The failure of subversion in imaginative literature

    ‘Do you believe in God, Winston?’
    ‘Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?’
    ‘I don’t know. The spirit of Man.’
    ‘And do you consider yourself a man?’
    ‘If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors. Do you understand that you are alone? You are outside history, you are nonexistent.’ His manner changed and he said more harshly: ‘And you consider yourself morally superior to us, with our lies and our cruelty?’
    ‘Yes, I consider myself superior.’
    O’Brien did not speak. Two other voices were speaking. After a moment Winston recognized one of them as his own. It was a sound track of the conversation he had had with O’Brien, on the night when he had enrolled himself in the Brotherhood. He heard himself promising to lie, to steal, to forge, to murder, to encourage drug-taking and prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases, to throw vitriol in a child’s face. O’Brien made a small impatient gesture, as though to say that the demonstration was hardly worth making. Then he turned a switch and the voices stopped.
—George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four   

Does Fantasy equal Subversion?

Subversion is a popular word in literary criticism nowadays, and some persons have suggested that it is the principal function of fantasy. Not a function, which may perhaps be true, but the function, the sine qua non of imaginative literature. John Grant has gone so far as to propose that anything that is not subversive is therefore not fantasy at all, but a subliterary ersatz that he derisively dubs Generic Fantasy, ‘this monstrous tide of commercially inspired, mind-numbingly unimaginative garbage — this loathsome mire’. In Mr Grant’s taxonomy, virtually everything derived from Tolkien, or showing his influence, is ‘garbage’ and ‘mire’. He does leave himself just enough room to wriggle out of the logical implication, which is that Tolkien himself did not write fantasy; but he does this by allowing that Tolkien’s work is, in some unspecified way, sufficiently ‘subversive’ to meet the Grantian standard.

Now, this is a remarkable claim for anybody to make. If just one author in the appalling history of the twentieth century was not ‘subversive’, it was J.R.R. Tolkien. He was an enthusiastic supporter of order, authority, hierarchy, in both the temporal and spiritual spheres; a passionately orthodox Catholic, a royalist, a hidebound traditionalist who did not even approve of refrigerators and called aeroplanes ‘Mordor-gadgets’. When Orwell said that a Conservative is ‘a thing that does not exist nowadays’, he was merely proving that he had never met Tolkien. A full study of Tolkien’s conservatism would fill up many books, so here I shall confine myself to a couple of quotations (cited in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien) that sufficiently illustrate the point:
I am not a ‘democrat’, if only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power — and then we get and are getting slavery.

Touching your cap to the Squire may be dam’ bad for the Squire but it’s dam’ good for you.
Now, some foolish and superficial modern people, whose sense of history extends no further back than the remote primaeval dawn of the 1950s, think Tolkien was subversive because he was loudly opposed to ‘robot-factories’ and the destruction of the English countryside. In fact, and this note runs strongly throughout his work, he regarded industrialism and pollution as subversive, the one degrading human nature, the other destroying the order and beauty of nature as a whole. This sentiment became fashionable in the 1960s, and many of those who adopted it were subversives; but their reasons were not Tolkien’s. They opposed industrial civilization because their parents favoured it; Tolkien opposed it because it destroyed the kind of life lived by all the generations of his ancestors.

This leaves Mr Grant in an awkward position. According to his rash definitions, The Lord of the Rings must be ‘Generic Fantasy’ and ‘garbage’ because it is not ‘subversive’; but what most of his audience means by fantasy is ‘stories like The Lord of the Rings’. Mr Grant has not only cut off the branch he is sitting on, he then has the audacity to announce that it alone is the real Tree, and all else is merely a diseased fungoid growth. Often a surgeon must amputate a limb to save the patient; but he amputates the patient to save the limb. Whatever else this is, it is startlingly original.

