the Violet
The Lament of Prometheus by John C Wright
Wisecraft, 2019; Kindle only
Cover art, “Prometheus carrying fire” by Jan Cossiers

The Lament of Prometheus is perhaps the longest published study of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus to date (others, such as Wilson’s The Haunted Man, Sellin’s Life and Works, and Power’s David Lindsay’s Vision discuss Lindsay’s first novel alongside his other writings), but as well as being an examination of the novel’s artistry, it’s also an expression of John C Wright’s distaste for what he perceives as the message of the book.

On the one hand calling Arcturus the most imaginative book in the English language, and making some valuable insights into the narrative’s structure and the way Lindsay constructs his meaning (among other things, Wright provides interpretations for each of Lindsay’s invented names, just as Robert H Waugh does in his “Speculative Dictionary of A Voyage to Arcturus” in The Tragic Thread in Science Fiction), while on the other hand, Wright criticises the book on a number of specific points, as well as on the more general one of its ultimate philosophy.

A Voyage to Arcturus is a rich and complex work, and I enjoy exploring that richness and complexity through others’ interpretations of the book. Reading Wright’s critique of Arcturus inevitably made me want to respond, in the spirit of providing an alternative approach to the novel and furthering the debate about these points.

I’ll look into the main points of Wright’s criticism of the book one by one.

Joiwind & Panawe

Detail from “Merlin and the Fairy Queen” by John Duncan

If we take Lindsay’s novel to be presenting us with a series of different approaches to life, only to have each rejected as one more of Crystalman’s deceptions, perhaps the most puzzling rejection of all is of Joiwind and Panawe. The couple are nothing but admirable: patient, kind, peaceful, gentle, hurting no one and accepting Maskull with open arms. Joiwind is the embodiment of lovingkindness, willing to bear pain for Maskull’s sake; Panawe is serious, thoughtful, humble. What, Wright asks, could Lindsay’s objection to them be?

It’s possible the name of their home, Poolingdred, is a clue here. If we read this as “pooling dread”, we might take it to mean that beneath Joiwind and Panawe’s calm, loving exteriors is a growing confrontation with something they try to ignore, and even live in fear of. Yes, they are pure, but there are two types of purity: the purity of untested innocence and the purity of hard-earned moral strength. Wright interprets Joiwind and Panawe as fully-realised beings dwelling at the Hegelian End of History (which would mean their purity would fall under the heading of hard-earned moral strength), but I feel they are more like untested innocents, living as they do on a young world. The thing they dread is Krag and all he represents — the difficult pain and ugliness of the world. They explicitly demonise him (calling him the Devil), a sure sign of an inability to integrate a powerful part of their own shadow-selves. Yes, Joiwind accepts a burden of pain to help Maskull, but what would she do if faced with, say, a monster like Oceaxe’s cruel husband Crimtyphon? Would she defend herself against him if he tried to sorb her, or would she bear the pain and allow herself to be sacrificed to this evil man, in the name of pacifism? Would she fight — and therefore inflict pain — to stop Crimtyphon not only hurting her, but going on to inflict pain and slavery on others? Panawe gives us the clue here, in the story he tells of his early life: faced with the moral quandary of whether to free the monstrous Muremaker from the equally monstrous Nuclamp’s tortures, Panawe passes on without interfering, justifying his inaction on the basis that Muremaker is a monster, and therefore not worth saving. Panawe washes his hands of the moral complexities of the world, and retreats to Poolingdred.

Unlike so many of the other philosophies Lindsay rejects, Joiwind and Panawe don’t die, so we never see either gain that telltale Crystalman grin. I think even Lindsay knew it would be a step too far for Joiwind to be disfigured in this way. But the couple escape this damnation, I think, because they’re removed from the ugly reality of the world, not because they’re above it. Yes, they are pure, but their purity is bought at the price of suppressing their fuller human nature (something hinted at, perhaps, when Joiwind responds a little more emotionally — and humanly — than she’s prepared for when Maskull says he will think of her in future as a way to keep on the right moral path).

And this is a theme that runs throughout A Voyage to Arcturus — Lindsay is not only interested in asking how we’re supposed to live in a world where there is pain and conflict and ugliness, but also how we’re supposed to fulfil all the needs of our human natures, including the darker or morally complex impulses such as lust and anger, the need to compete, the need to dominate, the desire for adventure, and the battle to survive. Joiwind and Panawe may be living a blameless life, but it is perhaps an insufficient one, based on denying their fuller human natures, and this leads to their rejection.


