Saturday, July 12, 2014

On Fantastic Books

THERE has fallen upon criticism since perhaps a century ago, and with increasing weight, a sort of gravity which is in great danger of becoming tomfoolery at last: as all gravity is in danger of becoming.

No one dares to discuss all that lighter thing which is the penumbra of letters, and, what is more, no man of letters dares to whisper that letters themselves are not often much more than a pastime to the reader, and are only very rarely upon a level with good and serious speculation: never upon a level with philosophy: still less upon a level with religion. It is perhaps even a mark of the eclipse of religion when any department of mere intellectual effort can raise itself as high as literature has raised itself in its own eyes; and since all expression now (or nearly all) is through the pen literature thus suffering from pride can impose its pride upon the world.

Two things alone correct this pride: first, that those who practice the trade of literature starve if they are austere or run into debt if they are not; secondly, that now and then one of the inner circle gives the thing away─for instance, Mr. Andrew Lang in his excellent and never-to-be-forgotten remarks delivered only last year at the dinner of the Royal Literary Fund. This Member of our Union said (with how much truth!) that the writers of stories should remember they were writers of stories and not teachers and preachers. And the same might be said to others of the Craft. If a man has had granted to him by the Higher Powers a jolly little lyric, why, that is a jolly little lyric. But it does not make him a god, and if it gives him so much as a swelled head it makes him intolerably wearisome. More tolerable are the victors of campaigns discussing at the table their successes in the field than poets who forget their Muse: for to their Muse alone, or to those who sent her, do they owe what they are, as may very clearly be seen in the case of those whose Muse has deserted them and flown again up to her native heaven; nor is any case more distressing than that of──.

All of which leads me to the Fantastic Books. One, two, a dozen at the most, in all the history of the world have ranked with the greatest. Rabelais is upon the summit, and the Sentimental Journey will live for some hundreds of years, but how many others are there which men remember? There is a sort of conspiracy against them led by the few intelligent vicious in league with the numerous and virtuous fools; and thus the salt of the Fantastic Books, which is as good as the salt of the sea, is lost to the most of mankind.

Men sit in front of the writers of Fantastic Books fair and squarely with their hands on their knees, their eyes set, their mouths glum, their souls determined, and say:

"Come now, Fantastic Book, are you serious or are you not serious?"

And when the Fantastic Book answers "I am both."

Then the man gets up with a sigh and concludes that it is neither. Yet the Fantastic Book was right, and if people were only wise they would salt all their libraries with Fantastic Books.

Note that the Fantastic Books are not of necessity jocose books or ribald books, nor even extravagant books, quâ extravagant, you may be certain I should have chosen that word. Rabelais is extravagant and so is Sterne, but not on account of their extravagance are they fantastic. The note of the Fantastic Book is an easy escape from the world. It is not imagination, though imagination is a necessary spring to it: it is that faculty by which the mind travels, as it reads, whether through space or through time or through quality. A book is a Fantastic Book, though time and space be commonplace enough, though the time be today and the place Camberwell, if only the mind perpetually travels, seeing one after another unexpected things in the consequences of human action or in the juxtaposition of emotions.

There is a category of Fantastic Books most delightful, and never to my thinking overdone, which deals with journeys to worlds beyond the earth. I confess that I care nothing whether they are well written or ill written; so long as they are written in any language that I can understand I will read them; and today as I write I have before me a notable collection of such, every one of which I have read over and over again. I remember one called the Anglo-Saxon Conquest of the Solar System or words to that effect; another of a noble kind, called Thuka of the Moon. I only mention the two together by way of contrast; and I remember one in which somebody or other went to Mars and went mad, but I forget the title. Be they as well written as the First Men in the Moon, which is or will be a classic, or as ill written as a book which I may not mention because there is a law forbidding any one to tell unpleasant truths, so long as they concern voyages to the Planets they are worth reading.

Then, also, there is the future. The Time Machine is, perhaps, the chief of them; but writers who travel into the future, good or bad, are all delightful.

You may say that they are also always a little boring because they always try to teach a lesson or to prophesy. That is true, but when you have comforted yourself with the firm conviction that prophecies of this kind are invariably and wildly wrong the disturbance which they cause in your mind will disappear. I have among my most treasured books one of the early nineteenth century, called Revelations of the Dead Alive, in which the end of our age and its opinions upon that age are presented, and it is all wrong! But it is very entertaining all the same. Most ridiculous but not least entertaining of such books are the Socialist books, the books showing humanity in the future all Socialist and going on like sticks. There is, indeed, another type of mournful Socialist book much more real and much more troubling, in which Socialism has failed, and the mass of men go on like slaves; but no matter. A prophecy (when it is scientific) is always and invariably absolutely and totally wrong:─and a great comfort it is to remember that!

Yet another sort of Fantastic Book is your Journey to Hell or to Heaven. There is one I have read and re-read. It is called The Outer Darkness. I shall never cease to read it. It is a journey to a sort of Hell, and these are as a rule more entertaining than the Heavenly journey, though why I cannot tell. Does the same hold true of Dante?

Lastly, and much the most rare and much the most valued of all are the books which are fantastic, though they cling to the present and to things known. In these I would include imaginary people in the Islands and in the Arctic, and even those which introduce half-rational beasts, for such books depend for their character not upon the matter of the fantasy, but upon the manner. There is a book called Ninety North, for instance, which is all about a race of people at the North Pole, but the power of the book resides not in the distance of the scene, but in the vision of the writer and in the little irony that trickles down every page.

Who collects them or preserves them─the Fantastic Books? No one, I think. They are not catalogued under a separate Heading. They puzzle the writers of Indices; they bewilder Librarians. They must be grouted out of the mass of rubbish as Pigs in the Perigord grout out truffles. There is no other way.

Also, in the Perigord, truffles are hunted with Hounds.

~Hilaire Belloc: from On Everything

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