Savage Future - Part 2 (of 3)
by Neil Vodavzny
I see steam-punk and pulp-fantasy as alternative futures to the bland tech-visions of silicon-valley. There seems to be some inherent dehumanising effect to a cyber-verse. I was looking at 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968) the other day, and realized all the space-ships were models and Bowman’s psychedelic trip through the Jupiter “stargate” was done by photographic effects. Checking with youtube confirmed it was an archaic slit-scan technique whereby a camera dollies towards a slit beyond which are slowly tracking matt jel-patterns. As the commentator says, it’s a spatial/temporal illusion that fits the journey.
This real, visceral quality is sorely lacking in CGI, which always looks like a very good fake. I’d go so far as to say the best sci-fi is retro-futurism , not where we seem headed for, but the future as seen through the eyes and techniques of the past. The awesomeness of 2001 is almost all visceral – the 18th century drawing room where Bowman’s pod alights, the geometrical floor seemingly suspended in space, the monolith you can almost touch.. You almost get religion.
The closest filmic approximation might be Watchmen, also a retro-futurism set in the cold war era, where Dr Manhattan becomes a simultaneous space-time entity, as apparently does Bowman (Starchild). Snyder’s film version’s OK, but doesn’t have the Moore/Gibbons comic’s fantastic sense of hyper-realism. It seems to me, old-fashioned craftwork always has the edge owing to the artist’s ability to physically render and manipulate materials – it’s real, basically. Comic books are perhaps best served by CGI if only because it literally transcribes what’s on the page, so for a fan it’s a fair deal. But the original creative impulse comes from the traditional craftwork – the new X-Men mega-buster Days Of Future Past is born of a mere several issue series by Claremont/Byrne that caught the imagination.
So, although it looks as though our world is heading toward a fake perfection, that may be just a dream of our social-media, tech-junky, egalitarian friends. It reckons without the instinctive prerogative of artists for accessing cross-cultural truths. It applies to pulp-fantasy perhaps more than any other genre – the same myths recur across the centuries and they are the original source material. Norse sagas, ancient gods, Homer, Exodus. Stories of people and landscape, struggles of ethos versus ethos, conqueror versus enslaved. Hal Foster’s Prince Val comic strip is a supreme case of pulp retelling classic sagas. All the classic American comic strips have old-time values of racial and sexual stereotypes. As CC Beck says, stereotypes are useful because you don’t have to be told what they are – it’s instinctive and cultural knowledge.
Culture without instinct is something no “savage mind” would look twice at – not only pulp artists but the sources of European culture. To their everlasting misfortune, this reality is forever lost to a liberal vision of an egalitarian social-future. Indeed, it’s only visible through cliques and outsiders; the very word egalitarian cannot tolerate such truths.
One of the most notable such clubs or cliques was the one frequented by Robert Howard in the 20s/30s, the Junto. These gatherings of Texan roughneck-poets was steeped in the classics, transfigured by Howard’s innate ferocity into tales of romance for the pulps. A taste of the ruralist rebellion against the advancing social-order is given in this poem by Juntite Truett Vinson:
My basic premise is that cliques and outsiders have a truer vision of literature because that is what art always has been, until the modern era. Artists aren’t everyman, they’re unusual people who need to flex their muscles with others of their kind.
To give an idea of what I mean, compare Howard’s historic fantasies steeped in blood, kinship and romance – The Shadow Of The Vulture, set on the walls of Vienna, and other crusader-era stories (see Sword Woman) – with Man Booker winner Hilary Mantels’s grandiose trilogy on Thomas Cromwell. Her scholarship betrays a liberal conscience in delineating Henry VIII’s henchman Thomas Cromwell as a wily old soul, not the noxious thug he undoubtedly was. She’s essentially too tame, not debauched enough.
Now, there is a type of ruralist Americana that outsiders tend to come from. Harlan Ellison hails from rural Ohio, Truman Capote (of Breakfast At Tiffany’s) from Hicksville Alabama. They’re essentially unsophisticated and self-taught, not inhabitants of liberal mainstream America. Capote’s In Cold Blood is a literary savage’s cold blooded account of a true-life triple murder, which in many ways takes the side of the two perpetrators against the stereotypically materialist family of winners/victims. The heroine of the immortal Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly, lives her own inspired fantasies in a dilapidated tenement. She is, in his words, a “true fake”, someone who is her own antidote to conformity.
All these writers – Howard, Ellison, Capote – are populists in the mode of Swift and Defoe, who manipulate reality into a type of folklore. One feels the presence of subconscious racial memories, of sexual stereotypes, the innate force of living beyond the mere trappings of civilization (not sure if Audrey Hepburn’s film version fits that as haven’t seen it). In one sense artists are populists of emotional/intellectual force. Howard had the facility to take one of his historical takes (say, Spears of Clontarf) and turn it into pure myth (The Grim Grey God Passes, adapted in Conan #3 by Thomas/Smith).
They manipulate reality almost in the manner of Kubrick’s 2001, into something awesome, heroic, inspirational of ancient memories (or mariners). The subconscious is free to deploy racial or sexual stereotypes - there is also probably some relation between instinct and ethnicity buried deep in the mind. Popular art affects you quite deeply as there is a type of truth to it you don’t necessarily get in mainstream literature. If we say there’s something called liberal elitism (writers of the calibre of Vidal or Mantel, say) by the same token they aren’t populist, and they can’t have access to such subconscious forces. So, they have intellect without the emotional truth.
The point of art is you shouldn’t have to be told why it’s good, it should hit you like Anna Karenina, as a force of nature. Thus is the false distinction of high art foistered upon us. There may be a liberal-Jewish literary cabal, but it clearly doesn’t apply to literary outsiders of the Capote, Ellison variety. The latter are popular writers or folkloricists, powered by instinctive forces or stereotypes of race or sex. The sort of thing identified with Chandler’s femme fatales and other classics of the pulps (Dashiell Hammett, James M Cain).
I have to say, then, that the idea of groups, cliques, literary-outsider clubs, should be brought into any vision of a future society, because that’s the way people have lived since the time of 2001’s “dawn of Man”. It’s possible that’s the way Man advances. The reason for harping on about our subconscious predilection for stereotypes is that it is a type of racial or sexual truth. If you noticed the link to REH (the Junta), there’s a diatribe on femininity. We should also be able to make racial gags, as that may be the way the mind thinks, to be frank. I read somewhere that Virginia Woolf (nee Steven) told anti-Semitic stories against her husband – so sue her (that’s a Jewish gag, actually!). With a liberal mindset life just isn’t fun any more.
Truman Capote coined the term “Jewish mafia”, then softened it to “state of mind”. Whatever you call this mafia, it’s not actually transparently obvious if they’re more liberal than Jewish. I think that’s a pertinent question so you know who you’re dealing with. And, second, who’s the outsider and the “good guy”.
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