Endings and After
Death and the Re-evaluation of Myth in the Meta-narratives of The
End of the World News and Out of the Silent Planet
C.S. Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet and
Anthony Burgess in The End of the World News both frame their main
stories with meta-narratives designed to subtly (or not-so-subtly) alter their
readers' attitudes towards the novel as a whole. Burgess actually does this
twice over, first (rather subtly) in his foreword and again in the novel's
epilogue. Lewis, in his considerably shorter and less complex novel, contents
himself with "messing with his readers' minds" (my phrase) all at once
at the end: in his last chapter and in a "Postscript" to his novel
(which I shall refer to collectively as Lewis' postscript).
In at least one respect, Burgess' foreword works to achieve
an effect diametrically opposite to that aimed at in his own epilogue and in
Lewis' postscript. Where Burgess' epilogue and Lewis' postscript seek to
establish the existence of an actual reality on which the novel's admittedly
fictionalized realities are based, Burgess' foreword (which is backed up by his
novel's subtitle, An Entertainment) presents his novel as a work of
almost pure fiction. On the other hand, both Burgess' meta-narratives, like
Lewis', are designed to work with the novel as a whole to link the end of the
world with death and to blur the dividing line between fact and fiction, between
myth and reality. In this essay we will consider each of these meta-narrative
effects in turn, as well as the effect of each effect on the effect of the novel
as a whole. Hopefully this will be considered an effective approach.
He served the truth through a lying medium.
He sleeps well now. Would to God I did.
—John B. Wilson, speaking of Anthony Burgess
The publication history of Burgess' The End of the
World News is a wonderfully elaborate lie. It took me in. Only when I had
finished the three-storied novel and begun to look back on its overall message
and structure did I begin to suspect John B. Wilson's evaluation of Burgess'
manuscript as being suspiciously facile. Wilson's belief in the unity of The
End of the World News manuscript, as he presents it in the novel's
foreword, is mainly based on external evidence: a double unity of typeface and
typescript throughout the manuscript, the manuscript's apparently willful
collation in a taped-shut Italian shopping bag, a note of Burgess' on a
photograph of President Carter and his wife viewing three TV screens at once,
and a "clinching clue": the author's reference in a xeroxed copy of a
letter to an American university student to "the greatest events of the
past century—the discovery of the unconscious by Sigmund Freud, the Trotskian
doctrine of world socialism, and the invention of the space rocket (physical, as
opposed to merely psychological or ideational, transcendence of our dungy
origins)." (Burgess viii-x) What would normally be considered the
"clinching clue" to the author's intentions, "tentative verbal
devices, roughly pencilled, in the nature of loose sub-literary stitching,
clearly designed as points of cross-reference between them", is given only
passing mention, and the discovery of "other, more hermetic, links"
between the three stories is left by Wilson "to the idle and
ingenious." (viii, x) On reflection, Wilson's extensively expressed doubts
as to the manuscript's internal unity seemed more and more to me to be
disingenuous and artificial—no one who had actually read the three-fold
manuscript could seriously doubt its internal unity, I began to think (and
especially not somebody like Wilson, a friend of the author's with a BA). Wilson
must have been deliberately exaggerating the critical problem posed by the
manuscript in an (on reflection, transparent) attempt to tease the book's
readers into a greater appreciation for the novel's essential tri-unity.
Even this re-interpretation of Wilson's motives in writing
this facile foreword I began to suspect. Could it be that Wilson actually did
not exist, that he was actually a creation of a very-much-living (but perhaps
now deceased) Anthony Burgess, attempting himself to tease his book's readers
into a greater appreciation for his novel's essential tri-unity? If so, even the
book's copyright (in the name of some presumed living relative of the deceased
author, "Liana Burgess") might well be suspect.
Of course, upon only a little further investigation of the
matter it became clear to me that the whole foreword was indeed a hoax. The
first clue came from the book's copyright page: the Library of Congress
publication data listed the author as "Burgess, Anthony, 1917-", with
no date of death being given. Confirmation came a short while afterwards upon
consulting other books on the author. Burgess was "not yet dead" as of
1991, The End of the World News having been published
("posthumously") in 1983, and "John B. Wilson, BA" turns out
to be the author himself, Anthony Burgess being his nom de plume, made up
of "the name he chose for himself at [his Catholic] confirmation",
Anthony, and his middle name, his full name being John Burgess Wilson (Stinson
136, 1). The BA he earned "with honors" in English language and
literature at the University of Manchester in 1940 (Stinson 6-7).
