VISIONARY FICTION by Fred ChappellnSusan had set up the ironing board in the kitchen andnupended the iron there while she sprinkled her blouse. Incould not detect the heat waves rising from the face of theniron, but the morning sun showed them clearly on thenrefrigerator door, curling and uncurling in hypnotic arabesque.nThat became my image for visionary fiction: thenplay of the shadows of our invisible realities.nAlas. The shine soon wears off such nifty formulations.nFor someone else, the phrase might equally well describenreligious painting, music, or even mathematics. Still I’mnattracted to it, partly because of its Platonic overtones,nmostly because the sort of literature I am trying to delineatenis devilish hard to define.nVisionary fiction, as I conceive of it, cuts across severalngenres but totally includes, or is included by, none of them.nIt is fantasy, of course, but it is not heroic fantasy of thensword-and-sorcery type in which leather-clad heroes withnleatherbound brains do battle with evil magicians. Conannthe Conqueror lacks—to put it delicately—sufficient delicacy.nIt may occasionally appear as science fiction, as withnC.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, but generally it does not do so.nTechnology, with its fluorescent glare and antiseptic atmosphere,nis inimical to the half-lights and shifting shades ofnthe visionary modes. Visionary fiction is always allegorical,nbut it is not straightforward political allegory like Kafka’snThe Trial, nor scientific allegory like E.A. Abbott’s Flatland,nnot simple religious allegory like The Pilgrim’s Progress.nIt is sometimes Utopian in nature, but not politicallynUtopian; and it is never dystopian. The great wrongs thatnvisionary fiction addresses are more ancient and morenprofound than political wrongs.nIts literary ancestry is various and noble, including notnonly the fairy tale and the pastoral romance but also thenepic poetry of the marvelous, like The Odyssey, and thenknightiy romance, like The Faerie Queene. To these influencesnmust be added the overmastering one of the Bible,nespecially the books of Genesis, Job, the Song of Solomon,nand Revelations. It absorbs the thoughts of the philosophers,nparticularly those of Plato and the neo-Platonists, butnalso the later ones of figures like Berkeley, Schopenhauer,nNietzsche, and Jung. It is at pains to ally itself closely withnRomantic narrative poetry like The Rime of the AncientnMariner, Alastor, and Endymion. A lesser but still notableninfluence will be that of the Gothic novel in its “Oriental”nguise; William Beckford’s Vathek is in the farther background.nThe masque as we find it in Milton’s Comus isnextremely important, but the single most important influencenis that of The Divine Comedy.nThe familiarity of this list of influences gives us a clue.nVisionary fiction, even as it is practiced in the 20th century,nis deeply Victorian and profoundly English in temperamentnand outlook. It is written—and perhaps mostiy read—bynwriters of genfle and retiring, even reclusive, character.nOne imagines that there are great bales of the stuff lyingnFred ChappeU’s most recent book is Source (LouisiananState University Press).nunpublished in the secret cabinets of vicars, philosophers,nand emeritus mathematicians. This notion helps to describenin part the sometimes fusty charm of the works.nIt helps to account too for the allergic reaction that manynreaders have toward it. We are speaking here of such booksnas Ruthven Todd’s The Lost Traveller, William HopenHodgson’s The Night Land, Lord Dunsany’s The King ofnElfland’s Daughter, Robert Graves’s Watch the North WindnRise, Lydia Obukhova’s Daughter of Night, Sedagh Hedayat’snThe Blind Owl, George Macdonald’s Lilith andnPhantastes, and of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus.nThere are readers, maybe even a majority of them, tonwhom fantasy is anathema; they would echo the complaintnof Heerbrand in E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Golden Flower Pot.n”By your leave, worthy Herr Archivarius,” he says, “this isnOriental bombast, and we beg very much you wouldnrather . . . give us something of your own most remarkablenlife, of your travelling adventures, for instance; above all,nsomething true.”nThe good Heerbrand’s objection is full to bursting withnironies. An easier one is that in Archivarius’ fable of Lilynand Phosphorous, he has given a literal account of his ownnnnM^lrm?:;? ••’•/’nPiV; Alv;^| .^j.rn- WkP’liLm’k•*’ Fv#^nMAY 1987/19n