Philip Josť Farmer and
the White Goddess

Casey Fredericks

  Philip Josť Farmer's novel, Flesh, was inspired by the mythological system which Robert Graves formulated over his long career as poet, novelist, and critic, and which culminated in The White Goddess--purportedly a non-fictional statement of his mythological credo. Subtitled "A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth," Graves's book 1 is a massive, grotesque compilation of pseudo-scholarship, brimming with random bits of folklore, imaginary natural history, arcane religious rituals, and esoteric mythological erudition, ranging from the Mediterranean to Northern European cultures, and from the Paleolithic through the Mediaeval periods. This is, in fact, the recording of a poet's private vision, on the order of Yeats's A Vision or Pound's Guide to Kultur, and central to it a an imaginative construct is Graves's self-announced "theme" of the Triune Goddess who is an archetype of woman in her three life-phases of Virgin, Matron, and Hag (or as bride, mother, and layer-out, respectively). 2 Her male, counterpart, representing the poet himself, is a Dying God, 3 merely an adjunct to the Mistress who is both all-powerful Goddess and poetic Muse. All of this may be read as another of Graves's many sorties against modern cultureI which are, only half-serious and which often read like academic "put-ons. 4 The author vacillates between deliberate mystery and barely comprehensible irony in his tone, yet his overall intention is to advise us to restore vitality and interest to daily modern living by substituting a purposefully avowed primitivism, symbolized by female dominance and matriarchal codes, for the sterility and boredom of scientism and technocracy, thus making way for a rebirth of true poetry and free imaginative creativity. The reign of the Mother will also mean the victory of sexual expression, of the unconscious, and of instinct and intuition. To deny Her, by rejecting the mythic, primitive, and ritualistic, is to abandon our own animality, an intrinsic part of our make-up, hence, to profane and desensitize our human potential. To Graves's mind, there is just as much a human capacity for growth in emotional sensitivity as in scientific understanding.

  Although Graves's conception of the White Goddess is the fictional hypothesis for Flesh, it really serves Farmer as a point of departure for a different kind of speculation. Farmer eschews the entire issue of poetry and the imagination so essential to Graves and, instead, is concerned to portray an entire futuristic world, alternative to our own, which worhips the Goddess and preserves her fertility religion. The critical dimension in this book, as in so much of Farmer's other s-f, lies in its, juxtaposition of another kind of sexual code and erotic sensibility with that native to our own time and place, leading to the reader's new understanding of the relativity of our own preconceptions about human love. Insofar as Farmer identifies the sex drive as the foundation of human culture, being latent in so many of our social rites and institutions, he is more explicitly Freudian than Graves is.

  After eight centuries of exploring the stars, an American spaceship, the Terra, returns to Earth. The planet has, in the interval, suffered an ecological disaster so complete as to have ended our world altogether and ushered in a new era of agricultural primitivism. The dominant religion is that of the Great Mother Goddess under her three aspects of maiden (Virginia), matron (Columbia), and Hag (Alba). This system of archaic religious practices, taboos, and credos in many ways recalls the primeval world of Frazer's Golden Bough, but the world of the Goddess is a naturalistic one like our own, not a supernatural one: we never see the Mother, only her human representatives and the effect of her cult on the lives of humans.

  Into this world of mother-right and female dominance the Terra brings Peter Stagg, starship captain, who is captured and biologically altered. Antlers are grafted onto his head, and he becomes the Great Stag, the Sunhero, the living embodiment of power and virility for the entire nation of Deecee. In reality, the strange antlers are specially adapted organs; though Stagg develops a tremendous appetite for food and drink, he is rewarded with a correspondingly tremendous satyriasis that makes him capable of inseminating the entire nation's women. His sexual career in Deecee also traces the path of a solar myth, as he moves north from Washington, D.C., in the direction of Albany, N.Y., beginning the winter solstice of December 21 in the South where he impregnates Virginia, and ending at the summer solstice of June 21 in the North where Alba, the toothless hag, will cut his throat and bury his remains to insure the fertility of soil and crops. And in the next year the seasonal pattern will recur all over again with a new Sunhero.

