I just finished re-reading Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time. I may actually prefer the End of Time to the Elric stories, in that they suit my temperament much more. Elric was instrumental in my formative years, so I’ll never not think of those stories as some of my favorites, but — along with my personal preference — everyone talks about Elric. What about Jherek Carnelian?
So the conceit of these novels is of Earth near the end of time itself, the final end of the universe. Well, it’s that plus Moorcock’s early love of fin-de-siecle Decadence. So the denizens of Earth, the final heirs of humanity, are immortal beings with no concept of morality, no concerns, and no lack of resources. They can all make whatever they can imagine using rings that tap the stored reserves of past civilizations and their machines, which still draw energy from the surrounding universe. Our main character, Jherek, is the only one among them (later it turns out there are actually two) who was born, instead of created. Most of them were created by someone else and, as they were created perfectly, with infinite power, are basically people. They’re immortal basically because someone can always resurrect them after they die. We learn early on that one character killed himself just to make a point. In one book somebody accidentally rolls off a cliff. She gets better.
It might be difficult to imagine how a narrative comes out of this, how there could be any tension. But a time traveler from the 19th century appears, Mrs. Amelia Underwood. She’s very upright / uptight, very middle class British, and very horrified at the debauchery she sees all around her. Jherek, fascinated by the 19th century, decides to fall in love with her. The novel, and at one point one of the characters, describes this as the last love story in human history.
Now, why am I writing about it? I tend not to do reviews — if I bother writing about something, you can assume I recommend it. If I hated it I’ll definitely mention it, perhaps too often. I’m feeling my way here, but I think there’s something fascinating about Moorcock’s use of Decadent literature.
I’ve long wondered if Lord Jagged, the brilliant schemer of the novel, and Jherek’s father, is supposed to be Oscar Wilde. He is constantly associated with the color yellow — though a more direct and obvious conclusion would be to consider him Huysmans. However, he was definitely British before he made his way to the end of time, so that would rule Huysmans out.
Of course, it’s not important whether he’s secretly Oscar Wilde. He can’t actually be — he says at one point he’s from the 21st century — but even re-reading I wondered about it until I got to that dialogue. He is so overtly a Decadent — sybaritic, sexually free, foppish, arch, and — underneath it all — quite clever and intelligent. The rest of the society at the End of Time is all of those things in their own ways, but they do what the Decadents hoped to do — their lives are works of art. They live in houses simply because they’re one more method to express their aesthetic sensibilities. Everything comes in fashions, and houses are destroyed and rebuilt in an afternoon to match.
Mrs. Underwood, and perhaps a lot of readers, find their existence without savor. Indeed, Jagged himself leaves at the end, as well as Jherek and Amelia. But I can’t help but be fond of them. There’s a lot of discourse — almost entirely from Amelia — about how they can’t possibly be living satisfying lives because they have no purpose, no duty. But I believe, and I think the book believes, that those are all external constraints levied on us by a world in which we still have to struggle to survive. The only functional utopia would be one in which everyone got everything they needed all the time. Many think that would cost us something essential — and it would, but it would only be an essential in a world that required struggle. Moorcock’s utopia, then, is the only one I’ve ever read that I find convincing.
And even he doesn’t. He pointedly opens the second novel, titled The Hollow Lands, with this poem by Ernest Dowson, titled “Dregs”:
(This is the end of every song man sings!)
The golden wine is drunk, the dregs remain,
Bitter as wormwood and as salt as pain;
And health and hope have gone the way of love
Into the drear oblivion of lost things.
Ghosts go along with us until the end;
This was a mistress, this, perhaps, a friend.
With pale, indifferent eyes, we sit and wait
For the dropt curtain and the closing gate:
This is the end of all the songs man sings.
So there’s absolutely a certain bitterness at the core of the story. But the implication seems to be — not that there’s a bitterness because there’s no “point” to anything — but there’s a bitterness because all stories have it. “This is the end of all the songs man sings.” If you believe the narrative of progress (which the novel undermines by all the strange and grotesque periods of time between “now” and the End of Time, like the movie-making age in which countries were just organized into movie studios), then eventually we get to the end, and the end is great, but the end is still the finale. There’s nothing afterwards. Jagged creates a time loop, so the denizens at the end of time can repeat a week over and over, with their variations of action within it — nothing will age or grow old, but the universe, for them, won’t finish its heat-death. No one particularly minds. So they avoid the ending, and both Jagged and Jherek get new beginnings instead of endings.
I should mention at this point why I like these books so much — Jherek is a functioning innocent. That is, his development in a world without need has left him completely open to experience. Even when he suffers hardship he is not left fundamentally cringing away from new experience. He’s remarkably like a Buddha or a Vulcan — undisturbed by mischance, because everything is experience, not just good experience.
And so with the bitter dregs all that remains of the universe, Jagged and Amelia — from prior time periods — strain against the situation and, happily, find something else to satisfy them. Jherek, however, does not mind. There are dregs at the bottom of every drink, as there are ends to every beginning — and as he says several times throughout the trilogy, it will be an experience, and when it’s done no one will be left to miss those who have gone, which is the only thing he can see wrong with someone dying.
We should all be so equanimous.