Archive for michael moorcock

The End of all Things and Amnesia of the Soul: Moorcock, Harrison, and the Possibilities of Fantasy

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 15 March 2019 by Ben

This is my ICFA 2019 paper, which in part is taken from Here at the end of all things. At ICFA, it was presented on a panel on Michael Moorcock, along with papers by Tim Murphy and Mark Scroggins. The opening paragraphs here summarize much of part one of HATEOAT, while the paragraphs on Moorcock and Harrison are taken from part two, which deals with what I call the Tolkien Event and how it helped to cause the real subsumption of fantasy.

This paper describes how Michael Moorcock, in Stormbringer, and M. John Harrison, in Viriconium actualize certain concepts inherent to fantasy in ways that oppose their more conventional actualizations in the fantasy that follows from Tolkien. In the larger project from which I draw the following discussion, I define three key concepts important to what Brian Attebery once called the full fantasy tale: affectivity, desirability, and positivity. Of course, few if any fantasies fully embody or exhibit these concepts. They stand, rather, as tendencies within fantasy that help distinguish it from science fiction and other allegedly historicist genres. As the argument goes, science fiction, at its best, deals in historical problems and historical solutions to those problems. The novum, for example, creates a totalizing moment in a science fictional society whereby that society is transformed on a fundamental level. A world with time travel is not simply the same world with one more technology, but a world that is re-configured from the ground up with a new form of economy and politics and new social and cultural norms and institutions. The conflict of such science fiction often centers on attempts by this world or someone within it to come to grips with this new situation. At the end, the characters of this science fiction will arrive in a new place, albeit one they might understand as either good or bad depending on their position within it. Following Bernard Stiegler, I call this form of life, in which one makes use of one’s being to produce meaning, existence. In fantasy, so the argument goes, characters seek to return to a previous world, one prior to or outside of history and its conflicts and meanings, rather than arrive in a new one. Again following Stiegler, I call a form of life in which being and meaning are utterly congruent with one another consistence, and I argue that fantasy seeks such a state. Of course, it cannot produce such a state, since production requires and depends upon existence. Rather, it actualizes it in the reading process, by way of telling story. As John Clute would remind us, stories are narratives that are told and whose meaning emerges in the telling. This meaning is not abstractable. A story does not contain meaning, but is the meaning itself. And for Clute. the grammar of the full fantasy tale is called story.

However, I believe that we lack adequate concepts for describing how story works. Moreover, I do not believe that Clute’s four part structure of story—which moves from wrongness to thinning to recognition to return—takes us as far as we might go here because it implies four discrete steps that must be taken and therefore implies something altogether too rectilinear to adequately describe the circularity of story. In my larger project I therefore develop terms that describe how story works, terms that refer to relationships rather than to discrete steps or moments in a fantasy. I apologize for the number of terms I am throwing at you, but they come as a set and, I think, are far easier to understand in relation to one another than on their own. I refer to these concepts as affectivity, desirability, and positivity. Briefly put, affectivity binds characters to their worlds and readers to texts. Affectivity is a becoming, an openended process by which subjects become aware of their environments and the conflicts that surround them. Affectivity actualizes a relationship between subject and object, a meaningful one tantamount to magic. Desirability is not, as one might assume, a characteristic of a particular object we might covet. Rather, it refers to the conclusion of the conflict established by way of affectivity, As such it involves the liquidation and disappearance of the subjects and objects that took part in that conflict. Because they have fulfilled their desires, they are no longer necessary. Positivity, then, is the relationship between affectivity and desirability, the relationship of the becoming in which the subject-object pair discovers itself and the liquidation of that pair as discrete things. To put all of this another way, we might understand affectivity as the process of reading, of understanding the world. Likewise, we can understand desirability as the possession of knowledge that reading affords. Thus if affectivity involves the power of becoming, desirability is the quality of toldness. Positivity is the becoming-toldness of story.

In a fantasy such as The Lord of the Rings—or in many other conventional portal-quest fantasies—this becoming-toldness is quite easy to understand. Frodo and other ignorant or innocent characters are constantly told the story of Middle-Earth, which is to say they are given to understand its essential nature by way of a narrative that connects the distant past to the present and future in an honest and upstanding manner. In this context, affectivity amounts to their capacity to bind themselves to this story and the truths and dangers it involves. Ideally, this becoming, in which they are not only given facts to know but a hermaneutic and moral system by which they can systematize those facts, gives way to toldness, to their having knowledge of the world and how it works. The full possession of this knowledge, which is in Tolkien’s metaphysics always true and good, should allow for the loss of subjectivity that arrives with a fully inhabited belief. In reality, this process can never be completed in the material world or before you close the cover to the trilogy. It can only be achieved after the end, or in Valinor. In any case, the full movement, this becoming-toldness, provides an ideal for a certain type of fantasy, although it remains difficult to actualize. Many inferior fantasies, by Brooks or Eddings or McKiernan, rely on established tropes to suggest it but fail to achieve what Tolkien did.

