Philip Larkin: is this poet just too weird for Horror/Fantasy/Science Fiction/Weird?

Since the French Revolution, the radical has become the default setting of  the intellectual, especially in Arts and Letters.

The “conservative social order” has religion, but the “far more complex liberal worldview” has poetry and art.   The early 19th century Romantics were “radical” individualists,” in mid-19th century France  “radical” art and poetry were born, and then, in the early 20th century, after a Victorian detour, all hell broke loose.

The New Radical Order has been around for more than a hundred years now, and the Radical Artist institutionalized in academia since the mid-20th century and accepted as the norm, and quite frankly, the whole “Radical” thing has become tiresome—and cries out for a new definition.

No one wants to be called “reactionary” or “Far Right,” and neither do we.  God forbid we bring down the Radical edifice for any but the best and most sincere motives!

Arts & Letters has become so Left-wing these days, that American intellectuals can call “American corporate liberalism” fascist and no one blinks an eye.

It isn’t so much that art has been beaten to a pulp by radical politics, but that art and politics have become indistinguishable.  In art, a standard of beauty has been replaced by a standard of progress.  The very word “aesthetics” comes from the word, beauty, but art is no longer concerned with beauty, but with an idea that belongs to practical and moral improvements.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with progress.  But the issue for the arts and for intellectuality is more complex than that—which even members of the far left must confront.

The lion, politics, has consumed the gazelle (art).  This is going to happen when you put them in the same cage.  Politics is immense, and is constantly seeking to consolidate its gains.  The more advanced and progressive a society becomes, the more its political order consolidates and purifies its message, feeding on everything else in society, until everyone from the housewife to the college professor to the mathematician to the poet to the architecht to the supermarket manager gets swept up in the democratic ideals of progress: let’s all improve ourselves together.  This phrase may seem rather banal, but it’s a “shock of the new” idea, because it wasn’t that long ago that improvements came from afar, and citizens were morally isolated from each other.

But what are the vectors of progress?  Do they always move forward, even in the world of hard, practical reality?

We have today possibly what many might call, “reverse-racism,” but even more prevalent is what we might call reverse-progress.

The wish to “save the planet” is a new and wild frontier piece of radical group-think that has one understandable goal: to reverse Man’s previous progress in subduing nature “red in tooth and claw.”

Depending on how large an historical time-line one uses, all sorts of “progressive” points of view are actually “reverse-progressive.”

In politics: Abolishing or weakening the nation state can be seen as reverse-progressive, since the modern nation state is historically the recent vehicle of human progress from feudalism to modern democracy.

In art: Alexander Pope’s triumph in meter/rhyme was the result of progress in poetry away from prose, but a little more than a century later, “progress” assumed that poetry should travel from Pope back again to the looseness of prose—even when prose was making progress in other genres at the same time.

In the interest of novelty, fashions and taste will change, and all sorts of arguments can be made for this or that type of  “progress,” but we can see that progress does not always move forward—and yet we assume that the “progressive” left always does.

We do not know if certain desired goals of “progressive movements” in politics will amount to real improvements: universal voting does not necessarily improve government, since pandering to mass ignorance becomes the rule.   Laws of equal opportunity are vital, but groups are different within themselves and, if we are honest, impossible to define.

How, then, can we say that political progress will match up with artistic progress at all, when the progress of both are so complex and do not line up?  We radically err in assuming this relationship is simple.

Given these questions, we noted with interest a recent article in the Guardian: “The Weird Deserves Recognition As A Major Literary Movement,” especially this passage:

The weird is characterized by a willingness to play fast and loose with reality. And its emergence in the early 1900s coincides with a radical shift in our perception of what reality is. Science at the time was busy revealing not just that our universe was much, much bigger than we had guessed, but also far less certain, with the principles of quantum mechanics suggesting that God did indeed “play dice with the universe.” We were also becoming aware that many things we accepted as real—ideas of nationality, race, gender, sexuality, and many more—were in fact socially constructed. The conservative social order in which people knew their place was about to be replaced with a far more complex and less certain liberal worldview.

The weird became both a part of these radical changes, and a reaction against them. JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a paean for the return of a king and a social order that was undergoing radical and irrevocable change. As becomes apparent in his racist poetry, HP Lovecraft’s stories articulated a very deep anxiety and fear of social change. The commercial genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror that commoditise the weird are often reactionary in nature. Faced with a rift in reality, they encourage the reader to dive for cover.

When it comes to the Weird genre, here is a typical strategy by the leftist intellectual: grab land for the empire of “social change.”  Call out the reactionary authors: Tolkien and Lovecraft, equate “fear of social change” with the freaky fear-factor of the genre itself, take a swipe at the “commercial” aspect of the genre.

Bingo.  The flag of “social change” is planted on Horror/Fantasy/SciFi and the Weird.

The person who is simply homosexual is different from the political homosexual; the political homosexual is opposed by an ‘other’ and the opposition and the fear of this other is at the heart of all Weird literature, if not all literature.

Yet gender and sexuality have had oppositon at their heart since before the rape of Helen.

The Guardian author, then, is not really saying anything new.  The leftist intellectual argument for progress is not wrong.  It is merely empty. The leftist is not wrong: the racist is bad. “The racist is bad,” however, does not fit neatly into p.c. formulae for literary or scientific use.

We do not wish harmony between Right and Left.  Let us leave the Right to wallow in its backwardness and prejudice. But let us recognize that the Left assumes too much by inserting one dimensional moral principles into everything.  The default setting of avant-leftism has long lost its way.  We suggest no mingling within the Right/Left oppositon.  We suggest the whole opposition’s hard shell be exploded.  Let us look for new ways (taking into account the old) of expressing the whole problem.

The Guardian author says that “God does not always play with dice,” but if this is true, how does a random universe support the idea of bedrock leftist principles?  And if “social construction” is imposed on chaos, which is more true, the chaos, or the social construction; or is the truth the competition between various social constructions?

And here we are back at primitive “opposition,” again.  “Social change” is not simple. We should always be suspicious of “new politics.”

The Guardian author says “the Weird deserves recognition as a major literary movement.”  First, this plea sounds suspiciously (ironically?) Market-driven.  Secondly, the Weird “movement” is already “major” and has always existed, though perhaps not in the narrow manner the Guardian author would like.

Fantasy/Weird author Edgar Poe, who perished mysteriously this week back in 1849, has often been called “reactionary” by agents of “social change.” Poe invented and transcended so many genres that he resists easy definitions, and the scholarly animosty towards him in many quarters may be chiefly for that reason alone.  Poe, the “reactionary,” makes the radical Language Poet, for instance, seems narrow and small.

We close with a right-wing poet’s poem which brilliantly does what Wordsworth and Coleridge separately attempted in Lyrical Ballads: make the plain fantastic and make the fantastic plain.  No horror/fantasy poem, this.  Yet the poet’s simple, honest observation makes this poem as Weird as any.  The category-busting poet is Philip Larkin. The poem is “The Old Fools.”

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there’s really been no change,
And they’ve always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching the light move? If they don’t (and they can’t), it’s strange;
Why aren’t they screaming?

At death you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It’s only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
Of being here. Next time you can’t pretend
There’ll be anything else. And these are the first signs:
Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power
Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they’re for it:
Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines –
How can they ignore it?

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting
People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun’s
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
This is why they give

An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving
Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
Of taken breath, and them crouching below
Extinction’s alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground. Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.

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