A Voyage to Arcturus as an allegory of life

Canongate 1992 PB, art by Sir Frank Brangwyn

The first half of Maskull’s journey on Tormance could be read as an allegory of human life — though with interruptions. Just think how David Lindsay’s protagonist first experiences this new world: rather than landing on the surface, astronaut-style, in the crystal torpedo in which he set out from Earth, he simply wakes to find himself already on Tormance, but in a helpless state. He’s lying naked on his back, too weak in this larger planet’s gravity to get up. He has new sensory organs that make this alien world seem even more new and different to him, among which is the whipcord-like magn growing out of his chest, like a baby’s umbilical cord. He is, in effect, a baby.

And along comes the most motherly creature on Tormance, Joiwind. Maskull immediately associates her with “love, warmth, kindness, tenderness, and intimacy”. She has an avowed philosophy of lovingkindness for all creatures, and at one point proclaims, “Is not the whole world full of lovely children?” She is, in effect, the most motherly mother Maskull could meet.

She clothes him, then feeds him from her own body, giving him an infusion of her “milky opalescent” blood, enabling him to stand Tormantic gravity. (A move that echoes and completes Krag’s method of enabling Maskull to stand the Tormantic gravity of the tower back at Starkness on Earth. Krag cuts Maskull’s arm and spits in the wound; Joiwind replaces the lost blood, thus providing the feminine completion to the masculine action: wounding, then healing.)

Soon, as they journey, Joiwind and Maskull are joined by Panawe, Joiwind’s husband. It’s as though baby Maskull has picked up a father in addition to a mother in this strange new world. At one point, the couple wait indulgently while Maskull runs off to investigate a nearby lake, like a toddler insisting on jumping into a particularly inviting puddle. That evening, Panawe tells Maskull the story of his own childhood, and the next day Maskull leaves to enter the next stage of his life-journey.

Ballantine PB, 1968, artwork by Bob Pepper

After a brief meeting with Surtur — who may not be the real Surtur — on the Lusion Plain, whose main purpose seems to be to issue a promise that Maskull has some sort of destiny ahead of him (just the sort of thing for an adolescent to feel as he heads off into the world), Maskull meets Oceaxe and receives a jolt. Oceaxe is no motherly woman. She’s “haughty, seductive and alluring”, and where Joiwind saw a world full of children, Oceaxe asks, “Isn’t the whole world the handiwork of innumerable pairs of lovers?” It’s obvious we’re in a different sort of world now, and Maskull, still wandering along like a child, has to be prodded into acting less like a child, more like a man. He’s told he dresses like a woman and even that his Tormantic sensory organs are more fit for a woman than a man, and he needs to change them. This, now, is a world where the perceived differences between the sexes matter, because it’s now a world where attraction between the sexes matters. Told how to change his organs, Maskull experiences an overnight adolescence. In the morning, he’s no longer Joiwind’s baby, he’s a would-be man. (Oceaxe still accuses him of being “boyish” at one point, but at least it’s an improvement, for Maskull, after being told he dresses like, and looks like, a woman.)

So now life on Tormance is no longer about Joiwind’s lovingkindness, it’s a battle of wills. It’s about proving oneself, exerting dominance, and winning sexual partners. There’s a thirst for dangerous thrills, and a sense of constant instability in the very ground itself. It’s all very adolescent, as it should be, because this is Maskull’s Tormantic adolescence. After the fatherly Panawe, the next male Maskull meets is the barely-adult but supercilious and cruel Crimtyphon, and he meets him not as an ally but as a rival. They fight like a pair of rutting stags.

French edition from 1975

The next stage in Maskull’s journey of life is characterised by another woman, Tydomin. Although she’s part of the Ifdawn Marest crowd, it’s made clear that, unlike them, she’s “no longer quite young”: compared to the adolescent Oceaxe and Crimtyphon, she’s middle-aged. She wins her battles in a different way, using subtlety and wile rather than outright violence, and though she does win, she’s by no means triumphant. This stage of life, for both Tydomin and Maskull, is marked by a feeling of tiredness, a sense of disillusionment and a need for a change or an end. The headlong momentum of adolescence has given way to adulthood, and the initial reaction to that loss of acceleration is to feel that life is less lively, less life-like, and so less worth living. Tydomin, fed up of life as she’s been living it, has decided she wants, from now on, to be a man; Maskull’s response to all he’s been through so far, typically male and still more adolescent than not, is to decide that life, which hasn’t worked out how he expected it to, and which has trampled on his childishly simple morals, isn’t worth living.

