick Jackson Turner in the 1890s, the official rhetoric
endeavors to link in the "Western myth" the reality of economic
expansion and the ideology of an agrarian, tendentially classless, democracy. In
all its variants (including the most critical ones) the idea that democracy is
more likely (or is expected) to be found in the frontier setting than in the
rest of society becomes pervasive in American culture, including literature. The
Canadian response appears instead to be articulated along two specular lines,
both of which largely exclude any connection between the reclaimed wilderness
and the utopian principle of an improved social order. Thus, in the first
decades of this century the pastoral idyll flourishes as the literary image of
rural (not only Western) Canada. The just-settled wilderness is seen by Ralph
Connor, Arthur Stringer, and the other exponents of this Canadian genteel
tradition as a timeless and "harmonious universe" (Ricou 20), immersed
in a "divine natural order" (Harrison 33). In this setting,
individuals and communities have internalized an immutable, pre-ascribed,
unfailingly safe value-system, a hierarchical and past-oriented foundation
guaranteeing their heroic status and their moral superiority over the urban
What is at stake here is, of course,
the attempt by a whole intelligentsia (comprising historians, critics, and
novelists) to counter the Turnerian mythology of "American destiny"
with some sort of Canadian equivalent. Turner’s assumption about the frontier’s
metonymical centrality and his concept of America’s inherent
"progressivism" are fully accepted—and opposed by the notion of
Canada’s inherent (and superior) "staticity." In the first half of
the century, Canadian mainstream historiography, with the same nationalistic
goals in mind, shares with popular fiction that view of the Canadian frontier;
and the result is a denial of that frontier’s importance. Canada, as opposed
to the US, is defined as a nation whose socio-political and economic driving
forces lie not in the rural democracy of the prairie settlement, but in the
urban dynamism of the mercanitle class. These business centers (presumably seen
as absent or irrelevant in the US) have, by controlling the fur trade first,
railway-building and the wheat market later, determined the "ordered"
modalities of the westward movement in Canada (thus establishing an ideological
alternative to the supposedly dangerous and subversive mob-rule of the Ameican
frontier; cf. Lipset 50-52). Harold Innis and D.G. Creighton, no less than the
above-mentioned writers, are programmatically anti-utopian: an absolute denial
of social change seems to have been translated into the socio-political entity
Grove also finds it impossible to do
what others had done in the US: postulate a harmonious locus of unspoiled,
purifying innocence, able to function as a founding "myth" for a new
collective order. Utopia canadiana is necessary and indispensable; the
problem is that, in Grove’s view, that vision (as opposed to, or at least
autonomous from, utopia americana) cannot incarnate, as such, the
"pastoral ethos" of the "renunciation of worldly striving in
favor of a simpler, more contemplative life" (Marx 239), nor can it admit
of an expansionist and Jeffersonian "industrialized version of the pastoral
ideal" (ibid. 222). Grove, in the final analysis, cannot help trying
to achieve a Canadian originality, and the results are definitely bleak and
Only Grove’s first Canadian novel, Settlers
of the Marsh (1925), leaves in its ending a feeble hope in the actualization
of a better condition. In order to reach this utopian horizon, though, the
protagonist has to give up his mask of innocence; the writer has him kill his
wife, the personification of modern (or "citified": §3:97)
sophistication, but also of that "higher, intangible order" (Harrison
75) which was supposedly shaping the settlers’ experience and social
institutions. Only after these illusions have been done away with will a real
horizon be open for him. Fourteen years later, in Two Generations, the
closure is almost complete: the bucolic, still and silent paradise of Sleepy
Hollow can only survive insofar as any contact with modernity (and indeed with
human society per se) is avoided.9
In The Master this critique is
carried to extreme consequences. The original condition of innocence is not only
unsustainable and irretrievable; it is a meaningless mystification. For Grove,
an intellectual who had brought from Europe a deep knowledge of the antecedents
that had shaped the culture and limitations of the North American Left, this is
a discovery that at the novel’s end assumes cosmic proportions.
3. In Canada,
the most frequent national(istic) rhetoric, in political and historiographical
discourse (cf. Lipset and his bibliography) as well as in literary histories
(cf. Weir), seems to be that of "soft" evolutionary growth, as opposed
to the "crude" revolutionary habits of the US. Indeed, the response to
Darwinism, starting with the debate within the scientific circles in the 1870s,
immediately becomes a major issue in Canadian culture, from politics to
literature (cf. Berger Science and Cook).
