A Quiet Voice About the Prophetic Element in Irving Layton’s “Collected Poems”

IMAG1045-1Does anyone read the poetry of Irving Layton any more?  Or has he faded from the PopCanLit consciousness like Robertson Davies did within a year or two of his death?  Leonard Cohen is still filling the stadiums with his poetry, but will his words fall silent, ignored, when he shuffles off to the Tower of Song a final time?  Layton was, in his time, big like his friend and student Cohen is now.  If Leonard Cohen’s poetry lies dusty in the future, it will be as much a sad tragedy as is what I think is current neglect of Irving Layton’s brutally, beautifully flaying body of work.

I’ve just finished reading Layton’s 1965 Collected Poems, a big, manly, brutish, sensitive, bawdy, discomfiting, apocalyptic collection of 385 brilliant pieces of life.  If you know Cohen’s work, reading Layton is like finding Cohen’s rough-edged but admired older brother.  But the interest of Layton’s poetry is it’s own.  Layton should be read, admired, loathed and savoured for his poetry, not just for his mentorship of Canada’s favourite old man poet rock star.

As Joel Deshay points out in “Celebrity and the Poetic Dialogue of Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen”  Layton most often projects a persona of “Prophet” in contrast to Cohen’s “Saint”.  Of course, Layton was an earthy prophet before Cohen came along, but Deshay is correct that the dialogue of the two poets concerning celebrity was a spur to poetic growth (perhaps more so for the younger Cohen) and I would argue it helped to cement the Prophet persona for Layton and perhaps the Saint for Cohen.

In any case, in Collected Poems Layton is in full-on Prophet mode, most explicitly (in two senses of the word) in “Whom I Write For”:

When reading me, I want you feel
as if I had ripped your skin off;
Or gouged out your eyes with my fingers . . .
I want you to feel as if I had slammed
your child’s head against a spike;
And cut off your member and stuck it in your
wife’s mouth to smoke like a cigar.

For I do not write to improve your soul . . .
I leave that to the fraternity of lying poets
–no prophets, but toadies and trained seals!

Layton’s side of the dialogue with Cohen is represented by a few pieces in Collected Poems, perhaps most noticeably with “Portrait of a Genius.” But Layton’s work is far wider than the his mentorship pieces.  Most of the Collected Poems are deeply physical love poems, perhaps the finest being “The Day Aviva Came to Paris”.  There are topical poems, such as “Free Djilas”, a blending of Cold War Yugoslavian unrest and skewering of the topical ignorance of Layton’s fellow Canadians.  At times Layton almost becomes Wordsworthian, as in the word portrait “Ballad of the Old Spaniard” and in the chilling Wordsworthian reference to “my Lucy” in the very unWordsworthian “The Seduction”.

But almost always Layton is in prophetic mode of some sort, usually Dionysian, rarely Apollonian.  It is this prophetic side — almost the whole of him — which I find most exciting about Layton’s poetry, whether an individual piece is successful or not.  At times, as in the mentioned “Whom I Write For”, Layton rises to Apocalyptic heights similar to those Cohen found in “The Future”.  But most often, Layton is a raging bull of maleness, charging or staggering through the staid world of mid-century urban Canada, Rome or Spain.

Six years before the publication of Collected Poems, Classicist Sir Maurice Bowra stood in London to give the Presidential Address to The English Association (an essay to which I have returned regularly in the thirty odd years since I stumbled on it in a second-hand bookstore).  Titled “The Prophetic Element”, Bowra’s wide ranging essay — from Hesiod to Blake to contemporary poetry — is a fascinating lament that too few poets are prophets in our day:

Even in our time, when the need for prophetic poets is so amply justified, they are rare.  Their special response to events is not what every poet feels, and despite their remarkable achievement, they are not very characteristic of the present age.  They are sometimes derided for their majestic air, but without it they would be far less formidable and make a far feebler impact.  They are also attacked because the issues which concern them are so much vaster than any personal predicament that they may seem to be remote from common experience.  But we are all involved in the same troubles and have no right to shirk them. . . .  In an age when the arts seem too often to have imprisoned themselves in their own technicalities and poetry finds it hard to leave the ground just because it is so occupied with its method and its manner, it is both a relief and a delight to find a class of poets who are indeed carried off their feet by their subject and find through its wide scope that freedom of utterance which is in danger of being forgotten in the intricacies of personal self-examination.

