A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay

My cover to the Bookship hardback

David Lindsay’s first novel, which he called Nightspore in Tormance but his publishers renamed to the slightly more comprehensible (if bland) A Voyage to Arcturus, came out one hundred years ago this month. I first heard of it thanks to Moorcock & Cawthorn’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, which I’d bought because I’d grown dissatisfied with the sort of genre fare I was finding in my local bookshops, and was wondering if I shouldn’t give up reading fantasy altogether. I decided if I couldn’t find something in Moorcock & Cawthorn’s list to re-enthuse me, I’d look for a different genre to read.

Their summary of A Voyage to Arcturus left me somewhat mystified as to what the book was actually about, and certainly didn’t sell it to me:

Arcturus itself is not an ingratiating work; the shelf it occupies is a short one, reserved for titles more often to be found in lists than in reader’s pockets. The message it spells out is no comforting one.”

I’d probably never have read it had I not found it in a secondhand bookshop with that lovely Bob Pepper cover and thought “Might as well.” Even then, it sat on my shelf for a while before I actually picked it up and gave it a go.

Bob Pepper’s artwork for the Ballantine paperback of A Voyage to Arcturus

At first, I continued to be nonplussed. It seemed a little old-fashioned in style, and along with the freedom of imagination you often find in novels written before their genre conventions gel, it had that quaint lack of scientific or logical consistency that comes from somebody building a world before the idea of world-building set in. It was a strange book, yet not with the poetic strangeness of Clark Ashton Smith, or the uncanny strangeness of Lovecraft. If anything it seemed, stylistically, to be doing its best not to seem strange, but rather to present all its odd characters, sights, and events in as matter-of-fact a manner as any mundane travelogue:

Before many minutes he was able to distinguish the shapes and colours of the flying monsters. They were not birds, but creatures with long, snake-like bodies, and ten reptilian legs apiece, terminating in fins which acted as wings. The bodies were of bright blue, the legs and fins were yellow. They were flying, without haste, but in a somewhat ominous fashion, straight towards them. He could make out a long, thin spike projecting from each of the heads.

“They are shrowks,” explained Oceaxe at last. “If you want to know their intention, I’ll tell you. To make a meal of us. First of all their spikes will pierce us, and then their mouths, which are really suckers, will drain us dry of blood. . . . pretty thoroughly too; there are no half-measures with shrowks. They are toothless beasts, so don’t eat flesh.”

But then something happened. Pushing on through the book (more for the sake of finishing it than anything else), I became aware that some inner part of me, some second, more discerning reader — my inner Nightspore to the outer Maskull — was really caught up in it. It seemed to be saying: Something is going on in this book, and I have no idea what! I finished it in a rush, because I’d suddenly realised I hadn’t been paying it the attention it deserved, and I needed to start reading it again, this time making notes.

Various covers, art by (clockwise from top left): Peter A Jones, Ron Miller, …, Florence Magnin, Karl Stephan, Kato Naoyuki, Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, Jean Delville (design by John Coulthart)

In a sense, I’m still doing that. I’ve re-read Arcturus countless times, and each time I feel the need to read it again, paying still closer attention — or I feel the need to plough through the rest of Lindsay’s novels in succession, to try and grasp them all as one thing in my head and this time work it out. (I’ve even wondered if it’s not part of some “Lindsay effect”, a trick of that matter-of-fact literary style that leaves you constantly feeling you’ve almost-but-not-quite grasped something utterly intriguing.)

Soon after I first got on the internet, I started a website dedicated to Lindsay, mostly because I’d managed to acquire Colin Wilson, J B Pick, and E H Visiak’s book, The Strange Genius of David Lindsay — for £3! — and, feeling privileged to have got it, wanted to share the information inside it, feeling there had to be other people out there as hungry for information on Lindsay as I was. At first I added my own commentaries about the books, but soon removed those sections, feeling that the more I read Lindsay’s work, the less I knew about it. I kept The Violet Apple site (named after a posthumously published Lindsay novel which was the first book I bought online — thanks to Blackwell’s rare book search service, in fact) strictly factual for a while, apart from one article (“Four Approaches to A Voyage to Arcturus”), which was more about how the book defied any single interpretation than an attempt at offering an understanding of it.

