Elmer Rice, A Voyage to Purilia (1930)

[I started writing this piece, which will be of interest to film fans, before I heard about the closure of the Edinburgh Filmhouse – one of the few places in Scotland where you might have watched a silent movie of the kind Elmer Rice had in mind as he wrote his novel. This blogpost, then, is dedicated to the Edinburgh Filmhouse and all who worked in it. May local cinema rise triumphant from the ashes!]

Here’s another of those curios I stumble across from time to time – this time courtesy of Thistle Books, that subterranean treasure-house off Otago Street in the West End of Glasgow. A Voyage to Purilia (1930) is one of five novels published by the socialist playwright Elmer Rice, whose theatrical work includes The Adding Machine (1923) – an Expressionist piece about a worker who commits murder when he finds himself sacked and replaced by a machine – and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Street Scene (1929), turned into a musical in 1946 with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Langston Hughes. He also co-wrote a play with Dorothy Parker, Close Harmony (1924), and wrote anti-capitalist and anti-Fascist plays in the 1930s (We, the People, 1933, and Judgement Day, 1934). These biographical details are important. I had never heard of either Rice or A Voyage to Purilia when I first spotted it on the bookshelves, in one of those lovely orange-and-white Penguin paperbacks of the 1950s; but the premise grabbed me at once. It’s a book about a planet that operates according to the conventions of Hollywood Silent Movies of the 1920s, with all the absurdities this entails. And while it made me laugh out loud as I began to read, I also realised as I read on that it was a deeply disturbing book, designed as a savage attack on the pernicious form of false consciousness that governed American culture in Elmer Rice’s lifetime.

It’s a false consciousness that serves to denigrate women, the working classes, people of colour, disabled people, sick people, and any attempt to engage with economic and social problems in a serious way. And it’s also a false consciousness designed to promote the claims of White Supremacy, as embodied in D. W. Griffith’s three-hour epic The Birth of a Nation (1915). Being Jewish and an activist of the Left – one of the most outspoken playwrights of his generation – Rice was well aware that Griffith’s proto-fascistic agenda governed a great deal of Hollywood’s output between the wars, and attacked that agenda by all the means at his disposal. But his novel’s unflinching representation of American filmic proto-fascism makes uncomfortable reading in the twenty-first century, and it’s crucial to bear his political outlook in mind, I think, before you begin to read.

The Hollywood conventions Rice describes are not so familiar to moviegoers of the twenty-first century. Some will be recognizable, perhaps, from the great silent movies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd; images from these films – The Gold Rush (1925), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Freshman (1925) – kept swimming up out of my memory as I read, alongside ‘talkies’ of the 1930s that follow similar rules; but the melodramas Rice has in mind as he writes have mostly vanished from our screens, along with the rules by which they operated. By imaginatively imposing these rules on a whole society – a whole planet – Rice brilliantly brings out both their absurdity and the appalling assumptions they normalise. And as the novel goes on, what starts out as amusing pastiche quickly morphs into nightmare. The ridiculous coincidences, bizarre norms and clichéd characterisations of cinematic melodrama take on the quality of a tortuous labyrinth or prison, and the constant stress laid on human emotion becomes harrowing, since nothing in the movie world of Purilia – not even gravity, the weather or the seasons – is capable of functioning for any other purpose than to reinforce the dominant emotion of the moment – usually heterosexual love between two beautiful young White people. By the end of the book, the protagonist finds himself desperate to leave Purilia before falling victim to one of the irrational and finally deadly laws that govern it.