  Stagg is really two people. His "nomal" self, deriving from our world, dreads individual death when the end of the Dying God will mean real, permanent death for him, but an even greater source of horror is his loss of rationality, of control over his own actions, and even of the entire conscious mind when the antlers assert their overpowering needs for food, sex, and violence. Five of the eight occurrences of the word "flesh" do, in fact, refer to Sunherols loss of individual ego in the blind, ecstatic, Dignysian frenzy generated by the rule of appetite and emotion. 5 Ultimately, Stagg can reassert control over his own body only by starving himself, thereby inhibiting his sex drive. Only by self-inhibition, too, can the masculine, control oriented "rational" values of our civilization reassert their dominance. Stagg is thus a representative of the kind of Western civilization that is depicted in the pages of Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents, Marcusel's Eros and Civilization, and Brown's Love's Body in simplest outlines, this libidinal theory supposes that a progressive human culture is made possible only by a process of sublimation--what is sacrificed in individual sexual expression and free erotic activity is regained, in displaced form, in the permanent, stable institutions of society. In such a theory, civilization is regarded as the byproduct of inhibited eroticism. And for their part, Stagg, his crew, and the starship itself are the most perfect representatives of the male-dominated, assertive, power-oriented, and technology-based society that produced them. On the one hand, we are told explicitly that the mission of-the star8hip was to locate "virgin planets" (p.21). On the other, there were no women on the Terra, and despite being helped through the eight hundred year ordeal by suspended ani- mation, Stagg is fairly screaming his sexual repression when he returns to Earths "Eight hundred years without seeing a single, solitary, lone forlorn woman! ... I feel like Walt Whitman when he boasted he jetted the stuff of future republics. I've a dozen republics in me!" (p. 22). The restraints placed on the starmen in order to succeed in the highest enterprise of our masculine civilization to-date--space travel--correspond in their intensity, but in a reverse direction, to the demands for libidinal release required by the Goddess's world.

  However, it is most accurate not to characterize New Earth as either utopia or dystopia, but as a fictional universe that stands in an ambivalent relationship to our own "real" one. Simultaneously it offers opportunities for greater creativity and more violent destruction. Correspondingly, the Mother herself is a Jungian "coincidence of opposites," being a figure both good and evil, sexual temptress and castrating ogress, at once benign and destructive. And so, too, Stagg's career is at once a sexual wish-fulfilment and the, ultimate demonization and dehumanization of the total man, who is reduced to being a function only of his non-rational faculties. He is thus an ambivalent answer to the specula- tive question, "What if man did have unlimited sexual capacity? 6 Farmer's own attitude, which modulates between the serious and the outright satiric throughout the novel, seems to re-enforce the ambiguity of New Earth's relationship to the present world. (We are not sure whether we are supposed to sympathize with the characters and identify with their problem, orto distance ourselves from them, particularly through satiric laughter.)

  First, New Earth's advantages. The rites of the Mother promote human fertility and environmental improvement in a world devastated by ecological cataclysm, a world nearly sterilized, and still severely underpopulated. Perhaps this best explains why its only technology deals with biology and human sexuality, for it was our own civilization's continued assaults on nature in an attempt to exploit its resources to the full that brought about the collapse. Like Frankenstein on a macrocosmic scale, Western man experimented to tap new power sources in the very core of the Earth but exceeded the physical limits of the planet (pp. 27-8, cf. p. 67). Even from outer space the planet looks totally different from the one the starmen left (pp.19-20). The world of the Mother is also superior psychologically insofar as its regular calendar of rituals and ceremonies allows for release of inhibitions as an accepted part of social life: periodic sexual orgies, wild drunkenness, blood sports, temple prostitution, and sadistic violence are the norm in this culture. It is a world controlled by feeling, rather than thought, a world where the heights of both pleasure and pain may, and should, be experienced. Thus here again we seem to be dealing with that "oral" phase of Farmer's literary persona mentioned by Leslie Fiedler, 7 for the mythical dimensions of the world of the Goddess are based in large part on the Gargantuan "appetites" (for food, drink, sex, violence) of its denizens. This is a world that values the intensity of experience above all, and this attitude in turn invests every fundamental act like eating or sexual intercourse with deeper emotional satisfaction.

  Fiedler and Franz Rottensteiner have both said, that all of his books are about sex, religion, and violence. 8 They are correct, yet the very fact that the three come clustered together in a trinity presupposes some larger principles at work. Rollo May suggests the term "daemonic" for this same triad and means by it to identify man's inner, unconscious drive to transcend his current limitations--whether imposed on h m from within or without--and to achieve a new, larger "self.9 The "daemonic" thus would not only characterize Stagg as a savage god, often rendered sub-human by his own abnormal powers, but it would go far to explain the violent character of all of Far7ner's supermen (as in the World of Tiers series) and specifically of his Tarzan, who is his most perfect representative of daemonic passion and power. This same daemonic triad might also lead us to second Fiedler's view that Farmer's essential contribution to s-f is located in the field of depth psychology. Beneath the exciting and racy adventure yarns that owe so much to Burroughs there is an awareness, based on a thorough understanding of psychoanalytical literature, that man must always be searching for new, creative confrontations with the world. Hence sex, religion, and violence as man's three basic, elemental drives to help him achieve ever more intense, ever more creative experience. I would further speculate that the "crudity" in style and plot-construction that Fiedler, Rottensteiner, and Damon Knight have all recognized as typical throughout even the best of Farmer's works is isomorphic with the daemonic atmospheres the direct, frenzied, Burroughsian pace of Farmer's adventures mirror the daemonic passions of his heroes.

