Susan A. Anderson received her BA. from Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and her MA. in English from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in 1972. She is currently teaching at the Paul D. Camp Community College, Franklin, Virginia.
The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 123-128, Vol. 5, Number 2, Summer, 1975. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Stapledon brings together basic concerns for a viable community and a metaphysic, as his narrator questions the ultimate meaning of the only good he is able to perceive — the symbiotic love of two human beings.
W. Olaf Stapledon, Ph.D. (1886-1950), a British philosopher and writer of science fiction, combines his interests in philosophy and fiction with an humanitarian concern for the future of mankind in his major science fiction novel, Star Maker (1937). In the preface Stapledon states that he is writing out of a feeling of impending crisis. Seeing civilization polarized against barbarism as the world is poised for war, he calls for a synthesis of man in community and of communal man to “the dread but vital whole of things” (SM 250) in worship of the spirit. Man’s lack of community and lack of a metaphysic are the problems which he believes have created such a sense of impending crisis. He hopes that the Star Maker may in some way be relevant to the cultivation of these two essentials for man’s peaceful and meaningful survival. His philosophical interests and preferences, both social and metaphysical, become his basis for establishing a mythic community and metaphysics in Star Maker. These preferences are essentially Marxist in social thought and Whiteheadian in metaphysics.
Stapledon’s philosophical presumptions are clearly expressed in his two volume work, Philosophy and Living (1939).1 In social philosophy he rejects both the supreme individuality in democratic systems and the herd mentality in socialistic thought. Stapledon believes both must be present on an equal basis and calls for a system of personality-in-community, an ambiguous system of unity in diversity — an organic view of society. He rejects metaphysical idealism which denies the validity of the material aspects of reality, just as he rejects dialectical materialism in its totally mechanistic form, as it denies the spiritual aspects of reality. Stapledon lends most credence to the Marxists in social philosophy, if they recognize the spirituality which Stapledon sees as an essential aspect of their thought.
In Philosophy and Living Stapledon calls Whitehead’s thought “the most brilliant, most comprehensive, most significant, though also most difficult, metaphysical system of our time” (PL 395). He emphasizes both the difficulty and reward of Whiteheadian thought:
My own experience in reading Whitehead has been rather like that of an explorer groping his way through dense jungle. Now and then he emerges upon some bare mountaintop, to be rewarded by a panorama that embraces seemingly a whole virgin continent, the home perhaps, of a future civilization. (PL 389)
Stapledon’s analogy between the thought of Whitehead and the explorer’s panoramic view of possible future civilizations echoes the basic motif of Star Maker. Here Stapledon’s narrator perceives the panorama of not only a continent or a future civilization, but of all the cosmos, from its inception to its utopian culmination, and finally to its demise.
In the opening pages of Star Maker the narrator, a quiet, introspective, suburban Londoner, stands on a hill overlooking his city at night, oppressed by the “tumultuous and bitter currents of the world” (SM 255). Gazing upon his own home, he perceives goodness in the midst of such bitterness and discord. The positive relationship of the narrator and his wife, which he describes as an “intricate symbiosis” (SM 255), is tested in the mind of the narrator against the larger construct of the world and the universe. Stapledon thus brings together his basic concerns for a viable community and a metaphysic as his narrator questions the ultimate meaning of the only good he is able to perceive — the symbiotic love of two human beings.
Alone on the hill, with the dark sky and the stars above and the discordant world below, the narrator sinks more deeply into a contemplative state and, much like Stapledon’s description of the Whiteheadian explorer, proceeds on a panoramic exploration, leaving his mountain top in a flight of imagination while staring at the stars. During this flight of imagination he finds himself in the grips of an inexplicable religious experience, praising and worshipping the maker of the stars above. This description closely parallels Whitehead’s account of the power and nature of religious experience:
The power of God is the worship he inspires. That religion is strong which in its ritual modes of thought evokes an apprehension of the commanding vision. The worship of God is not a rule of safety — it is an adventure of the spirit, a flight after the unattainable. (SMW 276)
The narrator’s exploration of the depths of his imagination transforms him into a disembodied consciousness which soars away from the earth. His explorations are indeed a flight after the unattainable, for he visits a multiplicity of worlds, galaxies, and universes, experiences the entire temporal span of the cosmos, and apprehends the divine principle that underlies the cosmos — the Star Maker. He is able to comprehend worlds or universes that vary greatly from his own only when able to establish a mental communion with an hospitable inhabitant of the area he is exploring. As he continues in his exploration these hospitable aliens remain in mental communion with the narrator and eventually compose a communal “I” which becomes the persona of the novel, until the initial narrator’s eventual return to earth. As beings of higher complexity are integrated into the communal “I,” it is better able to comprehend galaxies and universes widely divergent in kind and complexity from those more similar to the earth (SM 298-300, 310f, 342-45).
