Franz Kafka on the tenth anniversary of his death by Walter Benjamin (1934)

The German-Jewish literary critic Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940) published several pieces about Franz Kafka, which were later collected in the selection of his essays titled Illuminations.

Franz Kafka on the tenth anniversary of his death (1934)

What makes Benjamin so enjoyable to read also makes him difficult to summarise. This is that he proceeds by a process of association, linking together thoughts and ideas to whip up a meringue of insights in a manner which is closer to that of a creative writer than a logical analyst. One thing leads to another which leads to another, and all sorts of sparks fly off all along the way.

This is exacerbated by the way he tends to bring out a flavour or aspect of a writer by comparing, by laying them alongside, work by another writer or from another tradition i.e. he works by a process of comparison and association.

Thus he opens the whole essay, not with anything by Kafka at all, but by telling a legend associated with the great Russian statesman Potemkin in order to make a preliminary definition of ‘the Kafkaesque’ – and at other moments he describes part of the legend of Ulysses, compares Kafka’s writing to that of the Chinese sage Lao Tse, or to Chinese theatre, or to the relationship between Jewish Holy Scriptures.

Some commentators have compared Benjamin’s approach to the Modernist technique of collage, cutting up and pasting next to each other material from different sources and traditions, in order to spark and jar interesting new perspectives and insights.

This makes for an immensely enjoyable, learned and impressionistic carnival ride through the subject being analysed, and reading Benjamin makes you feel wonderfully well-read and clever – which accounts for his enduring popularity among undergraduates ever since his essays were translated and became available in the 1970s. But also makes it quite difficult to grasp and define the points he’s making, or to extract logical summaries of his essays. That said, here’s my attempt to summarise the key points of this essay:

Original sin

Kafka’s world is one of people dogged by the Original Sin of having been born to fathers who have instituted an obscure and unknowable Law, which no-one can live up to, fathers who are themselves subject to decay, decline and fall. It is a primeval world:

  • ‘Laws and definite norms remain unwritten in the prehistoric world. A man can transgress them without suspecting it.’
  • ‘It takes us back far beyond the time of the giving of the Law on twelve tablets to a prehistoric world, written law being one of the first victories scored over this world. In Kafka the written law is contained in books, but these are secret; by basing itself on them the prehistoric world exerts its rule all the more ruthlessly.’
  • ‘…the prehistoric forces that dominated Kafka’s creativeness’
  • ‘In the mirror which the prehistoric world held before him in the form of guilt he merely saw the future emerging in the form of judgment.’

A world so prehistoric that it seems to exist before the world of myths and legends that we learned about at school, a world of inchoate feelings which only later, in man’s earliest myths and legends, found their first expression. [This is clearly an impressionistic, literary way of thinking about Kafka.]

The only beings who seem to exist outside the punishing dyad of decaying authority figures and stricken sons are ‘the assistants’, that category of characters who are not serious, are frivolous, who giggle and fool around. They seem to have escaped, or were never part of, the fallen world of endless guilt.

Characters in experimental theatre

Benjamin brings together allusions from the ‘gestic’ nature of ancient Chinese theatre and the melodramatic postures of characters in El Greco paintings, to bring out the way that many of the stories and characters can be seen as gestures. Each is playing a stylised role.

Key to this insight is the central role of the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, in Amerika, which is clearly an allegorical entity, and which everyone is welcome to join.

a good number of Kafka’s shorter studies and stories are seen in their full light only when they are, so to speak, put on as acts in the “Nature Theater of Oklahoma.” Only then will one recognize with certainty that Kafka’s entire work constitutes a code of gestures which surely had no definite symbolic meaning for the author from the outset; rather, the author tried to derive such a meaning from them in ever-changing contexts and experimental groupings. The theater is the logical place for such groupings.

It strikes me as a profound way of reimagining the stories to say that ‘ Kafka’s entire work constitutes a code of gestures’. That’s quite a fertile insight, it makes you reflect back over the oeuvre, and consider how much and in what way it applies to the stories or novels.

The next bit is even more powerful:

a code of gestures which surely had no definite symbolic meaning for the author from the outset; rather, the author tried to derive such a meaning from them in ever-changing contexts and experimental groupings.

