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“The Wild Boys Smile”:
Reflections on Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John, Part 1

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stapledonPart 1 of 3

Olaf Stapledon
Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest
London: Methuen, 1935 (Etext)

“Well,” said John, “I’m thought queer because I have more brains than most children.”

After making my way through The Flames, and having read Last and First Men already, I decided to press ahead in my Kindle anthology by tackling Odd John, Olaf Stapledon’s third novel, from 1935. It’s a relatively short novel–Dover packages it with another short novel, Sirius–that supposedly pioneers the science fiction subgenre of spooky genetically advanced children, later to be mined by Sturgeon, Heinlein, Lem and Wyndham.[1]

Blessed Wikipedia has labored to provide a synopsis, using Stapledon’s chapter headings, so I don’t have to! As you can see there, it’s pretty standard for the genre — having established it, after all — until the killing and raping.[2] Now that everyone’s (re-)familiarized themselves with the narrative, I’d like to make some comments on some of the more striking features. I think we will find some interesting connections to such topics as initiatory traditions, utopian communities, and even events in the near future of Stapledon’s Europe.

What links all this, I think, is that John’s advanced genetics results in a prolonged kind of adolescence, while his intelligence advances by leaps and bounds. By the time of his death in his mid-20s, he could be mistaken for a teenager, yet he is part of a group mind contemplating the meaning of the Universe.

John’s initial sexual exploits are detailed in an early chapter entitled “Scandalous Adolescence,” which hints at a kind of Moll Flanders or even Fanny Hill kind of titillation — we’ll see Stapledon’s taste for “ribaldry” come up again later — but the activities described — first turning his attentions to the most socially dominant boy in the neighborhood, then using his new-found techniques to rather cold-bloodedly seduce the prettiest girl around, and even the broadly hinted-at relations with his mother — all suggest something more serious: the socializing and ultimately initiatory activities of the Männerbund.[3]

While not necessarily, or exclusively, homosexual,[4] the Männerbund, as a band apart, withdrawn though not necessarily hostile to “family oriented” society,[5] is naturally associated with such ‘deviance’, and both are easily assimilated as metaphors for social and evolutionary advance.

The appropriation of the word ‘queer’ is relevant here. Although some may carp that a “perfectly good word” has been, well, queered, there is some rationale here.[6]

It is striking, then, that even granting the word “didn’t mean that” back then, Stapledon seems to use the word ‘queer’ almost reflexively, in all kinds of situations. Using my Kindle’s handy highlight function, I’ve taken the liberty of collating his usages, which make for an interesting list.

  •  This from a queer child to a full-grown man.
  • Altogether, his eyes were the most obviously “queer” part of him.

Here, within a single page:

  • When I arrived, John was already settled in the corner opposite to the great man, who occasionally glanced from his paper at the queer child with a cliff for brow and caves for eyes.
  • “Oh, my name’s John. I’m a queer child, but that doesn’t matter. It’s you we’re going to talk about.”
  • We all laughed. Mr. Magnate shifted in his seat, but continued to look his part.
  • “Well,” he said, “you certainly are a queer child.” He glanced at his adult fellow travellers for confirmation. We duly smiled.
  • “Yes,” replied John, “but you see from my point of view you are a queer man.” Mr. Magnate hung for a moment between amusement and annoyance; but since we had all laughed, except John, he chose to be tickled and benevolent.
  • “Surely,” he said, “there’s nothing remarkable about me. I’m just a business man. Why do you think I’m queer?”
  • “Well,” said John,” I’m thought queer because I have more brains than most children. Some say I have more brains than I ought to have. You’re queer because you have more money than most people; and (some say) more than you ought to have.”

John uses it himself:

  • I had a queer notion that if I pricked any of you, there would be no bleeding, but only a gush of wind.

More:

  • But when he was sixteen, and in appearance a queer sort of twelve-year-old, he turned his attention to woman.

As we’ll see, some find his kind rather attractive:

  • Out of the water and played ball with his companions, running, leaping, twisting, with that queer grace which few could detect, but by which those few were strangely enthralled.

