So when the VIX was fighting the falconer's strap I naturally steered into the gyre and grabbed a copy of the Savoy Voyage to Arcturus while it was available. Remarkably I wasn't alone. There were at least two more of us moving simultaneously. I don't know their motives. Since I already have access to Ballantine paperbacks with the magnificent Bob Pepper art I didn't need the book for itself. I needed to see what Alan Moore had to say about it and I wanted to share those observations -- whatever they were, sight unseen -- with you. Here it is.
It's extraordinary, the kind of literate and expansive introduction every text craves and few, especially in our genres, ever get. While we could easily get similar high-flying thoughts from Harold Bloom on the book's "gnostic" situation, having Moore deliver the lecture grounds the discussion in the lower territories of genre. This is how you work within "fantasy" to create a space for Lindsay: Lindsay in communication with Moorcock, Lindsay in opposition to much of what the parisees consider the "Appendix N" canon, Lindsay within the Ballantine canon. Lindsay shining strangely colored light for the edification of the hippies, who were finally prepared to receive what he had to say. Lindsay engaged with concerns beyond where his books end up shelved, Lindsay betrayed by C.S. Lewis of all people, took the good stuff, ran, kept taking the good stuff in secret. That Hideous Strength came out when Lindsay was dead and couldn't even cheer to see someone, anyone actually read Devil's Tor.
And here's Moore waving the deep flags. It starts opening my eyes one increment wider on what's really going on with Moorcock's poisoned London in the Hawkmoon series with its beast legions and submerged Blakean deities. It rings the changes: imaginary lands, imaginary languages, the magic power of gobbledegook, the cruelty and release warring in the breast of genre creators in particular, whose people have fewer inherent dignities than their "literary" cousins born to something a little closer to sweet delight. Logres and Cornwall. It arrays people like Moorcock and Barker (both Barkers, Clive and M.A.R.) in opposition to the zero-sum conventions of an "Appendix N." Appendix Nightspore, school of night, school of visions. Farmer. Chalker. Wagner. Maybe it even makes a case for Vance as part of a larger project, but my jury on that one will need to deliberate a little longer.
Genre redeem'd as a mutant form. As the future and the immanent eternal. And now, our feature presentation.
Prism and Pentecost: David Lindsay and the British Apocalypse
IN A YEAR of blaze and revelation, 1666, the Duchess of Newcastle first reveals the Blazing World. A dream archipelago stretching from the most northerly tip of Britain to the Arctic wastes, the islands of the Blazing World are each described in gem-encrusted Gustave Moreau detail by the Duchess, with their ornamented quays of jade and alabaster, with their spectral architectures and their chimeras. An intelligentsia of bear-men have their home upon one islet. Machiavellian fox-men raise their parliament upon another. Bird-men, fly-men, louse-men: an anthropomorphic avalanche to leave Flash Gordon stupefied, unveiled as London burned.
Lacking a genre, wanting for a Waterstone's taxonomy, the Duchess floats her astral travelogue, her publication, as an exercise in what she terms "experimental philosophy". Subtle whiff of seance parlour in the wording. Channelled information, whether by the pen or the planchette. The pearl-strung islands, beading on a thread of ink, of mediumistic spittle, mantic slobber. New land-masses are implied by tangled clots of automatic scrawl; logogeographies.
Less than a century before, in Mortlake, Edward Kelley and John Dee stoop to their labours. Eager breath fogs on the scrying glass. From the black mirror, spirits gesture and describe the myriad aethyrs, brilliant companies, membrane worlds in onion-layer stacks and populous with radiant children, lion-heads, wise monsters. Place and entity emerge from nonsense, gibberish, from the Enochian tongue’s elaborate invented twin-speak.
Alter the vocabulary, change the alphabet and the reality described is also changed. New form squirms from the syntax. Magic a disease of language. William Blake hews out a pantheon of dream-pun deities to rule his holy citadel, his Golgonooza. Tolkien, C S Lewis, there among the dreaming spires in Oxford with their over-mapped and over-textured mythopoeic inklings of an underlying landscape, a default Arcadia. Henry Treece, Nicholas Moore, intoxicated With Apocalypse and monged on Dylan Thomas, seeking immanence from every bud, from spit-dilutions left in brown glass bottles. There is more to this than run-amok fantasy trilogies turning the marvellous into the irritatingly ubiquitous, that carpet every bookchain. There is more to this than fiction. These are crystal-gazings, reconnaissance missions, unmanned camera-drones to map the dreamtime from high-altitude, to overlook the Overworld. This is Revelation as a cottage industry,a local craft tradition. Burning, screaming angels at the bring-and-buy.
