I Sing of Olaf

By John Hertz: The other day I borrowed from Sammy Davis, Jr. Today, E.E. Cummings.

I’m only borrowing the first four words. Capitalizing this name does not appear to be incorrect.

Recently Steve Wright said here,

…. by my standards, Sirius [1944] isn’t what I’d call a classic; if you want another Stapledon novel that’s actually foundational to the genre, why pick that one and not, say, mutant-superman story Odd John [1935]?

As it happens, Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950) during World War I was a conscientious objector (there’s that poem again). Driving for the Friends’ Ambulance Unit he won the Croix de Guerre. By World War II he had a Ph.D. in Philosophy, abandoned pacifism, and supported the war effort. I only have a B.A. in Philosophy, so I don’t boast.

At Denvention III (66th World Science Fiction Convention) Evelyn Leeper moderated Robert Silverberg and me on a Stapledon appreciation panel. In File 770 155 (PDF; p. 26) I reported,

Leeper said Stapledon was one of her favorites, with [Jorge] Borges [1899-1986]. Silverberg said the protagonist in Odd John couldn’t successfully encounter society so formed his own; the book was called daring, which meant erotic. I agreed with Sam Moskowitz in Far Future Calling [1979] that Sirius was Stapledon’s best novel. Silverberg said Last and First Men [1930] and Star Maker [1937] weren’t novels; Star Maker was the greater, but it had no characters [RS may’ve been alluding to the remark attr. Ravel about Boléro (1928), “I have composed one masterwork. Unfortunately, it does not contain any music” – JH].

I said all [Stapledon’s] books were doomful.

From the audience, what about his errors? Silverberg said it was a mistake to expect sense from science fiction. From the audience, do people find these books too hard? Perhaps, I said, but (not to defend them) as Castiglione wrote in The Courtier [1528] there is also “That pleasure which is had when we achieve difficult things.”

This of course is neither complete nor conclusive.

A related point. Recently Robert Whitaker Sirignano said,

…. S. Fowler Wright would bring up a big “who?” from fans in this century, as would John Taine.

James Davis Nicoll said,

Taine is probably best known these days for his work as Eric Temple Bell.

As I’ve noted about Hal Clement, George Richard, and Harry Stubbs, Taine and Bell lived in the same body. The Bell opera (in the artists’ sense, i.e. works) are indeed remarkable.

Men of Mathematics (1937) is a first-rate literary achievement. Nor is (literary present tense) Taine the S-F writer to be sneezed at. Silverberg’s column in the Jan-Feb 2019 Asimov’s begins by discussing Taine, indeed Before the Dawn (1934), the book prompting talk of Taine here.

Samuel Johnson said (Lives of the English Poets, 1781; Milton) “Those who have no power to judge of past times but by their own, should always doubt their conclusions.”

That’s striking from a man who lived two centuries ago, and whom we today, if we think of him at all, are inclined to dismiss as the 18th Century equivalent of a stuffed shirt.

Charles N. Brown was famous, or notorious, for “Mainstream literature is about the past. Science fiction is about the present. No one can write about the future.” I disagreed with him, sometimes while we were on panels together.

To take up only part of that discussion, S-F isn’t necessarily about the future. If it happens to be set in the future, it isn’t necessarily a prediction, or even a warning. Setting S-F in the future is just one kind of what-if.

In fact Star Wars is set in the past: “A long time ago….”

Saying S-F is about the present recalls a warning of Nabokov’s (Lectures on Literature, posth. 1980, p. 5), “To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth.”

To end more or less as we began, here’s a whole poem by Cummings (Poems 1954, p. 100).

Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere)arranging
a window, into which people look(while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here)and

changing everything carefully

spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
(carefully to
and fro moving New and
Old things,while
people stare carefully

moving a perhaps
fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there)and

without breaking anything.

4 thoughts on “I Sing of Olaf

  1. That’s an interesting poem to encounter right after reading Seanan McGuire’s Velveteen vs. The Seasons, which portrays Spring as the cruelest of the four.

    I admit to having read only a scrap of Borges, and nothing of Stapledon; possibly I’m too much of a materialist (and too impatient with much of the woo-woo I see about transcending) to follow either of them.

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