Two Supermarine Southamptons, flying boats produced between 1925 and 1935

The novel is written in a slightly formal style like that of H G Wells – Wells being one of the thinkers who influenced Rice’s socialism. It’s a style well suited to its first-person narrator, a nameless ethnologist, who seeks to use it to record his observations of the planet Purilia as impartially as possible – wholly unaware, of course, that impartiality is impossible on that world, where everyone is committed to one side or another in some melodramatic plot or confluence of plots. The narrator starts by describing the final preparations for the titular voyage across the vast abyss of space, which are interrupted by a long delay caused by bad weather. As he and his fellow adventurer – a pilot called Johnson – check over their ‘great birdlike flying-boat’ for the final time, the rain begins, and a week of acute frustration elapses before they can take off on their secret mission to find Purilia.[1] The delay is clearly devised to remind the reader of the conventions of literary realism; this early bout of intransigent weather, which is at odds with the adventurers’ feelings of excitement at the coming journey, provides the starkest of contrasts to the weather on Purilia, which always concedes to the demands of pathetic fallacy. Here’s how Rice describes the narrator’s impatience as the drizzle sets in:

In my keyed-up state, I was all for making the start, rain or no rain. Almost any risk or discomfort seemed to me preferable to a postponement of this carefully planned-for and eagerly awaited hour. But after much persuasion, I deferred to the soberer judgment of Johnson and the meteorological experts. An easterly wind offered no promise of clearing, and a special report from Washington confirmed our doubts. Added to this, was the very real immediate danger of attempting to lift our heavily laden craft from the already sodden field. It would have been a childishly foolhardy risk.

‘Childishly foolhardy risk’ is, of course, the meat and drink of Hollywood, and the idea of either planning something carefully or delaying an action in the interests of prudence is as unknown to the scriptwriters and directors of Los Angeles as the idea of an ‘easterly wind’ with no emotional significance.[2] On arrival in Purilia the narrator discovers that not only are weather conditions there strictly tailored to the emotional needs of the key (White) people in any given vicinity, but that random events like enforced delays on account of rain are non-existent. The first person he meets on the planet, a young woman called Pansy Malone, immediately becomes the love interest that governs his own particular pathway through the planet’s infrastructure, and every other adventure he undergoes turns out to be connected in some intricate way with her life story. Before meeting her, too, he is treated to a fine example of the indifference of Purilians to ‘soberer judgments’ or the dangers involved in taking ‘foolhardy risks’. He and Johnson watch in amazement from their aircraft as two biplanes chase each other through the Purilian skies before their occupants stage a daring display of wing-walking, shoot at each other in a bid to respectively capture or rescue another young woman, and vanish in the blink of an eye when the combat is over (pp. 17-20). The organisation of Purilian affairs clearly has little in common with terrestrial practices, despite the outward similarity in the appearances of their buildings, landscapes and people.

Movie star Ruth Roland sets out on a wing walk

The planet itself is first identified at a distance by the appearance in space of ‘luminous masses of rosy cloud’ (p. 15), which seems to be the physical body of the planet itself (there is no suggestion that it also manifests as a sphere or globe). Its atmosphere is breathable, but has a ‘curious sweetish taste, which made one experience a slight sensation of nausea’ (p. 16). The planet’s appearance and the atmosphere between them suggest something between amniotic fluid and a mind-altering drug, and there’s no doubt that the narrator and Johnson quickly find themselves emotionally affected by the planet, both in their susceptibility to romance (Johnson falls for a circus girl called Mollie not long after the narrator falls for Pansy) and in the way they see things. On Purilia, objects are constantly appearing in close-up, swelling to enormous size then shrinking again as if to emphasize some specific theme or emotional tenor in the scene under observation. The narrator assumes that this is a side-effect of the planet’s somewhat syrupy atmosphere; but it is also a function of the planet’s subservience to the laws of storytelling, laws that have the effect of trapping the planet’s natives and visitors alike in the toils of an inescapable and sometimes horrific destiny.

