A Talk by John Flaus at the Science Fiction Eastercon
Lee Harding: … an introduction. He was present at the last Science Fiction Eastercon, and delivered us an extremely interesting talk on horror film.See Film Appreciation Newsletter, vol. 3, no. 4, Mar. 1973. But he was really only warming up to the subject. Now, a few weeks ago he was guest speaker at one of the combined Melbourne SF Club/Fantasy Film Group booze nights at Degraves Tavern, and he gave an extraordinarily interesting speech which, once again, was sort of a warm up. He is a perennial warmer-upper. Well, we decided to ask him along to the Convention to warm up and really get stuck into this subject, which he seems to know so well. He first used the phrase “The Marvellous Journey” at the Degraves Tavern that night, and all of us sf fans twigged immediately that, independently, he had discovered what we call the “sense of wonder”. But he elaborated on it far more than I think any fan has ever, and any critic or sf writer. So we’ve asked him along to get stuck into this subject tonight. I won’t say anything more. He’ll tell you everything. OK, John.
John Flaus: I always find myself in this awkward position, that I’ve got something to live up to. Well, I’ll commence with the same kind of apology that I made this time last year. I don’t read a great deal of sf, and this isn’t by choice: it’s just a question of priority. By the time I’ve got round to looking at all the movies that have ever been made (though there are a couple that I missed out on once) there isn’t much time left for reading. And since what I’m paid to know is movies … This is how I originally got in contact with the group when I came down to Melbourne last year. Look, I’ve only got two eyes. I found that some of the pre-occupations that I was interested in, which I needed in order to explain certain of the genres in the entertainment film, also had some sort of relevance to sf.
In working over some of these things I’d realised that themes that I’d found in sf, both in the writing and in the movie adaptions – and there are pretty serious differences, I think, between much of the writing and the kind of films that are wisely produced and received – I could see some similarities.
But I planned to open this by reading you some poetry. I make no apologies for the reading of the stuff. Someone has to do it, and I’ve got it all here in front of me, and I know what I’m looking for. What I’m going to ask you to do is this: to accept certain kinds of frameworks in which sf, both the writing and the films, may possibly be seen. They’re not the only way to look at the stuff, and, of course, immediately any sort of category or framework is offered to you, there leaks into your mind a particular favorite work of yours which won’t fit any of the categories – and this happens to us all, over and over again. There can only be approximations; they are intended to be useful up to a point, they are not by any means ultimates. And you certainly can’t evaluate either the books, the stories or the films entirely this way. What I’m suggesting that can be done is to fit them inside certain sorts of categories, and then from there on do the arguing and the hammering-out. And when I find similarities of a psychological kind between stories that have been written in other ages – and not merely stories but other art forms: the poetry that I’m going to read you from the 19th century – what I’m prompted to say is this: that there are certain kinds of … I’ll go so far as to call them yearnings, that will recur in the human animal given certain minimal levels of control over the environment that allow art forms and other of the graces and adornments of civilisation to flourish. Given that, there are certain recurring conditions. And what has been referred to in the literary and musical movements of Europe in the 18th and into the 19th centuries as “Romanticism” seems to me to have many properties in common with the science fiction of the 20th century. And that’s not, I’d suggest, because of any self-conscious attempts to copy them, though we do know – and thanks to Lee Harding for pointing this out to me only a couple of weeks ago – of one highly self-conscious attempt to throw back from an sf work written in the middle of this century to a poem that was written in the middle of the last century. All these secrets will become clear after a little while. I’ll offer to you some writing from the European Romantics and ask you to consider whether or not many of the feelings which it excites in people, many of the emotions which it is likely to liberate, or I’ll put that a little differently, which we can say it was likely to have liberated in its own time, and to see whether or not some of these aren’t relevant to your own experience in the reading of sf or to looking at films.
Now, what I plan to do is to read from Percy Shelley and from Arthur Rimbaud, and after that I want to offer a few categories or classifications to put sf in, I’ll toss the titles of a few films in, and at the end of that time, if the bar hasn’t closed, we’ll have a discussion.
Before I read from Shelley and Rimbaud I want to draw from the writings of some literary critics in English language, one a most pre-eminent critic of the language, and, it seems to me it’s a damn shame he hasn’t got around to reading any sf yet, apart from Gulliver’s Travels: and that’s Northrop Frye. Frye has edited a work which has the title Romanticism Reconsidered, and it includes four essays, one of them by himself, and the title he has given his essay, to discuss Romanticism, essentially the Romanticism of European literature, is “The Drunken Boat”. Now, I’d like you to bear that in mind. In addition to Frye, in this book Maurice Abrams has a chapter. And I’ve picked up a phrase here, and I want to throw this at you to begin with. He says that a theme of a multitude of writers, notable, forgotten and anonymous, in the Romantic movement was this – and this is the quote: “Man regenerates in a world made new”. I’d want to suggest that is one of the major themes in sf, though of course not the only one; it is one of a cluster. Abrams, in going on to discuss Romantic poetry, says this: “The formative age of Romantic poetry was clearly one of apocalyptic expectations, or at least apocalyptic imaginings, which endowed the promise of France (he’s talking about the French Revolution of 1793) with the form and impetus of one of the deepest rooted and most compelling myths in the culture of Eastern Europe”. And this was the myth of the Golden Age, of the new era, of the coming to fruition of an ideal means of existence for the community of mankind. We all know what happened: the bourgeois got hold of the thing and that was the end of it.
