I just ran across a really interesting quote on American culture, which was embedded in a discussion of jazz, but seems to apply quite well to American SF as well. Apparently, from 1961 to 1965, a British literary critic named A. Alvarez ran a show on BBC radio where writers talked about the intellectual scene in the United States. Alvarez collected the interviews in a book, published by Penguin in 1965, under the same title as the radio program: Under Pressure. One of the Americans interviewed was Robert Lowell, and he’s what he had to say about it:
We have some impatience with the sort of prosaic, everyday things of life, that sort of whimsical patience that other countries may have. That’s really painful to endure: to be minor and so forth. We leap for the sublime. You might almost say that American literature and culture begins with Paradise Lost. I always thin there are two great symbolic figures that stand behind American ambition and idealism and culture. One is Milton’s Lucifer and the other is Captain Ahab. These two sublime ambitions that are doomed. I suppose this is too apocalyptic to put it this way, but it’s the Ahab story of having to murder evil, and you may murder all the good with it if it gets desperate enough to struggle…
What one finds wrong with American culture is the monotony of the sublime. I’ve never lived anywhere else, but I feel maybe what is extreme and perhaps unique about America is that for the artist his existence becomes his art; he’s reborn into it and he hardly exists without it…
I don’t know enough about Englishmen or any other country to make a comparison, but I feel that we have a feeling in the arts that you should be all out. If you’re in it, you’re all-out in it and you’re not ashamed to talk about it endlessly and rather sheerly. That would seem embarrassing to an Englishman, and inhuman probbaly, to be that all-out about it…
Art is always done with both your hands in America. The artist finds new life in it and almost sheds his other life.
— from Coltrane: The Story of a Sound by Ben Ratliff. (pg. 139)
Am I the only one who sees this as fittingly describing not just Coltrane’s approach to jazz, but also the approach of a number of American SF authors to their artform? The being remade by your art, or, as Ratliff notes elsewhere, the sense of being beseeched by the art (Coltrane’s music, or science fiction narratives) to “change your life”?
Sure, there are Lucifer-like figures in British SF, too: Bester’s Tiger! Tiger!/The Stars My Destination comes to mind, for one, but others lurk out there. The fervency of the scientific worldview, the impulse to reach for the sublime and the transcendent, that seems to be strewn all about American SF all the way up until the New Wave… and then again, the New Wave was never quite the same in America as in Britain, was it? (Or have I just revealed a gaping hole in my own reading?)
The passionate evangelical impulse is, anyway, something I see in plenty of American SF — even Asimov, though I am not into his writing; that evangelism in a popcultural mode would be particularly American doesn’t surprise me, but I never really thought about it before. There’s certainly a strain of overt radicalism in SF on both sides of the Atlantic, but when I think of British authors, I think of their sending up the monotony of the sublime — Banks’ existential-crsis-driven Culture narratives, or the gleeful insanity of Stross’ more trascendent-tending work: Palimpsest feels more like watching giggling juggler whip out flaming swords, where in “All You Zombies” the sublime is much more, well, monotonous. Of course, I’m reading “All You Zombies” at a remove from its original context, unlike the Stross.
But then, there is Olaf Stapledon, several of whose works capitalize on the monotony of the sublime to sneak past your mental barriers and blow your mind wide open when he kicks things up a notch. (Especially, among the books I’ve read, in Star Maker.)
Not to universalize, or to criticize. I myself have a tendency towards that monotonous sublime too, I think, looking back on some of my stories. A certain sort of seriousness about all that transcendent stuff. And I see it in Clarke, and I don’t necessarily see it in the work of plenty of American SF authors.
Lowell’s comments are perhaps too simplistic… but interesting nonetheless. I wonder if, rather, he was only seeing half the picture, and that there were two competing strands in American culture: one, the typically monotonous-sublime-tending, and the other — which perhaps hit a certain class of Americans (including Lowell) like a Mack truck running a red light — being a more quotidian, exuberantly simplstic, and straightforwardly consumable culture of entertainment as commodity.
This brings me back to the way Darko Suvin and a coauthor (I forget his name, but if you want the reference, just comment and I’ll dig out the book) discussed the tensions between bourgeois justifications of the status quo, and radical utopian discourse, within all novels — not just SF, where the utopian gets the upper hand. Maybe these two tensions coexist in precisely that way, with roots going deep into Anglophone culture — back as far as most of our “classic novels” and so on; it seems to me at the least that Suvin’s radical and utopian certainly maps onto Lowell’s sense of the monotony of the sublime.