I think it safe to suggest that Bowra’s words still apply today.  And I would argue that Irving Layton’s marvellous, earthy, graphic, vulgar, brilliant, beautiful and prophetic poetry, after half a century, has more relevance than ever.

“The City of the End of Things” by Archibald Lampman

If I were to write a scholarly paper on Archibald Lampman’s remarkable poem, “The City of the End of Things“, I would probably spend weeks or month in the Rutherford Library at the U of A reading everything written by Lampman and everything written about Lampman’s life and works.  I would definitely mention Shelly and I might mention Wells, Teasdale and Bradbury.  I would avoid mentioning Lewis and Ellison, although I might bring in Star Trek for fun.  I would meticulously footnote and be sure to add passages in Latin and possibly Greek.  I might throw in bits of Old English from “The Ruin” which so exquisitely descends into fragments as it progresses, and maybe a bit of Czech and Polish.

On the other hand, if I were writing a blog post about “The City of the End of Things” I would probably sit down in a hospital room — like the detective in that Tey novel — with a print-out of the poem, a notebook and pen, a smart phone with a failing battery, and my memory.  I would certainly mention Ellison and Star Trek, I might even bring in Robert Bloch.  I would probably not do anything like meticulous research (that might come another day) and I’d probably let the structure of the poem structure my post to a certain extent.

In fact, if I were to write a blog post about “The City of the End of Things”, I would probably write something unlike a scholarly article and quite like what you’ll find below.

Some of my most vivid memories of childhood are images of dying worlds, for example, the skittering giant crab-creatures under the red sky in Well’s The Time Machine, or Jadis’ empty city of Charn in Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew.  Long ago I met Shelley’s traveller from an antique land and Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” is an old friend, although it was only relatively recently that I found Bradbury’s inspiration in Sara Teasdale’s poem of the same name.

I’ve always been playing catch-up with Canadian Literature — something of an embarrassment — so it was only late in life that I came across a quite startling end of the world in what might seem an unlikely place.  Archibald Lampman lived a short life, beginning shortly before the Confederation of the Canadas and living to see only the first three decades of the new Dominion.  Well known in life, he is, perhaps less remembered today except in CanLit circles.  Lampman was known as one of the “Confederation Poets”, along with Duncan Campbell Scott, now infamous as the author of Canada’s “Final Solution to the Indian problem.”  In 1895, four years before his death, Edmund Stedman placed Lampman’s short, unusual poem of alternate rhymed tetrameters, “The City of the End of Things” in his A Victorian Anthology, 1837-1895.

I can’t help but feel an echo of Lampman’s title in the title of Harlan Ellison’s “The City at the Edge of Forever,” perhaps the finest original Star Trek episode.  Indeed, Ellison’s almost empty City bears more than a passing resemblance to Lampman’s.  Ellison seems to have an affinity for titles of this structure: vis. “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World” in his anthology Dangerous Visions.

But, back to “The City at the End of Things.  What a fascinating, intriguing, mysterious and allusive thing it is!

Lampman begins by describing the location of the City in “the Valleys huge of Tartarus” seemingly quite clearly placing the City in the Classical underworld.  The eighth line is the title, in position to become a refrain, although that never happens.

The second section (20 lines) expands on the description of the fiery, Hellish City.  In line 16 are mentioned the “thousand furnace doors” which bring to my mind the “aditus centum, ostia centum” of the Cumaean Sibyl’s cave in Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid.  Inhuman music is heard, no man is there, only fire and night.  Continuous noise, no cessation, no change.

The third section, twice the length of the first, begins with a description of the surprising robotic mechanical men who keep the City going.  While inhuman creatures may seem startlingly prophetic (and marvellously steampunk) for Victorian Canada, it strikes me that Lampman may be looking back to the bronze man Talos of Apollonius’ Argonautica and earlier, rather than ahead to Čapek, Asimov and Lem.  The second half of this section clarifies that not only are there not any humans like us in the City, but Death would shrivel our souls and snap “each thread of memory.”