Of course, Tolkien was not the first to work along these lines and we can find examples of other actualizations of affectivity, desirability, and positivity in fantasies that precede the trilogy, are contemporary to it, and that follow from it. In the larger project I discuss what I call the Tolkien event, by which the history of fantasy is understood as what leads to and follows from The Lord of the Rings. The texts I discuss here, and others by Mirlees, Dunsany, Peake, Anderson, Le Guin, and McKillip, make clear the extent to which there have always been movements in fantasy that remain unsubsumed and unsubsumable by dominant narratives of history and, moreover, actualizations of these concepts that depart from or even stand opposed to what Tolkien accomplished. As Moorcock once put it, “Generally speaking, fantasy stories can fall into two broad categories. There is the kind that permanently disturbs and the kind that comforts.” Of course, Moorcock would place Tolkien in the latter category even as he sought to produce examples of the former. However, despite his well-known hatred of Tolkien, I think that here Moorcock leaves the door open for a number of approaches to fantasy, an opening that this paper and the larger project take interest in. So, in the time that remains I will discuss Moorcock and Harrison in the context of the terms I hope I just made clear.

Moorcock’s Stormbringer, a full-length novel about the albino prince Elric of Melniboné, comprises stories first published in 1963 and 1964. It appears relatively early in Elric’s publication history, but serves as a chronological end to the narrative of Elric’s life. In fact, Stormbringer ends with the world utterly destroyed despite the apparent triumph of Elric and his companions, who have in the end only made possible a renewed Balance of Chaos and Law that must exclude everything that has led to this moment. The novel ends on a lifeless planet:

The world seemed a corpse, given life in corruption by virtue of the vermin which fed upon it.

Of mankind nothing was left, save for the three mounted on the dragons.

The conclusion of Elric’s narrative involves a world destroyed rather than one simply lacking magic and the consistence magic promises, a much more literal and final end than the one Frodo envisions or experiences when he speaks of “the end of all things” to Sam as they lay upon Mt. Doom awaiting what seems to them inevitable death. When Elric asks whether he shall ever see one of his companions again, that companion responds: “‘No, for we are both truly dead. Our age has gone.’” Another companion, Elric’s oldest and most loyal friend Moonglum, sacrifices himself to give Elric the strength to blow the Horn of Fate and bring the world to its conclusion finally and absolutely. Elric’s sword, the sentient, vampiric Stormbringer, then kills him and provides an inhuman witness to this end. This inhuman point of view, the novel Stormbringer itself, and the larger mythology of the multiverse in which Elric exists make clear that this end of all things will not be a permanent state in which literally nothing exists or takes place. There will be a new world, a new history, and new subjects of history, but all of this will be truly and radically new rather than a restoration of something previously fallen. The new world will never know the events that produced it, nor can the new world be known by those who lived through those events.

That this ending comes so early in Elric’s publication history means that it always awaits Elric and the reader in the future, as something impossible to avoid, and as something that provides a totalizing context for events even as they take place in the “present” of another tale. Moorcock thus does something uncommon in quest fantasy (and although the Elric stories have been conventionally understood as sword-and-sorcery Stormbringer can be productively understood in relation to the quest). By not only killing Elric, but utterly destroying his world and the very conditions that produced that world, Moorcock severs a certain relationship between the subject and the reader of fantasy. In Eddings, we see the problem of a rote prophecy that renders all action meaningless to both characters and to readers. After Stormbringer, the reader knows what Elric cannot: that his very being will end along with everything that made that being possible. As such, Elric experiences a grim desirability the reader cannot know. The reader will be forced to go on, knowing the limits of this going on and what these limits mean. Elric lives without this knowledge. This disjunction manifests, for example, in 1972’s Elric of Melnibone, which tells of events that take place early in Elric’s life. At the start of Book Three of this novel, Moorcock asks, “Was there ever a point where [Elric] might have turned off this road to despair, damnation and destruction?” In the context of this single text, this question refers to immediate events and their consequences, knowledge of which Elric may already possess or intuit. But in the larger context, already known to the reader but unknown and unknowable to Elric, we discover a gap between a desirability Elric inhabits but does not know and one that the reader knows but cannot inhabit. Later in the text, we discover something similar but even more specific when Elric contemplates Stormbringer: “Stormbringer needed to fight, for that was its reason for existence. Stormbringer needed to kill, for that was its source of energy, the living souls of men, demons—even gods.” Insofar as it severs the relation between protagonist and reader we come to expect from much fantasy—a relationship that tends to comfort rather than disturb—Moorcock’s desirability is rather different than Tolkien’s. Positivity, the becoming-toldness of story, if we can find it at all in Stormbringer, does not actualize for a subject of fantasy capable of grasping it. Story thus serves only as something unreachable and unknowable—even in the imagination. Moorcock’s multiverse can never know, live, or even represent consistence—nor can Moorcock’s reader, who always already understands that after the end there will be another beginning unknowable for those who live on this side of the divide.