Now, this is what Mr Grant wants fantasy to do:
It must meddle with our thinking, it must delight in being controversial, it must hope to be condemned by authority (whatever authority one chooses to identify), it must be at the cutting edge of the imagination, it must flirt with madness, it must surprise, it must be doing things that other forms of fiction cannot.
‘Cannot,’ Mr Grant? Ulysses, whatever else it may have been, was certainly at the cutting edge of the imagination. Joyce flirted with madness, and in Finnegans Wake he outright embraced it. His vision of Western civilization at the dawn of the twentieth century surprised huge numbers of people; it shocked them, offended them, appalled them; it was heartily condemned by all manner of authorities, and in some parts of the English-speaking world, it was difficult to obtain a copy of Ulysses without breaking the law. But it was not and is not fantasy.

The events of Joyce’s books are strikingly mundane; here there be no Tygers, except the strange beasts that lurk in the subconscious, dragged into the open by the novelist’s art and put on public display. ‘Right-thinking’ people professed to be shocked at the crudity and barbarity of the thoughts Joyce dared to express; but at bottom, what really shocked them was that he had dared to express their secret thoughts, the obscenities and blasphemies that cross everyone’s mind, but that in those days it was considered proper to hush up. He exposed a conspiracy to which even Mrs Grundy was a party. And he did it without inventing anything at all beyond the bounds of everyday reality. Tom Shippey has called Ulysses ‘One Day in the Life of a Nobody’. This is very apt; but it would be equally apt applied to almost any of Joyce’s most representative works. This perfectly fulfils Mr Grant’s laundry-list of desiderata, but it is about as far from fantasy as a work of literature can be.

At this point, Mr Grant’s bizarre classification system begins to make, not exactly sense, but at least an intelligible form of nonsense. It is as if a man were to say that he liked Soup because it is cold, thick, viscous, and not highly flavoured. Such a man could go to restaurant after restaurant, and to all his friends’ houses, and ask for Soup, and be disappointed every time. Consommé is not thick, chicken soup is not viscous, hot and sour soup has a flavour that will burn his tastebuds; and all these soups are served hot. Therefore he rejects them with scorn. These things, he says, are not proper Soup at all, but a strange and phony substance that he calls Commercial Soup. But when we analyse the man’s language, we see that what he wants is not really Soup at all. Milkshakes or custard would suit him equally well. When he speaks of Soup, proper Soup and not that nasty Commercial Soup, he means vichyssoise; and he may, for courtesy’s sake, extend a grudging acceptance to gazpacho and cold borscht. But it is only by coincidence that he applies the word soup to the object of his desire. And so it is with Mr Grant and his avowed taste for fantasy. He does not really like fantasy; what he wants is subversive literature, and when he does not get it, he blames everyone but himself.

The Heat Death of the Subversive

It is all very well to show that John Grant is not really concerned with fantasy at all, but that merely reduces the question to a simpler form. Is subversiveness a good quality in literature as a whole? Fantasy is subject to the same standards of quality as every other branch of literature, though both the Modernists and the professional Fans would deny it. If a story has a predictable and moth-eaten plot, if it is told poorly, with vague imagery and slipshod language, if its setting seems like a stage backdrop and not a real place, if its characters neither engage the reader’s sympathy nor even resemble human beings — why, then not even Elves and Dragons can save it from being irremediably dull.

I think every normal reader of fiction would agree that plot, prose style, setting, and characters are all important in a work of fiction. Of course, some readers have higher standards than others. Some readers are willing to forgive a story for being weak in one area if it has great strengths in others — which is not the same thing as having low standards. And of course all readers have different tastes and interests. But the essential elements of good fiction are something that nearly everyone can agree upon, at least in the abstract. Now Mr Grant claims that ‘subversiveness’ is an essential element of good fiction. Is it really? And what do we mean when we call a story ‘subversive’?

