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Meditation in Literature: Olaf Stapledon

Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950), one of the most important figures in science fiction, taught philosophy and psychology at the University of Liverpool. Like his contemporaries, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Stapledon explored his ideas in novels of the imagination. While writing, Stapledon wasn't aware that science fiction existed, though he became a formative influence on the genre. His greatest works, "Last Men and First Men" (1930) and "Star Maker" (1937), he termed "histories of the future." In "Last Men and First Men," Stapledon tells the comprehensive story of humanity from the present time until a future two billion years from now. "Star Maker" takes on a broader scope — the history and future of the universe itself. The science fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson, eloquently describes these two books:

There is nothing else in all of literature like Stapledon's two cosmological novels. Every few pages contain all the material of an ordinary science fiction novel, condensed to something like prose poetry; and their profound view of our place in the scheme of things is a joy to experience.

At the core Stapledon's works focus on moral, spiritual, and religious evolution. In his future histories, he measures the success and failure of a species by the degree to which it attains an awareness of an underlying unity in the workings of the universe. In "Star Maker," which Arthur C. Clarke called, "Probably the most powerful work of imagination ever written," one of the many creatures Stapledon documents is the plant-men. Half-human, half-vegetative in nature, they are mobile workers at night, then sink roots and rest by day. Stapledon describes their resting period as a rejuvenating, meditative state of communion. The following excerpt contains Stapledon's literary description of their meditation, and a feeling for the moral purpose in his writing:

Briefly, the mentality of the plant-men in every age was an expression of the varying tension between the two sides of their nature, between the active, assertive, objectively inquisitive, and morally positive animal nature and the passive, subjectively contemplative, and devotedly acquiescent vegetable nature. It was of course through animal prowess and practical human intelligence that the species had long come to dominate its world. But at all times this practical will had been tempered and enriched by a kind of experience which among men is very rare. Every day, throughout the ages, these beings had surrendered their feverish animal nature not merely to unconscious or dream-racked sleep, such as animals know, but to the special kind of awareness (we learned) belongs to plants. Spreading their leaves, they had absorbed directly the essential elixir of life which animals receive only at second hand in the mangled flesh of their prey. Thus they seemingly maintained immediate physical contact with the source of all cosmical being. And this state, though physical, was also in some sense spiritual. It had a far-reaching effect on all their conduct. If theological language were acceptable, it might well be called a spiritual contact with God. During the busy night-time they went about their affairs as insulated individuals, having no present immediate experience of their underlying unity; but normally they were always preserved from the worst excesses of individualism by memory of their day-time life.

[Star Maker, p. 118.]

On the following page, Stapledon further describes the quality and content of this meditation:

And this experience afforded him an enduring ecstasy whose quality was almost sexual, an ecstasy in which subject and object seemed to become identical, an ecstasy of subjective union with the obscure source of all finite being. In this state the plant-man could meditate upon his active, night-time life, and could become aware, far more clearly by day, of the intricacies of his own motives. In this day-time mode he passed no moral judgements on himself or others. He mentally reviewed every kind of human conduct with detached contemplative joy, as a factor in the universe. But when night came again, bringing the active nocturnal mood, the calm, day-time insight into himself and others was lit with a fire of moral praise and censure.

[Star Maker, p. 119.]

March 23, 2005 | Culture | Permalink


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