Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Dante's Universe

This is an outline of the universe as envisaged by educated people early in the 14th century, notably the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), who described it in his master-work "The Divine Comedy". The result is a curious mixture of science, mostly derived from Aristotle and other ancient Greek writers, together with theological speculation.

Here is Dante, standing beside the Duomo in Florence.With his right hand he is indicating Hell, and behind him is Mount Purgatory, with Paradise in the heavens above.

The first point to be made is that it Dante knew that the world was round. Doubtless illiterate peasants thought it was flat, but all those familiar with the ancient writers knew otherwise. In Hellenistic times Eratosthenes had calculated the circumference of the earth, and had come up with a surprisingly accurate figure, but others had suggested it was smaller. There was even a notion of gravity: that all objects on the earth's surface were attracted towards its centre.
The old mediaeval maps had always shown Jerusalem at the centre of the earth's landmass, and indeed with the mapmakers' knowlege of the world being limited to Europe, western Asia and north Africa, with the whole being encircled by a single vast ocean, this did not involve too much distortion. But during Dante's lifetime Marco Polo returned from China, which he called "Cathay", and published an account of his travels a few years later; and for those who believed Polo (which not everyone did) it was apparent that Asia was considerably more extensive than was once thought. On the other hand, it is very unlikely that Viking stories from 300 years earlier, telling of voyages to lands beyond the north Atlantic, were known in Italy.
Speculative geographers of Dante's day thought it significant that all the known land was in the northern hemisphere of the earth, and they therefore suggested that to balance this there might be an undiscovered southern continent, "Terra Australis". Accordingly it was there that Dante placed Mount Purgatory, the highest peak in the world, directly opposite Jerusalem on the globe.

It was believed, following Aristotle and his successors, particularly Claudius Ptolemy (circa 90-168 A.D.), that the sun and all other heavenly bodies moved round the earth (this is known as the "Ptolemaic" system). It had been known for many centuries, if not thousands of years, that the stars moved in stately procession from east to west round the axis of the Pole Star ("clockwise" as it came to be called), with the constellations maintaining their shape and the time of their appearance in the heavens from year to year; but that there were certain bodies that looked like stars but behaved differently: sometimes not being seen for months at a time, or even longer, and sometimes moving backwards, from west to east (retrograde motion). These were named "planets", after the Greek word for "wanderers". Just five were visible to the naked eye, and they had been identified with the ancient Roman gods Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn. Together with the sun and the moon they gave the number seven; which as a prime number had occult significance and became identified with the days of the week (see footnote 1). The planets did not appear anywhere in the sky, however; they were only ever to be seen in a belt of constellations which also marked the path of the sun and moon across the heavens - the line of the zodiac. To the mediaeval mind, this could not be merely accidental, but must have some deep significance. But the great age of astrology came later, in the Renaissance, and will not be discussed here (see footnote 2)
Centuries of observation had shown that, of these heavenly bodies, the moon was closest to the earth, Venus and Mercury sometimes passed between the earth and the sun, and were therefore closer to us than the sun, whereas Jupiter and Saturn were beyond the sun, and the constellations of the "fixed stars" were further away still. (The only mistake made here by Dante and his contemporaries was to get the relative positions of Venus and Mercury wrong: they thought Mercury was closer to the earth and Venus closer to the sun). Aristotle had suggested that the planets were set in spheres of crystal too pure to be visible, and this belief persisted. So Dante's universe had the earth within a concentric system of transparent spheres in which were set, moving outwards, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and finally the fixed stars. As to what made these spheres rotate around the earth, Aristotle could only suggest the following, and until the 17th century no-one had any better explanation. Beyond the fixed stars lay the "Primum Mobile", the "first mover", the "causeless cause" which initiated the motion of the heavenly bodies. And what lay beyond that? To Aristotle the question was meaningless: what could there be outside the universe? Outside it there was neither matter nor time. To Christians, however, the answer was clear: beyond the material universe was God.
It should not be imagined that people of Dante's day saw the universe as being small. Mediaeval writers believed that the sun was larger than the earth, and the fixed stars were larger still, and immensely distant: one estimate was that it would take 8,000 years of travelling to reach them! But the immensity of space was not seen as empty: on the contrary, it was filled with heavenly light; with angels, "intelligencies", blessed souls, all praising God.
The model would appear not only to place the earth at the centre of the universe, but Satan at the centre of the earth, and hence at the centre of all creation. But to a mediaeval mystic the opposite would be the case: the centre of the universe was God, and Satan was by comparison an infinitessimally tiny speck at the maximum possible distance from God.

