. . . Bernard Wolfe

. . .

Twentieth Century Ooze: Like any smart science fiction writer, Bernard Wolfe, author of cult-novel Limbo ("I think it is a masterpiece" -- David Pringle, Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels), knew that he was describing the present, not the future: "I am writing... in the guise of 1990 because it would take decades for a year like 1950 to be milked of its implications." Mind-control was a global preoccupation in the novel's birthyear, and so Limbo plays as many variations on lobotomy as Philip K. Dick on hallucinogenic drugs or Rudy Rucker on fatuous preening.

Equally accurate but not quite so self-aware is Wolfe's depiction of sexual attitudes among the educated and heterosexual. In a central episode of the book, the hero undergoes the indignity of having a women straddle him ("only a frigid woman would have to make such an issue of the top billing.... the most difficult of positions, a man-deposing position which for most women would exclude the possibility of any real orgasm at all -- a full vaginal one, not a pale clitoridean substitute") followed by the further indignity of her autonomous movement ("he did not relish that part of him which could be aroused in this passive way.... beholden to no man for her triumph, involved with her partner only insofar as she had momentarily borrowed him as a necessary prop....") and, worst of all, mutual satisfaction ("The most frustrating and humiliating erotic moment of his life, he thought with a grimace.").

And what a waste of time! "You had a full experience, sure, but it took you a hell of a long time to arrive at it: well over thirty minutes, I'd say, whereas the average normal coitus lasts for only a few minutes. And like all women who achieve satisfaction only with great difficulty, and only under special aggressive circumstances and only after prolonged tension and anxiety, you were determined to be the pace-setter. That's quite characteristic of frigid women too -- the men's mechanism must be only a passive reflex of theirs. You'll find this hard to believe, but the normal state of affairs is quite the other way around.... With a kind of warm melting you don't know anything about."

To prove his point, he rapes her. In the proper missionary position.

But she even manages to screw that up! "It was not, although it had started out to be, the genuine full reaction of the wholly yielding, wholly warm woman -- she, or her ornery unconscious, had executed a diversion to defeat him at the last moment, at the price of her own full satisfaction."

If all of the women he meets are either openly frigid or covertly frigid, how can he talk so confidently about "normal" women? Ah, the age-old problem for male pontificators, solved in the age-old way with the invention of a fantasy: the perfectly yielding Gauguinesque island girl, Ooda. Good old puddin'-headed Ooda. Nothing like his first wife....

Much more straightforwardly instructive than work by such old prevaricators as Norman Mailer, Limbo is highly recommended to postfeminists, Lacanians, and the nostalgic.

And only a quarter-century after Limbo's publication, noted heterosexual intellectual male Woody Allen was ready to debunk the two orgasm theory, although, naturally, he had it mouthed by a silly-billy blonde bimbo rather than by a heterosexual intellectual male.

. . .

The twentieth century established its characteristic tone in 1901 with publication of the two sickest novels the English language had yet produced: Henry James's The Sacred Fount and M. P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud.

I don't know what to counsel for the former, but patience is counseled for the latter, since it lurches off like Jules Verne or something. Be assured: the mood then sinks like a pearl through Prell, from H. G. Wellsian to Edgar Allen Poetic and down, down, down to a really bad mood.

In the purple cloud, Shiel not only foresaw Prince's classic breakthrough soundtrack album of the 1980s but also the neutron bomb. More than forty years before Little Boy dropped, the novel described what a modern reader can only interpret as world-girdling fallout and radiation poisoning.

And what does the Last Man on Earth do after the proto-neutron-bomb delivers all that prime real estate intact into his hands? Well, what does anyone do with unlimited power? Blow things up real good! As a tribute to the eternal domitability of the human spirit, the book's only rival is Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To...; as a nightmare of premonitory guilt, I don't think it has any rival at all.

Not sure why the Bingo-Bango-Bongo-I-don't-want-to-leave-the-Congo redemptive ending didn't bug me more. Like a lot about The Purple Cloud, it reminded me of Bernard Wolfe's Limbo, which bugged me lots. Maybe it's because Shiel's version of Eve comes by her puddin'-headedness natural, having been raised by wild dust motes. Maybe it's because the relationship is played dysfunctionally enough to fit into the rest of the story. Or because the hero backslides and foreslides so often that I don't have to take his "ultimate" redemption at full CA value.... Had to end somewhere, after all. Everything does.

. . .

Having emerged from the interminable horror of World War II into the unterminable horror of a nuclear-powered Cold War, mid-century artists could see no way out but back. Post-apocalyptic pastoral cropped up in forms ranging from 1947's four hit versions of "Civilization (Bingo, Bango, Bongo)" to Bernard Wolfe's Limbo in 1950.

In 1946, director-writer-cartoonist Frank Tashlin published The Bear That Wasn't, a picture book in which a bear was driven into deep delusion by human contact. In 1950, Tashlin published The Possum That Didn't, in which an opossum was driven into deep depression by human contact. In 1951, while working on Son of Paleface, Tashlin published a third picture book, The World That Isn't, written and illustrated in much the same way as the earlier two books, but more unambiguously targeted at adults.

  The Artist Who Is

The Printing Press

Tashlin's message stayed as consistent as his technique: people may vary but their social institutions are inevitably insane. However, with the whole of humanity as its funny-animal protagonist, the third book follows a more ambitious path back to nature. Contemporary American existence is depicted in gag-busy pages and simultaneously "described" by a standard Western account of social evolution: the "Ice Age" is a drunken apartment party, the "discovery of the wheel" takes place in a town full of car accidents and happy morticians, time is measured, Christianity's gentle influence is felt, the printing press aids Man in his quest for knowledge....

Yoking high allegorical intent to his vulgar gag background, Tashlin doesn't distinguish between the familiar mild irritations of mid-century middle-class comedy (nagging wives, rude children, cheating contractors, taxes, billboards) and questions of life-and-death, and the conjunction sometimes jars.

But give him credit for following a premise through. Fantasists tend to wallow in daydreams of a fresh new start while simultaneously recoiling from the mass destruction needed to get there -- which, fairly or not, always seemed a bit irresponsible to me. Tashlin's proto-hippies and neo-arcadia are almost unique in being made possible by what's presented as a consciously -- and ethically -- intended apocalypse. Sort of like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? with Burpelson Air Force Base in place of the chicken farm.

"In spite of the opposition, Man continued trying to think for himself, even though it was more difficult than... or... or... it was even more difficult than... or..."
He knew what to do...

. . .

Josh Lukin joins our perplexity:

There has just *got* to be a story of the Lucy Clifford or E.T.A. Hoffman unheimlich school that does something with artificial hands, but damned if I can think of anything but J.M. Barrie, which would be quite a stretch to include . . . Southern's use of the image in Strangeglove, of course, has all kinds of post-Metropolis precendents among authors who can be classed with Southern as Black Humorists. West, as you note. Durrenmatt's The Visit. Highsmith's "The Great Cardhouse." And of course V., wherein at least two characters have that distinction.

Shelley Jackson would be the ideal person to ask about this, followed by the authors of Narrative Prosthesis.
For pre-Strangelove self-modifying crazy-ass scientists, we might also look into Bernard Wolfe's Limbo, but that doesn't help with my personal goal of finding a precursor to Metropolis. So far the closest I've come is Nuada, which is none too close. Maybe I should just get over it and admit that some Nazis had a flair with pulp.

By the way, those of you with access to the MLN should seek out Dr. Lukin's illuminating review of Dr. Larbalestier's The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction.


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