A Voyage to Arcturus — the Séance

The first chapter of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus can seem a bit of an anomaly. It introduces eleven characters, all but three of whom (and they’re the last three to be introduced) are forgotten as soon as the chapter ends. What’s more, we get enticing hints about these soon-to-be-forgotten characters, making it seem Lindsay might have had some sort of a plan for them. Montague Faull, for instance, the South American merchant at whose Hampstead home, Prolands, the séance is to take place, obviously has the hots for another character, Mrs Trent. (Backhouse notices “the concealed barbarian in the complacent gleam of his eye” when Faull looks at her). There’s plot material there, but it never gets used.

As more people arrive for the séance, it almost seems as though Lindsay were bringing characters on stage for the purpose of auditioning them to be his novel’s protagonist. After Backhouse — who’d certainly make the subject of an interesting, if depressing, novel (Lindsay tells us something of his fate) — and the rascally Faull, we get Lang, “the stockjobber, well known in his own circle as an amateur prestidigitator” — surely set to be the hero of his own series of Raffles-like adventures, in which he beats cat burglars at their own game on the tiled roofs of interwar London. Then we get Professor Halbart:

“He was the eminent psychologist, the author and lecturer on crime, insanity, genius, etc., considered in their mental aspects. His presence at such a gathering somewhat mystified the other guests, but all felt as if the object of their meeting had immediately acquired additional solemnity.”

Ballantine cover, art by Bob Pepper

Surely Halbart is to be our hero, the man who, perhaps by teaming up with Backhouse to gain a clue or two from the netherworld, will prove Montague Faull to be the murderer of Mrs Trent’s husband at the exact same moment Faull was hosting the séance! Or perhaps, working alone, he’ll discover Backhouse to be a criminal mastermind using his weirdly tangible apparitions to commit a series of daring robberies or anarchistic assassinations.

But no, it’s none of them. At what seems the last moment, Lindsay brings on the peculiar double act of Maskull and Nightspore, one the evident man of action, the other “consumed by an intense spiritual hunger”. What sort of adventure would require such a pairing? This Voyage to Arcturus novel is growing stranger and stranger by the moment…

But still Lindsay isn’t done. As though daring himself to go one step further still, in leaps Krag, who’s another order of being altogether. His first act, after loudly greeting his astonished host, is to murder Backhouse’s apparition by twisting its neck in two precise movements.

Part of me loves the possibility that Lindsay sat down to write a novel set entirely in Hampstead, and got shanghaied by some wild strain of his own imagination. This quote from a letter to E H Visiak makes it almost seem possible:

“I do not know how it is with you, but my books up to the present have turned out quite other than I have originally intended, so that it is almost fascinating to watch them developing themselves on their own lines.” — Letter to Visiak, 21st October 1921, printed in Adam International Review Vol XXXV.

David Lindsay, grainy newspaper photo, from the time of the publication of Devil’s Tor

But I can’t believe he simply busked the rest of the book, particularly as there’s the weird way that moments of Maskull’s journey tie in with incidents on Earth, as though the two were happening both subsequently and simultaneously — or perhaps, on some mythic plane, perpetually — most evident of which is Maskull’s at one point lying down on Tormance to die, only to find himself waking up, briefly, as the very apparition whose hand he shook, at the séance he attended several days previously!

So here are a few other ideas. I’m not presenting any of them as convincing arguments. I’ve come to enjoy re-reading A Voyage to Arcturus as a way of opening up its possibilities rather than trying to solve it as though it were a crossword puzzle, and I think the more I do that, the richer, as a novel, it becomes.

The most obvious interpretation sees the séance chapter as part of the general pattern of all of Maskull’s later adventures, in which a new region of Tormance is introduced, along with its inhabitants and their world-view or philosophy, only to have it all proved to be another of Crystalman’s ploys, by having the “vulgar, sordid, bestial” grin appear on yet another corpse, like the rubber stamp of Lindsay’s disapproval. In this context, the Hampstead séance is just one more rejection — the primal rejection, you could say, as it rejects the writer’s own world and culture wholesale. Exactly what the rejection is of is difficult to say, as it seems to be rejecting so much, though the ennui that leads these successful Hampstead residents to indulge in a little light séance-ing is perhaps best summed up by Joiwind’s later comment:

“That’s a strange word. It means, does it not, craving for excitement?”
“Something of the kind,” said Maskull.
“That must be a disease brought on by rich food.”

