John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright

Voyage to Arcturus, Flight to Lucifer

I was asked a few days ago what I so admired about David Lindsay's fascinating, hypnotic, gorgeous work Voyage to Arcturus. To answer, I gave a short excerpt from the beginning my unpublished (and perhaps unpublishable) essay on Lindsay, The Lament of Prometheus. I said at that time, to explain my misgivings and reservations about the work would require a longer answer.

My misgivings I can summarize in a paragraph. Harold Bloom, the famous literary critic, attempted to write his own version of Voyage to Arcturus, called, tellingly enough, Flight to Lucifer. My misgiving with Lindsay's work is that the title of Bloom's work would have fit it all too well, if by "flight" we mean not aviation but escape. The book is about a man who flees away from joy and life, creation and Creator, and into an aching abyss of pain and death, nonbeing and Nihilism. Voyage to Arcturus flees indeed into that spiritual nothingness fitliest called Lucifer, wretched king over all the sons of pride. It is a book with no laughter in it.

Here again is an excerpt from that same essay, explaining my thoughts at greater length. If you hear rumors of any publisher willing to publish this essay in its complete form, please tell me.

1) The Grin of the Crystalman

Being so impressed with the author's imagination, and applauding the complex mental effort put into his layers of symbolism and allegory, I now must explain why this book cheats and disappoints the expectations of an honest reader.

The sick, degrading grin of the Crystalman, which throws a shadow of moral nastiness across the heart of all who behold it, the skull-like grin of death, smiles from this book. It is a book of death, one which praises a deathly philosophy. Its heart is morally empty.

a) Failures and Confusions

A close reading of Voyage to Arcturus shows several places where his themes are not carried out, or, at least, the reader cannot sympathize with what the story is attempting: these include the portrayal of Krag, Nightspore

i) Nightspore, the Aristocrat of the Universe

What is the point of Nightspore’s sour and bored attitude?

His symbolic nature becomes quite clear as the book reaches its strange climax: Maskull, as he is dying, asked Krag who Nightspore is. “You are Nightspore.” Maskull dies and yet Nightspore is standing there. Maskull belonged to Crystalman (says Krag) but Nightspore belongs to Surtur.

In other words, Nightspore is the perfected form of soul of which Maskull is the imperfect. Nightspore is the butterfly to Maskull’s caterpillar, the New Adam to Maskull’s Old Adam, or, to use a metaphor closer to the author’s meaning: Maskull is a man, but Nightspore is Maskull once he is transformed into a Superman, a creature beyond good and evil. He is the spore that rests in the night, but at dawn he wakes and grows. Symbolically, Nightspore and Maskull are meant to be one and the same person: the reason why Maskull dies when Nightspore awakens is that Maskull is the ignorance of the old, earthly self and Nightspore is the enlightenment of the new, superlunar self.

All well and good, and yet, oddly, the only time Nightspore is ever described doing anything, he is bored. He is described as curt and restless, forever biting his fingernails, biting his lip, mumbling. He grunts, he mutters, he is indifferent.

All this is merely the opposite of what I would expect out of a man “so tough-looking that all human frailties and susceptibilities have been trained out of him.” Indeed, all these behaviors are signs of a lack of toughness. Tough people do not suffer from ennui. Fainting poets who drink absinthe, perhaps, bite their nails and look bored in the face of wonders. The kind of person who is no longer open to human frailty should be portrayed either as a hero (think of Ulysses, who suffers and endures) or a saint (think of the martyrs who perish while singing the praises of God). A nail-biting mutterer merely looks tired to me, more tired than, for example, a healthy workingman at his ale.

Here is our second clue that the author will disappoint us: he is describing a Byronic antihero, not a hero; an antisaint, not a saint.

To the intellectuals of the generation decimated by the Great War in Europe, all the idols and icons of their lives had been smashed. They could no longer look to Victorian propriety or to the Christian God for solace, help, or to feed their dreams and imaginations. Nor could they sincerely look for a heaven on earth to be produced by the intellectual fantasies of Freud or Marx, or any other prophet predicting peace and plenty thanks to socialism or new sciences. H.G. Well, living in the fat and comfortable years before the Great War can be excused his socialist illusions: David Lindsay lives after the Great War and writes as a disillusioned man.