And there on the Britannic honour roll of seers and suckers and transported ranters, in that noble foam-flecked crew with Bunyan, Moorcock, Bulwer-Lytton, Machen, Lord Dunsany, Robert Aickman, lain Sinclair, John Harrison, Hope Mirrlees and William Hope Hodgson there is David Lindsay, one that almost got away. A Voyage to Arcturus, the 1920 Methuen edition, sells less than six hundred copies from its measly fifteen hundred print-run to a seemingly bewildered and indifferent public; all but vanishes into a fine prismatic steam. With hindsight, the reaction of the gobsmacked audience seems understandable. Difficult, indeed, to see how Lindsay and his publishers could have anticipated any other critical response. What was the man upon the Clapham omnibus to make of this almost unprecedented literary mutant? Could anybody even tell what it was meant to be?
Judged from its content and the structure of its narrative, it's hardly recognizabIe as something which would have construed a novel, at least not according to the expectations of the work's contemporary readership. The characters, names dripping with ambiguous allegory, seem all to be in some sense aspects of each other, changing roles and personalities as as they extrude new organs. Plot, such as it is, seems minimal, with the protagonist moving from realm to realm upon a quest the motivation for which, if there is one, ranges from the nebulous to the impenetrable. In each new realm, on each new level of this schizophrenic platform game, the hero undergoes a biologic transformation and encounters a new landscape with new indigenous species, with new Pokemon-named characters who, for the most part, will explain their varied personal philosophies then meet with their fateful demise before the chapter's end. Commencing with a seance, a conventional enough device in the fantastic stories of that period, the tale then turns into a kind of mescaline-fuelled picaresque, concluding with the hero simultaneously dying and discovering that he has in fact actually been one of the story's other characters since its commencement. Clearly, David Lindsay cannot have intended that A Voyage to Arcturus be read in the same way a reader would approach, say, First Men in the Moon. What, then, were his intentions?
Having given up on any literal reading of the narrative, those few remaining audience-members with the necessary perseverance must have next attempted a more allegorical interpretation and, here too, met with an insurmountable brick wall. Lindsay is not a Tolkien or a C S Lewis, and his Tormance is not Narnia or Middle Earth, no cosy Land of Counterpane with all its metaphors drawn from familiar sources and conveniently signposted, ethics back-engineered from the New Testament. Nor is the odyssey of Lindsay's everyman protagonist making veiled reference to any known quest or excursion from the often-borrowed Roman, Greek, Arthurian or Scandinavian traditions. In spite of its spheres with distinctive colours, plants, gems, animals or ranks of angel, Lindsay's world is correspondent to no known Kabbalah. Although its structure seems less like that of a period novel than that of a New Age path-working, its rituals and dogmas are not drawn from the familiar stock of Rosicrucian lantern-slides, Thelemic spook-shows, Theosophical table-tiltings. lf A Voyage to Arcturus is an attempt, willed or unconscious, to outline a system of philosophy or magic, then that system is entirely an hermetic one, a cosmos of ideas that has inflated from a single human point within a social vacuum, from a lone bed-sitting room, lone armchair, solitary skull.
The text remains elusive and inchoate. It fluoresces at the brink of form, shy of the point where it may be conclusively identified. The same goes for its author. From our twenty-first century long-lens perspective, David Lindsay is a blur, double-exposed and grading into nothing where the light got in. Even his origins, like his Arcturan double star, are binary. Was it Blackheath neighbouring Lewisham in London? Was it Blackheath in Scotland? Beam-splitter biography, his CV like a double slit experiment.