Within the slim corpus of early
Canadian SF, this response is unanimously problematic. In A Strange
Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, the first Canadian SF novel (written
around 1870 and published posthumously in 1888), one of the materials that were
conducing to the development of a modern capitalistic nation had enclosed James
De Mille’s message about an impossible primitive paradise; moreover, this
"lost world," first introduced as a utopia, was gradually exposed in
the course of the novel as a dystopia—as ultimately indistinguishable, in its
values, from the "real" world (cf. Proietti 223-34). Later, after
World War I, two major literary figures, Charles G.D. Roberts (in his In the
Morning of Time, 1922) and E. J. Pratt (in his narrative poem "The
Great Feud," 1926), use the prehistoric-fable subgenre in a clearly
ambivalent way: in these works, the epic emergence of the first sentient
qualities in ancestral quasi-simians is at the same time an alarmed and skeptic
demonstration of the (self-)destructive potentialities inherent in homo
sapiens. Finally, in Alan Sullivan’s In the Beginning (1927) the
exhilarating discovery of a "lost race" still existing in the Andes
becomes a pretext for a reflection on the fragility of "civilized"
social conventions, with the protagonist devolving to a Neanderthal state.
The reactions to the most important
North American filiation of Darwinism (in both literature and politics)—viz.,
Bellamy’s Looking Backward—are instead more sharply polarized. On the
one hand, we have Stephen Leacock’s parody ("The Man in Asbestos,"
1911); on the other, a Bellamy-esque evolutionary process brings about the
secular millennium in Hugh Pedley’s Looking Forward (1913) and William
Arthur Deacon’s My Vision of Canada (1933).10
Grove himself is admittedly fascinated
by the idea of "socialism from above" ("Thoughts" 331). Sam
Clark,11 the protagonist of The Master, had been a firm
believer in a Canadian actualization of a dream much like Bellamy’s: the
painless achievement of socialism promoted by Big Business. "Producers,
mill-hands, and consumers: all had to profit. That had been his dream"
(§4:40; an explicit parallel to European "communism" is made in
§25:314). World War II is about to begin, and the failure of this utopia is
evident, both in the fictional company town of Langholm and in the real Canada.
The goal of Sam’s backward look is to understand how the destruction of his
dream had originated. Together with him, other characters attempt to recall and
reconstruct the history of the mill, in an ambitious multifocal structure.
Grove is trying to give the narration a
universal scope, and the point is that nobody can really have the whole
perception of the events, or control them. The mill itself, far from being the
outcome of an ideal, has become a Frankenstein monster, a nightmare, a monument
to human alienation, ceaselessly controlling and taking over the life and
actions of the characters. It is, indeed, a mimetic prelude to the robotized
hell of much "social SF."12
An arson, committed in 1888 (the
publication year of Bellamy’s book) to collect an insurance premium, is the
origin of the mill’s fortune. But it is also an original sin. Through this
catalyst the values advocated by the three generations of the Clark family are
proved essentially identical, contradictory, and questionable; three utopias are
tested and discarded. (Consider Her Ways will show a way out: a tragic
Rudyard Clark had inherited the mill
sometime in the 1860s—i.e., significantly, more or less when the Dominion of
Canada was being created. He had embodied the democratic utopia of the self-made
man, but his wealth (and his "entrepreneurial" values) had turned him
into a "hard, ruthless, grasping" (§8:94) man, an "autocratic
ruler" (§1:22). No less so, notwithstanding his dreams, is his son, Sam:
during a strike his reactions are those of a classic robber-baron. The world, he
says, was not ready for a victory of the workers, "neither were the men
ready to govern themselves" (§14:164). Grove clearly shares this mistrust
of the masses, and Langholm’s working class is depicted as a formless mob of
Orwellian proles, easily gullible, with no confidence in Sam’s (pseudo)philanthropical
good will, and only capable of a blind and terrifying violence.
"Utopia would come in time, not
now" (§14:170), Sam says, and so could have said his father and his son
Edmund. The latter also feels himself "humbly content to be the tool of
evolution" (§18:227), thereby justifying in Darwinian terms his own
merciless philosophy. This disturbing and dystopian figure is the spokesman for
the new financial capitalism, which is no longer limited to the production of
material goods; and he is also a descendant (perverted, perhaps, but perhaps
not) of the latest Wellsian utopias. Wells, in such works as Men Like Gods
(1923) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933), had advocated the
instauration of a technocratico-managerial elite, capable of acting as an
enlightened (and dictatorial) guide of the world’s fates and of wiping out the
pernicious sin of individualism (cf. Wagar). Edmund says that automation, in the
name of general welfare, will enslave everybody to the Machine, "the god of
a new universe" (§20:246), and—it could be guessed—benefactor of the
lucky few (including himself) that are going to be necessary to Its functioning.
The word freedom will become meaningless, Edmund had argued, since we all
are going to be free in the only way that really matters: free from
"economic distress" (§18:228).