John withdraws to the forest, clearly a shamanic, initiatory period:

  • There was a pause, then Norton laughed awkwardly, and said, “Well, when one tries to describe it in cold blood over a cup of coffee, it just sounds crazy. But damn it, if the thing didn’t happen, something mighty queer must have happened to us, for we both saw it, as clearly as you see us now.”
  • Certain fungi, too, contributed to his diet on that day, and indeed throughout his adventure. On the second day he was feeling “pretty queer.”
  • Moreover, he coveted the huge material wealth that the slaughter of one stag would afford him. And he had apparently a queer lust to try his strength and cunning against a worthy quarry.

After his queer diet of mushrooms, he acquires shamanic, or “mighty queer,” powers:

  • And I had made queer little visits to events in my own past life. I just lived them again, with full vividness, as though they were ‘now.’
  • Well, in Scotland, when I began to come into all those queer powers that I mentioned just now, I was tempted to regard the exercise of them as the true end of my life.

Using his queer powers, he finds others of his kind–some kind of gaydar?

  • I told you before that when I was in Scotland I used to find myself in telepathic touch with people, and that some of the people seemed queer people, or people in a significant way more like me than you.
  • Most music, ordinary music invented by Homo sapiens, seemed at once to interest and outrage him; though when one of the doctors played a certain bit of Bach, he was gravely attentive, and afterwards went off to play oddly twisted variants of it on his queer pipe.
  • He stood for a second or two, a queer little foreigner, jostled by waiters and a stream of guests.

Even common objects become queer when associated with John and his kind:

  • Both Ng-Gunko and Lo had to learn to fly; and all three had to become familiar with the mannerisms of their own queer aeroplane and their own queer yacht. . . .
  • The table was crowded with unfamiliar eatables, especially tropical and sub-tropical fruits, fish, and a queer sort of bread

After this semantic flood, it’s no surprise to find, fifty years later, in the film Manhunter, another freakishly tall albino, taunted in the tabloids with rumors of being “impotent with the opposite sex” and of “having slept with his mother,” kidnapping the reporter in question, tying him to a chair, and asking, “Do you imply that I’m queer?” And then deliver this evolutionary rant:

You are privy to a great becoming, but you recognize nothing. To me, you are a slug in the sun. You are an ant in the afterbirth. It is your nature to do one thing correctly. Before me, you rightly tremble. But fear is not what you owe me. You owe me awe! [7]

Well, as we’ve seen, while John may have been born genetically superior, he still needs to withdraw from human society and undergo the “primitive” rites of the shamanic Männerbund, albeit alone, complete with mushrooms and stag hunting. The whole point of the queer powers he acquires, however, is to enable him to telepathically contact others of his kind, so as to create a real Männerbund.

“At present I am looking for other people more or less like me, and to do it I become a sort of divided personality. Part of me remains where my body is, and behaves quite correctly, but the other, the essential I, goes off in search of them. Or if you like, I stay put all the time, but reach out in search of them. Anyhow, when I come back, or stop the search, I get a bit of a jolt, taking up the threads of ordinary life again.”

“You never seem to lose the threads,” I said.

“No,” he answered, “The incoming ‘I’ comes slick into possession of all the past experiences of the residential one, so to speak. But the sudden jump from God knows where to here gives a bit of a jar, all the same.”

What John acquires is the awareness of his Higher Consciousness, and the ability not only move from lower to higher and back again, but even to live as both, simultaneously. This experience has been a part of Western esoterica ever since Plotinus,[8] and, as I’ve noted before, we have our own home-grown and simplified version in the much reviled “New Thought” movement, most recently dumbed down yet further for Oprah’s hordes. Prentice Mulford’s Thoughts are Things provides an excellent summary:

THERE belongs to every human being a higher self and a lower self–a self or mind of the spirit which has been growing for ages, and a self of the body, which is but a thing of yesterday. The higher self is full of prompting idea, suggestion and aspiration. This it receives of the Supreme Power. All this the lower or animal self regards as wild and visionary. The higher self argues possibilities and power for us greater than men and women now possess and enjoy. The lower self says we can only live and exist as men and women have lived and existed before us. The higher self craves freedom from the cumbrousness, the limitations, the pains and disabilities of the body. The lower self says that we are born to them, born to ill, born to suffer, and must suffer as have so many before us. The higher self wants a standard for right and wrong of its own. The lower self says we must accept a standard made for us by others–by general and long-held opinion, belief and prejudice.[9]

