EXPERTS -- all kinds of experts -- love to gaze into the future. Having gazed, they love to tell the rest of us what they see coming. William Tucker noted in Book World just last month that there is "a whole cottage industry" of gazing experts. Their product: "computer printouts and two-volume studies, all continuously spewing out information telling us what the world is going to be like in the year 2020." One thing that nearly all these future worlds have in common is that they are depressing. Very scientific and very depressing.
It is not inevitable that imagined futures be dreary, however. Suppose that instead of a team of economists or the world's six leading demographers, a poet did the gazing. Suppose that poet was a well-known wit, and as much at home in prose as in poetry. Suppose him an enemy of the bureaucratic state.
But no need to suppose -- this work exists. It is Robert Graves' glorious novel Watch the North Wind Rise. It presents one of the oddest and most delightful futures I know. At times I can persuade myself that something like it might really happen.
The book opens around a thousand years from now, in a little kingdom in what is currently southern France. A poet from our own era named Edward Venn-Thomas has been summoned into the future. It is he who tells the story. As the book begins, he is just rubbing his eyes and coming to, in a house inhabited by the five magicians who summoned him. They are waiting in the next room while an interpreter who speaks English of the Late Christian period (that's us) helps him get his bearings.
The first thing Venn-Thomas notices is a wood fire, and that surprises him. "Prophets of my epoch," he says to the interpreter, "have promised a future in which atomic energy will supersede wood, coal, and electricity in domestic heating."
"That was a very temporary future and, according to the Brief History, not at all a happy one. Would you care for a drink?"
Venn-Thomas would love one, and the interpreter brings him a glass of beer and plate of pretzels. Both the glass and the plate are beautiful hand work, and Venn-Thomas asks if they are valuable.
This question baffles the interpreter. Finally he says, "IF you mean: 'are they valued as worthy of daily use?' the answer is, that we use no objects that are not so valued."
No, no answers Venn-Thomas impatiently. "What I meant was: do they cost a lot of money?"
"Money? Money went out of use long, long ago. It misbehaved, you see."
It's already obvious that this future is different from any that Kemp or Roth would foresee. It becomes even more obvious when the interpreter takes Venn-Thomas into the next room to meet the five magicians. One is a witch -- a quite beautiful witch in her early '30s -- named Leaf-of-the-Sallow. She is still dressed for the evocation: conical moleskin hat, long embroidered robe, bare feet painted blue. Another is a nymph (literal sense) of about 20 called Sapphire. Three are male poets. Together they form the complement of magicians in the village of Horned Lamb. Like every other village, it is divided into five estates: captains, recorders (the interpreter is of this estate), commons, magicians, and servants, corresponding to the five fingers of the hand.
In addition to falling instantly in love with Sapphire, Venn-Thomas now begins to get from the magicians a systematic account of the world he is in. Things have changed a lot.
Just for starters, Christianity and all other male-dominated religions have vanished utterly: Humanity worships The Goddess, one of whose names is Mari. High technology has also vanished, with man interesting results. For example, not only are there no computers spewing data out, there isn't even printing. This is the result of a conscious decision to keep the quantity of stored knowledge within the grasp of a human mind. What about the poet-magicians of Horned Lamb, you wonder. How do they publish? Answer: Any poet, on coming of age, is given 20 small silver plates on which he may have poems engraved. That's his life supply. It tends to make writers quite selective about what they choose to publish.
Clocks have also been abolished. ("Since Time is money,/ Time must be destroyed," that great future poet Vives wrote.) One of my favorite details in the book describes the way in which school starts in the morning. It can hardly begin on the dot of 8:30. Instead what happens in each village is that sooner or later children begin to drift over to the schoolhouse. When the third child arrives, he or she rings the bell. Then the teacher and the other children set out, and the school day begins.
What has replaced time, money, and machinery is ritual, handicraft, and love. This is a world a little like the Middle Ages, in that everything is entensely local and personal. Events shine in the same bright clear colors. But mainl it is a world like no other at all.
Venn-Thomas also learns from the magicians how that world came into being. What happened was that sometime along about 2020, or maybe it was 2200, science achieved full control of our planet. Government became totally rational, and world-wide. War ceased; religion withered away to scattered sects; the doctrine called Economic Logicalism ruled supreme.
At that point a disease called colabromania began to strike the best, coldest, and most rational thinkers. It took this form: They began to whirl like dervishes, foam at the mouth, and commit acts of insane violence. This is the work of Mari. She has decided that male logic, fomented by Zeus, Jehovah, Allah, etc., has had a long enough run, and that it is time to restore rule by feminine impulse and insight.
People in 2020 or whenever don't know that; the just know that the best scientists are all going nuts (they have to be "lethalized"), and that government is breaking down. An Israeli anthropologist named ben-Yeshu comes to the rescue. He concludes that mankind took a wrong turn somewhere in the remote past, and that experiments are needed to find out where. He persuades the world council to set up enclaves: A Stone Age culture, Bronze Age, and so on. One of these enclaves comprises the island of Crete, and it reproduces Minoan culture (as Graves imagines it), complete with worship of the Mother Goddess. Within a century or two, New Cretan ideas are dominant; and it is to one of the many small New Cretan kingdoms that Venn-Thomas gets summoned. War, incidentally, makes a vigorous reappearance in New Cretan culture, with all sorts of splendid fighting -- but hardly any casualties. One of the best sections in the book describes the war between the polyandrous village of Rabnon and the monogamous village of Zapmor, fought from dawn to dark on a Tuesday. (All wars are fought on Tuesdays.) The two-village feast afterward makes quite a scene, too.
Watch the North Wind Rise is a book so rich in style and plot, so profoundly mythic and at the same time so lightly comic, not to mention so full of twists, turns, and reversals, that there is simply no way to communicate its full flavor. I won't even try. Perhaps the best I can do is to report that when I first read it, I spent many a night all but literally praying to Mari that the next time the magicians of New Crete evoke a few people from our century, I get to be one of them. I think almost anyone who is bored with printouts will feel the same.