The fourth section, twenty lines again, begins with a description of the City’s origin as the work of human hands.  But the builders have withered until only three remain in a room in a tall tower facing each other, “masters of [the City’s] power.”  And one other remains standing unmoving and immovable at the Northern Gate.  Of this one Lampman says:

In his pale body dwells no more
Or mind or soul, — an idiot!

In the final 24 line section Lampman lets us know that the three shall perish, the wheels will slack, the fires die, the sound fall to silence, and the buildings fall to rust and dust.  No tree or grass will grow in the dead City.  And then, the final four lines:

Alone of its accurséd state
One thing the hand of Time shall spare
For the grim Idiot at the gate
Is deathless and eternal there!

Well.  What to make of this?

Certainly interesting is the line count structure of two twenty line stanzas separating stanzas of 8, 2×8, and 3×8 lines.

Very interesting as well is the vision of an empty dead world at such an early date in a land itself politically new and so filled with “untamed” wilderness.

But something of a conundrum is the figure of the deathless, eternal, mindless and soulless Idiot.  Why is he eternal while the City and its builders must decay and fade?  The Idiot has no soul, no mind, no memories, no motion.  He is nothing but a shell, like the “empty nut” of line 44, the remnants of the hypothetical Man meeting Death in the City of the End of Things.

What is the Idiot except eternal meaninglessness?  Is Lampman suggesting that all meaning must decay? Or is he suggesting that Eternity, continuance without decay or change, would be a meaningless existence?  Perhaps he is just asking the question, “What are some implications of Eternity?  And is eternal, unchanging existence desirable?”  Perhaps this is the insight of The City of the End of Things:  there is only life where there is change and decay.

And, perhaps the Idiot, the one Eternal of the poem, is Death, the one Eternal of our world.

A Brief Visit to the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts

This afternoon we made a little trip down to vibrant 118 Avenue here in Edmonton to drop in on the Nina.  My daughter and I have been considering whether the Centre might be a good place for her to spend some time exploring and expanding her artistic side now that she’s finished high school.  The last few years of school were not a wholly positive period for her, so, I’ve been hoping that the more self-directed and open-ended atmosphere at the Nina would at once give her more pleasure and more growth than the structure of the previous period had done.

We started by taking a turn around the Stollery Gallery where some works by artists of the Centre are on display. When you go — which you should — take note of the brilliant superhero prints by David Canough.  The Gallery is the principal display venue for the Nina’s artists, although you will see their public art installations around town.  From time to time the Gallery also hosts shows by non-Nina artists as well.

Next we headed over to the bustle of the crowded ateliers.  About 35 of the Nina’s almost 200 artist/members were at work on fabric, painting, drawing, ceramics, printmaking and computer animation.  One day a week beautiful fused glass art is produced.  There is also a dance program at the Centre.  The large bright workrooms were filled with men and women of all ages focused intently on their art-making.

Artistic Director Paul Freeman began by showing us some of the computer and stop motion animation being worked on.  The Centre has a number of very nice and apparently very fast work stations tucked into a corner.  I mentioned at one point that the Nina needed more space and Mr. Freeman admitted he had been thinking about that.

Next we went back to the Gallery for a moment and chatted about some of our possibilities.  Happily for the Nina, Mr. Freeman was called away for a moment to thank someone who had dropped by with a donation.  More about that later.

By this time my daughter had quite obviously moved from doubtful interest to cautious excitement.  Off she went to check out the rest of the workrooms, ending in the yarn and thread festooned fabric arts room.

Mr. Freeman got us an information and registration package, including a fee schedule.  The annual fee (pro rated quarterly) struck me as absurdly low, but when one considers that most of the artists pay their fees out of their fixed AISH income, the fees are actually a hefty sacrifice made for their art.

After our short visit, it looks like we’ll be returning regularly to work at the Nina.  “I want to make a glass Binoo!” my daughter said as we walked down the street.  Mr. Freeman indicated that I would be welcome to hang around and that, as an artist, they might put me to volunteer work as well.  I certainly hope I will be able to, but . . .