I go into a fair bit of detail here not to point out my own
ignorance or credulity, but rather to illustrate the mental process that such a
hoax, however briefly successful, forces the reader to go through. After first
having had to adjust himself to news of the author's death, he then has to
re-adjust himself, through reference to the world outside the novel, to
the notion that not only have the rumours of the author's death "been
greatly exaggerated", but that those rumours have been initiated by the
author himself. This, of course, forces the reader to ask why the author
would initiate such a hoax—the answer, I would propose, or at least part of
the answer, is that the author wants us to think about the end of the world and
on death at one and the same moment. The hoax also gets us thinking about the
historicity and/or fiction of what the author leaves behind after his death (or,
in this case, even before his death). And yet further: if the foreword
that explicitly represents as fiction all that comes after it is itself fiction,
does not that strange double-fictionalization not imply somehow (like a
double-negative) that that which is fictitiously fictive might in some way be
fact? Truly, the real liar Wilson did not really lie when he wrote that the
unreal (and not really dead—though not really alive, either) author Anthony
Burgess "served the truth through a lying medium." (Burgess x)
Man ... always comes through—though sometimes only just.
—Anthony Burgess, "Is America Falling Apart?"
In this linking the end of the world up with death, we have
said the three meta-narratives work with their novels. This is most
clearly seen in The End of the World News in the relationship of a
dying/soon-to-be-dead father to his child that is central to each of its three
braided strands, and that this end of the world-death linkage is most clearly
seen in these father-child relationships links up this link with the
problem so central to The End of the World News—a problem not
really taken up in Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet, and which we
will therefore do no more than touch upon here.
In the Freud strand of Burgess' The End of the World
News, the dying father is Freud and the child is his daughter Anna.
Despite the fact that the bulk of this strand is made up of the dying Freud's
musings on his vain attempts to preserve the integrity of his life's work,
Freudian psychoanalytic theory, over the course of his life, the main action
undergirding this strand is the Freuds' flight from Nazified Vienna to London.
The journey is undertaken despite Freud's initial desire to stay and make a
principled stand because as soon as Freud realizes that his daughter Anna is in
danger from the Nazis, his desire to stay and defend his life's work takes a
back seat to his concern for his daughter's safety (Burgess 12, 18). This strand
begins, incidentally, with a vivid scene of the destruction of Freud's world and
life-work (or at least a major portion and symbol thereof), the Internationaler
Psychoanalytischer Verlag (4).
Trotsky is not a dying father, but that he is a
soon-to-be-dead father is made clear by the repeated appearance of a Mexican
guitarist whom only Trotsky can see, and who sings to him, "Mexico,
Mexico,/ An excellent place to die,/ Come some day and try/ Mexico." (153,
379) That Trotsky was exiled from the Communist Russia he helped to create by
"Comrade Stalin", and then assassinated on Stalin's orders in Mexico
is, of course, the common historical knowledge that Burgess is alluding to here.
Like Freud, Trotsky's main concern throughout his strand is with his life's
work, the Revolution. But when the Revolution finally comes, Trotsky has just
learned that his son has disappeared and we are informed that, "Trotsky has
not at all taken in the news of the start of the Revolution. He has only his son
on his mind." (319) Once again family comes first, in spite of the fact of
the organic descendant's unfaithfulness to the father's ideals: just as the last
we see of Anna she is embracing Otto Rank's "perversion" of her
father's theories and, despite this, Freud entrusts Anna but not his wife with
the true knowledge of how he passed on (365, 368), so, when Trotsky's son is
restored to him as "a very ordinary little Russian boy already turning into
an American", Trotsky nevertheless "grabs him and nearly chokes him
with relief and affection." (335)
The dying father-child relationship central to the main
strand (the future, end-of-the-world strand, which ultimately ties the other two
together) is, of course, the relationship between Professor Hubert Frame and his
beloved daughter Vanessa. Here, as soon as Professor Frame becomes aware that
the world is about to end, the purpose of his life's work, ostensibly "[t]he
salvaging of Western civilization in microcosm" (271), becomes instead (and
fairly obviously) the preservation of his daughter, and, incidentally, her
separation in the process from her (in his opinion) "half-assed
dilettante" of a husband, Valentine Brodie (26). Professor Frame's
"singles only" stipulation is clearly aimed at forcing Vanessa to
divorce her husband: "There'll have to be an end to that
pseudo-marriage," he says to his colleague. "Candidates chosen singly,
not in tandem." (26) Vanessa, however, has other ideas, and her
"cheating" on Val's behalf, divorcing Val and feeding his
qualifications into the computer to ensure that he would be chosen, demonstrate
just how subjectively "objective" the project's computerized candidate
selection process really was in the first place (and, most obviously and
particularly, in the selection of Vanessa Brodie, née Frame) (114-115).