Detail from “A Window” by Louis Hawkins Welden

Another puzzling aspect of A Voyage to Arcturus is the fact that, in its first chapter, Lindsay introduces a whole host of characters at the séance, only to never mention them again. Once you get a feel for how the novel works, you realise this can be read as another rejection. But what Wright asks (as well as exploring the intriguing idea that Faull and friends are the Archons of Gnostic belief, and can be twinned with the inhabitants of Tormance that Maskull meets later in the narrative) is why these characters, who “do not seem to possess any more or less of human vices or affectations than is the norm”, are rejected in the same way as, say, the violent inhabitants of Ifdawn Marest, or the harsh-minded philosophers of Sant.

But perhaps it’s precisely “the norm” Lindsay is rejecting. Maskull is not a man in search of a “norm”, and in part what we witness here is his wholesale rejection of life as it was lived in 1920s London. Right at the start we read that Montague Faull’s room “was illuminated only by the light of a blazing fire” — and perhaps this is just a domestic detail, but it could also be contrasting the fact that, by the end of the novel, Nightspore will have been illuminated by the far greater light of Muspel-fire.

There are, though, more specific reasons for these characters’ rejection. There’s an air of complacency, laziness, indulgence, fraud and superficiality about these séance guests. Faull (whose name underscores his fallen nature) has an “indolent” curiosity, a “bored impassiveness”, a continued apathy. Faced with Backhouse (a man who can summon spirits from another world), Faull almost immediately runs out of conversation, and we later learn his only real interest in the séance lies in the presence of Mrs Jameson, whom he lusts after. Next we meet Faull’s sister, Mrs Trent, who is at least capable of stronger feelings than her brother (she has been deeply moved by playing Scriabin), but her conversation, though “graceful”, is “hollow”, and all she can think to say to the solemn mystery of Backhouse’s talent is that what he says is “beautiful”, whereupon she’s immediately distracted by the arrival of the first of the evening’s guests. She’s more interested in the social world than Backhouse’s mysteries.

That first guest is Kent-Smith, a magistrate, who makes immediately for the most comfortable chair (which it seems harsh to damn him for, but Lindsay is writing Arcturus in a damning mood, and any sign of indulgence in pleasure can be taken as surrendering to Crystalman’s wiles). We learn he’s writing an autobiography, not as a serious attempt to understand his life, but merely as a way of “amusing himself in his retirement”. Prior, next to arrive, attempts to introduce “joviality” to what surely ought to be awe-inspiring proceedings; Lang, meanwhile, is an “amateur prestidigitator”, a deceptive stage-magician, and more interested in working out the trick behind Backhouse’s act than in witnessing a wonder. Next comes Professor Halbert, who we might expect to bring an air of seriousness to the evening as he’s an “eminent psychologist”, an “author and lecturer on crime, insanity, genius”, but rather than quizzing Backhouse, he sits beside Kent-Smith and we hear nothing more from him; he offers no insight. Finally, there’s Mrs Trent, who’s responsible for the theatricalisation (and so, perhaps, trivialisation) of this whole event, by setting it in what everyone senses is the overly poetic setting of Mozart’s Temple scene from The Magic Flute. But when the materialisation finally occurs, she’s disgusted and frightened, and leaves as soon as she can.

Backhouse provides the bottom line for why these eminently normal, middle-class denizens of Hampstead earn Lindsay’s scorn, as he mentions the “coarse, clumsy suspicion of some of the witnesses, the frivolous aestheticism of others...”

None of them are taking this as seriously as they ought. That’s why they’re rejected.

(It’s interesting to note Backhouse’s calling them “witnesses”. And this may be the best explanation of their role: not as Archons or representatives of a particular philosophy, but as examples of how not to witness what is about to occur. In other words, Lindsay is warning his readers — who are also witnesses, and who might well be sitting relaxed in a comfortable chair, opening A Voyage to Arcturus with the expectation of a pleasant evening’s entertainment — to buck up their ideas. The affair, as Krag says, “is plain and serious”, not an entertainment to be prettified or idly enjoyed.)


Detail from “Seated Figure and Symbols” by John Duncan

Like Joiwind and Panawe, Corpang is another character we never see die. In fact, he goes one stage further, in that he survives his disillusionment and joins Maskull in the quest for Muspel. But, as Wright points out, we not only don’t get to see Corpang achieve his newfound goal, but we read of him being mocked by Haunte, Maskull, and Sullenbode, leaving us with the feeling that, even though he survives, Corpang has in some sense been found wanting. On what grounds does this monk-like ascetic deserve Lindsay’s scorn?