The Nina Haggerty Centre is at risk of closing its doors.  At the moment they are about a month away from the close of a vital crowd-funding campaign which must be successful if the Centre is to retain its location.  If too few ordinary citizens step up to support the Nina, almost two hundred artists will quite simply lose their voices in a more extreme way than most artists can imagine.

Edmonton prides itself on its arts community.  The closure of the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts because of a lack of community support would be a failure for the city and a tragic loss.  And it would be a disturbing situation if our city’s community, with all its wealth, found itself unable to support the professional work of our almost two hundred artists with developmental disabilities.

Until recently, my daughter ended each day sadly asking “Can you cancel school tomorrow, Dad?”.  A few minutes ago she announced “I want to go to Nina Haggerty!”

I hope she can.

The Nina Haggerty Centre’s indiegogo fundraising campaign is very appropriately called “Keep the Love Alive“. Please help.

The Centre and the Stollery Gallery are at

9225 – 118 ave
Edmonton, AB
T5G 0K6

Update, February 19, 2015: Happily The Nina reached its fundraising goal, allowing a tremendous 12th birthday party for the Centre this evening. The Centre was packed with people, including at least two City Councillors and former Mayor now Cabinet Minister Stephen Mandel, all celbrating twelve years of art and the latest work of the Collective, “Confusement”, a phenomenal installation which is truly a collective work (I even got to contribute a tiny bit of paint splashing).

By the way: my daughter has sold one fired clay piece she made at the Nina and she did make a glass Binoo:
image

Getting Fed Up with Ignorance and Racism

I was scribbling in my notebook on the LRT this afternoon.  Here’s what came out:

Whatever your response to the Idle No More movement, I would suggest that it has uncovered an often ignored stream of racism in Canadian society.  So many of the comments can be summarized as “Get over it! I didn’t have anything to do with the Residential Schools! Indians are parasites! There shouldn’t be any ‘special’ Canadians! Just get over it!”

I have repeatedly heard aboriginal Canadians referred to as savages. I’ve been told that there is nothing in aboriginal culture worth saving, that it would be better for everyone if it just disappeared. I’ve read columns in newspapers which imply that native Canadians are congenital child-abusers and murderers.  I’ve heard the claim that natives are all untrustworthy and criminal because “Once I saw one . . .”

I have been saddened and horrified over the last year to see so many of my fellow non-aboriginal Canadians reveal themselves to be the moral and intellectual equivalent of the most rabid White South African defenders of Apartheid.  Echoing in my mind from conversations before de Klerk came to his senses are the words “What you have to understand, John, is that those people will never be able to govern themselves”.

Well, I’d like to say a few things about “those people”.

Individual Action and Individual Responsibility — a non-definitive list and its implications

Some European Canadians, Asian Canadians, African Canadians, Aboriginal Canadians, Canadian Men, and Canadian Women . . .

Drive badly
Get drunk
Attack people in broad daylight with a hammer
Panhandle
Are homeless
Steal
Deal Drugs
Rape little boys
Rape little girls
Rape women
Rape men
Rape farm animals
Use porn
Make porn
Embezzle from their employer
Embezzle from the public purse
Avoid fares on public transit
Murder people they know
Murder strangers
Commit arson
Commit suicide
Cheat on their income tax
Cheat on their spouse
Preach homophobia
Are anti-science
Are anti-religion
Are ignorant
Are uneducated
Are foolish
Have a tin ear
Have no rhythm
Can’t jump
Eat too much
Are lazy
Are self-pitying

But . . . You know what?

Just because some people in every group do these things doesn’t mean that . . . .

Asian cultures know nothing of Justice
European cultures have nothing of Beauty
There is no Good in African cultures
or that Aboriginal Canadian cultures have no Truth.

Any particular individual may have no interest in this, but every culture has something of value, justice, goodness, beauty and truth, no matter the ugliness and evil of individual or group action.  Responsibility for ugliness, however, often must be shared.  The sins of the father are indeed visited upon the sons — and the daughters — to the seventh generation and beyond.  And often it is the seventh generation which must take responsibility, collectively, for the sins of the fathers and for the pain and damage still felt by the sons and daughters.