Death and the end of the world are thus linked, in Burgess'
book, in a manner designed to convey the primacy of that procreative, parental
urge to which Trotsky finally refers with the words "reality" and a
certain, unheard word that rhymes with "of." (372) That this urge is
primarily responsible for our seeking to delay death and/or the end of the
world, Burgess drives home with two more parent-child relationships, as well as
two marriage relationships at the end. Edwina Duffy repeatedly makes it explicit
that it is her love for her unborn child that motivates her to live. "I
don't care whether I live or die," she says to Calvin Gropius' family.
"But I have this child within me. ... I want this child to live."
(294) Love for, or at least action on behalf of Edwina is what saves Dashiel
Gropius and leads to his marriage to her in the end (314, 369). Willett, on the
other hand, abandons ship and goes down with the earth upon hearing his son's
final broadcast from dying Lunamerica, while Val's at least half-desired death
with the earth and with Willett is prevented by his "dammed duty" and
his love for Vanessa (372).
"Man will survive," says Professor Frame's
colleague near the beginning of the main strand. "Why the hell should
he survive?" Frame responds. "For the sake of whom or what?" His
colleague's answer is unhelpful, even tautologous in a way: "For the sake
of the future." (25) A bit later Frame's colleague modifies his answer, and
the nature of his modification is significant to all the rest of the book:
"A future ... for Vanessa. You want that, surely?" he asks (26). He
has re-cast his answer in a move from the unemotive general to the particular.
That the modified answer is still received as a rather unemotive particular may
be seen in Professor Frame's response to it: "Vanessa wandering through
space, generating generators and genetrices of generations. Sounds pretty dull,
doesn't it?" (26)
It does. And so the question is asked again, just before the
resolution of the main strand, this time by Val, whom Professor Frame had
deliberately and, as he realized in the end, mistakenly tried to eliminate from
the project: "Why the hell should we be saved?" (348) Note the
difference in emphasis and in particularization. Willett's answer is closer, but
still not entirely satisfactory, or at least not entirely understandable to Val:
"For one simple reason. Because that's not a question those scientific
bastards would ever dream of asking. That's why." (348) But we know they
have—or at least one of them has asked a question rather startlingly close to
it. And it seems to me that it is to answer both of these questions that Burgess
has written this novel linking the end of the world up with death. And his
answer seems to be: because we have the capacity for particular (rather than
general), procreative, parental and passionate love.
I care far more how humanity lives than how long.
—C.S. Lewis, "Is Progress Possible?"
While Burgess links death with the end of the world in The
End of the World News to explore the question of why we, or why anything
of us should survive either, Lewis links the two in his Out of the Silent
Planet in order to demonstrate how we should face both, as individuals
and as a species. Though Out of the Silent Planet is not, strictly
speaking, an end-of-the-world story, the novel's action is initiated by an
attempt to escape the end of the world and the action is driven and/or informed
throughout by the threat of death, a threat linked at the climax with the
problem of our world and of all worlds ending.
The story begins with the unscrupulous scientist Weston and
his greed-driven colleague Devine kidnapping the protagonist, Ransom, and taking
him captive in a space-ship to Mars (Lewis 25-26). While in the space-ship,
Ransom learns his two captors are planning to hand him over to the inhabitants
of Malacandra, as they call Mars, they presume as a human sacrifice (34).
Ransom, of course, flees as soon as they reach the planet, encounters the
inhabitants, whom he finds entirely good and peaceful, without even any word for
"evil" in their language (the closest they come to it is
"bent"), and lives among them until Weston and Devine come looking for
him and shoot his friend Hyoi, a Malacandrian (chs. 7-13). At this moment of
crisis, Ransom confesses the human race's evil nature to his dying friend, and
puts himself in the hands of the Malacandrians, advising they kill him as well
as Weston and Devine (81-82).