An illustration for Rice’s novel from its first publication in The New Yorker, by cartoonist Arno

The effect of entrapment is hinted at in the very first scene the terrestrial adventurers encounter on the planet’s surface. To begin with, we learn that everything that happens on Purilia is accompanied by a musical soundtrack, which Rice describes in terms that again invoke mind-altering substances, and perhaps too mind control – a topic of intense interest in the 1920s and 30s (Freud was fascinated by hypnosis, while the Freudian educationalist Joseph O’Neill wrote an entire science fiction novel about mind control, Land Under England, in 1935). Here’s how Rice conveys the music’s mesmeric effect:

Let the reader try to fancy himself lapped every moment of his existence, waking or sleeping, in liquid, swooning sound, for ever rising and falling, falling and rising, and wrapping itself about him like a caressing garment. The effect is indescribable. It is like the semi-stupor of an habitual intoxication: an inebriety without intervals of either sobriety or complete unconsciousness. It is insidious and irresistible; the hardest head and the stoutest organism cannot withstand it. (p. 24)

Alongside this melodic intoxicant, events on Purilia are accompanied by an authoritarian commentary in the form of a disembodied voice, which ensures they can only ever be given the ‘approved’ reading intended by the invisible scriptwriter. The commentary stands for the flashcards or intertitles containing narrative that introduce new scenes and sequences in the silent movie era; but when transferred from cards to a masculine voiceover with no visible source this narrative somehow becomes distinctly menacing, despite (or even because of) the anodyne nature of its contents. Here is the narrator’s first encounter with what he comes to call ‘the voice’ or ‘the presence’:

While we were still puzzling over the origin of the strange music, we were not a little surprised to hear a voice say: ‘Spring comes early to the Purilian hills’ […] It was a round, suave, unctuous voice, lilting and cadenced, and curiously impersonal. And although the tone in which it made its interesting observation about spring was one of helpful courtesy, there was in it, too, a note of authoritative firmness. (pp. 24-5)

Intertitles don’t exactly have a ‘tone’, though in silent movies they often have an air of schoolmasterly sententiousness. Giving them in addition the tonal qualities of suavity, unctuousness and firmness helps bring out their controlling function. And this function is reinforced by the suddenly looming close-ups that confirm their every assertion:

Scarcely had the voice ceased, when a robin’s nest on the branch of a tree near by […] suddenly swelled to such enormous proportions, that we involuntarily stepped back in alarm. The bird, which was industriously feeding its hungry young […] appeared for an instant to be as large as some fabulous roc. Then it shrank as suddenly as it had swelled and we saw that it was a mere robin after all. But with the deflation of the robin, a distant lamb, tottering across the field, loomed elephantine. And as it, in turn, receded, a modest crocus, just raising its head in the tender grass, expanded and shot upwards with tropical luxuriance. (p. 25)

Johnson is shocked by these manifestations, but the narrator notices at once that they serve to corroborate the observation made by the disembodied voice a moment earlier: ‘“You’ll notice,” I added, “that they all seem to bear out the pronouncement about spring”’ (p. 25). The voice’s views are supported by what the ethnologist dubs a ‘procession of monstrosities’ (p. 25); and its observations are just as authoritative when made about human beings. Note, by the way, the association of the robin with a roc, those giant birds from the second voyage of Sinbad the sailor; while the ‘elephantine’ lamb recalls the hypertrophied animals and people in H. G. Wells’s scientific romance The Food of the Gods (1904). These details neatly invoke the way the film industry makes the ordinary as bizarre and unsettling as a fantastic voyage of the kind undertaken by our two protagonists. They also anticipate the way Rice’s novel will become a horror story, without for a moment losing its ironic sense of humour.