The roots of his grotesque ideology
(that includes the Nazi-like proposal to sterilize the unemployed) can, again,
be found in 1888, in a sense. When he talks about founding a "dictatorship
of mind over matter" (§18:228), Edmund seems to continue his grandfather’s
crime, seen, in Sam’s words, as a step towards making the universe
"subservient to man" (§9:108). The arson becomes something almost
exhilarating, the highest evidence of human potentialities: "Man is homo
faber as someone has said" (§18:225), comments Edmund. This event is,
in his argumentation, an echo of the original discovery of fire. Sam as well, in
his own retrospective musings, reaches prehistory:
"What was the titanic thing to
which he had been enslaved?"
It was the logic of a chain of
events, that chain which had started millennia ago, with the invention of the
first wheel, the first lever; with the impulse that had prompted the caveman
to take a stone in his hand when levelling a blow at the head of his enemy;
the logic of man’s desire to lighten and at last to shake off the burden of
labour without which he might have the life of the gods. (§9:108)
The history of the mill is a paradigm
for human history; the original sin is collective, almost biological. What had
been a haunting doubt in Roberts and Pratt is now a certainty. The source of
Langholm’s and Earth’s inescapable decay was inscribed in the birth
certificate of the human race.
The quest for a primeval virginity, so
dear to Grove and to his ideological ancestors, is hopeless. Sam, like Rousseau,
everywhere sees men in chains, but he discovers that those chains had always
been part of the legacy of homo sapiens, an inherently "damned"
species for Grove as, before him, for Mark Twain and De Mille. The apparently
timeless strength of the mill becomes something more than a metaphor for a
Marxian concept of alienation. The opening scene brings a full perception of its
essence, as a cosmological entity rather than simply as a productive force: Sam
stares at the mill and sees "a huge pyramid whose truncated apex was in
line with the summits of the surrounding hills" (§1:19). The monster is
camouflaged in the landscape, part of it; it is a thing of Nature, "grown
out of the earth" (§26:328).
Humanity’s progress is a decline:
should it, after the inevitable catastrophe, start again (in a cyclical view of
history), human society would "slowly evolve the shotgun" (§27:331).
There is only one alternative, says Maud Doolittle, Sam’s secretary:
"Some entirely unforeseen thing. Some development of which we cannot even
dream yet. It is useless to try to divine it....I have come to place a great
confidence in the capacity of the collective human mind" (§27:332).
4. Consider Her Ways extrapolates
and literalizes those concluding words of The Master. More particularly,
it depicts a future of the sort that Maud Doolittle speaks about but cannot
properly imagine because she does not realize that her "alternative"
collective mind would no longer be human. In Consider, that future
figures in terms of an ant society, one which anticipates some utopian horizons
proposed or implied in much post-war North American (science-) fiction.
In utopia’s "dramatic dialogue
with the reader" (Suvin 52), the description of the desirable possible
world aims to work as a model or a stimulus for a radical modification of the
"real" world. Grove’s myrmecological utopia, given its biological
and socio-cultural roots, represents instead the complete denial of this
possibility. The implied reader of Thomas More’s archetypal Utopia is
expected to change his or her mind on some basic politico-economic issues—or
at least, and indeed above all, to admit that through political economy
something can be changed. But Consider, through its impenetrable
genetic barrier, simply says that utopia is not for homo sapiens.
The stress on biology, furthermore,
brings it close to SF proper: instead of the foregrounding of socio-political
institutions, we have a full-fledged portrait of the "alien" society,
in all its aspects. But the price Grove must pay for this new opening is very
Thus we find in this novel the dominant
attitude of much subsequent English-language SF: the pastoral denial of utopia.
Grove is trying, in a painfully self-conscious way, to reconcile Wells’s (d)evolutionary
dead end with the reopening of a utopian horizon. Both Grove and his conceptual
descendants, with all their (and their audience’s) dissatisfaction with the
present state of affairs, share with Wells the idea that the here-and-now of
Western civilization is "the best of all the bad possible worlds" (Suvin
217). Like Wells, Grove feels that "the present way of life is with
scientific certainty leading the Individualistic homme moyen sensuel
toward the hell of physical indignity and psychic terror"; like Wells,
Grove can only conceive of "[t]he annihilation of this world [a]s the only
future alternative to its present state" (ibid.). The imagery of alienus
naturalis, as opposed to homo faber, becomes the only available way
out, utopian and nihilistic at the same time.
But this version of the pastoral is not
the traditional and idealized image of the tame garden. D.H. Lawrence and Aldous
Huxley have introduced another, influential, feature: the savage, the primitive,
whose world is ambiguously shaped by the "rhythms of the blood"
(Williams, Country 274) and not by social conventions. SF can take this
literally; sociology and anthropology are replaced by (xeno-)biology. The
post-Enlightenment ideas of production, labor, economy, and political
organization are done away with, subsumed under the overall category of the
"alien" genetic legacy.