  From the satiric perspective, too, New Earth appears superior to our own, for our social rites and institutions seem to pale beside the undiluted myths and rituals in the realm of the Mother- thus, in Deecee, the Washington Monument has been reerected explicitly as a giant phallic symbol, and the U.S. Capitol now sports two domes to symbolize the twin breasts of the Mother; the White House Honour Guards are bow-brand-ishing Amazons, while Georgetown University now houses the castrated musician-priests of the Goddess; social fraternities like Moose, Elk, and Lions are now full-fledged totem clans, the Speaker of the House in Congress goes by the name of John Barleycorn (the sacrificial "corn spirit" who by his name symbolized fermentation in Robert Burns's poem 10, and baseball is a sadistic rite, played with a spiked ball that is hurled about in order to spill as much blood as possible.

  Sometimes, in fact, this kind of satire is purely verbal, and Deecee and the other nations and institutions of New Earth often come down to being nothing more than a series of word plays. There can be a fairly gratuitous travesty--like "Deecee" for Washington, D.C.--to more complex sequences of associations, like the nation "Caseyland," named after the K. of C. (Knights of Columbus), which gives away its Roman Catholic inspiration, and all of whose citizens are named "Casey"; most telling of all, its national sport is baseball, and the captains of its teams always have the name "Mighty Casey.,, In another briefer sequence like this, Alba, the woman-as-crone whose name means "White," is cleverly tied to the partly homonymous city of "Albany."

  Sometimes, too, figurative statements from our world become literally true in the future: "Kill the ump" means just that in Farmer's version of the game, and George Washington's honourific title, "father of his country," becomes a mythical fable about the greatest procreator of them all. That the many word-plays form complete systems of reference is a striking feature of Flesh. This kind of wit is recurrent enough to call to mind that exuberant Joycean punster of "Riders of the Purple Wage."

  Perhaps, though, Freud is as much an inspiration as Joyce. In particular, the name of still another nation of New Earth, the "Pants-Elfs," comes close to Freud's discussion in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. The first part of the name is a shortened homonym of "pansies"; the second is a synonym for "fairies." Thus "Pants-Elfs" is a barely disguised slur against a nation of fierce homosexual warriors. A second pun shares both a Freudian and Joycean dimensions "Homeycums" (pp. 119, 125). One of the Pants-Elfs, a would-be lover, calls Stagg this as a term of endearment in baby-talk, but "cums" is also a well-known obscene verb and "Homeycums" is a barely disguised reference to the Stagg's appetite for orgasms. Thus Farmer's puns contain a "latent" (that is, sexual) meaning in addition to the obvious "manifest" one.

  Still other contrasts between old and New Earth show the latter to advantage. In particular, two other starmen represent sexual codes that many would already find arbitrary and archaic in 1982. Sarvant, the ship's chaplin, is a religious fundamentalist whose outmoded spiritual fervour is conducive to masochism, and he has much of both the would-be martyr and the sexual pervert in his make-up. Finding himself in a world of constant sexual overstimulation puts his archaic beliefs under too much pressure. Finally, he falls in love with a woman who happens to be barren, and when he discovers that she is a participant in promiscuous rites at a certain temple to cure her infertility he is overwhelmed by conflicting emotions and, finally, he rapes her. For profaning the worship of the Mother, Sarvant is hauled off and hung by a mob, though to his own narrow religious sensibility the woman was never anything more than a cheap whore. Churchill, the First Mate, fares better, falling in love with the daughter of a wealthy merchant sailor; the love is reciprocated and all is well, until it is revealed that the bride-to-be is pregnant by Sunhero. This is cause for rejoicing in the girl's family, but a rather severe blow to Churchill's ego--it had always been his male fantasy, primitive in its own way, to marry a virgin (p. 110).

  However, it is important to remember that the world of the Mother, as an alternative to our own, is limited and relative. For in addition to the nation of Deecee, which maintains the worship of the Goddess in its "orthodox" (that is, Gravesian) form, New Earth contains other viable cultures that stand in altering contrast to both Deecee and our Earth in regards to both sex and religion. In addition to the Pants-Elfs and Caseylanders, one should also mention the only nation resembling anything like a world-power, the Karelians, Finnish pirates whose Empire is scattered over three continents.