Another Arno illustration from The New Yorker

Humans themselves are rendered monstrous in Purilia by their rigid conformity to the voice’s assertions, by the swelling and shrinking to which they too are subject, and by the fact that they are almost indistinguishable from other members of their social and physical community. When he first meets Pansy, the narrator thinks her to be the young woman he saw in the biplane chase on first entering the planet’s atmosphere. She is not, but the resemblance is a symptom of the ‘curious caste-system which is one of the most remarkable institutions of Purilia’ (p. 27). The members of each distinct caste look more or less identical to one another, and are quite unable to escape the caste they belong to except by way of certain strictly delimited routes. The voice identifies Pansy’s age and caste as soon as she appears (she has seen ‘nineteen summers’, it tells us, and is a ‘lovely unspoiled child of nature’); and although the narrator thinks she looks much older (‘I should have thought her to be thirty rather than nineteen’ – something one could say of many silent screen heroines), and although her relationship with ‘nature’ seems ambiguous (she has soft hands, a snowy complexion, manicured toenails, well-coiffed hair, and grasps a rake, despite the fact that spring is ‘scarcely the season for haying’), he and Johnson accept the voice’s claims without demur, as they will throughout the novel. Time itself gets subordinated on Purilia to the observations of the voice, whether concerning the time of year or the ages of the female characters; Pansy’s mother, for instance, looks around seventy (p. 29), despite the fact that she has a teenage daughter (something the voice takes pains to explain by telling us she is ‘old before her time with work and worry’). The analogy to the strict control of a worker’s time by capitalism, or of a society’s time by an authoritarian state, is irresistible.

Scene from The Great K&A Train Robbery (1926), showing curving track

A number of the bizarre rules of the planet Purilia seem more or less arbitrary. These include the fact that all the railway tracks there are built in curves and contain no straight sections at all – practicality being subordinated to the needs of camera users (though the narrator does not know this: ‘My ignorance of engineering makes it impossible for me to explain this curious method of railroad construction’, p. 67); or that Purilia has no industries, despite being to all appearances an industrially advanced civilization (p. 53); or that the planet is ‘overrun’ with failing circuses (p. 48); or that no journey can be completed without an infinite number of highly dangerous incidents (‘No one who has not travelled along a Purilian road can conceive of the perils of such a journey’, p. 40). Amnesia is widespread, usually caused by blows to the head (p. 163). The only visible shops in the cities are florist’s and jeweller’s shops, which are mostly frequented by men (p. 77). In the end, though, all these rules serve only to underpin the planet’s caste system, which is founded not on economics but on a very small number of emotional imperatives – above all that of furthering the needs of ‘eternal, cosmic love’. ‘Cosmic’ love here means love between beautiful young White heterosexual couples, and understanding this fact is ‘key’, the narrator tells us, to an understanding of Purilia.

One of the many unhappy circus Pudencians of the 1920s: Merna Kennedy in The Circus (1928), with Charlie Chaplin

The caste system is broadly divided into five categories, two for men and three for women (the genders are rigidly segregated on this planet, and strictly binary). The most venerated caste is that of the ‘Umbilicans’, made up of ‘mothers who have suffered deeply’ (p. 58), thereby acquiring a status ‘which can truly be characterized as […] semi-divine’. Motherhood on the planet is not a biological but an emotional function (indeed, no one knows how life originates in Purilia – babies simply ‘occur’, p. 61), and Umbilicans spend all their time in ‘Weeping, knitting, and the prolonged contemplation of the portraits or photographs of their absent  children’ (p. 59). The next caste in rank below the Umbilicans are the Pudencians: beautiful women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, most of them blonde and all of them virgins – a condition which endows them with a status which, the narrator feels, is somewhat surprising in a culture with such a high regard for motherhood. He resolves this seeming inconsistency by pointing out that Pudencians never become Umbilicans, just as there is never any suggestion that Umbilicans were ever Pudencians; both are locked in their particular social or narrative functions, trapped forever within the narrow limits of what is acceptable for members of their caste. Despite the regard to which virginity elevates them, the sole purpose of a Pudencian’s life is to get married. Marriage, however, is an institution which ‘has about it a finality which is almost lethal’ (p. 62), and the narrator suggests that the keenness of Pudencians to get married arises from the exhausting nature of their existences – being constantly pursued, kidnapped, cheated, betrayed, abandoned, rescued and threatened – which makes the prospect of ‘restful physical obliteration’ deeply attractive. He also suggests that the marriage ceremony itself may have a vaguely generative effect, since babies occur soon after a wedding without any indication that sex or conventional childbirth was involved.

