Printer Friendly

In quest for the romantic imagination (II): all roads lead to Xanadu.

I. The story of Zenith: imagination bound

According to various critics, Sinclair Lewis's novel entitled Babbitt (1922) may have drawn inspiration from the life and works of Irving Babbitt. The observation deserves attention: 1) if we bear in mind that the final message of Lewis's novel is that, eventually, conformism is the immense price that is necessary--in our predominantly commercial culture--for its members to survive; and 2) if we consider that in essence Irving Babbitt (1919: 387), the one secretly portrayed in Lewis's novel, was of the opinion that a "great civilization" is "in a sense only a great convention"--an idea that Lewis opposed, not in the sense that it was untrue, but in the sense that civilization should not be so.

A crucial theme of Lewis's novel is thus the necessity for mankind to turn back to nature, which is a fundamental thesis of Rousseau's that was attacked expressly by Irving Babbitt. Another theme in the novel is the realization that the world of technology (which is a product of man's imagination) adds yet another effect of alienation of man in front of reality and nature, therefore an anti-romantic effect--similar to the effect of Irving Babbitt's own criticism which was directed principally against the excesses of the romantics, even if also against the excesses of the neoclassics.

A few words about Sinclair Lewis are in order, if we are to evaluate the connection between his famous novel and Irving Babbitt, the scourge and demolisher of romanticism in its Rousseauistic variant.

Being the first American laureate of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1930), Sinclair Lewis is the representative of "photographic" realism (cf. Whipple 1962: 71; Forster 1962: 95ff; Mumford 1962: 105; Grebstein 1962: 31), of social or critical realism, or of the "realism of revolt" (Kazin 1962: 120), i.e. born from the fight for freedom of expression, to which belong also writers like Sherwood Anderson, Floyd Dell, Zona Gale, Ring Lardner, etc. Even though he is mainly considered a realist, Sinclair Lewis had romantic and vital humanistic tendencies, being anti-traditionalist and non-conformist. He was a master of "rushing narrative" (Arnold Bennett; Lewis 1937: 232; cf. Hone 1962: 19), and he is considered a realistic idealist and a romantic satirist--a fighter in the Horatian sense of genus irritabile (Grebstein 1962: 165), "a sociological writer" with "a remarkable gift for rendering" the moral aspects of life (Ford 1962: 101), the "one real anatomist of the American Kultur" (Mencken; cf. Schorer 1961: 741; also Hutchisson 1996: 203), the "flamboyant, driven, self-devouring genius from Sauk Centre, Minnesota," "the conscience of his generation" (Grebstein 1962: 19, 7), "the bad boy of American letters," "our own Diogenes" (Parrington 1962: 62), "the American Dickens"--a descendant of F. Cooper, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Twain, who, similarly, attacked the effects of mass culture and standardization of ideas and behaviour (Grebstein 1962: 29ff).

His creative mode of the "rushing narrative" reminds us of the effects of opium ingestion on literary creation (see infra), and is probably connected with his many alcoholic excesses, which were justified perhaps also by his having avowedly embraced Hemingway's notion that drunkenness is "one of man's eternal ways to happiness" (cf. Sinclair Lewis's 1930 Nobel Lecture, The American fear of literature). Sinclair Lewis was the authentic, if remote, echo of Rousseau and of the golden hopes of Enlightenment (Parrington 1962: 70), so it was natural for him to react against the critic Irving Babbitt who hated Rousseauism for its many excesses. Lewis was lastly considered "the historian of America's catastrophic going-to-pieces" (Cantwell 1962: 118), a great natural force, like an "aurora borealis" (Rebecca West; cf. Grebstein 1962: 28).

Sinclair Lewis is the one who gave an analysis of the America of the 1920s which is valid also today, his prophecies becoming truths that are valid today, and his fears becoming also our crucial concerns today. The titles from today's newspapers, for instance, remind us of Lewis's repeated warning: namely, that if we shall create a high material culture without creating as well an equally high culture of beauty, moral decency and tolerance for individual differences, we will totally fail (Grebstein 1962: 33, 34, 64, 118, 137, 166). Sinclair Lewis proclaimed himself a romantic, i.e. the harbinger of a revolt against American society because it no longer contained anything of the picturesque edenic structure of the feudal culture which Lewis associated with a rich and stable culture.

In this acceptation as a mass romanticist, we may consider Sinclair Lewis's novel Babbitt as a fiction meant to suggest the personality of Irving Babbitt the critic, in an attempt to denounce the critic's failures, as well as the failures of the society in which he lived. In this sense, we can by all means take at face value Sinclair Lewis's own confession (expressed in the Introduction to Selected short stories, 1935), that he was "a romantic medievalist of the most incurable sort" (cf. Grebstein 1962: 20), who started his career as a writer under the heavy influence of Kipling's "romantic realism."

In the modern world of George Babbitt's city of Zenith, the perception of romanticism underwent mutations (as we shall later see, "mutation" is a key factor in the opium "equation"):

To them, the Romantic Hero was no longer the knight, the wandering poet, the cowpuncher, the aviator, nor the brave young district attorney, but the great sales-manager, who had an Analysis of Merchandizing Problems on his glass-topped desk, whose title of nobility was "Go-getter," and who devoted himself and all his young samurai to the cosmic purpose of Selling--not of selling anything in particular, for or to anybody in particular, but pure Selling. (Lewis 2014: 127-128)

The "law-abiding," "dull" and "obvious" city of Zenith itself becomes a character in Lewis's story, of a rank near a modern version of paradise city on a grand, if totally mechanized and standardized (hence unhumanly artificial), scale:

[T]he great city of Zenith--an ancient settlement in 1897, one hundred and five years old, with two hundred thousand population, the queen and wonder of all the state and, to the Catawba boy, George Babbitt, so vast and thunderous and luxurious that he was flattered to know a girl ennobled by birth in Zenith. (Lewis 2014: 79)

"Zenith's a city with gigantic power--gigantic buildings, gigantic machines, gigantic transportation," meditated Doane. / "I hate your city. It has standardized all the beauty out of life. It is one big railroad station--with all the people taking tickets for the best cemeteries," Dr. Yavitch said placidly. (Lewis 2014: 89)

Despite all its shortcomings, Zenith (and conceivably the city called "Monarch," described as the "a lot sportier" "chief rival" in the state) is the archetype of the prosperous city, the "finest spot on earth," after whose "perfections" all American cities aspire, and whose main "luxuries" are "dance-halls, movie-theaters, and road-houses" (cf. Lewis 2014: 157, 141, 106, 299):

Every small American town is trying to get population and modern ideals. And darn if a lot of 'em don't put it across! Somebody starts panning a rube crossroads, telling how he was there in 1900 and it consisted of one muddy street, count 'em, one, and nine hundred human clams. Well, you go back there in 1920, and you find pavements and a swell little hotel and a first-class ladies' ready-to-wear shop--real perfection, in fact! You don't want to just look at what these small towns are, you want to look at what they're aiming to become, and they all got an ambition that in the long run is going to make 'em the finest spots on earth--they all want to be just like Zenith! (Lewis 2014: 106)

Zenith is thus "the finest example of American life and prosperity to be found anywhere," (Lewis 2014: 162) seeming to be in fact the future projection of the new "standard" paradise city, which will replace everywhere in the world the old "classic" earthly-paradise version:

[I]t's here in Zenith, the home for manly men and womanly women and bright kids, that you find the largest proportion of these Regular Guys, and that's what sets it in a class by itself; that's why Zenith will be remembered in history as having set the pace for a civilization that shall endure when the old time-killing ways are gone forever and the day of earnest efficient endeavor shall have dawned all round the world! [...] I tell you, Zenith and her sister-cities are producing a new type of civilization. There are many resemblances between Zenith and these other burgs, and I'm darn glad of it! The extraordinary, growing, and sane standardization of stores, offices, streets, hotels, clothes, and newspapers throughout the United States shows how strong and enduring a type is ours. (Lewis 2014: 165)

In this sense, it is not accidental that Lewis introduces into his narrative Chicago's "modest Eden Hotel," which Zenith businessmen are said to always stay at when on visit there (cf. Lewis 2014: 216), as if to direct attention to the biblical garden of Eden, here represented by a new (if unlikely) avatar. In the "great game of vital living" Zenith--"the choosiest inland city in the country" that stands "in the van of spiritual and New Thought progress" (cf. Lewis 2014: 167, 177, 316)--is extolled for its idealism and brotherhood (both romantic attributes), but mostly for the paradisian material abundance that it represents (both natural and technological, including food in industrial quantities like "condensed milk" and "evaporated cream," "package-butter," "cheese" and " breakfast food"), which only very remotely, if at all, reminds us of Xanadu's romantic cornucopia at its best symbolized in Coleridge's poem by the "milk of paradise" and the natural luxuriance (see infra Marco Polo's magnificent descriptions):

Zenith manufactures more condensed milk and evaporated cream, more paper boxes, and more lighting-fixtures, than any other city in the United States, if not in the world. [...] [W]e also stand second in the manufacture of package-butter, sixth in the giant realm of motors and automobiles, and somewhere about third in cheese, leather findings, tar roofing, breakfast food, and overalls! Our greatness, however, lies not alone in punchful prosperity but equally in that public spirit, that forward-looking idealism and brotherhood, which has marked Zenith ever since its foundation by the Fathers. [...] [W]e have a duty toward our fair city, to broadcast the facts about our high schools, characterized by their complete plants and the finest school-ventilating systems in the country, bar none; our magnificent new hotels and banks and the paintings and carved marble in their lobbies; and the Second National Tower, the second highest business building in any inland city in the entire country. [...] [W]e have an unparalleled number of miles of paved streets, bathrooms, vacuum cleaners, and all the other signs of civilization; [...] our library and art museum are well supported and housed in convenient and roomy buildings; [...] our park-system is more than up to par, with its handsome driveways adorned with grass, shrubs, and statuary, [...]. [And this is] but a hint of the all-round unlimited greatness of Zenith! [...] [W]e have one motor car for every five and seven-eighths persons in the city, [this being a] practical indication of the kind of progress and braininess which is synonymous with the name Zenith! (Lewis 2014: 167-168)

Of course, in the statistical enumeration above, the fractional number of "five and seven-eighths" persons is possibly used ironically to point out the state of fragmentation in our modern society and the ruthless coldness of strict numbers. Also, it should be noted that Lewis's above-mentioned idea of a "New Thought progress" may hide in it a critique of Irving Babbitt's new humanism. Zenith's ruthless, contradictory and fragmented oligarchical structure--based on a slavery system (reminiscent of an imperial social system) whose slavery is not directly apparent (and might again hide a critique of Irving Babbitt's system based on classical strict rigour)--is best pointed out in the following fragment:

Out of the dozen contradictory Zeniths which together make up the true and complete Zenith, none is so powerful and enduring yet none so unfamiliar to the citizens as the small, still, dry, polite, cruel Zenith of the William Eathornes; and for that tiny hierarchy the other Zeniths unwittingly labor and insignificantly die. (Lewis 2014: 190)

Lewis's "unromantic," yet rebellion-seeking Babbitt from Zenith is an American self-sufficient businessman (a house seller), a stereotypical character, the conflicting and allegorical expression of the ego in its battle with its own shadow, i.e. the negative, restrictive aspects: the classical pole.

