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Olaf Stapledon: Philosopher and Fabulist

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By:Stephen R.L. Clark | April 18, 2019
From the December 1986 issue of Chronicles.

The most widely known of Merseyside philosophers was never a full-time academic. But he gave classes for the Workers Educational Association from 1912, extra-mural lectures on philosophy from the 20's, gained his Ph.D. in Liverpool in 1925 (in philosophical psychology), and was an active and famous philosopher till he died, in 1950. Olaf Stapledon was born a hundred years ago in the little peninsula between the Dee and the Mersey, and lived there all his life, apart from a brief sojourn in Balliol and Port Said, and duty with the Quaker ambulance corps during the First World War. He lectured regularly, published a couple of minor philosophical books and some interesting articles, and wrote several of the great classics of philosophical science fiction: Last and First Men, Last Men in London, Sinus, Odd John, Starmaker, The Flames.

Stapledon's archives are now housed in Liverpool University Library, and his work and life are subjected to critical scrutiny. He was a man of his time in tending to prefer coUectivist solutions for social problems and to hanker after a new, improved breed of humanity. But he never lost sight of the perils of progressivism and collectivism, and lent no support—though he was falsely accused of this—to fashionable left-wing apologias for Stalinist Russia. His fables, as I shall argue, contain the antidote to his own professed doctrines.

How may we summon up the courage and devotion to live humane or spiritual lives in a universe that, so scientistic mythology requires us to believe, is deeply hostile to all human values? "How to face such an age? How to muster courage, being capable only of homely virtues? How to do this, yet preserve the mind's integrity?" This is the question Stapledon confronts in Starmaker. That remains the crucial question for "modern" man. Some writers, like Apollo's existentialists described in W.H. Auden's "Under Which Lyre?" "declare that they are in complete despair, yet keep on writing"; others pretend that they can happily inhabit a world as cold and valueless as "science" says the universe must be; yet others live by faith that things are not quite what they seem. Stapledon attempted an agnostic piety, a determination to "bless what there is for being" even when it almost froze the heart, an insistence that the truth, despite appearances, will prove worth knowing.

That truth matters to us is a sign that we do not quite believe the nihilist. If we did, we should have every reason not to face the truth. Stapledon's most pitiable inventions, the disillusioned mystics of Darkness and Light, have good reason to hide their eyes from the supramundane titans that they glimpse, trampling carelessly across a snow-covered landscape that is hyperdimensional reality. Stapledon's own passion for understanding and a clearer sight was at one with his passionate impulse to worship, an impulse that he knew could not prove its own veracity and which was inclined to issue in assertions that he knew could not be literally true.

One of the oddities of Stapledon's writings, and a sign of the extent to which this century has been cut off from its past, is that he seems to have thought novel his own dedication to what is technically "apophatic theology," the way of negation. For him it was something that needed a time-traveling Neptunian or an intelligent flame to propose. "Surely you agree," says such a flame in Flames, one of Stapledon's best-crafted works, "that the goal of all action is the awakening of the spirit in every individual and in the cosmos as a whole; awakening, I mean, in respect of awareness, feeling and creative action. Your human concept of'God' we find useless. Our finer spiritual sensibility is outraged by any attempt to describe the dark Other in terms of the attributes of finite beings. We ourselves, I suppose, may be said to 'worship' the Other; but inarticulately, or through the medium of fantasies and myths, which, though they aid worship, give us no intellectual truth about the wholly inconceivable."

It is incidentally a nice touch that this high-minded (and, to be honest, somewhat complacent) doctrine is abandoned by the flames themselves when they seem to encounter the same sort of indifferent titans, or ghoulish Starmaker, that Stapledon describes elsewhere, and the pose of open-eyed and agnostic adoration is maintained only by a lonely and soon-to-be-murdered madman. The position itself, however, is a very familiar one: It is indeed heretical in almost any religious tradition to suppose that God, the One Incomprehensible, has any of the attributes of finite beings, or that the stories we tell of it are anything but words needed to evoke our worship. George Berkeley, writing in Alciphron on Rhode Island well before he was a Bishop: The doctrine of the Trinity is acceptable insofar as "it makes proper impressions on the mind, producing therein love, hope, gratitude and obedience, and thereby becomes a very lively operative principle, influencing [one's] life and actions, agreeably to the notion of saving faith which is required in a Christian," even if every idea we form of the Trinity is bound to be strictly false.