One of the great Pudencians: Lillian Gish

The male equivalent of the Pudencians are the Paragonians, young men whose sole purpose in life (despite their reverence for virginity) is to marry a Pudencian, and who must undergo terrible trials before they can do so. Fortunately all Paragonians are not only ‘trained athletes, expert horsemen and marksmen, skilled aviators, untiring swimmers, and clever boxers, and swordsmen’, but seemingly immortal and invincible, since ‘there is no record of a Paragonian’s death or defeat’ (p. 64). Like the Pudencians they all look more or less identical, which frequently threw the narrator, he tells us, into a state of confusion during his time in Purilia.

A Paragonian and a Vaurien, fighting (from Don Q Son of Zorro, 1925)

Pitted against the Paragonians are the Vauriens: male villains who spend all their time chasing Pudencians. They are motivated not by love but by what the narrator calls ‘symbolic lust’ (since acts of sex are unknown in Purilia), though what they might do about this lust if they finally gained possession of a Pudencian can only be guessed at, since they have never succeeded in doing so. Vauriens may be white-skinned or dark-skinned. If dark they always wear ‘some bizarre garment, in lieu of the trousers of civilization and probity’ (p. 65), which soon leads the narrator to conclude, in his time on Purilia, that ‘a man who spurned trousers could be up to no good’. The female equivalents of the Vauriens belong to the lowest caste of all, the immodest Bordellians: ‘fallen’ women who are ‘almost invariably, dark-haired, plump, and past the prime of their youth’, and who spend their lives in ‘attempting to lure the Paragonians, although to what they wish to lure them I never succeeded in discovering’ (p. 66). These women are incapable of the spiritual love that motivates Pudencians, and none of them are or ever have been virgins. They would seem to have been born Bordellians, ‘occurring’ no doubt in that form as babies and perfecting their Bordellian skills as they matured.

Apart from some of the Vaureans, members of the Purilian caste system are all White, and as the novel goes on we keep coming across social groups which stand outside the system, usually on account of the colour of their skins – their outsider status condemning them to bit parts in all the planet’s dominant plotlines. Among these are the Black Purilians, a ‘happy, childlike race, given to song and laughter’, in many cases wholly devoted to ‘the welfare of the white men and women whom they cared for in infancy’ (p. 88). Chinese people, by contrast, spend all their time seeking to undermine White civilisation – quite literally, by digging tunnels under it and setting up a labyrinthine subterranean metropolis beneath the feet of the ‘guileless whites’, no doubt in a bid to circumvent the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese labourers from migrating to the United States between 1882 and 1943. The sole profession of this ‘strange and sinister race (p. 114), as the Purilians call it, is the enslaving of Pudencians for some purpose which the narrator cannot fathom, though ‘it is generally agreed that their purpose is a horrible one’ (p. 115). Their underground cities are invariably destroyed by earthquakes, which seem to operate as quasi-sentient allies of the White Purilians. There are also a few islanders of colour scattered across the oceans of the planet, who are outwardly childlike but in fact prove ‘capable of the most perfidious treachery and appalling bloodthirstiness’ (p. 149). Finally, there are the various nameless dark-skinned peoples who have the audacity to challenge ‘the supremacy of the whites’ (p.157), only to be slaughtered in huge numbers. Helpful regiments of White marines are always on hand at strategic points in the Purilian landscape to accomplish the ‘splendid work of extermination’ necessitated by the existence of these challengers to the hegemony of silent-screen proto-fascism (p. 155). As the novel moves towards its conclusion, references to casual slaughters of non-White communities increase in number incrementally, leaving a trail of ‘smouldering embers’ and ‘dark-skinned bodies’ in their wake. For Rice, the period of early black-and-white movie-making is marked by its strict exclusion of people of colour from the privileges enjoyed by Whites, an exclusion which is enforced by omnipresent, almost incidental acts of racist violence.