At this time, most works of imaginative fiction used a framing device — as in, for instance, The Turn of the Screw, where everyone stands around a fireplace, taking turns telling ghost stories — and it could be that Lindsay simply included the Hampstead chapter as a convention, as the accepted way to tell a fantastic tale. In this interpretation, the trip to Tormance doesn’t actually take place, but is played out before us as part of the séance. After all, the voyagers-to-be, Maskull and Nightspore, make their first appearance the moment after Backhouse has announced the séance has started — so is Maskull and Nightspore’s entrance its first manifestation? And is all that follows in fact a vision channelled through Backhouse for Montague Faull and his guests’ amusement and/or instruction? (But if so, we ought to get their reactions at the end. I can imagine Faull applauding politely while throwing a glance at Mrs Trent to see if he might get her alone later in the evening, while Professor Halbart jots a line or two in a pocket notebook.)

Turkish edition, from İthaki Yayınları, 2016

Another take on the séance chapter is that Lindsay is setting up a contrast. Maskull will set out on a journey of spiritual enlightenment, guided by the mysterious “Muspel Light”, whose name refers to the realm of fire, Muspelheim, in Norse myth. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Hampstead are, at the start of the book, “illuminated only by the light of a blazing fire”, a hearth-fire that in no way compares to the mystical and otherworldly blaze coming from Muspel. It could be that, in this way, this séance in a Hampstead drawing room sets up a very Lindsay-esque comparison, as though he were saying that Maskull’s trip to Tormance stands in the same relation to a drawing-room séance as a séance stands to an average evening social gathering in a Hampstead drawing room. Just as the séance is a breaking through of the wondrous and sublime into Hampstead normality, so the trip to Tormance outdoes the séance by multiplying its wonders and sublimity exponentially.

It could be, though, that Lindsay was doing something necessary to his own creative process in the séance chapter, because it has echoes with the set-ups in his later novels, as though he had certain alchemical preconditions necessary to begin working his literary magic. These preconditions involve the coming together of two opposing but complimentary elements, most often embodied, in Lindsay’s fiction, as a man and a woman. As he says, in another letter to E H Visiak:

“You remark — ‘Poetry is generated by the clash of the male and female elements in the personality.’ I go further and say that all the works of creative genius are the children of the union of the male and female elements, and that it is the female that produces them.” — Letter to E H Visiak, 9th Feb 1922; printed in Adam International Review 346-348

The first of these elements at the séance is Backhouse the medium. Backhouse is presented as an aloof, disciplined man, who, despite the fact he hires himself out as the entertainment at soirées such as this, takes his work very seriously. Of what he does, he says: “I dream with open eyes… and others see my dreams. That is all.” He makes no attempt to explain or understand what he does — which makes it so fitting when Krag calls him a “spirit-usher” — nor to embellish or mystify it in any way. In this, he’s a bit like Lindsay himself, whose prose style has wrong-footed some readers into thinking it no style at all, or a bad style, simply because it does none of the usual things that a fantasy prose style of the time (Dunsany’s, for instance) was expected to do. It works none of what Clark Ashton Smith calls “verbal black magic”, but instead seems intent on cutting all the magic out, so as to present its wonders in a plain, straightforward, take-it-or-leave-it style, with no rhetoric and no poetry. The facts are left to speak for themselves, thus making them seem all the more like facts. What Backhouse says of himself might count for Lindsay, too:

“I am a simple man, and always prefer to reduce things to elemental simplicity… Nature is one thing, and art is another.”

In this, he’s like another Lindsay protagonist, Nicholas Cabot in Sphinx. In that novel, Nicholas is working on a machine to record the deep-sleep dreams we can never remember upon waking. He, too, is seeking to “dream with open eyes” — conscious, rational, waking eyes — and his approach is as scientific and inartistic as Backhouse’s.