The heroes of disillusioned men are not pillars of strength, nor again martyrs bursting with sanctity, nor again the rough and honest workingmen filled with simple zest and common sense. Their heroes instead are the sour hermits of the world, who turn their back on human life, and find everything good in life vulgar and boring. Nightspore, in effect, is a reverse Laodicean: someone who is so lukewarm that he spews God out of his mouth.

Indeed, compare and contrast this bored boob with the energetic creature described in G.K. Chesterton's Manalive. In that book, a fantasy no less realistic or unrealistic than Lindsay's fantasy, the aptly-named Innocence Smith is filled with a boisterous energy that find wonders in the ordinary and marvels in the everyday: he is a man willing to walk all the way around the world to find his home again, to shoot revolvers at his friends to startle them out of their pose of ennui, to propose marriage and wild elopement with his wife of many years, over and over again, because true romance cannot grow stale. Here is all the "wildness" that Maskull seeks, but Innocence Smith, because he is innocent, does not require a voyage to another world to find it, nor does he need to die. Innocence Smith is indeed a man out of whom all human frailty has been trained away: he is a man of boundless, jovial energy, a walking thunderclap, a giant more robust than most giants. This invented character of Chesterton's is exactly what David Lindsay says Nightspore and Maskull are, but exactly the opposite of what Lindsay shows them to be. The effort of portraying a man without frailty, and spiritual giant, is one that slips out of Lindsay's grasp. Lindsay cannot describe what he cannot imagine.

Chesterton is a Christian, whereas Lindsay is a pessimist of the Swinburne school, and an intellectual. Lindsay cannot portray true gigantism of the soul because his philosophy has stunted his soul to dwarfism. We are not going to see the splendor and energy of heaven in his disillusioned Muspel.

ii) Krag, the Destroyer of Lies

The author bungles his characterization of Krag, and badly. Surtur, the source of all human inspiration, sublime glory from beyond life, when actually on stage in the person of the lemon-faced Krag, never acts in the text as anything other than a crude bully. There is a complete disconnect between what the narrative says about Surtur, and the way Krag actually behaves.

Polecrab says that the relation of Crystalman to Surtur is one that requires men to renounce their self-life and re-unite with the whole of Crystalman's world before passing through to the far side and finding Surtur.

The author stumbles here, because in no wise does Maskull do anything that can be described as reuniting with the whole world before he (in the form of Nightspore) passes on to the Tower of Muspel in the last chapter. If anyone has achieved this spiritual perfection of accepting and loving the world, it is Joiwind or Panawe, who were left behind at the very beginning of the journey.

Perhaps the author means Maskull's brief moment of selflessness in the face of the blue sunrise of Alppain is meant to be "reuniting with the world." If so, then this is a needed first step: so why does Krag dismiss it as Crystalman's greatest and final snare?

More likely Nightspore's moment of selflessness atop the tower is this step, and his departure is the beginning of his greater spiritual journey.

In any case, the noble selflessness and devotion of characters like Sullenbode or Spadevil makes them seem closer to this ideal than Krag is. Krag never speaks of union with the world, or of love, or of duty.

Certainly Krag never speaks of anything but smashing the lies of pleasure: there is no hint that Krag is in any way altruistic or noble or good. Krag regards love as contemptible trash. So Polecrab's wisdom is simply ignored by the rest of the plot.

When Maskull is mourning the death of Sullenbode, Krag's alleged attempt to awaken Maskull to a higher and nobler spiritual life consist of cruel antics and japes: Krag throws eggs against a tree trunk merely for the pointless and sadistic pleasure of smashing something and making a mess.

There is a similar scene in Perelendra by C.S. Lewis: in that book, the un-Man, actually a devil from Hell, is described as being willing to do any act of malice, no matter how petty, for the same reason that young newlyweds will do any act of kindness, no matter how small. Even the smallest gesture, for a lover, displays his love. Likewise, even the pettiest gesture of cruelty, no matter how stupid, which shows the malice of a devil and displays his hate. The un-Man, when he is not otherwise occupied, peels the skin off of pretty little animals, or pesters a man trying to sleep by monotonously calling his name. That is how Krag acts here.

