Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Burgessian Dystopia
Anthony Burgess once remarked, not altogether facetiously, that the ideal reader of his novels should be, among other things, a lapsed Catholic who had read the same books he had. Certainly, when approaching The Wanting Seed (1962),  the reader would find his appreciation of the book enhanced by a knowledge of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” as well as some sense of what J.G. Frazier’s The Golden Bough is about, and (if not a lapsed or loyal Catholic oneself) a look at something like the big paperback Catechism that the Vatican issued a few years ago. Burgess himself called the book “very Catholic.” It’s also very allusive, and the allusions enrich the book considerably, as we’ll see. 

Notoriously a reviewer of his own Inside Mr Enderby, Burgess also reviewed, or at least revisited, The Wanting Seed thirty years later, in You’re Had Your Time, where he quotes (and then half agrees with) an assessment of it as “half-baked,” but only after spending several pages explaining its themes, as if in defence of it. This simultaneously pro and contra approach makes sense. Though flawed, the book has considerable strengths which, 50 years later now, deserve restating.

Admittedly, reading decades-old “futfic” (to use Burgess’s label) often entails winking at quaintly dated details. Though there’s less to overlook in The Wanting Seed than in, say, The Time Machine or Back to Methuselah, it does contain its share of comic oddities—the newsdisc on the wall-spindle, the “long-chain synthetic polymeric amide” outfits, and so on. But such incidental false notes notwithstanding, much of the novel still rings true—perhaps most notably the sort of mythic resonance or background Burgess evokes by literary and religious allusion.

The story itself is fairly simple. Tristram Foxe lives in a future when overpopulation compels a homosexual officialdom to impose strict population controls—including infanticide and secret war-games that result in the dead being processed into food. State suppression of everyone’s natural impulses makes life a dull business, and some refuse to be stifled—Tristram’s wife enjoys a love-affair with his brother, religion revives in rural areas, workers agitate. As all this unrest intensifies, Tristram awakens to his natural bond with his wife, who has fled to the countryside to give birth to illicit (and maybe illegitimate) offspring. His picaresque pursuit of her across an England seething with social change—the book’s philosophy of history is as rambunctious as its quest-story—comprises the bulk of the narrative.

As the story unfolds, “The Waste Land” contributes quotations that implicitly equate the cheerless mood of Tristram’s world of enforced infertility with the arid, sterile atmosphere of Eliot’s poem. Such a comparison plainly suits Burgess’s thematic intentions, because “The Waste Land” is a central 20th-century text on the subject of spiritual inanition and yearning for inner rejuvenation among dispirited moderns. Burgess himself once summarized the poem’s major theme in an essay: “The modern world,” he writes, “is to Eliot the waste land of ancient legend. It is dry and infertile. It needs the revivifying rain that never comes and which it does not really want…. [T]he modern world is committed to death.” Considering the fictional world Burgess creates in the novel—where pregnant women are treated as criminals, childless professionals  are preferred ahead of child-rearing colleagues, and gay sex is the socially approved form of intercourse—one can view The Wanting Seed as telling on the symbolic level much the same story as The Waste Land, albeit in narrative rather than lyric form. Indeed—since it goes beyond Eliot in not merely diagnosing the modern disease but trying to offer something of a cure—the book can be read as a deliberate reply to (as he’s jokingly described at one point), “Eliot (a long-dead singer of infertility).”

Early in the novel, modern, yearning Tristram (who incidentally stands in ironic contrast to his Wagnerian namesake, that champion of Eros, who’s alluded to in TWL), joins a “I-had-not-thought-death-had-undone-so-many workward crowd” (in echo of Eliot’s Dantesque description of workaday London). A bloodless and callow conformist at this stage of the story, submitting to the laws as readily as any other citizen of a police state, Tristram awakens instinctive disgust in more sanguine characters, like his wife (“she couldn’t bear his touch”) and his brother-in-law Shonny (“there’s something in the very look of the man…that sets my teeth on edge”). He rouses, in other words, the sort of disgust that living people feel in the presence of a corpse: Tristram the cipher perfectly embodies the dead society he inhabits.

