Monday, April 23, 2012

The Impossibility of Writing Fantasy in 1937

So, I'm making my way through the audiobook version of Christopher Hitchens' last book, a massive (24-disk) collection of essays called ARGUABLY. Given my distaste and dismay at most of Hitchens' political views (he was a Trotskyite who became a neocon, an ardent and obstinate advocate for the Iraq war), I find my favorites by far are the literary essays, which range from Orwell (his hero and role-model) to Rowling and Larsson.

The less I know about an author, the more I find I enjoy what Hitchens has to say about him (or, rarely, her), whereas when I'm familiar with an author's works I become aware of just how skewed Hitchen's portrayal of his work is. For example, it'd be nice to think that Ezra Pound lost his poetic talent at the same time he openly adopted heinous political and cultural views, as Hitchens asserts, but it's also quite untrue -- some of the cantos written when he was a prisoner of war at the end of WWII, and in the asylum afterwards, are heartbreakingly beautiful. There's no good moral to be drawn from this; it's simply a fact of literary history. But against that, I find I have to have a soft spot for anyone who praises Wodehouse as much as Hitchens does, so for that alone much is forgiven.

One particular piece included an interesting quote about fantasy, a topic rarely mentioned by Hitchens:

"A modern fantasy cannot tell the truth
cannot give a picture of life
which will survive the test of experience
since fantasy implies in practice
a retreat from the real world
into the world of imagination"

This comes not from Hitchens himself but is a quote from the now-forgotten Edward Upward, who was a member of Auden's circle back in the early '30s but, unlike Spender and Isherwood and Day-Lewis and MacNeice, wound up fading from view, having put his political views ahead of literature.

The source Hitchens gives is to a book called THE MIND IN CHAINS, edited by C. Day-Lewis in 1937; Upward's contribution was an essay called "A Marxist Interpretation of Life". While the book itself is difficult to find, it turns out that Upward's essay is readily available on-line ( The relevant passage comes on page seven. The context is Upward's claim that, the current (in his day) struggle between communism and capitalism/fascism has reached such a crisis point that it's irresponsible for the writer to do anything besides whole-heartedly embracing communism and writing from that perspective; to write fairy-tales in such a time was simply dooming yourself to irrelevance in a world "which is daily drifting towards a war of unprecedented destructiveness"; elsewhere he refers to "the approach of a new world war" (the earliest I've seen that phrase in print). Here are a few quotes that caught my eye as I skimmed the piece:

"no book written at the present time can be 'good' unless it is written from a Marxist or near-Marxist viewpoint" (emphasis his, to exempt earlier writers such as Shakespeare)

"no modern book can be true to life unless it recognises . . . both the decadence of present-day society and the inevitability of revolution"

"It is possible that the 'fairy' story -- celebrating the triumph of man over dangers and difficulties -- will reappear on a higher, more scientific level" (i.e., after the triumph of Marxism)

"the old forms can no longer adequately reflect the fundamental forces of the modern world. The writer's job is to create new forms now, to arrive by hard work at the emotional truth about present-day reality. He cannot begin to do that until he has in his everyday life allied himself with the forces of the future, until he has gone over to the socialist movement."

"failing to go over [to socialism] must prevent him from writing a good book" (emphasis his)

"a modern fantasy might be a more or less truthful imitation of past fantasies, but it could not be true to the life or our own time as the work of earlier fantasy-writers was to the life of their times"

As a rejoinder, I'm reminded of Dunsany's preface to THE LAST BOOK OF WONDER, where he describes his tales written during WWI as like something he's throwing out of a burning house, of value to himself if to no one else.

The deep irony that just as Upward was declaring the impossibility of anyone's writing fantasy nowadays that could have any kind of relevance to the modern world (he not long afterwards suffered such a creative crisis that he lapsed into silence for decades), JRRT was publishing THE HOBBIT and writing that famous first chapter of THE LORD OF THE RINGS -- a book which infamously got taken as an insightful comment on the recent events of history. And, one might add, that if it didn't change the world, certainly changed the world of literature, though it took a long time to do so.

I'd be surprised if Tolkien picked up Day-Lewis's anthology or ever read Upward's little screed, but it's certainly possible. We know Auden thought highly of Tolkien's lectures, which he attended while an undergrad at Oxford, but we don't know much of what Tolkien thought of Auden at the time, or even if he was particularly aware of this undergraduate that all his fellow undergraduates thought the great poet of his generation. About fourteen years later, it wd be Day-Lewis who defeated C. S. L. for the Professorship of Poetry at Oxford, a coming-of-age triumph for the Auden generation against the forces of reaction in poetry (CSL, like Dunsany, was still in attempting a rear-guard action against the previous revolution in poetry, that of Pound and Eliot, even as Auden's generation was beginning to give way to Larkin's).

Unlikely though it seems that Tolkien would have come across Upward's piece, he might well have heard of it second- or third-hand. In any case, he was obviously familiar with the attitude expressed in it, which is one of those he refutes decisively in his section on Escape in ON FAIRY-STORIES two years later (1939).

Still: an interesting example of attitudes Tolkien faced at the time he set out to create his masterpiece. We're lucky that, like Dunsany, and Eddison, and so many others he went his own way, rather than followed the dictates of those who considered themselves in the know back in the day.

--John R.
just finished: AMERICAN CAESARS by Nigel Hamilton (#II.2994)

1 comment:

David Bratman said...

There's a great deal to chew on in this post.

I would distrust - the same way I'd distrust someone urging with oozy reasonableness on the necessity of using the Ring - anyone who urges the totalitarian "necessity" of any artistic credo. They may intimidate a great many people at the time, but they're always wrong and they always look ridiculous afterwards. Anything that really is "necessary" will just happen. Why did the Elizabethans write like Elizabethans and the Augustans like Augustans? Not because someone like Upward told them to.

Upward's credo reminds me awfully of Pierre Boulez's pronouncements on music after WW2, which intimidated even great composers like Stravinsky, and led directly to audiences rebelling against the very term "modern music" for fifty years. We're only slowly coming out of that miasma now.

The other thing that strongly comes to mind is a piece by an author who was intimidated by the likes of Upward. In 1938, Robert Nathan published an omnibus of five of his 1920s novels. The title was The Barly Fields. Painfully aware that delicate fantasy of his kind had become unfashionable, Nathan affixes a brief preface as his apologia, and it's titled "Note to the Younger Generation," so you can see where his concern lies. He says he likes the muscular social realist fiction that's become fashionable, but defends his right to write something different.

Two piquant follow-ups from this:
1) Nathan immediately turned around and wrote Portrait of Jennie, his most lasting work, published the next year, so he wasn't about to change;
2) the preface is dated December 1937, the very month a professor in England sat down and wrote the opening words of a novel that would be denounced more than any other as irrelevant, escapist, unmeaningful and inappropriate to modern life.

In fact, of course, The Lord of the Rings is the most searingly social realist and relevant of all modern secondary-world fantasy novels, with its theme of the desire for Power and the necessity of moral behavior in its face.

So that in itself is an adequate reply to the Upwards, even before you get to Dunsany's Wildean dictum that the artist is the creator of beauty in the face of ugliness.