The difference is that Lewis, a Christian, thought the devil was the devil, therefore a haughty and ultimately a small-minded spirit, wretched in all ways, unable even to act with dignity or honesty even in little things. Lindsay, a Gnostic, thinks the devil is noble and God is the vulgar: but why then does he portray Krag as vulgar? Krag has none of the dignity of the stoic Hator of Sant, who is described elsewhere in the text. Krag is merely a jeering monkey.

Perhaps I am missing the whole point of the narrative: perhaps Surtur is meant to be a fraud as absurd as the other frauds of Tormance. Perhaps at the end of the book Nightspore is as clouded in his mind, following Krag, as Maskull was following Tydomin. But if so, the author does nothing to point to this conclusion, and everything to point the other way.

Or perhaps the author's philosophy is so sour and pessimistic that, despite his most heroic attempts, and despite the sheer audacity and inventiveness of his narrative, Lindsay simply cannot pretty up what is ultimately and ugly, foolish, and disappointing doctrine.

b) Daemons and Muses

The meaning behind these failures is simple, and one that has plagued many an author. The author's artistic vision is clearer than his thinking.

Plato asserted that it was a thing he called his 'daemon' which drive him to study philosophy. Let us use this as the term for what inspires philosophers in the same way muses are said to inspire artists. Using this terminology, then, it becomes an easily matter to say that Lindsay's muse was better than his daemon.

Lindsay's art is better, more true to life, than his philosophy. Where his philosophy requires a particular conclusion, his artistic integrity, perhaps even against his will, insists on an honest portrayal, and ends up portraying something different and better than what the author at first intended.

To take two authors as examples: let us compare the truly human and rich portrayals of Tolstoy with that author's foolish historical fatalism which he expresses in an essay appended to War and Peace. After writing a huge book whose point shows beyond doubt what a huge affect men and women can have on each other's lives and on the course of history, after writing a book where Napoleon single-handedly sets in motion the events that will change Russia forever, the author there propounds a doctrine that human history is driven by forces over which humans have no control. Napoleon is dismissed by Tolstoy as being the figurehead rather than the engine of the ship of history: utter nonsense, of course, when one contemplates that role of Napoleon in history.

Or, to use another example, let us compare the philosophy of utterly rational self-centered self-interest expounded by Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged and contrast this with the noble act of self-sacrifice of John Galt, the main character, during the climax of the book: his irrational love for his beloved makes him willing to endure torture and death in order to save her from harm. The selflessness of the scene utterly undermines what the author intends to be the point of the book.

In both cases these authors were better authors than they were philosophers: the real meaning of the scenes they wrote, the real meaning of the characters they portrayed, expanded beyond what they intended and therefore betrayed or undermined their creator's intent.

So, too, here, do the various confusions in the Voyage to Arcturus undermine the intent of the author. This book is too good to be in service to a philosophy so dismal and shallow.


Nightspore, according to the daemon, must be a man without weaknesses. But he is a Superman from the Nietzschean land beyond good and evil and therefore an anti-hero. In real life, all drama and all meaning in life derives from the tension and the war between good and evil. A man beyond good and evil is a nonentity, ergo both bored and boring. Hence, Nightspore the languid aristocrat is portrayed in every particular as a bloodless and feeble man. The honesty of the muse does not allow the author to dress up this sad figure with anything finer.

… Krag, the all-powerful god of the inner spirit of life, the source and summit of all glory, is portrayed as an annoyance and a jeering bully, and he is revealed, in the end, to be simply nothing.

No matter what the daemon of philosophy says, the muse of art requires an honest portrayal of the things that make a drama dramatic. Beauty is sublime and therefore dramatic: pain is quotidian, and cannot be dressed up to be anything but painful. Even if you call suffering the "glory of Surtur" and "life nobler than life" the honesty of the muse requires that pain be shown as the dull, lumpish thing it is.