But is Corpang really monk-like? We learn from the start that, rather than dwelling in a state of dedicative contemplation, he’s actually in torment. We’re told “some unanswerable problem was apparently in the forefront of his brain”; he says to Maskull, “It’s a torment to me to be standing still”, and “My days are spent in torture”, because “The longer a man seeks Thire, the more he [Thire] seems to absent himself”, until “all is dry, dark, and harsh in the soul.” (In this way, Corpang resembles Nightspore as we see him at the séance, “consumed by an intense spiritual hunger”, which perhaps implies that, in Lindsay’s universe, Corpang is the closest to Muspel of all the characters we meet.)

Despite this torment, and this need not to be standing still, Corpang has nevertheless spent most of his life in the colourless underground world of Threal. Haunte calls him a “toad”, implying something dull, torpid and stolid, something cold-blooded and essentially unfeeling, certainly lacking in life to some extent. He has not, like Maskull, set forth on a quest, nor has he, like Maskull, involved himself in the world. Maskull achieves Muspel only after he has “run through the gamut” — experienced everything, lived a full and intense (if dangerous and amoral) life. Corpang is in torment when Maskull first meets him because he’s reached a dead end (something symbolised, perhaps, by the cave he lives in), and is living in a world where too much of his human nature is denied (as represented by the fact that, in Threal, there is no colour). Corpang no doubt has the seriousness and dedication the quest for Muspel demands, but he doesn’t have the passion, energy, wildness*, that Muspel also requires. The nature of Muspel, after all, is passion, emotion. It cannot be won, it seems, through the sort of monkish asceticism practised by Corpang.

(* One thing I’m grateful to Wright for is pointing out that “wild” is one of Lindsay’s favourite words.)

Nightspore & Krag

Detail from “Lucifer” by Franz von Stuck

Wright’s next criticism is not about one of Lindsay’s rejections, but what escapes rejection. Joiwind, Panawe, and Corpang are all found wanting in A Voyage to Arcturus, but after they, and many others, are removed, what are we left with? Nightspore and Krag. And Nightspore, Wright says, is hardly the image of a hero, while Krag is hardly the image of a redeemer or god.

I certainly agree, but I think, with A Voyage to Arcturus, Lindsay is mainly interested in the rejection, the paring away to a Nothing that is “not Nothing, but Something”. Nightspore, I think, isn’t meant to be a hero in the usual sense. Nor is he meant to be an antihero, nor the image of a fully realised human soul. What he is, is a raw, naked image of a human soul that has dwelt too long away from its true home (Muspel), in a state of deception. Nightspore has been spiritually starved by living too long in Crystalman’s world, but has a basic toughness that means he will persist in striving to free himself. This doesn’t make him admirable or noble — desperate people rarely are — but it does make him a survivor. And that’s what’s needed to free oneself from Crystalman’s clutches: one has to endure the snares and deceptions until they’ve all been proved false, until Crystalman’s wiles have been exhausted, and the only thing that’s left is the one thing that’s undeniably true. Nightspore is, essentially, a soldier in a spiritual war, and one who’s been too long in the trenches.

What, then, of Krag? It’s true Krag doesn’t act like a god, but he’s not interested in being worshipped or obeyed, nor even in impressing people. He knows that only one thing will redeem people from Crystalman’s clutches, and that is pain. A Voyage to Arcturus can be read as asking a question: “What is the point of pain?” Pleasure is self-justifying, but pain causes us to query the rightness of this world. If the world was created for some benevolent reason, why must we have pain? Pain, then, becomes one of those test cases for any metaphysical belief. An approach that can’t provide a justification for pain is incomplete. (Joiwind and Panawe, for instance, would say that pain was the work of Krag the Devil and leave it at that, which is a non-answer.) Muspel itself is not pain — it is passion, the full range of sublime feeling — it’s just that pain is the one thing Crystalman can’t answer, so it’s the one thing Krag can work with. Krag knows there’s no point in making promises, or in preaching the virtues of Muspel — the people he’s trying to save have been lied to too often. He knows, though, that Muspel will, ultimately, answer for itself. So Krag does the one thing Crystalman cannot do — he speaks the truth in as brutal, uncaring, and un-prettified a way as possible, knowing that, because it is truth, it will still come through, despite being so badly “sold”. The truth, after all, sells itself.