Lon Chaney, who often played disabled people, in He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

Disabled people, too, stand outside the Purilian caste system, and are subjected to constant humiliations amounting to physical and psychological torture. This becomes clear to the narrator when he boards a train which carries a circus troupe made up almost entirely of performers with disabilities, branded ‘freaks’ by the Purilians (p. 67). The cruel laughter that accompanies such humiliations is also directed at sick people, especially those who suffer from seasickness, delirium tremens, influenza, gout, or bad teeth, the latter affliction being always conveniently signalled by the fact that the sufferer’s face has been tied in a ‘large handkerchief, which is knotted upon the crown of the head’ (p. 141). These amusing illnesses, along with various incidental ‘abrasions and maimings’ (p. 140), are exclusively endured by members of the lower social orders. More serious diseases (‘serious’ in the sense that they do not produce hilarity) are the exclusive province of high-caste citizens, and can be more readily cured by the power of prayer than medical intervention – a circumstance that suggests the presiding Deity on Purilia works solely on behalf of the upper classes.

In a culture so single-mindedly dedicated to the upholding of a rigid caste system, there can be no more appalling fate than to find yourself near the bottom of the system, or outside it altogether. This fact is driven home for the narrator towards the end of the book, when his fellow traveller Johnson, the pilot and engineer of their expedition, suddenly finds himself flung from a position of seeming pre-eminence – with all the markers of a Paragonian, the highest caste to which a White Purilian man can belong – into the casteless position of a sidekick or extra (a ‘redshirt’ in the terminology of the Trekkie community). Towards the beginning Johnson is described as a ‘man of action’ (p. 39), who seeks  to confront the principle Vaurien in the narrative – a man called Millwood – as soon as his villainy has been exposed for the very first time. Later, Johnson’s assimilation into the conventions of Purilia is confirmed by his reaction to being beaten by a Chinese Vaurien, who starts to ‘rain blows’ with a leather thong on the pilot’s defenceless back, only for the narrator to express some doubt as to whether they are really blows at all, since ‘I was unable to discern any actual contact between the instrument of castigation and the body of its victim’ (p. 123). At the same time, the narrator goes on, ‘so patent […] was Johnson’s agony that my companions could scarcely restrain me from flinging open the grated door which concealed us, and rushing to his rescue’. By this point in the narrative the narrator, too, has evidently been seduced by Purilian culture. Where he had earlier described himself as relatively ‘passive’ compared with his friend (p. 39), he here behaves like a classic Paragonian, striving to launch himself into action despite all the criminal forces massed against him. As the would-be rescuer rather than the victim, however, the narrator has begun an upward movement through the caste system, whereas the victimised Johnson is on his way down. This suggests that as strangers from another planet the two visitors are capable of moving freely between the castes in a manner denied to the native Purilians.

The Paragonian Douglas Fairbanks Sr in Robin Hood (1922)

