The Power of Babel: Clark Ashton Smith and the Good of the Gap
“…par la suggestive lecture d’un ouvrage racontant de lointains voyages…” – J.K. Huysmans, À Rebours (1884).1
The language you know best is also the language you know least: your mother tongue, the language you acquired by instinct and speak by intuition. Asking a native speaker to describe English, French or Quechua is rather like asking a fish to describe water. The native speaker, like the fish, knows the answer very intimately, yet in some ways doesn’t know as well as a non-native speaker. In other words, standing outside can help you better understand standing inside: there is good in the gap. What is it like to experience gravity? Like most humans, I’ve known all my life, but I’d know better if I were in orbit or en route to the moon, experiencing the absence of gravity.2
And what is it like to be human? We all know and we’ve all read countless stories about other human beings.3 But in some ways they don’t answer that question as effectively as stories that push humanity to the margins, like Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972), which is about rabbits, or Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves (also 1972), which is about trisexual aliens in a parallel dimension. There is good in the gap, in stepping outside the familiar and looking back to see the familiar anew.
You can do this by taking a trip: literally, pharmacologically, or linguistically. Languages divide the world in different ways and what seems natural often ceases to be so when you look at another language. That is reason in itself for learning a new language and becoming a kind of epistemological or ontological tourist. “What should they know of England who only England know?” Rudyard Kipling once asked.4 I ask: “Who knows English who only English knows?” I also ask: “Who knows language who only a language knows?”
These thoughts have been prompted, or re-prompted, by my recent experience of reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) in French and Spanish.
It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin muzzled into his chest in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, but not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust entering with him.
C’était une journée d’avril froide et claire. Les horloges sonnaient treize heures. Winston Smith, le menton rentré dans le cou, s’efforçait d’éviter le vent mauvais. Il passa rapidement la porte vitrée du bloc des «Maisons de la Victoire», pas assez rapidement cependant pour empêcher que s’engouffre en même temps que lui un tourbillon de poussière et de sable. (Translator unknown.)
Era un día luminoso y frío de abril y los relojes daban las trece. Winston Smith, con la barbilla clavada en el pecho en su esfuerzo por burlar el molestísimo viento, se deslizó rápidamente por entre las puertas de cristal de las Casas de la Victoria, aunque no con la suficiente rapidez para evitar que una ráfaga polvorienta se colara con él. (Translated by Rafael Vázquez Zamora)
The language I’m least able to comment on is the language I know best: English. I know it too intimately: I’m unable to see the trees for the wood. English is, in some ways, best experienced by those who don’t have it as a mother tongue. It’s a rich, strange language, but some of that richness and strangeness can be better appreciated by French or Spanish speakers than by English speakers, just as I, as an English speaker, can appreciate some of the richness and strangeness of French or Spanish better than native speakers do.
That is one of the things I have enjoyed about reading Nineteen Eighty-Four in translation: there are aesthetic pleasures in other languages not available in your own. There’s also mental exercise: you have to do consciously and with effort what, in your mother tongue, you do unconsciously and without apparent effort.5 When you have to work hard to understand a text, you learn more about the way the faculty of language works.
You also learn that not all languages are equal. I’ve been reading French for much longer than I’ve been reading Spanish, but I still find French more difficult. Despite all the borrowings, despite the proximity of France to England, French is harder for English speakers than Spanish. Linguistic distance has no direct and easy relation to geography and history.
You could, of course, find languages much more dissimilar than the three given above, whose common roots and overlapping lexicons are still easy to see, but you can understand less by going further. As George Harrison once sang: “The further one travels, the less one knows.”6 What would a comparison with the same passage in Mandarin or Quechua, for example, teach an English speaker about the ways that language can evolve? The contrasts would be too strong, the linguistic distances too great, unlike those between April, avril, and abril, or wind, vent and viento, or thirteen, treize and trece.7 Distorted echoes sound between English, French and Spanish that don’t sound between English, Mandarin and Quechua.8
But the absence of an echo can teach you something too. The concepts of definiteness and indefiniteness, singularity and plurality, echo between English, French and Spanish – a day, une journée, and un día; the doors and las puertas – but not the concept of gender, masculine versus feminine, which echoes only between French and Spanish.
