Michael Moorcock, The Stealer of Souls


The book, and the man himself behind it.

Though I hadn’t read the Elric stories in this anthology the first time around–I read the old DAW versions, in order of the internal chronology–I continue this new pattern of rereading stuff. I like it. A good book read at a different point reveals something different.

I don’t know why, fix or six years ago, I decided to read Elric, but it was at the time the first work in the genre that, once started, I actually finished. For whatever reason, likely a piercing nostalgia for my childhood adventures in Dungeons & Dragons, I took Elric up. I’d tried to read Robert Jordan many years earlier when someone I worked with at a bookstore told me how genuinely well-written it was. I was not impressed. Maybe I’d read it differently, but the language seemed artificially archaic and I detected no moral subtlety. I made it through 50 pages at most.

Likely, one of the things that drew me not only into but through the entire Elric series, excepting Moorcock’s more recent novels, was what immediately impressed me again this time around. Moorcock, it bears repeating, came up in a literary world of monthly magazines and fanzines. He had to engage his reader from the start unlike something drafted with the intent to occupy a minimum of three volumes. I have read, as a glance at this “blog” indicates, plenty more since in the genre, but with the possible and for me likely exception of Fritz Leiber, for straight-up page-turnability, Moorcock has no peer.

Likely, as well, I initially chose Moorcock and Elric particularly because of his reputation as a critic of Tolkein. Rereading the work, it’s impressive how, working with the concision pulp literature demands of its authors, Moorcock provides an exceptionally clear and systemic philosophical framework for the narrative. Tolkein’s son–good for him–has milked his father’s background sketches for decades now, and while some point to the volumes Tolkein wrote with no expectation of publication to sketch the backstory to The Lord of the Rings as a virtue, it strikes me as more akin to the shut-in who works, in his dingy apartment, all week preparing volumes for the one evening he will act as Dungeon Master at the Wednesday evening D & D game at the local game shop, volumes the bulk of which will never get pulled out of his backpack but which will be lovingly filed in one of the stacks on his bedroom floor. Moorcock, very much the contrary, drew up a clear sketch, thought about it to see if it worked, and then, knowing it did, got down to the business of writing something he actually wanted to see published.

One thing to note about this particular anthology is that it apparently follows the date of publication rather than the internal chronology I’d first encountered. Stormbringer, in which Elric dies, was, I now know, written quite early, with intervening stories later. The upshot is that while I expected I’d read the first portion of Elric’s story, I got the first bit and then the last. The other volumes in this series I gather fill in the rest. This is fine, but to fact is that I would rather have kept the internal chronology. Bear this in mind if you investigate the work.

As an aside, while Alan Moore‘s introductory essay displays all of the pomposity that mars his own work, I read it and felt that I’d wished he’d become a literary critic rather than a comic book writer. He fully understands both Moorcock’s literary and his social significance, and communicates both objectively and entirely clearly. Moorcock’s essay which follows Moore shows a man less impressed with his own erudition and at the same time clearly more genuinely erudite. Moorcock comes off as someone aware of his talents but much more interested in the work itself than what the work indicates about his own value as a person, an enthusiast in the best sense of the term.

Vine Deloria, God is Red

Read immediately.

Read immediately.

For some reason I don’t understand–maybe I’m getting old, maybe getting content, maybe both–I’ve been rereading books lately, a number at a time, for the first time in my life. I was never one to go back to something a second time. Yet at the moment I not only reread Vine Deloria‘s essential God is Red, but I scored a copy of Michael Moorcock‘s Elric stories from the library. In any event, Deloria is always worth reading and this, of all the books of his I’ve read, is the one that has had the greatest continuing impact on how I imperfectly try to live.

No summaries here, but a description: Deloria compares actually-existing North American Christianity to Native American religious practice and finds the former, not unpredictably but quite profoundly, lacking. Christianity, born in Southwest Asia under the auspices of a Palestinian god, lost, in its movement across continents and most particularly across the Atlantic, any relationship it once bore to a specific people and, more importantly, a specific land. Native practice, on the contrary, is entirely predicated on the relationship of specific people to specific land.

The breaking, in Christianity, of that fundamental relationship, means that the religion, as it actually exists, cannot fulfil any of the functions a religion must: help people live better, be happy, not damage others or our world, etc. Look, he argues, at how Christians have behaved on this land in the last 500 years, to this day. Any argument to the contrary, it seems to me, must abstract itself from historical fact and retreat into abstractions about how the religion, ideally, ought to be. If Christianity worked, as a religion, Christ wouldn’t have come to Mexico on a cannonball.

It was in God is Red, on my first read some eight years ago, that I came across Chief Seattle‘s famous speech of 1854, which Deloria quotes at length:

To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret…(173)

I cannot overstate the impact these two sentences had on my thinking over the next years. Impact, in the most profound sense, because they produced in me an impulse to ask questions about what they mean for me as a person and as a presence on this land. More critically, they pointed the direction to me through which I might deal with the questions of whiteness and settler colonialism without on the one hand white guilt and on the other an imagined objectivity. White guilt is ultimately selfish emotion, and no participant in a process can observe a process objectively. Observation itself is subjective, however comforting it might be for the white thinker to imagine otherwise. Seattle’s words, though, suggested to me that it was by approaching my ancestors in their specificity that I might find a way forward.

I practice Buddhism, and, for those who aren’t practitioners, there is a whole discourse, in North America, dealing with the question of the practice migrating–very literally–from Asia to the Americas, and what that means for the practice and for us as practitioners. The discussion takes many forms, but by and large takes place among educated, well-off white practitioners and posits an “Asian Buddhism” in contrast to a “North American Buddhism.”

Lots of problems. One, any practitioner of Asian ancestry is assumed to fall into the first group and not the second, as if a third-generation Asian-American necessarily would approach the practice in precisely the same way as her or his peasant ancestors of a century ago. There’s also the problem that the “converts” (as opposed to “ancestral practitioners”) are on the one hand assumed to be white and, on the other, assumed to be “true spiritual seekers” in opposition to the “ancestral practitioners” who are simply following, unthinkingly, the superstitions handed to them, much like the most unthinking Christian you could imagine, only in a more inscrutable and exotic kind of way. Needless to say, the entire discussion reproduces societal racism in the microcosm of the community of practitioners.

Many of the efforts to define a “North American” or “Western” Buddhism, both theoretically and in a practical approach, involve mingling Buddhist practice with various aspects of “Western” culture or civilization. Some find in Buddhist practice a complement to psychotherapy. Some, building on the popularity of martial arts or yoga, create a polyglot practice, drawing on a variety of–am I coining a term?–Asianisms, giving the practitioner a feeling of authenticity without challenging the, at best, rudimentary understanding of Asian societies we in the United States tend to have.

To Deloria: reading God is Red some years ago, and much more clearly this time around, it became clear to me that, yes, there will be and must be a particularly North American Buddhism. But, no, it will not be a Buddhism that comes from a facile mingling of disparate or even contradictory cultural practices, nor from picking and choosing elements from the “Western canon” that seem to fit the ideas one finds in the Sutras or other classic Buddhist texts. Here, think Meister Eckhart, William Blake, or Heidegger. These are all interesting writers worth reading (never put the effort into Heidegger myself, though) but a scholastic effort like this will not produce the type of results that Buddhist practice promises, and in any event, we’re talking about European, not North American writers. The sustenance of a settler colony as such is not the goal of any Buddhism I want a part of.

I could go on…

What my read of Deloria suggested to me is that the North American Buddhism we practitioners often bandy about would likely come from building a real, reciprocal relationship to the actual land upon which we practice. Land, in this understanding, isn’t inanimate. It includes all the life we find here. That means, it includes this land’s people. I do not suggest that white Buddhists should start performing sweat lodges. Anecdotally, I stayed a bit at a monastery and overheard some white practitioner talking to a much younger, fairly attractive woman about how he performed “sweat lodges,” and I had an overwhelming urge to go punch him and tell the girl to run. I should have, seriously.

Rather, I suggest that the process of coming to know the land as practitioners involves two things. First, we need to immediately stop harming the land, and that means its people, too. First, do no harm. It’s no good buying a Prius with twice the mileage of your last car if you drive the thing three times as much because you imagine it’s so green. Second, we need to come to know the land. A comment in Deloria, actually from the “The Red and the Black” chapter of Custer Died for Your Sins, suggested that Black people ought indeed to fight for their own land in North America because then they could take “two or three hundred years” to come to know it and form a relationship to it as a people. It seems to me that it will take that long, so we have no time to lose.

Next time you do your walking meditation, do it outdoors, in bare feet.

Michael Moorcock, The Jewel in the Skull

English fantasy and science fiction writer Mic...
A smart cookie with good politics.

I finished the Fritz Leiber book but still had not had my fill of fantasy escapism, so, walking the stacks of the sci-fi section of the library (where fantasy books are kept, not without practical reason) I came to Michael Moorcock, whose Elric books–all of the original stories, six books all told if I remember, though they have been differently anthologized since–I enjoyed immensely and who can be depended on to have some substance in his fantasy.  It’s fantasy, but certainly with Elric not crap fantasy.

Moorcock, I could say, needs no introduction, but a couple of points need to be stressed, and probably I should say that this is the first book of his that’s not about Elric that I read, so I don’t write this as a Moorcock scholar, just as a reader.  In any event, Moorcock conceived of Elric, and as I think of it it seems his larger project of the Multiverse, so-called, as a rebuttal to Tolkien, at least in part.  Moorcock’s politics, and this is the second point worth stressing, are anarchist, which we in the anti-Soviet good old-fashioned revisionist Marxist camp can hang with, for sure–and if you’re in that camp and you can’t hang with anarchists, you need to get over yourself.  Tolkien’s fantasy was the worst kind of Tory in its sensibility and, worse still, prose style.  The Shire is the Village Green without Ray Davies‘ sense of humor (or sense of melody).  The enemy is the modern industrial world, with some Saracens tossed in anachronistically, and the goal is to return the legitimate heir to the throne to his proper seat of monarchical authority.

To be sure, Tolkien’s politics continue to exercise an influence on fantasy as a genre, because what in Tolkien was plot became, in the genre, convention.  Again, my first exposure to Moorcock was Elric, and I loved it.  Elric was a bastard–temperamentally, not literally.  He did things that were not cool to do to other people.  That, plus he was a drug addict.  Things got worse still when he got that sword who–yes, the sword was intelligent–ate people’s souls, which is a way worse thing to do than anything Elric would have come up with on his own.  Less tongue in cheek, though, is that Elric starts the series firmly on the side of Chaos as opposed to Order.  This last is the key to Moorcock’s critique of Tolkien: Chaos, not Evil, Order, not Go(o)d.  Moorcock tossed out Christian morality and replaced it with Balance.  Indeed, by the end of things Elric ends up doing work for Order as the forces of Chaos threaten to overwhelm the Balance.

So, Moorcock, in addition to writing stories that are fun to read–certainly a requirement of the genre–is dealing with serious philosophical, ethical in particular, thinking, and that he does so so seamlessly, that is, without ever having to draw the reader’s conscious attention to a philosophical discussion, is what makes him such a fantastic writer.  He really is good, and is probably the writer, were I to try to convince a skeptic that fantasy books can be “literature,” that I’d point to first.

Having said all this, Hawkmoon is a much more straightforward character, at least so far (I’ve read the first two books of the series) than Elric.  That’s not to say The Jewel in the Skull is not absolutely worth reading if you’re into the stuff.  For one thing (and this is a response, not a review), it meets the fun to read requirement handily.  That’s simple enough, but there is also critique to chew on here.  I won’t rehearse the plot, but the setting is of interest.  The book takes place in the distant, post-nuclear apocalyptic Europe.  The continent is threatened by the nasty empire of Granbretan–Great Britain–with its capital, Londra.  The English are the bad guys, and the hero, Hawkmoon, is a German who ends up defending southern France.  While Britain had begun to dismantle its Empire when the book was written, it still maintained it to a great extent, and it’s significant that Moorcock, born in the first year of the Second World War–1939, not 1941–makes a Hun the good guy.  We British, he says, are the barbaric ones.

I’d note that the plot takes Hawkmoon through Eastern Europe to Western Asia, and there’s none of Tokein’s orientalist nonsense.  These are simply places with peoples and cultures in Moorcock, which is very refreshing to read in a white, British writer writing in the 1960’s, before Edward Said published his book and it became cool for white Leftists to reference it.  Very good for Moorcock.