Group Action and Group Responsibility

The German state committed the Holocaust, and the World Community was so horrified that there are Holocaust museums and memorials all over the world.  And the German state continues to work out reparations and restorations for the crimes of a previous generation.   Stalin’s Soviet Union committed the Holodomor.  There’s a monument at City Hall in Edmonton, by the way.  The genocides are seemingly endless, but they are remembered and humanity as a group has come to feel a responsibility to remember, commemorate, and where possible, make reparations and restitution even when the our state has not committed the genocidal acts.  This sense of collective responsibility is one of the great moral achievements of the 20th Century.

Political Equality vs. Political Homogeneity

I’ve been hearing offended responses to Idle No More of “Canadians should all be equal, no one should have special rights!”  It’s a great marketing slogan and perhaps a wonderful, utopian vision.  But it’s also a loud proclamation of ignorance of the nature of the Canadian Confederation.  Never has this country been based on any idea of equality meaning identity of rights and privileges.  Ours country is a pragmatic balancing of regional, individual and collective rights.  Representation in Parliament is not equal between regions.  Citizens do not have access to or protection by identical law from province to province. The maritime provinces had conditions for entering Confederation — special rights for their governments and people. British Columbia demanded and got a trans-continental railroad.  Alberta and Saskatchewan, carved out of the North West Territories by the Dominion Government, originally had limited power compared to the original Provinces.  But accommodations were made for the demands of Alberta’s and Saskatchewan’s Legislatures. Nunavut is something else again, as are Yukon and the remaining rump of the North West Territories.

We are policed differently depending on where we live, our children are educated differently, minimum wages are different, divorce law, driving regulations, municipal mandates . . . and so on and so on.  Canadians have never been and I hope never will be “equal” in the cookie-cutter fashion the ignorant cry for when confronted by Native demands that Governments fulfil their legal and constitutional obligations.  The Dominion Government gave B.C. it’s railroad and P.E.I., Nova Scotia and New Brunswick got the Senate representation they demanded.  Quebec, like every province, has its own advantageous guarantees in the Confederation.  And now, the new generation of educated and energetic Aboriginal Canadians is simply demanding that the Government live up to the obligations and benefits of the Treaties, the Constitution, and the Government’s own legislation.

Prime Minister Harper’s own government drafted and passed the law constituting the Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Canada was instrumental in creating the International Criminal Court, whose founding document, the Statute of Rome, restates the Geneva Convention’s definition of Genocide, and, the Canadian Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act  writes that definition into Canadian law.  The outcry about the century long genocidal progams of the Canadian Government is nothing other than a call for recognition of the Truth as required by Canadian law, and Reconciliation as is implied, if impolitely, by those shrill cries of “Get over it!”

History and Getting Over It

The State of Israel exists in part because the world wanted to “Get over” the Holocaust.  Have Jewish people gotten over the Holocaust? Can we imagine someone shouting to Elie Wiesel “Get over it!”?  Should Rwandans get over their genocide? Congolese? Armenians? Ukrainians? How does one get over Srebrenica? What does “Get over it!” even mean?

Should victims of child abuse just get over it? Here, perhaps, is the heart of it. Yes, child abuse victims ideally should get over it, but not “just” get over it.  They are going to need help and time and even then, not all of them, maybe not any, will ever really get over it.  Why would we expect a people to just get over a generation of genocide, let alone a century?

Remember, many residential school survivors are younger than I am.  They haven’t had the help I’ve had from society, and I never suffered anything in the grand scheme of things.  Most of us have not.  The sooner we, the privileged, stop shouting “Get over it!”, the sooner the healing can begin — for all of us.

The policies of Canada concerning native peoples are not yet history — they continue to be real, daily life.  The residential schools are closed, but they are not yet history.  Culloden is history. The Battle of the Boyne is history (one hopes).  But, even after centuries, neither the Scots nor the Irish have really, completely gotten over those single, one day events.  Please don’t obscenely ask a man who was raped at the age of twelve by a priest to “Get over it.”