To an English speaker, grammatical gender is very strange: it’s not something I can use other than mechanically, or appreciate properly when I sample another European language. A whole world of subtlety and distinction lies beyond me. But at least I am aware of what I’m missing outside English, as I wouldn’t be if I’d remained ignorant of other languages. On the other hand, reading in translation has sometimes made me aware of what I’m missing in English. I had misunderstood this passage in The Lord of the Rings (1954) for many years:
Then the orcs screamed, waving spear and sword, and shooting a cloud of arrows at any that stood upon the battlements; and the men of the Mark looked out, as it seemed to them, upon a great field of dark corn, tossed by a tempest of war, and every ear glinted with barbed light. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, ch. VII, “Helm’s Deep”.)
Reading fast and carelessly in my mother tongue, I always had a fleeting mental image of orcs with spiky ear-rings and never questioned it. Then I read the same passage in Spanish and my error finally dawned on me:
De pronto, los orcos prorrumpieron en gritos agudos, agitando lanzas y espadas y disparando una nube de flechas contra todo cuanto se veía por encima de los parapetos; y los hombres de la Marca, estupefactos, se asomaron sobre lo que parecía un inmenso trigal negro sacudido por un vendaval de guerra, y cada espiga era una púa erizada y centelleante. (Las Dos Torres, translated by Matilde Horne and Luis Domènech.)
“Ear” is ambiguous in English: it can mean “ear on your head” or “ear of corn”. In Spanish, there are two words for the two concepts: oreja and espiga, respectively. My error is impossible to make in Spanish. You might call it an example of “mother-tongue malaise”. Nineteen Eighty-Four describes a deliberate attempt to exploit this malaise:
In Newspeak, euphony outweighed every consideration other than exactitude of meaning. Regularity of grammar was always sacrificed to it when it seemed necessary. And rightly so, since what was required, above all for political purposes, was short clipped words of unmistakable meaning which could be uttered rapidly and which roused the minimum of echoes in the speaker’s mind. The words of the B vocabulary even gained in force from the fact that nearly all of them were very much alike. Almost invariably these words – goodthink, Minipax, prolefeed, sexcrime, joycamp, Ingsoc, bellyfeel, thinkpol, and countless others – were words of two or three syllables, with the stress distributed equally between the first syllable and the last. The use of them encouraged a gabbling style of speech, at once staccato and monotonous. And this was exactly what was aimed at. The intention was to make speech, and especially speech on any subject not ideologically neutral, as nearly as possible independent of consciousness. (“The Principles of Newspeak”, Appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four.)
What you do easily, you do less consciously, and you can gabble when you read, not just when you speak. This becomes less likely when you are making a conscious effort to understand, reading more slowly and carefully, as you do when you are reading a language that is not your mother tongue.
This slower, more careful reading can make what you read more powerful: you don’t gobble the linguistic feast set before you. Instead, you take your time and appreciate the flavours and textures better. The Power of Babel, of knowing about and exploring other languages, isn’t simply that other languages are different, but that the difference forces you to approach them with more thought and become more conscious of what you are experiencing. The feast of French, to English-speakers, is enhanced by the need to eat more carefully and consciously. Languages are aesthetic experiences in their own right, like meals or works of art; they’re not simply tools of communication or creation.
But languages are not like paintings, best seen from one particular spot.9 Instead, they’re like sculptures: you can always see and appreciate something new by finding a new point of view. The full nature of any language is inexhaustible, because those who look at it from outside can have an endless variety of mother tongues. In other words, they have endless different perspectives. French is not the same viewed from Italian as it is viewed from English, or Chinese, or Georgian, or Hawaiian. French and all other languages are like gems existing in many dimensions: they can be turned and marvelled at endlessly.
