Science Fiction Studies

#32 = Volume 11, Part 1 = March 1984

Robert M. Philmus

Undertaking Stapledon

Leslie A. Fiedler. Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided. Oxford, NY, Toronto, & Melbourne: Oxford UP, 1983. ix+236pp. $19.95 (cloth), $7.95 (paper).

John Kinnaird. Olaf Stapledon. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1983. $11.95 (cloth), $5.95 (paper).

Patrick A. McCarthy. Olaf Stapledon. Boston: Twayne, 1982. 166pp. $13.95.

A decade ago, Brian Aldiss allotted some half a dozen pages of Billion Year Spree to the "chill but intoxicating" "atmosphere" of Olaf Stapledon's SF. "How it is," he concluded, "that the funeral masons and morticians who work their preserving processes on Eng. Lit. have rejected Stapledon entirely from their critical incantations is a matter before which speculation falls fainting away."

The tense of Aldiss's rhetorical complaint presently stands in need of alteration. Thanks in part to the eloquent case he makes, there are now three books devoted almost exclusively to Stapledon, with more (including a biography) on the way. Yet at least one of those under review here may give Aldiss reason to regret his role in generating critical interest in that author.'

1. The book in question is Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided. Its cover and title page prominently display the name of Leslie A. Fiedler, and the information on the dust jacket assures prospective buyers that the author is the selfsame Samuel Clemens Professor of English at SUNY, Buffalo, who wrote Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), Waiting for the End (1964), What Was Literature? (1982), and so forth. Without that incontrovertible evidence, no one would suspect Fiedler of having authored the volume on Stapledon in the OUP "Science-Fiction Writers" series; and even with such assurances, it is difficult to believe that it is the work of the man who made a name for himself in the 1950s and '60s as a literary iconoclast and has since taken to vituperating against the inadequacies and banalities of traditional approaches to literature while (by a curious self-contradiction) decrying the recent omphalogical preoccupation of literary criticism with itself.

Perhaps Fiedler is out to prove his point about how tiresome orthodox criticism can be. But in that case he has conducted his hoax to inordinate lengths. Otherwise, Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided is a critical undertaking only in a sense compatible with the mordant metaphors that Aldiss applies to academics. In it, Fiedler (despite claims to having the opposite intention) tries to bury, rather than praise, his subject. But his manner of doing so rebounds solely to his own discredit. Indeed, had he been bent on unmaking his reputation for wit and acumen, he could not have designed a better instrument for self-destruction than this latest volume of his.

To be sure, Fiedler does not immediately declare where he stands in regard to Stapledon. On the contrary, his opening chapter might lead the reader to suppose that he means to defend Stapledon against would-be detractors. He approvingly (mis)quotes Aldiss on the unwarranted critical rejection of Stapledon, for example, and then compares his author favorably to Aldous Huxley, whose Island (Fiedler, by the way, insists on adding a definite article to Huxley's title) "is clumsy, banal, in fact, downright silly in a way Stapledon never is" (p. 9). Such (backhanded) compliments, however, become less and less frequent as Fiedler proceeds; and as ambivalence gives way to almost univocal hostility, one gets the impression that Fiedler, groping at the outset for a heterodox line to seize hold of, has in the process discovered his profound distaste for Stapledon, and hence finds himself at a loss about how to deal with him.

Had Fiedler cogently accounted for his aversion, what he had to say would have been worth reading. After all, there is something about Stapledon's work that makes Aldiss's adjectives, "chill" and "intoxicating," peculiarly apt. Stapledon is far from being a charismatic writer, though it is no simple matter to pinpoint why he inspires admiration but not love. Perhaps it has less to do with his strenuous intellectual commitment to what might be called a cosmi-tragic vision than with the enforced emotional disengagement that his particular vision demands (or that he by and large thought it demanded). Fiedler, however, does not articulate his dislike in those or any other terms which would further an understanding of what Stapledon is about. Instead, he alternates between insinuating that Stapledon was anti-American and a dupe of the Communists (pp. 20-30, 34-35, 69-70, 205) and representing him as a schizophrenic (pp. 11-13, 84), a sado-masochist (pp. 12, 118, 159), and a paranoiac (pp. 161, 168), whose "erotic response to the repulsive and freakish seems to verge on the pathological" (p. 210). These allegations, if not all but totally groundless, are at best much too questionable and unbalanced to be of any value for a "reading" of Stapledon's life; but Fiedler barely connects them with Stapledon's art, and then only piecemeal. Presumably they constitute Fiedler's attempt to be intellectually provocative; but since they have no real critical purpose, he succeeds merely in being scandalous.

