Saturday, October 28, 2006

[Fantasy] The Storyteller and Mrs. Brown

Today, I wish to investigate a connection between Benjamin's Der Erzähler and Ursula K. Le Guin's Science Fiction and Mrs Brown. (The latter essay can be found, like From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, in her non-fiction collection The Language of the Night.) One of the theme's in Benjamin's essay is the difference between the story and the novel; the theme of Le Guin's essay is the possibility of SF (and fantasy) novels. Together, they may get us a bit closer to an answer to the question: what is the relation of the novel, and of the story, to fantasy?


Le Guin quotes Virginia Woolf, who is musing upon her meeting an old lady ("mrs. Brown") in the train:

I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite. I believe that all novels, that is to say, deal with character, and that it is to express character - not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved. [...] The great novelists have brought us to see whatever they wish us to see through some character. Otherwise they would not be novelists, but poets, historians, or pamphleteers.

Le Guin accepts this definition of the novel, and wonders whether the writer of science fiction can hope to sit across Mrs. Bloom; or whether he is doomed to be "trapped for good inside our great, gleaming spaceships", which are capable of "containing heroic captains in black and silver uniforms, and second officers with peculiar ears, and mad scientists with nubile daughters", and indeed are capable of anything at all "except one thing: they cannot contain Mrs. Brown". Can a writer of science fiction ever write a novel? And of course, with suitable substitutions ("heroic princes in gold and adamantine armour, and secretive sorcerers with pointy ears, and mad necromancers with nubile daughters" - the overlap between SF and fantasy being the nubile daughter, universal object of the male imagination) we can ask the same question of fantasy writers.

Yes, says Le Guin; but for a long time it didn't look like it. Here is an interesting characterisation of the SF literature of the 30's and the 40's:

The humanity of the astronaut [a typical protagonist] is a liability, a weakness, irrelevant to his mission. As astronaut, he is not a being: he is an act. It is the act that counts. We are in the age of Science where nothing is. None of the scientists, none of the philosophers, can say what anything or anyone is. They can only say, accurately, beautifully, what it does. The age of Technology; of Behaviorism; the age of the Act.

I doubt, very much, that the 'Literature of the Act' became popular because we had entered the 'Age of the Act'. It seems to me that we have entered the 'Age of no Act'; the age wherein it has become nigh impossible to act; that is, to take meaningful actions directed towards a clear and important goal. The current popularity of heroic high fantasy can be explained, I submit, by the fact that people wish to be transported to a world where (a) good and evil are meaningful choices, easily seperated; and (b) individual action matters, decides everything. Action is our great wish.

But that is a side-remark: Le Guin evidently uses 'action' to denote the outward aspect of our acts only; it might have been clearer if she had said 'behaviour'. But we understand what she means.

Now, says Le Guin, around 1950, Mrs. Brown suddenly appeared, in the most improbable place: fantasy. (Mrs. Brown is going to be Frodo Baggins, together with Gollum, Sam, Smeagol and Bilbo; Tolkien having to pull her into pieces in order to tell an epic.) This is improbable because:

If any field of literature has no, can no Mrs. Brown in it, it is fantasy - straight fantasy, the modern descendant of folktale, fairy tale, and myth. These genres deal with archetypes, not with characters. The very essence of Elfland is that Mrs. Brown can't get there - not unless she is changed, changed utterly, into an old mad witch, or a fair young princess, or a loathly Worm.

But it still happened; and it goes on happening. According to Le Guin, this is a good thing:

Should a book of science fiction be a novel? [...] I have already said yes. I have already admitted that this, to me, is the whole point. That no other form of prose, to me, is a patch on the novel. That if we can't catch Mrs. Brown, if only for a moment, then all the beautiful faster-than-light ships, all the irony and imagination and knowledge and invention are in vain; we might as well write tracts or comic books, for we will never be real artists.

Le Guin considers one objection to this idea, namely that the novel is dead because there are no characters anymore, only "classes, masses, statistics, body counts, subscription lists, insurance risks, consumers, randomly selected samples, and victims". Or: "There are moving pictures of a woman in various places with various other persons. They do not add up to anything so solid, so fixed, so Victorian or medieval as a 'character' or even a personality."

Well, says Le Guin, of that is so, then why keep writing? "What good are all the objects in the universe, if there is no subject?" And thus we should either give up all hope, or write novels.


This is a very strange conclusion. Does not Le Guin's own description of fantasy show that a dichotomy between the novel and behaviourism is false? Harking back to Benjamin, we can see that there is at least the story, as a companion to the novel. The story does not have the novels characters; among its prime characteristics is that there is no psychology in it, whereas the novel is almost defined by psychological attention to the characters. But the story is not behaviourist either; its founding category, experience, is anti-behaviourist; its openness to interpretations is anti-behaviourist.

Can one write fantasy novels? Can one still, today, write fantasy stories? Or is modern fantasy, as a relevant art, possible only as a mixture of these two; or as something totally new? Or is artistic fantasy doomed to expose its own earlier promises, to gainsay all the promises made to us in happier times? (As M. John Harrison's Viriconium books so excellently do.)


To be continued.

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