A text can also be translated in endless ways into other languages, which will always emphasize or underplay different aspects of the original. And something will always be lost. The winds and currents of Greek, for example, are not blowing and swirling with full force in a Latin or English translation of the Gospels.Generally speaking, a text translated is simpler than a text composed: it has to pass through a filter and loses something en route. I’ve found the French translation of Nineteen Eighty-Four difficult and opaque at times, but it’s been nothing compared to the difficulty and opacity of the novel À Rebours (1884). The former was translated into French and simplified en route; the latter was composed directly in French and expressed the full complexity and subtlety of its author’s intentions.
But J.-K. Huysmans (1848-1907), the author of À Rebours, or Against Nature10, wrote much more complex prose than a French equivalent of Georges Orwell might have done. The actual English Orwell claimed that “good prose is like a windowpane”:11 that is, readers should see through it clearly to the meaning. If Huysmans’ prose is like glass, it’s heavily stained and decorated glass. Against Nature is the story of Des Esseintes, a rich, neurotic aesthete who tries to escape the vulgarities and banalities of nineteenth-century Paris by retreating to a luxuriously appointed house in the French countryside. He wants to experience everything indirectly, at a distance, through art and artifice, through symbolism and literature. And he finds new twists on artifice. He previously collected artificial flowers: in his new seclusion, “instead of artificial flowers imitating real flowers”, he wants to collect “natural flowers” that “mimic artificial ones” and that look like metal, cloth, porcelain or diseased flesh.12
But the only musical instrument he allows himself is an orgue à bouche, a “mouth-organ” of liquor casks with which which he plays tunes of taste. Why no real music for his artificial paradise? Well, mechanical reproduction of music was primitive in Des Esseintes’ day and he would not have wanted real musicians to invade his solitude. But there is another important consideration. Music is the most self-contained of the arts: it is sound by, with and for itself. This helps explain why “Des Esseintes’ ideas on music” are “in flagrant contradiction with the theories he professed regarding the other arts”.13 Music isn’t indirect: when you listen to it, the experience is immediate, not mediated by words or images. Music is a world of its own, not an invocation of another world like a painting or a text. Literature is, indeed, the least self-contained of the arts. The essence of language is to invoke something other than itself: that is what language is for.
In its literal, physical form, the novel Against Nature is a set of black marks on white paper, yet those who read it enter the life of Des Esseintes, sharing the minutest details of his experiences, thoughts, emotions and memories. Think of the distance between the literal stuff of language and what it creates in the mind – and below the mind. Vibrations in the air or marks on paper can conjure an endless variety of beings and worlds, whether real, possible, or fantastic. All nineteenth-century writers performed a kind of magic with nothing more than ink and paper, but Huysmans went further and paid homage to that logopoetic magic, to the marvel of language, with the richness and strangeness of his prose.
The distance between language and reality was reflected and enhanced by the distance of his language from standard French. Native speakers of French will understand and appreciate their mother tongue better by reading Huysmans’ books, because linguistic distance doesn’t exist just between languages, but within them, between one writer’s style and another’s, between dialects and accents, genres and subjects, the jargons and slangs of different professions and social groups.
It’s a very different experience to read the French of Huysmans’ contemporary Guy de Maupassant (1850-93), whose prose almost manages, through its simplicity and clarity, to transcend the language in which it was written. You see clearly through the windowpane of his prose to the meaning. Far less is lost in a translation of Maupassant than of Huysmans and this helps explain the differing popularity of Maupassant and Huysmans outside France. Compare the following passages and their translations. The first is taken from Huysmans, the second from Maupassant:
Elle est presque nue; dans l’ardeur de la danse, les voiles se sont défaits, les brocarts ont croulé; elle n’est plus vêtue que de matières orfévries et de minéraux lucides; un gorgerin lui serre de même qu’un corselet la taille, et, ainsi qu’une agrafe superbe, un merveilleux joyau darde des éclairs dans la rainure de ses deux seins; plus bas, aux hanches, une ceinture l’entoure, cache le haut de ses cuisses que bat une gigantesque pendeloque où coule une rivière d’escarboucles et d’émeraudes; enfin, sur le corps resté nu, entre le gorgerin et la ceinture, le ventre bombe, creusé d’un nombril dont le trou semble un cachet gravé d’onyx, aux tons laiteux, aux teintes de rose d’ongle.