"One does not kill hnau [sentient beings],"
is the Malacandrian reply. "Only Oyarsa does that." (82) Ransom is
then sent to Oyarsa, the "tutelary spirit" of Malacandria (152), from
whom he learns that the whole "human sacrifice" idea was a
misunderstanding. Weston and Devine (who have now been captured and are being
brought before the Oyarsa as well) had no reason to be afraid or to kidnap him
(122). "And you also, Ransom of Thulcandra [earth]," Oyarsa concludes,
"you have taken many vain troubles to avoid standing where you stand
now." Ransom's response is exemplary—he has learned from the
Malacandrians—to be followed on both an individual and a human racial level:
"That is true, Oyarsa. Bent creatures are full of fears. But I am here now
and ready to know your will with me." (122)
Weston and Devine are then brought before Oyarsa, and
Weston's real motive for building the space-ship is revealed and exposed for the
folly that it is. He envisions man, by the use of his space-ships, or by
space-ships like his, spreading and settling as a species throughout the
habitable universe in interplanetary, and eventually inter-solar leaps
"which will, perhaps, place [our descendants] forever beyond the reach of
death." (136-137) Oyarsa asks Weston whether he does not know that his
world, Mars, "is older than your own world and nearer its death? ...
Soon," he says, "I will end my world and give back my people to
"Me know all that plenty," Weston responds in his
broken Malacandrian. "This only first try. Soon they go on another
"But do you not know that all worlds will die?"
"Men go jump off each before it deads—on and on,
"And when all worlds are dead?" (139)
Weston has no answer for this. It is not something he has
considered, the inevitability of death, even the death of his species. For death
and the end of the world have by this point been explicitly connected by
Oyarsa's reference to the end of his world as its "death". At last
Oyarsa attempts to illumine Weston by using his own people's choice not to flee
the end of their world as a good example. Weston takes this as proving the
validity of his own plan: "You now very few—shut up in handramits
[deep canal-valleys]," he points out, "soon all die."
"Yes," Oyarsa concedes, "but one thing we left
behind us on the harandra [now-airless and uninhabitable highlands]:
fear. And with fear, murder and rebellion. The weakest of my people does not
fear death. It is the Bent One, the lord of your world, who wastes your lives
and befouls them with flying from what you know will overtake you in the end. If
you were subjects of Maleldil you would have peace." (140)
This essentially ends the conversation (aside from Weston's
defiant outburst in English, "Trash! Defeatist trash!" and telling
Oyarsa of his preference for the Bent One's active resistance), turning the
whole book into a parable of how we, as individuals and as a species, should
learn to face our inevitable death. The rest of the story, Weston, Ransom, and
Devine's peril-fraught journey back to earth, shows us how the well-taught
Ransom's new attitude towards death is tested: how it deserts him as Ransom
becomes involved in the struggle for life, and how it comes back to him right at
the end when death seems inevitable and unavoidable (ch. 21).
[T]he distinction between history and mythology
might be itself meaningless outside the Earth.
—C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (144-145)
Then, at the end, in Lewis' last chapter and
"Postscript", the story is re-cast as fictionalized truth. "[I]t
is time to remove the mask," the narrator says, "and to acquaint the
reader with the real and practical purpose for which this book has been
written." (152) That purpose, since we are unlikely to be able to
"find out" Dr. "Ransom" or the narrator Lewis, or identify
"Weston", as "Ransom" suggests we will be "easily"
able to do, must be found in Ransom's subsequent "Anyway" remark.
"Anyway," Ransom continues, "what we need for the moment is not
so much a body of belief as a body of people familiarized with certain ideas. If
we could even effect in one per cent of our readers a change-over from the
conception of Space to the conception of Heaven, we should have made a
beginning." (154) Essentially then, the declared aim of all this has been
to effect a change-over in our conception of the universe, from thinking about
it in merely spatial terms to thinking of it instead in spiritual terms.
More specifically, since Ransom's "Anyway" remark
applies most obviously to the description in the preceding chapter of his new
attitude towards death and the end of his small world, the space-ship, we the
readers are presumably to assume this new, spiritual attitude for ourselves.
"[Ransom] knew that there was very little chance of his being able to
communicate his new knowledge to man, that unrecorded death in the depth of
space would almost certainly be the end of their adventure. But already it had
become impossible to think of it as 'space'," Lewis writes. "He could
not feel that they were an island of life journeying through an abyss of death.
He felt almost the opposite—that life was waiting outside the little iron
egg-shell in which they rode, ready at any moment to break in, and that, if it
killed them, it would kill them by excess of its vitality." (146)
This last chapter and "Postscript" also, as has
been noted above, blur the line between history and mythology, fact and fiction.