Surviving photographs only confirm the odd evasive quality in Lindsay's books and backstory. A sturdy and well-turned-out young Edwardian chap sits in a deckchair, facing camera, right leg over left, hands resting calmly in his lap with fingers laced, thumbs touching. A back garden somewhere (London? Scotland?), with the lawn mown recently and a confetti of pale blossom upon three worn steps leading up to the French windows. It’s April, possibly, the subject maybe thirty-something. He refuses to engage the camera, gazing down from under heavy, lowered lids; could almost be asleep if not for the discomfort, the uneasy tension that informs his posture. When we visualise future events, we most often gaze upwards. When the eyes look down, it's usually towards an image of the past. Some secret, possibly.
Another shot has Lindsay in a rustic setting, posing awkwardly with pipe in mouth, against the wooden railing of a bridge. The face seems thinner, older than the previous image. Lindsay tries to stand with left leg crossing nonchalantly over right, but seems uncertain of the posture. Either he's pretending to conceal a gun in his right jacket pocket or else something's plucking at his coat. The wind, or some invisible, impatient thing, some horla dragging him away to Arcturus. Again, the lidded eyes gaze down. Again the sense of something hidden, never spoken of.
The author, in the last analysis, can only be extrapolated from the work. Run a generic trace upon his literary offspring. Pass a forked divining rod across the open pages. Dowse the manuscript.
Let's start with a consideration of the book's hermetic aspects. Despite the possibly coincidedtal use of names from Norse mythology in places . . . Surtur, Muspel . . . at its base, Lindsay’s theology seems Gnostic. Just as the rogue Elohim, Rex Mundi, creates a fallen world of matter from mere vanity, so too, A Voyage to Arcturus informs us, does the god-like Crystalman somehow infuse the whole material Universe of form and body and sensation. All suffering and success in this enslaved, degraded cosmos happens solely for the benefit and delectation of one singular Satanic being. Naturally, the sensate creatures trapped in Crystalman’s endlessly multiplying world of shape and dazzle are conditioned by their habitat, their solar system a gigantic Skinner box, its population become thrill-addicted rodents, nuzzling repeatedly against the pleasure levers, seeking their reward. Inevitably, the majority perceive their actual tormentor as the source of all gratification, as a loving and benevolent Creator, as their God. Only with death are they reminded of the physical world's cost, and of its final beneficiary, when the appalling "vulgar" smile of Crystalman afflicts them with its rictus. Vulgar. Common. Everywhere. The skull’s expression, once the mask of flesh has worn away. The novel’s hero, Maskull, is an everyman, is all of us, with our beloved identities no more than temporary masquerades, latex prosthetics to disguise the grinning bone.
The jewelled and shifting veils of Crystalman's illusory material realm, this Matterplay, can only be escaped, be pierced, by the redemptive power of pain, embodied here as Krag. At once the work's most likeable and its most superficially obnoxious character, Krag's pronouncements and activities, in spite of his apparent messianic role, make him appear more genuinely human than do the remainder of the novel's cast, Maskull included. Krag, savagely moral, is perceived, inevitably, as a cruel, demonic force by those who worship Crystalman's material domain of shaping and sensation. Pleasure as enslavement. Pain as liberation. These two concepts, as embodied in two characters, are the twin poles that form an axis about which the whole of Tormance spins.
If A Voyage to Arcturus is less a novel than it is private kaballah, then we must assume that it maps both the inner and the outer Universe, that it at once describes the clashing forces of the cosmos as perceived by Lindsay, and the equally tumultuous opposing powers defining his interior landscape. By this By this reading, the entire Arcturan solar system with its lonely planet vacillating in the orbit of a double sun, its myriad hallucinatory inhabitants, becomes the writer’s mind. The players are made facets of a multiphasic and indeed crystal-like personality. The very personality, in fact, which spun their world and all its sparkling denizens to being out of nothingness. Lindsay is Crystalman, is Arcturus, its warring principles his own dichotomies. The novel’s voyage to it must also be a voyage to him.
What, then, were the dynamic oppositions coiling in the mainspring, driving Lindsay's private firmament? In so far as all creative work may be construed as propaganda for an individual state of mind, the manifesto seemingly put forward in A Voyage to Arcturus appears to have more than a singular agenda. One strand of its central argument is ethical and social, pleading for moral asceticism as a remedy for the enticements, lures and snares of the material, sensory world. Stiffen the collars on the hair shirts, fill your shoes with gravel and limp forth from out this valley of delusion and delight.