Sous les traits ardents échappés de la tête du Précurseur, toutes les facettes des joailleries s’embrasent; les pierres s’animent, dessinent le corps de la femme en traits incandescents; la piquent au cou, aux jambes, aux bras, de points de feu, vermeils comme des charbons, violets comme des jets de gaz, bleus comme des flammes d’alcool, blancs comme des rayons d’astre. (À Rebours, Chapitre V.)
She is almost nude. In the ardour of the dance, her veils have loosened. She is clad only in golden cloth and gleaming gems; a neck-piece clasps her as a corselet clings to her body and, like a superb buckle, a marvellous jewel glitters on the hollow between her breasts. A girdle clasps her hips, concealing the upper part of her thighs, against which beats a huge pendant streaming with rubies and emeralds; last of all, her body is naked between the gorget and belt; her belly swells, set with a navel whose hollow seems a signet-ring engraved from onyx, with milky tones, with the tints of a pink fingernail.
All the facets of the jewels kindle under the blaze of light escaping from the head of the Baptist. The stones come alive, outlining the woman’s body with incandescent rays, lapping her neck, feet and arms with tongues of fire – vermilions like embers, violets like jets of gas, blues like flaring alcohol, and whites like star-light. (Against Nature, chapter V.)
D’un coup d’oeil, je cherchai une place où je ne serais point trop serré, et j’allai m’asseoir à côté d’un homme qui me parut vieux et qui fumait une pipe de deux sous, en terre, noire comme du charbon. Six ou huit soucoupes de verre, empilées sur la table devant lui, indiquaient le nombre de bocks qu’il avait absorbés déjà. Je n’examinai pas mon voisin. D’un coup d’oeil j’avais reconnu un bockeur, un de ces habitués de brasserie qui arrivent le matin, quand on ouvre, et s’en vont le soir, quand on ferme. Il était sale, chauve du milieu du crâne, tandis que de longs cheveux gras, poivre et sel, tombaient sur le col de sa redingote. Ses habits trop larges semblaient avoir été faits au temps où il avait du ventre. On devinait que le pantalon ne tenait guère et que cet homme ne pouvait faire dix pas sans rajuster et retenir ce vêtement mal attaché. Avait-il un gilet ? La seule pensée des bottines et de ce qu’elles enfermaient me terrifia. Les manchettes effiloquées étaient complètement noires du bord, comme les ongles. (“Garçon, un bock!”, (1884).
I looked about for a place where I would not be too jostled, and went to sit beside a man who seemed old to me and who was smoking a cheap clay pipe, black as coal. Six or eight saucers, overturned on the table in front of him, showed how many bocks he’d already swallowed. I didn’t look closely at him. In a glance, I’d summed him up as a toper, one of those bar-haunters who arrive in the morning, when the bar opens, and leave in the evening, when it closes. He was dirty, balding on top, while long, pepper-and-salt strands of greasy hair fell onto the collar of his frock-coat. His clothes were too large, as though made for him when he carried a big belly. You could tell that his trousers sagged and that he couldn’t take ten steps without tugging them up. Did he wear a waistcoat? The mere thought of his boots and what was in them filled me with horror. His frayed cuffs were perfectly black at the edges, as were his nails. (“Waiter, A Bock!”)
Though both passages are written in French, there is clear linguistic distance between them, reinforcing the contrast between what they describe: a young and beautiful woman; an ageing and unattractive man. Furthermore, Huysmans is describing not real life, but the story of Salome as refracted through a painting by Gustave Moreau (1826-98). Huysmans’ style is much more ornate and active, writhing in sinuous coils like a jewelled and gilded serpent. His prose is hallucinatory and dreamlike, drugging and distorting the imagination of its readers with exotic vocabulary and complex syntax. Maupassant’s style is plain and minimalist, dashing the cold water of reality in its readers’ faces. It survives translation much better, which is part of why Maupassant has always enjoyed a wider audience than Husymans.