Ransom's letter in the "Postscript" serves, among other things, to
show up the inability of Lewis' fiction to fully portray Ransom's
life-experience. "I think you are right," Ransom says of Lewis'
fictionalized account, "and after the two or three corrections (marked in
red) the MS. will have to stand. I won't deny that I am disappointed, but then
any attempt to tell such a story is bound to disappoint the man who has really
been there." (153) And yet, despite the inadequacy of Lewis' portrayal, we
are nevertheless expected to take this fictionalized account and make it the
basis for a reconceptualization of our actual universe, as just noted above.
Clearly Lewis', or at least the narrator Lewis' conception of "truth"
transcends mere fact.
For even Lewis' use of his own name for the narrator tends to
blur the line between fact and fiction. Are these really Lewis' ideas, or are
they just Lewis the narrator's? We may feel justified in writing off Dr. Ransom
and his story as creations of Lewis, but presumably he created them for a
reason, so that when Lewis the author has Ransom blur the line between myth and
history, may we not take this as Lewis' opinion? If we accept John B. Wilson's
pronouncement on Anthony Burgess, "He served the truth through a lying
medium," perhaps we may say, with Ransom, that Lewis served the truth
Myth has a bad name these days, on a level with
"lie": the usage, "It's a myth that touching a frog will give you
warts," attests to this, for in this phrase "myth" refers to an
untrue belief that is nevertheless still commonly accepted as fact because it's
been handed down as folklore. We know better. As do the students in The
End of the World News' final frame-story (pun intended).
The students who have been listening to Valentine O'Grady
tell them what we have read as the novel's main strand refuse to believe their
teacher's story, neither as fact nor even as generally-representative history
(387). They refer to it instead as "myth" and "just lies"
because it is entirely outside their experience (387-388). "The ship",
the world as they know it, is all there is, or ever was, and was built by
"God or somebody"—exactly who doesn't matter (388). What
matters is that, "It's here." There is no journey: they're "just here"—they
always have been, the students believe, and they always will. "There's
nothing but this," one concludes as he looks at "his wristchron, a new
one, straight from the utilab." (388)
Burgess' point, to us must be clear, reading as we are on the
"mythical" earth. The youth of "today" are stuck in the
present: experience is not always the same, so experience of the present only is
not enough. At the end of this final meta-narrative, the students go
"running off for their protein and synthveg. They had forgotten the story
already." (389) So have we.
Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days
scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, "Where is the
promise of his coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue
as they were from the beginning of the creation." For this they willingly
are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the
earth standing out of the water and in the water: whereby the world that then
was, being overflowed with water, perished: but the heavens and the earth,
which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against
the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.II Peter 3:3-7
C.S. Lewis would add:
Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what
manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness,
looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens
being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent
heat? Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a
new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.II Peter 3:11-13
The effect, then, of these authors' meta-narratives, is to
spring their texts' effects out into our reality as well as to draw us, by the
re-evaluations the meta-narratives force, back to and back into their
texts. Their goal is to affect our reality, to effect change in the way we view
both text and world. The effectiveness of their meta-narratives lies in the
questions they force us to ask.
If we cannot trust a straightforward foreword, The End
of the World News asks us, if we cannot entirely trust our experience of
textual reality, should we perhaps not entirely trust our experience of
existential reality as well? And yet, there is a level on which apparently lying
textual reality serves truth—could there be such a level in experiential
reality as well? A level on which self dies or lives for (and, in doing so,
sacrifices itself for and thus embraces) not self—or at least that
which is in part yet not entirely self? A reality perhaps best described as
"love" and/or maybe "myth"?
If we cannot entirely separate author from narrator, Out
of the Silent Planet questions, should we perhaps not entirely separate
ourselves from Ransom or our universe from the Heaven he describes? And if
experience can be incompletely yet truthfully represented in fiction, might
there be fiction the experience of which is truth?
The answer, the author of this essay would suggest (as would
I), might well be yes.
Burgess, Anthony. The End of the World News. Toronto:
McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1983.
---. "Is America Falling Apart?" The Norton Reader.
Eds. Linda H. Peterson, John C. Brereton, and Joan E. Hartman. Shorter 9th ed.
New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996.
Lewis, C.S. "Is Progress Possible?" God in the Dock.
As cited in The Quotable Lewis. Eds. Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root. Wheaton,
IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1989.
---. Out of the Silent Planet. New York: Macmillian Publishing
Stinson, John J. Anthony Burgess Revisited. Boston: Twayne
Original copyright © 1996 by Edward Hewlett.