Another strand, perhaps not wholly disconnected from the first, seems sexual. Gender and accompanying gender politics on Tormance are changeable, are in fact nearly fluid. Gender, as a purely physical consideration, is a jigsaw-simple matter of extrusions and receptacles, of plugs and sockets. Such attributes, in our own world, are supplied at birth and will define the greater part of our sexual identities throughout our lives, a fixed and stable marker stating what we are. This state of things does not obtain in Lindsay's boiling, metamorphic territories, where the boundaries of flesh are not made permanent and either sex may sprout or shed fresh nodules, tentacles or soft, receptive organs of sensation at a moment's notice. With the sole exceptions of the stoic, changeless Krag and the remote, indifferent Nightspore, the work's denizens appear to be pan-sexual, polymorphous entities who are not bound by a definitive condition. Gender is not bent so much as in solution, sexual identity dissolved into unending flux.
Human relationships, be they emotional, romantic, sexual or Philosophical (as in the oppositional relationship of Krag and Crystalman), be they relationships between conflicting impulses within a single individual, are never far from the considerations of A Voyage to Arcturus. The novel's characters, when introduced, will often enter Ark-style, two by two, into the narrative. Joiwind and her husband Panawe. Oceaxe and Crimtyphon. Polecrab and Gleameil. When the androgynous phaen Leehallfae is encountered, we’re presented with both factors of the sexual equation, balanced on their “Equals” symbol, in one person. If the whole of the Arcturan sphere is congruent with David Lindsay’s own internal cosmos, then its populace, male, female, other, are to some extent components of the author’s psyche. Of the polarities that govern, that preoccupy this dual-sunned system, it would seem that Male and Female urges, gender conflicts, gender contradictions, are among the foremost.
There are further intimations in the tower at Starkness, where the men make preparations for their journey. Ominousy charged bloodletting rituals. Stripping, Krag with slow and "uncouth movements”, beating his gorilla chest while making leering mention of “new pleasure organs”. Naked, next they drink from cracked cups. Liquid electricity. Intoxication. Krag drops to the floor, rolls naked on his back, tries to drag Maskull, also naked, down on top of him. “A little horseplay” next ensues between the two, Symbolist pre-run for Women in Love’s hearth-lighted bit of rough between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates. Difficult to avoid, in either case, homoerotic frisson. Drag and Maskull, furthermore, are allegoric beings signifying the redemptive power of pain and the eternal everyman, respectively. Viewed according to the light of that construction, wrestling with pain is here depicted as a recreational activity, as a diversion in which the undying human spirit, represented and personified by Nightspore, takes no part. Suffering, then, as idle naked horseplay, or else suffering as icon, as a pierced and bloody Saint Sebastian ideal. Torrance takes on Uranean aspect, name itself suspended somewhere between torment and romance.
Back in the garden, in the photograph, there is no edge to any of the shadow. Though the weather had been fine enough to tempt the writer and his unseen portraitist onto the grass, a cloud has passed across the sun. Lindsay looks down towards the crew-cut stubble of the lawn, keeps his own counsel. There is something naggingly familiar about the face, the dark and sleepy eyes with ash-smudge shadows rubbed into their orbits, some faint ghost of a resemblance. Montague Druitt. Ripper suspect, putative scapegoat, possibly assisted suicide, his body dragged out of the Thames near Thorneycroft's torpedo works at Chiswick in final days of 1888. Another solitary young man, a teacher at Valentine’s school the school for boys in Blackheath, though conclusively the London site on this occasion. Fired from the establishment shortly before his lonely and ambiguous end, perhaps the subject of a scandal, Druitt’s Bournemouth family apparently considered him a “sexual lunatic'', at least if we are to believe the questionable memo penned by Assistant Chief Constable Melville MacNaghton. Would have gone into the river not long prior to to Lindsay's birth, a year or two at most. A passionate supporter of the cause of women’s suffrage and perhaps a homosexual, Druitt would at least seem to have owned a sexual vision of society completely out of step with the prevailing moral outlook of his times.