But both writers have grown more distant from their readers and from life as time has passed. They wrote for nineteenth-century Frenchmen about nineteenth-century France; today, all French readers belong to the twenty-first century. An unplanned, unintended distance has begun to widen between the setting of the texts and the knowledge and memories that readers bring to them. And this is true of most genres and most writers. A story, novel, or poem is like a city or palace, a garden or shrine, erected on the banks of the River of Time. The river will overflow, change its course, grow warmer or colder, clearer or muddier. The city or palace, garden or shrine, will not remain as it was and can no longer be visited and enjoyed in the same way. Perhaps that is why it could be said that the writer I will now discuss worked in the most universal genre of all, erecting his story-palaces and story-shrines not by a mutable river but in an immutable desert. This extract from the Californian fantasiste Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) encapsulates all the themes of this essay:
A favorable wind was behind them, blowing from the north over desolate Tasuun and Yoros, even as the Silver Death had blown in the night. And idly beside them, on the Voum, there floated seawards many vessels whose crew and captains had all died of the plague. And Faraad was still as a necropolis of old time; and nothing stirred on the estuary shores, excepting the plumy, fan-shapen palms that swayed southward in the freshening wind. And soon the green strand of Yoros receded, gathering to itself the blueness and the dreams of distance. –“The Isle of Torturers” (1933).
CAS is a dealer in dreams – “the dreams of distance” so strongly associated with sea-journeys and islands, both of which occur again and again in his work. CAS constantly invokes distance, dimness, dissolution and yearning for the far-off and unattainable:
Toward the sunset lands,
A leafless tree, from tender slopes of spring,
Holds out its empty boughs like empty hands
That vainly seek some distance-hidden thing.
“Future Pastoral” (1952).
The Muses all are silent for your sake:
While night and distance take
The hamadryad’s hill, the naiad’s vale.
Low droops the hippocentaur’s golden tail,
And sleep has whelmed the satyrs in the brake.
“Do You Forget, Enchantress?” (1960).
And the wandering realms and cities of the wide mirage;
Where no one passeth except the sun,
Who walked like a terrible god through the hell of the brazen skies;
And the dreadful cohorts of the constellations,
Who pass remote in alien years,
And clad with icy azures of unattainable distance.
“Psalm”, from Ebony And Crystal (1922).
CAS’s writing is powerful in part because it makes you see the world anew by making the world more distant: you re-appreciate and re-appraise the English language, language itself, the beauty and wonders of existence, the foulness and horrors. CAS does this by loosening our grip on language and reality, by levering us away from what seems familiar so that we see it from a distance, from new angles, in new perspective. The most immediately obvious distance in his work is lexical: without recourse to a dictionary, very few readers would understand all the words he uses in a story like “The Witchcraft of Ulua” (1934): “anchorite… ossuary relics… besom of mummy’s hair… gymnosophic seclusion… migniard skeleton… obliquitous refinement… golden thuribles… euphrasy… dulcet languor… thrice-lethal invultuations… lascivious empusae…”
Yet amid the exotic and esoteric, CAS creates vivid imagery with words his readers will have known since childhood. At one point he describes the ascetic hero of the tale, Amalzain, confronting its sybaritic villainess, Ulua. Note how the lexicon sways between the exotic and the everyday, between distance and proximity, far and near:
…the princess regarded him with luxurious gravity from a couch of fire-bright scarlet. She was small as a woman of the elf-folk, and voluptuous as a coiled lamia. The incense floated about her like sinuous veils.
“There are other things than the pouring of wine for a sottish monarch, or the study of worm-eaten volumes,” said Ulua in a voice that was like the flowing of hot honey. “Sir cup-bearer, your youth should have a better employment than these.”
Ulua is likened to “a woman of the elf-folk”, then called “voluptuous as a coiled lamia.” The first phrase contains nothing but Anglo-Saxon, the second contains Latin, French and Greek. Her gaze has “luxurious gravity”, yet her voice flows like “hot honey”: polysyllabic Latin languor and rich Anglo-Saxon brevity. The play of imagery swirls like the incense in her bedchamber, veiling, unveiling, obscuring, revealing. Elsewhere, CAS uses this mingling of the exotic and everyday to create one of the most beautiful and memorable similes I have ever seen:
IV. I kiss thy cheeks, where lingers a faint flush, like the reflection of a rose upheld to an urn of alabaster. – The Litany of the Seven Kisses (1922).