To subvert a thing is to undermine it, to cut away its foundations so that it can be overthrown. Nowadays the word is always used figuratively; one may subvert a government or a religion, but no one would talk of subverting a rock face or a building. Nevertheless it is helpful to remember the literal meaning of the word, because that will make the figure of speech more fresh and vivid to the understanding. What a subversive does is to dig away at the ground under something too great and powerful to be attacked directly, until that great and powerful thing topples over and breaks of its own unsupported weight. One of the best images of subversion was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was not only a great poet, but a pretty accomplished subversive himself; when he wrote about subversion, he wrote as a skilled professional. I refer, of course, to his sonnet ‘Ozymandias’:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: — Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Horace Smith wrote a vastly inferior sonnet on the same subject, which makes clearer what the shattered figure of Ozymandias represents. Smith’s verse ends with these lines:
We wonder, — and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
Ozymandias is the British Empire, proud and self-assured, which in 1818 had just emerged victorious from a generation of wars against Revolutionary France and the empire of Napoleon, and was now incomparably the greatest power on earth. Shelley was a revolutionary by instinct and conviction, a passionate admirer of Napoleon, and hated his own country for restoring the old regimes in Europe. He saw Britain as a reactionary force, upholding dead institutions, stamping on the revolutionary genius (his own) that would make all things new.

In practice Shelley was not very good at making things new, and his own household, the one place where he could carry out his revolution, was a desperately unhappy place. His first wife committed suicide, his second wife never approved of his attempts at ‘free love’ and ménages à trois, and of his seven known children only one lived to adulthood. Shelley himself died by drowning, sailing a dangerously fast and unstable boat in stormy weather, when he was barely thirty years old. But before he died he wrote some of the most brilliant poems in the English language, poems that are studied and admired to this day. If he had been born in 1942 instead of 1792, he would probably have been a hugely successful rock star and died in a car crash.

But in his own time his revolution failed utterly. Imperial Britain ruled the nineteenth century, growing ever stronger, more self-righteous, more insular and narrow-minded. For sixty-four years the Empire was reigned over, though not ruled, by Queen Victoria, whose very name has (somewhat unfairly) become another word for hypocrisy and prudery. Ozymandias was in his power, and the mighty looked on his works and despaired.

In those days it took a good deal of courage even to speak against the characteristic vices of the age — the false puritanism, the ugliness, the grasping materialism, the disgusting disregard for the poor and unfortunate. But courage is a virtue that the English people have always admired, even the courage to speak up for an unpopular cause. The great literary figure in the first half of Victoria’s reign was Charles Dickens; but the more bitterly he criticized his countrymen, the better they loved him. Orwell has observed: ‘In its attitude towards Dickens the English public has always been a little like the elephant which feels a blow with a walking-stick as a delightful tickling.’ By the end of the century the new giants were George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, each of whom attacked Ozymandias in his own way. Shaw was the champion of science and material progress, an early Socialist and a founder of the Fabian Society, attacking what he saw as the evils of capitalism and religion. Wilde attacked the manners, and still more the sententious ethics, of Victorian England in his plays and novels, and above all in the pungent epigrams strewn through them like sequins sewn to an evening gown:
Conscience and cowardice are really the same things.
I think that God in creating Man somewhat overestimated his ability.
I can resist everything except temptation.
These lines, and scores of others like them, have not worn well, because the attitudes they were meant to subvert hardly exist any longer. To take the best-known and most extreme example, Wilde was imprisoned for being homosexual, a thing that would be impossible in any English-speaking country nowadays; and his arrest, trial, and imprisonment were on the whole enormously popular with the public. The puritanical middle classes privately resented his ready wit at their expense; the lower classes, or at least the London ‘mob’, were delirious with Schadenfreude to see one of the upper classes suffering at the hands of the law just like any common offender.

Wilde did not live long after his imprisonment, and one of his last public remarks, lapped up eagerly by the press, was this: ‘If the Queen can’t treat her prisoners any better than this, she doesn’t deserve to have any!’ People nowadays, I think, are likely to miss the joke. It was a paraphrase of the standard scolding that every Victorian mother gave her children when they abused their toys or their pets; but how many mothers talk like that nowadays? The wit misses its target, because the target is no longer there.