Now that is really profound because it opens up your understanding. A basic level understanding of Kafka’s work might be to say that he kept trying to write more or less the same story but kept failing. The motto of this fairly linear reading of Kafka would be Samuel Beckett’s famous line:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (from Worstward Ho!, 1983, Beckett’s second-to-last published work)

Benjamin’s metaphor is immediately more accurate, rich and suggestive, in that it is three dimensional: now the varied characters Kafka created are not doing the same thing, but actors trying out different stylised gestures within a vast stage or theatre (three dimensional because, though most are on the surface of the earth, some are up in the air – like the trapeze artist of First Sorrow, some beneath the ground like the narrator of The Burrow).

Parables

Benjamin makes some preliminary remarks about parables, dividing them into two types, ones which unfold like a bud blossoming into a flower, the other like a careful piece of origami which the maker opens and flattens out into a flat blank piece of paper, and goes on to relate the second type to Kafka’s work. Very brilliantly he nails the sense I’ve had throughout reading them that all the stories are immensely pregnant with deeper meaning but that… they resist all attempts to reveal, expose or define it.

They are not parables, and yet they do not want to be taken at their face value; they lend themselves to quotation and can be told for purposes of clarification. But do we have the doctrine which Kafka’s parables interpret and which K.’s postures and the gestures of his animals clarify? It does not exist; all we can say is that here and there we have an allusion to it.

Not only does it not exist, but Benjamin brilliantly captures the profoundly evanescent feel of this eluding meaning – that Kafka was struggling to express something ancient and primeval or, in a brilliant moment, that his works could just as well be taken as the building blocks towards a new doctrine and teaching of some kind.

Kafka might have said that these are relics transmitting the doctrine, although we could regard them just as well as precursors preparing the doctrine.

Benjamin takes a detour into discussing how the central subject of the works was how we organise ourselves into society, and takes the story about the Great Wall of China as a classic example of meditating on this subject. But then he returns with another thought about parables, which is the care Kafka took to ensure that they resisted interpretation.

Kafka had a rare capacity for creating parables for himself. Yet his parables are never exhausted by what is explainable; on the contrary, he took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings. One has to find one’s way in them circumspectly, cautiously, and warily.

This is a more practical, understandable point – that Kafka’s writings seem to be cast in the form of allegories and parables in order to prompt and invite interpretation by his readers. And yet, the closer you look, it feels like the more cannily they have been arranged so as to lead you only so far, before resisting all final, one-version interpretations. Before evading your grasp.

Talmudic interpretations

Benjamin was acutely aware of his Jewish heritage, and powerfully tuned in to the social plight and cultural role played by Jewish Germans of his own generation, a theme explained very clearly and thoroughly by Ernst Pawel in his biography of Kafka. This essay is sprinkled with references to Kafka’s Jewishness and by allusions to Jewish literary, theological and interpretative traditions and to individual Jewish folk stories or legends. Thus he writes of Kafka’s parables

This does not mean that his prose pieces belong entirely in the tradition of Western prose forms; they have, rather, a similar relationship to doctrine as the Haggadah does to the Halakah.

But I have no idea what the Haggadah or Halakah are. This particular section ends with Benjamin retelling a Talmudic legend told by a rabbi in answer to the question why Jews celebrate a meal every Friday evening. Some of Benjamin’s many allusions (like the one which compares the gestures of Kafka protagonists to the stricken, arms-raised gestures of El Greco figures who seem to be ripping open the sky behind them) illuminating and empowering. But I found Benjamin’s references to the Jewish tradition, on the whole, closing and narrowing.

This is by contrast to the lengthy sections Ernst Pawel devotes to the social and cultural plight of German-speaking Jews in the 1890s and early 1900s, in Austria, in Germany and in Kafka’s Bohemia, which I found electrifying. As Pawel describes the legal and political discrimination they suffered, the almost daily indignities, the attacks in the Press and by academics and nationalist writers, Pawel builds up a sense of the real climate of fear and alertness to attack from any sides which many of them felt and which I found helped me gain a deeper appreciation of Kafka’s permanent sense of unease and dread.

The hunchback

Benjamin asserts that the two commonest ways of interpreting or criticising Kafka’s texts – the psychological and the religious – are equally wrong.

There are two ways to miss the point of Kafka’s works. One is to interpret them naturally, the other is the supernatural interpretation. Both the psychoanalytic and the theological interpretations equally miss the essential points.