CAS is mingling the images of rose and alabaster, reality and reflection, in a prose poem, which itself mingles poetry and prose. His skill and subtlety may be contrasted here with one of his great influences: Swinburne. A.E. Housman’s essay on Swinburne notes that, in his work
…the same metaphors and similes are constantly repeated. They are derived from the few natural objects which he had noticed: the sea, the stars, sunset, fire, and flowers, generally of a red colour, such as the rose and the poppy. – “Swinburne” (1900).
We all notice these natural objects, because they are powerful and primal. They all appear in the work of CAS: stars, fire and poppies in “The Witchcraft of Ulua”, for example. But CAS noticed much more than the obvious and intense: he transmutes something as obvious, even overpowering, as the beauty and colour of a rose into the evanescence of a reflection. There is a distancing again, an othering of the everyday and the sensual glory of the rose becomes obscured and tantalizing, evoked by the faint flush on the cheeks of a beloved. “Genius” is an over-worked and under-valued word in artistic criticism, but CAS’s linguistic skill and subtlety entitle him to the label more than many other, much more famous writers.
That skill and subtlety are apparent not just in his use of existing words, whether everyday, like “fire”, “honey” and “rose”, or exotic, like “alabaster”, “empusae” and “invultuation”. He is also a master at creating realistic irreality and naming the people and places of his imagined worlds, particularly that of Zothique in the far future, the “last continent of earth”, whose sun is “dim and tarnished as with a shadow of blood”.14
The name Zothique is a good example of CAS seeking linguistic distance from English, trying to draw his readers away from the here and now to the there and then. Say the name: Zothique. There are various ways to transcribe the long final vowel and consonant: -eek; -eec; -iik; -iic, among others. But CAS chooses a French inflection, which looks exotic to English-speakers. Or looks exotique – pronounced “eg-zo-teek”. And is that the origin of Zothique: a shortening of exotique? Quite possibly yes, but the name in its final form has distance from French too, because French doesn’t use dental fricatives like “th”. Greek does, as everything from “anthology” to “zootheism” demonstrates. “Zootheism” also demonstrates that English words with an initial z- are mostly borrowed from Greek.
I suggest, then, that the name “Zothique” pays tribute to the two most ancient and potent sources of otherworldly glamour and fantasy in English literature: French and Greek. French gave us chivalry, Greek gave us mythology – and the letter y (known as i griega, or “Greek i” in Spanish).15 You can see both these influences, among others, at work in the names CAS gave to the people and places of Zothique: Altath, Dalili, Estit, Famorgh, Ilalotha, Ildrac, Manthar, Miraab, Mmatmuor, Namirrha, Sabmon, Sarcand, Sodosma, Tasuun, Thulos, Tinarath, Uccastrog, Ulua, Vacharn, Vokal, Xeethra, Xylac, Yadar, Yoros, Zyra. But these names aren’t French or Greek or anything truly real: they’re CASean, far-off names from a far-future world. They’re glamorous and elusive, like the reflex of a rose on an urn of alabaster, or twisted and distorted, like “deep and viscid voices indistinguishably blent”, from “crypts beneath a temple”.16 And that distance, that glamour or distortion, are not lost in translation. Examine a Czech version of “The Empire of Necromancers” (1932):
Legenda o Mmatmuorovi a Sodosmovi přijde k životu až v posledních dnech pozemských, až budou radostné pověsti o stvoření dávno zapomenuty… Vyprávím příběh, jak jej budou vyprávět lidé v Zothique… Mmatmuor a Sodosma byli nekromanti, kteří přitáhli z pochmurného ostrova Naat, aby se oddávali svým ohavným dovednostem v Tinarathu, onde za ubývajícími moři. Než v Tinarathu se jim nevedlo: poněvadž smrt byla lidem onéšeravé země považována za cosi zbožného; a nicota věčného hrobu se nedala snadno znesvětit; a oživování mrtvých rukou nekromantie bylo považováno za nestvůrnost… Ale s radostným úsměvem dobyvatelů stojících na pokraji dlouho hledaného území, Sodosma a Mmatmuor pevně vstoupili do Cincoru. Před nimi se rozebíhala široká, neporušená silnice, která kdysi pojila ruch mezi Cincorem a Tinarathem… (“Impérium Nekromantů”, translated by Michal at The Eldritch Dark)
