David Lindsay’s novel A Voyage to Arcturus was published in September 1920, and if you are a fan of speculative literature, it may be one of the most influential books you’ve never read. If you haven’t heard of it, or only recall its title in some vague, déjà-vu-like way, you’re in good company. The book sold disastrously in its first run and has staggered from edition to edition in print over the past century. Burned by the reaction to his literary debut, Lindsay continued to publish fiction but attempted nothing so audacious again in his lifetime. Even then, between his outré perspective and lack of major literary contacts (aside from two equally obscure fellow authors, L. H. Myers and Milton critic and horror novelist E. H. Visiak), Lindsay was never successful commercially.
One need not share Lindsay’s full worldview to acknowledge the substance of his critique and the brutal honesty with which he makes it.So how is it that I am even writing this article? Obviously someone has been reading Lindsay and keeping his work alive. Though superficially a work of science fiction, it isn’t well-regarded within that genre. On the other hand, Stephen Jones and Kim Newman identify it as one of the 100 best horror books, while James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock likewise allot it a spot in Fantasy: The 100 Best Books. Over the past century, a small number of influential voices have insisted on the value of A Voyage to Arcturus and fought to keep it available. One such voice is the notoriously well-read and idiosyncratic literary critic and Yale professor Harold Bloom, who in a rare foray into fiction published a bizarre reimagining of Lindsay’s work with his own novel The Flight to Lucifer.
Arguably more influential still was C. S. Lewis. While not shy in expatiating on the flaws he perceived in Lindsay’s writing, Lewis appreciated his literary and philosophical project. In a recorded conversation with fellow genre writers Brian Aldiss and Kingsley Amis (published as “Unreal Estates”), Lewis defends A Voyage to Arcturus against their skepticism, claiming that “scientifically it’s nonsense, the style is appalling, and yet this ghastly vision comes through.” Elsewhere, in his essay “On Stories,” Lewis claimed that Lindsay understood how to use speculative fiction to make religious and philosophical points in a way none of his predecessors did: “His Tormance is a region of the spirit. He is the first writer to discover what ‘other planets’ are really good for in fiction.” And while Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet explicitly acknowledges its debt to H. G. Wells’s stories, in a 1944 letter to Charles Brady, Lewis acknowledged that “the real father of my planet books is David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus.”
While conversing with Lewis in “Unreal Estates,” Kingsley Amis reports that Lindsay had said, “I shall never appeal to a large public at all, but I think that as long as our civilization lasts one person a year will read me.” This perspective—that A Voyage to Arcturus will endure, if only in twilight among a small coterie of admirers—will I think ring true for most who have read it. The book can be difficult to read and not for all tastes, but its wildly imaginative challenge to self-indulgent and morally lax culture still resonates with audiences across the years, decades after Lindsay’s own death.
The novel begins at a séance attended by a variety of society sophisticates, but we soon learn that the real protagonist is Maskull, an attendee who at first appears to be a relatively minor character. Maskull soon finds himself caught up in a journey to a remote Scottish observatory, from which he is able to transport via mysterious “back rays” to the world of Tormance, which orbits the star Arcturus. Maskull arrives alone, where he finds he has grown a new organ, a tentacle called a magn that allows him greater capacity to love. The remaining narrative follows Maskull as he traverses the bizarre alien geography of Tormance. Here he encounters a series of curious characters, each with his or her own philosophy of life, many with their own peculiar sense organs related to their distinctive philosophies. As he meets these individuals, Maskull tends to become enamored of their various worldviews, hopping dilettantishly from one belief system to the next, losing and growing new organs, often killing the characters whose perspective he once adopted and then repudiates. All the while, he is haunted by the memory of his mysterious, often-distant traveling companions, Nightspore and Krag, along with rumors of (and possibly encounters with) deity-like figures with names like Crystalman, Shaping, and Surtur.
It becomes evident as the reader progresses through the text that the wildly inventive world constructed in A Voyage to Arcturus is a narrative trap, a series of temptations and seductions.As even this (inadequate) summary suggests, A Voyage to Arcturus is a singularly strange book. Its plot alone is enough to alienate some potential readers, for it is as much a philosophical travelogue as a novel, with characters who often act primarily as mouthpieces for schemas of thought. Maskull himself may seem hard to sympathize with, his actions characterized by aimless wandering and punctuated by almost cultish devotion to a new worldview at first, followed by a violent rejection of that viewpoint not long after. Others share Lewis’s view that “the style is appalling,” both overwrought and insufficient for its task.
To put my cards on the table, I love A Voyage to Arcturus—it’s one of my top-five favorite novels. That said, I’m not fully sure how to address these objections. Some are matters of taste—I find the book’s writing style more appealing than appalling, filled with vivid word pictures and audacious attempts to describe what ought to be indescribably alien sights (like entirely unknown primary colors). Its characters may often be two-dimensional, but they are starkly realized within those dimensions, searing themselves in readers’ memories. While Maskull may appear a remote protagonist, he is also at least somewhat a reflection of his own austere creator, David Lindsay. And the vehemence with which Maskull turns against philosophies he once espoused actually corresponds nicely to the sharp about-faces evident among so many who cast off belief systems of their youth.