He has this to say about the Romantic poet in the 1790s and through into the 1800s and the way in which he treated current affairs: “In dealing with current affairs his procedure is often panoramic, his stage cosmic, his agents quasi-mythological, and his logic of events apocalyptic. Typically, this mode of Romantic vision fuses history, politics, philosophy and religion into one grand design by asserting that Providence, or some form of natural teleology to operate in the seeming chaos of human history so as to effect from present evil a greater good, from which will emerge a new man on a new earth which is a restored paradise.” Now, let’s question that, in sf films for the most part, the paradise that we see is far from ideal, in fact it’s frequently nightmarish. But I wonder to what extent you would accept that a fair amount of the sf writing that you’re familiar with is (to quote again), “often panoramic, a stage cosmic, agents quasi-mythological, and the logic of events apocalyptic.” Just let them roll around in your head for a while; don’t fasten on to them too hard yet; don’t tighten up yet, it’s too soon.
Abrams goes on to say this, finally: “It will have become apparent even from these brief summaries (he’s talked for some time) that certain terms, images and quasi-mythical agents tend to recur and to assume a specialised reference to revolutionary events and expectations.” And then he gives what these are: “the earthquake and the volcano, the purging fire, the emerging Sun, the dawn of glad day, the awakening Earth in springtime, the Dionysian figure of revolutionary destruction, and the Apollonian figure of the promise of a bright new order.” And prominent amongst these is a term which functions as one of the principal leit-motifs of Romantic literature, and this he says is hope. Now, it’s at this point that I’d want to say that the characteristics of Romantic literature of the early 19th century that Abrams is talking about do diverge from a fair amount of sf, and certainly diverge from the kind of stuff that’s been shown in the sf films.
Frye suggests that the Romantic poets may be either revolutionary or conservative in their politics depending upon whether or not they understand this ideal order, this ideal community, to be feasible within the context of the existing community, or whether it requires the existing community to be swept away. And, on an assumption of this kind, he’s able to classify Romantic poets into revolutionaries and conservatives; and I understand this is a favorite little game that’s played with our sf authors, and I seemed to hear a little bit of it going on this afternoon. I wonder if you might want to take that up and do something with it.
Frye sees as a general quality of Romantic literature this one, and this is where I want to lead onto Shelley: “It’s the feature of unlimited continuity, which seems to me connected with the sense of vehicular energy, of being carried along by a greater force.” Now, it’s because of this that he’s prepared to talk about writers from Blake through to Rimbaud and put them all in the one boat, in the Drunken Boat. I’ll come back to the classic and Romantic parts of it later on.
I wonder if anybody here has read a poem by Percy Shelley called “Alastor”. Not very familiar. I want to read some parts of it. It’s about the idealising human who wants to come in contact with whatever are the forces that exist behind or under, or whatever the word might be, beyond the physical attributes of the world. So that, to come back to that term, there’s a sense of wonder involved here. The Romantic, at the beginning of the 19th century, was faced with probably an even more frightening and ugly, just aesthetically offensive, industrialism than the one which confronts us. You might want to argue about that, but I think that’s probably the case. At the same time, also, there weren’t, though people like Shelley certainly had pronounced libertarian views that would even get him in strife with some sections of the public today, I think that overall, the difficulties were much more severe, and Romantics as yet hadn’t got to the point of seeing life outside the pull of gravity and outside old mother Earth as being a possibility; and so what they were doing instead was testing themselves against the physical world, or the confines of the physical world, which presented itself to them at that time. I’d want to suggest that in the middle of the 20th century, the confines of the physical world have radically altered, and so the actual locations of much of the action of the Romantic impulse is going out to the stars, or is going inward within a sort of biological wonderland. This is a quote.
His cold fireside and alienated home
To seek strange truths in undiscovered lands.
One title that leaps to mind throughout this poem is Stranger in a Strange Land.
Many a wide waste and tangled wilderness
Has lured his fearless steps; and he has bought
With his sweet voice and eyes, from savage men,
His rest and food. Nature’s most secret steps
He like her shadow has pursued, where’er
The red volcano overcanopies
Its fields of snow and pinnacles of ice
With burning smoke, or where bitumen lakes
On black bare pointed islets ever beat
With sluggish surge, or where the secret caves
Rugged and dark …
Etc, etc. There’s a lot of talk about fire and poison and dangerous rocks and so on. Finally, to:
Numberless and immeasurable halls,
Frequent with crystal column, and clear shrines
Of pearl, and thrones radiant with crysolite.
And there’s an enormous amount of elaboration on this kind of imagery, which seems to me to be a fairly obvious attempt to render in a sensuous form wondrous aspects of the world. At this point he’s still limited, it seems to me, by a notion of the physical world and he’s attempting to find what’s wondrous in it by describing these things. If he was living a century and a half later, I think that he would have found that the actual locations of his story could have overcome the limits that prevented him at that time.
Now here is something. It’s an attempt by his dreamer, his wanderer – the alternative title of “Alastor” is “The Spirit of Solitude” – of his solitary one, to go back into the past. It hasn’t yet occurred to him that he can seek the future. He’s still looking for possibilities other than those that exist at the present time, but just in the 19th century everybody had their necks locked so that they were turning backwards instead of forwards. He says this:
Among the ruined temples there,
Stupendous column, and wild images
Of more than man, where marble daemons watch
The Zodiac’s brazen mystery, and dead men
Hang their mute thoughts on the mute walls around,
He lingered, poring on memorials
Of the world’s youth, through the long burning day
Gazed on those speechless shapes, nor, when the moon
Filled the mysterious halls with floating shades
Suspended he that task, but ever gazed
And gazed, till meaning on his vacant mind
Flashed like strong inspiration, and he saw
The thrilling secrets of the birth of time.