I tend to agree. (And so does Vladimir Nabokov, in his lecture on Kafka.) When Benjamin quotes some overtly Christian literary commentary on Kafka, its main effect is to make you realise how completely the entire Christian philosophy and worldview has disappeared from criticism and indeed most contemporary discourse. There are many many more articles about Islam in my newspapers and magazines than there are about Christianity.

As to psychology and psychoanalysis, still very much with us, I find it too trivial. That Kafka was afraid of his father or trapped in a hothouse stifling Jewish urban household, doesn’t begin to explain his genius, or the effect his writings have on us.

I didn’t understand much of what Benjamin says here.

Kafka could understand things only in the form of a gestus, and this gestus which he did not understand constitutes the cloudy part of the parables. Kafka’s writings emanate from it.

Nor when he quotes Kafka writing about a fictional character labouring under the weight of his ‘family, and goes on to say:

Doing this family’s bidding, he moves the mass of historical happenings as Sisyphus rolled the stone.

But I do mostly understand him when he goes on to emphasise the prehistoric nature of Kafka’s world, which he strikingly describes as a swamp world.

Kafka did not consider the age in which he lived as an advance over the beginnings of time. His novels are set in a swamp world.

This swamp metaphor allows Benjamin to link to some of the women Kafka’s protagonists encounter, describing them as swamp women (which chimes with the eerie detail in The Trial that the middle fingers of the woman Leni are joined together by a web of skin.) Benjamin makes the claim that only conceptualising the stories as coming from primeval prehistoric zone can we read them correctly.

Only from this vantage point can the technique of Kafka the storyteller be comprehended.

And then to move briskly on to the notion that everyone Joseph K. talks to speaks to him as if her has actually known all along the processes and procedures of the Court, but has for some reason forgotten them. This allows Benjamin to assert that the real subject of The Trial is forgetting and then to segue, as he so often does, into the role of memory in Jewish belief and ritual, quoting from Willy Haas that:

Memory plays a very mysterious role as piousness. It is not an ordinary, but … the most profound quality of Jehovah that he remembers, that he retains an infallible memory ‘to the third and fourth, even to the hundredth generation.’ The most sacred . . . act of the . . . ritual is the erasing of sins from the book of memory.

Benjamin conflates this deep memory as extending back into the prehistoric primeval world he has conjured up

What has been forgotten – and this insight affords us yet another avenue of access to Kafka’s work – is never something purely individual. Everything forgotten mingles with what has been forgotten of the prehistoric world, forms countless, uncertain, changing compounds, yielding a constant flow of new, strange products. Oblivion is the container from which the inexhaustible intermediate world in Kafka’s stories presses toward the light.

And, Benjamin suggests, this is why Kafka was attracted to narrators who are animals – because Kafka is plunging back into a world so deep, that it is pre-human. That or it casts back to a time when pre-literate tribes identified with sacred animals and set them on their totem poles. In some moods, Kafka is more of the animal world, than the human.

Which, after some convoluted reasoning, brings Benjamin to the biographical snippet that Kafka referred to his tubercular cough as ‘the animal’ – something pre-human rising up out of his own body.

Speaking of the body, Benjamin goes on to point out the frequency of characters in the novels with their heads bent down onto their chests. He then makes a larger than usual leap to connect these fictional characters with the figure of the hunchback in an old German folk song. And from there arrives at a conclusion of sorts, rejecting the two schools of false interpretations mentioned earlier – psychological or Christian – and instead associating Kafka with the prehistoric depths of the German (and Jewish) folk traditions.

In his depth Kafka touches the ground which neither ‘mythical divination’ nor ‘existential theology’
supplied him with. It is the core of folk tradition, the German as well as the Jewish.

Sancho Panza

The final section of the essay is titled Sancho Panza after Cervantes’ comic character, but, with characteristic ellipsis, Benjamin begins by not mentioning Sancho at all, instead quoting another Talmudic or Jewish folk story. See what I mean by the way Benjamin proceeds by building up mosaics or multiple levels of reference and association?