Which is why the medium is so discombobulated when he turns up at Prolands to find he’s to work on what is, effectively, a theatrical stage. It’s all down to our second alchemical element, Mrs. Trent — of whom Lindsay says, “It was evident that aesthetically she was by far the most important person present.” She represents the creative element Backhouse represses, denies or lacks. And though her contribution is, on the face of it, simply to have the séance room done up with theatrical scenery and a hidden orchestra, what she’s also doing is bringing the power of Mozart, and the Temple scene from The Magic Flute specifically, to magnify Backhouse’s powers as a medium. In a way, it could be this — mediumship plus Mozart — that takes Backhouse’s normally dry but impressive séances to the next level, turning this one into the start of a journey to another world. (Also, of course, Mrs Trent is the one who invites Maskull and Nightspore to the séance — her apparitions, ready to mix with Backhouse’s.)

Lindsay was obviously deeply affected by Mozart, particularly this one scene from The Magic Flute. And in his description of the séance room, it’s evident he’s thinking of one specific production of the opera:

“Having settled his guests in their seats, Faull stepped up to the curtain and flung it aside. A replica, or nearly so, of the Drury Lane presentation of the temple scene in the ‘Magic Flute’ was then exposed to view: the gloomy, massive architecture of the interior, the glowing sky above it in the background, and, silhouetted against the latter, the gigantic seated statue of the Pharaoh…”

In England, The Magic Flute received its first performance at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in March 1838. Obviously, Lindsay didn’t see this one. It was revived, though, in 1914 by Sir Thomas Beecham, as part of the repertoire of his Beecham Opera Company, which was formed after the Covent Garden Opera Company shut down during the First World War. Beecham toured his company around England, but settled at Drury Lane in 1917, putting on performances between May and July, and September and November, of that year, which is when I guess Lindsay (still in his first year of married life, at the time) might have seen it. Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s stage designs for an 1815 production are the images most associated with The Magic Flute:

But Beecham’s company employed Hugo Rumbold as designer, and in the 30th May 1914 issue of The Sphere, there are some drawings of Rumbold’s stage set-ups in an article about the opening of Beecham’s new opera season. They don’t seem as impressive as Schinkel’s designs, but perhaps this is what Lindsay was thinking of as the setting for his séance:

“A Fanfare of Trumpets in the Temple. Act II, Scene I”. Drawing by D. Macpherson, of Hugo Rumbold’s stage design for The Magic Flute. Source: the British Newspaper Archive; The British Library Board. © Illustrated London News Group

So, the séance chapter may have been all about setting up a sort of chemical reaction: Backhouse’s link to the netherworld combined with Mrs Trent’s link to “the beautiful and solemn strains of Mozart’s ‘temple’ music”. Result: Maskull on Tormance.

Perhaps, though, it’s easier simply to think about the effect the séance chapter has on the rest of A Voyage to Arcturus. If Lindsay had started with Maskull, Nightspore and Krag setting off for Tormance — or even if he’d started with the second chapter, where Krag, in the street outside, convinces Maskull to accompany him and Nightspore — it would be all too easy for the reader to see the rest of the book as a fable or a flight of fancy. By beginning it in a realistic setting, with realistic-seeming characters, Lindsay sets his reader up for something realistic. This makes the shift to the fantastic setting both more bizarre and shocking and, in a way, more meaningful. Also, that shift from the realistic to the fantastic is a deliberately destabilising move in a book that’s all about destabilising moves. (In an era when other modernistic works, such as The Waste Land, were taking the jarring displacement to a new level.)

I think the reaction the séance chapter often gets is down to that feeling of displacement. The effect is deliberate and meaningful, but it can leave readers who are used to having their science fiction and fantasy provide them with rigorously self-consistent worlds dismissing Lindsay’s effect as a mistake — or, considering the book was published in 1920, dismissing it as ingenuous, when it is, in my opinion, ingenious.

A Voyage to Arcturus is a rich book, one that repays many close re-reads and re-interpretations. I’ll hopefully write some more about other aspects of it, and Lindsay’s work in general, soon.

Leave a Reply