The legend of Mmatmuor and Sodosma shall arise only in the latter cycles of Earth, when the glad legends of the prime have been forgotten. I tell the tale as men shall tell it in Zothique… Mmatmuor and Sodosma were necromancers who came from the dark isle of Naat, to practise their baleful arts in Tinarath, beyond the shrunken seas. But they did not prosper in Tinarath: for death was deemed a holy thing by the people of that gray country; and the nothingness of the tomb was not lightly to be desecrated; and the raising up of the dead by necromancy was held in abomination… But, smiling secretly, with the air of conquerors who tread the approaches of a long-coveted realm, Sodosma and Mmatmuor walked steadily on into Cincor. Unbroken before them, through fields devoid of trees and grass, and across the channels of dried-up rivers, there ran the great highway by which travelers had gone formerly between Cincor and Tinarath…
The Czech words are almost all exotic to speakers of a western European language, but the CASean names are exotic to Czech-speakers too: Mmatmuorovi… Sodosmovi… Naat… Tinarathu… Cincoru… This is part of the universality of CAS’s work: his names are distant from all existing languages, so aren’t more or less exotic in Czech than they are in English. But in Czech you see something you barely see in English: the invented names inflect, that is, have different endings to serve different grammatical functions: Mmatmuor… Mmatmuorovi… Mmatmuora… Sodosma… Sodosmovi… Sodosmi… Cincor… Cincoru… Cincorem… Cincorskou… Cincorskému… These inflexions, like the English genitive (Mmatmuor’s, Sodosma’s, Cincor’s), must be completely standard parts of Czech, yet they are being applied to very exotic and unusual names. Does that make those names more powerful in Czech than in English, where they are inflected far less?
Perhaps it does, but the effect may be stronger for non-native readers of Czech than for native ones. Non-natives will be more conscious of Czech grammar, because they don’t understand it by intuition, and so they will be more aware of the way it is applied to such strange and complex non-Czech names.
But complexity is not the complete story of CAS’s onomastic skill. Less is often more: CAS displays his skill even in simple-seeming names like Naat, the Isle of Necromancers, and Voum, the river down which, in “The Isle of Torturers”, King Fulbra sails to “the amaranth-colored gulf of the Indaskian Sea”. First examine “Voum”. The names of real rivers and mountains are often very old and worn-down, because rivers and mountains are long-lasting and obvious features of a landscape. Their names pass from conquered to conquerers and sometimes more than once. Many rivers in Anglo-Saxon England have Celtic names, like Avon, Severn and Thames, but some are believed to be pre-Celtic, like Colne, Ouse and Wey. CAS’s river-name, Voum, looks ancient and worn-down in just the right, riverine way.17 The V- is perfect: compare French avril and English April in the Orwell extracts above. They both come from the Latin Aprilis, but the French word has descended through many centuries of everyday speech, while the English word has been borrowed direct.
“Naat” is simple and primal in a partly different way: it’s reminiscent, particularly to speakers of American English, of “not” and “naught”. It too sounds ancient and worn-down, but not like the name of a river, rather like the name of something even more obvious and inescapable: death. In English, words for often-encountered, often-discussed things tend to be monosyllables: eye, nose, mouth; sun, moon, sky; love, life, death. Naat is a monosyllabic death-word: it negates, like “not”, yet it has a cry of protest and surprise, or recognition and relief, at its heart: the “Ah!” with which countless human beings down countless centuries have greeted death and dissolution.