The most simpleminded imitators of Stapledon have tried to reproduce the millennial vision of humankind's expansion and continual improvement. Throughout the 1950's, science-fiction writers wrote about the prospects for a harmonious society, controlled by the wielders of a psychosocial science who would mold people "for their own good," and for the greater glory of the human universe. Oddly enough, in Stapledon such psychosocial and genetic engineering almost always ends badly, and even the Last Men must return to their poor ancestors to learn something of the courage of hopelessness before their end.

Even when Stapledon envisages a cosmic harmony in Starmaker, it is purchased at a high cost and will not endure. More intelligent readers have retained just the sense of time's passage nowhere in particular, in which both the minnows and the minnow-watchers are alike deceived. On the surface, Stapledon describes races and cultures that far surpass our own in intelligence and moral fiber, but each one learns at the end that they are no closer to the infinite and eternal One than were their poor predecessors, that each makes God over in his own image and finds the image useless in the end.

One of Stapledon's later fictions, The Flames, has not yet been reissued, so that even those who know Stapledon's other writings may not have encountered it. It is a brief and well-crafted fable which encapsulates many of his concerns and characteristic ironies. Patrick McCarthy's biography of Stapledon correctly observes that "as an example of controlled and sustained irony, The Flames is without parallel among Stapledon's works." Thus, the positivistic critic presents and comments on the narrative of Cass, the speculative generalist. Cass, after years of seeking to see and understand things "from the inside," by telepathic or mystical means, seems to himself to have been addressed by a living flame, hidden in a pebble plucked from a cold, snow-shrouded landscape. It turns out that there are such creatures, salamanders, born in the sun's troposphere and condemned to live out a cold and intermittent existence on solid earth since the planets were formed. The late world war, and its manifold fires, have brought them out of hibernation in the dust of the air, and they sense the possibility of forming a symbiotic alliance with us: we to provide the environment within which they can live, they to provide the mental stability and community awareness we lack.

This sort of symbiotic pattern is many times repeated in Stapledon's work. If we cannot agree, the flames' other option is to instigate nuclear spasm: "Then at last, with the whole planet turned into a single atomic bomb, and all the incandescent continents hurtling into space, we should have for a short while conditions almost as good as those of our golden age in the sun." Cass is on the point of agreeing to act as the flames' ambassador, when he learns that his own marriage had been deliberately destroyed by the flames (and his wife driven to suicide) so that he might be a suitably single-minded instrument of their purposes (the Neptunian hero of Last Men in London had done the same, less violently, to his victim, unrebuked, and the action of Starmaker occurs after a marital quarrel). Cass concludes that this proves the flames' real ill will, destroys the flames with a glass of cold water (the flames turn to revivable dust if slowly extinguished, but perish forever if suddenly doused), and sets himself to warn humankind of the deadly peril they stand in.

Cass is eventually incarcerated in an asylum, where the flames again convince him that their intentions are good. Meanwhile, however, their more lucid companions, in the sun, have as usual discovered that Reality "was wholly alien to the spirit, and wholly indifferent to the most sacred values of the awakened minds of the cosmos," and are undergoing a desperate religious war in which the flames' original pious agnosticism, which I mentioned before, is lost. Cass, now converted to that typically Stapledonian position, is threatened by flames converted in their turn to a militant theism. Cass dies in a fire, victim of homicide or, as some suppose, his own deranged endeavor.

The swirling confusions of Stapledonian history are here compressed into one man's life, and the struggle to live lucidly, without self-deception, is allowed its full ironical perversity. Who is deceived? Who is sane? Allegorically, of course, the flames are simply those technological powers whose use may lead to utopia or to disaster. Or else they are a shifting image of the individual-in-community, less inclined than we to imagine that they are atomic individuals rather than elements within the global or the stellar community, and by the same token all too ready to ignore the needs and passions of each such element and fall into the little death of the hive-mind (the constant peril in Last and First Men). Or else again, they are images of the division that concerned Stapledon so often, between sleep and awakened life. The Flames even allows him what he does not attempt elsewhere, the thought that present individuals are fallen creatures, forever reaching towards a perfection they have lost: "Each new experience came to us with a haunting sense of familiarity and a suspicion that the new version was but a crude and partial substitute for the old."