A few chapters later, when the narrator and Johnson have arrived at what the narrator calls the ‘pastoral community’ of the Purilian Wild West, Johnson has the misfortune to stumble and fall to the floor to avoid the hooves of a horse ridden through a plate glass window (p. 173). The horse is ridden by a local Vaurien, Killer Evans, and Johnson’s stumble marks him out as a non-Paragonian, since a Paragonian would never show such weakness in the face of an enemy. By stumbling and (worse) by falling, Johnson has precipitated himself bodily out of the planet’s caste system, and hence acquired both vulnerability and mortality, qualities to which the true Paragonian is immune. His one chance at this moment, as a casteless extra, is to make himself comic; if he were to damage himself still more in amusing ways he would at once be assigned to the role of a clown, like the hired man, Jim, who keeps turning up at unexpected moments in the novel doing silly things, or like the Chaplinesque ‘little fellows’ who frequent the Purilian streets in their ill-fitting clothes. Clowns in silent movies, of course, never die, any more than Paragonians do. But Johnson still sees himself as a Paragonian – disastrously so, since he has forfeited his title to be treated as anything better than an extra. He responds to Killer Evans’s rudeness with an imprecation, staring him down in ‘justifiable indignation’ (p. 173). And Evans’s response to this upstart extra is foreordained by Vaurien convention. From his holster he whips a handgun ‘of unusual size’ and shoots Johnson dead. Johnson’s death is duly confirmed by the Purilian bystanders, in the usual way, through the instant removal of their hats; once these have been taken off no medical practitioner can save him. As the narrator puts it, his friend was gunned down owing to his refusal to ‘observe a simple formula’ (p. 174), which makes him ‘a victim to the rigid and immutable Purilian code’. Strangers too, it seems, can be destroyed by disobedience to the planet’s totalitarian regime; and the incident finally confirms to the narrator that he, too, has been somehow made subject to the rules by which all Purilian natives are governed.

William S. Hart, c. 1920

It’s worth pausing a moment to notice two terms that feature in the scene of Johnson’s death. The first is the phrase ‘a simple formula’, which echoes the set of ethical recommendations compiled by Will Hays in 1924 known as ‘The Formula’. Devised in response to the outbreak of a number of Hollywood scandals, including the trials for rape and murder of the film star Fatty Arbuckle in 1921-2, the Formula laid out certain principles for the reformation of the industry along Puritan lines (Hays was a Presbyterian elder, and might have described himself quite happily as a Puritan). The second term, ‘code’, suggests the process of tightening up the ethical standards by which the motion picture industry was governed. A so-called code of standards was first submitted to Hollywood studios by two Catholic dignitaries in 1929, and led to the adoption of a revised version of the Code by several studios in 1930. Johnson violates both sets of standards – the Formula and the Code – by swearing twice in the moments before his shooting; and one of the oaths he swears also happens to violate the Purilian cult of mother-worship, since it ‘cast doubt upon the honour of Killer Evans’s mother’ (p. 173). He could be said to have died, then, as a victim of censorship as well as movie convention, his ‘rashness’ punished by violence as the racist violence of Purilian culture never has been and never will be.

The narrator himself nearly falls victim to the ultimate fate of all Pudencians and Paragonians: the ‘restful physical obliteration’ of a happy ending. Having spent the novel chasing after the first woman he met on Purilia, Pansy Malone, the narrator finally succeeds in freeing her from the clutches of her enemy, Millwood. The inevitable consequence of this rescue is of course marriage; and all at once the prospect of marriage fills the narrator with horror, possibly because its approach is immediately signalled by an intensification of the two phenomena that most clearly distinguish Purilia from Earth. Having proposed to Pansy and been accepted, he retires to bed, only to experience a sharp crescendo of sound and atmospherics: ‘Never, it seemed to me, had the swooning melodies spoken in such mellow and pervasive accents; never had the atmosphere appeared so palpably pink’ (p. 179). As this happens, he is seized by a desire to escape from the planet, taking Pansy with him whether she likes it or not. Looking back, as he writes, on this dual decision to escape and to treat Pansy as an object without intentions or thoughts of her own, the narrator is horrified by the changes that have been wrought on him by his time on Purilia:

I must ask the reader to believe that the course of conduct upon which I was now determined was wholly foreign to my nature. In ordinary circumstances, I not only am opposed to hasty and quixotic action, but am reasonably considerate of the rights and desires of others. Yet, in all this, it did not occur to me to take into account what might be Pansy’s wishes in the matter. On the contrary, I was quite prepared to overcome, by force or cunning, any objection she might raise. In self-justification, I can offer only the excuse that my long sojourn in Purilia had habituated me to a mode of conduct which, a year earlier, would have struck me as indefensibly arbitrary and unreasonable. (p. 179)