In light of what we’ve said about New Thought, it’s no surprise that such consciousness, in addition to plugging John into a sort of mental cyberspace allowing him to contact other such minds, past, present and future, also allows him to develop a control over matter that will give him access to a powerful source of fuel, if not exactly “super powers” à la Green Lantern.[10] And, as we will see, it will provide John with his own standard of morality.

By the spiritual mind is meant a clearer mental sight of things and forces existing both in us and the Universe, and of which the race for the most part has been in total ignorance.

The higher mind or mind of the spirit knows that it possesses other senses akin to those of physical sight and hearing, but more powerful and far-reaching.[11]

The first contact he makes with a homo superior is, of course, in an insane asylum, and hey, look, it’s our old pal Harry Partch! [12]

He gave no trouble, they said, except that his health was very bad, and they had to nurse him a lot. He hardly ever spoke, and then only in monosyllables. He could understand simple remarks about matters within his ken, but it was often impossible to get him to attend to what was said to him. Yet oddly enough, he seemed to have a lively interest in everything happening around him. Sometimes he would listen intently to people’s voices; but not, apparently, for their significance, simply for their musical quality.[13] He seemed to have an absorbing interest in perceived rhythms of all sorts. He would study the grain of a piece of wood, poring over it by the hour; or the ripples on a duck-pond. Most music, ordinary music invented by Homo sapiens, seemed at once to interest and outrage him; though when one of the doctors played a certain bit of Bach, he was gravely attentive, and afterwards went off to play oddly twisted variants of it on his queer pipe. Certain jazz tunes had such a violent effect on him that after hearing one record he would sometimes be prostrate for days. They seemed to tear him with some kind of conflict of delight and disgust. Of course the authorities regarded his own pipe-playing as the caterwauling of a lunatic.

 These are all recognizable Partch traits — the ‘monosyllables’ refers to what he called “monophonic,” his intent to unify voice and music, ideally with one instrument,[14] perhaps a “queer pipe.” We also find the violent repulsion from and urge to revamp all music, from Bach to jazz.

And here is John’s reaction to the music of those “queer pipes”:

“God! it was music,” he said. “If you could have heard it! I mean if you could have really heard it, and not merely as a cow might! It was lucid. It straightened out the tangles of my mind. It showed me just precisely the true, appropriate attitude of the adult human spirit to its world. Well, he played on, and I went on listening, hanging on to every note, to remember it. Then the attendant interrupted. He said this sort of noise always upset the other patients. It wasn’t as if it was real music, but such crazy stuff. That was why J. J. was really only allowed to play out of doors. . . .”

This was precisely the case I made for Partch’s music in my earlier article, that it was based on the Traditional, or true, theory of Music as involving the control and purification of the mind, or soul–straightening out the tangles, as opposed to the deliberate ‘entangling’ of tonal, and especially “Romantic” music[15]–and bringing them into true alignment with the universe. To do that requires a true, or real, system of notes, with all the so-called “overtones” (i.e., the tones arbitrarily ignored by equal temperament), and

“. . . yes, that’s the starting-point, the very first moment, of what J. J. was working out in his music. If you could hold that always, and fill it out with a whole world of overtones, you’d be well on the way to ‘us.’”[16]

Later, this will be the music of John’s utopia, like Richard Halley at Galt’s Gulch. “Presently Tsomotre, the neckless Tibetan, moved to a sort of harpsichord, tuned to the strange intervals which the islanders enjoyed.” Like Partch, the islanders have devised their own instruments, tuned to the natural scale. “He played. To me his music was indescribably unpleasant. I could have screamed, or howled like a dog. When he had done, a faint involuntary murmur from several throats seemed to indicate deep approval.” True to John’s nickname for him, “Fido” can only howl; an all too typical response to a Partch concert!