We are dealing here with the ego caught in the "inter-world" between the romantic universe and the classical universe: we find Lewis's Babbitt driving on the mainstreets of the city and feeling "superior and powerful, like a shuttle of polished steel darting in a vast machine" (Lewis 2014: 46). He is deeply affected by the call of the wild, by the wish for beauty, by the wish to have been a pioneer like his grandfather; by the romantic desire to return to nature, to the healing wilderness. Thus, Lewis's Babbitt embraces an American attitude that back then was already familiar, namely the longing for a non-urban renewal or rebirth, precisely in order to find the beauty that he senses in his romantic fantasies concerning the "fairy child" of his dreams, fantasies that appear only in places from nature, "on a shadowy hillside," "beyond misty waters," in "mysterious groves," gardens, heaths or moors, or at sea (cf. Love 1982: 236)--therefore in his terrestrial-paradise locations that may remotely remind us of Xanadu, since at the very moment Lewis introduces his Babbitt, he associates the latter's romantic dreamy second nature with Chinese culture:

[...] Babbitt was again dreaming of the fairy child, a dream more romantic than scarlet pagodas by a silver sea. (Lewis 2014: 2)

Yet, Zenith's rebellious "Bohemia" (which is a trace of the old romanticism of a Byron or Shelley advocating free love and total freedom) is, as suggested by Hutner (2010: xiii), only at best "a tame place," whose citizens George Babbitt does not take so seriously. Lewis's Zenith is possibly modeled on Duluth or St. Paul in Minnesota, or on Akron, Fort Wayne, Grand Rapids or Omaha (Hutner 2010: ix)--suggesting an inverted, anti-romantic, anti-hedonic kind of Xanadu, wherein, as Hutner (2010: xi) points out, "cultural anxieties" are "vigurously suppressed," therewith imagination being bound. Lewis mentions some of these cities in a context in which he underlines their "purity" and "power," "stability," "greatness" and "reality":

[I]t's because Zenith has so large a proportion of such men [the Real He-man] that it's the most stable, the greatest of our cities. New York also has its thousands of Real Folks, but New York is cursed with unnumbered foreigners. So are Chicago and San Francisco. Oh, we have a golden roster of cities--Detroit and Cleveland with their renowned factories, Cincinnati with its great machine-tool and soap products, Pittsburg and Birmingham with their steel, Kansas City and Minneapolis and Omaha that open their bountiful gates on the bosom of the ocean-like wheatlands, and countless other magnificent sister-cities, for, by the last census, there were no less than sixty-eight glorious American burgs with a population of over one hundred thousand! And all these cities stand together for power and purity, and against foreign ideas and communism--Atlanta with Hartford, Rochester with Denver, Milwaukee with Indianapolis, Los Angeles with Scranton, Portland, Maine, with Portland, Oregon. A good live wire from Baltimore or Seattle or Duluth is the twin-brother of every like fellow booster from Buffalo or Akron, Fort Worth or Oskaloosa! (Lewis 2014: 164-165)

Lewis's fictional Babbitt, however, fails in his romantic attempt to get back to nature because the city of Zenith reclaims him (cf. also Love 1982: 237), the latter itself failing to offer real freedom to its citizens. In this sense, Hutner keenly observed the following:

Babbitt or Zenith itself are symptoms of an age in sorry need of remembering lessons in freedom, especially the freedom of the individual to create an identity and to fulfil to the limit one's sense of self. Babbitt-the-businessman shows how far we have to go in stripping away the social fabric of the self, while Zenith reveals how obdurate are the forces that go into that fabrication. (Hutner 2010: xvii)

Lewis may have thus fictionalized in this novel Irving Babbitt's deep interest for the romantic equation as reflected especially in Rousseau's works, laying stress on the fact that Babbitt the critic had failed in his analysis of romanticism, because civilization (therefore convention and conformism) absorbed him, just as the pleasure dome in Xanadu absorbs Coleridge's Kubla Khan, and as the "Xanadian" / paradisian delights of the creative imagination absorb the mind of the artist Coleridge himself may have fallen into a similar trap: he was absorbed by the narcotic delights that opium ingestion temporarily offered him, and so had to finally pay the price: depression as the hellish reverse side of the gold or silver talent of paradise (for details, see infra The price of the milk of paradise).

The defects of the terrestrial-paradise metropolis of Zenith are clearly delineated, from the very first lines of Lewis's celebrated novel: it is in reality a human desert, and only with here and there a possible (if at all) little island of peace and joy and happiness. George F. Babbitt's own (thriving) residential district in Zenith is called "Floral Heights," suggesting that in the middle of the desert it is still possible to build a paradise, even if this is only an artificial or a would-be or a false or a pseudo-paradise--a possibility which yet again reminds us of the situation in Coleridge's myth of Xanadu, since we know that the story of the damsel with the dulcimer and of the so-called Tartar youth which is inserted into the poem makes reference to Aloadine's Mohammedan paradise described by Marco Polo to actually be a fool's paradise, since soldiers like the Tartar youth were made to believe they experienced paradise, when in fact what they experienced was the secret palace of Aloadine in which they--after being inebriated--had been pampered with all sorts of pleasures in order to become convinced to give their lives for Aloadine, because death would mean a return to that paradise of Xanadu's secret precincts of delight (see infra Marco Polo's reports). Likewise, for Coleridge himself opium was the enchanting agent by which he got access to artificial (if divine-seeming and awesome) delights, while still being in the midst of a desert (see infra his Letter to the Rev. George Coleridge, dated April 1798).

What is more, these artificial or fake islands of peace and joy in Zenith, we are told, are isolated from the main body of the depressive city, which retains a connection with Europe's Paris and Asia's Peking through telegraph operators--there is in this detail yet another strange connection with Xanadu: what is now Peking in the 13th century was the capital, then named Ta-tu, set up by no other than the historical Kublai Khan:

The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings. / The mist took pity on the fretted structures of earlier generations: the Post Office with its shingle-tortured mansard, the red brick minarets of hulking old houses, factories with stingy and sooted windows, wooden tenements colored like mud. The city was full of such grotesqueries, but the clean towers were thrusting them from the business center, and on the farther hills were shining new houses, homes--they seemed--for laughter and tranquillity. / Over a concrete bridge fled a limousine of long sleek hood and noiseless engine. These people in evening clothes were returning from an all-night rehearsal of a Little Theater play, an artistic adventure considerably illuminated by champagne. Below the bridge curved a railroad, a maze of green and crimson lights. The New York Flyer boomed past, and twenty lines of polished steel leaped into the glare. / In one of the skyscrapers the wires of the Associated Press were closing down. The telegraph operators wearily raised their celluloid eye-shades after a night of talking with Paris and Peking. [...] Cues of men with lunch-boxes clumped toward the immensity of new factories, sheets of glass and hollow tile, glittering shops where five thousand men worked beneath one roof, pouring out the honest wares that would be sold up the Euphrates and across the veldt. The whistles rolled out in greeting a chorus cheerful as the April dawn; the song of labor in a city built--it seemed--for giants. (Lewis 2014: 1)

A city built for giants, in which, however, George Babbitt is a pigmy, as we are given to understand (Love--1982: 234--calls him a "midget"). That Lewis had in mind a failed human universe burdened with unreal pseudo-images (whose functions are to compensate for the failures proper) throughout his novel, is shown by lines such as the following:

To George F. Babbitt, as to most prosperous citizens of Zenith, his motor car was poetry and tragedy, love and heroism. The office was his pirate ship but the car his perilous excursion ashore. (Lewis 2014: 21)

In the city of Zenith, in the barbarous twentieth century, a family's motor indicated its social rank as precisely as the grades of the peerage determined the rank of an English family--[...]. (Lewis 2014: 66)

It would appear that Lewis saw in Irving Babbitt's medial way yet another expression of standardization. Lewis thus has Seneca Doane (a radical socialist lawyer) defend classical standards of taste and attack standardized thinking, as if in order to embody in Doane's view the pros and cons as regards the levelling middle way of a standardization of life:

You make me sick, Kurt, with your perpetual whine about "standardization." Don't you suppose any other nation is "standardized"? Is anything more standardized than England, with every house that can afford it having the same muffins at the same tea-hour, and every retired general going to exactly the same evensong at the same gray stone church with a square tower, and every golfing prig in Harris tweeds saying "Right you are!" to every other prosperous ass? Yet I love England. And for standardization just look at the sidewalk cafes in France and the love-making in Italy! / Standardization is excellent, per se. [...] [W]hat I fight in Zenith is standardization of thought, and, of course, the traditions of competition. The real villains of the piece are the clean, kind, industrious Family Men who use every known brand of trickery and cruelty to insure the prosperity of their cubs. The worst thing about these fellows is that they're so good and, in their work at least, so intelligent. You can't hate them properly, and yet their standardized minds are the enemy. (Lewis 2014: 89-90)

In this sense, it has been pointed out by Cantwell (1962: 117) that Lewis's novel characters are not in fact romantic rebels dedicated to a fight, but are rather "self-dramatists," whose imaginations bloom by avoiding the conflict, not in order to play a Byronian role for which to assume responsibility, but in order to hide their true reactions and real problems that burden them, a fact proven for instance by the fact that Lewis's heroes are always in the camp of the enemy, the only one who manages to free himself being Arrowsmith, the exemplary scientist, whom Lewis transformed, according to Kazin (1962: 124), into a "gangling romantic American hero." Thoreau's Walden is thus the essential romantic work which deeply impressed Lewis, becoming for him the vision of Mecca, the redeeming romantic solution for Arrowsmith: withdrawing to the forest, the new eden of mankind. Lewis thus inherited from romantics like Emerson and Thoreau the hate against conformism, materialism, hypocrisy and affectation.