To his credit, Tristram, a schoolteacher, does possesses knowledge, and so has something of a mental life, if next to nothing of a physical one, so far. Still alive enough to feel the occasional pinch of the shackles of political oppression, he exhibits, under such conditions, the prerequisite of any personal vitality—rebelliousness—on an intellectual level (teaching forbidden books like The Golden Bough; sneering at homosexual superiors); whereas his wife rebels on a physical level, by committing adultery. She can also intuit the same latently independent spirit in her husband: “there must be quite a lot of the heretic in you,” she teases him; “you’re quite as bad as I am, in your way.” Hence, however estranged they may seem at the outset, the hope is raised that they may be eventually reconciled. Indeed, the key hope of the book is that Tristram, struggling like “a spermatozoa” toward far-off Beatrice-Joanna (who is her Dantean namesake, as well as Mary pregnant with Christ and the “Urmutter” embodied by all the pagan fertility goddesses), will find his wife again, and so symbolize the fruitful union of the two sexes that will, when applied more widely, fructify the waste land.  “All life is one” is the thematic refrain of the book, and the strictly rationalist social policies of the Pelphase sin, with disastrous environmental results, against this truth of the unity of all life as expressed in traditional culture (“’The art of the past is a kind of glorification of increase,’” notes Tristram) and in religion, as an Easter sermon Tristram hears reiterates: “[Christ]’s blood is not only the blood of man, beast, bird, fish; it is also the rain, the river, the sea. It is the ecstatically pumped seed of men and it is the flowing milk of the mothers of men.”

Such, then, is the goal of the book’s hero and heroine. But to reach it, both of them have to negotiate a society whose Eliotian drabness Burgess drives home with additional allusions to “The Waste Land.” Tristram, for instance, has false teeth, which are a commonplace of health care in the Pelphase, but also make a significant appearance in TWL, when the character Lil is advised to have her rotten teeth pulled and replaced—an image of corroded vitality, with the emblems of natural appetite being replaced with artificial imitations. And then again: “Oh, Dog, Dog, Dog,” laments Tristram when he learns of his wife’s infidelity, making use of his atheistical society’s sanitized profanity (an arbitrary reversal of the old, theistic curse/cri de coeur), but also echoing Eliot again: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,\Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?\ …O keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,\ Or with his nails, he’ll dig it up again….” This comment of one of the narrators of TWL represents a ironic, irreligious revisiting of fertility myths that, like the Christian resurrection story, appeal to the arising of new life in nature and the human spirit. Here, the religious impulse is bothersome to the deadened modern sensibility, and the advice is to keep it “far hence”: the very advice of the rationalist rulers of the Pelphase. And finally, toward the end of The Wanting Seed, one of Beatrice-Joanna’s babies (the one named Tristram) burbles “like Upanishadian thunder, ‘Da da da.’” This is an echo of the dimly hopeful end of TWL, which invokes Hindu scriptures by means of the Sanskrit vocable that baby Tristram burbles. Thunder is a sound that promises the coming of rain, which can irrigate and vivify the land and end, it may be, its terrible barrenness (“If there were water…” sighs one of the poem’s narrators). The significance of rain and water in the poem is matched by the importance, in The Wanting Seed, of the sea—that origin of all life to which Beatrice-Joanna prays (“We’re sick, O sea. Restore us to health, restore us to life”), and which gives rise to an impromptu sea-shanty among the shipmates of Tristram the conscripted soldier, on his way to “battle”:

                        “So just you stand and wait

                        By the garden gate

                        Till my ship comes bouncing o’er the foam.

                        We’ll be together

                        For ever and ever,

                               Never more to roam.”

This echoes, in sentiment (and at least vaguely in subject), the song of a sailor in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, which is quoted in TWL. The book ends, indeed, with a sort of celebration of the sea (“Break, waves. Break with joyful waters”).

        Burgess remarks, in his autobiography, that “I have spent the last twenty-five years thinking that…The Wanting Seed could, in my leisurely old age, be expanded to a length worthy of the subject.” But, as anyone who has looked at a list of Burgess publications will know, his old age never offered sufficient leisure for such an expansion. Even as it stands, though, The Wanting Seed is a solid work that repays a second look, and, in terms of the pleasures it provides new or returning readers, wants for nothing.    

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