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.

The Haunted Woman by David Lindsay

first edition, from Methuen

What is the haunted woman in David Lindsay’s The Haunted Woman haunted by? The novel starts with Isbel Loment (whose name is a wonderfully Lindsayan mix of music and tragedy), engaged to a Lloyd’s underwriter, Marshall Stokes, but in the meantime living an itinerant existence in a series of hotels with her aunt, Mrs Moor. Before her marriage, Isbel knows she must find a place for her aunt to settle, and Marshall, coming back from a trip to the United States, hears of a possibility, Runhill Court, near Steyning, in Sussex. As Isbel and her aunt are at present staying in Brighton, it’s only a short car-ride away, so an afternoon excursion is planned.

As well as showing the two women round this mostly Elizabethan mansion, Marshall has an additional assignment given to him by the house’s current owner, the 58-year-old widower Henry Judge. Judge, not presently living at the house, had some unusual experiences in the East Room, and wants Marshall’s opinion of the place. (Presumably he asked Marshall because, as Marshall himself admits, “I’m not gifted with a great deal of imagination”, and so might be expected to be down-to-earth in such matters.) But it’s Isbel who senses something strange about the place, hearing a sound in the passage leading to the East Room which the others can’t hear, and which she compares to both an orchestra tuning up, and “a telephone wire while you’re waiting for a connection”.

It’s already been revealed that Isbel has unfulfilled depths to her character. Sherrup, an artist and musician they meet briefly at Runhill Court, later tells her she’s “an artist without a profession… a lightning-rod without an outlet”, and she herself has already intimated that the rather shallow Marshall might not be the best match for her:

“I don’t know. . . . Love must be stronger than that. . . . I mean, one girl might be content with mere placid affection, and another might ask for nothing better than a thick sentimental syrup. It depends on character. My character is tragic, I fancy.”

Isbel, then, is all potential; the house, with its supernatural orchestra tuning up, is also all potential. Isbel says Runhill Court’s “atmosphere seems tragical”, so it’s obvious in which general direction all this potential is going. And when she meets the house’s owner, Henry Judge, and he says to her:

“There are deep, and possibly painful, transactions of the heart to which the term ‘romance’ would be quite inadequate…”

— she perhaps ought to know Marshall is not the man to fulfil her deeper nature, and Henry Judge is. But, already engaged as she is, society will not allow her to even think of the possibility. So constricting are the social rules by which Isbel and Judge live, it affects even their ability to feel when their deeper selves begin to suggest a route towards fulfilment.

Japanese edition

(The social world, in The Haunted Woman, is staid and placid on the surface, but vicious immediately beneath, as exemplified by Isbel’s exchanges with the widow Mrs Richborough, who also has her sights set on Judge. Judge, like all the men in the novel, except perhaps for the artist Sherrup, is oblivious to the barely-veiled subtext of what Isbel and Mrs Richborough are saying, but beneath their civilities, the two women are spitting venom and all but tearing at each other with their teeth.)

So, it’s her tragical, passionate nature that makes Isbel a haunted woman, and it requires a haunted house to bring the haunting out. Runhill Court doesn’t offer the traditional kind of haunting; its ghost is architectural. As Sherrup says of the structure that first stood where Runhill Court stands now:

“It was called Ulf’s Tower. The story is that Ulf was the original builder of the house. He lived about a hundred years after the first landing of the South Saxons… When Ulf built his house, Miss Loment, it was on haunted land. Run Hill was a waste elevation, inhabited by trolls—which, I figure, were a variety of malevolent land-sprites. Ulf didn’t care, though he was a pagan. He built his house. I gather he was a tough fellow, away above the superstitions of his time and country. And—well, one day Ulf disappears and a part of his house with him. Some of the top rooms of the Tower were clean carried off by the trolls; it happened to be the east end of the house, the nearest to their happy hunting-grounds. That was the very last that was heard of Ulf, but all through the centuries folks have been jumping up to announce that they’ve caught sight of the lost rooms. . . . ”

These rooms, accessible by a staircase that appears only to certain people at certain times, are where the story of Isbel and Judge’s true selves play out. The idea that it’s only in a place supernaturally removed from the day-to-day world that we can even start to make contact with our deeper feelings, our truer instincts, is typically uncompromising of David Lindsay. What’s worse, as soon as Isbel and Judge leave the rooms, they return to their everyday mindsets and forget everything that has just happened, even their most heartfelt vows and life-changing decisions.