What Lewis wants to symbolize through Zenith (and Gopher Prairie from his novel Main Street) is the "[l]ife dehumanized by indifference or enmity to all human values." According to Whipple (1962: 72), this is the key for Zenith, as a "city of the dead," or through a Coleridgean lense (which we believe is a crucially relevant way to look at Zenith)--a Xanadu seen as a Fool's Paradise, whereinto also the author-creator himself may fall if he indulges too much or at all in the ghostly evanescent delights of opium, forgetting that there is also a price to be paid for them: the terrors of opium (see infra).

Zenith is thus the pseudo-edenic city of people lacking sensory, intellectual and affective life, the city of people who have become "horrible ciphers, empty of personality or individual consciousness, rigidly controlled by set social responses," as Schorer (1962: 50) explained, making up a "nonsocial world," "a fantastic world dominated by monstrous parodies of human nature" (as would occur in an opium nightmare!), in which each individual is dominated by the wish to be glorified--perhaps also like a Kublai Khan in Xanadu. In such pseudo-paradise, conversation is buffoonery, affection is noise, joy is pretence, and business is a mad rush after nothingness.

Hence, Geismar's (1962: 134) and Whipple's (1962: 74) idea that Babbitt is located in fact in Hell, so that the name of the city of Zenith denotes its opposite, the spiritual Nadir, just as Coleridge's Xanadu has in its background Aloadine's story of a Fool's Paradise and Coleridge's own story of the making of the poem by the artificial stimulation produced by "two grains of Opium" (as Coleridge himself confessed; see infra). Zenith is thus according to (Geismar 1947: 96) a poetic vision almost perfectly conceived of as "a perfectly [...] standardized hinterland." Zenith is the "perfection of mechanical luxury," in which the only flaw is the fact that the city is simply inhuman, life here being dehumanized by the indifference or the enmity against all human values, a situation valid also for Gopher Prairie (i. e. Sauk Centre) in Main Street, and manifest in the hostility against truth and art (cf. Whipple 1962: 74ff). Of course, the dehumanization factor reminds us of Coleridge's other masterpiece, The rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which the Mariner is subject to human regression.

Both fundamental cities in Lewis's works (Zenith from Winnemac, and Gopher Prairie from Minnesota) are governed by the philosophy of self-praise, pride, boast, and hollow optimism and fake mirth which lead to hypocrisy. Yet both cities give a conventionalized answer to culture: 1) in Gopher Prairie there is Thanatopsis Club (thanatopsis = Greek "vision of death"; a name that was probably suggested by William Cullen Bryant's poem): this is the main cultural force of the city, led by the most eminent ladies, who attend conferences on the English poets; and 2) in Zenith there is a symphonic orchestra which is promoted as instrument for civic advertisement.

And yet, the cities from the world depicted by Lewis are intellectually dead, the people here being firm in their decision to not let anybody live, i.e. express themselves or develop intellectualy or spiritually (Whipple 1962: 73). Wilson (1962: 140, 142) observed in this respect a single exception from this rule in Lewis's works: the city Grand Republic from Minnesota (from the novel Cass Timberlane), which is a place where we can imagine we may wish to live, because it is not, like Gopher Prairie or Zenith, a Dantean "circle of Hell." In this sense, Lewis was perhaps rightly called "the scourge" of American cities and villages (Love 1982: 219). Carol Kennicot of the city of Gopher Prairie in Main Street, for instance, imagined the ideal paradisian location for her "a reed hut on fantastic piles above the mud of a jungle river," a vision that surely suggests a Rousseauistic reverie of the kind Irving Babbitt profoundly criticized and which was probably influenced by Ebenezer Howard's Garden cities of tomorrow. Even so, Lewis nevertheless does regard Zenith as a paradise of sorts, the location of "commonplace romances," manifest in the way in which he speaks about the enthusiasm, the adventure and the beauty of life in Zenith, as we could see in the quotations above. This romanticism of the "commonplace" (somehow equivalent to the "mass romanticism" we mentioned earlier) is also related to the attitude by which Lewis considers (in Our Mr. Wrenn) that the life of a clerk in an apartament from Harlem is more romantic than a travel abroad; while (in The Job) a stenographer is more romantic than Clytemnestra, etc.

But even in this latter case, what Lewis expresses is still the wish to escape from reality, as happens also in the old romantic stories. In the last analysis, we are dealing with attempts to cover reality with a charmed veil (which in the romantics in many cases was done by the power of opium or alcohol, or both--as was reported to seemingly be the case of E. A. Poe; cf. Robertson 1897: 61, quoting the memoir attached to the last edition of Poe's works), thus romanticizing the common world, which in Lewis is done by sentimentalizing and beautifying a reality burdened by the self-sufficiency of modern man (his alcohol excesses had a similar background of causation: to create happiness where there was no possibility at all for it). For Lewis (cf. his 1930 Nobel Lecture, entitled The American fear of literature), America and its cities were thus "the new and vital and experimental land," "the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring, of any land in the world today," therefore in a sense they were for him the new experimental paradise/hell.

Consequently, we could read into Zenith either a Heaven or a Hell, depending on who we are and what our perspective is, more than one possibility of interpretation being possible, just as in the case of Coleridge's Xanadu, which can be seen as the paradise location of the imagination (the romantic city of "infinite abundance in infinite unity"), or as that of the historical Fool's Paradise of Aloadine. Blake, the arch-romantic, had understood this principle of reading reality long ago: "As a man is, So he Sees" (cf. Letter to Dr. Trustler, 23 August 1799); "as the Person, so is his life proportion'd" (Vala, IX, 141). In this sense, Freeman Dyson (1989: 131) observed that Blake is one of the intellectual ancestors of America, together with Richard Hakluyt and Jules Verne. Lewis thus offered his own vision of the fundamental polarity of life in America, namely the oscillation between the idealism of a good life projected into the future (the vision of a heavely paradise) and the materialism of practical life in the present (the vision of a terrestrial paradise), both of which could be construed as either Heaven or Hell, depending on who makes the interpretation and from what vantage point.

On the other hand, we need to emphasize the fact that the neohumanists led by Irving Babbitt, and attacked by Sinclair Lewis, rejected any deterministic perspectives on human nature. The neohumanist argument was the following:

1) The human beings are unique among the creatures of nature. The uniqueness of the human being had been a foundation in the thought of the American transcendentalist Margaret Fuller and, later, of the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas, the latter having taken inspiration from Alexander von Humboldt's cosmography, whose central idea was that all phenomena in the universe are unique and it is precisely this uniqueness that should be the focus of research in all scientific enterprise. In this context, Alfred Jarry's pataphysics was based precisely on the idea that the universe is the exception, not the rule, and so the science of pataphysics was meant as an exploration of "the laws governing exceptions," i.e. the particulars, in spite of the common notion that the only science possible was that of the general (cf. Jarry 1996: 21).

2) The essence of experience is fundamentally moral and ethical.

3) Human will, although subject to genetic/hereditary laws and modelled by the environment, is basically free.

The neo-humanists, among whom--besides Irving Babbitt one should mention at least Paul Elmer More, Norman Foerster and Robert Shafer, starting from these three basic elements, created a programme / manifesto and an aesthetic system, whereby they expressed their creed. Yet already in the 1930s the neo-humanists came to be considered cultural elitists (Sinclair Lewis no doubt was among those believeing precisely this), advocates of a social and aesthetic conservatism (such as attacked by Lewis, as quoted above), which is why their influence was greatly diminished, thus the fact being forgotten somehow that Babbitt's center-oriented thought system does have intrinsic value, being the basis of the neo-humanist approach. Babbitt in this regard deserves his nickname of "the warring buddha of Harvard," even if to a certain degree Sinclair Lewis's attack on the "Harvard buddha" was justified, because such a strict rigour in life for a romantic like Lewis--who perhaps liked his status as scourge of the American city and its elites--could have been equivalent with Melville's idea that medial doctrines like Christianity simply take away the "shark" inside man, that is they rob him of vitality, dynamism, enthusiasm, and the spirit of life's adventure. In this sense alone might one see some justification in Rebecca West's pejoratively nicknaming Babbitt the "drill-sergeant" and Paul Elmer More the "banker-conservative" (cf. Panichas 1999: 11).

Let us now throw a glance at the notion of the human universal imagination as a force inside man of unlocking the gates of paradise, be it individual or collective, local or cosmic, in its form.

II. Paracelsus and Blake's concept of imagination

When he mentions Pascal's idea of imagination as "mistress of error" and "proud power" ("proud, powerful enemy of reason," cf. Pascal 1999: 16), Babbitt (1968: 80) does not mention Pascal's actually very complex equation of the imagination as only one among many "misleading powers." Imagination in Pascal's view is a distorting, yet very ambiguous faculty (we follow Pascal 1999: 16-20):

1) It is "all the more treacherous because it is not consistently treacherous."