"Organization" is a key-word,
as we are going to see. These writers are facing a North American world where
the experience of commodification is leaving no areas untouched by the influence
of modern mass capitalism, including Grove’s beloved prairies and pioneers.
"Alienation," says Herbert Marcuse among many others, seems to be a
meaningless word, since both the body and the mind of the individual have been
completely "invaded," taken over by the production-and-consumption
machine. The reactions to this condition give a new shape to the classic
technology/pastoral opposition. To use the polarities proposed by Tony Tanner
for the American post-war novel, SF oriented around such an opposition assumes
the existence of two competing horizons: on the one hand, the fear of a frozen
and depersonalizing identity superimposed by a dystopian outside; on the other,
the fear of a total loss of individual identity. The problem is that both these
fears can become fascinations: the former can give a certain degree of safety
from other-directedness, the latter can provide an escape from what is perceived
as a series of "superstructures...erected on ‘natural’ reality"
(Tanner 29)— i.e. language, society, reason, etc. When it comes to the utopian
element, no ambivalence is allowed: the second perspective is identified with
the "unpatterned" state of nature, with the refusal of modernity’s
"materialistic" bondages, and is absolutely desirable.13
The discovery of the biological sources
of some uncanny alien social structure becomes a commonplace plot, no less than
the story of the explorer "going native," often fusing his or her mind
with some planetary mass-consciousness; examples could range from Sheckley to
Asimov, Keith Roberts, and Ursula Le Guin. A few years after Consider,
two works whose utopian aspect is made explicit are Clifford Simak’s City
and Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End. In the former, the human species
gives up first its cities and then its physical bodies in order to assume the
shape of the Protean "lopers" and to enjoy, eternally and
ecstatically, the sublime natural beauty of the planet Jupiter. In the latter,
not humanity in general but only children are the actors of a new evolutionary
step: the renunciation, again, of the physical body and of individuality—i.e.,
the attaining of an Emersonian galactic "Overmind."14—is
the conditio sine qua non for the admission to utopia.
This philosophical stance does not rely
on any transcendental foundation, but still implicitly postulates the existence
of an immutable "human nature" (Sam Clark’s "impulse").
This innate, species-specific grid of attitudes is dominated by the principles
of individual autonomy and of an artifice-making culture. This
"nature," and not a succession of historical (hence modifiable and
reversible) choices, becomes the root of all the world’s inescapable evils.
Therefore, the movement towards Otherness can only be conceived of as a movement
away from history, which this SF can literalize in alien spacetimes and
The main self-contradiction of this
ideological paradigm (its founding tension and limitation) is that it both
denies and yet implicitly recognizes humanity’s rootedness in history.
Moreover, the "naturalness" of its Other is located within
post-Cartesian physics and epistemology: for example, the apparently
transcendent element in Clarke’s cult-book is firmly grounded in a Darwinist
vision. To put it in a formula, it is a lay escape from history. This
conceptual oxymoron finds in Grove one of its first full articulations, and
refreshes a fairly reactionary Modernist idea. Yet its longing for a
precapitalist, unchangeable Eden (however displaced) remains an evident stigma
marring its utopian potentialities: in the 1960s, both Charles Manson and the
countercultural movements will be fascinated by it. Unfortunately, both of them
will be right.
5. According to Consider’s
ants, the male’s place in the
human social order is the most strikingly aberrant of human traits;
"man" goes against one of the basic laws of nature: female dominance.
He is a degenerate intelligence, they say, captive to his "pure, arrogant
and ignorant masculinity" (§1:4:23). And women had already been, in The
Master, a prototype for this ahistorical, super-individual force—the only
"alien" biology available outside SF.
The Master is a meta-utopia that
functions—like other novels of Grove’s— as a sort of morality play; the
history of the mill represents a stylized allegory of human history, articulated
around three clusters of characters, whose members are at times interchangeable,
difficult to tell from each other. The Clarks, creators of the mill, personify
human agency, and its lethality. The workers, creations of the mill, embody
powerless passivity and helpless irrelevance; to them, significantly,
individuation is never allowed at all. The final cluster consists of the four
women surrounding the Clarks. These women keep hovering over and around the
events, but never really play an active role in them; they are outside of the
plotline and, in a sense, outside history. The indistinctness of their identity
is not related to the Frankensteinian mill; it is a fact never argued, totally
beyond discussion, apparently inherent in their very being. And their passivity
can bring about, if not alternative agency, at least the most thorough
perception of the past events. They survive the male triad, patch together
Langholm’s history, and—in a final chapter posterior to, and unconnected
with, the main plot—formulate the prophetic speculation that concludes the
novel. They cannot provide an answer, though; they are not alien enough to
"foresee" those things to come: for Maud and her friends, humanity is
inescapably a "we." Unlike Lawrence, Dreiser, Steinbeck, and other
English-language writers in those years, Grove cannot actualize, through women,
a societal new deal; a whole new pack of cards is needed.