This section weaves together a brief consideration of the Jewish folk story with references to Jaroslav Hašek’s comic character, The Good Soldier Švejk, then refers to Plutarch of all people, to Peter Schlemihl, and arrives back at the Oklahoma Nature Theatre, the student Karl meets in Amerika, the bucket rider and Red Indian and Bucephalus short stories, to create a whirligig of insights and connections. I understood this part:

The invention of the film and the phonograph came in an age of maximum alienation of men from one another, of unpredictably intervening relationships which have become their only ones. Experiments have proved that a man does not recognize his own walk on the screen or his own voice on the phonograph. The situation of the subject in such experiments is Kafka’s situation; this is what directs him to learning, where he may encounter fragments of his own existence, fragments that are still within the context of the role. He might catch hold of the lost gestus the way Peter Schlemihl caught hold of the shadow he had sold. He might understand himself, but what an enormous effort would be required!

I think this section ends up by concluding that hope derives from learning, but learning without a goal.

The gate to justice is learning. And yet Kafka does not dare attach to this learning the promises which tradition has attached to the study of the Torah. His assistants are sextons who have lost their house of prayer, his students are pupils who have lost the Holy Writ.

And he ends his essay by saying it is all summed up in yet another of Kafka’s really short, gnomic pieces, the one about Sancha Panza – and hence the name of this section.

Without making any boast of it Sancho Panza succeeded in the course of years, by devouring a great number of romances of chivalry and adventure in the evening and night hours, in so diverting from him his demon, whom he later called Don Quixote, that his demon thereupon set out in perfect freedom on the maddest exploits, which, however, for the lack of a preordained object, which should have been Sancho Panza himself, harmed nobody. A free man, Sancho Panza philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, and had of them a great and edifying entertainment to the end of his days.

Which I partially understood, but Benjamin himself makes no effort to explain.


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Out of The Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis (1938)

His mind, like so many minds of his generation, was richly furnished with bogies. He had read his H. G. Wells and others. His universe was peopled with horrors such as ancient and medieval mythology could hardly rival. No insect-like, vermiculate or crustacean Abominable, no twitching feelers – rasping wings, slimy coils, curling tentacles, no monstrous union of superhuman intelligence and insatiable cruelty seemed to him anything but likely on an alien world.

The plot

The set-up

Ransom (we never learn his first name) is a harmless Cambridge professor of philology on a walking tour of the Midlands during the university holidays. It’s getting dark and when he asks an old lady at a little cottage for the nearest accommodation, she suggests a nearby house, home of another ‘professor’.

It’s now night-time and Ransom, when there’s no reply to his calls, cheekily pushes through the hedge and wanders round the back of the building where he a) comes across a surprising array of outhouses and chimneys, at least one showing the wild flames of a forge, and with some huge object looming over the buildings, and b) discovers two men struggling with a young lad.

Quickly the two chaps introduce themselves as Weston (a physics professor) and Devine (a businessman) who, to his annoyance, Ransom realises he knew at school, and disliked for his slimeyness. The pair explain that the boy is backward, and they only employ him out of charity and he was just fighting against a chore they’d asked him to do.

Now they let the boy go, to return to the old lady in the cottage, and take Ransom into the house and pour him a nice whiskey. But the whiskey is drugged. Ransom falls asleep. When he wakes, before he can even stir he hears the two men discussing their plans to ‘sacrifice’ him to someone or something. Alarmed, Ransom tries to make a bolt for it, but has barely got to the kitchen door before they’re on him and one of them coshes him.

He regains consciousness in a spaceship. Lewis is a good describer and paints a vivid picture of coming to consciousness in a weirdly shaped metal box, hot on one wall (facing the sun), cool on the other – and being almost weightless. He blunders out of the small metal room into a sort of communal space where he finds Weston and Devine. Ransom’s mind reels as they explain to him that they are going back to Mars in a spaceship.

Back? Yes, they’ve been once already and Devine darkly hints that a) there’s a lot in it for him, wealth or riches or fame etc, and b) that the things – the creatures – they met requested they bring another human back, with implications that this person would be a gift or, as Ransom fears, a ‘sacrifice’. My God, he’s been kidnapped and flown to another planet against his will!

Fantasy

The description of the journey is full of the thoughtful kinds of details of the H.G. Wells type (the continual pattering of small meteorites on the shell of the ship, the way the ship is shaped like a big sphere) – all of which we now know to be completely impractical and unrealistic.

As unrealistic as the way the ‘ship’ mysteriously ‘lands’ quite peacefully on the surface of Mars and, when they open the circular hatch (much like a manhole cover) it turns out the air of Mars is perfectly breathable (just like the atmosphere of H.G. wells’s Moon was perfectly breathable). All of this is almost too silly to be ‘science’ fantasy, is more like a medieval romance, where the sleeper awakes in a strange land full of new creatures.