The sins of our fathers remain green in living memory.  Yes, let’s start to get over it.  Let’s learn the Truth and begin the Reconciliation. But we must never minimize, dismiss, or forget the crime.

Views of the 19th Century in Two Media Trying to Find Their Way

Two independently quite marvellous exhibits are at the Art Gallery of Alberta just now.  On the first floor in the Poole gallery there is another of the National Gallery of Canada‘s travelling shows — this a collection of fascinating, moving British photographs from the 19th Century.  On the second floor there is a perhaps more immediately arresting exhibition of two centuries of British watercolours from the Victoria and Albert Museum.  If the juxtaposition has not been planned, it is a stunningly fortuitous coincidence of schedules.  If planned, this plan is brilliant, for the exhibits, met together here in Edmonton, speak to each other, and we in Edmonton and Alberta have the opportunity to benefit inestimably from the conversation.

Having declared the inestimability, I will now, perhaps foolishly, attempt to estimate briefly the conversation and our benefits as gallery-goers.

Such comprehensive exhibits of art forms through their initial formative stages are certainly of great interest to students — whether formal or life-long-learners — of art history, and they are certainly of interest to working artists.  But at the AGA right now we can experience the development of two arts which came into maturity together, under each other’s influence, and often in the hands of single artists working in both media.  Both British watercolourists and British photographers worked in an effort to quickly capture the effects of light, particularly sunlight.  And, of great interest to life-long-learners and non-professional artists, much of the development of both arts was driven by dedicated and talented amateurs.

One of the most important photographers in the National Gallery exhibit, W. H. Fox Talbot, wrote in his first career as a draughtsman “How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed upon the paper”.  A consideration of a number of the pieces from the V&A, such as Cromek’s “Temple of Saturn and Temple of Concord,” Prout’s “Porch of Ratisbon Cathedral” and Boyce’s “East End of Edward the Confessor’s Chapel and Tomb” makes clear that through effort and skill a watercolourist can produce a product such as Talbot dreamt of.  And Talbot himself went on to produce photographs of exquisite detail, such as “The Haystack”, in the National Gallery show.  But Talbot discovered that photography was itself a gruelling art, spending at least three years on the composition which would become “The Open Door.”

As they developed, both art forms rapidly branched out to a wide number of subject matters, but it seems the watercolourist and the photographer always stood side by side.  While Francis Frith was photographing the temples of Egypt, Edward Lear was painting them.  While Mansell was photographing cottages in Argyl, David Cox was painting the beaches of North Wales.  William Bell Scott painted iron workers of the Tyne while Rejlander and Thomson produced photographic portraits of the underclasses of London.

Photographers and watercolourists fanned out around the world, documenting, decorating, illustrating and making social and political statements.  Photographer Roger Fenton went to the Crimea to photograph the British war effort and watercolourist William Simpson carried his paintbox to the same conflict.  Conditions in the Crimea pointed out a fundamental difference between the media:  Fenton’s photos are necessarily static, limited by the photographic technology, while Simpson’s watercolours are filled with movement and colour.  While the photographs of the Crimean War are impartially and meticulously accurate as to physical details, the watercolours capture the moement and confusion that are only hinted at in photos like Fenton’s “Railway Sheds and Workshops, Balakalva.”

But photographers did not always strive for meticulous accuracy any more than did waterclourists always strive for the stunning — dare I say? — photo realism of Cromek’s paintings.  Many of the photographs in the National Gallery exhibit are printed from paper negatives, a technology which continued in use because of desired qualities of softness and depth that were lacking in the more “accurate glace plate negatives and albumin prints.  Many are composite prints made from several negatives.  Most are posed.  Meanwhile, watercolourists often painted impressionistic, expressive landscapes and posed figurative groupings.  Cozens distorted the verticality of the convent-topped rock in “Between Brixen and Balzano”.  Palmer produced an imaginary, allegorical landscape in “Going Home at Curfew Time”, and Turner — well, Turner was just Turner — hardly any realism but all of Reality in golden light and melancholy.

One could go on, but I’ll end with a metaphor.

