Love in the Night
What was Hodgson Attempting in his Treatment of the Erotic in THE NIGHT LAND and THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND?
The erotic aspects of Hodgson's work have been universally and justly abused. What on earth was he trying to do?
To properly read The Night Land is to experience one of the strangest blends of love, terror, and profound awe that any book can produce. But it is also to shake one's head at some of the worst "erotic" writing that has ever been perpetrated: writing which apparently combines the worst sugar-sweet Victorian idealism with the philosophy of John Norman's Gor.
It's not just that Hodgson's ideas about male dominance are unfashionable. No doubt it is true that he believed that men should have a higher status than women: but he can hardly be attacked for this. Today's standards are tomorrow's absurdities, and male-dominated societies have been the norm throughout human history.
The problem is that the female lead in The Night Land is a dummy, a picture, an ideal without guts, with no character whatever.
This is the great flaw in the heart of The Night Land, and must be addressed.
In Defence of Naani
A certain amount can be adduced to soften the universal condemnation of Naani (or rather, of Hodgson's treatment of her).
First of all, until she appears she is a marvellously powerful image. As X frequently tells us, the isolation of the Redoubts within the Land is similar, on its own scale, to the isolation of a planet within interstellar space (marvellous metaphor!) The Redoubts are, as it were, little Earths; and the fall of the Lesser Redoubt is the end of a world. While Naani remains a voice in the night, she remains an ideal, and in a literary sense a very powerful one, for she is the ultimate damsel in distress, a woman in the ultimate Trap, because she is trapped in a dying world.
The ending of the first half of The Night Land — with X calling in despair to Naani through the Night from outside the ruined and Monster-haunted Lesser Redoubt, and being answered — must remain as one of the greatest eucatastrophes in all literature.
Secondly — despite showing up badly in comparison to her armed and trained rescuer from the Great Redoubt — Naani is in fact no weakling; she survives a month alone in the Night Land before her rescue, without protective clothing or other equipment, which is no mean feat; she swiftly hardens up to the return journey, a little matter of sixteen hours a day of walking over hard terrain; she works, she thinks, and at several points she fights effectively, though armed with nothing more than a knife.
Thirdly — and perhaps more importantly — one may justly argue that, though Hodgson goes too far, the depiction of Naani as comparatively helpless would be simple realism: and that the modern fashion for showing women in the role of supercompetent warriors is ridiculous, and proceeds from an unholy alliance of juvenile male sexual fantasy and juvenile female feminist dogmatism rather than any sort of respect for women.
Naani may not be the equal of X in a fight, but women are not physically equal to men in hand-to-hand combat, and professional violence, a stupid life-choice for anyone, is doubly so for a woman.
I will elaborate on this last statement in a footnote to this essay.
Despite which, and despite all qualifiers, it must be reiterated that the depiction of Naani in her relationship to X is a total disaster, compounded of shamefaced lubricity, weakly sadistic fantasies of domination, and preposterous idealisation. I will not adduce quotes, which can be found easily enough: in common with most fans of The Night Land I skip those bits.
The problem is not so much that Naani is physically weaker than X; it is, as I said, that she is psychologically weaker as well. Or rather, her personality as a human is simply absent. One may charitably suppose that, when he wrote The Night Land, Hodgson didn't understand women and had no experience of women: and one may add this is ignorance is excusable in a young man, too poor to marry, writing in 1905: but its effect remains.
What Hodgson was Attempting
We can agree that Hodgson failed: but what was he attempting to do?
I believe Hodgson's treatment of the erotic was neither superficial icing nor a clumsy attempt at pornography. I think it was part of a serious attempt to build a theory of the human condition that was consistent with existence in a god-less, and radically Entropic, universe.
Let us briefly reprise Hodgsons' ideas of the human condition:
- — That human beings have an eternal core — a Spirit or Soul — which is by nature immortal, though it can be destroyed and consumed:
- — That human life consists of successive reincarnation of this Spirit within various fleshy tenements. Males are (presumably) always reincarnated as males: females as females.
This is seen in The Night Land, where X and Naani/Mirdath remember cloudy hints from a series of previous lives: for example in this, one of Hodgson's most memorable passages, Naani recalls a past which X does not, a past when the Cities "Moved always to the Westward"
...she did strive with her Memory. But in the end, did fail to come unto aught of clearness, save that she did see, as in a far dream, yet very plain, a great metal roadway, set in two lines that went forever unto the setting Sun; and she then sudden to say that she did see in her memory the Sun, and she to have a strange and troubled amazement upon her. And there did be Cities upon the great road; and the houses did be strange-seeming, and did move forward eternally and at a constant speed; and behind them the Night did march forever; and they to have an even pace with the sun, that they live ever in the light, and so to escape the night which pursued forever...
The picture we get is that of lovers doubtfully meeting and parting, repeatedly, through all eternity: sometimes missing each other and falling into false partnerships with others, but slowly and through many lives achieving a true union of souls.
In The House on the Borderland, Hodgson goes on to envision the continuation of this love after the death of the last life on earth and indeed after the destruction of the physical universe.
"Thus, we looked upon the face of the slumberous deeps, and were alone. Alone, God, I would be thus alone in the hereafter, and yet be never lonely! I had her, and, greater than this, she had me. Aye, aeon-aged me; and on this thought, and some others, I hope to exist through the few remaining years that may yet lie between us.
The Search for Meaning
The human sprit may be immortal, but humanity, in Hodgson's universe, has no Patron. There may be some beneficent "forces" that try to help individual humans, but none of these have divine status or power. Even with their help, survival is a matter of constant struggle and flight.
But survival merely provides the basis of being. Human existence requires meaning, and meaning, in a godless universe, can only be sought in relationships with other human beings.
Within the context of the Fall of a universal darkness, human beings find salvation and paradise in their relationship with each other. Between adults, this means erotic love — a love which Hodgson saw as extending through many lives and (in The House on the Borderland), as finding a fulfilment in eternity.
And is this an utterly stupid belief?
It is certainly false — though it oddly recalls the Omega Point ideas of Barrow and Tipler. But I doubt Hodgson believed it literally. And is it not at least a more realistic and courageous vision than the supernatural religion which postulates an omnipotent and benevolent God?
The Night Land: A Love Tale
In The Night Land, Hodgson let rip. His imagination was absolutely unconstrained by the limits of previous writers. He broke ground that has never been cultivated since.
Unfortunately Hodgson the — probable — virgin also let his erotic imagination rip, with fairly atrocious results.
But if Hodgson's treatment of his theme of eternal, constant, love, is grotesque, the basic idea is not necessarily foolish, cruel or stupid.
It remains to be seen if any other writer can redeem it.
"Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies."
Footnote: A Criticsm of Women Warriors in fantasy
Let's look at The Lord of the Rings. Soon to be a major film, complete, unfortunately, with several more warrior babes than Tolkien originally wrote into it.
Why do we fantasise about fighting women?
Why, for example, is Eowyn's choice (in LOTR) to marry and retire from combat so frequently attacked?
It is not because we have "progressed" in our attitude towards woman in comparison to Tolkien. It is because we are profoundly ignorant of the realities of battle and death. Tolkien knew the trenches of World War I — as Hodgson came to do, later. But our generation has experienced nothing similar. Driven by a mass media profoundly disconnected from reality, we unconsciously imagine battle to be a thrilling experience yielding high status for its participants, not a grim ordeal often culminating in death.
Combat, in fantasy, has been utterly devalued. It is only people who have never experienced war who imagine women — or indeed men — could chose it lightly.
Eowyn is criticised for letting her sex down when, in fact, she consistently behaves in a profoundly sane way: in a way consonant with her happiness, her collective-tribal survival, and her broad reproductive success. She throws herself, admittedly in an unbalanced way, at an alpha male from a tribe allied with hers; bounces back after rejection to devote herself (with great effect) to the defense of her own tribe; and — the instant things seem to be improving — accepts as a mate the next best man, a man only one size smaller all round than her first choice.
Everyone says she should have returned to fight. But why?
What seems to be missing here is the understanding that real war is lethal: and that real life is about love and reproduction, not synthetic violence, or synthetic thrills of any sort. (And there is plenty of love-and-reproduction sex in Tolkien: what is actually missing from his book is not "sex", but pornography.)
What real human woman would, or should, pass up Faramir's bed and life as a princess of Gondor for an orc's knife and six feet of some forgotten battlefield?
"But it's only a fantasy," you say?
Get a life!
© 2001 by Andy Robertson.