(Another thing that has shifted in my view of the book, and Lindsay’s work as a whole, is its darkness. Initially encountering Lindsay and Arcturus, you can get caught up in that darkness — after all, it’s a novel about world-rejection, where only Pain can redeem you from all the terrible pleasures of life; and meanwhile Lindsay himself, after a lack of success as an author, died quite unpleasantly from self-neglect. But the more I’ve read it, the more I’ve seen that actually it’s a book shot through with a vitality that defies the darkness, and seeks something better. With Arcturus, the darkness is not the end point, but the beginning, and the impulse behind it is one of uncompromisingly seeking something better.)

Ad from The Times, September 1920

I like how open to interpretation A Voyage to Arcturus is, even while it has an evident meaning. Yes, it’s a gnostic text, but also it’s an exploration of a certain sort of psychological state that (in my view) is more fundamental than any religious or philosophical outlook: if you are not your authentic self (if you are Maskull, as opposed to Nightspore), then the world will seem like Crystalman’s prison, and it will be hard, dangerous work trying to untangle yourself from it. (Lindsay’s friend, E H Visiak, read the book in completely Christian terms; Colin Wilson read it as an allegory of consciousness; J B Pick saw it as vision.)

Most recently, I’ve come to see A Voyage to Arcturus as an incredibly rich archetype of the quest for truth. (And I think it’s in the book’s archetypal, or mythical, structure that its power lies — it certainly wasn’t its ideas that grabbed me on that first read, but something far more instinctual, mythical, musical even.)

Romanian edition

The protagonist Maskull begins the book not really invested in any search for truth as such, but once he gets caught up in it, he goes through all the possible stages of being deceived, wrong-footed, sidetracked, aggrandised, defeated, converted, bamboozled, disillusioned and overwhelmed, before finally, worn out through a series of breakneck back-and-forths, he snaps, and finds the simplicity and truth he was seeking all along — a simplicity that transforms him from Maskull to Nightspore, and turns the world from benighted deception into one lit by a beacon of pure truth (Muspel-fire).

I still find Lindsay himself something of a mystery. The power of his first novel was never quite equalled — except in snatches — in his subsequent books, though I have found all of them more and more interesting the more I read them. But the question I’m still undecided on is how in command of his material Lindsay was. Did he know what he was doing? I don’t think any creative artist of any real power does entirely, but there’s still the question of how much they know what they’re doing. A Voyage to Arcturus’s utter strangeness could be down to a certain naivety on Lindsay’s part, a beginner’s luck approach of letting his wild imagination go utterly free before the self-consciousness of post-publication hit him with how he ought to write. But hints in his letters — a reference to the mystical German writer Jakob Böhme for instance — make it clear he wasn’t an entirely innocent wanderer in fairyland, either.

Lindsay from the cover of Bernard Sellin’s Life & Works of David Lindsay

“Only a very few people will ever read Arcturus,” he reportedly once said to Victor Gollancz, “but as long as even two or three people will listen to Beethoven, two or three people will read it.” A Voyage to Arcturus now seems to have found an established place on many lists of classics of SF, fantasy, and imaginative literature, as well as Scottish novels, and even early 20th century fiction generally, and every few days I get a Google Alert telling me that someone, somewhere, on Twitter or some obscure internet forum, is recommending it as one of the strangest and most compelling books they’ve read. (Or, more rarely, saying it’s the most boring or incomprehensible book they’ve ever read.)

In a way, then, Lindsay has been proved right. Beethoven is certainly in no danger of not being listened to; now, I hope, A Voyage to Arcturus is in no danger of ever not being read, even if just by a few.

Comments (5)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I read ‘Voyage to Arcturus’ around ten years ago. I enjoyed it, but my memories of it are dim. Your piece makes me want to re-read it, just to see what I missed (and I strongly suspect I missed something!).

    ‘But the question I’m still undecided on is how in command of his material Lindsay was.’

    Yeah. I find this is a typical response on my part to speculative fiction of a certain vintage (Lewis and Peake are two examples that spring to mind). I’m thinking of authors usually born before WWI, into cultures where people rarely expressed their feelings directly but rather in a sort of code. My theory – for what it’s worth – is that this produces a mind-set that lends itself naturally to the use of allegory or symbolism, sometimes consciously, and sometimes not. The tricky part is trying to figure out which!

    Crucially, I reckon it’s much less common today for the simple reason that people are encouraged to be much more open about their emotions etc.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    That’s an excellent point about pre-WWI authors. That’s perhaps why I find, for instance, those late Victorian horror classics so rich in psychological meaning — the authors were searching to express something they had no words for, and perhaps consciously sought to repress, but found the best images and stories to capture their feelings without necessarily having to really acknowledge to themselves what they were saying, at least consciously. Whereas now we can dismissively use psychoanalytic jargon and too easily ignore all the richness & strangeness.