M. John Harrison’s The Pastel City understands story in a manner contrary to both Moorcock’s Elric narratives and other fantasies of the era, such as Le Guin’s Earthsea books. Like these other fantasies, The Pastel City decenters and even disappoints the human. Unlike these other fantasies, it does not even offer a hope for consistence, whether in the form of an objective universal renewal that forecloses knowledge of the past and thus of what was renewed, as in Moorcock, or in the form of a subjectivization of the non-human world that simultaneously upholds the radical difference among all subjectivities, as in Le Guin. In fact, Harrison may reject Tolkien more than even Moorcock. In a 2003 editorial published in the midst of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (2001 – 2003), Harrison eviscerates Tolkien and his legacy, at one point simply stating, “Tolkien is no longer an influence on the innovators of the genre he invented.” On the condition of the genre generally, Harrison writes, “The real mistake of the fantasy factory was to cuckoo every other kind of fantasy out of the nest, to empty the category of genuine imagination, to turn it from a bazaar of the bizarre into the Do It All of ‘world building’ and pseudo history.” In short, the fantasy factory—what I understand as the production model characteristic of the genre’s real subsumption in 1977—insisted that all fantasy take its cues from Tolkien and start with world-building (what Tolkien called “subcreation”) and the facile implication of a deep history that world-building provides.

The world of Harrison’s Viriconium stories, of which The Pastel City is the first, could not be more different than Middle-earth. It has no higher purpose and has no capacity for progress. It has no history that anyone within it can know and seems to be in many respects “unbuilt.” Readers may struggle from one Viriconium text to the next to understand how they connect with one another, how any historical process could have produced the world of In Viriconium (1982) out of the world of A Storm of Wings (1980), for example. More often than not, characters in these stories struggle to know facts about the world. Moreover, they struggle even to grasp the extent of their ignorance about the principles that govern that world. As one character, someone who has spent his life trying to understand the dead and dying technologies that surround him is heard to say late in his life, “‘We waste our lives on half truths and nonsense. We waste them.’” Another character puts it this way: “‘You will not deny me this: no one who comes after [the height of human civilization] could read what is written there. All empires gutter, and leave a language their heirs cannot understand.’” Indeed, in the second Viriconium novel, A Storm of Wings, the Reborn Men from the height of human achievement (the so-called Afternoon Cultures), fail to successfully integrate themselves into the fallen world of the Evening Cultures. That later world has not simply come into being by way of a movement along an identifiable line according to comprehensible laws. Rather it has become something altogether different, something unknowable to them. Harrison writes, “The Reborn Men do not think as we do. They live in waking dreams, pursued by a past they do not understand, harried by a birthright which has no meaning to them: haunted by an amnesia of the soul.”

As Clute tells us, amnesia is common in fantasy. Conventionally, its presence bespeaks absent knowledge that is nonetheless fully recoverable. He writes, “Fantasy amnesia—unless it is imposed at the end of a tale in order to protect the protagonist, or the world, or the god—exists in order to be removed. Amnesia, in other words, is almost invariably a form of suspense.” There is no suspense in Viriconium, or at least not the suspense engendered by a looming end that might actualize desirability and thus the reconciliation of being and meaning. The end has already happened; there can be no recovery because there can be no knowledge of what might be recovered. By way of its utter denial of historical continuity with the past, the world of Viriconium mirrors the one whose rebirth is implied at the end of Stormbringer. However, the world of Viriconium denies any possibility of further renewal and does not acknowledge a punctual event that caused the rebirth to begin with. In short, Harrison’s world does not know, cannot know, and has never known itself. It remains unbuilt, outside of human knowledge, and without any history, real or otherwise. There is no way for the Reborn Men to remember, to understand (much less bridge) the gap between the world in which they died and the world in which they have been granted new life. Like the present denizens of the Evening Cultures, who cannot understand the past and can never hope to rebuild it, the Reborn Men can never go back nor can they bring the past forward into this new time. The material conditions of the world make both movements impossible. Viriconium suggests that, if story ever existed (debatable or even unlikely), the failure of history to provide a condition for permanent knowledge leads to horror’s aftermath and destroys the possibility of typical fantasy return, or even science fiction’s arrival. In Viriconium, the methods and products of modern knowledge techniques are nothing in and of themselves. They require something more that can never be and has never been, a fundamental link between being and space-time. In the ruins of the world, in a global salvage yard containing nothing but the remnants of the cultures that destroyed that world, there can be no understanding because there can be no essential memory of an existence through which one learned affectivity or pursued desirability, much less of a consistence that finally revealed them both in the light of positivity.