For the twentieth century was the Age of Debunking. The empires fell, and with them all the social taboos of Victorian society, and the belief that man is a noble or even a rational animal. By 1940, Orwell could say, in ‘Inside the Whale’:
And how many of the values by which our grandfathers lived could now be taken seriously? Patriotism, religion, the Empire, the family, the sanctity of marriage, the Old School Tie, birth, breeding, honour, discipline — anyone of ordinary education could turn the whole lot of them inside out in three minutes. But what do you achieve, after all, by getting rid of such primal things as patriotism and religion? You have not necessarily got rid of the need for something to believe in.
Shelley’s revolution had arrived, in politics, in religion, above all in sexuality; and it did not bring the millennium. It did not even make people happier. Today, Western civilization has reached the pitch of disintegration at which everyone, including Mrs Grundy herself, has the so-called sophistication to sneer at the ‘values’ of all previous generations. Nothing is sacrosanct except lust and the gratification of lust, and a strange idol called Tolerance. This soi-disant Tolerance has nothing to do with tolerating other people; rather, it consists in a series of shrill demands that other people should tolerate oneself, whatever one does, whomever one harms. Anyone who advocates any standard of behaviour, anyone who might cause people to reflect on their own imperfections, is ‘intolerant’. Still more ‘intolerant’ are those outcast souls who dare mention a fact that someone else might find unpleasant — or, indeed, mention that there are such things as facts, and that they really are factual. I’m OK, you’re OK, Eminem is OK, tAtU is OK, NAMBLA is OK, Charles Manson is quite romantically OK, and next, no doubt, it will be OK for dirty old men to buy breast implants for their nine-year-old girlfriends. Vive tous les différences!

In such a culture, ‘subversion’ is meaningless, because there is nothing left to subvert. All our would-be subversives have to work with is the same tired old repertoire of stylized gestures against Victorian ‘prudery’, ‘bigotry’, and ‘repression’. But Wilde was already wearing out that game in 1900. The idol is dead. Ozymandias has fallen. There is not even any fun in throwing bricks at the spot in the air where his head used to be. But that does not stop critics from praising to the skies just those works of art that score the best and directest hits against the imaginary target. As Mary Catelli observes:
Calls for subversion are fundamentally off-base, because they don’t produce the dangerous stuff. They produce what the ‘cutting edge’ fondly imagines subverts the beliefs of the little old lady in a small town, so the readers can read it and feel smugly morally superior to her.
But even the little old ladies are wise to the game. The shrivelled old crone of ninety in the nursing home is not old enough to remember Queen Victoria; her youth was the Jazz Age, the period of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, still more of Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow — significantly known as ‘the “It” Girl’. (At which Dorothy Parker sneered: ‘It? She has those!’) Very likely she herself was a flapper, and spent her nights busily subverting the mores of her parents and grandparents.

But you cannot carry on one movement or pose for so many years without forming a habit. There is not now any artist, critic, or intellectual who can remember a time when the arts as a whole were not ‘subversive’. We expect art to offend, to shock, to épater les bourgeois, even though successive shocks have left les bourgeois almost completely numb. Nowadays even a film like Hannibal, or a book like American Psycho, leaves us blasé. If a man cuts off his own face and feeds it to his dogs, or cuts off a woman’s breasts and eats them before her eyes, what of it? It’s all Muzak, baby; it’s all part of the cultural background noise. Yet we, or the critics, still persist in the belief that our acts of vicious public nihilism matter; that somewhere in this moral slum there is still an enclave of magical innocence, where people still have the capacity to be shocked. But of course such a thing cannot be. There are still puritans in the world, but not innocents. Some people are still saddened and disgusted by the degrading spectacles that are put on in the name of Art, but they are not shocked. Instead, they are reacting in the one way that is fatal to the subversives and their critics alike: they are tuning out. They are bored.