Same here. They have landed near a ‘lake’ of phosphorescent blue water. Tall willowy things seem to approach from the other shore and gesture towards Weston and Devine. With a shock, Ransom realises these are the creatures his kidnappers spoke about and they are gesturing to him. He is going to be handed over and then sacrificed!

At that moment a water-based creature slip through the ‘water’ and appears to snap at Weston and Devine, who step back in a hurry, slip over and… Ransom takes the opportunity to turn and run, run, run, without looking back, across the spit of sand, up the sides of a hill or whatever it is, never looking back, into a ‘forest’ of tall swaying trunks, amid alien flora, driven by panic fear.

Meeting the Malacandrans

Forced by thirst to eventually risk drinking from a pool of Martian ‘water’, Ransom is terrified when a sleek black animal a bit like an otter arises from it. The creature barks and he is astonished to realise it is making logical, sequential sounds. It is talking. Ransom approaches, it backs away, it gestures, he backs away. Then driven by curiosity, they move closer to each other.

Now we realise why Lewis made Ransom a philologist – it gives a plausibility (well, a sort of plausibility) – to his ability to grasp key words, to separate nouns from verbs, and to quickly begin to talk to this creature.

(The idea that any of this could happen is the wildest fantasy – Mars’s gravity not very different from ours, sunshine and breathable air, drinkable water, creatures with a sort of recognisable form and who can talk. It is Middle Earth, it is Narnia, it is not our solar system.)

To cut a long story short, this creature turns out to be a hross named Hyoi. Ransom is taken to their village where he learns the plural of hross is hrossa (not very difficult, really).

The peaceful hrossa like making poetry, their young frolic around Ransom’s feet, and he goes on a village hunt for one of the few violent creatures on the planet, a hnakra, which live in the ‘rivers’. Ransom is given pride of place in the ‘canoe’ which the hrossa paddle out to find the hnakra, armed with hrossa ‘spears’ and feeling a tremendous sense of comradeship with his fellow ‘bloods’ – at which point I realised that, despite looking like otters, everything else about the hrossa is reminiscent of native Americans: they live close to the soil, in teepee-like houses, have campfires, their young running free. It is a vision of innocence.

Ransom learns that there are two other ‘intelligent’ species on the planet which, by now, he has learned the natives call ‘Malacandra’ – short creatures who love building things and are known as pfifltriggi, and tall, willowy creatures known as sorns or séroni, to give them their grammatically correct plural.

There is something wonderfully innocent about the notion of a Cambridge philologist, magically transported to Mars, then spending his time fussing and fretting about plurals and tenses. And even about placing accents over the correct vowel sounds. Sweet.

Anyway, all three of these species long ago agreed to share one common language and live in peace together, each of their skills complementing the other species – in this, as in so much else, making Ransom reflect sadly on the violence and rapacity of our human species.

Once you get past the hot lakes and phosphorescent water, past the way the waterways have carved deep dead-straight canyons across the red surface of the planet (Lewis’s explanation of Mars’s canals) past the way the vegetation, the hills and the creatures are all tall and willowy due to Mars’s weaker gravity – past, in other words, the Amazing Tales and Astounding Stories level of the setting – then the story reveals its very traditional roots, going back at least as far as Gulliver’s Travels, if not to Pilgrim’s Progress and beyond, in the sense that it is a highly moralised story.

The fundamental purpose of the narrative is to teach and instruct. And what is being taught is a very traditional antidote to human arrogance and ignorance. Initially Ransom judges the Malacandrans by all-too-human standards, expecting them to be rapacious, violent, competitive – and is continually being brought up short and reproved for his cynicism.

With everything he learns about Malacandra he is reminded that there is something ‘crook’, as the Aussies say, about mankind, something bent and broken.

Special insight comes in (maybe predictably) a conversation about sex – the hrossa breed only once in their lifetimes, which Ranson can’t understand since our own species, of course, has a great deal of trouble restraining itself from all kinds of wanton promiscuity.

At last it dawned upon him that it was not they, but his own species, that were the puzzle. That the hrossa should have such instincts was mildly surprising; but how came it that the instincts of the hrossa so closely resembled the unattained ideals of that far-divided species Man whose instincts were so deplorably different? What was the history of Man?