All of the worlds visited by the communal “I” early in the novel are in the throes of a social crisis caused by a lack of communal spirit. However, as the lucidity of the communal “I” deepens, it is able to apprehend universes in which this crisis is avoided, at least for a time. These universes are all based on a social system of symbiotic unity which parallels the relationship of the initial narrator and his wife. Although these worlds also eventually perish, they do so with a sense of joy and peace as they realize that they have reached the highest level of spiritual and social development of which they are capable and perish with a sense of purposefulness. Thus Stapledon is able to provide a tentative solution for the lack of community which he sees as a threat to man’s survival. His symbiotic communities are the metaphoric concretion of his philosophical conception of personality-in-community — his spiritualized Marxism. Thus, he has metaphorically established his social philosophy in Star Maker.
However, Stapledon has not yet made concrete those aspects of Whitehead’s metaphysics that he so admired in Philosophy And Living. By establishing a metaphoric adaptation of certain aspects of Whitehead’s thought, he is able to integrate into his novel the second great need of modern man — a viable metaphysics.
Stapledon concretizes his criticism of the classical dualism in most philosophies by employing a cosmology strikingly Whiteheadian in nature. Whitehead’s organic theory of nature is used metaphorically by Stapledon as he breaks down our traditional conceptions of mind and matter. For example, both the stars and planets in Star Maker embody consciousness, emotions, and spirituality. They are, in fact, more highly developed spiritually and mentally than man himself. A symbiotic civilization of fish and crab-like creatures has also reached a higher level of inner awareness than man. Even lower forms, such as the primitive nebulae from which the more advanced stars evolved, are vested with a very primitive form of consciousness (SM 402).
The evolutionary aspects of Whiteheadian thought permeate the entire scope of Stapledon’s Star Maker. The cosmic “I” itself evolves as more fully developed perspectives are integrated into this disembodied viewpoint. The civilizations, galaxies, and universes the cosmic “I” perceives are in different stages of evolution. The process of life in general is described as an evolutionary waxing and waning. Thus Stapledon’s cosmic “I” can say:
Each individual spirit, in nearly all these worlds, attained at some point in life some lowly climax of awareness and of spiritual integrity, only to sink slowly or catastrophically back into nothingness. Or so it seemed. As in my own world, so in all others, lives were spent in pursuit of shadowy ends that remained ever lust around the corner. There were vast tracts of boredom and frustration, with here and there some rare bright joy. (SM 301).
The negative aspects of this description of life closely parallel that of Whitehead’s in Science and the Modern World. However, Whitehead sees mans religious experience as providing a stabilizing unity and teleology to an otherwise largely banal existence.
The immediate reaction of human nature to the religious vision is worship. Religion has emerged into human experience mixed with the crudest fancies of barbaric imagination. Gradually, slowly, steadily the vision recurs in history under nobler form and with clearer expression. It is the one element in human experience which persistently shows an upward trend. It fades and then recurs. But when it renews its force, it recurs with an added richness and purity of content. The fact of religious vision, and its history of persistent expansion, is our one ground of optimism. Apart from it, human life is a flash of occasional enjoyments lighting up a mass of pain and misery, a bagatelle of transient experience. (SMW 276)
Stapledon also sees that the development of a religious sense is necessary in Star Maker. Throughout the early portions of Star Maker the cosmic mind is unable to accept the perpetual perishing of civilizations, this waxing and waning nature of reality. Star Maker, the divine principle of the novel, is hence viewed as evil. However, when Star Maker is fully conceived in the novel — the universe ceases to seem meaningless, but is seen as in the grips of an evolutionary creativity in which change is necessary for growth.
Whitehead’s earliest description of God as the limiting factor in the universe which channels the flux of creativity to achieve beauty or harmony (SMW 255-57) is evident in this account of the Star Maker:
The spirit brooded. Though infinite and eternal, it had limited itself with finite and temporal being and it brooded on a past that pleased it not. It was dissatisfied also with its own passing nature. Discontent goaded the spirit into fresh creation. (SM 407)
This single brief description of the creative limitation of Star Maker embodies two other attributes Whitehead eventually incorporates more fully into his concept of God: the divine dipolarity and the creative evolutionism of the creator as well as the creature.
Stapledon explicitly describes Star Maker as dipolar — both primordial and consequent. The infinite and eternal aspects of Star Maker correspond to Whitehead’s primordial nature of God (PR 521-23), and his finitude and temporality parallel Whitehead’s consequent nature of God (PR 523). Stapledon refers to Star Maker as “twiminded” (SM 419) and speaks of his “twimindedness” (SM 420). “In my dream, the Star Maker himself, as eternal and absolute spirit, timelessly contemplated all his works; but also as the finite mode of the absolute spirit, he bodied forth his creations one after the other” (SM 413). Stapledon again emphasizes the dual nature of Star Maker as both eternal and temporal, when his cosmic “I” describes its meeting with Star Maker:
I was indeed confronted by the Star Maker, but the Star Maker was now revealed as more than the creative and therefore finite spirit. He now appeared as the eternal and perfect spirit which comprises all things and all times, and contemplates timelessly the infinitely diverse host which it comprises. (SM 429)
Star Maker, like Whitehead’s God, is himself in the grips of evolutionary creativity (PR 527). “According to the strange dream or myth which took possession of my mind, the Star Maker in his finite and creative mode was actually a developing, an awakening spirit” (SM 413). “Again and again, according to my myth, the Star Maker learned from his creature and thereby outgrew his creature, and craved to work upon an ampler plan” (SM 414).