   Even in the central issue of sexual mores, the religion of the Mother is not always superior. One evidence is still another love-relationship in the novel: between Stagg when he is in his right mind and a young captive virgin from Caseyland. Whereas Stagg acquired his first wife, Virginia, simply by taking her as Sunhero, he has to win Mary Casey under that nation's code of allowing her to remain a virgin, proving himself through his rational self's disciplined control over the Stagg appetites (even here we might suspect a half-serious parody of American boy-girl courtship behavior typical of the Fifties).

  An even better clue to the non-absoluteness of the Goddess's world is evident in Stagg's fate. Ultimately, to be sure, the captain cannot escape his preordained mythical doom. Though Stagg escapes the Deecee for a time, Alba finally does recapture and sacrifice him; the entire myth of the Dying God is completed. However, the sophisticated technology of the Terra is able to resurrect Stagg, though the brain damage incurred while dead leaves him without any memory of his days as Sun: hero. Yet his death-rebirth pattern--with the rebirth deriving from the male-generated technology of our civilization--undercuts the power of the Mother-system as depicted by Graves, where the Mother herself is the final and sole repository of all capacity for death or rebirth. In fact, it is highly significant that the end of the novel dissociates into two distinct perspectives that leave open the question of the relative superiority of "male" and "female" cultures.

  On the male side, Stagg and his crew steal women from Earth and again leave for the stars with the intention of re-establishing society as they had known it in another world. More than once this act of starting a new civilization is likened to rape, and the kidnapping of wives is compared to Livy's story of the Rape of the Sabine Women, a tale associated with the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus:

  "Violence, abduction, rape," Churchill said. "What a way to start a brave new world!"

  "Is there any other way?" Wang said. "Don't forget the Sabine women," Steinborg said...

  Churchill frowned. There seemed no way to get away from violence. But then it had always been so through men's history.

  (p. 146)

   Norman Brown was soon to express this same notion of the origin of higher (scientific, technological) culture in male violence, best symptomized by the violent power-oriented act of rape (and BroWn also analyzes the Rape of the @qlbines as a mythical statement of the origin of culture). 11 Yet even here there are ironies: Stagg has two wives, the Caseyland maid and his pregnant Virginia--surely to prove an explosive enage Š trois-- and Churchill is well aware that he has just begun a life-long challenge from his new wife to keep taming the shrew. The very last word, in the Epilogue, is reserved for the Goddess and the feminine viewpoint after all. Three priestesses representing the three (Gravesian) phases of Woman meet to assess events and plan future strategy, for they have by no means been defeated by the starmen out of the masculine past. The Mother still rules Earth and may some day gain sway over all of mankind, even out among the stars; after all, the Dying God really did die and Virginia is still his bride.

  The Epilogue is a deliberately vague and mysterious passage, unlike any other in the book, and makes one think of Todorov's term, "fantastic," referring to fictional worlds that are ambivalently structured in order to conceal the difference between the natural and supernatural laws. 12

  In particular, the enigmatic last three sentences of the Epilogue, being a reminiscence of the opening witches-scene of Shakespeareis Macbeth, heightens the mysterious atmospheres:

  The maiden says, When shall we three meet again?

  The matron replies, When man is born and dies and is born.

  The hag replies, When the battle is lost and won.

  The matron's reply seems to refer to the Dying God, who is born and dies and is born (that is, "reborn") in the cyclical vegetative myth, but we should also remember that in the Goddess's religion the god is the mythical prototype for every man. Thus one other meaning for the riddling answer of the matron is that every time a man is born there shall be a woman present--his mother, of course.

  The hag's reply, however, refers to the most famous and eternal battle of the sexes, and one specific interpretation of her riddling answer is that woman is the matrix out of which all change and human history must emerge; that wherever time and humanity intersect, there too must woman be (the alternations of time are suggested by the word "battle," by the rhythm of "lost and won," as well as by the matron's "born and dies and is born," the latter being reinterpreted anew in light of the hag's response).

  Thus, this very last sentence of Flesh leaves the work openended in the sense that the conflict between male and female can never be resolved totally in favour of either sex so lorg as human history remains a creative interplay between conscious and unconscious, reason and instinct, the erotic and inhibitory, the emotional and the contemplative, science and religion, tech- nology and ritual. Famer leaves his fictional universe in a state of dynamic incertitude as to its future, with both male and female societies in full flower. Insofar as human history requires both male and female components, Farmer's vision of humanity is anything but sexist: it is, rather, androgynous.


1) References are to the."Amended and Enlarged Edition," Noonday Press, 1966.