In "The Divine Comedy" Dante first travels through Hell, guided by the ghost of the Roman poet Virgil. Hell is situated inside the earth, in the form of a gigantic funnel leading down through ever-lower circles of the damned, until they see at the very centre of the earth, Satan himself, "like a worm at the heart of an apple". The poets now pass the centre of the earth's gravity, and they discover Satan's legs are pointing now upwards. They climb through tunnels until they emerge at the foot of Mount Purgatory, on the directly opposite side of the earth from Jerusalem.
Mount Purgatory contains the souls of those sinners who have repented of their sins before death. They do not deserve eternal punishment, but must spend time being purged of their sins before being admitted to paradise, unlike the sinners in Hell, for whom there is no escape. (see footnote 3). The poets climb Mount Purgatory, evetually reaching the Earthly Paradise on the summit. From here Dante is carried up to Heaven: Virgil, being a pagan, can accompany him no further, and henceforth Dante will be guided by the ghost of his true love and muse, Beatrice. Aristotle had taught that the heavens are made of a different type of matter from earth, not subject to change and decay, and Dante's vision follows this. Dante and Beatrice journey through the spheres of heaven, meeting saints and angels, on through the Primum Mobile to what lies beyond, the Empyraeum. There Dante is granted a vision of God, not as a person, but as the Divine Light, the Love which is the motive force behind the universe. The poem ends.

For more information see C. S. Lewis: "The Discarded Image"

Footnote 1: Days of the week. In English the link between the heavenly bodies and the days of the week is obvious in Saturn-day, Sun-day and Moon-day, but the other days are named after the Saxon gods Tiw, Woden, Thor and Freya. These days are more obvious in French: Mardi, Mercredi, Jeudi and Vendredi, linking to Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and Venus. I remember seeing near Seville in Spain a Roman circular floor mosaic with the sun in the centre surrounded by the six gods and goddesses of the moon and the five visible planets. The fact that these heavenly bodies number seven was seen as having all sorts of mystical links: with the only seven metals known at the time (gold, silver, iron, mercury, tin, copper and lead), with the seven colours used in heraldry (gold, silver, red, black, blue, green and purple), with the seven deadly sins, and so forth. Thus Mars, the red planet, is linked with iron, with warfare, and with anger. This was more fruitful ground for Renaissance astrology.

Footnote 2: The zodiac: the 12 constellations forming the path through which the sun, the moon and the planets move. The constellations are not all of equal size, or equidistant from each other, or even in a straight line, but are treated by astrologers as having equal importance. The zodiac is most visible in midwinter, when the huge and easily identifiable constellation of Orion dominates the southern sky: above Orion and slightly to the right and left respectively are Taurus and Gemini. It is interesting that the astrological signs said to predominate at this time of the year: Saggitarius, Capricorn and Aquarius; cannot be seen at all in winter!

Footnote 3: Purgatory. Time in Purgatory was different from that on earth, and sinners might have to undergo thousands of earth-years of penance before they were fit for Paradise. In the middle ages the Pope could issue an Indulgence, which would remit time in Purgatory; for instance, to those going on a crusade. Remission could also be obtained by prayer or pilgrimage. Eventually it was believed that a simple cash payment could gain remission, either for the donor or for a deceased relative. This famously aroused the ire of Martin Luther, who denounced not only Indulgencies but the very notion of Purgatory, which he held was non-scriptural. In Luther's day, the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, possessed 19,000 holy relics, including a twig from the Crown of Thorns and another from Moses's Burning Bush, a crumb from the Last Supper, and 204 bits of the children massacred by Herod. Anyone who viewed these and made appropriate gifts of money would be excused two million years in Purgatory! It is easy to understand Luther's contempt!

Thursday, 6 May 2010

"Weird Tales" and its writers

The magazine "Weird Tales" has a legendary reputation amongst fans of fantasy and science fiction, but little seems to be known about it in detail.