2) It is more frequently false, "indicating in the same way both truth and falsehood."

3) It "has established a second nature in man" (see Coleridge's primary and secondary imagination and fancy), making various people "happy and unhappy," causing reason to "believe, doubt, deny" (reference to Descartes dubito ergo cogito). This second nature is an inner world, to which only the imaginative man has access: he may grant the access to whomever he chooses by externalizing the works of his imagination (through art, for instance).

4) It "abrogates the senses, [but] it [also] brings them to life." Therefore, it is a kind of magical power, whereby man changes the world which he perceives, even if that world may be an illusion without correspondence in reality, or an illusion that becomes, as if magically, manifest partially or totally.

5) It "cannot make fools into wise men, but it can make them happy, unlike reason, which can only make its friends miserable." Pascal attacks rationalism here.

6) It envelops people with "glory," while reason covers them in "shame." Here he attacks the neo-classics and the Cartesians.

7) The "earth's riches" are inadequate "without its connivance." Here Pascal emphasizes the important subjective dimension of the imagination.

8) By its misleading effects, it "orders everything," being "the spring of beauty, justice, and happiness which is the he-all and end-all of the world."

9) It thus seems "to have been implanted in us precisely to lead us into necessary error." Blake in this respect was clear: error needs a body in order to be cast out eternally, but in his view it was not the imagination that was faulty, but on the contrary, it was reason that misled people into believing that life could be contained in mathematical "demonstration"--in this sense, the latter word was used alternately by Locke to refer precisely to "reason."

But there are in us "many other principles of error," says Pascal:

1) "long-held impressions": he attacks impressionistic conservatism and dogma.

2) The "attraction of novelty": he attacks exoticism, and the cult of the new that the future romanticism will connect with its crucial cult of infinite diversity.

3) Illnesses: if serious, they "distort" and "impair our judgement and feeling."

4) Self-interest: this "pleasantly" "blinds" us.

5) Most crucially: "the battle between the senses and reason" both the senses and reason lack "sincerity," "mutually deceiving] one another." The senses do that by "false appearances"; reason by false reasonings/logic. Moreover, the "passions of the soul" trouble the senses, thus creating in them "false impressions." Again, here Pascal attacks the cult of strong emotions that was to be a foundation of Rousseauism.

The dire conclusion drawn by Pascal is that we possess "no exact principle of truth," but instead we are endowed profusely with "many excellent [principles] of falsehood." The irony here set on the adjective "excellent" reminds us of Voltaire's mocking tone in many of his writings, but especially in Candide, where he mocked Leibniz's notion that this world is the best of possible worlds. However, Pascal believes that man, even though "full of natural error," can eliminate all of these errors and falsehoods by the help of "grace" only.

It is precisely this function of "grace" (Gr. charis) that Blake ascribed to the "human imagination," which in his view was equal to a perception of deep spiritual reality (imagination = "spiritual sensation"), no less than equal to Jesus Christ, who granted access to the "Celestial City" (cf. letter to William Hayley, dated 28 December 1804; Blake 1980: 106), i.e. to eternal life. The most relevant in this sense are the following crucial fragments:

I feel that a Man may be happy in This World. And I know that This World Is a World of IMAGINATION & Vision. I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun, & a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. Some See Nature all Ridicule & Deformity, & by these I shall not regulate my proportions; & Some Scarce see Nature at all. But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, So he Sees. As the Eye is formed, such are its Powers. You certainly Mistake, when you say that the Visions of Fancy are not to be found in This World. To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination, & I feel Flatter'd when I am told so. What is it sets Homer, Virgil & Milton in so high a rank of Art? Why is the Bible more Entertaining & Instructive than any other book? Is it not because they are addressed to the Imagination, which is Spiritual Sensation, & but mediately to the Understanding or Reason? Such is True Painting, and such was alone valued by the Greeks & the best modern Artists. Consider what Lord Bacon says: "Sense sends over to Imagination before Reason have judged, & Reason sends over to Imagination before the Decree can be acted." See Advancemt of Learning, Part 2, P. 47 of first Edition. / But I am happy to find a Great Majority of Fellow Mortals who can Elucidate My Visions, & Particularly they have been Elucidated by Children, who have taken a greater delight in contemplating my Pictures than I even hoped. Neither Youth nor Childhood is Folly or Incapacity. Some Children are Fools & so are some Old Men. But There is a vast Majority on the side of Imagination or Spiritual Sensation. (Letter addressed to Dr. Trustler, dated 23 August 1799; Blake 1980: 9)

I have been very near the Gates of Death & have returned very weak & an Old Man feeble & tottering, but not in Spirit & Life, not in The Real Man The Imagination which Liveth for Ever. In that I am stronger & stronger as this Foolish Body decays. I thank you for the Pains you have taken with Poor Job. I know too well that a great majority of Englishmen are fond of The Indefinite which they Measure by Newton's Doctrine of the Fluxions of an Atom, A Thing that does not Exist. (Letter addressed to George Cumberland, dated 12 April 1827; Blake 1980: 168)

We do not want either Greek or Roman Models if we are but just & true to our own Imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall live for ever in Jesus our Lord. (Preface to Milton; Blake 1976: 480)

[...] the Human Imagination [...] is the Divine Body of the Lord Jesus, blessed for ever. (Milton, I, 3, 3-4; Blake 1976: 482)

[...] the Human Imagination [...] is the Divine Vision & Fruition / In which Man liveth eternally [...]. (Milton, II, 32, 19-20; Blake 1976: 521)

The platonicism of Blake's view of the imagination is perhaps best expressed in the following excerpts:
   The Imagination is not a State: it is the Human Existence itself.
   Affection or Love becomes a State when divided from Imagination.
   The Memory is a State always, & the Reason is a State
   Created to be Annihilated & a new Ratio Created.
   Whatever can be Created can be Annihilated: Forms cannot:
   The Oak is cut down by the Ax, the Lamb falls by the Knife,
   But their Forms Eternal Exist For-ever.
   (Milton, II, 32, 32-38; Blake 1976:522)


Vision or Imagination is a Representation of what Eternally Exists, Really & Unchangeably. Fable or Allegory is Form'd by the Daughters of Memory. Imagination is Surrounded by the daughters of Inspiration, who in the aggregate are call'd Jerusalem. [...] The Hebrew Bible & the Gospel of Jesus are not Allegory, but Eternal Vision or Imagination of All that Exists. Note here that Fable or Allegory is Seldom without some Vision. [...] This world of Imagination is the World of Eternity; it is the divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the Vegetated body. This World of Imagination is Infinite & Eternal, whereas the world of Generation, or Vegetation, is Finite & Temporal. There Exist in that Eternal World the Permanent Realities of Every Thing which we see reflected in this Vegetable Glass of Nature. All Things are comprehended in their Eternal Forms in the divine body of the Saviour, the True Vine of Eternity, The Human Imagination [...]. (A vision of the Last Judgment; Blake 1976: 604-606)

The road of the imagination implied, according to Blake, a series of simple mental tasks, in which there is a conflict between the attitude of humility ("self-annihilation") and of greatness ("grandeur"):
   To cleanse the Face of my Spirit by Self-examination,
   To bathe in the Waters of Life, to wash off the Not Human,
   I come in Self-annihilation & the grandeur of Inspiration,
   To cast off Rational Demonstration by Faith in the Saviour,
   To cast off the rotten rags of Memory by Inspiration,
   To cast off Bacon, Locke & Newton from Albion's covering,
   To take off his filthy garments & clothe him with Imagination [...].
   (Milton, II, 40, 36; 41, 1-6; Blake 1976: 533)


Lastly, Blake seems to fuse vision with thought (and so, with reason) in the final equation of the imagination:
   I rest not from my great task!
   To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
   Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought, into Eternity
   Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination.
  (Jerusalem, I, 5, 17-20; Blake 1976: 623)


Blake's doctrine of the imagination as a life force thus has certainly roots in Paracelsus' doctrine of the imagination as a supernatural power capable of reifying the energies in the psyche, be they positive or negative (oriented towards good or evil), i.e. capable of bringing the transcendental, celestial, spiritual inner world of essence into the physical world, by as if magically transferring the transcendental energies into phenomenal energies (into matter in action). The best description of this doctrine appears in Paracelsus' On the invisible diseases (De causis morborum invisibilium). Andrew Weeks brilliantly summarized the matter in several parts of his important critical edition of Paracelsus' Essential theoretical writings, as follows. First, Weeks shows that the Paracelsian imagination is a supernatural power bridging the Cartesian gap between mind and body (most of the romantics considered the Kantian / Cartesian barrier between noumenon and phenomenon, or between mind and body, as being a superable threshold):

Book Three [of De causis morborum invisibilium] turns to a subject that intrigued the philosophy of the Renaissance and shadowed the Reformation emphasis on the redeeming power of faith: the imagination as a supernatural force that somehow leaps the chasm between spirit and body so that the former acts supernaturally upon the latter. Imagination has a special bearing on conception, pregnancy, and procreation. It is a mental intention or plan which can acquire real physical force. The materially inexplicable action of imagination is comparable to agencies in the astronomical, meteorological, magnetic, or alchemical spheres, which also challenge explanations based on common sense. Moreover, sexual desire and its attendant imagination are susceptible to an unwholesome lasciviousness, conducive to the incubus, succubus, and other unnatural agencies of conception. Against this twilight spirit realm, marriage is a serious precaution whenever chastity is unattainable. (Weeks 2008: 22)

Next, Weeks shows that the Paracelsian imagination is associated with the thinking intellect, being the spiritual spark ("the star," i.e. the astral body, as Martin Ruland clarifies) in man. In this sense, in the quotation above from Jerusalem, Blake linked imagination with the eternal inner "Worlds of Thought," and we know that in Blake's symbolism the character called Los stood for the imagination: his name does suggest a star, since by reverse reading in a mirror the name becomes Sol = Sun; therefore Blake's Los-soL (imagination) is the star (the Sun) in man. Here is the context of Weeks' reference to Martin Ruland's important lexicon of Paracelsus' concepts:

Imagination as a cause of birth defects, a theme central in the Invisible Diseases, was a widespread belief on the margin between nature and magic, as Montaigne's opinion in On the Power of the Imagination indicates: "For me magicians provide poor authority. All the same we know from experience that mothers can transmit to the bodies of children in their womb marks connected with their thoughts...." [...] [Martin] Ruland [in his Lexicon alchemiae, 1612/1984] recognizes imagination as part of macrocos-micmicrocosmic theory: "Imaginatio, est astrum in homine, coeleste siue supracoeleste corpus." [...] [The imagination is the star in the human being, the celestial or supercelestial body.] (Weeks 2008: 683, n. 1; see Ruland 1612: 264; the latter is the Latin edition of Ruland, as originally published--for an English translation see Ruland 1984)

We retain here the important magical definition of imagination in Paracelsus's system:

Imaginatio, est astrum in homine, coeleste siue supracoeleste corpus, Das Gestirn im Menschen / der himmlische oder uberhimmlische Leib. [The constellation in man / the heavenly or overheavenly body.] (Ruland 1612: 264)

Furthermore, Weeks describes the Paracelsian imagination as being of two kinds: 1) the corporeal: the terrestrial/profane side; 2) the celestial: "faith" (these two sides constitute the total imagination as "astral body"):

Paracelsus's fascinating interest in the relationship of faith or imagination to illness and health was anticipated in his eight-book work on the origin of Franzosen (1529). Many have been made sick and many well ["through the belief in the imagination"]. Faith and imagination cause diseases to become incurable. This has implications for the miracles attributed to saints. Christ himself stated that one can be healed by one's faith--a statement that bears broader implications. [See Blake's equating Jesus with the Human Imagination]. Yet there is a distinction between ["faith and the imagination: the latter is bodily, while the first is celestial"]. Faith is a heavenly imagination [while imagination proper is bodily imagination]. This distinguishes the agency of either kind, as physical in the first instance and as founded upon Christian love and hope in the second [...]. (Weeks 2008: 748, n. b)

Also, Weeks points out that the Paracelsian imagination springs from the notion that man has a dual nature: one visible (terrestrial-natural), the other invisible (astral-supernatural)--this is precisely Blake's assumption in all of his writings (see his definition of imagination as spiritual sensation, which implies spirit, invisible, and the body, visible). This dual nature of man (as an interdimensional threshold), too, corresponds to the nature of the crystal state of matter.

The Paracelsian imagination is thus like the sun (see Keats's notion that a poem must rise like the sun), it being the faculty capable of kindling the spiritual fire inside the vital essence of man. This concept of imagination comes rather close to that embraced by P. B. Shelley, Lord Byron and Mary Shelley. The Paracelsian imagination is thus compared to a magic powerful image, a magnet exerting a unifying force (Coleridge's imagination as esemplastic magic power), the celestial acting on the terrestrial, the supernatural acting on the natural, the spark igniting the fire:

The operation of the imagination upon the body and in its generation is a theme in various writings, most specifically in De Virtute Imaginativa, a fragment that begins by conceptualizing the human being as existing in two realms, a visible and an invisible one. Their interaction requires an agency which can be conceived macrocosmically. Hence, the imagination is compared to a sun which acts variously upon things: ["as the sun makes a bodily work, so does the imagination, which gives the fire"] [...]. [The romantic Prometheus has this creative function of the imagination]. Imagination as agency is thus linked to a variety of other concepts: to that of the magically potent image; to the "impression" as the action of celestial forces on terrestrial objects; to the human being as an image upon which the imagination of the pregnant matrix projects forms; to the attractive power of the magnet; and in a mysterious way, to the ignition of a virtue comparable to alchemical fire [...]. (Weeks 2008: 794, n. c)

Lastly, Weeks emphasizes that the Paracelsian imagination was conceived of as springing from the very point of origin of the human being: this idea is regarded, most probably correctly, as having been derived by Paracelsus from the Biblical view that man was created in the image (and after the likeness) of God (i.e. of the Elohim). Thus, man's imagination is created at the very moment of inception, since man contains in himself from the beginning the "image" of God, the imprint of the spiritual eternal essence. Imagination in this view is thus also the creative godly spiritual element in man, the skeleton key opening the inner gate towards infinite and eternal life:

The coincidence of the two thoughts (that imagination stems from the very root of the human being and that human beings are superior to the stars) is premised on man being created in the image of God thereby placing humanity above the stars and on the idea that the imagination is rooted in a production of images. (Weeks 2008: 815, n. 1)

This skeleton key of the imagination somehow seems to work like a crystal, making visible what is invisible. Here are a few enlightening considerations that Wilson makes concerning the operations of crystals in Paracelsus' system of thought:

Events occur in the crystal that do not happen elsewhere. Images and colors appear from nowhere in the stone's intricate corridors. What was before invisible finds shape. Distributed spirit--air, wind, light--coheres and shines in a frame of diaphanous matter. Wellversed in the medieval lore of scrying [divination by gazing into crystals], Paracelsus, an early sixteenth-century magician, valued the crystal for these virtues. He found in it a wedding of unseen and seen, soul and body. Writing in his Coelum Philosophorum (ca. 1540) on how "to Conjure the Crystal so that all things may be seen in it," Paracelsus claims that "[t]o conjure is nothing else than to observe anything rightly, to know and to understand what it is. The crystal is a figure of the air. Whatever appears in the air, moveable or immovable, the same appears also in the speculum or crystal as a wave. For the air, the water, and the crystal, so far as vision is concerned, are one, like a mirror in which an inverted copy of an object is seen." The crystal is not a portal to hallucinations or demons but an optical technology capable of revealing invisible powers. Like a sheet of water reveals in ripples the viewless wind, so the conjurer's glass discloses currents--wispy lights and quavering shades--unavailable to the naked eye. [...] As Jean Servier has observed in L'homme et l'invisible (1964), the crystal has traditionally represented "a level intermediate between the visible and the invisible" and thus has typically been the "symbol of divination, wisdom, and of the hidden powers granted to mankind." The crystal comprises a marriage between matter and spirit. Made of matter, it is nonetheless transparent. Translucent, it still refracts and reflects visible forms. (Wilson 2003: 12, 13)

No wonder then that ice--as an archetypal kind of crystal--and the worlds of snow reigning at the North and South Pole of the Earth so fascinated the romantic imagination.

III. The story of Symzonia

We retain thus the crucial notion that crystals mediate a marriage between matter and spirit, and so are maybe a fit emblem for the romantic visual imagination, with its ideal of the union between matter and spirit, the visible and the invisible, the center and the circumference. A similar symbol, this time of the auditory imagination (or the mind), was for the romantics the aeolian harp (see the lyre in P. B. Shelley's Ode to the West Wind, or Coleridge's Eolian harp), which rendered audible the inaudible movements of the wind (or of spirit). Given this state of affairs, it is not surprising that many of the romantics used crystals in various forms to symbolize spiritual realities.

Thus, for instance, Coleridge--who took his imagery from many sources, but in this case had especially in mind Purchas's site of the Arctic and Captain Cook's travel narratives (the circumnavigation of Antarctica)--has his Ancient Mariner cross the Antarctic circle in order to experience a white terrifying ghostly world of "mast-high" howling and cracking polar ice and snow that pushes him to the limit, to the point that he seems to temporarily lose his mind and shoots a "snow-white" albatross (this is the colour depicted by Cook 1842i: 191), the only creature inhabiting the fearful frozen crystal realm: the Ancient Mariner does not seem to shoot the bird with the intention of eating it, as is the case in Captain Cook's narrative at one point:

On the 26th January, we took our departure from Cape Horn [the southmost tip of South America, situated to the south of Tierra del Fuego], which lies in latitude 55[degrees] 53' S., longitude 68[degrees] 13' W. The farthest southern latitude that we made was 60[degrees] 10', our longitude was then 74[degrees] 30' W.; and we found the variation of the compass, by the mean of eighteen azimuths to be 27[degrees] 9' E. As the weather was frequently calm, Mr. Banks went out in a small boat to shoot birds, among which were some albatrosses and sheerwaters. The albatrosses were observed to be larger than those which had been taken northward of the Strait; one of them measured ten feet two inches from the tip of one wing to that of the other, when they were extended: the sheerwater, on the contrary, is less, and darker coloured on the back. The albatrosses we skinned, and having soaked them in salt-water till the morning, we parboiled them, then throwing away the liquor, stewed them in a very little fresh water till they were tender, and had them served up with savoury sauce; thus dressed, the dish was universally commended, and we eat of it very heartily, even when there was fresh pork upon the table. (Cook 1842i: 30-31)

Coleridge must have run across this episode which occurred during Cook's first voyage; strangely, it is not mentioned at all by Lowes (1978) as a possible source for the killing of the albatross in Coleridge's poem. In another episode, when in the vicinity of an island of ice, Cook (1842i: 358) describes how "Mr. Forster shot an albatross, whose plumage was of a colour between brown and dark grey, the head and upper side of the wings rather inclining to black, and it had white eye-brows." This time, however, we are not given any details as to the reason of the killing, much as in Coleridge's poem the purpose is ambiguous.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The dire consequence of the purposeless act of killing the albatross in Coleridge's poem, perpetrated precisely in the extremest of physical conditions (freezing temperature; scarcity of life forms in the immediate surroundings; the southernmost regions of earth), is a complete deadlock, where life simply enters a stand-still condition (Coleridge suggests reality as "still life"), suspended in midair, as it were, as the poem so fittingly and hauntingly puts it:
   Day after day, day after day,
   We stuck, ne breath, ne motion,
   As idle as a painted Ship,
   Upon a painted Ocean. (Coleridge's The rime of the Ancyent
   Marinere, 1798; Wordsworth & Coleridge 2006: 5)


It is as if life itself holds its breath in order to ponder on the hybris of the human condition, in order to decide what retribution is most fit for such insanity that causes time to be out of joint, as it were, i.e. that deeply derails the natural rhythms of the natural world (purposeless killing). Indeed, the scene above from The rime of the Ancient Mariner anticipates Melville's later constructing characters in Moby Dick (1851) that seem to be cardboard figures in a cartoon-like reality (a reality, however, without the humour met in normal cartoons). In this connection, Melville has the eerily white whale move from the Arctic (North Pole) to the South Pacific with such prodigious speed that this gives it an aura of mystery and the supernatural, making it seem to be divinely ubiquitous (cf. also Rollyson et al 2007: 141) the whale thus "touches" both extremes and fills the entire space in between, as Pascal would put it. In the subtext, however, the question remains if not by any chance Moby Dick has access to some rift in space-time, or to some secret channel of communication between the two poles of the Earth--the latter variant is suggested by the "Hollow Earth" theory, first fictionalized in the sf novel Symzonia: a voyage of discovery (1820) by John Cleves Symmes (who signed the work under a pseudonym: Captain Adam Seaborn).

