Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Ruminations on subversive and restorative impulses, and conservative and liberal modes of fantasy fiction

Two towers, old and new.
Liberalism seeks to make anew. Conservatism desires to preserve the time-tested. 

The former represents the creative forces of chaos. The latter the ordered forces of law.

It’s a very yin-yang, or Moorcockian, way of looking at things. 

The older I get I see the need for both. For tradition, and for change. Both in life, and in art. Perhaps you’ll find this a milquetoast viewpoint, and want more sturm un drang. But not today. I’m feeling reflective.

Defenders of the old see what the masters have done and want that to stand, immobile and fixed, like some mountain. It was great, it still is, why change it?

Proponents of the new see old art and admire some aspects of it, but believe that it no longer reflects present realities. And wish to carve new stone out of the existing material, or make something else alongside it.

I see a lot of angst over this divide, but believe these seemingly opposing forces can be reconciled. Because we need both.

I believe our present culture is entirely too much focused on the new and shiny. And not enough on learning from the brilliant minds who have come before us and did some things better than we do. There is so much to be gleaned from history. Much of what we think of as new has been done before. So don’t confuse looking backwards with a backwards mindset. 

But I also recognize change as inevitable, and often results in forward progress. Doing the same thing over and over again results in staleness and conformity. S&S grew moribund in the latter 70s and collapsed in the 80s. The New Wave of SF and its dangerous visions broke away from the hard SF that was itself popular and groundbreaking in the early 20th century, but had become fixed and rigid. And the 60s and 70s saw amazing new works created.

Change is inevitable. It’s always been with us. If you don’t believe so, you might look at H.P. Lovecraft, who broke from the old gothics and ghost stories with his radical new extradimensional horror, or Steven King, who added a blue-collar pop sensibility and more humanity to Lovecraft.

Of course, merely because something is new or subversive doesn’t make it good. Nor does critique of your subversive project mean a bunch of old farts “just can’t handle it.” It just might mean the art was poorly executed. There was a lot of bad old art in the past that was once new, but has been forgotten and discarded. No one remembers most of the authors working in Weird Tales. But those that have lasted have much to teach us.

It’s cool to make new stuff by recombining old things.

It’s OK to love old school stuff, even to repeat or pastiche its forms. 

We can have it all. No one is getting hurt by the conservative impulse to preserve, or the liberal urge to subvert. 

Where do I fall, preferentially, on this spectrum?

To no one’s surprise I’m a small c conservative when it comes to art. I enjoy some subversive art, and admire the creators who challenge the status quo with potent new visions. Though I find myself preferring subversive material that is old enough to have passed into acceptable territory again. See Elric, or bits of The Once and Future King. 

But my deepest sympathies lie with old fiction. Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien remain two of my literary lodestars, and always will. I don’t see them as old. I still see them as innovators who broke new ground from old sources, who had their influences but took them and made something wholly original. Powerful enough to spawn imitators, and genres. 

In “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien chided the literary critics who sought to study Beowulf by reducing it to its component parts, and in so doing, broke it. Pulled down the old tower turning over stones, not realizing from the top you could see the sea.

But if Tolkien had only looked at and admired the past we wouldn’t have The Lord of the Rings. He also made something new from old legends, and broke new ground, though his own powerful creative impulse.


Matthew said...

I tend to think both sides complain too much.

I am effectively on the right politically but its a close to center right. To paraphrase Edmund Burke that which lacks the ability to change lacks the ability to preserve itself.

It's also hard to tell what is subversive and not. I bet Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" is more acceptable in polite culture than Alice Cooper's "Nothings Free." I mean Cooper's stuff is dark and rough while Cole Porter's was not. Except "Anything Goes" is basically saying there is no objective morality (while mocking others faults); Cooper song is the opposite. Yet a bunch of people probably see Cooper as subversive.

Ian said...

I see a similar divide in metal. You have your traditionalists who prefer the classic stuff, and then you have those who like pushing the boundaries of the genre. But even on the traditional side there is room for growth and innovation. There has been a resurgence in traditional metal bands in recent years, and in my opinion the best bands in this movement take the classic 70s/80s sound and incorporate the best elements of the later subgenres.

Jason Campbell said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Mr. Murphy, always find your perspectives engaging. I resonate with a lot of what you've written here. I'm always looking for new stuff to read, but I'm having more and more trouble finding stuff written after 1990 to be worth reading. And most of what I find is way out in the indie piles, some of which I've discovered here or from the old clans that once howled from the walls of the Black Gate. Fortunately for us, the indie scene is rich with new talent even if you can't find any of it at Barnes and Noble.

Your musings got me thinking about the liberal vs. conservative thing. Also being a small-c conservative, and adding that I'm disgusted with our present political circus (and I mean circus in the Roman sense), I would perhaps quibble with the impulses you describe as being behind the two camps.