It was a monthly magazine, first issued in March 1923; founded by J.C. Henneberger, an Edgar Allen Poe enthusiast, and edited by Edwin C. Baird, who was also responsible for a companion magazine, "Detective Tales". Considering its later reputation, it comes as a surprise to learn that it was never much of a commercial success: its first issues failed to make money and in 1924 it was taken over by Farnsworth Wright, who edited it for the next sixteen years. Its backbone in this period was provided by three writers I am going to look at here: H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Clak Ashton Smith; though it also provided an early outlet for such young writers as Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch and, improbably enough, Tennessee Williams. Rates of pay were always low, a great deal of rubbish was printed, and the stiking semi-pornographic covers by Margaret Brundage (frequently showing a scantily-clad girl in the grip of an alien monster) generally had little to do with the contents. Even so, the magazine was rarely profitable.
Let's look at the writers.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an oddity, stemming no doubt from his unfortunate childhood. He was born in Rhode Island in 1890 and lost his father at the age of 8. An overprotective mother gave him hypochondriac tendencies and consequent irregular schooling, and when she died in 1921 his aunts took over her role. He never really escaped from this. He inherited just enough money to enable him not to have to work for wages provided he was content to live frugally. He never held a long-term regular job, nor did he ever even make a serious attempt to earn a decent living from his writing (which included being paid small sums for "revising" other people's stories: one of those he assisted with this ghost-writing being the escapologist Harry Houdini). He lived in New York for a few years, them returned to Rhode Island in 1926 and remained there, except for occasional brief forays, for the rest of his life. He made little attempt to adjust to life in the 20th century, preferring to see himself as an 18th century "gentleman of leisure" and to live accordingly; an ideal for which his means were, at best, barely adequate.
In his earlier years he was violently racist, despising not only negroes but, more typically, Eastern European Jewish immigrants, and even French-speaking Canadians; but towards the end of his life he supported Roosevelt, detested Hitler, and described himself as a socialist. His interests were wide: he always tried to keep abreast of developments in science, so he was fascinated by the discovery of Pluto in 1930, and was aware of (and supported) the geological theory of Continental Drift as early as 1931. It is, however, typical of the man that when he visited Quebec and was surprised to find there was no adequate guidebook to the old city, he set himself to write one - but, having completed the task (which ran to 75,000 words) he made not the slightest attempt to interest a publisher: it was "solely for his own amusement"! One of the paradoxes of his life was his marriage to a divorced Russian Jewess, Sonia Green, who was seven years his senior and possessed of far more business acumen. Inevitably they drifted apart after a few years, though amicably. This strange marriage, combined with the total lack of women, sex or "love-interest" in his stories, has inevitably led to speculations that Lovecraft was impotent, or a suppressed homosexual, but the reality seems to have been much more boring - he simply didn't have much sexual motivation.
Lovecraft was a compulsive writer. Apart from his stories and some poems, his biographer L. Sprague de Camp estimates that he wrote perhaps 100,000 letters inhis lifetime, up to 15 a day, some of them very long. His correspondance with Clark Ashton Smith alone ran at 40,000 words a year at its peak. He became involved in amateur journalism as a teenager, with stories and scientific articles, and woeked for "Weird Tales" from the start, though the magaine never paid him much. His earliest influence was Poe,but then in 1919 he attended a lecture by Lord Dunsany, the Anglo-Irish fantasy writer, and for a while his stories showed a strong Dunsanian influence. About 1926 he began his Cthulu stories, which are generally seen as his most typical work; the general theme being that a race of malignant super-beings, who once inhabited the earth but were driven out, try to break back in again by psychic contact with humans.
His weaknesses as a writer are obvious: some would maintain that he simply couldn't write. His choice of words, especially adjectives, was completely without taste; often pedantic, pompous or just silly; always in danger of detracting from any atmosphere he had built up. His heroes are less than heroic; generally scholarly but weak and timid, and prone to swooning from fear (see footnote at end). He did not have Tolkien's attention to detail: he drew no maps of his imaginary lands (where was Leng in relation to Kadath? He never bothered to work it out), and the snatches of invented languages occasionally uttered by his monsters are simply impossible. Nevertheless, his morbid intensity of vision just about overcame his manifest defects. He really did believe in his monstrous creations, or it seemed that he did. And just aoccasionally he managed to produce a really good story, without too many lapses of literary taste.
By 1936 Lovecraft was more or less bust, not earning enough to live on and with his inherited capital rapidly diminishing. He was also in poor health, complaining of indigestion. In March 1937 he was found to have intestinal cancer, too far advanced for an operation. He bore the situation stoically and was dead within a fortnight. None of his works appeared in book form during his lifetime, and his fame is largely posthumous, particularly through the efforts of August Derleth.