In Consider, annihilation of
individual identity is also the first step towards the formicarian utopia. It is
also the touch that gave a final shape to the work. The initial, more
imitatively Swiftian, version (of 1925) had been a long pseudo-treatise on MAN:
His Habits, Social Organization and Outlook, written by the ants and
followed, as an appendix, by a counter-essay in defense of humanity and its
chief value, inequality. Further revisions had given the book the form of a
novel (or, as Frye would have it, an anatomy).15 The final touch is
the introduction, which fictionalizes the transition between the two worlds and
makes the "dramatic dialogue" possible. But for Grove any
communication with the Other can only be achieved through self-denial: "By
some mesmeric action I, my individuality, had been sucked up or down into an
alien mass-consciousness which communed with me through channels other than
those of the senses" (§0:xxxix).
entomologist and the book’s human narrator, receives from a group of ants
Wawa-quee’s report (a first-person narrative) of her extraordinary journey.
This communication takes place telepathically. Only by feeling directly and from
the inside the Other’s experience, only by going beyond the mediation of
language and the barrier of an irremediably mendacious subjectivity, can a real
knowledge be attained. Human language can simultaneously and incestuously serve
"the purpose of communication and the purpose of preventing comunication"
(§4:1:181), the ants say, following the example of the Houyhnhnms (cf. Philmus).
Silverberg has called telepathy a
"languageless language" (Dying Inside §3:19); in Grove and
elsewhere it becomes a "scientific" way to supersede the modern idea
of the arbitrariness of the communicative sign as substitute for what it
signifies—an arbitrariness, or conventionality, which puts a "principle
of lie" at the core of contemporary semiology (Eco 7). The ancient
"pre-Socratic unity of the logos, in which language was seen at one
with the order of the world and of nature, with divine and human law, and with
reason" (Williams, Marxism 22), is recuperated and updated.
So considered, communication is
incompatible with otherness and difference—even more so within the ant
society. Intelligence resides in the totality of the anthill, whose
"mass-consciousness" leaves no autonomy of action and no survival
instinct to the single member. Equality of status can only be achieved
"where the division of labour attendant upon a social life is reflected in
a morphological division into physiological castes" (§5:4:278). The Atta
Gigantea ants mold the Swiftian ideal of the wise Houyhnhnms into the structure
of the Selenite society of Wells’s The First Men in the Moon. Theirs is
a rigid society of biological specialization, from the queen to the
"maxims" ("the leaders and organizers"), the "mediae"
("the ordinary outdoor workers or leaf-cutters"), and the
"minims" ("the indoor workers who attend the culture of the fungi
on which the Attas feed": Appendix 297). Class fluidity, they say, "is
a curse to mankind" (§5:4:280).
The threat in The Master was the
re-shaping of nature, the imposition of human constraints on its continuum and,
ultimately, on the principle of individuality, seen as an analogue for the
(Canadian) emergence of technological and capitalistic modernity. But the same
society was providing the obverse threat of massification; and in Consider,
Wawa-quee concludes that the visible patterns of individual status and prestige
among humans are mysteriously connected to a pervasive, uncontrollable entity
beyond the individual’s grasp—i.e., money: "Just what it is, I do not
know: and neither, I suspect, does man himself" (§5:4:281).
Democracy, with its "fluidity of
the castes," makes for similar kinds of instability and perpetual
dissatisfaction. Grove neutralizes those anxieties by engraining individuation
into the structures of the "natural" collectivism of antdom.
"Our" most striking contradiction, Wawa-quee says of humans, is that
we don’t seem to realize how profitable it would be for us to follow our own
path to the end, thus attaining a surrogate state of nature through
I could never understand...why
["man"] does not, by certain innocent surgical manipulations, so
alter the structure of the brain of all whom he intend for slaves as to make
it impossible for them to covet a higher status. If he gave his medical
officers the power to enquire into financial circumstances (as he calls them)
of the parents of a new-born child...and, if these financial circumstances are
found to be such as to predestine the child to a life of slavery, what could
be simpler than for this medical officer to make the future man happy in that
acquiescence in slavery that will be enforced in any case, but by methods both
cruel and inefficient? (§5:4:281)
In Wells, ants had been used as a
metaphor for some kind of totalitarian militarism (especially in "The
Empire of the Ants" ); and the Western world trapped in World War II
had been described as "ant-like" in his pessimistic pamphlet Mind
at the End of Its Tether.16 Wells himself, though, had been
ambiguously fascinated by the features of the ant-like Selenites in First Men
(whose leader ends up formulating a judgment on the human race which echoes that
of Swift’s King of Brobdingnag). Grove goes one step further: while Swift, in
Book Four of the Travels, had oppositionally split the unhuman
rationality of the Wise Horses from the mindless passion of the anthropomorphic
Yahoos (cf. Suvin 110-11), Grove opposes the ants’ "naturalness" to homo
sapiens’ rationality and, indeed, humanity. If the naturalness is meant to
appreciatively sanction the ants’ regimented civilization, the opposition
identifies that order as being humanly unachievable. The point mainly lies with
the split itself between biological and social laws, as The Master had
argued, and not with one particular version of the socio-productive structure.