And that’s the kind of phrase that I’d want to fasten on to and say, that tells us something, that probably rings a bell for a lot of us. But the 19th century Romantic had to turn backwards to look for those things.
Now there are a lot of other problems which occur to the Spirit of Solitude, and one of them is that, unfortunately, he doesn’t enjoy the sex life. And so he has these visions of beauteous women who come and seduce him. And he goes out searching for this, because he’s under the impression that, if he can locate that in some ideal form, he will have witnessed the birth of time and he will have some kind of a secret of life. And the remainder of the poem may be read on more than one level. The level that I have suggested in the past to some of my literary colleagues and apparently caused great offence is that this is an attempt to describe a man’s discovery of a woman’s cunt, and that much of what goes on from here in the poem is the journey, the marvellous journey that goes in through the wondrous cavern and explores the petals and the flowers and so on and so on, for 750 lines. I want to refer to this later on, too, because I’d suggest that there is behind much of our interest in whatever it may be, the future of one kind or another, whether it be the future possibilities for man as we understand him now or for a life other than the one that we do understand, that there will be some kind of a sexual trigger. And I’m not a psychoanalyst by conviction, or anything of that kind. But this is one of the similarities I find frequently occurring. I’m not asking you to accept that at the present time, but merely to test whether, in yourselves, some else of what Shelley has to say here will strike any chords of sympathy. We’ll come to the marvellous journey. No, before that, because this is of interest too, is the mysterious, the masked stranger, the wanderer.
Who ministered with human charity
His human wants, beheld with wondering awe
Their fleeting visitant. The mountaineer,
Encountering on some dizzy precipice
That spectral form, deemed that the Spirit of wind
With lightning eyes, and eager breath, and feet
Disturbing not the drifted snow, had paused
In its career: the infant would conceal
His troubled visage in his mother’s robe
In terror at the glare of those wild eyes,
To remember their strange light in many a dream
Of after-times; …
And I’d suggest reverberations there. He comes at last to the “lone Chorasmian shore” and he finds there the boat; and taking the boat he commences on the marvellous journey:
Startled by his own thoughts he looked around.
There was no fair fiend near him, not a sight
Or sound of awe but in his own deep mind.
A little shallop floating near the shore
Caught the impatient wandering of his gaze.
It had been long abandoned, for its sides
Gaped wide with many a rift, and its frail joints
Swayed with the undulations of the tide.
A restless impulse urged him to embark
And meet lone Death on the drear ocean’s waste;
For well he knew that mighty Shadow loves
The slimy caverns of the populous deep.
But he commences:
The day was fair and sunny, sea and sky
Drank its inspiring radiance, and the wind
Swept strongly from the shore, blackening the waves.
Following his eager soul, the wanderer
Leaped in the boat, he spread his cloak aloft
On the bare mast, and took his lonely seat,
And felt the boat speed o’er the tranquil sea
Like a torn cloud before the hurricane.
As one that in a silver vision floats
Obedient to the sweep of odorous winds
Upon resplendent clouds, so rapidly
Along the dark and ruffled waters fled
The straining boat. – A whirlwind swept it on.
And so on. There’s a fair amount of imagery which describes Nature being churned up to the point where it’s virtually unrecognisable, it’s not the familiar world of Nature at all. Here’s somebody straining to describe experiences of the senses, beyond the experience of the senses, but trying to use that imagery nevertheless. So he goes through the dark descending flood, and there are a number of other … which I’d love to read but don’t have time too, but I want to emphasise still the notion of the craft, of the more than inhuman speed with which it is impelled, and the sense always of being in connection with larger and greater forces:
The little boat
Still fled before the storm; still fled, like foam
Down the steep cataract of a wintry river;
Now pausing on the edge of the riven wave;
Now leaving far behind the bursting mass
That fell, convulsing ocean: safely fled –
As if that frail and wasted human form,
Had been an elemental god.
The moon arose
And so on. And he comes through more whirlpools, caves, and so,
Who shall save?
The boat fled on – the boiling torrent drove –
The crags closed round with black and jagged arms,
The shattered mountain overhung the sea,
And faster still, beyond all human speed,
Suspended on the sweep of the smooth wave,
The little boat was driven. A cavern there
Yawned, and amid its slant and winding depths
Engulfed the rushing sea. The boat fled on
With unrelaxing speed –’Vision and Love!’
The Poet cried aloud, ‘I have beheld
The Path of thy departure. Sleep and death
Shall not divide us long!’
And then follows the part that I’d suggest is the most explicit:
The boat pursued
The windings of the cavern. Daylight shone
At length upon that gloomy river’s flow;
And so on. And this proceeds for a considerable amount of time here. It builds up in a short of orgastic thing, and then finally there’s an interesting sort of afterglow that follows from it as well. I’ll give you a bit of that.
Filled with one whirlpool all that ample chasm;
Stair above stair the eddying waters rose,
Circling immeasurably fast, and laved
With alternating dash the gnarled roots
Of mighty trees, that stretched their giant arms
In darkness over it. I’ the midst was left,
Reflecting, yet distorting every cloud,
A pool of treacherous and tremendous calm.
