Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Heroes in the Wind: From Kull to Conan Part 2

In this part, I examine some of the stilted language Clute uses in his intro and also examine his use of odd analogies and comparisons. 


After Clute’s ploy to draw in his reader he then lumps Robert E. Howard into a list of writers who are 1) not in the same genre as Howard, 2) not from the pulp fiction arena as Howard was, and 3) are listed, it seems, in an attempt to elevate Robert E. Howard’s work to a high-brow literary status. I think Clute’s attempt at point 3 is done with the hope that by dropping names such as Marcel Proust, Henry James, Richard Dadd, James Joyce and Anthony Trollope, writers who on some level had to earn their place in literary history, the reader will also be convinced that Robert E. Howard has, as such, earned his place there as well. Underneath it all I do not disagree with Clute's point here (even though these other writers are a different breed from Howard), but the list makes Clute come across as a desperate braggart on behalf of Robert E. Howard. This is certainly unnecessary. Moreover, being the widely recognized expert of science fiction and fantasy that Clute is believed to be, why those particular writers over several well known fantasy writers? Why not use H.P. Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, George MacDonald, all well known writers who are recognized by scholars? At least then Clute would be in the same genre, and there’d be less confusion in the comparison. Even so, I’m not sure the reader really needs to be convinced that Robert E. Howard’s work is worthy to be read. Howard’s work firmly stands on its own two feet in this regard.

Robert E. Howard
After compiling an odd list of writers to compare Howard with, Clute moves on to a confusing metaphor.  He does this by using the literary criticism of Wayne C. Booth’s reference to the “’figure’ of the Implied Author, a kind of ghost artefact with legs who negotiates aspects between the written and the read.” (Clute, x). Clute explains that most readers will take the Implied Author into the dreamworld or the act of reading and make this the ‘real’ author who communicates with the reader. And that this Implied Author acts like a “ferryman” or “hypnopomps who guide us through the night inside the head, across the river of the mind, into the chamber where stories sound.” (Clute, x) So when a reader is reading, there is a sense in which the reader is “being carried, and that some form of creative collaboration with this ferryman is intrinsic to the suspension of disbelief.” (Clute, x)  
Clute goes on to tell his reader that Howard’s works and writing style is akin to the ferryman at the mythical river Styx. “As for the late work, no one could possibly read the novellas from 1935, from just before he stopped writing—the two finest, ‘Vultures of Wahpeton’ and Red Nails’, are reprinted here—without sensing that the ferryman had more on his mind than simply transporting us into dreamlands of tooth and claw, where a man had to be a man with a big stick, or die.” (Clute, xi-xii) Keep in mind this is the first time in this introduction that Clute has used the term “ferryman” to describe Howard. And, it’s not until the end of the introduction that the reader realizes the “ferryman” is from Greek mythology and the river we are being taken across is Styx. I’m not certain why Clute decided to use this metaphor for Howard and his tales. I get a semblance of understanding in that Clute is attempting to explain how Howard’s stories carry their reader into another realm, another world. But why use Charon (or Kharon) and Styx as the metaphor to detail the effectiveness of Howard’s work? Moreover, why use it in such a vague sense as to leave the reader wondering why the metaphor is even being used? At best this is self-stultifying.
The ferryman on the River Styx
If Clute’s attempt at using such a metaphor is to highlight the power that Howard’s work has on his reader, he certainly failed in his attempt here. I got no sense of that based on the confusing way in which Clute went about getting me from point A to point B in the metaphor. It is here that I begin to harp back to Einstein’s apt quote, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” But this is only where the confusion begins. From the onset of this metaphor Clute begins to use terms and phrases that make no sense at all and his introduction quickly becomes stilted.
When Clute becomes verbose the tone of the introduction shifts. Additionally, the undercurrent of what Clute is communicating drowns the content in a pejorative tone. This is probably due to insertions of his personal opinions about the various works of Howard he dislikes. For example, regarding Howard’s boxing stories Clute says, “I for one find his boxing stories, for all their bellowing exuberance, fatally undercut by the viciousness and pathos of the subject matter.” (Clute, xi) What Clute means here is that he finds Howard’s boxing stories pitifully violent and that overwhelms their loud energy. My concern here is why would Clute bring up the boxing stories in such a negative light in an introduction of collected works that does not include those stories? Why even mention these stories only to defeat them in the process? The fact that Clute does not like the violence and pathos of Howard’s boxing stories is actually a poor determination of whether the stories are well written. In fact, Clute’s opinion here does little to help his reader gain a trust of Howard that Clute claims is so necessary. I refer back to the first line of Clute’s introduction: “In the end it may boil down to a question of trust.” (Clute, i) 
Robert E. Howard Boxing Stories
In addition to the above negative undercurrent, Clute also uses confusing terminology such as “ontological insecurity” and “existential entirety.” To be fair to Clute let me take these phrases and put them in their full context. On pages ix to x of Clute’s introduction he discusses the “fuzzy contract between the writer and reader,” using Wayne C. Booth’s idea of the Implied Author. Here is how Clute frames this notion and uses the term existential entirety, “Normally and rightly, authors are assumed to create an embodied voice which readers identify (naively or sophisticatedly) as the speaker of the tale; but I think there is more to the Implied Author than this, as far as the actual reader in action is concerned. In our hearts, most of us incorporate the Implied Author more deeply into the dreamwork of the act of reading than simply understanding that it is not the ‘real’ author, in his or her existential entirety, who speaks to us.” (Clute, x, emphasis mine) Clute is essentially saying, readers, when they read, understand that the author of the story is not revealing his or her personality and existence entirely to his or her audience by virtue of their works. The problem with using the term existential to convey this point is that it really does not convey what I think Clute wants it to convey. He seems to be confusing the use of existential with existence in this paragraph, and these are two quite different things in their implication. Even though existential deals with existence, it deals with a particular kind of existence.  It would have certainly been better to eliminate the odd terminology and simply state the obvious point.

Martin Heidegger
Existential is a philosophical term that stems from the works of German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger spent his philosophical career attempting to answer the “question of being.” (Audi, 317) Simply put, Heidegger wanted to know what is the meaning of being? “Or, put differently, how do entities come to show up as intelligible to us in a determinate way? And this question calls for an analysis of the entity that has some prior understanding of things: human existence or Dasein (the German word for “existence” or “being-there,” used to refer to the structures of humans that make possible an understanding of being.)” (Audi, 317) This idea or thought about existence from Heidegger is where we get the term existential. As you can see it means much more than merely existence. If Clute meant to use the term in such as way to communicate only existence then he should have used the word existence and not existential. The implication between the two are quite different. And, even if the average reader does not pick up on this nuance the careful reader should. It would seem that if one is writing an introduction in an academic collection the use of confusing terms is certainly not beneficial in communicating a particular point.

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