As we see, both Moorcock and Harrison oppose Tolkien and the sorts of relationships he actualized between subjects and worlds, between readers and texts. And yet, I think they remain within the fantasy genre (at least in these texts) for the fact that they engage with such relationships, either transforming them into something disturbing or acknowledging them in order to destroy them. In other words, Moorcock and Harrison don’t so much sweep Tolkien away but rather demonstrate other directions for fantasy, even if these directions suggest something that may depart from fantasy as we know it. The point here is not to denigrate Tolkien, although you may do as you wish on that front, of course. Rather, the point here is to discover something in fantasy that remains unsubsumed by neoliberal capitalism, something that cannot be exchanged in the context of history or posthistory. If affectivity, desirability, and positivity do not exist, but only consist in the process of reading, then they, I think, cannot be exchanged. They therefore remain insoluable to the logic of late capitalism, or semiocapitalism, or whatever term you like. Tolkien managed to actualize these concepts, but I think that many of his followers rely far too much on what we already know from The Lord of the Rings and therefore are part and parcel of the real subsumption of fantasy that was accomplished in 1977. However, Moorcock and Harrison—not to mention China Mieville, Daniel Heath Justice, NK Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Patrick Rothfuss, and many many others—demonstrate that there are other ways that we might actualize affectivity, desirability, and positivity and that, in fact, history might not be over yet. Thank you.

Fall 13 Course: Fantasy Beyond Tolkien

Posted in Teaching with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 5 March 2013 by Ben

This description for this class is nearly identical (with some minor edits) to the description for my spring 2012 class on fantasy. However, that course was called “Fantasy after Tolkien” and this one is “Fantasy beyond Tolkien.” The last one did focus a good deal on reconceptualizations of the genre, but also dealt with generic fantasy. Thus it dealt with the “after” in the double sense of “appearing later” and “following from.” This class more or less exclusively deals with fantasy literature that departs from Tolkien in significant ways, whether its Peake’s world largely (entirely?) un-influenced by Tolkien, Le Guin’s non-epic, Delaney’s deconstruction, or Mieville’s explicit critique of the Tolkien-esque quest. M. John Harrison too.

I would have loved to include any number of other texts here, including a Terry Pratchett novel, Anderson’s The Broken Sword, some of Howard’s Conan stories, more Moorcock, some Fritz Leiber, Morgan’s The Steel Remains, and Gaiman’s Sandman. The problem with fantasy literature, especially Clarke here: so fucking long. Which novel of a trilogy to teach? Can you teach just part of a novel? Given that much of this reading is easy (with the very notable exception of Peake, and Delaney, and maybe Harrison), can I ask students to read more on a per class basis?

I guess we will see.

ENGL 3060-012 & -016: Modern and Contemporary Literature

Fantasy Beyond Tolkien

Fantasy literature offers something of a contradiction. On one hand, it is a thoroughly contemporary genre. Yes, the fantastic has a longer history than that provided by the twentieth century, but it was the twentieth century that gave the world fantastic as fantasy, magic that no one believed in, monsters that only existed in the imagination. On the other hand, fantasy implicitly and explicitly continues to allude to moments in the past when our understandings of the world were not quite set by science and rationality. The conflict endemic to a great deal of fantasy literature is that of modernity: the passing away of the supernatural and its replacement by the mundane. Think of Tolkein’s elves leaving Middle Earth or Lewis’ children who grow up and can no longer find Narnia.

Considered in this context, fantasy literature offers up a number of avenues of investigation. What happens to the fantastic in the face of the rational? Why is the fantastic so often portrayed according to the tropes of realism? How do various representations of the fantastic allow us to rethink the history of modernity in the United States and the West? This class will read fantasy literature produced in the wake of and against Tolkien as an evolving set of genre conventions and as a literature committed to experimental considerations of nature and history.

 

Reading List

Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Samuel R. Delaney: Neveryona

M. John Harrison: Viriconium

Ursula Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea

China Miéville: The Scar

Michael Moorcock: “The Dreaming City”

Mervyn Peake: Gormanghast

JRR Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings (excerpts); The Silmarillion (excerpts)