The ultimate message of the book is that all the universe is a dance of beauty created by a loving God but that earth alone has brought upon itself ruin and silence. By man’s Original Sin.

Back to the plot: Ransom is informed that there is a fourth ‘species’, the almost invisible eldil (plural eldila), spirits which shimmer through the world as prisms of light, as breaths of air and which, he also learns, live in space, at least what humans call ‘space’. Because now he learns that what humans take to be the big black void of ‘space’ is in fact thronged with life and life-giving energy. He learns to think of it not as black and negative empty ‘space’, but as rich and full ‘deep Heaven’.

On the hunting trip an eldil appears to the hrossa (Ransom can barely see it) and tells them to take the man (hman) to Oyarsa. Oyarsa, they explain, is the eldil who is ruler of the planet. The hrossa says they will, just as soon as they finish the hunt. They successfully capture the hnakra but, once the canoes have been pulled up on shore, Hyoi, Ransom’s friend and guide, is shot by a rifle, Devine and Weston’s rifle fired from way up in the hills – and expires in Ransom’s arms.

This really brings home to Ransom just how ‘crook’ and ‘bent’ his species really is. To the hrossa it conveys a different message: that they should have obeyed the eldil straightaway. They tell Ransom how to get to the valley of Oyarsa, which requires crossing a kind of range of Martian Alps. Ransom sets off alone.

Up and up he climbs, becoming breathless, cold and observing the sky getting blacker. Eventually he realises he is climbing out of Mars’s atmosphere altogether, up to the level of the surface of the planet. He realises that all the lush life he’s been living among exists down in the ‘canals’ which are cut across Mars’s surface. Up on the ‘surface’, there is no atmosphere at all.

Before he asphyxiates he arrives at a cave where lives an ancient and wise sorn. It is one of the same creatures who had terrified him all those weeks ago, when he had first arrived, on the shore of the ‘lake’. Now he realises this species are the lofty ‘philosophers’ of Malacandra. They know about astronomy and about the planet’s history in a way which doesn’t interest the happy, hunting, singing hrossa.

The sorn (named Augray) gives Ransom a flower to press to his face, which exudes oxygen (handy), places him up on its shoulder, and then sets off across the mountains towards the valley of Oyarsa, all the way telling Ransom more about the history and life of Malacandra.

This journey on the shoulder of a wise and noble old alien creature reminds me very much of the hobbits’ encounters with the Ents in Lord of The Rings by Lewis’s lifelong friend, J.R.R. Tolkien.

Augray and Ransom descend into the beautiful valley of Meldilorn, the home of Oyarsa. Here he first sees pfifltriggi who build houses, make works of art and carve stones.

Oyarsa and the meaning of the solar system

Ransom is then led through a throng of Malacandrans, up a ‘tree’-lined avenue towards a circle of pillars like a temple, where he finally meets Oyarsa who proceeds, of course, to explain everything to him. For this is a format as old as writing – the quest, the journey, the odyssey to meet the Old Man of the Hills or guru or Master or god.

Oyarsa explains that:

  • each of the planets of the solar system has a tutelary spirit or oyarsa (plural Oyéresu)
  • on the four inner planets, which contain life, the local Oyarsa is responsible for that life
  • but the ruler of Earth (known as Thulcandra or the ‘silent planet’ hence – we now realise – the title of the book), has turned evil (become ‘bent’) and after some kind of great battle has been restricted to Thulcandra

Quite naturally, as in any allegory or romance or fantasy of this type, Ransom (and by extension the reader) is made to feel small and humble and ashamed of humanity and its greed and wars and so on. A bit like a schoolboy getting a telling off from the headmaster.

During this Great Explanation, there is a fuss back at the edge of the crowd and Ransom turns to see Devine and Weston being manhandled into Oyarsa’s presence by a group of hrossa, along with the corpses of Hyoi and two other hrossa who they have shot. God, is he ashamed to be human.

But it gets worse. Weston and Devine cannot in fact ‘see’ Oyarsa, having not developed the sensitivity to perceive eldila. They think the voice they can hear is being ‘thrown’ by a ventriloquist and decide a particularly sleepy old hross at the edge of the crowd must be throwing his voice. They talk to this old creature in patronising baby language, and offer him beads and cheap trinkets – exactly like the stereotypical white man encountering a new ‘tribe’.

