Thursday, October 22, 2015

Which Is The Way?

The story that Loren Eiseley refers to, here, is "Winter."

"I may truly say," wrote Sir Francis Bacon, in the time of his tragic fall, "my soul hath been a stranger in the course of my pilgrimage. I seem to have my conversation among the ancients more than among those with whom I live." I suppose, in essence, this is the story of every man who thinks, though there are centuries when such thought grows painfully intense, as in our own. Shakespeare -- Bacon's great contemporary -- again speaks of it from the shadows when he says:

"Sir, in my heart there was a kinde of fighting
That would not let me sleepe."

In one of those strange, elusive stories upon which the modern writer Walter de la Mare exerted all the powers of his marvelous poetic gift, a traveler musing over the quaint epitaphs in a country cemetery suddenly grows aware of the cold on a bleak hillside, of the onset of a winter evening, of the miles he has yet to travel, of the solitude he faces. He turns to go and is suddenly confronted by a man who has appeared from no place our traveler can discover, and who has about him, though he is clothed in human garb and form, an unearthly air of difference. The stranger, who appears to be holding a forked twig like that which diviners use, asks of our traveler, the road. "Which," he queries, "is the way?"

The mundane, though sensitive, traveler indicates the high road to town. The stranger, with a look of revulsion upon his face, almost as though it flowed from some secret information transmitted by the forked twig he clutches, recoils in horror. The way‌ -- the human way‌ -- ‌that the traveler indicates to him is obviously not his way. The stranger has wandered, perhaps like Bacon, out of some more celestial pathway.

When our traveler turns from giving directions, the stranger has gone, not necessarily supernaturally, for de la Mare is careful to move within the realm of the possible, but in a manner that leaves us suddenly tormented with the notion that our road, the road to town, the road of everyday life, has been rejected by a person of divinatory powers who sees in it some disaster not anticipated by ourselves. Suddenly in this magical and evocative winter landscape, the reader asks himself with an equal start of terror, "What is the way?" The road we have taken for granted is now filled with the shadowy menace and the anguished revulsion of that supernatural being who exists in all of us. A weird country tale‌ -- ‌a ghost story if you will‌ -- ‌has made us tremble before our human destiny.

Unlike the creatures who move within visible nature and are indeed shaped by that nature, man resembles the changeling of medieval fairy tales. He has suffered an exchange in the safe cradle of nature, for his earlier instinctive self. He is now susceptible, in the words of theologians, to unnatural desires. Equally, in the view of the evolutionist, he is subject to indefinite departure, but his destination is written in no decipherable tongue.

For in man, by contrast with the animal, two streams of evolution have met and merged: the biological and the cultural. The two streams are not always mutually compatible. Sometimes they break tumultuously against each other so that, to a degree not experienced by any other creature, man is dragged hither and thither, at one moment by the blind instincts of the forest, at the next by the strange intuitions of a higher self whose rationale he doubts and does not understand.

-- From
Francis Bacon and the Modern Dilemma, by Loren Eiseley.
University of Nebraska Press, 1962.

Thursday, October 8, 2015


Brian W. Aldiss on the art of indirection:

"Artistry consists so often in indirection. As life is subtle and wayward, so should art be. The SF that has sprung from pulp sources has many strengths, not least its driving narrative power; but, by the nature of its audience, much indirection and waywardness have been ruled out.... Truth often comes from weak people. SF is full of big tough heroes; and, when they tell you something, it has to be right. But I don't go along with that. So I'll give you an example of indirection from Dark Light Years.... I had a message, as I've explained, to put over in that book. It is given explicitly only once, and then the lines are delivered by one of my weak characters, Mrs. Warhoon, who is ruled out of court immediately by the tough guys and heroes.

"No doubt an objection could be raised to this method: that readers might miss what you really mean. Okay. That's a risk you take. It's a lesser risk than making your book a mere diagram by ramming the message home; and I do believe a novel should attempt to be -- should move towards being -- some sort of a work of art. Anyone can be a commercial success....

"Anthony Burgess does the same thing in Clockwork Orange. It's the priest who says at one point -- too lazy to move to the shelves and quote chapter and verse, but it's something like, "Right, you have a foolproof method of making people good, and Heaven knows we seem to need it at this juncture of history; but are we human any longer if we have no longer the power to choose between good and evil?" I believe that Anthony likes Kubrick's striking version of his novel because Kubrick too has the art that, in this respect, conceals art: the parson says his lines and is then swept away by events....

"One must have something to say. One must also have the art of saying it.

"Another example: H. G. Wells. The 'message' of The Invisible Man is that a scientist works, to some extent at least, for the general good. A tenable thesis when the novel was written. So his invisible man, the irascible scientist, is a villain, using his invention in his own interest, for anti-social purposes. Wells's reviewers complained that Griffin was unsympathetic, thereby showing how they missed the point.

"Maybe truth should dawn slowly, not come as a thunderbolt. But communication is a difficult art."

-- From Speaking Of Science Fiction, edited by Paul Walker. Luna Publications, 1978.