But if A Voyage to Arcturus truly is a philosophical travelogue, where is Lindsay taking his readers? What perspective does he actually settle on? In one sense, this is a complex question, as Lindsay’s own philosophy appears to have been as idiosyncratic as his personality, drawn from an eclectic variety of readings (few of them from among his contemporaries). And his novel, like the works of such past masters as Boccaccio and Chaucer, is in some senses polyvocal, with characters presenting wildly divergent approaches to life, many of them compellingly so.
Yet Lindsay is not irresolute in his own convictions, which I believe can be labeled pretty decisively as Manichaean—and when I say this, I mean it in a rather robustly doctrinal sense. Though often employed as a shorthand synonym for Gnosticism, Manichaeism was different in several key regards. Gnosticism was an early Christian heresy that dogged the early church. It shared with Manichaeism a tendency toward world-denying asceticism and an opinion that the physical world was intrinsically evil, a prison of the spirit.
Gnosticism, however, derived its name from the tendency of its adepts to pass secret knowledge down to a select few, while Manichaeism had its own founder (Mani) and set of sacred texts, and was rare in late antiquity as a genuine missionary religion, counting the pre-Christian Saint Augustine as among its converts. The secretive nature of Gnosticism meant that (as Irenaeus pointed out early in Christianity’s history) the different sects bore little resemblance to one another in the details of their systems, while Manichaeism’s more public nature allowed it to have a somewhat more consistent—if equally bizarre—mythology. And it is surprising how closely A Voyage to Arcturus hews to this mythology, at least in its outlines.
Lewis was only partially correct in identifying Tormance as “a region of spirit”; more properly, it is a region in which spirits are imprisoned. In Manichaean thought, spiritual light is in a longstanding conflict with a darkness embodied in creation itself, which is constructed of hyle, or material darkness. When the light attempts to go on the offensive against its adversary, it becomes trapped in hyle and dispersed. Human beings contain this divine spark of light, but the more they immerse themselves in the world’s practices—including marrying and producing children—the more diffused light particles become within the hyle, and the more difficult it is to extract the light.
Lindsay often depicts this in the action of the novel, as what he calls “Muspel-light” seeks to escape the realm of Tormance but is often unable to do so. It becomes evident as the reader progresses through the text that the wildly inventive world constructed in A Voyage to Arcturus is a narrative trap, a series of temptations and seductions. As critic Colin Manlove aptly notes, “Lindsay seems to have made a work of startling creativity and wonder only to tell us it is rotten to the core.” The book concludes on a note not of despair but certainly of resigned stoicism, one character concluding of their task that “nothing will be done without the bloodiest blows.”
It is little wonder, then, that so many may find A Voyage to Arcturus so unappealing. Notwithstanding its early popularity, Manichaeism has for some time been an all-but-extinct faith. Even with the adaptations Lindsay makes to modernize it and graft ideas from other sources (e.g., George MacDonald, Arthur Schopenhauer), his philosophy is a tough sell. He was too intellectually honest, even in his fiction, to stack the deck in his favor—in the phantasmagorically beautiful terrain of Tormance, almost every character is more appealing than the ones who voice Lindsay’s own convictions.
Paradoxically, though, I share with Lindsay’s admirers an appreciation for his curmudgeonly asceticism. He wrote his book at the dawn of the 1920s, the decade whose opulence was so memorably captured by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby just five years later. Europe and America needed people to push back against the hedonistically induced amnesia that was so attractive after the First World War. The fantastic geography of A Voyage to Arcturus often reminds me of the world in which Manichaeism first spread. Like north Africa and the Middle East of late antiquity, Tormance is a harsh environment sparsely populated by stylites, hermits, and desert saints, the kinds of figures who gained respect in their own day for interrogating the worldliness around them.
One need not share Lindsay’s full worldview to acknowledge the substance of his critique and the brutal honesty with which he makes it. Certainly Lewis felt this way, and it is quite possible to contend that Lewis’s early career as an influential Christian novelist might have looked very different had he not read one of those rare early editions of A Voyage to Arcturus. It was an innovative book in its own era and remains one today; looking back, I am struck by how little it resembles any other novel I know of, certainly any other novel of its day. David Lindsay had his own antecedents, to be sure, but the shocking originality with which he assembled and amended those influences led to a book like no other.
David Lindsay sought after truth, and he believed the way to truth passed through pain, denial, and sacrifice. He wasn’t entirely wrong about that, either. To be sure, the beauty of the world is not just a mirage or deceptive illusion; but the beauty that can lead us to its creator does have within itself the power to distract us from him—there is indeed a world less shadowy and more real than this one. And that world was purchased with pain, a cross that we too must carry. But we have on our side one who robed himself in our shadows—shadows he will redeem—and bore the cross of pain on our behalf. It is this stage of the voyage that David Lindsay, one hundred years ago, couldn’t bring himself to tread.