Monday, 29 February 2016

Andersonian Themes and Tropes, by Sean M. Brooks

Dr. Paul Shackley's "Poul Anderson Appreciation Blog" focuses on the works of Poul Anderson.  And he has also discussed other writers whose own works he believes are appropriately compared to those of Anderson.  One of these writers is S.M. Stirling, whom Dr. Shackley rightly considers a worthy colleague and successor of Poul Anderson.  Mr. Stirling has sometimes left his own comments in the blog.  On January 30, 2016, in the combox for Dr. Shackley's "Wealth and Labor" piece, Stirling wrote: "It's pretty safe to assume themes and tropes from Poul's work carry over into mine--he was an inspiration, and we corresponded and occasionally visited for many years."

I have more than once found very Andersonian echoes, allusions, themes, tropes, and homages to Poul Anderson in Stirling's own works.  I felt the wish to point out some of these "echoes" myself.  For example,  one theme or trope to be found in both writers works is how they agreed all organized societies need to have SOME signs of respect or ceremonial for their leaders or states.  In Chapter 7 of Poul Anderson's novel THERE WILL BE TIME (Nelson-Doubleday: 1972, page 63) Caleb Wallis, Sachem of the Eyrie, said: "I am the founder and master of this nation.  We must have discipline, forms of respect.  I'm called 'sir.' "  Another example can be found in Chapter 7 of THE DAY OF THEIR RETURN (Nelson-Doubleday: 1973, page 54) after Tatiana Thane showed resentment at the idea of the planet Aeneas reestablishing its loyalty to the Terran Empire Commissioner Desai said: "The loyalty I speak of does not involve more than a few outward tokens of respect for the throne, as mere essential symbols.  It is loyalty to the Empire--above all, to its Pax, in an age when spacefleets can incinerate whole worlds and when the mutiny in fact took thousands of lives--it is that I mean, my lady.  It is that I am here about..."

Echoes and allusions of this Andersonian respect for due and proper ceremony can be found in Stirling's novel CONQUISTADOR (Roc: March 2004, pages 363 and 364), in Chapter Fourteen.  The Founder of the Commonwealth of New Virginia, John Rolfe VI, was formally greeted like this: "Adrienne stepped forward first, bowing low, taking his outstretched left hand in hers, and kissing it."  Then she said, in Italian: "Baciamo le mani."  Both Piet Botha and Roy Tully (with a slight shrug to Tom Christiansen by the latter) repeated the ceremony.  Tom felt embarassed and foolish, but he too performed the ritual.  The Chairman Emeritus, noticing Tom's discomfort said: "In any organized society there must be forms, gestures of respect. I am founder and master of this nation.  My fellow Virginian Washington followed a similar policy of emphasizing formal etiquette during his presidency, for much the same reason; I've often found his solutions useful when an analogous problem came up."  Notice how "I am founder and master of this nation" is nearly a word for word quote from THERE WILL BE TIME.  To say nothing of how close Stirling's "gestures of respect" is to Anderson's "forms of respect"!

In my letter of January 21, 1995 to Poul Anderson I discussed how the Later Roman Empire, in both West and East, developed increasingly elaborate and seemingly exaggerated gestures of respect for the Emperors. To such an extent that it seemed to me the Romans, even after they became Christians, gave their sovereigns virtually divine honors.  This disturbed me until I came across these texts in Thomas Hobbes LEVIATHAN (Collier Books: 1973), Chapter 45, on page 467: "The worship we exhibit for those we esteem to be but men, as to kings, and men in authority, is civil worship; but the worship we exhibit to that which we think to be God, whatsoever the words, ceremonies, gestures or other actions be, is divine worship.  To fall prostrate before a king, in him that thinks him but a man, is but civil worship: and he that putteth off his hat in the church, for this cause, that he thinketh it the house of God, worshippeth with divine worship."  And on page 469, in the same Chapter 45, I read: "To be uncovered, before a man of power and authority, before the throne of a prince, or in other such places as he ordaineth to that purpose in his absence, is to worship that man, or prince with civil worship; as being a sign, not of honouring the stool or place, but the person; and is not idolatry."

I then became convinced that the seemingly exaggerated respect shown by the Romans to their Emperors (or the New Virginians to their Chairmen) were merely gestures of respect meant to show patriotic loyalty to them. Which meant I could no longer scorn such rituals as the proskynesis or the kowtow.  In his reply letter of January 28, 1995, Anderson wrote: "On the matter of elaborate gestures of submission to royalty and the like, I suspect that, while the extreme forms of the late West Roman and the Byzantine Empires were theoretically just gestures of respect, in fact they reflected an attitude derived from the ancient Orient.  The distinction between a king or emperor who was a god and one who was God's anointed got somewhat blurred.  There was something supernatural about a crowned head--which didn't prevent some rather murderous changes of personnel!  I think that in our own time we have seen the same basic psychology at work in the--from your viewpoint or mine--obscene degree of adulation accorded Hitler and Stalin, even though in those cases all connection to the divine was disavowed."  The even more grotesque adulation shown to Mao Tse-tung, during his misrule of China, also comes to mind.

However theoretically unobjectionable the proskynesis or kowtow might be, such ceremonies still caused problems when ambassadors from foreign nations refused to perform them to the Emperor of China .  As Anderson wrote, from the same letter cited above: "It's a nice question whether the British ambassador to China in the 19th century did right when he refused to kowtow to the Emperor.  On the one hand, he definitely compromised his mission; on the other hand, as Queen Victoria's representative he was not going to admit, even symbolically, that any other monarch was superior to her.  If nothing else, that could have set an awkward precedent."

Poul Anderson then ended by saying he had no personal objection to such ceremonial gestures: "As a private citizen, I don't face such problems, and would in general go along with whatever forms and titles, such as "your Majesty" are customary.  Partly that's a matter of courtesy, partly respect for the office, especially within one's own country."  In the last part of that sentence Anderson was about to discuss the propriety of showing customary respect for Members of the U.S. Congress.

It was interesting to see a clear example from two of Poul Anderson's books, THERE WILL BE TIME and THE DAY OF THEIR RETURN, of "themes and tropes" carrying over to Stirling's  CONQUISTADOR.  I think this would have happened only if Stirling had agreed with Anderson on the desirability, even necessity, of a society's leaders being accorded some ceremonial respect and deference.  To again quote Anderson's letter of January 28, 1995: "Symbolism IS important.  It may act subtly, but it often has very practical consequences."  That is, I argue the ceremonial accorded a nation's leaders will reflect how that society regards its rulers and how power should be used.  I would even suggest that ceremonial SOFTENS the hard, sharp edges of the state's power, by helping to make sure, at least sometimes, that power is used only in  accordance with fixed laws, rules, and customs.