So, too, with David Lindsay. In A Voyage to Arcturus it is not difficult to glimpse the heavily-masked blueprint for an idiosyncratic, beautifully deranged utopia. Civilization suddenly illuminated by an understanding of its own enslavement in the Empire of the Senses. Men and women made free from the limits and restrictions of their psyches, their identities, able to grow new spiritual appendages or apertures to counteract the vagaries of their existence, of Crystalman's treacherous and endlessly refracting mirror-maze dominion.
There are other tentative utopian suggestions in the text, occasions when one might conclude that Lindsay is attempting to float his own scientific theories in the guise of fantasy. The fascinating and eccentric concept of Arcturan "back-rays", beams of special light that strive to reunite with their own source, is propped up by the observation that there must be light that pulls as well as light that pushes, or else "how would flowers contrive to twist their heads round after the sun?". Elsewhere, we meet Digrung, Joiwind’s brother, owner of four pairs of eyes set one above the other in his brow. The light of animation flickers up and down these eyeball-columns when the character is thinking, imagery that seems inspired by the computers found in 1960s cinematic spy extravaganzas, only forty years too early. Genuine prophetic leakage, trickled from the future, soaks into the pages here and there. Lindsay's book is pretty much a one-stop visionary package deal, his Arcturus both personal kabbalah and predicted landscape, delicately sketched-in intimations of molten and mutable psychologies to come.
The solipsism flavouring the work does nothing to dispel the lonely Monty Druitt isolation that is present in the photograph, the downcast gaze refusing to meet that of the photographer, the lens, of his as-yet-unborn long-odds future biographers, readers or scholars. He seems part of no community. Largely excluded from the listings of that period’s fantastic authors, Lindsay is denied even a retroactive entry into the fraternity. It’s only in the ledgers of the similarly marginalized, in the annals of the British revelatory tradition that he finds true fellowship. The School of Night. Dee, Machen, Blake, Dunsany, Hodgson, Bunyan, the Duchess of Newcastle. Stenographers of the apocalypse.
The British landscape, from its Palaeolithic past, has been the source and the repository of a national dreamtime, national imagination. Elf- or spirit-haunted forests and the Kingdom Underneath the Hill have always been there as a buried template, a potentiality, in allegorical reality somehow more true than that which we abide in daily, somehow fundamental, underlying the material topography of our existence. The constant sense that one good Ghost-dance would roll back the earth, roll back the Earth, roll back the grim politically ravaged cities and reveal the shining countryside beneath. The sense that one good Blakean diatribe, one nicely-droned Enochian call, one glossolalic rant could push us past the rim of language, past the edges of the world language defines, constructs for us, and into the divine, the happy hunting grounds, the mapless lands of the unspeakable. Could push us out of the constrictive house of Sense we've built to shield us from the Universe and into Non-sense down there in the word-soup with Lear's Jumblies, Lindsay's phaens, Dee’s lexical monstrosities, with Carroll’s Jabberwock and Lennon's Walrus. Golgonooza goo gajoob.
Lindsay, with A Voyage to Arcturus, tests the same visionary and linguistic envelopes. In the Orwellian view of language, the reduction of vocabulary to a functional and brutal Sun-speak is seen as a means of limiting the population’s consciousness itself, pruning the gorgeous wilderness of language back to predetermined boundaries, the newly-painted city limits of what can now be communicated, of what can now even be conceived. By the same token, the creation of new words and concepts must be seen as an attempt to stretch the thinkable, to expand consciousness. New colours, Jale and Ulfire. Freshly coined personal pronouns to describe as yet unrealised genders. Elusive qualities of light from lately christened suns and moons at just-invented times of day.
A Voyage to Arcturus demands that David Lindsay be considered not a mere fascinating one-off, as a brilliant maverick, but as one worthy and deserving of that shamanistic mantle; of the British visionary and apocalyptic legacy. This newest and most splendidly-appointed publication of the work, will hopefully secure a greater readership than the original's demoralizing 596, will perhaps finally allow the fierce, tremendous energy the author clearly poured into the work, if only in the form of posthumous acclaim, to somehow be returned to him, creative radiance turned back upon its source. Back-rays, propelled upon the long road home to Arcturus.
MARCH 3RD 2002