Sunday, 17 January 2010

Responses to Ken Edwards on Speculative Fiction - re G.K Chesterton

Ken Edwards, writer & publisher on Reality Street, has launched a personal probe into the nature of the fantastic in fiction, based around case-studies of eight novels.

I'm intrigued as I've read four of the books he's chosen and this project seems to parallel some of my own concerns in writing a sequel to The Qliphoth. Ken's investigation encompasses linguistic and structural experiment in non-naturalistic fiction, explores distinctions ( valid or otherwise) between "genre" and literary" fictions and their relation to book marketing, and considers the role of speculation & fantasy in the novel.

Before discussing Ken's critique of G.K Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday , some general and perhaps obvious reflections. It could be argued that all fiction is sui generis "fantastic" in the process of composition insofar it involves what the philosopher/psychologist Julian Jaynes called "narratisation", the conscious construction of an internalised world which is not consensual reality, and which , being based in language, depends on analogy & metaphor.

The creator of this fantasy identifies him/herself with persons, often fragmentarily envisaged, who may or may not have existed, in partially envisaged space-time locations. From this POV, all fiction is a desperate attempt at astral projection, wherein the author mingles with phantasms of the half-living. Presumably Hilary Mantel at some point "imagined herself" to be Thomas Cromwell in the historical novel Wolf Hall. Certainly in Beyond Black , her fine novel about the sub-culture of spiritualism, she created the internal world of a medium whose "voices" may be fabulated but might also relate to some of kind of objective reality - a metaphor in itself for the creative process?

Even in the French nouveau roman, in Alain Robber-Grillet's clinical and meticulously de-humanised description of a room or a piece of furniture, there is a conscious act of fabrication. The story-teller makes it all up "in order to tell the truth", according to Jean Cocteau. The fab novelist tells big fibs. (And Fibber is the name of my imaginary cat - but that's another story...)

I first read The Man Who Was Thursday as a schoolboy. As I've previously discussed back- channel with Ken, G. K Chesterton was respected by some members of my family as a Catholic intellectual who could indulge in wild flights of fancy and verbal pyrotechnics, but was safely rooted in the orthodoxies of Rome, a romantic whose romances who were firmly contained within the structures and strictures of Thomist scholasticism. (My god-father Percy Fitzsimons, a somewhat unreliable narrator, according to my mother, even hinted mysteriously that he'd "had a pint with GKC" - just as he'd allegedly "given crucial advice to Admiral Jellicoe at the Battle of Jutland..." ).

Ken's account of the narrative, in which the detective-poet Syme outwits the anarchist-poet Gregory to infiltrate a secret anarchist order whose members are named after the days of the week, is lucid and comprehensive. He makes the point that anarchist bombings and assassinations had already occurred in European cities during the 1890s, and refers, as one might expect, to Conrad's The Secret Agent as an important fictional treatment of this new and disturbing phenomenon. And we'd perhaps agree that Chesterton's pre-conversion background as a nineties aesthete, who'd studied at the Slade and was aware of the darker currents of aestheticism, probably coloured his vivid portrayal of the Saffron Park bohemian community where Syme and Gregory first meet.

Aesthetes were certainly attracted to explosions. In 1892 the French literary critic Laurent Tailhade enthused about the bombing of the Chamber of Deputies in Paris. "What do a few lives matter - si le geste est beau..." Two years later le beau geste cost him his eyesight, when a bomb went off in the restaurant where he was dining. The anarchism that Syme is tasked to investigate seems closer to the total nihilism endorsed by Russians like Nechaev , dedicated to ruthless destruction, than the social agendas of nineteenth century British libertarian movements, although a London anarchist pamphlet had, in 1894, called for " smashing windows and robbing misers, counterfeit coining and smuggling!" There is a certain pre-echo of our current sentiments about the bankers...

The anarchism that menaces Syme/Chesterton is as much metaphysical as socio-economic . It is Chaos, the void, the abyss. At one level, the debate between Syme and Gregory could be read as a mere poetry war, between the classic formalist and the organic romantic. Gregory insists: "The man who throws a bomb is an artist, because he prefers a great moment to everything. He sees how much more valuable is one burst of blazing light, one peal of perfect thunder, than the mere commonbodies of a few shapeless policemen. An artist disregards all governments, abolishes all conventions. The poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway."

But for Syme, causality and structure not only underpin art, but give shape, meaning and empowerment to our experience: "... every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hairbreadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word 'Victoria,' it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed 'Victoria'; it is the victory of Adam."

As the narrative unfolds and Symes assumes Gregory's role as "Thursday" on the anarchist council of seven, his sense of 'normality' is increasingly subverted. He is disoriented by the nightmarish aura of the conspirators - Monday's distorted smile, Saturday's blank smoked glasses, the senile decay of Friday, and above all, the sheer bulk of the president, Sunday. " As he walked across the inner room towards the balcony, the large face of Sunday grew larger and larger; and Syme was gripped with a fear that when he was quite close the face would be too big to be possible, and that he would scream aloud. He remembered that as a child he would not look at the mask of Memnon in the British Museum, because it was a face, and so large..."

The story develops, as Ken explicates, via a series of reversals and paradoxes. All the anarchists eventually suspect each other of being police agents and try to out-plot and pursue each other - to learn that they are all, indeed, policemen. Syme's sense of identity and ontological security is is further undermined. If all the criminals are cops, then all the saints might be sinners. Syme clings to the lantern that symbolises his Christian faith but after the absurdity of their farcical encounters, all value judgements are suspect.

When Syme and his colleagues finally confront Sunday, he feels "it's six men going to ask one man what they mean.." And when they challenge him about his identity Sunday's answers are cryptic, metaphysical, even mystical. He is an entity who has been sought "since the beginning of time", but he is certainly not the respectable patriarchal supreme being of the Roman Catholic sixpenny Catechism. Chesterton's best-known defence of Catholicism was to be called Orthodoxy but here his theology seems wildly unorthodox, more Gnostic than Catholic. To enrich the ambiguity, Sunday reveals he was also the man in the dark room who recruited them as police agents.

In pursuit of Sunday, who escapes on a hi-jacked elephant and in a balloon (the deity as a cosmic merry prankster), the detectives speculate about his identity - Syme even compares him to Pan, that avatar of fin-de-siecle Crowleyanity. The final scenes, a curious dream-like party-cum-pageant in Sunday's garden, in which they're dressed in costumes symbolising the days of creation, heightens the Christian overtones but there's no easy allegorising - the anarchist and the lawman are interdependent. And Syme's last encounter is profoundly enigmatic:

"The great face grew to an awful size, grew larger than the colossal mask of Memnon, which had

made him scream as a child. It grew larger and larger, filling the whole sky; then everything went black. Only in the blackness before it entirely destroyed his brain he seemed to hear a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere, "Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?"

Writing fantasy has often been described as a strategy to explore and confront our fears. GKC, like that other aesthete Catholic convert Montague Summers, had perhaps glimpsed the darker side of the fin-de-siecle and the shadow aspects of himself. Unlike Summers, who took refuge in antiquarian demonology, GKC made an imaginative foray into the unknown.

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