Ransom could sink through the floor in embarrassment and mortification. Are these stupid, blundering, clumsy, patronising idiots his fellow ‘men’?

Oyarsa thinks Weston and Devine are behaving so irrationally they must be ill and orders them to be taken away and have their heads dunked in cold water to sober them up. They, with human cynicism, fear they are being dragged off to be executed and call on Ransom for help.

Then Oyarsa orders a pfifltriggi to use some kind of small crystal device, at the touch of which the bodies of the three dead hrossa disappear in a flash of light. That is their funeral ceremony.

Weston is brought back, head dripping with cold water, into the presence of Oyarsa where he makes a long speech justifying themselves. This is couched in a mix of imperial and capitalist rhetoric, and rises to a great vision Weston has, of Mankind colonising the other planets of the solar system and then Reaching Out To The Stars.

Ransom is called on to translate this lecture which he (and Lewis) not only regard as clumsy, crude, greedy, egocentric and completely contrary to the spirit of the peaceful ordered heavens – which we have by now learned so much about. But, on a telling linguistic level, Ransom finds that he cannot in fact translate portions of the speech, because a lot of the pompous abstract phraseology of imperialism and capitalism has no counterpart in the hrossa’s admirably practical and poetic language.

Oyarsa listens to what Ransom translates and concedes that Weston is acting out of an (admittedly misplaced) sense of duty to his species, and so decides not to evaporate him and Devine on the spot, but to allow them to proceed back to earth. Ransom must decide whether to stay or go back with them.

Reluctantly, Ransom realises he must go. Oyarsa orders the spaceship to be supplied with ninety days of oxygen, food and water, and warns that soon after that time it will be evaporated. Weston doesn’t understand, but Ransom by now realises that the entire solar system teems with life, with eldila, who can easily follow the ship’s progress and obey Oyarsa’s command, no matter where they go.

In fact the journey turns out to be pretty perilous because the earth is not in alignment with Mars and so the ship has to pass much closer to the sun than on the outward journey, becoming dangerously over-heated.

Then they discover that the moon in its orbit is between the ship and the earth. But the earthmen navigate all these perils and, after losing consciousness, Ransom eventually wakens to the most wonderful sound in the world – the sound of rain falling on the outside of the ship.

Realising the others have already left it, Ransom clambers up to the manhole cover, falls out and stumbles across fields. There is a flash behind him and he realises the spaceship has been vaporised as Oyarsa pledged. The lane becomes a road into a village and then – joy of joys – he beholds an English pub, stumbles inside, elbows his way through the crowd to the bar and orders… a pint of good old English beer!

Postscript

To my great surprise the postscript reveals that the author of this whole narrative is a man named ‘Lewis’, a friend of Ransom’s who the latter has told his story to, and who has agreed to write it up and publish it as a fiction.

To give this a plausible feel the postscript quotes a letter from Ransom to ‘Lewis’ pointing out various inaccuracies or places where Lewis has simplified the story.

It also tells that Ransom suspects Weston is going to do more mischief and has come to realise it is his mission to stop him. the struggle may take place on earth which is why Ransom has been keen to get the book published, since it will familiarise readers with key ideas which might help in the coming battle.

Key terms

Maleldil, god of all

hnau – generic for creature

Thulcandra – earth, Perelandra – Venus, Malacandra – Mars

Oyarsa, a spirit set to rule each of the inner planets

sorn, seroni

hman their name for humans

handramit the sunken canyons with breathable air where the hrossa live

Surprised by joy

Lewis was raised an Anglican but didn’t bother much about religion as an undergraduate, until he underwent a profound Christian conversion experience in 1931.

Over the next twenty years he turned himself into one of the most popular and successful writers of Christian apologetics – i.e. books and essays arguing in favour of Christianity – in the English-speaking world. These works included classics such as Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain and Miracles.

Throughout these works Lewis makes the same central key points:

  • that the world is the product of a loving, caring God who instituted a sane and rational Moral Law for us to follow
  • that something in the world is wrong or crooked, something to do with man’s disobedience to this higher Moral Law and his ignorant pursuit of his own selfish, egotistical aims
  • and that one man greater than all men sacrificed himself in order to redeem us, in body and imagination, from imprisonment in our own petty selves – to show us a higher realm of values – and to reunite us with the creator

and he set out to convey them through all the means at his disposal.