You called out Tolkien as being a conservative but doing something "new" with Lord of the Rings. I don't think the distinction is between preserving old things as-is vs. the chaos of creating what's new. I think it's down a level. Conservative thinkers like Burke, Kirk, Tolkien, or Scruton would say that they aren't preserving old things as such, but are seeking to preserve the permanent things. LOTR was a thoroughly conservative work, certainly breaking new ground in almost every way. But it was deeply infused with what Tolkien saw as the permanent things: hearth and home, the love of country and one's people and traditions, proper and peaceful order among peoples, the natural order in all its wildness and beauty, loyalty and friendship, and a desire to preserve and protect what is true and good and beautiful.

The opposing mindset (at least as it stands today?) would probably argue that few or none of these things exist outside the forces of social engineering, that they are all instruments of oppression holding back individual self-expression, freedom, and self-fulfillment. The opposing mindset seeks to free the individual from all unchosen obligations that would stand in the way of the sovereign will and the fulfillment of desire.

We're in such a weird cultural moment right now. I think that's why it seems subversive to be conservative at the present cultural moment—because those consumed with the impulse to change and to re-engineer hold most of the organs of culture. Subversiveness is valuable and needed when traditions hold too tightly, when too many things are considered "permanent", or when what is being preserved is just bad traditions—contrary to what is true, good, and beautiful.

What a time to be alive.

Thanks again for your thoughtful writing, it's a pleasure following along with you here at the Silver Key.

BrianC said...

Well stated, I appreciate your perspective but moreso your ability to communicate it in way that's respectful/fair (I tend to agree with you fwiw).

I'm reminded of this article I just read recently, the subject matter is only tangentially related, but the "sturm and drang" over it was more of the usual "hey look at the creaky old conservative yelling at clouds" but in my mind there is more to it.

Your post and argument here was a nice complement.

John said...

"We can have it all. No one is getting hurt by the conservative impulse to preserve, or the liberal urge to subvert." In terms of literature, this does not translate well in today's climate and instead is just another slippery slope of liberal thought. The continual plundering of classic literature to render it more socially acceptable for current readers is the worst form of presentism. There are, of course, instances where conservative views are just as much to at fault, but the former seems to be far more prevalent. Yes, it's okay to subvert; just look at underground newspapers and comic books from the 60's and 70's (they couldn't be more liberal), but their ideal wasn't to erase what they used as their source material or intended to replace it as the new paradigm. What's not okay is to obliterate the institution of literature -- and perhaps it's precisely because literature is an institution that it is thus earmarked to be "re-imagined". The two ideas you write on can't be more polarized than they are today (or maybe still...)and their fundamental differences cannot be easily reconciled without major concessions from each. I think using a term like "transformative" is more suitable in the case of fantasy and weird fiction, and maybe for the entire subject as well. I know of at least one instance where a relatively new S&S magazine is attempting to do just that. Time will tell how successful they are. As for science fiction, the topic begs for subversion, but the dreams of a Utopian society presented in countless books has remained in orbit and has yet to successfully fall to Earth in any successful form. When faced with this as it applies to heroic fantasy and S&S, I guess the only thing left to ask is: "What would Conan do?"

Brian Murphy said...

Some great comments here... I will reply shortly once I get through a present glut of work. For now, I deeply appreciate these!

Brian Murphy said...

Matthew: Interesting point, I was thinking of subversive in the context of literary tropes (i.e., Elric as a subversion of Conan, ASOIAF subverting high fantasy expectations as established by LOTR), not so much of what might be impolite to say in mixed company. I'm not familiar with those works by Porter and Cooper.

Ian: Agreed re., metal. Interesting that metal is apparently malleable enough to permit thrash/doom/speed, etc. I'm sure you're not surprised to learn I remain a fan of the more classic variety (Maiden, Priest, Sabbath, etc.)

Brian Murphy said...

Jason: Very well said. Tolkien acknowledged that change was inevitable, but his works stand as a testament to the worthiness of preserving (and fighting for) the things that truly matter. I appreciate the kind words BTW.

BrianC: Thank you, and I will check that link out (or maybe I should stay away?)

John: Nice comment, I like your use of transformation and of course stand opposed to any form of literary obliteration. I'm pretty levelheaded, but recoil from the notion (and I've seen it expressed, to my horror, by supposedly enlightened) that we should discard REH because of his lapses into racism. Which of course means you lose his wild poetry, worldbuilding, peerless imagination, natural storytelling, and countless other casualties the sort who say these things never consider.

Brian Murphy said...

Brian C: I read this:

And agree with much of the article, especially its critiques of Grimdark and its pretense of being fantasy for adults (when much of it reads like angsty teenage cynicism). And expressed similar sentiments, a decade or more ago:

BrianC said...

Hey thanks for circling back! I will take a look at these previous entries. I myself find myself a little torn, as I also agree with the article but also finding myself enjoying a lot of stuff that might be considered "grimdark" (obvious example being the Grimnir series by Scott Oden).