British Watercolours, 1750-1950 and 19th Century British Photographs, now showing at the Art Gallery of Alberta illustrate beautifully that British Watercolour and British Photography are sister arts who walked hand-in-hand as they grew and developed through the 19th Century.  It is a joy and a wonder to watch the sisters stroll through the AGA.

19th Century British Photographs from the National Gallery of Canada continues until October 6, 2013.

British Watercolours: 1750-1950 continues until November 24, 2013.

I would also highly recommend that you find a way to afford the beautiful and detailed catalogues  from both exhibits.

british watercolours and photos

Three Classic British Science Fiction Novels

I just finished rereading Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 apocalyptic science fiction novel, Childhood’s End.  I also reread it a few years ago after a few decades away.  Clarke had been a favourite of my teen years, so I really can’t say how many times I’ve read the thing.  Through what I now realize is a fortunate coincidence, relatively recently I also reread John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957). That reread was spurred by the very enjoyable web comic FreakAngels by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield, which is a dark riff on Wyndham’s dark novel.

And I realize as I write this that the theme of extraterrestrially mediated human evolution common to Childhood’s End and The Midwich Cuckoos (and FreakAngels) owe more than a little to H.G. Wells’ 1937 novel Star Begotten.  Wells writes of a group of friends who begin to suspect an alien force is manipulating humanity:  “Suppose that for the last few thousand years they have been experimenting in human genetics” suggests Wells’ protagonist Joseph Davis.

Sixteen years later Clarke wrote of Overlords who manipulate human society in aid of the Overmind who causes a global generation of human children to transcend genetics and take a giant evolutionary step (destroying their parents and the entire Earth as a bit of collateral damage).  And then, four years later, Wyndham narrowed the focus to the children of just the small English village of Midwich.  The new human children in Midwich are destroyed by means of an explosive device and humanity is, unlike in Childhood’s End, saved from its own future evolution.

Did Wyndham know Childhood’s End? Did he and/or Clarke know Star Begotten?  I don’t know how tight the British science fiction community was mid-century and, for the moment, I’m not going to research that question.  I do, however, find it intriguing that such similar science fiction treatments of eugenics appeared in the two decades from 1937 to 1957.  And there is something very interesting in the difference between 1937 and the 1950s.

“Starry changelings both,” Joseph Davis says hopefully at the end of Star Begotten, “And not afraid — even of the uttermost change.”  Where Joseph Davis strides bravely into the new, inhuman future, Clarke’s new humanity, while transcendent, is utterly alien, utterly indifferent, and utterly destructive. Jan Rodricks, Clarke’s Last Man, while apparently unafraid as the future destroys him, is helpless and impotent. And Wyndham’s Cuckoos are terrifying, a menace which must be destroyed.

It is hard not to conclude that public knowledge of Nazi eugenics programmes culminating in the death camps and the Holocaust would be fresh in the minds of Clarke and Wyndham and their readers in 1950s Britain. While Clarke tries to slip in some hope, first with the middle, Golden Age section and later with the transcendence of the new humanity, the vision of this eugenic future is wholy dark for humanity as we know it.  And Wyndham allows little room for coexistence between Man and Superman.
Between 1937 and 1953 eugenic utopia had been discredited, at least as a science fiction theme.  Of course, Huxley in Brave New World (1932) had responded to Wells’ utopian tendencies and Orwell, before the horrors of the death camps were fully realized, had worried about future social trends, but neither Brave New World nor 1984 deal with the terrors of directed evolution — eugenics by a longer name.  Galton’s vision of improving humanity through selective breeding was perhaps forever made horrible by the version brutally implemented by Hitler.

Eugenics, an idea which had been for half a century a subject of respectable conversation and debate had instantly become a horror.  This moral shift can be seen clearly in the three novels I’ve been touching on, three novels with very similar themes written by three very British novelists.  But the three novels draw quite interestingly different conclusions about those themes.

If you are feeling like reading a bit of vintage British science fiction, a session devoted to consecutive readings of Star Begotten by H. G. Wells, Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, and The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham would, I think, be very rewarding.

Odd. I actually sat down thinking I was going to just write a little review of Childhood’s End, and look where I ended up!  Well, unintended consequences, I guess . . .

Clarke