Seized by the sway of the ascending stream,
With dizzy swiftness, round, and round, and round,
Ridge after ridge the straining boat arose,
Till on the verge of the extremest curve,
Where, through an opening of the rocky bank,
The waters overflow, and a smooth spot
Of glassy quiet mid those battling tides
Is left, the boat paused shuddering – Shall it sink
Down the abyss?
And so on. And he goes through this exquisite sort of afterglow thing.
The meeting boughs and implicated leaves
Wove twilight o’er the Poet’s path, as led
By love, or dream, or god, or mightier Death,
He sought in Nature’s dearest haunt, some bank,
Her cradle, and his sepulchre.
And so, finally, he comes to the last of the woven clefts:
Soft mossy lawns
Beneath these canopies extend their swells,
Fragrant with perfumed herbs, and eyed with blooms
Minute yet beautiful. One darkest glen
Sends from its woods of musk-rise, twined with jasmine,
A soul-dissolving odor, to invite
To some more lovely mystery.
And the effect of this continuously. Yes, I’ll show you something here that l suggest is a technique which you find in the writing in sf, rather than in the film, is this kind of contrast. He’s come out into an aspect of the world where there’s the bare hills and the blaze of the sunset.
Dim tracts and vast, robed in the lustrous gloom
Of leaden-colored even, and fiery hills
Mingling their flames with twilight, on the verge
Of the remote horizon. The near scene,
In naked and severe simplicity,
Made contrast with the universe.
And then he goes on to describe the near scene. And then there’s a fair amount again about tranquil spots and fishes and all the rest of it. But, ultimately, hope and despair are described as the torturers. He doesn’t achieve what he’s looking for; he’s finally left on the bank and shoal of time until ultimately he must waste away. What I’m suggesting is that here was a poet of desperation, as Shelley frequently was, trying to find some kind of outlet. I think that many of the emotional satisfactions that he craves for were ones that might have been satisfied if he had lived in this century instead of the last.
That’s not the only aspect of the ‘Marvellous Journey’ that can be found because it’s one that comes up repeatedly in this kind of literature. But l’ll give you a couple of other examples of what it sounds like. This is from ‘Prometheus Unbound’; you can see again the sort of cosmic scale on which the whole thing operates. You might even put a case for it being some kind of sf. Prometheus has been on that rock; remember he was a Titan, he stole the fire from Heaven, from Zeus, and gave it to men, and as a punishment Zeus tied him to a rock in the Carpathians, and daily the eagle came and devoured his liver, and the liver grew overnight and Prometheus had to endure this again for – I forget how long, was it 100 years? – it was some term like that, anyway. I think it was not less than 100 and not more than 200. Here is the voice of Asia, which is the world, the earth, the seas, the oceans, all come to take Prometheus back:
My soul is an enchanted boat,
Which, like a sleeping swan, doth float
Upon the silver waves of thy sweet singing;
And there’s a fair amount of this:
Till through Elysian garden islets
By thee, most beautiful of pilots,
Where never mortal pinnace glided,
The boat of my desire is guided:
What I’m trying to argue, you see, is all the time there’s a very powerful kind of sexual impulse behind most visionary literature, and that the Romantics, back at the start of the 19th century, were letting the cat out of the bag. We’ve very successfully put it back in. And when Margaret Tarratt published that review of a few of the sf films towards the end of 1971, I think that at least some of the discomfort that was experienced was because we didn’t want to see that there was an explanation for our enthusiasms that was anything less than mysterious. But I wish to point out here something that Shelley in his Defence of Poetry put forward because I think it bears upon two kinds of sf, and here he was writing again about Romantic poetry. He says:
According to one mode of regarding the two classes of mental action which are called reason and imagination, the former, reason, may be considered as mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another, however produced; and the latter, as mind acting upon those thoughts so as to color them with its own light. (And then he goes on to say that) Reason is the enumeration of quantities already known. Imagination is the perception of the value of those quantities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, and Imagination the similitudes of things.
I think there are two kinds of sf film, one of which, I think we would say in Shelley’s terminology, we see that Reason prevails, dominates; and another, more commonly, in which Imagination does. So there’s one kind of film that is seeking to describe the differences, another that is working to demonstrate the similitudes. And, finally, I must quote also from The Defence of Poetry because Shelley at this point has an extraordinary phrase, one that I think should ring in our ears. He is talking about the Poet, and he doesn’t mean necessarily people who write verse – I hope we appreciate that – this is anyone who is going to produce representational works of art:
The most unfailing herald, companion and follower of the awakening of a people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution is poetry. At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature.
Now I think sf people should look at some of this and say, we deserve to have some of this applied to ourselves.