The flames entertain the project of initiating nuclear spasm, "through loyalty to the spirit in us," if they should decide that the human species was doomed to self-destruction sooner or later, rather as the Fifth Men of Stapledon's other future history (Last and First Men) destroy the inhabitants of Venus, on the plea that they are less developed and failing creatures. This slaughter, incidentally, produces in its agents on the one hand an "unreasoning disgust with humanity" and on the other a "grave elation" expressing itself in the thought that "the murder of Venerian life was terrible but right." The protagonist of Odd John assures his biographer bluntly, "If we could wipe out your whole species, we would." Stapledon's postwar, post-Holocaust writings are, unsurprisingly, much more alive to the hideous reality such fables cloak. He was, as I said, a man of his time, though one who strove to reach beyond it.

The unresolved ambiguities of this story—Are the flames trustworthy or not? Is Cass insane or not? Is the god of humane devotion certain to be victorious or not? Are the demands of the heart to be accepted alongside the judgments of the mind or not?—are what make it art rather than academic philosophy. Philosophers are not supposed to be ambiguous but to follow single-mindedly where the argument may lead. My own view is that it is not possible that there should be only one road to so great a mystery. I have a personal and philosophical preference, that is, for the ambiguous and unsettling, and I do not think that philosophers should always be explicit and precise. "Not such as I had dreamed must the real be, but infinitely more subtle, more dread, more excellent. And infinitely nearer home. Yet, however false the vision in detail of structure, even perhaps in its whole form, in temper surely it was relevant; in temper perhaps it was even true," writes Stapledon in Starmaker.

In this, Stapledon echoed Plato's judgment, that it is through the telling of stories, true in temper if not in detail, that we make our philosophical conclusions real to ourselves. The flames themselves, Cass reports, are of another and more contemplative temperament than ourselves. Their philosophizing "was more imaginative and less conceptual than [ours], more of the nature of art, of mythconstruction, which [they] knew to be merely symbolical, not literally true." The active and the contemplative intellect, the critical and speculative imagination, the individual and the community, "the cold light of the stars" and "our little glowing atom of community" must all be given their due. "Intellectual subtlety might produce a mania for analysis and abstraction," warns Stapledon in Starmaker, "with blindness to all that intellect could not expound. Yet sensibility itself, when it rejected intellectual criticism and the claims of daily life would be smothered in dreams."

Stapledon was trying, against the odds, to hold time and eternity, the individual and the community, fury and the joy without a cause in tension, not because he was sexually disturbed (as if a good sexual relationship were the answer to all metaphysical and moral problems—which is what Leslie Fiedler's biography seems to suggest), but because these mighty opposites must be reconciled in any human life. He was not naive, and he was certainly not a devotee of positivistic science: Writing in a review of Wells's Starbegotten (which has certain affinities with Last Men in London and Stapledon's own A Man Divided), he remarks, "Although, when clerics expound their faith, I fly to line up behind Mr. Wells, I am an erring disciple. For, when he in turn explains, I feel a restless expectation of a something more which is never forthcoming. He is too ready to assume that an idealization of the positivistic, scientific mood, which is mainly a product of the nineteenth century, really can adequately suggest the essence of the truly adult human mentality." It is perhaps fair to point out that Wells's life ended in despair, and Stapledon's did not: He had not put his hope in merely contemporary powers.

Readers of Stapledon mistake his purpose if they see him as spokesman for a scientistic mythology that licenses racist (or speciesist) oppression and impiety. C.S. Lewis' bent scientist, Weston (in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra), is not—as some have thought—a caricature of Stapledon, though he behaves like some of Stapledon's supposedly "superior" types. Nor is Ransom's apocalyptic vision, in Perelandra, that distant from Starmaker. Both Ransom and Starmaker and narrator "come to themselves" at the highest point of vision and find truth where they are, where they are placed by the Creator's hand.

Certainly, in Starmaker, "love was not absolute; contemplation was," whereas for the Christian, the nearest approaches in Perelandra to Stapledon's terrible archangel are the visible images of Malacandra and Perelandra: "Pure, spiritual, intellectual love [wholly devoid of all natural affection] shot from their faces like barbed lightning. It was so unlike the love we experience that its expression could easily be mistaken for ferocity." It is not the angels that are to be worshiped but Blake's "infinite and eternal of the human form"—as Stapledon in effect declares in the final pages of Starmaker. Stapledon did not, to my knowledge, ever openly say or perhaps even recognize what his fables intimate, that contemplative ardor may spill over into diabolism as easily as parochial practice may become trivial. He offered a succession of images within which we can find ourselves, and find the God who is not only "Spirit," but true Man.


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