C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet: An Early Exercise in Postcolonial Criticism?
Himashree Swargiary is a PhD research scholar at the Department of English, Gauhati University, Guwahati, Assam
It is not known whether C.S. Lewis, the eminent writer of the much-beloved Narnia series ever sympathised with the colonised peoples or simply had postcolonial leanings or affiliations. Therefore, his foray into science-fiction with his Out of the Silent Planet, also known as Malacandra--which clearly harbours characteristic postcolonial tendencies, is somewhat interesting and refreshing—more so because it comes from a white writer belonging to the colonial quarters. Lewis’ observations are remarkably postcolonial in character, which have not received much attention. This may be due to the overwhelming popularity of his Narnia series which definitely surpasses the recognition achieved by his Space Trilogy. This paper explores the latter of which the work under reference is first and attempts to identify the postcolonial significance of Lewis’ work, particularly, in Out of the Silent Planet.
Keywords: Out of the Silent Planet, Postcolonial Criticism.
The usual timeline attached to the beginning of postcolonial criticism is during the late 1970’s, when postcolonial theory and criticism began to gain ground and momentum as a distinct academic area for study and research. Finding what has now become the recognisable and standard tropes of postcolonial criticism in Lewis’ work (first published in 1938), is therefore striking. It is noteworthy that Malacandra and its two sequels, which make up the Space Trilogy, were written and published during the war period, and also significantly, when anti-colonial movements all over the colonised parts of the globe were increasingly gaining predominance and being formalised and consolidated. The novels read like allegories that carry a tacit critique of the colonial processes all throughout, especially the first instalment.
Out of the Silent Planet, or Malacandra, tells the story of Elwin Ransom, a philologist teaching at the University of Cambridge, who is forcefully dragged into an interplanetary voyage to Mars.
It features Weston, a physicist-who charts up these travels and their logistics, and Devine, who was a former schoolmate of Ransom and presently in league with the physicist’s secret space projects. These two characters are set against the protagonist Ransom and they are the ones who kidnap him off to Mars due to a silly misunderstanding that the Martians require a hostage from earth to be given over to them. Lewis makes Weston and Devine’s imperialist and colonialist streaks clear from the beginning of the novel. The latter is known among his acquaintances for making repeated references to the classic “white man’s burden” and a host of other related associations, and also for his greed. Together with Weston and his xenophobic inclinations, the two make up exemplary icons of the colonial banner. In the preface to the novel, Lewis acknowledges his indebtedness to science-fiction pioneers like H. G. Wells for the influential and imaginative The War of the Worlds, which inspired his own work. But Lewis reverses the familiar plot of alien invasion in his extraterrestrial fiction by placing humans as the potential aggressors.
It has been established that the colonial impulse is predominantly capitalist. Aijaz Ahmed seconds this opinion by highlighting the fact of European commercial developers ultimately becoming colonial administrators. Random observations in the novel like the shape of the space-ship being designed to carry loads of cargo on the return voyage, and Devine’s remarks like “there’s more to Malacandra than that”—barely disguising the planned loot and extraction of the planet’s resources—all reflect and display the motive-force of colonialism which prioritises and concentrates on profit-making. The usual colonial rhetoric of “blessings of civilizations” upon the “natives” or indigenes as mentioned by Devine, fall flat and hollow before this primary interest, serving more as means to an end. A Martian reports that the Thulcandrians, or the earthlings (Devine and Weston) were busy “taking sun’s blood wherever they could find it in the streams” (122)—‘sun’s blood’ being the Martian terms for gold. Lewis thus puts up a microcosmic picture of the typical colonial operation of exploiting the colonised’s portion.
Lewis also captures the condescending gaze of the coloniser in the novel. Devine addresses the Martians as “brutes” and makes up a fearful and repulsive image of the inhabitants before Ransom. Weston’s clinical attitude transpires in his anthropological interest upon the same—mirroring the objectifying filter of the coloniser, as Devine reveals his plans to eventually experiment on them, using them as test-subjects. The “otherness” of these others are magnified to Ransom who prepares himself to be horrified and disgusted with every contact with them. The colonial habit or practice of constructing inversed and derogatory stereotypes of the colonised ‘other’ thus gets invoked in the novel through Weston and Devine. Though they miserably failed to carry out the colonial vision of dispossessing the natives, their coloniser’s eyes had a ready justification for the extermination or genocide—i.e., the supposed inferiority of the indigenes. Pre-packaged dichotomies that the coloniser habitually uses in order to gain an ideological upper hand against the colonised, thus gets a full play in the characters of Weston and Devine.