In physics, every action, every process, reduces the available energy of the universe, and in the end everything will be equal: equally cold, equally empty, equally disorganized and lifeless. In a rare burst of poetry, physicists call this state ‘the heat death of the universe’. A culture based on subversion reaches that state of maximum entropy much more quickly, and we are very close to it now. Nobody, at least in public, dares to be any better or nobler or wiser than anybody else. There is nothing left to tear down, nothing to rebel against, and all that a subversive can do is rearrange the rubble on the ground.

How to Undermine a Hole in the Ground

Once Ozymandias has fallen, there is no point in trying to undermine his foundations any further. There is no longer anything to undermine but a hole in the ground; and if you dig out the ground under a hole until it collapses, you will only make the hole bigger. In the passage from Nineteen Eighty-Four quoted above, Winston Smith’s attempted rebellion was doomed from the start. It is not just that the man who inducted him into ‘the Brotherhood’ was a spy for Big Brother. Winston’s failure was even more fundamental. He tried to rebel by becoming a subversive, but the Party itself was a gigantic instrument of subversion. O’Brien’s vision of the future was of ‘a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.’ How can any rebel avert such a fate by throwing bombs or spreading disease? All the methods of the Brotherhood were simply ways of doing what the Party wanted done.

In such a state, there is only one way to make a difference. You cannot subvert ruins; but you can build right over top of them. If to subvert is to destroy a thing from below, might we not coin an opposite word? We could destroy a state of ruin from above, and, as I like to say, supervert it. Where people have abandoned their standards, we could suggest new ones (or reintroduce whatever was good and useful in the old). Where institutions have been abolished, we could institute others to do their work. Above all, we could instil the ideas of creation and structure and discipline into human minds and hearts, and especially the hearts of the young.

In this sense, Tolkien was a profoundly superversive writer; and his influence may be just beginning. When most people were resigned to the smogs and slums and ruined landscapes of Mordor, he reminded them of trees and forests, and showed them an image of a Shire where people did not earn their living by multiplying ugliness and pain. When humanity itself stood in danger of extinction from nuclear war, he reminded the world that power need not always be used; it can be destroyed. And he did all this by resurrecting words and tales and images from ancient times, giving them new form and new meaning, but using them to point to the same old platitudinous morals that his ancestors lived by, which Shelley and Shaw and Wilde strove so mightily to abolish.

Now, Mr Grant has a scornful name for stories that preach old, established morals, as he has for all of the numerous things he does not like. He dismisses them as ‘phatic fictions’:
A phatic conversation is one in which no information is actually exchanged and yet from which all participants gain something, archetypally reassurance. . . . In one of his songs Robin Williamson captured the essence of the phatic conversation in a single sentence: ‘Hello, I must be going, well I only came to say: I hear my mother calling and I must be on my way.’ Similarly there can be phatic fictions — fictions that tell us nothing, that involve no exercise of the intellect whatsoever beyond the basics involved in understanding the words, yet which satisfy some need in ourselves.
He postulates that that need is for ‘vicarious imagination’: to reassure people that they are imaginative, without actually requiring or enabling them to imagine anything. Now, on the face of it this is difficult to believe. Until the eruption of fantasy publishing in the 1970s, hardly anybody felt the need for such a thing. As Ursula K. LeGuin points out in ‘Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?’, most people lived their lives without exposing themselves to anything so dangerous as imagination. People actually prided themselves on being unimaginative, or as they preferred to say, ‘realistic’ and ‘down-to-earth’, and regarded those few odd people, the artists and dreamers and the goofy kids at science fiction cons, as inferior minds, ‘escapists’, deluded and impractical and probably a bit loony. That tens of millions of people should suddenly discover a voracious need for imagination that they never felt before, is hardly to be imagined. That all those people, having suddenly awakened to that need, should be satisfied by cheap palliatives and placebos, defies credulity.