(It is impossible) says Shelley, to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations, for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
Well, nearly 40 years later, Arthur Rimbaud got himself to the point where, for a couple of years, his poetic talent burned very brightly, and then he extinguished it himself. But the poem of his in the French, which I don’t presume to read in the French, “Le Bateau ivre”, “The Drunken Boat”, is the one that Frye saw fit to include as the title of his definitive essay on Romanticism, and I’d like to read some parts of it. And as I said before, it was Lee who pointed out to me just a few weeks ago that Cordwainer Smith has written a story called “Drunkboat”. And I’d mentioned the Drunken Boat in The Marvellous Journey and he said, do you know, do you know the story by Cordwainer Smith called “Drunkboat”, and I said, cripes no, I’ll have to read that. So he duly got me to read it, and of course we find that the principal character in that is someone called Artyr Rambo, and it wouldn’t be the same bloke – not half – and of course he shot through Space 3 into Space 4 and he’s hit the 25th century, and he’s blown all the minds of the people in the 25th century, and then got precipitated back into the 19th again, and he’s brought with him some of those visions. I’ll read part of “The Drunken Boat” to you to suggest again how the sense of wonder … I want to say that it’s a continually and ever-recurring phenomenon in the human spirit, and will find different forms in different ages; but if we can recognise that it does recur, and that there are affinities between much of the drive toward sf as there was once a drive toward poetry. Rimbaud, some will hasten to correct me, is not strictly a Romantic at all because he came too late in the movement, by the 1850s, and his poetry is now best remembered for its influence on the Symbolist movement. But, nevertheless, there is here a summation of the drives, of the yearnings, of the Romantic movement, though their expression, in terms of the technique of poetry, has become a different one. He speaks of the “unmoored peninsulas”. Oh, by the way, there’s a difficulty with this. You don’t read this stuff sentence by sentence, and it doesn’t all come out with a rational, discursive continuity to it. He is, indeed, trying to blow our minds: this is the first electric light show of the word, you see. He says:
I know the sky is bursting into light, the jets of water,
The breakers and the current; I know the night,
The dawn, exalted like a flock of doves,
And sometimes I have seen what men have thought they saw!
I have seen the sinking sun stained with mystic horrors,
Illuminating with long purple thickenings,
Like actors in ancient tragedies,
The shuddering waves shivering in the distance!
I have struck against the shores of incredible Floridas
Mixing panther-eyed flowers like human skin!
Rainbows stretched like bridle reins
Under the ocean’s horizon towards sea-green troops!
I have seen the fermenting of monstrous marshes, nets
Where a whole Leviathan rots in the reeds!
The waters collapsing in the middle of a calm,
And horizons plunging towards the abyss!
And that goes on and on:
Steaming, free, mounted on violet mists,
I who pierced the sky reddening like a wall
Which bears – delicious sweets for good poets –
Lichens in sunlight and azure phlegm;
Who sailed, tarnished by electric crescents,
A crazy plank, escorted by black hippos,
When the Julys with cudgel blows made fall
Ultramarine skies with their fiery funnels;
And it goes on. The phrase “I who pierced the sky” is probably the one that first set Cordwainer Smith’s mind racing, because in that story Artyr Rambo does, in fact, come through the dimension this way, hands first.
And finally, I wish to quote from something Rimbaud himself wrote in relation to this poem, or to poetry generally. He says:
The first study for the man who wants to be a poet is to know himself completely. He must search for his soul, scrutinise it, learn to know it. As soon as he knows it, he must cultivate it! He must, I say, be a seer; he must make himself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by a long, intensive and reasoned disordering of all the senses. Every kind of love, of suffering, of madness, he looks within himself. He devours all the poisons in him keeping only their essences. Unspeakable torture in which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, the great criminal, the great diseased, the utterly damned and the supreme wise man; for he reaches the unknown …
That’s what it’s like to get there.
He reaches the unknown, and even if, at last, half demented, he ceases to understand his visions, he has seen them. Let him die in his leap into these unutterable, unnumberless things; other accursed poets will come; and will begin at the boundaries where he has left off! …
So then, the poet is truly a stealer of fire.
And we’ve come back to the point … This is a kind of echo of Shelley’s preoccupation with the idea of Prometheus and stealing fire from the gods to give to man. And finally Rimbaud concludes:
These poets arc going to exist. When the eternal servitude of woman shall have ended, when she will be able to exist independently, when man –hitherto abominable – shall have given her freedom, she too will be a poet! Woman will discover the unknown! And will her world be different from ours? – She will discover strange, unfathomable things, repulsive, delicious; we shall receive them, we shall understand them.
Well. I’ve got my doubts about that.
Right oh. What I’ve been trying to do is hit you with, what may be for some of you, new stuff. And you may, even if impressed – and I can’t even be sure that that’s the case – you may still wish to reject the kinds of similarities, the affinities that I believe are there.
Now. the themes of the Marvellous Journey … No, I’ll do something else first. Pardon me a minute. Yes, I’ll set these binary oppositions jangling now in your minds, and you’ll probably want to come back and hit me with them.
Some of you may be familiar with the art criticism of Wolfflin writing at the beginning of this century, and particularly known for his study of the art of the Renaissance, suggesting that the distinguishing qualities, the qualities that distinguish Renaissance art from Baroque art, are that Renaissance art is closed and Baroque is open. And by this, he has very much in mind the same kind of distinction that’s often made between Classic and Romantic. And Fritz Strick, a German art critic writing after Wolfflin in the 1920s at the height of the expressionist period in Europe, and picking up a few ideas that seem to have come from Heinrich Heine in the previous century, offers this kind of distinction. He says that the Classic arts – I want to say that all of this will allow us to separate our different kinds of sf: it certainly works with the films – Classic art will emphasise permanence, permanence of accessible, attainable goals, whereas Romantic art stresses eternity. Now how to lay eternity up against permanence? Well, eternity is concerned with perfection or infinity – and I think we might recognise here the kind of writing which, on one hand, sorts out all of the properties that it’s going to discuss: the possibilities that are open to the characters, the range of analysis of the factors that are present; as against the kind of sf writing where there is always something ineffable or mysterious, that can’t quite be got at. And so, on one hand, the notion of permanence; on the other, the notion of eternity. Permanence is attainable; eternity links up with notions of perfection. But then, the Classic temper is one that favors repose; the Romantic temper will emphasise darkness and mystery. And finally, the Classic temper will emphasise the mechanical, it will turn its gaze to that which is outside humanity; the Romantic temper will stress the organic and will be concerned more to find its preoccupations and its dominant imagery from within the human. And I’ve got a couple of other things to put up there.