Partch also insisted that dance and theatre all be present–monophonic! One voice! Integrity!–and so we have a performance not unlike Partch’s Daphne of the Dunes.

Shahîn rose from his seat, looking with keen inquiry at Lo, who hesitated, then also rose. Tsomotre began playing once more, tentatively. Lo, meanwhile, had opened a huge chest, and after a brief search she took from it a folded cloth, which when she had shaken it out was revealed as an ample and undulatory length of silk, striped in many colours. This she wrapped around her. The music once more took definite form. Lo and Shahîn glided into a solemn dance, which quickened presently to a storm of wild movement. The silk whirled and floated, revealing the tawny limbs of Lo; or was gathered about her with pride and disdain. Shahîn leapt hither and thither around her, pressed toward her, was rejected, half accepted, spurned again. Now and then came moments of frank sexual contact, stylized and knit into the movement-pattern of the dance. The end suggested to me that the two lovers, now clinging together, were being engulfed in some huge catastrophe. They glanced hither and thither, above, below, with expressions of horror and exaltation, and at one another with gleams of triumph. They seemed to thrust some invisible assailant from them, but less and less effectively, till gradually they sank together to the ground. Suddenly they sprang up and apart to perform slow marionette-like antics which meant nothing to me. The music stopped, and the dance. As she returned to her seat, Lo flashed a questioning, taunting look at John.

Not that any of this helps “Fido”:

Later, when I had described this incident in my notes, I showed my account of it to Lo. When she had glanced at it, she said, “But you have missed the point, you old stupid. You’ve made it into a love story. Of course, what you say is all right–but it’s all wrong too, you poor dear.”

But let’s go back a bit to that “the true, appropriate attitude of the adult human spirit to its world” that J. J.’s music is supposed to inculcate, to which John’s colleagues give a “faint involuntary murmur” that “seemed to indicate deep approval.” This must be an actual doctrine, or better, account of, the nature of the homo superior’s consciousness, what he sees with that Higher Mind of his. This will require us to first take another look at the encounter with Mr. Magnate, and then jump back to John’s next encounter, with what I’ll call “Spider Baby.”

Of course, [John] was always either far too brilliant or far too ignorant of life to play his part in anything like a normal manner;

Mr. Magnate shifted in his seat, but continued to look his part.

And here’s John describing his encounter with the vapid intellectuals of Bloomsbury:

The poor little flies find themselves caught in a web, a subtle mesh of convention, so subtle in fact that most of them are unaware of it. They buzz and buzz and imagine they are free fliers, when as a matter of fact each one is stuck fast on his particular strand of the web.

This analysis made me feel uncomfortable, for though I was not one of “them” I could not disguise from myself that the same sort of condemnation might apply to me. John evidently saw my thoughts, for he grinned, and moreover indulged in an entirely vulgar wink. Then he said, “Strikes home, old thing, doesn’t it? Never mind, you’re not in the web. You’re an outsider. Fate has kept you safely fluttering in the backward North.”

John’s alienation and objectivity, and his precocious, Magic Christian-like encounters with various social strata and professions, allow him to perceive humans as merely playing roles, within the inter-connected web of the universe. His later shamanic experiences–remember the mushrooms?–would only confirm this insight.[17]

He gets a powerful, negative confirmation with his next encounter, with a deformed, infant-like child whose super-intellect has soured into pure hatred:

He hated everything, including hate. And he hated it all with a sort of sacred fervour. And why? Because, as I begin to discover, there’s a sort of minute, blazing star of worship [Stapledon’s italics] right down in the pit of his hell. He sees everything from the side of eternity just as clearly as I do, perhaps more clearly; but–how shall I put it?–he conceives his part in the picture to be the devil’s part, and he’s playing it with a combination of passion and detachment like a great artist, and for the glory of God, if you understand what I mean.[18] And he’s right. It’s the only thing he can do, and he does it with style. I take off my hat to him, in spite of everything. But it’s pretty ghastly, really.