The author betrays his own intent. Muspel, the so-called divine fire Maskull seeks, is actually the name for the burning hell of Norse mythology. Surtur is the fire-monster who will destroy the world at the Twilight of the Gods. The daemon of Lindsay may have inspired the author to pick bold Norse names for his bold Norse philosophy: his muse was honest enough to pick names from hell.


c) The Looking Glass Altar

A central conceit of any intellectual condescension toward the lives and philosophies of the world is that the intellectual alone is clear-eyed enough to see the falsehoods that have deceived the common man. An intellectual is defined by this one characteristic: he is a man who thinks he is smarter than all his neighbors, instructors, and forefathers, and sees through all their sacred beliefs as contemptible falsehoods. The leitmotif of all intellectualism is contempt.

This is an intoxicating doctrine. I believed it myself, at one time. But I am now old enough that the wine has turned to vinegar in my palate: there is no glory at the bottom of this particular winebottle. I recognize it beneath its ulfire-colored disguise.

This lament of Prometheus, which in my youth rang like a symphony in my heart, tragic and grand, to my adult ears now sounds suspiciously like the whine of a stubborn teenager, one who breaks rules without understanding why the rules were made, nor how they protect him. This lament is the cry of one who throws away the key of reason, and then complains all doors are locked. It is the anthem of those who revolt against reality, and who, in the end, to their immense surprise, are left with unreality.

The deep secret promised by all these vaunting Prometheans turns out always to be the most trite and silly of conceits: a man who sets out to find god, and finds instead himself. It is the commonplace theme of the intellectuals of years following the Great War in Europe: there are no answers in life, therefore look to yourself. It is the motto of Narcissism: Thou Art God.

The core problem with this doctrine, as G.K. Chesterton points out in his famous work The Everlasting Man, is that if you are god, you are the god of a small and ultimately boring cosmos. The moths and butterflies of Earth are more interesting than whatever angels you have made to worship your allegedly divine but actually all-too-human self. A ploughed field or a little garden behind a trite bourgeoisie cottage, tucked away in one boring corner of a tiny planet-speck of a small sun among the countless stars in our small galaxy, is more full of wonder and hope and life than the entire vast empire of your padded room in the asylum. The god of the solipsists is himself: no matter how many trumpets peal, nor how many cymbals clash, when the curtain to the Holy of Holies is drawn back, the sanctuary will be empty. Man is man, warts and all, and there is nothing there worth worshipping.

i) A Dreadful Being

In all his struggles with the mystical forces and deceptions of Tormance, the idea Maskull-Nightspore never reaches, the one philosophy he never sees discussed, is the one David Lindsay learned at his mother's knee in Scotland or in his parish Sunday School.

Joiwind dismisses religion of the Christians in a single sentence: "Your God is a dreadful Being - bodiless, unfriendly, invisible. Here we don't worship a God like that."

Bodiless? While it is true that the Father of the Trinity is invisible to the eye of mortal man on Earth, it is also true that the hands of the Son were wounded with nails, his head with thorns, his side with a spear, and the blood mingled with water gushed out. Both Mohammedans and Gnostics criticize Christianity for being too materialistic, what with our incarnate god, born of flesh: to Lindsay, a modern Gnostic, dismiss the God of the Christians as bodiless is peculiarly naïve.

Unfriendly? To refer to this sacrifice of the Father's only Son to save mankind as "cold and friendless" is beyond stupid. Whether one believes the Christian account of things or not, it is absurd to misrepresent the basic message of what the Christians say, when the public expressions of their doctrines have been preached from every pulpit in Europe for the last two millennia. Perhaps Lindsay was somehow confusing the God described in the Gospels with the remote and uncaring gods of Lucretius, or the indistinct watchmaker god of the Deists. But I doubt anyone raised a Christian land in the Twentieth century could make such a mistake innocently.

Invisible? Hypocrisy that this, of all things, would be listed as a condemnation, considering that the Muspel-fire which Lindsay, in all his Nordic romanticism and fury seeks after, is also invisible. The third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is as invisible to the Christian believer as his own soul, and lives in a world as remote as his own heartbeat, for the Christians hold that the Holy Spirit dwells within the body of the believer as if in a sacred temple. I suppose one could call this invisible, but that is because the spirit is too intimate to be seen, not because it is too remote.