2) John Vickery, Robert Graves and the White Goddess is a readable survey of this theme throughout Graves's corpus. Not mentioned by Vickery is Graves's Watch the North Wind Rise (also published as Seven Days in New Crete), a novelistic treatment of the White Goddess that should be read closely with Robert Canary's analysis, "Utopian and Fantastic Dualities in Robert Graves's Watch the North Wind Rise," Science-Fiction Studies 1 (1973-4), 2 -255. This view of triune woman was anticipated in Freud's essay, "The Theme of the Three Caskets" (1913),pub- lished in vol. 12 of James Strachey's edition of the Complete Works (London, 1958), 290-301.

3) In this and many other of his mythological ideas, Graves is indebted to Frazer's Golden Bough (for details, see Vickery, 1-25), where one repeated and essential image is that of a vegetative deity whose career of birth, waxing powers, waning potency, death, and rebirth is modelled on the annual cycle of seasons. Graves retains the Dying God as his own central masculine symbol but makes the male secondary to the female, the latter remaining the inexhaustible repository of power, fertility, and immortality. Graves's major treatment of the Dying God as such is in his novel, King Jesus (for which, see Vickery 47-53). Two important general studies of Frazerian ideas and themes are Stanley Edgar Hyman, The Tangled Bank (New York, 1966), 187-291, and John B. Vickery, The Literary Impact of the Golden Bough (Princeton, 1973).

4) Northrop Frye, "Graves, Gods and Scholars," Hudson Review 9 (1956), 298-302, recognizes that much of what Graves has to say is sly, obscure satire against the modern world -- and his readers.

5) On p.18 Stagg is "surrounded by flesh" in the mob scene at his investiture as Dying God; on p.90 the god goes berserk and rides a giant stag into a crowd of priestesses--a "trap of lace and flesh"--dismembering and decapitating the women; on p. 96, Mary Casey refers to the Stagg body as a "cage of flesh"; on p.99 Stagg refers to his nightly orgies as "visions of screaming white flesh"; on p.119 his powerful hunger becomes a "fire raging within him, flesh devouring flesh." The other three references are no less significant and related to the title of the booki on P-38 the female biological surgeons of the Mother are described as "artists in flesh", on P.122 the Pants-Elfs give as the rationale for repressive treatment of women in their society that "the flesh was weak," and on p.160 Mary Casey expresses the same sentiment from the Caseyland perspective, declaring that it is obvious that men and women who spend time alone "must succumb to the flesh."

These and all subsequent page references are to the expanded Doubleday version of 1968 (in paperback, reprinted by Signet Science Fiction in 1969); Beacon Press published a shorter ver- sion in 1960.

6) Stagg himself recognizes the ambiguity- "...last night I enjoyed what I was doing. I had no inhibitions. I was living the, secret dream of every man--unlimited opportunity and inexhaustible ability. I was a god!" (P. 59, cf. p. 86).

7) "Thanks for the Feast," in The Book of Philip Josť Farmer (DAW Books, 1973), esp. 238-9.

8) Fiedler, ibid., 236-7; Rottensteiner,"Playing Around with Creation: Philip Josť Farmer," Science-Fiction Studies 1 (1973-4), 97. Unfortunately the latter article is almost solely the author's expression of his distaste for Farmer precisely in the three areas under discussion, and it is prescriptive criticism rather than analysis. For further criticism of Rottensteiner, see Damon Kniaht Science-Fiction Studies 1 (1973-4), 219-20 and 2 (1974-5), 89.

9) Love and Will (New York, 1969), esp. 163-4 and 170-72; cf. Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence (New York, 1972), for the transforming power of violence.

10) He turns up in Frazer's Golden Bough, and it is there that Farmer seems to have found him and not in Burns or Graves. See Vol. 5 [vol. 1 of Adonis Attis Osiris ] (3rd edition, London, 1914), 230-31. However, the figure of Tom Tobacco, who is clearly a doublet of Barleycorn, seems to be solely Farmer's conception and is a neat Frazerian imitation.

11) Love's Body (New York, 1966), 15 (the ancient reference is Livy 1.4-5).

I should at least mention Susan Brownmiller Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (Simon and Schuster, 1975, a new Feminist work that regards rape as a sustained political mechanism by means of which men intimidate women and keep them in their place; she regards rape as the sine qua non of male-oriented Western civilization.

12) Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic, R. Howard, trans. (Ithaca: Cornell Paperbacks), 1975, with Forward by Robert Scholes. I have reviewed the theory in "A Structuralist View of Fantasy," Extrapolation 16 (Dec. 1974), 45-47.