Therefore Grove’s myrmecological utopia is a society, founded on the
literalization of the phrase "body politic," with a sophisticated
organization but without a social contract. The opposite of a doomed homo
sapiens is a species without technology and artifacts, one that lives and
prospers without "making" anything, that does not use anything but
by-products of the body and what is available in the ecological niche it
inhabits. This principle is applied to food-gathering, anthill-building, the
preservation of knowledge, and every other aspect of life. "We ants seek
for discoveries rather than for inventions," says one of them (§5:1:238).
Economy, politics, society and production have completely disappeared.
The linguistic strategies are coherent
with this. As in many SF tales, Consider’s description of the alien
world is what most engages the reader’s attention;17 here, though,
the alienation stems from the viewpoint of the narrator. Some variants of the
estrangement technique follow. First of all, the reader is asked to (re)construct
what is going on through the dark glass of Wawa-quee’s perceptions and
presuppositions in the course of her exploration of what is for her terra
incognita; she can’t help, for example, describing a New York subway
station as a "canyon" within a huge "hominary" (§5:1:245).
On the other hand, the reader is compelled rely on those presuppositions and
assumptions in order to infer the patterns of the ants’ world; except for some
general information given in passing, the ants obviously cannot be expected to
give a full report of what is just quotidian to them: the reality-effect of the
narration would be at stake. Thus, for example, we never learn anything about
how the "scent-trees" used for recording and storing knowledge (the
ants’ equivalents for books) work. In the final and climactic part of the
trip, with its total and almost lethal immersion into the unknown of New York
City, one recurring error (a sin of myrmecocentrism, the ants say) is our main
clue, and the crucial point. Wawa-quee and her friends keep interpreting
everything they see and encounter in biological and physiological terms:
electric and telephone cables as immense spider webs, electric lamps as a race
of fireflies enslaved and exploited by humans, means of transportation
("space-machines") as monstrous animals, high shoe-heels (reminiscent
of Swift again) as a distinctive morphological feature of female humans, clothes
as a unique daily skin-moult or a sort of outer "integument" of human
skin. Most elaborate of all is the explanation concocted by the expedition’s
"zoologist-in-chief" to justify and connect two social habits observed
among humans: kissing and women’s make-up:
She [a library user] was tall, slender,
and athletic; and her face showed several coatings of a wax-like substance of
two colours, white and red. This coating, Bissa-tee conjectured, was applied by
the tongues of the males; one day, she asserted, she had, in a recess of the
library, distinctly seen a male applying its mouth to the cheek of a female;
and, investigating at once, she had, beyond the possibility of a doubt,
ascertained the fact that the same substance, also red and white, was coating
the lips of the male which promptly protruded its tongue to lick it back into
its mouth. (§5:3:261-62)
6. If, in much North American fiction,
the journey-plot makes for a parable about the discovery or the foundation of an
identity, this picaresque adventure from a Third World jungle to the center of
the Western empire is for Wawa-quee nothing but a reassuring ratification of her
own superiority. No real Bildung for her, and no chance for us, an inferior
species, nothing more than savages "explored" by higher intellect.
What makes humanity abhorrent is
something deeper than simply the urban organization of its gregarious life. All
the horrors of human folly had already manifested themselves in the first part
of the novel, in a rural context more familiar to the ants. Closeness to nature
and a farming setting are not antidotes to the malignant essence of human
nature. Violence dominates the ants’ first encounters with "us" and
with our technologies; initially the ants misinterpret the sight of a patient in
a dentist’s chair as a scene of sadistic torture (§1:5:28), and the reader is
allowed the condescending distance of the comic effect, but shortly afterwards
their conclusion turns out to be ultimately correct: the violence in the
vivisection of another group of ants (§1:5:34) and in the pig-slaughtering
scene (§2:5:94-95) is terrifying, gratuitous, and unequivocal. The judgment on homo
sapiens does not admit of degrees. Much more articulated is the mapping of
antdom. If the Atta Gigantea are an autonomous standpoint for observation (a
full-fledged "alien"), they are at the top of a ladder that starts
with ordinary, non-sentient, animals; in the middle, the other races they meet
in the first four sections of the book function (not always successfully) as
satirical allegories of some aspect of human history. Thus we have patronizing
descriptions of slave-holding, cattle-raising, harvesting, and warlike races
whose members include capitalists, robber barons, and parasitic intellectuals.