Unlike A Voyage to Arcturus, The Haunted Woman offers no explicit, final explanation. Isbel has no Krag to tell her what it all means. This is one of the characteristics of Lindsay’s novels between Arcturus and Devil’s Tor — the human characters get mind-blasting visions, but no clue or guidance as to what they mean or how to fit this new strata of experience into the everyday world of twenties England.

Tartarus Press edition, artwork by R B Russell

For most of The Haunted Woman, though, the meaning of the supernatural elements seems clear. Up the phantom staircase, Isbel is confronted by three doorways, and in her first three trips, she explores a different room each time. In the first room, furnished only with a mirror, she receives a vision of herself as she truly is, with all her tragical and passionate potentialities written clearly on her face. In the second room, furnished only with a couch, she meets Judge and the two can “drop the mask of convention, and talk to each other more humanly and truthfully” than in the outside world. But what of the third room? Here, there’s a window, looking out on a Spring-like, fresh world, unspoilt by man. No roads, no hedgerows. A musician plays his archaic instrument and his music awakens the pair’s passionate nature, until they’re overwhelmed, and can’t sustain the “worldly prudence on his side, angry pride on hers” that keeps them apart in the normal world. But what Lindsay does next takes it all one step further than a mere allegory of love in the face of straitening social bounds. Looking into the musician’s face kills two of the novel’s characters. The musician is not, then, the embodiment of human love or passion, but of the essentially tragic nature of the passion that’s so much a part (though submerged throughout her normal, waking life) of Isbel’s character.

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

So, passion, or love, is lifted to the level of Muspel (our true spiritual home) from A Voyage to Arcturus, as though Lindsay is saying that what Pain was in that first novel, Tragical Passion is in this one — the way out of a deceptive, ensnaring world, and the way home. (Lindsay several times in the novel links passion with pain — and music — as when he describes the sound of the musician’s bowed instrument as “low, fierce, passionate, exactly resembling a deep, forced human cry of love-pain.”)

This feeling that the coming together of a man and woman in a deeply meaningful, but deeply tragical and troubled manner, is the closest the living can come to a sort of reconnection with their deeper, truer selves, is reiterated in The Violet Apple, and intensified in Devil’s Tor. (I’d say it also has a hint of fairy-tale fulfilment at the end of The Adventures of Monsieur de Mailly.) It obviously had great meaning for David Lindsay, and is certainly an argument for regarding his post-Arcturus novels not as commercial compromises (as they’re often seen), but as genuine attempts to further his understanding of his own ideas.

The Shape of… What? Er…

I was disappointed to read that Jean-Pierre Jeunet (director of Amelie, co-director of Delicatessen) was accusing Guillermo del Toro of plagiarism in his latest film, The Shape of Water. Partly, my disappointment is down to both directors having made favourite films of mine (Pan’s Labyrinth, Amelie, Delicatessen, and City of Lost Children all real favourites), and I’m always disappointed (though never too surprised) when creators I like criticise one another. But another reason is it seems somewhat ungenerous of Jeunet, considering how liberally he himself has borrowed from other films.

The main scene Jeunet singles out is where Sally Hawkins’s character and her neighbour (played by Richard Jenkins), sitting together on a sofa watching an old musical on TV, start tap-dancing along while sitting down. Jeunet said it was “cut and pasted from Delicatessen” (quote from The Telegraph) — no doubt meaning the scene where Dominique Pinon and Karin Viard, sitting on a bed and bouncing in order to locate a squeaky spring, fall into a sort of sitting-down dance. (You can see both at an article on The Playlist, which also reveals that the Jeunet quotes were Google Translated from the original French.)

Jeunet also says Shape of Water’s having scenes featuring “the painter, the apartment, the girl who is a bit naive” must be inspired by Amelie, which strikes me as almost deliberately vague. I wouldn’t call Hawkins’s character “naive” — certainly not as Amelie is — she’s also clearly a woman rather than a girl, and the relationship between the characters Jeunet mentions is quite different. (In Amelie, the painter is very much a mentor figure; in Shape of Water, the relationship is of equals.) It’s far too vague for an accusation of plagiarism. (Hitchcock’s Blackmail also features a scene with a painter, an apartment, and a girl who is a bit naive, though of course it turns out far differently.)