Since Lindsay (consciously or not) parallels this doctrine with his theory of an indwelling Muspel-light in the soul of Nightspore, the enlightened man, and since Lindsay lists Krag, known on earth as pain, as the spirit that pounds on the hearts of men and draws them to a better world, this cannot serve as a basis for dismissing the Christian idea: basically the same idea, but the indwelling Holy Spirit of the Christians is a thing of joy and charity, not pain and suicidal disgust, and the heavenly world is paradise, not an empty tower with nothing at the top.

So Lindsay dismisses the Christian worship of the incarnate Son as bodiless, the loving Father as unfriendly, and the immediate and indwelling Holy Spirit as invisible. And what does he offer to replace this? An invisible Muspel-fire that not even Nightspore can see; a jeering god of pain and discontent named Krag, who is not just unfriendly, but positively malicious; a demon named Surtur who never walked the Earth, and cannot even be clearly defined as a concept.

Once you reject God, and you reject the material world, what is left? Once pleasure is the enemy, and everything seems vulgar and false, what is left? Some sort of vague idea of transcendently glory, an afterlife without love (so Sullenbode says) where altruism and transcendence is just the beginning of the journey (so Polecrab says). This vague idea of glory, on close inspection, turns out to be nothing but emptiness and pain.

Once you reject both Earth and Heaven, the only thing left is Hell. And Hell is an empty pit.

ii) The Lessons of Nothing

Compare the obscure lessons of Muspel to the sayings of Christ: love your enemies, turn the other cheek, do not get divorced, give to the poor, honor your parents, keep the Sabbath. Agree or disagree, at least we can understand what Christ stands for.

But suppose I were to on the spot become a Krag-worshipper, whatever he is or whatever he stands for.

Then what?

Am I to marry? If the episode of Sullenbode of Lichstorm is interpreted correctly, then the love of women is dismissed as particularly pointless in this cosmic background. Compare this with Christianity, where both virginity and matrimony are sacred. Christ gives us both options, and Krag gives us neither.

Am I to be celibate, and either to hate pleasure, or to be neither loving nor hating, but pursuing duty as my only motivation? Well, both Catice and Spadevil are depicted as deceived deceivers. Christianity has both sacred fast days and sacred feast days: the asceticism of monks and Puritans is as admired as the luxurious beauty of Cathedrals and polyphonic choirs. Again, Christ gives both, and Krag gives neither.

Works of art? They are overflowings of beauty, merely the spittle of men like Panawe. Earthrid's music produces discontent and death. There is no ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, no Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing Handel's Messiah, no great organ mass by Bach either glorified in the worship of Muspel or possible in this world-view.

But neither is the asceticism of Corpang anything but contemptible. In Christianity, both great works of fine art and also the simple austerity of a Franciscan glorify God. Once more, Christ gives both, and Krag gives neither.

Am I to be as brave as Gleameil, who departs from husband and small children to seek her dream? Am I to be as persistent and longsuffering as Leehallfae? Both of them simply die. The martyrs of this new religion get no palm in heaven: they merely grin the sick, degrading grin of Crystalman.

Well, am I to kill myself, like a noble Roman of old, to escape this false world of pleasure? Krag answers that idea with scorn: "What, merely because they have left off stroking you?"

Am I to forget myself entirely, rejecting the ego which is the source of all desire and hence of all discontent? Am I to float into Nirvana like the Buddha? That is the deception of the sunrise of Alppain, Crystalman's last cheat.

It is fortunate that the narrative ends when it does, because, once a man is transformed into the superhumanity of Nightspore, and is ready to go forth and fight the lies of Crystalman, there is nothing to do and no battles to fight. There is no doctrine to preach and no philosophy to teach and no way of life to promote and no code of ethics or ritual of observance to follow.

How is one to preach this to all creatures?

Small wonder Nightspore looks bored and bites his nails. As an apostle of Muspel, he has nothing to say.

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