The narrator, in other words, has had his personality almost erased by habituation to Purilian culture and physical conditions. This has led him, in effect, to mentally erase the personality of the woman he claims to love, utterly oblivious to the totalitarian implications of being ‘arbitrary and unreasonable’ in his treatment of her. Both he and Pansy, then, are on the verge of being annihilated, in mind if not in body; Pansy by being denied any kind of agency, the narrator by losing touch with his own ‘nature’ and ignoring hers. So it is scarcely a surprise when, on their wedding day, it becomes clear to the narrator that Purilian marriage is indeed, as he already half suspected, no more than an act of total physical as well as mental obliteration, which puts an end to the existence of both man and woman at the very moment of their symbolic fusion. As the wedding ceremony goes ahead, the narrator notes that the other two couples undergoing marriage at the same time begin to fade into non-existence as soon as the clergymen has pronounced them man and wife. As his own marriage is proclaimed, he sees Pansy, too, begin to vanish. He seeks to clasp her to him, but ‘already she was too insubstantial; nothing remained of the vibrant, pulsating girl but an evanescent wraith’ (p. 183). Appalled at the prospect of succumbing to a similar fate, the narrator flees and boards his aircraft, feeling a ‘sense of indescribable relief’ as the all-pervading Purilian soundtrack gets drowned out by the noise of the engines, and as the ‘faint, persistent nausea’ produced by the Purilian atmosphere is dispelled by the ordinary oxygen he breathes in through his pilot’s mask. Soon he leaves the pink cloud of Purilia behind him and turns his eyes on the ‘luminous globe that hung below me like a welcoming beacon: the world of human beings’ (p. 185). Distinctions make themselves clear to him for the first time in many months, like the spherical sun or moon emerging from behind a bank of clouds: distinctions between individuals, between planets, between one journey and another, between all the subtler elements of human existence which Purilia had rendered simplistic through its enslavement to a strictly limited set of rules. At last he recognises Purilia for what it is – a drug that annihilates the mind; and in rejoining the ‘world of human beings’ he salvages hope that he will no longer see it in the crude and finally deadly terms which is all that Hollywood has to offer by way of narrative.

Norma Talmadge and Eugene O’Brien just before their obliteration in The Only Woman (1924)

At the end of the book, in fact, the narrator is restored to his function as narrator. No longer governed by a formulaic narrative imposed on him by malevolent outside forces, no longer a mouthpiece for a monologic, omnipresent, overbearing voice or presence, he writes his story in the form of a novel; a novel that relates his experience of Purilia in language that – like Brecht’s – constantly reminds us of the artificial nature of all forms of narrative, mingling formal discourse with the emotive vocabulary of melodrama, expressing astonishment at the familiar and dismay at the comic and the hackneyed. Rice’s tool of estrangement is laughter; but his novel is as wary of allowing us simply to laugh without acknowledging the political implications of our laughter as it is of allowing us to immerse ourselves unthinkingly in the wild adventures it relates. The laughter it provokes has become more unsettling with time, since most of Rice’s present-day readers will have learned that mocking the marginal is an open highway to fascistic thinking. In 1930, the worst effects of fascism had not yet made themselves felt. In 2022, there is no excuse at all for ignoring or embracing them.

Scene from John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924)


[1] In this novel, a ‘flying boat’ is capable of navigating the space between worlds, much as a biplane does in Lord Dunsany’s short story of 1929, ‘Our Distant Cousins’ (see Dunsany, The Collected Jorkens, ed. S. T. Joshi (San Francisco and Portland: Night Shade Books, 2004), pp. 41-62.

[2] It’s perhaps worth mentioning here that the east wind is closely associated with John Jarndyce’s periodic bouts of melancholy in Dickens’s Bleak House (see Chapter 6).

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