No, we must look elsewhere for the psychological need that ‘phatic’, ‘generic’ fantasy fulfils. Now, as I have said, artists and philosophers have been subverting the structures of society for centuries; but their destructive work was enormously speeded by the upheavals of the 1960s. A generation of American children had been raised, in all too many cases, in the ultra-permissive environment recommended by Dr Benjamin Spock, who was regarded as almost a divine guru by many parents at the time. Few parents ever tyrannized their children as thoroughly as Dr Spock tyrannized the parents. Brought up without any definite beliefs, without restrictions, without standards, these children sought whatever beliefs and standards they could find. They became hippies and yuppies and New Agers and Scientologists, or, having been robbed of religion by the subversives, they made a religion of subversiveness itself. By 1977 they, and the pedlars of spiritual snake oil who led them, had captured the reins of society. The media pandered to their tastes, industry catered to them, and they had captured the public schools outright. Even the churches were frantically replacing hymns with folk music and sermons with ‘encounter groups’. In Europe and America in the 1970s, young adults regarded promiscuity almost as a social duty, and in some circles of society it was considered a serious faux pas to refuse a friendly offer of cocaine. And it was at just that moment that fantasy, as a commercial publishing category, arrived with an explosion.

I have already discussed the ‘superversive’ qualities of The Lord of the Rings. The publishers who made fantasy a commercial phenomenon knew exactly what they were selling: not ersatz imagination, but easy superversion. Lester del Rey, the genius behind the fantasy craze of 1977, knew that people wanted to read about suffering and redemption, and would eat up stories in which individual men and women were responsible for changing the world by their actions. Del Rey catered to a market that some people describe as ‘crypto-Christian’. He did not, from what I have heard, share these tastes himself; but like a good drug-dealer or prostitute, he gave his customers what he knew they wanted, not what he thought they needed.

So in the wake of the rockbound conservative Tolkien, along came first half a dozen other writers, then scores and hundreds, with doses of the same drug. Mr Grant and his cronies, such as Michael Moorcock, John Clute, and Claude Lalumière, think that drug a placebo at best, at worst a poison; but in fact it is a medicine, a specific for the spiritual malady from which they all suffer. In its own way and degree, fantasy supplies, though it does not wholly fulfil, ‘the need for something to believe in’. Even though much of it is inferior literature, derivative, repetitive, and even phatic, it will still sell to an avid audience as long as it provides the necessary dose.

When people read ‘escapist’, ‘reactionary’ genres such as commercial fantasy or Campbellian science fiction, they read for the (nowadays) guilty pleasure of reinforcing the values that it will no longer do to profess in public. Reading Heinlein or Tolkien or Herbert, one can thrill to old-fashioned martial glory, strict codes of honour, inherited social class, traditional gender roles, and all the other things that the Western cerebrum has been taught to sneer at, but the limbic system still secretly hankers after. But one does not get from it the same sense of personal applicability and, yes, guilt that one might get from reading, say, the Bible, or the biographies of great figures from history (almost all of which, prior to 1900, are bigoted old reactionary back numbers by modern standards). After all, it is fantasy, not real, and no one can fault himself for not behaving as well as Johnny Rico or Sam Gamgee or even a minor hero like Gurney Halleck.

The ‘subversive’ critics take it for granted that readers are, or at least should be, eternal rebels, for ever frozen in the fifteen-year-old’s attitude of nihilistic rejection, hating all authority figures, not because they are wrong, but simply because they are in authority. If subversion is good in itself, then every authority, every standard, must necessarily be wrong . . . including their own; but few critics have sufficient self-knowledge to admit it. The revolution has come and gone, the kids of the Sixties have grown old, and it is time for Mr Grant & Company to grow up. There is very little use in a critic whose whole view of the arts is discoloured by the fact that he has not yet learned to stop hating his parents.

Tom Simon
19 October 2003