Today’s Fiction Friday newsletter from the Culture Alliance included pieces from the Claremont Review of Books archives, back when that journal regularly reviewed fiction, and an excerpt from a Clark Ashton Smith short story with a main character some might identify.
Once upon a time, the Claremont Review of Books regularly reviewed fiction and movies. Today if you subscribe to CRB or are able to find a copy at your local bookstore, you’ll note that fiction reviews are few and far between. Claremont’s archive unveiled the regular inclusion of opinion on novels released during the 1980’s as well as classics of Western literature in that journal’s pages. As this excellent journal matured, it seems to have left fiction behind. Instead, it devoted its energy to non-fiction and essays on current politics and public policy. As much as folks enjoy a good polemic or scholarly work on history and political philosophy, time must also be taken to explore, in the context of compelling fiction, what it is that makes us human.
Adso, caught midway between William and his opponents, lived in an age when dogmas were powerful, and questioning them dangerous. We, on the other hand, live in an age when the chief dogma is anti-dogmatism. We are somewhat surprised, then, to find these monks engaged-passionately engaged-in a lifelong quest for understanding of the deepest of mysteries: of God and the soul of man and the nature of things. To them, dogmas were not limits but foundations of deeper knowledge. The universe no longer, seems such a mystery; perhaps Brother William is right, and science can solve all the mysteries. But is it not manifest that all the improvements in our methods have left the greatest of mysteries yet unsolved?
Can the Dark Ages be fun? And yet fun-or more precisely, laughter-is the point of The Name of the Rose. The one book that figures in the plot of The Name of the Rose is the lost second book of Aristotle’s Poetics, on comedy. William is not the only character who laughs, but he is the only one who laughs at himself. Our laughter at ourselves is the necessary antidote to our pride, especially that intellectual pride in our knowledge of secrets which is the father of dogmatism. As William himself says:
“Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.”
And thus there is a special irony in Adso’s final comment on William: “I pray always that God received his soul and forgave him the many acts of pride that his intellectual vanity had made him commit.” Perhaps we, as William’s intellectual (would he have any other kind?) heirs, should take this warning to heart and remember that every mystery is a comedy.
The crisis of modernity, according to Camus, is the desire of modern man to create metaphysical “systems.” As he puts it in The Rebel, this passion is “a blind impulse” that demands “order in the midst of chaos, and unity in the very heart of the ephemeral.” The very worst examples are nihilism and existentialism. (It is interesting to note that, contrary to unlearned opinion, Camus was not an existentialist. In fact he vehemently denied being either an existentialist or a nihilist throughout his life. All of his work, particularly The Myth of Sysiphus and The Rebel, must be read as an attack on both of these positions to be understood properly.) The political form that this abstract and theoretical edification took, totalitarian ideology, Camus thought, had so transformed consciousness as to make immersion in human life almost impossible. The only recourse for modern man is continuous “rebellion” by the “absurd hero” against historical absolutes. The consciousness of the absurd character of modern life-that is, the consciousness of the irrational expectations that ideology had imposed on human life-would reconcile man to the limits of human things. This, Camus believed, would provide the means whereby an authentic existence might at some point be possible again.
We may, then, restate the problem of crime and responsibility in the context of ideology. Ideology is that all-encompassing account of the universe, both physical and spiritual, that provides no room for disagreement or deviation. The ideologist-in the case of The Stranger the chief magistrate-is the antithesis of the absurd hero. For the ideologist lacks the intellectual honesty to confront the disproportion between the desire for clarity and the mind’s limits. He attributes a finality to his position at all costs. The ideologist is l’indifferent par excellence; he refuses to find the reason for his existence in human life itself.
The fiction excerpt provided in this week’s Fiction Friday is from a master of the pulp medium. Weird Tales and other pulp magazines regularly published Clark Ashton Smith’s work alongside folks like H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. This excerpt, from “The Return of the Sorcerer,” is narrated by a character with whom many today could identify.
I had been out of work for several months, and my savings were perilously near the vanishing point. Therefore I was naturally elated when I received from John Carnby a favorable answer inviting me to present my qualifications in person. Carnby had advertised for a secretary, stipulating that all applicants must offer a preliminary statement of their capacities by letter; and I had written in response to the advertisement.
Carnby, no doubt, was a scholarly recluse who felt averse to contact with a long waiting-list of strangers; and he had chosen this manner of weeding out beforehand many, if not all, of those who were ineligible. He had specified his requirements fully and succinctly, and these were of such nature as to bar even the average well-educated person. A knowledge of Arabic was necessary, among other things; and luckily I had acquired a certain degree of scholarship in this unusual tongue.
I found the address, of whose location I had formed only a vague idea, at the end of a hilltop avenue in the suburbs of Oakland. It was a large, two-story house, overshaded by ancient oaks and dark with a mantling of unchecked ivy, among hedges of unpruned privet and shrubbery that had gone wild for many years. It was separated from its neighbors by a vacant, weed-grown lot on one side and a tangle of vines and trees on the other, surrounding the black ruins of a burnt mansion.
Even apart from its air of long neglect, there was something drear and dismal about the place — something that inhered in the ivy-blurred oudines of the house, in the furtive, shadowy windows, and the very forms of the misshapen oaks and oddly sprawling shrubbery. Somehow, my elation became a trifle less exuberant, as I entered the grounds and followed an unswept path to the front door.
When I found myself in the presence of John Carnby, my jubliation was still somewhat further diminished; though I could not have given a tangible reason for the premonitory chill, the dull, sombre feeling of alarm that I experienced, and the leaden sinking of my spirits. Perhaps it was the dark library in mhich he received me as much as the man himself — a room whose musty shadows could never have been wholly dissipated by sun or lamplight. Indeed, it must have been this; for John Carnby himself was very much the sort of person I had pictured him to be. …
Here are a few links to some interesting bit and bobs from around the publishing world:
- Wright’s Writing Corner: On Endings
- L. Jagi Lamplighter reviews On Writing the Breakout Novel
- Who Stole the Thriller?
- 100 Best First Lines of Novels
- Inspector Norse: Why are Nordic Detective Novels so Successful?
- Do American Writers Who Happen to be Black still need a “Black Writer’s Conference?”
- ‘The Iliad’ – With Ants
- Can Climate Change Be Funny? – An Interview with Ian McEwan
- Hyperbolic Geometry Defeats Nazi Spoons In Odd Title Contest
- Lost Booker prize shortlist overlooks Iris Murdoch but plumps for Muriel Spark
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