Perhaps it’s more interesting to look at the scene Jeunet doesn’t mention. At one point in The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkins’s character shuts herself in a bathroom with the love of her life (who happens to be an aquatic humanoid more comfortable breathing through his gills than his lungs), blocking the bottom of the door with towels and turning on all the taps so they can flood the bathroom and enjoy a little underwater love. It’s reminiscent of the scene at the end of Delicatessen where Dominique Pinon’s Louison and Marie-Laure Dougnac’s Julie lock themselves in a bathroom, stop up all the gaps, turn on all the taps, and flood the bathroom, in this case to aid their escape from the other residents of the building, who want to eat at least one of them. Perhaps the reason Jeunet doesn’t point out this similarity is that this scene also occurs in a 1975 Paul Newman film, The Drowning Pool, in which Newman and a woman are locked in a large bathroom, block the drains, turn on all the taps, and flood the place to escape. In all three films, the central couple are carried out in the flood when the blocked door is finally opened.

The Drowning Pool (1975) — they had a bigger bathroom

It’s just as easy to find borrowings — unconscious or not, accidental or not — in Jeunet’s films. The most obvious, to my eyes, is in Amelie. The scenes where Audrey Tautou’s character sneaks into the grocer’s apartment to play various sneaky little revenge-pranks on him are very similar to those in the 1994 film Chungking Express — not just in the idea of a young woman sneaking into a man’s apartment and playing little tricks, but down to some of the tricks themselves. In Chungking Express, Faye Wong’s character, among other things, swaps a pair of slippers and puts sleeping pills in a bottle of drink (if I remember right); in Amelie, Audrey Tautou’s character swaps a pair of slippers for those a size smaller and puts sugar in a bottle of some alcoholic drink.

Chungking Express — this is not her apartment

To make all these accusations of plagiarism more complicated still, in an Empire magazine feature (Le fantastique M. Jeunet by Olly Richards) from January 2010, Jeunet says of the flooded bathroom sequence in Delicatessen:

“It’s funny, because maybe six or seven years later I saw a short film with Laurel & Hardy and it’s the same idea. Same bathroom with two cops outside. I understood that probably [co-director] Marc Caro or me saw that when we were kids and then forgot it. Then it sat in the back of the mind.”

It’s an old idea that good artists copy, great artists steal, but I can’t help feeling there’s a danger of a huge loss of subtlety as soon as the accusation of plagiarism comes up. There are, most certainly, cases of outright plagiarism, but there will also be cases of unconscious influence, parallel development of similar ideas, drawing from the same sources, and so on. How to tell the difference? Surely, in these sorts of cases, you ought to be able to judge by an artist’s, or director’s, creative integrity, as evident from their existing body of work, something I think del Toro and Jeunet have both demonstrated.

I’m certainly not putting myself on a par with Jeunet or del Toro, but, as it’s the one area where I have some chance of knowing a deeper level of the story, I’ll bring in a couple of examples from my own writing. Some time ago, I decided I wanted to write a Lovecraftian story, and worked hard on coming up with a plot that, to me, summed up the essence of what Lovecraft’s fiction meant to me, in terms of the implications of its world and worldview. This was eventually published (“Zathotha”, in Cyäegha #4 in 2011). I was completely unaware, till I was re-reading it some time after it was published, that I’d in fact reproduced the plot of my favourite Clark Ashton Smith story, “The Double Shadow” — both feature characters carrying out a magical ritual they don’t understand, that leads to the ineluctable approach of an entity that absorbs its victims, and nothing can be done to stop it.

To give another example, I used the idea of a phantom staircase that appears only at certain times, in The Fantasy Reader. I came up with the idea while playing about with the sort of thing that happens in dreams — I have loads of dreams where I find myself in a small house or apartment that, despite its limited size, has endless rooms with doors that open onto other rooms with more doors, and so on, with even the occasional staircase leading to yet more rooms and doors. It was only well after I’d started working with the idea that I remembered it was also in David Lindsay’s second novel, The Haunted Woman. It’s a book I’ve read loads of times, and I even run a website about Lindsay, so, no court of law would ever accept that I hadn’t taken the idea from him, and I’d certainly be happy to say that I had, and it may be I did, unconsciously, but my feeling is I took it from the same place where he, perhaps, found it.

Both del Toro and Jeunet are, even by directorial standards, outright cinephiles, and both not only talk about their influences, but include tributes and references to much-loved films in their work. (The Shape of Water and Amelie both contain scenes set in cinemas.) I have a feeling Jeunet’s reaction may be more emotional than rational — perhaps he saw someone doing the sort of thing he considers his territory, and getting a lot of plaudits, and felt left out. I can certainly understand that. As I say, I like both directors, and would like to see both in the best light.

Anyway, The Shape of Water is a very nice film. I didn’t find it as intense as Pan’s Labyrinth, though it has a lot in common with that film. But it’s definitely the sort of film I’ll want to watch a few more times and really get to know — as I have, and will continue to do, with Pan’s Labyrinth, as well as Amelie, and Delicatessen.