CAS A Note on the Aesthetics of Fantasy

Charles K.Wolfe

Clark Ashton Smith was one of our foremost practitioners of fantasy, but he was also a writer very much aware of exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it. Unlike some of his contemporaries, who all too often saw themselves as entertainers rather than artists, Smith from the very beginning of his writing career saw himself as a serious artist, and saw his work as the realization of a cogent and well-formed aesthetic theory. This essay is an attempt to partially define that aesthetic, at least as it existed for Smith's fiction, and to relate it to the mainstream literary tradition.

During his lifetime Smith wrote well over thirty non-fictional essays of varying lengths. Unlike his friend, H. P. Lovecraft, Smith seldom wrote essays on topics of 'general interest," such as cats or geographical locales; nearly every one of Smith's essays deals directly with literature or literary influences. Included among these essays are assessments of George Sterling, Lovecraft, M. R. James, Ambrose Bierce, Poe, Hodgson, and Donald Wandrei. But the most interesting essays are those in which Smith talks about his own art. Significantly, he never talks much about his poetry in these public essays (though he did frequently in his private letters); his attention is directed almost exclusively to his stories. A possible reason for this is that his short stories were much more public than his poetry; they were being exposed to all manner of reader in the pages of mass circulation magazines like Wonder Stories and Amazing Stories. With such a wide and occasionally hostile audience, Smith was more inclined to explain his intentions and defend his art.

Since over half of Smith's stories were written and published in the mid and early 1 930s, it is not surprising that most of his important critical statements also date from that time. Especially interesting are a series of public debates Smith engaged in through the letter columns of Wonder Stories, Amazing Stories, Strange Tales, and The Fantasy Fan in 1932-33. Smith came under attack from those who were insisting upon more "realism" in science fiction; psychological realism was in vogue in mainstream literature in the 1930s (with Anderson, Dreiser, and Hemingway setting the pace) and various writers and fans of speculative fiction insisted that the only way by which speculative fiction would ever be accepted as "serious" literature would be for it to adopt more "realistic" modes. Smith perceived that realism was only one tradition, and that romanticism was an equally valid tradition. He rejected the definition that literature was a study of human reactions and character development; he called such a definition "narrow and limited." In the August, 1 932 issue of Wonder Stories, Smith wrote:

To me, the best, if not the only function of imaginative writing, is to lead the human imagination outward, to take it into the vast external cosmos, and away from all that introversion and introspection, that morbidly exaggerated prying into one's own vitals — and the vitals of others — which Robinson Jeffers has so aptly symbolized as "incest." What we need is less "human interest," in the narrow sense of the term — not more. Physiological — and even psychological analysis — can be largely left to the writers of scientific monographs on such themes.

Smith saw the folly of people who equated "realism" with quality in literature; only in the last decade has literature begun to recover from the tyranny of the realism criterion, the assumption that the only function of literature is to tell it "how it is." Smith fought his lonely battle during the height of the realistic movement, in the 1930s; only today is the literary mainstream beginning to appreciate the fact that some writers are not trying to be "realistic," and that reading them requires a different set of standards. Oddly enough, Smith today is quite at home in a contemporary literature in which the most respected writers are neo-romantics like Barth, Borges, Vonnegut, and Hawkes. (The only concession to "realism" Smith made was in regard to writing ability as opposed to intention; he repeatedly insisted on the all-important distinction between realism as a literary school and simple writing ability; he suggests that much of the criticism of speculative fiction launched in the 1930s would be eliminated if writers would simply write better, not in a different mode.)

But to simply say Smith is a "romantic" is hardly enough; the term is hopelessly broad and inclusive, and means a dozen different things. In what specific ways is Smith romantic and not romantic, and according to what standards? We must deal with these questions before we can really come to terms with what Smith was doing in his fiction.

Of course, no one can deny that Smith's prose style is romantic by any definition of the word; the texture, color, sentence structure, and, especially, the vocabulary is in the best tradition of the self-conscious story-teller, always reminding us that we are in the hands of an artist, and what we are reading is indeed art, and reminding us of the difference between the world of art and the everyday world. The recent textual work of Lin Carter and others is showing us just how rich Smith's prose style was; it was richer even than we had imagined, for the editors of the time apparently were quite ruthless in editing his stories. One could, indeed, make a good argument for style being the most important aspect of Smith's art, and that his style is frequently an end in itself. But for the sake of argument, let us artificially divide style from content, and look at some of the structural patterns in Smith's stories: how are they romantic?

If any basic structural pattern emerges from Smith's various stories, it is one of the journey by the hero into some other world, some sort of magic world; it may be via a space voyage, via dimension, via the past, or a mystic experience. But frequently Smith's heroes must make this journey; they must cross the threshold into some sort of alternative reality. (This term seems better that the term "fantasy world," since "fantasy world" implies an unfair distinction; it implies that the "real" world—the common, recognizable world—is more basic or more important than the other world; Smith would have insisted that both worlds were equally important, were equally "real.") Stories of this sort are multifold; the titles of two Smith collections, Lost Worlds and Other Dimensions, testify to the pervasiveness of this theme in his work. Perhaps the most centrally significant of these threshold stories is "The City of the Singing Flame," which suggests multiple alternative realities.