Detail from “Memory” by Elihu Vedder

One of Wright’s criticisms of A Voyage to Arcturus is that Muspel is a glorification of the self, that “the self is the source of the light” in Muspel, as though Lindsay were saying that the ultimate goal of this spiritual quest is some realisation of the self-as-divine rather than a vision of something external to, and greater than, oneself.

I take it the passage Wright refers to is this one, with Nightspore reaching the top of the Tower of Muspel:

He pulled his body up, and stood expectantly on the stone-floored roof, looking round for his first glimpse of Muspel.

There was nothing.

He was standing upon the top of a tower, measuring not above fifteen feet each way. Darkness was all around him. He sat down on the stone parapet, with a sinking heart . . .

I don’t interpret this to mean Lindsay was glorifying the self, though. The fact that Nightspore is alone in Muspel is not a indication he’s equivalent to a deity, but a measure of how endangered Muspel is — and how the battle against untruth is one we must each fight as if it were a life-or-death struggle, with genuine and eternal consequences. Lindsay explicitly states this further on:

Muspel was no all-powerful Universe, tolerating from pure indifference the existence side by side with it of another false world, which had no right to be. . . . Muspel was fighting for its life . . . against all that is most shameful and frightful—against sin masquerading as eternal beauty, against baseness masquerading as nature, against the Devil masquerading as God. . . .

After all, upon finding himself alone in Muspel, Nightspore doesn’t sit down and congratulate himself on being divine, but turns around and heads back to Earth to free more souls. Muspel wants more people; the self is not enough.

This becomes clearer in Lindsay’s later writings, perhaps, especially in The Witch, where he explicitly identifies the pain of this world with loneliness, and the ultimate goal of all our journeys through this and the worlds to come as a process of ending our loneliness, something that by definition requires more than the self. In Devil’s Tor, meanwhile, the main virtue he praises is an indifference to one’s personal fate in the face of a greater, divinely-appointed Fate. I don’t think Lindsay was interested in glorifying the self at all.


Detail from “Youth before a skull” by Magnus Enckell

Wright’s overall objection is to the sense of world-rejection in A Voyage to Arcturus. And, as this is a healthy-minded objection, I’m certainly not going to argue against it. I would like, though, to make some points about the book’s meaning which I hope will save it from Wright’s more damning comments, such as that it is morbid, and that it depicts life as sterile and not worth living.

Behind Lindsay’s world-rejection — or, more properly, Maskull/Nightspore’s rejection of Crystalman’s false world — is the drive towards a greater, fuller, but above all more authentic life. I’d say life isn’t depicted in A Voyage to Arcturus as “not worth living”, but as very much worth fighting for. And, although Maskull is driven on his quest by the need to leave Crystalman’s world and find Muspel, it is not about the desire to end his life. Muspel is not a land of the dead, but a sublime region of “emotion, seen as light” — and therefore of deeper, more vibrant feeling than is possible in Crystalman’s world. Part of the path to Muspel is the need to live life to the fullest — to “run through the gamut” — because Muspel is not about restricting the soul with rules and self-denials, but about living in accord with all the soul’s human and spiritual faculties. This is why the ascetic Corpang does not reach Muspel, but a bloody-handed Maskull does. A Voyage to Arcturus is no moral guide, but rather issues the sort of challenging statement Blake gave in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’s “Proverbs of Hell”:

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

And Lindsay’s novel is not, I’d say, necessarily anti-Christian. His friend E H Visiak was a highly-principled Christian (citing Jesus’s pacifism when registering as a Conscientious Objector during the First World War), who called A Voyage to Arcturus “dogmatically Christian”. The idea that the world belongs to the Devil is, after all, a longstanding one.

A Voyage to Arcturus is a serious and complex work of art, written to stimulate our thinking and imagination. It is not meant to contain within it the whole of life — no book could do that — nor to provide any sort of “one size fits all” solution; rather, it speaks to a single aspect of life, one extreme condition under which we may find ourselves, one mood we may fall into. It’s a “dark night of the soul” book, one written from the sort of outlook William James referred to as “twice born” in his Varieties of Religious Experience. As such, it can act as a stimulant, a guiding archetype, a visionary resource, an inspiration, a challenge, a shock, a catalogue of questions and bizarre wonders, and a map of a certain (troubled) section of the human soul.

Reading The Lament of Prometheus certainly stimulated my thinking on Lindsay’s novel and, even if it led me to ultimately disagree, it shows that Wright’s book was doing what good criticism does — probing, questioning, challenging, asserting — all qualities, I’d say, shared by A Voyage to Arcturus itself.

© Murray Ewing 2020