It recalls the seminal work by Edward Said-- Orientalism (1978), which exposes the epistemological bias of the coloniser/European toward the colonised/non-European, aimed at establishing hegemony over the latter, the “other”. Said dwells on the processes involved in the creation of such binaries as he writes that, “a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’)...When one uses categories like Oriental and Western as both the starting and the end points of analysis, research, public policy...the result is usually to polarize the distinction” [Said 1978: 45]. Ania Loomba reiterates this point when she writes in her Colonialism/Postcolonialism that, “Anthropological studies rested upon the assumption that non-European peoples were backward, primitive, quaint...always different from the products of Western civilization. Historical scholarship claimed ‘objectivity’ while being riddled with cultural bias, and its crude separation of ‘fact’ from fiction precluded its ability to probe the ideologies that informed Western scholarship’s claim to ‘truth-telling’...cultural generalisations masqueraded as ‘aesthetic taste’” (Loomba 46). Lewis, through the medium of science-fiction, dramatises and plainly reflects all these processes and drives home the central argument of Said’s thesis in Orientalism by showing how the knowledge of the other can never be truly objective or innocent, as there is an insistence on establishing and maintaining an unequal relationship from the outset.
A deliberate misrepresentation of the inhabitants of Malacandra or Mars before the horrified Ransom—of the ‘sorns’, the ‘hrossa’, the ‘pfifltrigg’—as untamed, dangerous, uncivilised, grotesque, ugly, unintelligent, primitive, etc., gives the readers a toned-down idea and allegory of the typical colonial routine of spawning and investing on polarisations of a homogenous nature. Misconceptions thus abound and create problems that could be easily avoided. Lewis seems to hint at the coloniser’s insecurity before the “other” by showing the former’s persistence on holding onto the gridlock or matrix of unequal terms that proves them to be the superiors and thereby in control. Loathing for the Martians already overwhelms Ransom even before he has met any one of them as he imagines “uncouth monstrosities”, as described him by his ship-mates. One can readily recognise the familiar colonial discourse evidently at work here. But experience proves otherwise, as Ransom after having landed on Mars, begins to get impressed in spite of himself. Instead of decrepit surroundings at the mercy of the supposedly asinine Martians, Ransom finds Malacandra unexpectedly beautiful—
But something he learned. Before anything else he learned that Malacandra was beautiful; and he even reflected how odd it was that this possibility had never entered into his speculations about it. The same peculiar twist of imagination which led him to people the universe with monsters had somehow taught him to expect nothing on a strange planet except rocky desolation or else a network of nightmare machines. (Lewis 42)
After meeting the first group of the inhabitants, the ‘sorns’, Ransom realises that they were quite unlike what he assumed them to be, going by the depictions of his kidnappers which framed them as untrustworthy and prone to violence. He later in fact, comes to rely on the quiet, “wizard-like” wise sorns of few words, for a very important assignation. Ransom undergoes mental corrections of such manner repeatedly as each group of Martian natives have him adjust his ill-informed ideas about them, as they turn out to be erudite, dignified, more enlightened and perceptive--opposed to the sabotaged images of them that were supplied to him. He is the only one who actually interacts with the natives on equal terms or footing, not with the structured gaze of the coloniser decreeing authority and demanding submission. He stumbles upon the ‘hrossa’ next-a community of poets and singers-and the philologist in him is exhilarated to learn about their sophisticated use of language and immersion into poetry, and their extensive oral traditions. He is relieved by the friendship that the hrossa extend to him and goes on to live with them for the most part of his stay on Malacandra—an experience which was revelatory in many aspects and which helps Ransom overcome all the colonial prejudices installed in him.