Robert Ervin Howard came from a very different background. He was born in 1906, the son of a country doctor in Cross Plains, Texas. He always fancied himself as a cowboy, and liked to appear sporting revolvers and a ten-gallon stetson hat. Despite this macho image and the frequent idealisation of barbarians in his stories, he strongly objected to Lovecraft's racism and often rebuked him for it.
As a writer, we would have to say that Howard set himself strictly limited goals, and hence generally achieved them. He stuck to a very basic vocabulary, thus avoiding Lovecraft's use of unfelicitous words and phrases. He was at his best describing action, especially violent action, and attempted virtually nothing in the way of intellectual content or character development, but his stories were well-paced and effective for their kind. His heroes were comic-book-style fighters, the complete antithesis to Lovecraft's swooning scholars. If Lovecraft was influenced by Poe and Dunsany, Howard's work bore more resemblance to Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan. In professional commercial terms he was a far more successful author than Lovecraft; he sold his first stories whilst still a teenager, and over the next decade published some 200 stories: not all fantasy, and only a small number featuring his most famous creation; Conan the Barbarian (most of the Conan cycle was put together by Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter manyyears after Howard's death). It was sufficient to provide him with a comfortable income of about $2,000 a year; comparable to the earnings of a small-town bank manager. Howard was always modest about his work; he never claimed any literary merit, and his only boast was that he was the first professional writer fromthat part of the country.
But despite his success, Howard was neurotic. He quarrelled violently with his father and was devoted to his mother, who suffered from inoperable cancer. In June 1936 she fell into a terminal coma and Howard, unable to face life without her, drove out of town and shot himself through the head with his own revolver. He was 30 years old. It will seem obvious to any amateur psychologist that this creator of superheroes and pretend cowboy was in his writings fantasising about a persona he would like to be, but was not.

Clark Ashton Smith is the least remembered of the "Weird Tales" authors, which is a pity, because he was by any standard of judgement much the best writer of the three, as well as the least neurotic. He was from California, born in 1893. As with Lovecraft and Howard, his education was irregular, and largely organised by himself; allegedly involving reading the entire Shorter Oxford Dictionary and the Encyclopaedia Britannica several times! He saw himself primarily as a poet, and published his first poems at 19; but his poetry is too florid for modern tastes and is seldom read nowadays. About 1925 he began writing fantasy stories, and produced about 100 over the next decade, inventing not one but several imaginary lands: Zothique, Xiccarph, Averoigne and others, all different in character. His most obvious influence was an earlier American fantasist, James Branch Cabell, from whom he inherited a style of urbane good taste. His style was more ambitious than Howard's, and he was far superior to Lovecraft in his choice and use of words. At times his approach can be irritating, especially when taken in large doses, and his interest in necrophilia is somewhat alarming; but generally he managed to describe horrors without being distasteful, and wild fantasies without being ridiculous. His exotic imagination never flagged, and unlike Lovecraft and Howard, women featured in his stories as well as men.
But the, about the time when Howard and Lovecraft died, Smith stopped writing stories. This may have been connected with the deaths of his parents in 1935-36, but it seems he had already given up, leaving only a few unfinished efforts. He lived till 1961, long enough to witness the great fantasy revival begun by Tolkien, but for the last 25 years of his life he produced virtually nothing.

By the late 1930s, "Weird Tales" was inserious financial trouble. Its main contributors were no more: Lovecraft and Howard were dead, Smith had dried up, and the editor, Farnsworth Wright, was sinking into alcoholism. In 1938 the magazine was taken over and Wright was fired; but rescue efforts were unsuccessful, quality declined further, and in 1954 the magazine closed. Its posthumous fame amongst lovers of fanatsy lierature was to be far greater than its actual success when in print.

The nature of Lovecraft's stories was once lethally summed up by Avram Davidson as follows:- "Man-eating Things which foraged in graveyards, of human/beastie crosses which grew beastier and Beastlier as they grew older, of gibbering shoggoths and Elder Beings which smelt real bad and were always trying to break through Thresholds and Take Over - rugous, squamous, amorphous nasties, abetted by thin, gaunt New England eccentrics who dwelt in attics and eventually were Never Seen Or Heard Of Again. Serve them damn well right, I say".