Now, with the Marvellous Journey, this is one of the ways I’m suggesting that we can classify sf films, and I’d like you to test it out and see how much of it will work with sf literature. And I want to use at all points a kind of structure here which I’ve borrowed from Structural Anthropology and the study of myths and legends and ritual, not only of primitive communities but of quite sophisticated ones. It’s a method of analysis which applies equally to the Book of Genesis as to the myth of Oedipus as it does to the legends of the aborigines of Australia, America and Africa. Without going into that too closely though, all I’d want to say here is that one of the points they stress is that structures that they’re looking at don’t necessarily convey to you the values that are to be filled in. And they stress binary oppositions. They say that what really counts are the values, the feelings, the images that head out towards either one end or the other of a spectrum. Perhaps I’m mixing the metaphors. What they’re really thinking of is poles. And you know the kind of thing that can always happen when you’ve got polarities like this is that they can make an instant switch, and that North can switch to South and South to North. Last year, in talking about the political interpretation of films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I suggested that it can be seen to meet both the quite intense anxieties of the anti-communists and the anti-McCarthyites, and that the same structure would work equally well for both. I take it that you’ve seen that film or read about it at some time. It’s one of a whole series of takeover films, films about humans who are being, in one way or another, taken over by an alien kind of life, but that they are not changing into anything different: they remain humans. In The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the little town of Santa Mera in California still goes on as it did before, even when hardly any of its living occupants are human any more, because they still look human, they still walk around and talk to one another in the streets, they sell each other insurance as before, they mow the lawn on Sundays the same way, they follow the baseball scores, they smoke the same brand of tobacco, they remember the life that their human hosts had had in all the preceding years; but they aren’t human any more, because there’s no pain, no worry, no fear, no individuality. It’s pretty terrifying though, because all of the usual criteria that we have for telling that people are human all still apply; all of the criteria that would operate, say, in terms of anyone whose notions of humanity are tied in by the Reader’s Digest at one end and Time Magazine at the other, wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the aliens and the humans. There’s a real terror that’s generated in that movie, even if you are able to see through it and make your judgments, it’s terrifying. It’s because, I think, it takes out from under us one of the props that we had never had cause to question before. Now, when you look at that picture and see that it was made in 1957 when the McCarthy heat was only just off, one of the things you realise is this can be seen as appealing to the supporters of Senator McCarthy who had been made institutionally paranoid about the communist threat. When the hero, the only human left in the entire town of Santa Mera, is chased by the populace and runs on to the main highway that leads up North to the rest of the United States, and he says, “They are here already. You fools, why won’t you listen, you may be next, they are here already,” he could be saying that the communist threat had moved in, they have taken over the United States, and that all of those walking vegetables who look human are actually the result of what happens when an alien political philosophy takes over and reduces American society to a bunch of automata. But equally so, the same structural analysis may allow you to say that the automaton kind of existence is what McCarthy’s neo-fascism introduces and causes in people, so that they become, in a sense, like parts of a mob, and they arc indistinguishable from each other, and that the really anxious character who runs out on to the highway appealing to the rest of his fellow citizens, saying, “They are here already; you may be next,” is very likely to be the person who’s fighting like hell to retain his individuality against the neo-fascists. Now, the structural analysis won’t allow you to say that either one or the other is the correct reading: all it will do is point out that this is what’s operating, and that depending upon what you, particularly, find emotionally disturbing, you may put them into the structure. In the same way as I suggested at the beginning I’m going to give you a few classifications and things to fit stories and films into, this is what the structural anthropologists recognise happens inside the myths. The myths may work either way in some cases.
Well, I want to suggest a couple of these polarities. The Marvellous Journey may just as easily, if you reverse it suddenly – you get one of those polar reverses – become the invasion. If you undertake the Marvellous Journey you arrive at a paradise. The paradise, by a similar kind of inversion, may be the catastrophe, may be the end of a world. The paradise represents an image of a world that may come: this is “man regenerate, in a world made new” – the old phrase of the Romantics. But equally so, and we find this recurring in sf, what we are looking at is a cataclysm: we are looking at the destruction of a world. And I want to suggest that either of these are possible: the Marvellous Journey may lead to a paradise, the Marvellous Journey may turn into an invasion, the paradise may turn into a catastrophe, into the end of a world. And we look at the examples and see what happens when they start crossing over from one into the other. That’s something that I want to suggest.