Coleridge's mortal albatross of the Antarctic (South) Pole thus could be said to become symbolically Melville's immortal whale of both Poles. The conclusion in Coleridge's story is that the Ancient Mariner turns from the condition of the murderer into that of one contemplating suicide (cf. Wilson 2003: 174), while in Melville's narrative, Ahab, the one struck by thunder and still living to tell the story, turns into one that endangers not only his own life (thus contemplating "indirect" suicide), but that of all those surrounding him.

Jung (1971: 431) approached the question of the spiritual significance of the polar regions of the earth (see also Wilson--2003: 166--who quotes Nelson 1997), and his thoughts may clarify a few aspects regarding the strong attraction that the terrestrial poles exerted on the romantic imagination.

Before considering Jung's thoughts, we need to point out a few crucial aspects concerning the romantic imagination in its fascination for the polar regions of Earth. A few relevant examples will suffice for our discussion of the road towards the center that Irving Babbitt favoured above anything else (the Poles seem to paradoxically point to an attraction to the center of the interior earth, viewed as accessible through the very Poles, as postulated in the "Hollow Earth" theory both extremes being in this case equally valid paths towards the center):

1) Coleridge's Ancient Mariner sails to the South Pole in the Antarctic circle, as described above already.

2) Poe, in his only novel, has Pym voyage likewise to the South Pole, in the Antarctic Ocean. In MS. found in a bottle, Poe has the narrator voyage to the South Pole as well, where what he encounters is a vorticular abyss, whose whirling motion is a natural simoom and tornado: at the end, the ice suddenly opens, and the ship is swirled in huge concentric circles (see Symmes). In A Descent into the Maelstrom, Poe uses the story of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner placing it at the North Pole instead (for more synoptic details, see also Dawn Sova's Critical companion to Edgar Allan Poe, 2007; and Beaver's groundbreaking critical edition The science fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, 1976). In all these narratives, Poe was influenced, among others, by the following:

a) Coleridge's haunting Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), that surely to him contained gothic accents.

b) Erik Pontopiddan's Natural history of Norway (1755)--see the idea of the kraken (the biggest creature on earth, having the size of a small island) in A Descent into the Maelstrom.

c) Jeremiah N. Reynolds's writings on the South Pole: Address on the subject of a surveying and exploring expedition to the Pacific Ocean and South Seas (1837).

d) Captain Adam Seabom's Symzonia: a voyage of discovery (1820), which is attributed to John Cleves Symmes, as mentioned above. This proto-science-fictional American utopia exerted a particularly strong influence on Poe: we know for a fact that Poe did read Symzonia, but it is difficult to assess whether he believed in the hypothesis it implied (the "Hollow Earth" theory), or he was only ironic towards it (cf. Beaver 1976: 334-336). Symmes' theory was popularized through James Mcbride's controversial Symmes's theory of concentric spheres: demonstrating that the earth is hollow, habitable within, and widely open about the poles (1826), which proclaimed that the earth, having been created by rotation, consisted of five concentric spheres, which had access, through holes or valves, to the North and South Pole. Be it noted that this nested model of the Earth, based on concentric spheres, very much resembles the model of man's energetic structure ordered in concentric chakras, whose configurations resemble those of the nested Russian dolls.

3) Mary Shelley's heroes in Frankenstein start at the North Pole in the Arctic Circle, and end there too.

4) William Blake regarded the North Pole as symbolizing the Imagination, the Polar Star being the location of spiritual war (the war on earth being caused by the perversion of the imagination), while the South Pole represented Reason (cf. Damon 1988: 301). In Milton (29, 11), Blake spoke of the two Poles as having "valves of gold" on which they turn, the valves being a possible reference to the entry points into a hollow cavernous earth. In this connection, in Milton (25, 53) Blake indeed mentions that "Thor & cruel Odin" "first rear'd the Polar Caves," and the Mundane Shell is depicted as full of caves, which are places of erotic dreams (cf. Damon 1988: 75). The idea that the world (i.e. the Universe or the Earth or other individual planets) is a "shell" speaks for itself: it implies that the sphere of the "world," be that the Universe or the Earth, is hollow inside. If the Mundane Shell is the Universe (as is suggested in Jerusalem, 55, 20, where Blake speaks of a "Universal Concave"), then the caves must be the planets inside the hollow (void) infinite space (the Newtonian Universe had infinite space and finite matter). If the Mundane Shell is the Earth, then the caves imply the existence of subterranean spaces, which may constitute "worlds" in their own rights. In fact, Blake could not have been plainer when he explained, in Milton, that the Mundane Shell is a "vast Concave Earth" with 27 concentric labyrinthine spheres or rings or torus-like structures ("folds"), each having its "Heaven" and "Hell," probably signifying that each sphere looks just like the surface of Earth:
   The Mundane Shell is a vast Concave Earth, an immense
   Harden'd shadow of all things upon our Vegetated Earth,
   Enlarg'd into dimension & deform'd into indefinite space,
   In Twenty-seven Heavens and all their Hells, with Chaos
   And Ancient Night & Purgatory. It is a cavernous Earth
   Of labyrinthine intricacy, twenty-seven folds of opakeness,
   And finishes where the lark mounts; [...]. (Milton, 17, 21-27;
      Blake 1976: 498; 2014: 537-538)


Blake mentioned the "Concave Earth" also in Jerusalem:
   A Concave Earth wondrous, Chasmal, Abyssal, Incoherent,
   Forming the Mundane Shell: above, beneath, on all sides
      surrounding
   Golgonooza. Los walks round the walls night and day. (Jerusalem,
   13, 53-55; Blake 1976: 634)


In this sense, Blake may have known about the hypothesis of Hollow Earth from the writings of Edmond Halley (1656-1742) or, even more likely, from a treatise by Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) entitled Mundus subterraneus (1678)--this may have fascinated him.

Kircher and Halley --Symzonia's parents: Hollow Earth's concentric spheres

In order to explain the anomalies registered with magnetic needles (their shifting to the east and to the west: 17 degrees in 112 years) around the earth, Halley (1692) had assumed that the earth should have four magnetic poles and a deep structure below the surface which contained three nested concentric spheres, mimicking the sizes of Venus, Mars and Mercury (Symmes later increased the number to five spheres; in Blake's model, as we could see, there were 27 "folds"). The picture of the deep terrestrial structure he arrived at was as follows (the use of the word "shell" clearly reminds us of Blake's metaphor for the same description of Halley's "cortex of the earth," i.e. of the outermost "fold" or "concave" or hollow sphere or cuasitorus-like structure):

So then the external parts of the globe may well be considered as the shell, and the internal as a nucleus, or inner globe, included within ours, with a fluid medium between. Which having the same common centre and axis of diurnal rotation, may turn about with our earth each 24 hours; only this outer sphere having its turbinating motion some small matter either swifter or slower than the internal ball. And a very minute difference in length of time, by many repetitions becoming sensible, the internal parts will by degrees recede from the external, and not keeping pace with each other, will appear gradually to move either to the east or west by the difference of their motions. [...] [I]f this exterior shell of earth be a magnet, having its poles at a distance from the poles of diurnal rotation; and if the internal nucleus be likewise a magnet, having its poles in two other places distant also from the axis; and these latter, by a gradual and slow motion, change their place in respect of the external, we may then give a reasonable account of the four magnetical poles, as also of the changes of the needle's variations. [...] I conclude, that the two poles of the external globe are fixed in the earth, and that if the needle were wholly governed by them, the variations would be always the same, with some little irregularities on the account just now mentioned; but the internal sphere, having such a gradual translation of its poles, influences the needle, and directs it variously, according to the result of the attractive or directive power of each pole; and consequently there must be a period of the revolution of this internal ball, after which the variations will return again as before. But if it shall in future ages be observed otherwise, we must then conclude, that there are more of these internal spheres [see Blake's model], and more magnetical poles than four, which at present we have not a sufficient number of observations to determine, and particularly in that vast Mar del Zur, which occupies so great a part of the whole surface of the earth. / If then two of the poles be fixed, and two moveable, it remains to ascertain, which they are that keep their place [...]. I think we may safely determine, that our European north pole, supposed to be near the meridian of the Land's End, and about 7[degrees] from it, is that which is moveable of the two northern poles, and which has chiefly influenced the variations in these parts of the world: for in Hudson's Bay, which is under the direction of the American pole, the change is not observed to be near so fast as in these parts of Europe, though that pole be much farther removed from the axis. / As to the south poles, from the like observation of the slow decrease of the variation on the coast of Java, and near the meridian of the Asian pole, I take the Asiatic pole, which I place about the meridian of the island of Celebes, to be the fixed one, and consequently the American pole to be moveable. If this be allowed, it is plain that the fixed poles are the poles of this external shell or cortex of the earth, and the other two the poles of a magnetical nucleus, included and moveable within the other. It likewise follows, that this motion is westwards, and by consequence that the aforesaid nucleus has not precisely attained the same degree of velocity with the exterior parts in their diurnal revolution [...]. (Halley 1809: 470-474)