Thus Lewis not only wrote straightforward books of Christian argumentation but also came up with some wonderfully inventive formats or fictional frames. One example is the famous Screwtape Letters (1942), supposedly written from a wily old devil to a young apprentice, listing all the ways to entrap and ensnare humans, which sheds light on the psychology of evil or selfishness or badness.

Also famous – mega-famous since they began to be made into Hollywood movies in the early 2000s – are the Chronicles of Narnia series of seven children’s books, published in quick succession between 1950 and 1956.

So Out of the Silent Planet, published in 1938, could be said to stand at the start, not only of the specific science fiction trilogy, but also of Lewis’s realisation that he could convey his Christian message in a range of fictional ways.

This background goes to explain the reader’s feeling throughout the book that it is describing not just an adventurous sequence of thrilling incidents, but is promoting a very strong point of view.

From the moment Ransom meets Hyoi onwards, the book becomes steadily more laden with hints and suggestions that life can be beautiful but something about humanity spoils it.

This is perhaps the distinctive thing about Lewis’s Christianity. It is drenched in happiness. It is not a baleful Victorian Christianity morbidly banning all pleasure of body or mind. On the contrary, Lewis sees human beings created by God to be happy – but they have fallen into narrow, egotistical ways of thinking which act against their own best interests.

As soon as Ransom is outside earth’s tainted atmosphere, he feels happy and, at various moments throughout the story, the recurrent feeling is of immense happiness.

He was on the very frontier of that heaven he had known in the space-ship, and rays that the air-enveloped words cannot taste were once more at work upon his body. He felt the old lift of the heart, the soaring solemnity, the sense, at once sober and ecstatic, of life and power offered in unasked and unmeasured abundance. If there had been air enough in his lungs he would have laughed aloud.

Lewis is a surprisingly sensuous writer. He gives unashamedly sensuous descriptions of things. Not sexual. Sensual.

Stretched naked on his bed, a second Dana, he found it night by night more difficult to disbelieve in old astrology: almost he felt, wholly he imagined, ‘sweet influence’ pouring or even stabbing into his surrendered body.

Wells, anti-Wells, beyond Wells

When it needs to be, Out of the Silent Planet is a science fantasy adventure story in the absolutely traditional mode of the day. Lewis credits H.G. Wells as an influence in his short preface and Wells is referenced throughout the book, since he was by far the most dominant imaginative influence on the genre.

For example, the very shape of the space ‘ship’ they travel in, a metal sphere, is borrowed from Wells’s First Men In The Moon. And when the hrossa quiz Ransom about earth, Ransom is very careful not to tell them about the constant warfare and lethal weaponry which characterise mankind, because:

He remembered how H. G. Wells’s Cavor had met his end on the Moon… (Chapter 11)

(In Wells’s novel, Cavor tells the moon’s inhabitants, the Selenites, all about mankind’s cruel and destructive wars, with the result that theSelenites curtail his broadcasts back to earth and – it is heavily implied – curtail him, in order not to have the vile Homo sapiens come invading their planet.)

But the actual Mars that Ransom discovers is as remote as possible from Wells’s visions of cities and steel. It is a rural, albeit alien, idyll.

The old dreams which he had brought from earth of some more than American complexity of offices or some engineers’ paradise of vast machines had indeed been long laid aside. But he had not looked for anything quite so classic, so virginal, as this bright grove.

It’s only looking back that I realise that the Wellsian paraphernalia of the opening chapters is invoked in order to draw the science fiction fan into a narrative which then goes on to shed, plate by plate, its Wellsian shell and turn into something completely different – science fiction theology – a fully Christianised view of what life on other planets might be like, and a theological interpretation of how they got that way, which takes full cognizance of the Christian story on earth – the Fall and Christ’s incarnation and redeeming crucifixion – but which, imaginatively, goes way beyond that frame to imagine the forces of good and evil battling right across the solar system.

It is the beauty – of the planet, and of its inhabitants, and then of the eldila and then of Oyarsa – the transcendent sense of beauty and happiness and joy and bliss which the book radiates, which makes it so memorable and which gives Lewis’s Christian belief its distinctively optimistic and inspirational character.


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Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on earth, until a small band of astronomers discovers the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

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