He learns the intricate Malacandrian language from them and is able to navigate his way through everything thereafter without any misconceptions. He finally comes across the ‘pfifltrigg’ --a community of engineers, miners and architects, interested in building complex designs and working with mineral resources—a laconic and super-intelligent group. Ransom is thus taken aback by the variety of “rational species”, hyper-intelligent inhabitants in Malacandra--something he did not expect as the company of the wannabe-colonisers with whom he travelled precluded this possibility. This denudes again the colonial convention of ascribing irrationality or at best, an inferior intellect or low cognitive ability to the colonised, which is done in order to maintain the binary divide. We find in this regard that “the real revolution in Ransom’s understanding of the ‘hrossa’ began when he had learned enough of their language to attempt some satisfaction of their curiosity about himself. In answer to their questions he began by saying that he had come out of the sky. Hnohra immediately asked from which planet or earth (handra).
Ransom, who had deliberately given a childish version of the truth in order to adapt it to the supposed ignorance of his audience, was a little annoyed to find Hnohra painfully explaining to him that he could not live in the sky because there was no air in it; he might have come through the sky but he must have come from a ‘handra’ – “He was quite unable to point Earth out to them in the night sky. They seemed surprised at his inability, and repeatedly pointed out to him a bright planet low on the Western horizon...He was surprised that they selected a planet instead of a mere star and stuck to their choice” (67). It is admirable on Lewis’ part to deflate and puncture characteristic myths associated with and cultivated against the colonised. Ransom finds that the natives are not only rationally superior, but are also morally excellent--never fighting, coveting, exploiting or exterminating each other, but keeping peaceful and respectful relations with each other. He realises the presence of a “civilized religion” in their midst--an organised spiritual system that everyone adheres to. He is taught about the term ‘hnau’, which signifies a morally and rationally sound being. ‘Bent hnau’ is therefore someone who falls short of this whole. We see that Ransom does not want to initiate his Martian friends about “human wars and industrialisms”, realising that he belonged to the group of ‘bent hnau’, constantly restless with tussles of power, greed and the then contemporary colonial agendas of occupation and profit. Then there comes the episode when the hross ‘Hyoi’ is killed by Weston. Weston and Devine were looking for Ransom to apprehend him and finally find him in the midst of a group of hrossa. The former shoots at the group without any qualms of conscience in order to collect Ransom without attempting any dialogue beforehand. This shows that the physicist does not uphold their sanctity of life—much like the arrogant coloniser who treats the colonised subject as sub-human, allocating despicable and burdensome jobs to one, and even using one as canon-fodder for wars and battles. The deafening sound of the rifle is described as a “civilized sound...even European. It was the crack of an English rifle” (81).
It speaks volumes about the way in which European mercenaries and administrators went about colonizing the world. The ‘rifle’ or the ‘gun’ has been seen as an iconic emblem of colonialism, with whose aid the aggressors re-ordered the colonised peoples. It is a potent symbol of power and authority, something which can produce “lightning bolts”--as mentioned in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and wield the subjects’ submission and obedience. We find Ransom’s helpless, desperate, but passionate attempt at apology after the cold murder—“ ‘I should have told you. We are all a bent race. We have come here to bring evil upon Malacandra. We are only half-hnau--Hyoi...’. his speech died away into the inarticulate. He did not know the words for ‘forgive’, or ‘shame’, or ‘fault’, hardly the word for ‘sorry’. He could only stare into Hyoi’s distorted face in speechless guilt” (81). After this tragic incident, Ransom makes his way to the tutelary spirit of Malacandra, known as Oyarsa—a meeting he procrastinated a tad too long. Before Oyarsa, Ransom lays bare Weston and Devine’s chief and ultimate intentions of a systematic dispossession of the spaces that the indigenes dwell in, a genocide if necessary, in order to make way for the settlers, or the humans in this case, and of wealth-extraction. The former scenario brings to mind the forceful relocation, deportation or displacement and uprooting of indigenous peoples from their ancestral places, as in the case of the Native Americans and the Aborigines of Australia, by the respective colonial aggressors. Ransom says about Weston to Oyarsa that he “means evil to you. I think he would destroy all your people to make room for our people; and then he would do the same with other worlds again” (123).