Because both Whitehead’s and Stapledon’s Gods are affected by their own creations, learning from their creations, nothing of value in the universe is lost. It is prehended by succeeding creations, incorporated into them, and therefore achieves what Whitehead refers to as “objective immortality” (PR 327). The cosmic “I” no longer sees the perpetual perishing of worlds or universes, or even itself, as ultimate evil, but instead cries out in adoration to its creator: “It is enough to have been created, to have embodied for a moment the infinite and tumultuously creative spirit. It is infinitely more than enough to have been used, to have been the rough sketch for some perfected creation. And so there came upon me a strange peace and a strange joy” (SM 410). This same attitude is held by those worlds who have developed a high degree of lucidity as they recognize their own perishing (SM 317, 268, 385).
The cosmic “I” thus perceives that love is not the aspiration of the ultimate, as a loving creator could not allow the destruction of that which he loves. Stapledon’s persona reflects about the moment of ultimate confrontation with Star Maker: “For I have been confronted not by a welcoming and kindly love, but by a very different spirit. And at once I knew that the Star Maker had made me not to be his bride, nor yet his treasured child, but for some other end. . . . The Star Maker neither loved nor had need of love” (SM 409). This “other end” is that of evolutionary process and creativity aimed toward a perfected future. Whitehead also believes that love is not the ultimate value. He, in fact, criticizes Christianity for its emphasis on love:
It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present. (PR 520)
Not love, but harmony and peace are the ultimate goals or values in both Stapledon’s and Whitehead’s evolutionary cosmology (AI 367). In Stapledon’s Star Maker all universes that have achieved an appropriate level of lucidity achieve such a feeling of harmony, peace, and even joy despite their own impending dissolution.
Such as it is, the spirit that we have achieved is fair; and it is indestructibly woven into the tissue of the cosmos. We die praising the universe in which at least such an achievement as ours can be. We die knowing that the promise of further glory outlives us in other galaxies. We die praising the Star Maker, the Star Destroyer. (SM 363)
As the initial narrator disengages himself from the cosmic “I” and returns to the hillside outside London his earlier disillusion is replaced by a similar peace, “I singled out my window. A surge of joy, of wild joy swept me like a wave. Then peace” (SM 430). They have all played their part in contributing to the ultimate goal of the Star Maker and have therefore achieved purposefulness
The goal which the Star Maker sought to realize was richness, delicacy, depth, and harmoniousness of being. . . . It seemed to me that in some cases, as in our own cosmos, he pursued this end by means of an evolutionary process crowned by an awakened cosmic mind, which strove to gather into its own awareness the whole wealth of the cosmic existence, and by creative action to increase it. (SM 425)
This realization that destruction can ultimately lead to a greater lucidity yields peace. It does not lead to “anesthesia” (AI 368) as it does not curtail experience, but creates a drive for higher experience. Stapledon closes his book with the suburban Londoner disengaging himself from the cosmic “I,” returning to earth, again poised between the light of the stars and the light glowing from the window of his home:
Two lights for guidance. The first, our little glowing atom of community, with all that it signifies. The second, the cold light of the stars, symbol of hypercosmical reality, with its crystal ecstasy. Strange that in this light, in which even the dearest love is frostily assessed, and even possible defeat of our half-waking world is contemplated without remission of praise, the human crisis does not lose but gains significance. Strange, that it seems more, not less, urgent to play some part in this struggle, this brief effort of animalcules striving to win for their race some increase of lucidity before the ultimate darkness. (SM 434)
Therefore, the evolutionary urge moves inexorably toward the future, despite destruction and perpetual perishing. Stapledon, though his use of personality-in-community and Whiteheadian metaphysics, has succeeded in creating the mythic community he strove for. Stapledon’s hope at the close of the novel is futuristic, and he hopes that his panoramic, mountain top vision for that future be “not wholly irrelevant” (SM 250).
PL — Olaf Stapledon. Philosophy And Living. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Limited, 1939.
SM — Olaf Stapledon. Star Maker in Last and First Men and Star Maker: Two Science-Fiction Novels By Olaf Stapledon. New York: Dover Publications, 1968.
1He has also written a specific technical study of Whitehead’s earlier philosophy of nature: “The Location of the Physical Objects,” Philosophy, 4 (1929), 64-75.