In many stories Smith goes out of his way to stress the significance of this threshold; he does this by creating in his readers a feeling of incredible remoteness from these alternate realities. A reader is hardly impressed by a threshold to a world very much like his own; thus a successful fantasy, like Alice in Wonderland, will strive to make the alternative reality as different as possible from the "control," everyday reality. Smith was fond of manipulating his readers by attempting, through various devices, to "distance" the events of his story from the reader's world. For example, "The End of the Story" is presented through the manuscript of a law student found sometime after 1789; the real plot of the story thus is distanced from us, first, by the fact that it is second-hand, coming in a manuscript, and second, by the fact that the manuscript is removed from us by history. In "The Testament of Athammaus," we have the obviously ancient narrative of a chief headsman in Commoriom, who then tells the story of his youth of how Commoriom fell; again, we have two stages of distancing. The story of Commoriom has already become a misty legend to the narrator; and yet the narrator is already remote to us because he is from Hyperborea; the actual story of Commoriom is thus infinitely more remote to us. But Smith did not need to rely on the past in creating a sense of remoteness; he just as easily used space travel and the future. For instance, "The Dweller in the Gulf" contains no less than four "distancing" elements: 1) the Martian setting; 2) the time setting (obviously the future); 3) the antiquity of the cavern into which the party wanders and the antiquity of the Martian surface; and 4) the bizarre descent into the sub- world of Mars. In short, we have an alternative reality within an alternative reality, et al., like a series of Chinese boxes, one within the other. Of course, these distancing devices have been used since the time of Irving and Hawthorne to try to lend an aura of antiquity to relatively recent and commonplace events; but Smith's imagination allowed him to develop this art of distancing to striking perfection. And when it works, his readers are made acutely aware of the alien quality of Smith's other worlds. This is perhaps what Smith meant when he said the function of imaginative literature was to lead the imagination outward. (Smith admitted in a 1940 essay, "Planets and Dimensions," published in 7a/es of Wonder, No. 11, that among his science fiction tales, "the majority have dealt either with worlds remote in space or worlds hidden from human perception. . . ." This would seem to indicate that Smith used his science fiction stories to illustrate the same basic themes as he developed in this stories of antiquity.)

But what happens to characters who encounter these remote alternative realities? And what is the nature of these realities: are they hostile, beneficent, or what? These complicated questions need longer answers than we can provide here, but one or two points are obvious. We might first note that Smith's basic plot—the hero crossing the threshold into an alternative reality—is closely related to the classic hero myth as traced throughout the ages from primitive myth to folk legend to literature. Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, has defined this basic structural pattern or monomyth, as follows: "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder (italics mine): fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man." Now the first part of this structure fits the stories of Smith well; the hero does go, frequently, from a recognizable world into a world of wonder: the past, a remote planet, another dimension, or even occasionally a dream. But here the pattern breaks down, for in many of Smith's stories, the heroes do not return from their alternative realities. Some of them strive to return, but fail; witness stories like "The Dweller in the Gulf," "The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan," "The Weaver in the Vault," "The Second Interment," or "Master of the Asteroid." Others, like Giles Angarth in "City of the Singing Flame," make it back but are shattered by the experience. A few, like the law student in "End of the Story," prefer to stay in the alternative reality; the speaker in the poem "Amilhaine" says, "who has seen the towers of Amithaine/Shall sleep, and dream of them again" and, in the end, chooses to remain in the romantic dream world, the "fallen kingdoms of romance."

Now exactly how romantic is this pattern? On one level, readers of extremely popular writers like Burroughs expect and receive their heroes' return from the alternative reality to the "natural" world; here Smith is writing a different sort of fiction, to be sure. But on a literary level, even with a more abstract definition of romance, it would seem Smith is writing something different. One of the keystones of romanticism as a philosophy is the ability of man to triumph over his environment; Smith's characters seem defeated by their environments, even though the environments are alternative environments created by Smith. In one respect, there's not much difference between Stephen Crane's Maggie being crushed by social and economic forces—a hostile environment—and Smith's heroes being destroyed by the Dweller in the Gulf; in both cases, attempts of the heroes to assert themselves and to escape are futile. (The editors of Wonder Stories, incidentally, found the ending of "Dweller" so bitter that they changed it; Smith wrote to a friend, "In the tale as I submitted it, no escape was possible for any of the three earth-men, since the Dweller was filling the whole of the narrow path ahead of them. Bellman met the same fate as the others. . . . The tale is hopelessly ruined ..., and I am writing a letter of protest to the editor.") Nor is this pessimism simply apparent in Smith's fiction: he often seems quite naturalistic in certain aspects of his critical statements. In a letter he published in Amazing Stories, October, 1932, Smith protested the view that saw man as the center of the universe; the real thrill of properly done fantastic fiction, he said, "comes from the description of the ultrahumanevents, forces and scenes, which properly dwarf the terrene actors to comparative insignificance." Fantasy should emphasize the non-human or extra-human; "isn't it only the damnable, preposterous and pernicious egomania of the race" that insists on realistic fiction? In The Tale of Macrocosmic Horror," in Strange Tales, January, 1933, Smith said that in the "tale of highest imaginative horror," "the real actors are the terrible arcanic forces, the esoteric cosmic malignities. ..." Thus most of Smith's characters are hopeless pawns in the face of some alternative reality; they seldom assert themselves, and all too often pay the ultimate price for crossing the threshold.

In this respect, then, we can hardly call Smith a romantic. This side of Smith certainly has affinities with someone like Ambrose Bierce (who was a major influence on Smith, though Smith made perfectly clear in private letters [especially one to R. H. Barlow, September 19,1933] that he never met Bierce), or Kurt Vonnegut, whose notion of human civilization in Sirens of Titan would surely have appealed to Smith. The point is that, like most serious writers, Clark Ashton Smith was too complex to be pigeon-holed by a single term. He was uniquely himself, and, for me at least, his appeal lies in this uniqueness. But I hope this discussion has shown us that "fantasy" and "romance" are not necessarily synonymous terms, that Smith knew this, articulated it, and illustrated it in his fiction.

The Dark Eidolon: The Journal of Smith Studies #2

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