The other thing is that there was a kind of offshoot of Romanticism – in England, it even anticipated the Romantic movement in literature – and that is usually referred to as the neo-Gothic movement, and in literature this led to the Gothic novel. The Gothic novel stressed, more importantly than anything else, the notion of the demonic inside man – there’s a demon in us – and that the demon is enormously powerful and strong, but it’s also irrational, and we must fight like hell to stop it from getting out, because if it does it won’t be restricted by the kind of niceties and regularities that we’ve hedged our existence around with. You recognise of course that in a later time, a century later, in Austria, Sigmund Freud came up with the theories of the ego and the id and so on, and he was saying a very similar thing; that Karl Marx, having left Germany and gone to England, was saying the same thing in political terms about what will happen: he was saying that there is an order in society and that there is an irrational force trying to break out, and that when you get a conflict between the two, you get a kind of repression and you end up with a police state. And Freud is saying that you have a kind of stabilised, norm-structured ego, but you’ve got a lot of id, you’ve got a lot of elemental power trying to get out at some point; it will often be channelled a bit too strongly into one activity and you’ll be a little bit overbalanced – I’m not suggesting that any of us are, you realise, but this is just a kind of model – and that what will result here is another kind of repression and a neurosis will result. But the Romantics, before either of these men had evolved their theories in their particular fields, were already using this as the basic imagery for their writing. Thomas Carlisle, writing on the history of the French Revolution, described the Revolution in terms of: “that same daemonic thing, bursting up, coming from within, from the caverns, the subterranean forces, and eventually erupting and destroying an order.” Now, this notion of the demonic almost always is in terms of something from within. And the demon is a motif that was in the Gothic novel and didn’t find its way, except on fairly rare occasions, into the mainstream of Romantic writing. And there’s a demonic kind of sf writing, demonic sf film. Some purists, and I know that Bruce Gillespie is one of them, would regard the Dracula films, the Frankenstein films, the Wolfman films and so forth as not being sf. Well, I think that’s fair enough because these are the demonic equivalents. They are concerned with looking at the nature of man and suggesting that at some point a dimension, a customary dimension of order and predictability is removed and the demonic is let out: it’s still let out between certain confines but the result can usually be highly destructive. It does involve moral questions that don’t come into the other areas: when you get on to the fate of poor Lawrence Talbot, the Wolfman, you realise that he can’t help himself; whereas you look at Count Dracula and you realise that perhaps he can; and you make different kinds of judgements about evil, responsibility, retribution, things of that kind. But the demonic is a kind of offshoot of sf and I’ll only bring it in if you feel that we do need to talk about it.
The Marvellous Journey – how many examples can I give without boring you, I wonder. Hang on a minute. Well, the Marvellous Journey would be reflected in the movies Destination Moon, The Riders to the Stars, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, (though you may want to say, no, that doesn’t quite belong with the remainder), This Island Earth, The Incredible Shrinking Man (now we get on to something else because The Incredible Shrinking Man may also, I think, in some ways share part of what I was saying about the demonic: it’s talking about the nature of man and taking an individual and removing one of the dimensions, one of the parameters of normality, and saying, look what happens once you remove that), The Time Machine, The Mysterious Island, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Fantastic Voyage, Barbarella, 2001. I’m trying to use titles that you’ll be likely to be familiar with. That’s the Marvellous Journey. You see what this does is to take as its centre of attention the normal – they’re normals in the sense that these wanderers belong in the same universe as you and I and their capacity for action is somewhat similar to ours – but then they are launched off into a world different from ours. So here you get as a kind of theme the normal in the abnormal, the normal character in an environment which is abnormal.
Invasion you see the reverse occurring: you now have the environment which is the normal, the customary environment, and into it is introduced one element of the abnormal. Examples (I’m taking the examples from about 1950 onwards – sure, there are earlier examples in all cases but these are the ones it is most likely for you to have seen) examples of the Invasion: The Thing, The Day the Earth Stood Still (a very special case: I’d have to put that aside and talk about that separately), Red Planet Mars, Invasion U.S.A., The War of the Worlds, Invaders from Mars, Them, that goes up to about 1954, but, interestingly, invasion films become a different kind from there on. Those earlier kinds of invaders were demonstrably alien, you knew what the threat was. But there’s another kind, there are two other kinds. One is the takeover film, and from about 1953, the first takeover film – that is, once the humans are taken over they still look human – is It Came from Outer Space in 1953. But from 1957 onwards there’s a whole stack of them: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day that Mars Invaded Earth, The Space Children, The Damned, The Village of the Damned, The Children of the Damned. You realise that the first one, The Damned, is not thematically related to the other two. Its English title is The Damned, its American title is These Are the Damned, and it will be on Melbourne television in a couple of days time. It was directed by Joseph Losey in England in 1961. I put a very strong case for it as a work of art, as being thematically a very powerful film. The novel that it comes from is called The Children of Light by H.L. Lawrence. I think the film’s a distinct improvement on the novel.