Here it starts to become clear how Lindsay’s allegory of life departs from the more conventional pattern. Instead of smooth transitions from one stage to the next, Maskull’s maturation is punctuated by breakdowns, as his disillusionment with the path set out for him makes him challenge it and find it wanting. Each time, it takes a revivifying confrontation with death to remind him why he’s alive. Having decided he’s willing to die, Maskull lies down to do so, only to find himself transported to his life back on Earth, to the séance where Krag grabs the apparition’s neck — Maskull’s neck — and twists it right round. This shocking vision reminds Maskull of the true reason he’s alive: it’s not to follow the conventional pattern, but to find his own. Revitalised, he sets out on the next stage of his quest — and once more falls back into the pattern of conventional life.

German PB

What follows adolescence? Work. Maskull and Tydomin meet Spadevil, a man who sees duty as the most important thing in life. It sounds like the philosophy of someone who has just entered the world of work and, finding a lifetime of it stretching in front of him, has to come up with some way of taming the still-uneasy turmoil of adolescence so it can fit a useful, socially-approved purpose. Spadevil, along with his two new disciples, takes this philosophy to Sant, which is an image of the world of work in Lindsay’s day, in that it is dour, dull, and male-only. (The firm Lindsay himself worked for, which became Price, Forbes and Company a couple of years after he joined in 1891, got its first female employee some time around 1909. Her job was to operate the firm’s one and only telephone. Her employers were so unsure how to fit this new commodity, a woman, into their working world that they built a special glass booth for her to work in, and, according to And At Lloyd’s: The Story of Price, Forbes and Company Limited, “the staff were forbidden, under threat of dismissal, to communicate with her except over the telephone”.)

Fitting in with Lindsay’s version of an allegory of life beset by breakdowns, this new enthusiasm for duty just doesn’t last. Maskull’s attachment to these new ideals, as embodied by Tydomin and Spadevil, ends in typically brutal Tormantic fashion, and Maskull, untethered from the usual path of life again, finds himself wandering in the wilderness of the Wombflash Forest, whose name perhaps promises a new birth, or perhaps expresses a craving, at this low point, to return to the certainties of childhood’s earliest stages, before all these murders, deaths and disillusionments. Again, it’s contact with death that moves Maskull on — he sees a vision of his own death, and a glimpse of Muspel-light, reminding him of why he’s on this quest. It’s not to follow the standard allegory-of-life path, it’s to discover his own answers. Revivified once more, he continues.

1975 German cover, art by Karl Stephan

The next figure he meets is Polecrab, a working man and a father of three. Polecrab has heard tales of the true nature of life in Crystalman’s universe, and even credits them with some truth, but has made no effort to find out more. He is, in effect, who the questioning Maskull would have become, had he stuck to the well-worn path of life and not had these moments of breakdown and disillusionment. It’s at this point, really, with this figure of Polecrab before him — the man who lived life as it’s supposed to be lived, satisfied in his way but ultimately still a small man before the universe’s deeper mysteries — that Maskull leaves the conventional path for good. He seeks an alternative, and from this point his journey on Tormance is no longer an allegory of life, but an investigation into a series of alternatives to see which might provide a better answer.

The first that Maskull tries — he visits Swaylone’s Island, where the musician Earthrid plays enchanting but murderous music — is the path Lindsay himself took when he left the world of work and became a writer: the path of art as a possible answer to life’s mysteries. When that fails (and all answers fail on Tormance), Maskull looks to science (Matterplay, with its vision of life as simply the wild and random sporting of the biological life-force), then religion (Leehallfae and Corpang, both of whom are devoted to their different gods, and both of whom are soon disillusioned), then sex (Haunte and Sullenbode’s world of pure-males and pure-females) for an answer. All of these fail. The ultimate answer awaits not for Maskull, but for Nightspore; and not on Tormance, but in Muspel.

Reading Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus as if it were an allegory of life shows that the sort of life it’s allegorising isn’t an unquestioning one. Rather, it’s the pattern of a life beset by inner difficulties that, ultimately, make the conventional path impossible. It’s a life punctuated by breakdowns, by moral outrages, by disillusionments; but it’s also a life urged on by visions, revitalising contacts with a deeper idea that transcends the mundane path. It’s a painful, difficult path, but I suspect it perhaps represents Lindsay’s own in many ways. He had his own revivifying idea, his own vision of Muspel and the Sublime, and it was this, not the values of the interwar literary world, that he knew he had to be true to.

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