Lewis then, was well aware and conscious of the historical processes of colonial occupation and is clearly vexed with the proceedings, as voiced by the incredulous Oyarsa who asks about Weston, “is he wounded in the brain?”. Wholesale expropriation of the colonised peoples’ lands was a regular feature of settler-colonialism and it involved an extensive series of violation of fundamental human rights—an unapologetic infringement of the basic rights of life, liberty and security. Liquidation of natives thus consisted one of the bloodiest chapters of colonial history. The rationale deployed for the extermination of the indigenes, springs from the same ideological pretexts with which the coloniser went about confiscating goods and lands in the first place. Ethnic cleansing is justified stating the presumably inferior groups’ incapability, inefficiency, weakness, etc. Cruel and evidently criminal deeds like these have been disguised and presented in documents and records as a necessary, unavoidable civilizational exercise by the colonisers (sometimes, even omitted altogether). The abiding European myths of ‘terra nullius’ or ‘empty land’, have been propelling such large-scale enterprises. And annexing territories satisfy the coloniser’s obvious motive of garnering more capital. And his approach to land-acquisition in these instances has been downright savage. It is apparent that Lewis is against such overbearing colonial practices, seeing the stance that he takes in his fiction—vocal against the coloniser’s ruthless belligerence.
The great assembly at Oyarsa’s place after the murder of Hyoi—of the Malacandrian inhabitants, the ‘sorns’, ‘hrossa’ and ‘pfifltriggi’, and the perpetrators Weston and Devine with Ransom as the mediator/translator—is gathered to investigate the attack on the unsuspecting natives. Lewis here delves again on some characteristic colonial attitudes reflected in the answers and statements of Weston and Devine. When Oyarsa, who for the most part was invisible to the naked eyes, asks them why they killed his ‘hnau’, Devine exclaims, “Don’t tell me they have got a loud-speaker”. To this Weston replies that the natives have resorted to the primitive art of ventriloquism which according to him is “quite common among the savages. The witch-doctor or medicine-man pretends to go into a trance and he does it. The thing to do is to identify the medicine-man and address your remarks to him wherever the voice seems to come from; it shatters his nerve and shows you’ve seen through him. Do you see any of the brutes in a trance?” (126). These remarks clearly show the bigotry and the false sense of superiority of the colonial apologists. Weston and Devine try to read the situation like any typical colonial administrator, stressing the superstitious and uneducated ways of the native. The scientist then zeroes in one of the Martians nearby, who he supposes to be the witch-doctor, and says, “Why you take our puff-bangs away? We very angry with you. We not afraid” (127).
He continues to communicate and threaten in this needlessly ridiculous manner—“You let us go, then we talkee-talkee...You think we no power, think you do all you like. You no can...You no do what I say...blow you all up—Pouff! Bang!” (127). This is a readily identifiable instance of the coloniser talking to the ‘unlearned’ natives in broken forms. And the threat that hangs in these statements is also a part of the characteristic colonial jargon. Weston gives the justification—“You don’t understand how to deal with natives. One sign of yielding and they’ll be at our throats. The only thing is to intimidate them” (127). No attempt is made to understand the ‘natives’ or sincerely communicate with them, but establishing some sort of authority over them seems to be first and foremost concern. After the intimidation, Weston tries to pacify the Martians by saying that if they obey him and co-operate with him, they will be rewarded with pretty things—only to be met with hysterical laughter. He does not give up carrying on this push-and-pull tactic though, as according to him “he knew he was following the most orthodox rules for frightening and then conciliating primitive races” (128). But then again, it is all in vain. The writer mentions that these strenuous efforts seemed to intend to entertain an infant. And because it does not work, Weston hastily concludes that “they have even less intelligence than we supposed”. What significantly transpires in this episode is the coloniser’s common habit of attributing infantilism to the “other” or the “native”—The successive turns at terrifying or intimidating and then conciliating the indigenes on the part of Weston, demonstrates these colonial manoeuvres. It makes the intensely mortified Ransom retort and ask him to stop treating them like children. The colonial prejudice of considering the “other” subject as half-wit, backward or mentally immature/underdeveloped, is thus shown up dramatically.