Halley was well aware that his theory will find opponents, and in this context uses the term "concave shell," reminding us of Blake's model, and shows that he is aware that people will deny the utility of an inner "middle globe" (suggesting the Scandinavian Midgard) plunged in "eternal darkness"--the latter condition reminding us of Coleridge's poem Xanadu, in which we are told that Kublai Khan's pleasure dome has "caves of ice" and a "sunless sea":

[I]n order to explain the change of the variations, we have adventured to make the earth hollow, and to place another globe within it; and I doubt not but this will find opposers enough. I know it will be objected, that [...] if there was such a middle globe it would not keep its place in the centre, but be apt to deviate from it, and might possibly shock against the concave shell [see Blake's terminology], to the ruin or at least endamaging of it; that the water of the sea would perpetually leak through [see Coleridge's river Alph], unless we suppose the cavity full of water; that were it possible, yet it does not appear of what use such an inward sphere can be of, being shut up in eternal darkness [see Coleridge's "sunless sea"], and therefore unfit for the production of animals or plants; with many more objections, according to the fate of all such new propositions. (Halley 1809: 475)

Halley answered to these objections as follows, using the term "concave sphere," and giving the example of Saturn's rings that keep on being concentrical, without becoming eccentric relative to the common gravitational center of the planet:

To these and all other objections that I can foresee, I briefly answer, that the ring environing the globe of Saturn is a notable instance of this kind, as having the same common centre, and moving along with the planet, without sensibly approaching him on one side more than the other. And if this ring were turned on one of its diameters, it would then describe such a concave sphere as I suppose our external one to be. And since the ring in any given position, would in the same manner keep the centre of Saturn in its own, it follows that such a concave sphere may move with another included in it, having the same common centre. Nor can it well be supposed otherwise, considering the nature of gravity; for should these globes be once adjusted to the same common centre, the gravity of the parts of the concave would press equally towards the centre of the inner ball, which equality must necessarily continue till some external force disturb it, which is not easy to imagine in our case. [...] [T]he inner globe being posited in the centre of the exterior, must necessarily ascend which way soever it may move; that is, it must overcome the force of gravity pressing towards the common centre, by an impulse it must receive from some outward agent; but all outward efforts being sufficiently fenced against by the shell that surrounds it, it follows, that this nucleus being once fixed in the common centre, must always remain there. (Halley 1809: 475)

He adds a final crucial argument, whereby he posits the possibility for all planets to be nested structures, much like a multistoried spherical building (this is most likely what Blake meant by his "twenty-seven folds of opakeness"):

To those that shall inquire of what use these included globes can be, it must be allowed, that they can be of very little service to the inhabitants of this outward world, nor can the sun be serviceable to them, either with his light or heat. But since it is now taken for granted that the earth is one of the planets and that they all are with reason supposed habitable, though we are not able to define by what sort of animals; and since we see all the parts of the creation abound with animate beings, as the air with birds and flies, the water with the numerous varieties of fish, and the very earth with reptiles of so many sorts; all whose ways of living would be to us incredible, did not daily experience teach us; why then should we think it strange that the prodigious mass of matter, of which this globe consists, should be capable of some other improvements, than barely to serve to support its surface? Why may not we rather suppose that the exceeding small quantity of solid matter, in respect of the fluid ether, is so disposed by the Almighty wisdom, as to yield as great a surface for the use of living creatures, as can consist with the conveniency and security of the whole? (Halley 1809: 477)

To the question of the sunless internal spheres, Halley responded thus, using the term "concave arches," and postulating the possibility for the "underworlds" to contain substances similar to that present on the surface of the sun:

But still it may be said, that without light there can be no living, and therefore all this apparatus of our inward globes must be useless: to this I answer, that there are many ways of producing light, which we are wholly ignorant of; the medium itself may be always luminous, after the manner of our ignes fatui. The concave arches may in several places shine with such a substance, as invests the surface of the sun; nor can we, without a boldness unbecoming a philosopher, adventure to assert the impossibility of peculiar luminaries below, of which we have no sort of idea. (Halley 1809: 477)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The legend for this picture reads as follows, in Halley's words:

[T]he earth is represented by the outward circle, and the three inner circles are made nearly proportionable to the magnitudes of the planets Venus, Mars, and Mercury, all which may be included within this globe of the earth, and all the arches be more than sufficiently strong to bear their weight. The concave of each arch, which is shaded differently from the rest, I suppose to be made up of magnetical matter; and the whole to turn about the same common axis p p, only with this difference, that the outer sphere still moves somewhat faster than the inner. Thus, the diameter of the earth being about 8000 English miles, I allow 500 miles for the thickness of its shell, and another space of 500 miles for a medium between, capable of an immense atmosphere for the use of the globe of Venus: Venus again I give a shell of the same thickness, and leave as great a space between her concave and Mars; so likewise from Mars to Mercury, which latter ball we will suppose solid, and about 2000 miles diameter. (Halley 1809: 477-478)

Halley added a last interesting remark, concerning the utility of a Hollow Earth, namely its having less gravity in relation to the gravity of the Moon:

Since this was written, a discovery I have made in the celestial motions, seems to render a farther account of the use of the cavity of the earth, viz. To diminish its specific gravity in respect of the moon: for I think I can demonstrate, that the opposition of the ether to the motions of the planets, in long time becomes sensible; and consequently the greater body must receive a less opposition than the smaller, unless the specific gravity of the smaller do proportionably exceed that of the greater, in which case only they can move together; so that the cavity I assign in the earth may well serve to adjust its weight to that of the moon; for otherwise the earth would leave the moon behind it, and she become another primary planet. (Halley 1809: 478)

In Athanasius Kircher's treatise Mundus subterraneus (1678), the romantics may have run across the following pictures of the terrestrial structure at the far extremes of the globe (the North Pole, as seen from the perspective of Polaris--a remote satellite-like viewing of the Arctic; and the South Pole, as seen from the perspective of the nadir of Polaris--a remote satellite-like viewing of the Antarctic), whereby an attempt was made to explain real phenomena such as the Aurora Borealis (perceptible in the northern hemisphere) and the Aurora Australis (perceptible in the southern hemisphere), whose existence was itself never in doubt, the two strange natural processes having been known to exist from ancient times, even though no solid scientific understanding gave the least clues as to the real causes producing such magnificently chromatic, strongly visible effects:

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The structure of the Arctic Pole, according to Athanasius Kircher (Mundus subterraneus, 1678: 170). One can observe the spiral water currents leading to the entry point at the North Pole. (Hence Poe's idea of the Maelstrom)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The structure of the Antarctic Pole, according to Athanasius Kircher (Mundus subterraneus, 1678: 170). One can observe that the South Pole was the exit point where water entering at the North Pole would gush out geyserlike, forming a great springhead.

What is crucial in the present debate is that visions such as of Symzonia were possible in a context in which people around the globe were for centuries looking either for a Terra Australis Incognita, understood as an Eden of the South, or for an earthly Paradise of the North, which in Greek mythology had been styled Hyperborea, the realm "behind the back of Boreas," the North Wind, where Apollo was said to spend his winter holidays (see details of this context in Standish 2007: 54-55ff). The quest for the North and the South terrestrial Paradise is thus linked with the legends of Agartha and Shambhala, a subterranean eden considered either as being earthly or spiritual in nature. The South terrestrial Paradise was best pictured by Symmes in his romantic notion of Symzonia, the "internal world" hiding under the Earth's surface domed shell (the "external world").

Symzonia as the internal world and its Eden-like cornucopia

Soon in his story of Symzonia, Symmes has Seaborn, a representative of the "Externals" and a resident of Gotham (Symmes 2009: 107), come to the following crucial conclusion:

I was now convinced of the correctness of Capt. Symmes's theory, and of the practicability of sailing into the globe at the south pole, and of returning home by way of the north pole [...]. My first thought was to enter the river I had seen, and ascend to its source, which must necessarily be in the internal world; [...]. (Symmes 2009: 39)

The novel thus presents Seaborn's voyage of discovery of the "Internals" and their strange new internal world, Symzonia, to be found in the "hot regions within the internal polar circle," beyond the "icy hoop" (Symmes 2009: 58). Here is a relevant fragment from which the architecture of the "internal world" becomes intelligible--in it, the internal sphere behaves like an internal moon, reflecting the light of the sun that penetrates through the valves at the poles:

The nights were not dark, when no clouds intervened to obstruct the rays of the sun, reflected from the opposite rim, and from a large luminous body northward, in the internal heavens, which reflected the sun as our moon does, and which I judged to be the second concentric sphere, according to Capt. Symmes. (Symmes 2009: 47)

The Internals' language is depicted as being similar to that of a "singing bird," their voices being "soft, shrill, musical" (Symmes 2009: 60). The Internals are described as fair-skinned, "temperate beings," who have sprightly prodigious memories, never forgetting a thing, able to leap "thirty feet at a bound without much apparent exertion," capable of lifting weights three times heavier than what a normal human could lift; they are almost wholly incapable of "the fatal sin cupidity," totally strangers to the desire of "artificial wealth," thus forming a society wherein "perfect equality" (reflected for instance in their "dressing alike") is the ruling principle (Symmes 2009: 62, 64, 75, 87). [The concept of "perfect equality" may have been derived by Symmes from the philosophy of the French Revolution based on the "big three": liberty, equality, fraternity]. By comparison, the white Externals, who are the degenerate descendants (the "outcast tribe"; Symmes 2009: 73) of exiled Symzonians, seem primitive, gross, dark-skinned:

[T]he sootiest African does not differ more from us in darkness of skin and grossness of features, than this [Symzonian] man did from me in fairness of complexion and delicacy of form. His arms were bare; his body was covered with a white garment, fitted to his shape, and hanging down to his knees. Upon his head he wore a tuft of feathers, curiously woven with his hair, which afforded shade to his forehead, and was a guard for his head against the rain. (Symmes 2009: 61)

In fact, the Symzonians suspect that Seaborn is a descendant of the "outcast race," i.e. the crime-prone Symzonians who had been exiled to the internal North Pole (to the regions of internal Belzubia), whence they populated the external world, thus becoming "dark coloured, ill favoured, and mis-shapen men, not much superior to the brute creation" (Symmes 2009: 72, 73).