All this sounds remarkably like Alan Watts’ description of “the real story” to be found in Hinduism or Zen, or indeed the “secret” Western traditions,[19] and confirmed in mystical experience:

So then, here is the drama: My metaphysics, let me be perfectly frank with you, are that there is the central self, you can call it god you can call it anything you like and it’s all of us. It’s playing all the parts of all the beings whatsoever, anywhere and everywhere and it’s playing a game of hide and seek with itself. It gets lost, it gets involved in most far out adventures, but in the end it always finds a way back to itself.[20]

But especially of his way of shoe-horning Christianity into it, as “the most far-out game of them all”:

The insides of most Protestant churches resemble courthouses or town halls, and the focal point of their services is a serious exhortation from a man in a black gown. No golden light, no bells, incense, and candles. No mystery upon an altar or behind an iconostasis. But people brought up in this atmosphere seem to love it. It feels warm and folksy, and leads, on the one hand, to hospitals, prison reform, and votes for all, and, on the other, to sheer genius for drabness, plain cooking ungraced with wine, and constipation of the bright emotions—all of which are considered virtues.

If I try to set aside the innate prejudices which I feel against this religion, I begin to marvel at the depth of its commitment to earnestness and ugliness. For there is a point at which certain types of ugliness become fascinating, where one feels drawn to going over them again and again, much as the tongue keeps fondling a hole in a tooth. I begin to realize that those incredibly plain people, with their almost unique lack of color, may after all be one of the most astonishing reaches of the divine Maya-the Dancer of the world as far out from himself as he can get, dancing not-dancing.[21]

The “true attitude to life,” the sight from the eternal side of things, is that of a vast cosmic web; one can in some moods find this comforting; in others, it is the nightmare vision of ‘being caught in a web,’ or of total determinism. John and his kind, like Watts, seem to find it to be the former.[22]

Notes

1. “J. D. Beresford’s tale of a child prodigy with superhuman intelligence, The Hampdenshire Wonder, was an early entry into the subgenre of sf that explores the next stage of human evolution from Homo sapiens to Homo superior, the nomenclature coined by Olaf Stapledon for people with superhuman physical or mental abilities. Stapledon was a great admirer of Beresford’s book and later paid homage to it in his own novel Odd John.” See “The Rise of Homo Superior,” Chapter 2 of The Art of Penguin Science Fiction, here.

2. Wikipedia says he rapes his mother, which don’t think is accurate. Stapledon is rather showily coy about the whole thing, but I think all you can read between the lines is incest. Perhaps the modern, “liberated” editors of the internet are just as “Victorian” as their predecessors, unable to imagine a woman consenting to so monstrous an act. After all, Pax, the mother, did produce this oddity, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see them on the same wavelength. Hermann Hesse’s Demian (1919) is another “Story of a Youth” who represents a new, evolutionary venture by Mother Nature. Max Demian is the already-advanced guide who will eventually gather a group of like-minded souls, only to be destroyed by war. Before he dies, the narrator will acknowledge him as “my guide”–in Hesse’s German, “mein Führer.” Demian’s mother is Eve, suggesting both the Garden and the New Eve whose son brings salvation; the schoolboys whisper rumors of incest, or even Islam! Mother, son, and eventually narrator share a connection that is “more like that of lovers, whose this-worldly bonds are incestuous . . . the physical level, homosexual impulses bind Sinclair to Demian; incestuous love binds Eve to both Sinclair and her son, Demian.” (Ralph Freeman, Introduction to the Penguin edition, 2013). Evola discusses “philosophical incest” in The Hermetic Tradition. All these themes–incest, the evolutionarily advanced group, death, National Socialism–will re-appear as we read Odd John.

3. See my review of Wulf Grimmson’s Loki’s Way here and reprinted in The Homo and the Negro (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2012) and more recently my Kindle Single A Review of James Neill’s “The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies” (2013).

4. Jack Donovan’s term ‘androphilic’ might be better; Neill, op. cit., regards all humans as ‘ambisexual’.

5. Evola, in Men Among the Ruins, makes a fairly sharp distinction between the State, the affair of men, and above all, of Orders such as the Männerbund, the Teutonic Knights, or the SS, and on the other hand, society, the affair of women. See also his disparagement of the idea of the Higher Man producing children, which, in this Kali Yuga, would be unlikely to be worthy successors; an anti-natal theme common to the utopian literature we are examining here.