Infantilising the indigene, the colonial ‘other’, always already belittles them, their mental capacities or capabilities, their structures of knowledge and thought, their philosophies and art, their approach to problems and problem-solving skills. It again manifests what Abdul JanMohamed calls the ‘Manichaen allegory’—which consists the untraversable, unbridgeable binary divide and opposition between races, oppositions which sustain and are at the heart of the colonial enterprise. Loomba says in this regard that this ‘othering’ in European colonialist thought, with their respective “oppositions are crucial, not only for creating images of non-Europeans, but also for constructing a European self. Therefore many anti-colonial and postcolonial critiques are preoccupied with uncovering the way in which they work in colonialist representations” (Loomba 91). Colonial reason simply tends to read the differences of the ‘other’ in terms of weaknesses or lacks/deficiencies—truncating and judging mostly everything pertaining to them in the negative scale. It pre-empts and forestalls the possibility that the colonised peoples might be inheritors and descendants of sophisticated cultures, legacies, civilizations with customs and traditions unique to them. Any difference from the norm set up by colonial thought is therefore simply written off as ‘childish’, ‘callow’, ‘puerile’ and ‘backward’ or ‘primitive’. Chauvinistically infantilising the natives also ratifies their missionary sub-agenda of imparting ‘civilization’ to them. Seeing and treating them as juveniles satisfies the coloniser’s will to power, control and domination, with the right to demand subservience and obedience, and decree laws and punishments as he deems fit. Adulthood thereby becomes a domain belonging only to the colonial masters. The ideology of infantilisation thus implies a hierarchical power relationship between the adult-coloniser and the child-native.
Lewis’ narrative takes the readers after these events to what can be called the Malacandrian equivalent of the funeral or final rites of the dead. After the great masses sing eulogies to the dead and offer their respects and well-wishes, the body is dissolved or evaporated in an instant with a blinding light emanating or emitted from what appeared to be a glass or crystal. This horrifies Devine who warns Weston of this “trick”. He says to the latter, “Steady, Weston. These devils can split the atom or something like it. Be careful what you say to them” (Lewis 133). This comes to read as if the coloniser can’t conceive of how the natives happen to possess a superior technology or art, because he cannot overcome his conviction of the inferiority of the ‘other’. And the stock demonization and unpredictability of the natives accompany his caveat. This familiar colonial convention was seen at work from the beginning of the narrative when the Martian indigenes were imagined as horrific monstrosities even before a proper contact—assumed to be probably given to violence on the slightest provocation, without any recognisable moral fence to restrain their ferocity or savagery.
It recalls JanMohamed’s ‘Manichean allegory’, according to which racial differences also translate “into moral and even metaphysical difference”. Such representations feed off the popular colonial reports and accounts of cannibals and similar native groups. The fact that Weston and Devine thought that the Martian natives required of them a human sacrifice (for which they brought in Ransom) testifies to the popularity of the image of the ‘savage other’ in typical colonial imagination, as this magnifies their own ‘civility’. Coming back to Devine’s warning to Weston to be careful, the latter responds saying, “So you’ve gone native too?”. This remark reveals the coloniser’s profound fear of succumbing to the natives—of getting decivilised by considering and giving the native-other an equal footing and eventually adopting or embracing their lifestyle(s) or philosophies—an affront and abomination to the colonial mentality. The phraseology of ‘gone/going native’ gained currency from Joseph Conrad’s highly acclaimed Heart of Darkness mentioned earlier—another work which transcribes the colonial context-- the schemes and proceedings involved, stripped of all glamour and claims to glory (on the part of the coloniser). The interrogation of Weston in the great assembly thus continues and he is asked by Oyarsa as to why he intended evil to the Malacandrians. Weston invokes crude evolutionary logic and arguments in his reply, stressing on the inferiority of the Martian-natives who are supposed to naturally give way before a superior race or species. He says,
Your tribal life with its stone-age weapons and bee-hive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilization—with our science, medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time. Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower. (Lewis 135)
This response reads like the language of a colonial apologist, legitimising or exonerating with cold, scientific air, the need for systematic dispossession or genocide of the incompetent natives, on progressive grounds. Through this novel we can thus see how Lewis deconstructs the politics at work behind the colonial ideologues that back up their repression of the colonised ‘other’. It is therefore a polemical work in its own right, worth a read for postcolonial critics. Though not known to be professedly anti-colonial, Lewis’ stance is not neutral and his work contains many postcolonial ingredients. It is therefore hoped that this reading of Lewis in a postcolonial light will open further avenues for study in the considered area.
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