Symzonia is remarkable for its "profusion of [beautiful] flowers, tastefully arranged in the vicinity of every house," its "profusion of the choicest fruits, vegetables, milk, and honey," "[a]ll necessary food, vegetables, fruits, milk, honey, etc. [that] were sent daily," its "most elegant specimens of ornamental gardening," its "extensive flower garden[s]," wherein resounded "the most exquisite music," created by "the most enchanting sounds"--"an hundred instruments, and many hundreds of the most exquisite voices"; its profusion of pearls, used to "glaze the walls of their apartments, being dissolved in a liquid, and laid on like paint," making the walls smooth and elegant, "like the inside of the pearl oyster-shell"; its lack of "fogs or vapours," its clime harmoniously modulated by a "mild influence of the sun"; the "exquisite beauty of the women, the graceful dignity of the men, the chaste decorum and sincere politeness of all"; the fact that all its power "emanated from the people"; the fact that property, being of secondary importance, is not subject to taxation rules; the fact that there are "no temptations to vice by offers of seducing cordials, wines, agreeable decoctions, or other intoxicating drinks, as in our places of resort for recreation"; the fact that it still maintains "commercial intercourse" with Belzubia, an ancient "nation on the [northern] opposite side of the internal world, beyond the [internal] equator," which at one point had become "depraved and sordid," given to cupidity and "so puffed up with the idea that they were the most powerful nation of the two," that they attempted to conquer Symzonia--in this Belzubians failed owing to the wisdom of one Fultria, a Symzonian who invented "the engine of defence," "the air vessels" and other such gimmicks, whereby war thereafter was for ever banned (Symmes 2009: 65, 66, 75, 77, 89, 91, 92, 95, 100, 106).

[H. G. Wells was to be fascinated by the idea of a war to end all wars: Symmes--2009: 95--speaks of a period of 4000 years as having elapsed after the great war between Symzonia and Belzubia].

The food and the drink that Symzonians first give Seaborn are "some delicious fruit" and "a large bowl of excellent milk," of which he consumes ten times what a Symzonian would normally do (Symmes 2009: 62).

In sum, the internal world of Symzonia is presented as a cornucopian paradise of the south--because there the people are governed by a temperate Tao-like Providence (a free flow of naturally regulated rhythms)--while the internal Belzubia is depicted as a hell of the north, and the external world (wherein are to be found also descendants of Belzubia) as a generalized hell, in which people are given to consuming in excess beverages and foods which are craftily modified to become pleasure-procuring substances, but which in fact end up as being poisons for the human body:

Instead of devoting our time to useful purposes, and living temperately on the wholesome gifts of Providence, like the blest internals, so as to preserve our health and strengthen our minds, thousands of us are employed in producing inebriating liquors, by the destruction of wholesome articles of food, to poison the bodies, enervate the minds, and corrupt the hearts, of our fellow beings. Other thousands waste their strength to procure stimulating weeds and narcotic substances from the extreme parts of the earth, for the purpose of exciting diseased appetites, whereby, in the case of those who possess good things, the ability to enjoy them is destroyed. (Symmes 2009: 71-72)

The hell, therefore, is man-made, artificial, and it affects man especially when this artificiality enters the human body in the form of man-made poisons that are falsely presented as some food of the gods (see the opium issue). This attack against corrupt human society no doubt reminds us of J. J. Rousseau, yet Symmes's philosophy seems to be rather far from Rousseau's, a paradoxical mixture of rationalism and naturalism that Rousseau would have rejected:

I saw that the internals owed their happiness to their rationality, to a conformity with the laws of nature and religion; and that the externals were miserable, from the indulgence of inordinate passions, and subjection to vicious propensities. (Symmes 2009: 72)

For Symmes, reason is thus a faculty leading man to admit nature as the governing principle, but this nature does not comprise also the "dark side"--it thus itself resembles an artificially separated nature of the kind R. L. Stevenson presented in his famous Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: here, good and evil are "scientifically" (i.e. medically / chemically) separated in the being of Dr. Jekyll, the result being a total catastrophe: inducing schizophrenia into Dr. Jekyll, whose dark side finds refuge into a new personality, Mr. Hyde. For Symmes, the vicious destructive passions, such as exacerbated by the ingestion of narcotic substances, were pernicious and had to be kept far away if human happiness was to be attained. No doubt, this is a teaching that Irving Babbitt might have agreed with; yet, in view of Stevenson's warning not to tamper with human nature, one should wonder where the limits of such operations on the human nature should be set. Symmes is clear on this account, namely that we are a "contaminated race, descendants of a degenerated people," the reason for it being the fact that we eat artificially prepared foods (like meat), instead of limiting our diet to the pure nutrients that nature offers profusely:

Having discovered [...] that we ate the flesh of warm blooded animals, prepared in many forms with condiments and sauces to give it a higher relish, and, instead of confining ourselves to the pure fluid provided by nature to quench our thirst, that we indulged in fermented and distilled liquors even to inebriation, he [the Best Man, ruler of Symzonia] was not at a loss for the cause of disease and misery, and was only surprised that such things were permitted, or, being permitted, that the [human] race did not become extinct. (Symmes 2009: 82)

In this sense, Symmes allows Symzonians as animal food only oysters and similar "testaceous creatures": these have "so little visible animation" that they are considered by Symzonians to be on a par with vegetables (Symmes 2009: 106). Thus, the price of eating flesh and of drinking alcoholic beverages might be, in Symmes's view, no less than human degeneracy and, taken to the utmost extreme, even human extinction.

Such a view was common in Manichean doctrine, according to which the eating of flesh caused the spiritual "Fall" of man. The idea that social corruption and social vice are a cause of social degeneracy is, however, fundamentally Rousseauistic, and it leads Symmes to a final deprecation of the human condition, much like Swift's in Gulliver's Travels:

I [Capt. Seaborn] found it difficult to convince him [the Best Man, the ruler of Symzonia] that my account was true, for he could not conceive it possible that beings in outward form so much like himself, could be so entirely under the influence of base and diabolical passions, as to make a science of worrying and destroying each other, like the most detestable reptiles. (Symmes 2009: 84)

Here the Symzonian governor, the Best Man, sounds much like the king of Brobdingnag in Swift's Gulliver's Travels, who concluded that human beings are "the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl on the Surface of the Earth." The considerations mentioned above, in effect, lead the ruler of Symzonia (the Best Man) to conclude that communication between the two worlds, the internal and the external, is not to be desired in the future, because that "would endanger the morals and happiness" of the Symzonian people (Symmes 2009: 85).

On the other hand, Symzonia's seat of government reminds us of a combination of Asian Xanadu, Egyptian Gizeh and Aztec Teotihuacan:

It was a single dome of one arch, supported by a peristyle of huge columns, and covering at least eight acres of ground. The extreme elevation of the centre was seven hundred and fifty feet. The whole was formed of stone, in massy blocks, cemented with a paste of the same material, so as to appear to be all of one solid piece. [...] The dome, which appeared so immense and so impracticable, was formed on a high conical hill [...]. The top of the hill was [...] shaped for the reception of the stone of the arch [...]. Within the columns, the earth was formed into a concavity, with graduated steps to the centre, so that an individual in any part of the immense area could see every person within the circumference of the dome. (Symmes 2009: 76)

The logic of "Hollow Earth" is presented by Symmes in terms of a universally valid natural economy (a minimax principle: minimum effort, maximum effect--akin to Maupertuis's principle of minimum action), but with deep religious-spiritual overtones:

I had undertaken this perilous voyage only to ascertain whether the body of this huge globe were an useless waste of sand and stones, contrary to the economy usually displayed in the works of Providence, or, according to the sublime conceptions of one of our Wise men, a series of concentric spheres, like a nest of boxes, inhabitable within and without, on every side, so as to accommodate the greatest possible number of intelligent beings. (Symmes 2009: 79)

Behind this principle of economy (the nest-of-boxes image of a planet) seems to lurk Leibniz's notion of "the best of possible worlds," which should contain all optimal cosmic parameters (the nested structure seems to be of that category).

Be that as it may, Symmes suggests that one of the strongest arguments for the validity of his theory of "Hollow Earth" is to be found in the very existence of the crucial phenomena known as the Aurora Borealis, in the north (also named "northern lights"), and its twin, the Aurora Australis, in the south (also called "southern lights"):

[The] escape of heat from the warm air which issues from the internal world, is so great as to irradiate the atmosphere near the polar openings; and in the extreme cold of winter, during the absence of the sun, this irradiation is so vivid as to be visible fifty degrees towards the equator, where the inhabitants, being fond of simple names, call it Aurora Borealis. (Symmes 2009: 80)

To date no other explanation for the existence of such phenomena as the Aurora Borealis and the Aurora Australis exerted as much fascination as the one suggested by Symmes in his Symzonia--the existence of an internal world. Jules Verne was so fascinated with the idea of a subterranean world that he wrote an entire novel to celebrate it, A journey to the centre of the Earth (1864): here the northern portal leading to the internal world is located inside a sleeping volcano in Iceland; Professor Von Hardwigg, in one version of the novel, and Professor Otto Lidenbrock, in another, find the clue for the whereabouts of this portal in Snorri Sturluson's Old Icelandic saga entitled Heims-Kringla (cf. Verne 1905: 5ff).
COPYRIGHT 2016 Addleton Academic Publishers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2016 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:p. 85-120
Author:Stroe, Mihai A.
Publication:Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2016
Words:15576
Previous Article:Subjective well-being--an important consumption factor in marketing.
Next Article:In quest for the romantic imagination (II): all roads lead to Xanadu.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters