Tuesday, 24 April 2012

James Blish: Doctor Mirabilis

In his historical novel, Doctor Mirabilis, the science fiction writer, James Blish, writes from within a thirteenth century world-view, as far as possible. Thus, he tells us that, “…unlike the mob…," Roger Bacon’s teacher, Adam Marsh, knew what comets were:
“…bodies of earthly fire which, because of an affinity for one of the fixed stars, had been sublimated and drawn into the sublunar heavens, there to share the motion of the star that had called them up.”1
Although Adam is not “superstitious” about comets, he infers:

“…it followed from this that on the earth there would be an infirmity or corruption in the men, plants and animals over which that star principally ruled.”1
When Roger unwittingly causes an explosion by lighting a gas-filled room with a torch, he thinks that he has encountered a demon. When reading this, we do not accept the demon (natural forces operated even in a period before they were understood) whereas, when reading Blish’s fantasy, Black Easter, we have to accept demons (supernatural beings, if they did exist, would continue to operate even in a period when they are no longer believed in). These two works are in fact perfect antitheses.

Blish explains in a note at the end of Doctor Mirabilis, because he cannot state in the text, that the “sweet vitriol” which induces Roger’s later vision of Armageddon is what we call “ether” but the word “automobile” (self-moving) is used ironically when Roger claims that:

“…it is possible to make a car which would not be drawn by any beast, and would move much faster than they.”2
Like a medieval sf writer, Roger next describes flying machines. Blish makes clear, in another note, that Roger was an Einstein-anticipating theoretician, not merely an imaginative writer. The text demonstrates this with a lengthy quotation from Roger’s work but readers who are not physicists require, and receive, further elucidation. 

Bacon’s period contains other legends - Simon de Monfort, later nicknamed “the father of Parliament," and:

“Last year, a huge pack of robbers took from the granaries the harvested corn of the Roman clergy, throughout most of England. The corn was sold and the money vanished – much, it appears, as largesse to the poor. It’s said this was more of Robin of Sherwood’s doings; the harpers will not let that poor highwayman rest at his crossroads.”3
Blish shows the legends in their historical setting but, according to David Ketterer, he:

“…chose not to make the historical background totally comprehensible. A reader of the three-paragraph Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Henry III, who was king of England during much of Bacon’s lifetime, will have a much clearer idea of what was going on in England than the otherwise ignorant reader of Blish’s book alone.”4

“…nowhere does Blish explain how the French became so influential in thirteenth-century England.” 5

I do not entirely agree with this criticism. Blish’s references to a French evacuation and to “French sedition” are enough to inform the reader that there has been some kind of French incursion.6 The reader may either consult works of reference like the Encyclopedia or, alternatively, simply accept that historical fictions have wider contexts but that what matters here is the consequences for Roger of contemporary political and military conflicts, on this occasion involving a French influence.

Four chapters develop the historical background. I agree with Ketterer that, at least on first reading, these chapters seem like confusing digressions. However, on careful re-reading, I found them informative, evocative and even humorous. We no longer have anything like the medieval church-state conflict. The King is “much vexed” by a Bishop who writes that “…he sought not to give offence…," “…he begged the King’s clemency…," “…he hoped for an audience…," he hoped they were of one mind and “…fifth, that the Bishop was right, and the King wrong."7
The chapter containing this passage describes English public affairs while Roger studies privately in Rome. All events are connected although often we do not see the connections. Some public affairs do directly affect Roger like the death of a Pope who might have sponsored his work. Living in the same country as Roger but in a different century, I try, with others, to influence neither a King nor an Archbishop but a Prime Minister. I empathize both with Roger’s preference for “silence and study” and with Adam Marsh’s attempts to influence the affairs of the kingdom.8
Adam helps de Montfort who introduces Roger to the man who later becomes Pope. The narrative strands converge in the last chapter when Roger, released from prison, learns that:
“…the dead Simon de Montfort had clothed his memory in triumph. Edward the King…had had the excellent good sense to adopt the parliamentary revolutions of his slain antagonist…”9
Roger tries to catch up with de Montfort’s achievements:

“While he could hold a pen, the living might yet outrun the dead; Simon de Montfort might rule a nation – though hardly more than one, for only the English were so phlegmatic of humor as to make practicable the admission of so many plebian voices in the high art of government – but what if Roger Bacon established domain in the minds of man?”10
We inherit parliamentary democracy and experimental science, as well as a tradition of popular resistance associated with Robin Hood. 

One failing in the novel is that the family with whom Roger stays in Rome is not fully realized. Thus, it means little to the reader when Roger, leaving, looks back to see that his host’s daughter is “...silently weeping.”11
Blish vividly evokes not only political conflicts but also the experience of writing:

“…suddenly, the luminous moment when task transforms itself into mystical experience…”12
“His usual failure to be satisfied with any manuscript until he had revised it four or five times consumed huge amounts of parchment, but there was no help for that…”13
This second observation reflects Blish’s own care in writing and also the comprehensive rewriting of Doctor Mirabilis itself. 

Bacon’s legend requires a “…deathbed renunciation of his whole life and purpose…”:14

which the novel presents in these words:

“Now bitterly do I regret that I spent mine wholle lyf in the lists against the ignorant. Enough! Lord Christ enough!”15
Ketterer comments:

“…because this renunciation is not prepared for and is quickly passed over, it is highly likely that the reader will not even notice it…There is, then, little doubt that Roger’s act of renunciation is not endorsed by Blish.”14
This reader did notice the passage but did not recognize it as a renunciation. I took it to mean not that Bacon wished that he had refrained from opposing the ignorant but that he wished that the ignorant had not opposed him. Thus, I took it to mean: “I wish I had not had to spend my life in the lists…” It identifies Bacon as a forerunner of modern science struggling against medievalism. 

While working as a Teacher, I contemplated reading the concluding passage beginning with:
“On the last day of May, Roger cried out…”16

in a School Assembly. Star Trek fans would recognize the name “James Blish." The passage would introduce the pupils to literary beauty, then hit them with the idea of a teacher, a “doctor mirabilis," in the lists against the ignorant. It ends with the word “study," followed by two lines of Latin.

While writing this passage, I quoted Bacon’s “last words” to someone who did recognize them as a renunciation of his life so I may have been alone in misunderstanding them.

  1. James Blish, Doctor Mirabilis (New York: Dodd , Mead & Company, 1971), p. 135.
  2. ibid, p. 226.
  3. ibid, p. 55.
  4. David Ketterer, Imprisoned In A Tesseract: the life and work of James Blish (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1987), p. 195.
  5. ibid, p. 200.
  6. Blish, op. cit., p. 8.
  7. ibid, p. 176.
  8. ibid, pp. 293,330.
  9. ibid, p. 323.
  10. ibid, pp. 325-326.
  11. ibid, p. 210.
  12. ibid, p. 69.
  13. ibid, p. 256.
  14. Ketterer, op. cit., p. 214.
  15. Blish, op. cit., p. 30.
  16. ibid, p. 327.

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