A couple of weeks ago I wrote a scathing review of David Lindsay’s trippy SF morality tale, A Voyage to Arcturus (1920). C.S. Lewis loved this book–and so does genius actor Paul Giamatti, according to the rather peculiar, subtly hypnotic, and mildly offensive video book review by this film crew guy.
My post succeeded in getting some pushback from readers who love this book, and I’m still hoping someone will do a guest post as an evangelist for the book. Though I admitted it had its evocative moments, in the bizarre twists, unclear philosophical underpinnings, and atrocious use of adverbs, I probably underrepresented its artistic qualities.
Through facebook discussions, blog comments, and a little internet sleuthing, some resources have come forward. One resource that I had forgotten about was Vakula‘s 2015 album, A Voyage to Arcturus. Vakula is a Ukrainian experimental electronic musician and composer, and interprets Arcturus with an unusual synth-pop/house melodic soundtrack including–and this is essential, I suppose–some 70s retro feel and some super-duper space sounds. Vakula has named each track after the book chapters, which helps us imagine the connections. Almost equally as weird as the book, it could be that Vakula will have more listeners than Lindsay has readers this year.
When I say the 70s vibe is essential, it is because of a resource that I had no idea existed. In 1970, B.J. Holloway directed a film version of A Voyage to Arcturus, based on a screenplay adaptation of Lindsay’s novel by himself and Sally Holloway. According to David Lindsay historical site, Violet Apple (a gem of a website), this super weird film was a student project made up of actors from the among students and faculty of Antioch College. Antioch has produced two Nobelaureates, but the filmmakers are not on that list.
This is intensely low budget, and very weird. It looks like the special effects were made by slightly disturbed children at an experimental school. There is a generous amount of nudity–and I think a rolling, tumbling love scene is meant to capture a spiritual phenomenon in the book that even a low-budget film couldn’t create special effects for–but there is less nudity and violence than the book. With the reader warned, the film really is an attempt at a faithful adaptation–though much briefer, of course–and as it is filmed in black and white, it just can’t capture the brilliant colours of this book. Props to those students–now senior citizens–who worked so hard to bring Arcturus to the screen.
As the book is out of U.S. copyright, there is a Librivox recording by Mark Nelson (who has volunteered to do a lot of fantasy reading for Librivox). You can find it here, but it is also on youtube. Rafi Simcha has also read the book aloud (see here). Props to the volunteer reader for giving voice to this obscure book from the past.
There is also a BBC dramatization from 1956 (lost? see here and here) and a couple of attempts at operas. You can see a whole list of popular and artistic interpretations of A Voyage to Arcturus in the Violet Apple index. The Violet Apple has a list of “Names in A Voyage to Arcturus,” which gives some analysis to one of the things that Lewis loved (and I was less excited about): the strange place and character names. You can also find the short article, “Four Approaches to A Voyage to Arcturus” there, since I was not able to help readers much on the meaning side of things.
Finally, a resource that makes me unusually happy: David Lyndsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus was a guilty pleasure of Yale über shock critic, Harold Bloom. As we have already seen, Bloom would not be alone as a great thinker who loved the book. Added to C.S. Lewis and Paul Giamatti is J.R.R. Tolkien and Philip Pullman. Whatever else his critics have to say about him, Bloom is not afraid of fantasy–though his canon is largely bereft of it.
In his The Western Canon, while predicting what books will become canonical in “the Chaotic Age” (the 20th c.), Harold Bloom includes A Voyage to Arcturus. And, of course, he may be right. In his criticism, Bloom says that,
[Arcturus is a] “remorseless drive to death, beyond the pleasure/pain principle… It is that singular kind of nightmare…in which you encounter a series of terrifying faces, and only gradually do you come to realise that these faces are terrified, and that you are the cause of the terror” (Harold Bloom, Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism, 208, 215).
Almost the last straightforward representative of Romantic quest literature we have is the extraordinary prose romance, A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay (first published in 1 920), in which every antagonist to a Promethean quest is presented as being another form of pleasure (Harold Bloom, Yeats, 89).
And although I don’t know Bloom’s source, Vital Apple has this Bloom-Lindsay chart that’s worth sharing:
More than critical interest, though, the hint that Harold Bloom really loved A Voyage to Arcturus is that his only attempt at fiction was a continuation of Lindsay’s vision. In 1979, Bloom published The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy. According to the scrupulous editors at Wikipedia, Bloom later hated the book, paid his publishers not to print any more copies, and said, “If I could go around and get rid of all the surviving copies, I would.”
That claim alone makes me want to read it … provided Bloom’s use of adverbs is better than Lindsay’s.