But sarcasm and satirical playfulness don’t apply to the Attas; their size is
minuscule, and they can be physically killed (most of them are: by other ants,
other insects, other animals, humans, natural phenomena, and insecticides), but
their moral superiority is never in question. Their static society is perfect,
and the only lesson they learn is that any contact with other, hopelessly
unperfectible, societies must be avoided.18
The utopian principle is not to be
found within ants or insects in general, but only in the particular group of
ants that Wawa-quee belongs to. The other races are less evolved, less
intelligent, more human-like:
We Attas alone have reached a level
of civilization which makes it possible for us to live self-contained lives,
respecting, and not interfering with, other forms of animal life unless we are
ourselves interfered with. That is the reason why, without any hesitation, we
can now assert...that we Attas must ultimately redeem the world from the sin
of predacious life. We alone are in full accord with nature’s purpose.
What makes the Atta society different
and preferable is the same critique that Sam Clark had put forward in The
Master of the Mill:
Any given development, once started,
leads on by a logic of its own. It has not reached maturity, it has not come
of age, till that logic has been pursued to its ultimate conclusion....Nothing
remains but decay, brought about by a new development, from a new point of
departure, contained, perhaps, in some phase of the old development, or
furnished by some new and startling invention. (§9:107)
In Consider Her Ways, too, the
ant Anna-zee had always seen science and change as pure vanity, as the causes of
an intolerable, destabilizing horror vacui:
The question "How"...can be
answered after a fashion by one provisional answer after the other...; the
trouble is that certainty on one point answers one limited question only and
itself opens up other questions. The achievement of any ant of science is
merely the basis for the achievement of another ant of science; from moment to
moment, it is superseded...; in other words, the best that science...can
achieve is the conversion of the vast knowable universe into an unknowable
Raymond Williams ("Science
Fiction"), Robert Heinlein (45), and—later— Scholes and Rabkin (42)
have put the accent on the historical relevance of what they define as
"anti-science fiction." After World War II the attitude characteristic
of such SF will not be found exclusively within an explicitly reactionary
framework. Pastoralism, ecologism, and opposition to technology combine to form
an ideology perpetually oscillating between utopianism and nihilism. In Consider
Her Ways, the "message" is that only a "predacious"
mentality, such as the human one, can accept a scientific world-view; and that
"predaciousness" is the precondition for the existence of a scientific
society. Anna-zee has no doubt about the ants’ having made the right choice in
opting for the quest of why’s that can be safely undertaken
"sitting in comfort at home" (§3:5:170). Thus we come full circle,
back to the stillness of the Sleepy Hollow community, but in a way which also
points to that insistence on separatism, isolation, staying outside, that will
characterize the North American countercultures.19
The utopian idyll is finally
recuperated, but without its human inhabitants, Canadian or otherwise. The
Master of the Mill has been called a "novel on the triumph of nature
over man" (Fenton 207). Consider Her Ways says: should this happen,
no great harm would be done.
1. The present article, which reworks
and expands a section of the Italian essay of mine listed in my Works Cited, has
been made possible by a Govt. of Canada Award granted to me for a research
project on Canadian SF for the academic year 1990-91. I also gratefully
acknowledge the encouragement and suggestions of (among many others) Agostino
Lombardo and Alessandro Gebbia.
2. This second epigraph, which comes
from a poet in Rome, 1987, is to be found in Canevacci; the translation is mine.
3. A selection of reviews can be found
in Pacey 177-84. In speaking of Consider as utopian, I have in mind Suvin’s
discussion of utopia as the "socio-political subgenre of SF" (37ff.).
4. Cf. the bibliographies in Keith and
Hjartarson. Besides references in the three critical monographs on Grove (Spettigue’s,
Stobie’s, and Sutherland’s) and in two surveys of Canadian SF (Ketterer’s
["Survey"] and Wood’s), there are only three articles and two
entries in SF encyclopedias dealing with Consider Her Ways, plus a short
chapter (23-26) in Ketterer’s 1992 book on Canadian SF. The three articles
come from Sproxton, Stobie, and Middlebro (whose contribution is really a brief
note); and the two encyclopedia entries are by Wingrove and Wood.
5. For a complete list of Grove’s
translations, see Spettigue (1973). This book, together with Stobie’s and with
Grove’s Letters and "Thoughts," is my source for Grove’s
6. At the end of The Master,
Grove himself gives the composition date: 1930-44. On the genesis of the
"ant-book," see Sproxton as well as Stobie’s 1978 essay.
7. Bliss’s study provides a history
of the Canadian business class. For a picture of post-Depression Canada, see
Neatby. I refer to McNaught’s book as the standard, most easily available,
general history of Canada. McCormack’s Reformers, Rebels and
Revolutionaries is another valuable source for an understanding of Grove’s
historical context: Manitoba (where Grove lived) and the whole of Western Canada
were in the 1910s the setting of both economic expansion and acute social
unrest, with a very active labor movement.
8. For an analysis of the pastoral
theme in English and American literature, see the classic studies by Williams (The
Country and the City) and Leo Marx. Empson’s book first and definitively
noted the analogies between the pastoral and the Naturalist post-World War I
"proletarian" novel (significantly, a genre explicitly ridiculed in The
Master; cf. §20:249 and §22:278). On the pastoral in Grove, see Dewar, who—strangely
enough—does not discuss Settlers.
9. The reference to Sleepy Hollow is
obviously and aptly taken from Washington Irving; for an extensive analysis of
Irving’s precapitalist paradises (and of his own use of the literalized-metaphor
technique), see Portelli’s Re nascosto.
10. In Pedley (a preacher who in the
1910s had actively supported the Socialist movement) a pan-Christian
state-church brings about Canadian utopia. In Deacon (a major figure in the
Canadian literary world Between-the-Wars) the conclusive chapter of a
nationalistic treat envisages an "evolutionary" process leading to the
establishment of a disturbing utopian world dominated by an "Aryan"
Canada. Colombo et al. and Ketterer ("Survey") are the basic
sources for my picture of Canadian SF.
11. The source of this name might be
traced back to The Rapids (1922), a popular novel by best-selling author
Alan Sullivan, fictionalizing the life of Francis H. Clergue, founder of Algoma
Steel Co. and of a big financial empire based in Ontario during the 1890s. In
Sullivan’s novel, the millionaire had been renamed Robert Fischer Clark.
12. In the 1930s, Canadian SF produced
a small number of novels dealing with the technology of mind-manipulation as
well—among them, Robert Stead’s The Copper Disc (1931), Maurice Dix’s
The Golden Fluid (1935), and Donald Macpherson’s Men Are Like
13. For this discussion I am indebted
to Portelli’s "Tempo."
14. It should be noted that Clarke’s
novel ends, appallingly, with a "final" solution for those who don’t
take part in the "total breakthrough" of the kids: the other
Earthlings have no place in the evolutionary telos, and can be disposed of.
Simak’s City is more problematic, and in the last section we have a
specular opposition between a "positive" manufacturing canine society
and a non-technological, bleak, and regimented ant civilization.
15. Sproxton and Stobie
("Ants") provide information on this version as well as on its (and Consider’s)
sources, both fictional and non-fictional. Neither essay, surprisingly, mentions
the possible influence of Julian Huxley’s 1923 conte philosophique,
"Philosophic Ants." On Consider as anatomy, see also Ketterer’s
16. Ants have provided other SF authors
(such as Frederik Pohl, John Wyndham, and the Capek brothers) with similar
dystopian metaphors. An interestingly Grovian variant is Ursula Le Guin’s
story "The Author of the Acacia Seeds" (1974), which starts with
"a manuscript found in an anthill" (3) and ends up theorizing, beyond
insect lit. and beyond "phytolinguistics," a "still less
communicating, still more passive, wholly atemporal" (11) art-form, created
in the mineral realm. It is Grove’s series, stretched to its utmost extreme
(man-woman-animal-plant-stone). In Canadian literature, the same basic tension
and ambiguity of Consider can be found in Margaret Atwood’s recent SF
(short) short story, "Coldblooded," which might be read as a feminist
homage to Grove’s novel.
17. Angenot’s essay is still the
fundamental study on the linguistic strategies of SF.
18. The necessity of separation applies
also to the other ant races. Not by chance, we discover that the ant Assa-ree,
before attempting a coup to overthrow Wawa-quee’s leadership, had already
shown a "treacherous" attitude by letting a male of another group
fertilize her. Mercilessly, Wawa-quee executes her.
19. We might speculate that the Dutch
suffix "-zee" is another echo of Washington Irving’s placid
We should note here that Grove’s
views don’t bring him to anchoritic retreat: in 1943 he was a candidate to the
Ontario legislature for the socialist CCF party (cf. Stobie Grove
182-83). Grove has been labelled a "drop-out" (Sutherland 3); the
intuition is accurate, but only half of the truth: the idea of human
perfectibility is for him both a source of despair and an inescapable necessity.
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