Naat, the Isle of Naught, is characteristically CASean. His writing, for all its exotic and esoteric elements, returns again and again to a fundamental fact of existence: that all things must pass. His fantasy, horror and science fiction all explore this theme, but his fantasy is the most powerful of the three in part because it is most distant from CAS’s real experiences: the world of trains, planes and automobiles. This, I would argue, is one of the ways in which, with seeming paradox, the exotic and esoteric CAS, who writes of golden thuribles and voluptuous lamiae, is a more universal writer than, say, the realistic and sober Maupassant, who writes about dirty fingernails and greasy hair (some of the time, at least).
If a fantasy story by CAS were translated into Latin and somehow sent back to ancient Rome, it would be understood and appreciated far better than a realistic story by Maupassant. CAS has kings, emperors, wine, witch’s breasts, wizardry, storms at sea, torture, jewels, beauty, horror, love, lust, hate, vengeance and death. His fantastic stories don’t date and won’t date. Maupassant has some of those things too, but he sets them in nineteenth-century France. His realistic stories do date and have dated.
So have the stories of Huysmans, but in some ways that has increased the power of a novel like Against Nature. Des Esseintes’ dreams of escape were impossible in the nineteenth century: they are even more impossible now. Contemporary readers of Against Nature could dream of having sufficient money, leisure and taste to imitate the luxurious seclusion into which Des Esseintes retreats. That seclusion is unattainable for modern readers, no matter how rich and leisured they are, because Huysmans lived in a less oppressive and invasive world. Des Esseintes’ artifical paradise is even more mysterious and tantalizing now and, like a fine wine or liquor, Against Nature may have improved with age.
But there are parts of the novel, like the descriptions of Salome, that share CAS’s universality and resistance to time, because they deal in the same ancient things: wine, witch’s breasts, jewels, beauty, horror, love, lust, hate, vengeance and death. They are, after all, based on texts that are two thousand years old, like l’évangile de saint Mathieu, the Gospel of St Matthew.
The Gospels have even older roots, in the Old Testament and the legends of Persia, Phoenicia and Mesopotomia. Salome and her beguiling, vengeful dance would have been recognizable and comprehensible millennia before the time of King Herod. So, I believe, would CAS’s characters: the magus-lad Amalzain and the astronomer-king Fulbra, the witch-maid Ulua and the torturer-king Ildrac, to whom Fulbra is delivered by a storm at sea. CAS’s stories would survive translation into the cuneiform of ancient Mesopotamia in a way that H.P. Lovecraft’s stories never could.
CAS’s themes are primal and speak to the haunted rhythms of our ancient blood. Lovecraft’s themes are scientific and speak to the God-bereft angst of our modern brains. And you can imagine CAS being comprehensible for millennia to come, through dooms and disasters that shatter modern civilization and throw us back to the days of swords and sorcery. You can imagine CAS being comprehensible on other worlds and in other dimensions, to alien beings who would be quite unable to understand Lovecraft or Maupassant. CAS deals in distance and thereby conquers distance, being more universal, more for the ages, than writers who seem to confront life and reality much more directly. Yet CAS is still characterized best in these words used by Huysmans of Salome:
Elle demeurait effacée, se perdait, mystérieuse et pâmée, dans le brouillard lointain des siècles, insaisissable pour les esprits précis et terre à terre, accessible seulement aux cervelles ébranlées, aiguisées, comme rendues visionnaires par la névrose…
She remained veiled, she hid herself, mysterious and enraptured in the far-off mist of the centuries, not to be grasped by stolid and earthy minds, conjured only in brains stung and bruised by life, made visionary by their tortured nerves…
With a change of name – or pronoun – the tale is told of Clark Ashton Smith. Yet he too touches earth in Anglo-Saxon, even as he weaves webs of Greek, Latin and French enchantment. In Oscar Wilde’s phrase, CAS was a “lord of language”;18 in his own phrase, he was an “emperor of dreams”.19 This lord and emperor recognized the good of the gap: between dream and reality, between language and reality, between the everyday and the esoteric, and between English and other languages. Long may his dreams of distance continue to delight visionary, neurotic readers, stung and bruised by life!
2. Strictly speaking, astronauts don’t experience the absence of gravity, but the absence of weight, or weightlessness. We’ve all experienced that too when jumping or riding a rollercoaster, but only briefly.