I’ve given you examples of the invasion film, which is the reverse of the Marvellous Journey. There’s another kind of threat-invasion flim which is partly a crossover, it’s partly a link with the demonic, and that is the individual monster; not the monster who threatens all life on Earth, but the monster who carves through a sort of personal, idiosyncratic path of destruction. The early examples, of course, were King Kong and The Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young. But coming up into the 50s: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and the two (I think it is) sequels of the Creature films, The Beast with a Million Eyes (though that’s a very special case), The Quatermass Experiment and its two follow-ups (The Quatermass Experiment known in Australia as The Creeping Unknown and Quatermass II known in Australia as Birth of a Monster, and Quatermass and the Pit known in Australia as Five Million Years to Earth), 1957 was an extremely rich year for some reason. We got The Black Scorpion, The Deadly Mantis, The Giant Claw and Tarantula and they all hit us … that’s the same year as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and I think there’s a thesis there for somebody, to just get onto the year 1957 in America and see what the bloody hell happened, they just sort of exploded. These kind of films flew all over the place. The thing about the tarantula and the scorpion that Margaret Tarratt remarks in her article of course is that they are, from a psychoanalytic point of view, made synonymous with the female pudenda, and their enormous size and their destructive capacity is a reflection of a sort of male fear of explicit sexual relations with a woman. You don’t have to swallow that if you don’t want to. Oh yes, and 20 Million Miles to Earth, one of the films that Tarratt spends a great deal of time in analysing, was also made in 1957. And then later we get pictures like Reptilicus and The Monster that Challenged the World (and didn’t really challenge the world, it just upset a navy station somewhere in the Caribbean), and The Blob and so on. And the most interesting final example of this, and I’m really stretching it now (and I know the Bar’s going to close soon also) – it’s a picture that’s just finished in the drive-ins around Melbourne, and that is Duel, which doesn’t have anything to do with monsters at all. You’ve probably read the story – have you? – of the businessman that’s travelling in his Valiant sedan from one capital city to the other and he passes an oil tanker on the road and the oil tanker overtakes him and then slows up and then shows all sorts of aggressive signs and so forth, and they end up the oil tanker’s trying to run him down: at a level crossing it gets behind him and nudges him bit by bit into the passing train, and pursues him all over the joint, passes him on the road and then sits and waits for him at the next corner for him to go past, and he never sees the driver’s face; and when the tanker in one extraordinary scene (I think it’s one of the greatest bits of monster filming I’ve ever seen – you know, it’s just a bloody oil tanker: there’s thousands of them on the road) the tanker’s driven off ahead of the bloke, and he thinks, Thank Christ! I’ve got away from the bloody thing at last, I can settle down and get all the sweat out of my shirt, I can go and make that business appointment in the other city as I expected, and he drives up, and he’s coming up a road where there’s a tunnel going through under a mountain – it’s only a short tunnel, you can see the light at the other end – and he stops to help a school bus that’s bogged down, and while he’s trying to help them you see this sort of dark shape looming at the other end of the tunnel, it’s coming back. And it’s more creepy than the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms or Reptilicus or Godzilla or any of the others: this great sort of dark, looming shape; and then it drives into the tunnel and sits there and turns its lights on; and it’s just this Creature, waiting for him. And finally, when the creature dies, when he crashes his car head on and the two of them go over the brink and down, it’s all in slow motion, and it just looks like one of these great long-necked hideous looking monsters, these metallic things that you’ve seen over and over again in the movies, going down slowly to its death and destruction. The whole point about this is that the ineffable is introduced, that sense of something, of a threat that cannot be entirely measured. This is a film that’s outside the qualities of the Classic that I suggested before; it’s definitely in the qualities of the Romantic; there is something here that cannot be measured entirely, cannot be calculated utterly, and it puts the fear of Christ into you.
The paradise, as against the catastrophe. (Yes, Lee, I know about the bar, I’ll finish in a minute). The paradise goes back a lot further, and the interesting thing about the paradise is that nearly all examples of the paradise turn out to be frightening ones: they are pessimistic paradises. There are so many of them from the early period I’ve got to mention some. 1925: The Lost World; 1926: Metropolis; 1927 and 1932: L’Atlantide; 1932: The Island of Lost Souls, The White Zombie; 1936: She and Things To Come (She being remade in 1966), Queen of Outer Space, Lost Horizon. And then there are paradise films in the 50s: Forbidden Planet, 1984, Land Unknown, Alphaville, Fahrenheit 451, Planet of the Apes, coming up into the 60s. And you can see that pretty well every version of the paradise turns out to be something about as pleasant as Ballard’s Drowned World. But it’s the paradise.
Here are the catastrophes. What I’ve suggested above are films that are about worlds which do exist, that are consolidated and that represent a future, a future to be longed for, at least in some perverted sense. And here are the catastrophes, the worlds that come to an end. From the 1950s: When Worlds Collide, Five, The Naked Jungle (pretty special case: I might leave that out), The Day the World Ended, The Last Woman on Earth, The Crab Monsters, The Teenage Cavemen, On the Beach, The World, The Flesh and the Devil, Panic in Year Zero, The Birds, Crack in the World, The Day the Earth Caught Fire (which is probably the best of them all), No Blade of Grass, right up to The Omega Man and The Andromeda Strain. I would suggest also that Silent Running belongs in that.
Now, I’ve sort of thrown a spanner in the works because, as usual (and the organisers ought to know me by this time, I always go over the time, and I never get finished even then) so, what do you think, Lee? Do you think we ought to give people a chance to get to the bar now.
Bruce Gillespie: And then come back.
JF: Yeah, righto, I’ll keep on going if you like. But what happens, you’ve got something else planned for 10 o’clock?
Lee Harding: We’ve got supper at ten. What do you reckon, George?
J.F.: Well, I’ve just conferred with George and he says it’s OK.
Lee Harding: There’s no reason why those of you who want to pursue your own personal questions with John can’t join him at the bar or join him around supper and harass him about these things. He’d go on to all bloody hours of the night. And I think if we bring him a beer over here and supper over here, and those who want to join him can go on.
JF: OK, I’m quite happy.
Editor’s note: We are indebted to the Fantasy Film Society and the Melbourne Science Fiction Club for the transcript of this address. You can and should join both by inquiring at Space Age Books (phone 663-1777). Space Age Books also has the best selection of books on the cinema in Melbourne.
|1||See Film Appreciation Newsletter, vol. 3, no. 4, Mar. 1973.|