    I wonder, though, if perhaps something we have nowadays is that, brought up with a stronger imaginative culture, we might use it to express deeper or more complex feelings/ideas, now we don’t have to struggle as those earlier writers & artists did just to get the basics out. I haven’t any examples of this, though, so it may be just wishful thinking!

    And perhaps the new forefront isn’t emotional expression but, perhaps, the sort of emotions or mental states that get classed as mental illness — there are still areas we can’t be entirely open about, I think. There’s still a way to go.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Absolutely. And I take your point about ‘richness and strangeness’. These works may have been fuelled by something as mundane as sexual repression, but the end result was often something genuinely odd and original. On one level, allegory and symbolism are alive and well – e.g. ‘Planet of the Apes’ as an allegory about racism – but I guess the crucial difference is that it’s quite deliberate, whereas I think to writers of a certain generation it wasn’t. Or at least, not always! It was just the way they thought.

  4. Andrew Kawam says:

    I thought A Voyage to Arcturus was really surprisingly good. I was truly blown away by the shear strangeness and originality of the imagery, which reminded me in some ways of those from René Laloux’s ‘Fantastic Planet’, and the very deliberate alienation of the prose (which I’ve heard many people call flawed, and in the more realistic settings is, but in Tormance itself I think is very intentionally meant to obscure the mind’s eye of the reader, much like Kafka or Dino Buzzati). I also found it really remarkable how philosophically dense it was; there were a lot of ideas about religion, evolution, sexuality, science, art, and purpose that were very explicitly described and debated, but also symbolized. I know Philip Pullman considers Arcturus to be a major influence on His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust, his favourite work of fantasy, and the book he thinks is most underrated, all of which I can see. To me, the central theme of the whole thing was that to achieve transcendence, we have to take pain, ugliness, and death on board and use it in our struggle against disorder that renews itself upon our demise. In other words, to evade pain and suffering for as long as possible during our shortened existence, we have to accept the collapse of all things as not only inevitable, but with a kind of sublime awesomeness to it that is greater than we could ever be, all so that we can start again. I also found it really interesting how to explore this idea Lindsay not only strongly rejected anthropocentrism, but decided not to focus on ‘good’ characters and instead look at the characters who went to the extremes to accomplish it. His characters definitely aren’t the goody-goodies of Tolkien or Lewis, which I think is a much more truthful portrayal of humanity. Some have argued that the book is somehow promoting brutality, but I don’t think that’s true; it’s trying to show that within darkness there is a common desire of all living things to go to their limits to escape pain, and that realistically we all to some degree do cruel things to try to reach that, some more than others. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Lindsay is some kind of secret Hitler or Trump, but like the former he was struck by the violence humans could impart on each other after living through the trenches of WWI.

    I think a film that compares in a really interesting way to this book is the massively underrated film ‘The Fountain’ Darren Aronofsky, which similarly employs a surreal, experimental mix of SF and fantasy to explore a similar theme involving the inevitability of death and suffering and how they give us transcendence. The climax in particular really has strong Arcturus vibes. Also taking into account other metaphysically complex films also examining Gnostic ideas made by him like ‘Pi’ and ‘mother!’ (the latter of which he stated was an ecofeminism/Gnostic allegory for humanity’s abuse of the natural world that I thought was treated totally unfairly), I think that if there ever was a film adaptation of A Voyage to Arcturus that had a decently-sized budget and attempted to do the book a lot more justice than the student-made one from the 70s, Aronofsky would be my first choice for director. (On a side note, I also think that if they really want to do the next season of the His Dark Materials TV series in only 8 episodes, they should seriously consider bringing him on as a director. I loved Season 2 of the show that recently finished airing, a lot more than the first season, but feel that to adapt the third book in so few episodes considering how much is packed into it compared to the others in the original trilogy and how truly our-there it is, they’re going to need someone really outside the mainstream to pull it off properly.)

  5. Murray Ewing says:

    You know, I haven’t seen The Fountain, and you’ve reminded me to put it on my watch list.

    I’m really curious how they’re going to handle the ending of His Dark Materials in the TV series. I wonder if they’ll expand it to four seasons to fit all the rest in?

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