6. This is by no means to endorse the sub-Marxist shenanigans of the academic “queer theorists.” The distinction of the Männerbund, which is outside of society but supportive of it, from the inane anti-social Leftist “gay community” is central to The Homo and the Negro, especially the title essay; see also essay therein on Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables as a tale of the socially useful Männerbund.

7. Like John’s friend, the reporter is let loose to do his job, report, but only by being burned alive by the Tooth Fairy; John, however, lets his friend live, forcing him to leave the island before he destroys it in an inferno. We’ll see that both harelips and being forced to become a serial killer through social pressure are shared by the Fairy and John’s queer friends.

8. See John N. Deck: Nature, Contemplation, and the One: A Study in the Philosophy of Plotinus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967; Reprinted: Burdett. N.Y.: Larson, 1991).

9. Chapter One. London: Bell and Sons, Ltd., 1908. Innumerable editions; available free online here.

10. See my “Green Nazis in Space” here.

11. Loc. cit.

12. See “Our Wagner, Only Better: Harry Partch, Wild Boy of American Music,” online in three parts here, as well as to be reprinted in our The Eldritch Evola… & Others. Partch was, in fact, in London In late 1933, reading in the British Museum and later visiting Yeats, where they discussed his ideas for turning his King Oedipus into Partch’s first theatre work.

13. As did Partch; See Gilmore, Bob; Johnston, Ben: “Harry Partch (1901–1974).” In Larry Sitsky, Music of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde: A Biocritical Sourcebook (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2000), pp. 365–72.

14. Op. cit,. and see Brian Harlan’s dissertation, One Voice: A Reconciliation of Harry Partch’s Disparate Theories, cited therein, and online here.

15. “Beethoven managed to put an end to this noble tradition by inaugurating a barbaric U-turn away from an other-directed music to an inward-directed, narcissistic focus on the composer himself and his own tortured soul.” See Dylan Evans, “Beethoven was a narcissistic hooligan” in The Guardian, June 7, 2005, here.

16. “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”—Walter Pater “Conclusion” to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873).

17. For the ancient symbolism of the web, or the puppet, and its counterpart in entheogenic drug experience, see the section on Block-Universe Determinism at Michael Hoffman’s website egodeath.com. See also the literature cited in my “The Corner at the Center of the World” here, and reprinted in Aristokratia I and my forthcoming collection The Eldritch Evola . . . & Others.

18. Just as in Manhunter, the Tooth Fairy has been “made into a monster” by years of abuse as a deformed outsider, and now identifies himself with Blake’s engraving of the great Red Dragon.

19. See almost any of his books, but especially Beyond Theology: The Art of Godmanship (New York: Pantheon, 1964) and “Remembering Alan Watts: January 6, 1915 to November 16, 1973” by Greg Johnson, here.

20. Alan Watts, “The Way of Waking Up” (Transcript here).

21. Beyond Theology, Chapter Two, “Is It Serious?”

22. Watts once lectured at Harvard and invited B. F. Skinner to reply to his idea that Skinner’s idea of total control by the environment was depressing only if one assumed, as Christians seem to do so, that one was an alien creature trapped in this web, rather than the web and you being part of one, self-determining entity; Skinner supposedly never bothered to show up. See In My Own Way: An Autobiography, 1915-1965 (New York: Pantheon, 1972), pp. 328-30; more generally, “Zen and the Problem of Control” reprinted in This is It (New York: Pantheon, 1960).

 

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One Comment

  1. Jaego
    Posted December 11, 2013 at 4:51 am | Permalink

    Yes, the whole thing is rather queer. Just a little! Even the word queer has a queer sound to it – perhaps harkening back to the Mythical Age of the Brother’s feud; back to when words sounded like they meant and Men could speak with animals.

    What are the Oddfellows all about? Some kind of queer Masonry? Perhaps we could coopt them and inherit their assets, subtly changing their rituals to suit our needs.

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