The derogatory rumors that preceded and attended and appearance of Fiedler's book have served to focus attention on its errors of fact and the like. Certainly it contains enough of these to fill out a longer-than-average review; but a few instances should suffice to give an idea of their variety as well as their profusion. Forgetful of the text, Fiedler consistently renames Sirius's fictive creator "Thomas Treloney" (pp. 189ff.); and with disregard for chronology, he imagines that Plaxy's brother, Maurice, by reason of his "having... gone down in a British cruiser," was modeled on "Stapledon's son John" (p. 188), who suffered (and survived) that fate (shortly) after the publication of Sirius. Nowhere acknowledging Stapledon's claim that up until 1936 he had read none of H.G. Wells's fiction except "The Star" and The War of the Worlds, Fiedler contends that in chapter 12 of A Modern Theory of Ethics (1929) Stapledon "is returning to the apocalyptic vision of The Time Machine" p. 48), the source of his abiding "sense that everything will end in nothingness" (pp. 4647), and that "Food of the Gods (1909) [sic]... Seems to have provided [him] with hints. . Nor Odd John [1935]" (p. 44). Then, too, he invokes the mind of the race in quotation marks as if it were originally Stapledon's (p. 57) and personality-in-community without them (and also sans hyphens) as if it were not (p. 56). The list of misinformation and misleading assertions could go on for pages; but such a catalogue must distract from what is more seriously wrong with Fiedler's book: that there is very little substance to it.

It might have been anticipated that someone who has written perceptively about authorial impersonation and is otherwise known for practicing "myth" criticism in a loose and idiosyncratic way would have some astute remarks to make about Stapleton. Yet Fiedler is content merely to mention that his author elects a literal dog to be the protagonist of one of his books and a metaphoric one to narrate another; and his sporadic comments on the "mythic" significance of Stapledon's visions--e.g., "the esthetic strength of Odd John" lies "in its appeal, at psychic depths..., to leftover infantile fantasies of absolute omnipotence and utter dependence" (p. 118)--are more often than not of a sort to cast further doubt on what Stapledon may have meant by reiterating that he is dealing in "myth."

Fiedler contends that Stapledon "repeated over and over again the same unchanging phrases" (p. 20), but does not trouble himself about specifying what those phrases are. Even shibboleths like "awakening" and "spirit," except where they happen to figure in some of the many long quotations which he regularly proffers, are hardly to be met with in Fiedler's book; and this is a good indication of the fact that he makes no effort to interpret Stapledon in Stapledon's own terms. The closest he comes to his author's meaning is in singling out certain "major themes": "the apocalyptic End of Everything...and the ecstatic acceptance of All" (p. 147). No wonder Stapledon strikes Fiedler as "absolutely convinced that any point worth making once is worth repeating over and over and over" (p. 4).

This is not to say that Fiedler busies himself with reducing Stapledon's meaning to a level of generality at which most authors would appear to be repetitious (if not interchangeable) any longer than he does with delving into the "psychic depths" of Stapledon's imagination. Rather, Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided primarily exhibits Fiedler as an adept practitioner of regressive criticism. His chapters largely consist of often incoherent, because always incomplete, plot summaries, interspersed with passages from the text at hand which are of such disparate importance and so rarely analyzed that he seems to have hit upon them at random to eke out his book. In place of interpretation, he editorializes about what he assumes Stapledon is saying at any given moment and how he is saying it; and otherwise he judges Stapledon by the usual novelistic standards. Ignoring his own distinction between SF and the novel (pp. 64-65) and contradicting Robert Scholes's "preface" to the book, Fiedler in effect takes "individual psychology in characterization, unique stylistic nuances in language, and plausibility in the events presented" as "dominant criteria" for assessing "a body of fiction which privileges the type over the individual, the idea over the word, and the unexpected over the plausible event" ("Editor's Foreword," p. vii). The result is a near-total failure of comprehension, but one that inadvertently proves the point: that Stapledon's are fictions wherein the idea is indeed the "hero" i.e., occupies the same position that the protagonist traditionally occupies in the novel.

2. John Kinnaird, like Fiedler, sees Stapledon as "A Man Divided." He does not, however, mistakenly refer that phrase to the supposed psychopathology of its author. Instead--and quite properly--he takes it to denote "an explicit theme" of Stapledon's: "the problem of man's divided consciousness, of the self in conflict."2 It is true that he also describes Stapledon as someone constantly subject to the "diverse pulls and competing 'loyalties"' of opposing ideas. Nevertheless, the focus is on those ideas as they enter into Stapledon's writings, not as they evince his putative schizophrenia. It is not, Kinnaird argues, the "latent conflict in his values and attitudes," but "the need to express and dramatize the tensions of the conflict" that makes Stapledon "the kind of writer...he most often is, a creator of tragic myth."

What makes the fictions mythic, in Kinnaird's view, is "a symbolism inhering less in single figures than in abstract configurations." Stapledon " [e]longate[s] the time-scale far enough... [f]or historical or cosmological abstraction [to] take on the qualities of concrete entities":

Whole ages, whole species loom up in the mists of Stapledonian time like Homeric shapes: the Patagonians, the Second Dark Age, the Martian Clouds,...the Primal Nebulae. But ultimately it is not the actors of the drama--the abstractions as agents or victims--that carry the symbolic force of Stapledon's myth but the drama itself, that is, the narrative movement toward a time-transcendent revelation of man's, or the human mind's, origins and destinies....

No doubt this is as plausible an explanation as anyone can give of what myth may have signified for Stapledon. It accounts for the term as he applies it to Last and First Men and Star Maker and also fits in with the "spiritual revelations" of Odd John and Sirius. On the other hand, it does not easily accommodate the complex sense of tragedy that permeates Stapledon's work.

While recognizing the tragic side of Stapledon's "myths," Kinnaird oversimplifies it. Without elaborating upon the point, he speaks of "the sense, which informs all tragic myth, that the relationship between man and the cosmos is compounded equally of spiritual affinity with 'the gods' and adversary conflict with the same powers." Yet the truth which can be elicited from that statement sorts ill with Kinnaird's notion of myth even in regard to the book he is presumably thinking of. Sub specie aeternitatis, the Star Maker has no affinity with the disembodied, or ecstatic, human mind that seeks Him, let alone with the embodied spirit which elsewhere in Stapledon tragically struggles against atavistic impulses that would defeat any such quest; and from the "time-transcendent" point of view of His Being, all human suffering is but a brief episode in the Divine Comedy of His perfect spiritual completion. The disparity between humankind and Star Maker thus makes for a human tragedy only from a standpoint in time, the realm of Becoming wherein both perpetually strive towards tragically unattainable spiritual fulfillment.

Whereas Stapledon represents the tragedy connected with a vocation for the Spirit as perennial rather than "time-transcendent," Kinnaird confounds the two; and perhaps by consequence, he also underestimates the extent to which Stapledon's vision remains tragic. "`Spirit' as Tragic Communion" is in his view an idea that Stapledon arrives at following the years of "Preparation" (to 1915) and "Philosophical 'Awakening'" (1915-29), only to turn away from it and towards "'Spirit' as Mystical Community" during the "period of Cosmic Vision" which "the writing of Star Maker" ushers in. He would thus contain Stapledon's sense of tragedy within the "period of Humanistic Imagination," 1930-35. But while this scheme for parceling out Stapledon's career may be convenient for organizing and retailing useful facts about his life and conjectures about the formative influences on his thinking, it introduces a disjunction where none exists. A "tragic awareness of man's loneliness and ultimate defeat" is, if anything, more prominent after Star Maker than before it; and Kinnaird is surely as wrong to suggest that Stapledon quickly passes through that "phase" on his way to "a new religion of 'spirit' in a regenerated society of 'personality-in-community'" as he is in implying that "new religion" is not to be met with in, say, Odd John or Last and First Men.

These flaws in the argument of his opening chapter do not affect Kinnaird's reading of Last and First Men. Dealing with its "tragic myth," he is at his best; and at his best, he offers the sort of analysis that might have been expected from Fiedler. Perceiving in the phenomenon to which "the First World State...owes its ultimate undoing," for example, "the same perversion of sexuality" behind the act of sexual union upon which that state was founded, Kinnaird goes on to observe:

Though not himself a Freudian, Stapledon shows Freudian insight into the unconscious equation of dream-images of flying with repressed desires for sexual intercourse. And precisely such repression motivates the new craze for aviation that sweeps the planet. The World State squanders, at an exponential rate, the resources of the earth...through mass-sublimations of sexual desire in an official world-religion of ritualized flight, and in other practices that reflect a fatal confusion of human vitality with technological prowess and compulsive ego-assertion.

More compelling still are his comments on the last-born of the Eighteenth Men:

He is the reincarnation of a familiar type, the Wise Child (puer senex) or Child-Prophet, a type that had so often appeared to rekindle hope among Stapledon's First Men. He is not unlike the self-sacrificing Mongol scientist (worshiped as the legendary 'Gordelpus' in later generations) who destroyed himself rather than reveal the destructive secrets of nuclear power or the Divine Boy who founded a religion of youth in the senescent culture of the Patagonians. But he is really the embodiment of all men who have ever lived, insofar as they retain in their lives the savor of the sweetness of life in youth--its hope, its courage, its beauty and love of beauty, its will to dream and its dreams of transcendent will. And he speaks also, this youth who will never know fruition, or no other - fruition than his identity as the Last Child, for the spirit of a life-form called Man that is itself dying young--that after two billion years has scarcely fledged its evolutionary wings....

This is not what Kinnaird hints: the last word on "the significance of [Stapledon's] title." It is, however, a persuasive account of the "tragically ironic sense" in which " [t]he Last Men are really ... the First of Men," and an account that derives further poignancy from its posthumous publication.

The passages just quoted make it all the more regrettable that Kinnaird did not live long enough to bring the rest of his monograph up to the standard that he sets in them. As it is, they illustrate the level of discourse that he was capable of, but--alas!--falls away from in the cursory appraisal of Last Men in London which concludes his second chapter and never comes up to again in his three remaining chapters: on Odd John, on Star Maker, and on Sirius "and Other Writings." Consisting mainly of plot summaries punctuated by evaluative asides, these show none of Kinnaird's critical finesse and, indeed, would seem pedestrian even if they did not stand in stark contrast to his treatment of Last and First Men.

3. The Twayne English Authors Series volume on Stapledon does not share the unevenness of its competitor from Starmont House. Although some of its chapters are, of course, better than others, they do not vary in quality to anything like the degree Kinnaird's do. Their value in part resides in the details that Patrick McCarthy painstakingly offers about the literary (and biographical) background of Stapledon's books. But in larger measure it comes from the constant and disciplined attention that he gives to Stapledon's ideas.

These he begins to take on the moment his retracing of Stapledon's ancestry and early years brings him to the Latter-Day Psalms (1914). Noting that those poems have to do with "the nature and purpose of the spiritual reality that [Stapledon] sees throughout the universe" (p. 19) and hence contain "several themes and attitudes that [fuel was to develop in a more sophisticated fashion in his fictional and philosophical writings" (p. 18), McCarthy presently comes to the question of what Stapledon means by spiritual values. The phrase, McCarthy explains, designates

those values that are based on our awareness of ourselves in relation to other selves and to the universe; and since that awareness is constantly evolving--or should evolve--as man deepens in awareness and develops social institutions that promote the advancement of spirit in all people, it follows that the values to which man ought to give allegiance are not immutable but must evolve in accordance with "man's rapidly changing conditions" [as Stapledon urges in Saints and Revolutionaries (1939)]. The most 'awakened' or 'developed' attitude, then, expresses itself in a mood of objective detachment from parochial or individual concerns....Ultimately, Stapledon argues, we should view our world and ourselves from a 'cosmic' point of view, a view based on concrete experience of ourselves and others but capable of transcending all merely human values if they fail to support even higher values. (p. 26; emphasis in original)

This, and not Fiedler's "apocalyptic End of Everything...and...ecstatic acceptance of All," is surely Stapledon's "hero" idea (and to a great extent, his heroic idea). Unfortunately, McCarthy himself does not keep it continually in view.

Passing from "Preliminaries" to Stapledon's writings of 1930-32, McCarthy uncharacteristically adopts the procedure of rehearsing the story line of Last and First Men before broaching "some" of its "major themes" (pp. 34-46). Otherwise, however, his handling of that book sets the pattern for his subsequent discussions of Odd John and Sirius ("More Than Human"), Star Maker ("Divine Tragedy"), Darkness and the Light and the remaining texts from the '40s ("Further Worlds of Wonder"), and A Man Divided, along with the later writings ("Final Visions"). As McCarthy goes over their salient details, he methodically explores the ideas arising from them; but the result, more often than not, is that the "hero" gets lost in an indistinguishable crowd of local ideas. No doubt the format of the Twayne series inherently dictates this approach, just as it demands in place of a proper conclusion an account of "The Heritage of Olaf Stapledon" (wherein McCarthy enunciates what seems to be the consensus: that Stapledon exerted a negative influence on C.S. Lewis and a positive one chiefly on Arthur C. Clarke and Stanislaw Lem). Yet had McCarthy not allowed that format to sidetrack him from the pursuit of his early statement of what Stapledon is generally about, his study would have been something more than merely the best introduction to its subject. The argument that does implicitly run through McCarthy's book puts him at odds with Kinnaird. Far from seeing a break at any point, McCarthy insists on the continuity of Stapledon's vision. Nor can there be any doubt that McCarthy is right to stress (as the subtitle of his second chapter has it) that Stapledon in his earliest fictions, and especially in Last and First Men, is "Shaping Things [i.e., books] to Come." This truth, however, must be balanced against another, which McCarthy by and large ignores: that while Stapledon retains his allegiance to "spiritual values ' from 1939 on he becomes increasingly skeptical about the prospects of realizing them. Particularly in the fiction he writes after the outbreak of world war in Europe, the spiritual struggle with which he has always been preoccupied takes on a distinctly Manichaean dimension as he promotes the menace from the instinctive forces of brutality over the intrinsic impossibility of permanently satisfying the spirit's desires as the source of the human tragedy. Nor does the shift in emphasis evident in Darkness and the Light (1942) end with the publication of Sirius (1944). It persists not only through the immediate aftermath of the war but into A Man Divided (1950). Yet the self-doubts which Stapledon gives voice to in that novel seem nothing more than a residue of the skepticism he expends on The Flames (1947). There, albeit with some ambiguity, he parodies his own devotion to "spiritual values" through the person of Cass, while introducing, for good measure, a Doubting Thomas to question their sanity.

If not this, then at least some sense of the evolution of Stapledon's thinking does enter into both the Starmont House and the Twayne volumes. Yet it is not really an informing presence in either, for which reason they do not substantially differ in that respect from the book which Fiedler premises on his conviction that Stapledon perpetually repeats himself. Nor is that all the three have in common. Kinnaird and McCarthy never lose sight, as Fiedler often does, of what Stapledon is getting at any given point; but at the same time, none of them persistently asks what Stapledon is doing on the whole, or what his purpose is in any given text.

Stapledon by his own avowal considered himself to be a "propagandist" for ideas;3 and he chiefly propagandized in favor of the "spiritual values" that come with "detachment." It would therefore seem appropriate to regard his books with an eye to their purpose and from a "detached" point of view. Yet that kind of "cosmic," or "detached," assessment of Stapledon seems as rare as praise for the grandeur and scope of his vision is common. Given that ironic state of critical affairs, "preserving" Stapledon may indeed turn out to be a parlous venture.


1. Charles Elkins has since called my attention to Aldiss's "In Orbit with the Star Maker" Times Literary Supplement (Sept. 23, 1983), p. 1008. In that review of Fiedler's book, Aldiss is by no means as harsh as I had expected him to be: "Despite some lapses," he concludes, "Leslie Fiedler has gone a long way towards rekindling an interest in [Stapledon]."

2. Kinnaird's book has yet to appear, even though he wrote it before McCarthy and Fiedler did theirs. I have therefore based my review of the Starmont monograph (now scheduled to appear in the spring of 1984) on a Xerox typescript that Thaddeus Dikty kindly sent me (along with the assurance that he would introduce no changes into Kinnaird's text). The pagination of the typescript, however, cannot be expected to correspond to that of the final publication, for which reason I am unable to provide page references for the passages I quote from Kinnaird.

3. See Stapledon's definition of "propaganda literature" in "Escapism in Literature" Scrutiny, 8 (Dec. 1939):302, and also Robert Crossley's discussion of same in "The Aesthetic of Darkness and the Light," SFS, 9 (1982):296ff.

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