Lewis Spence (1874 – 1955) published his prophetic account Will Europe Follow Atlantis in 1943 in the depth of the war. Spence, beginning as a journalist and folklorist, had made an enduring reputation by the early 1920s as a major authority on myth and legend, certifying his knowledge of those subjects in numerous books on the ancient stories of the Celts, the Rhineland Germans, the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, and the Mesoamericans. These extremely useful compendia remain in print. In 1924, however, Spence issued a book that gained him notoriety for a different although related reason. This book was The Problem of Atlantis, a study of Plato’s Atlantis Myth in its twin sources, the dialogues Timaeus and Critias, of related stories in myth and folklore, and, with a survey of geology and ethnology, of the plausibility of Plato’s account.
In The Problem of Atlantis, Spence, in jazz terminology, played it cool. While arguing for a factual basis of the narrative in the Platonic texts, Spence avoided the occult vision of Atlantis as a prehistoric Utopia founded on lost sciences and technologies. He insisted on sober evaluation of the evidence, arriving at the conclusion that Atlantis had existed, as Plato wrote, in the oceanic gap between Western Europe and North America; that it was, prior to its submergence, a High Stone Age, what modern commentators would call an Upper Neolithic, society; and that, during a prolonged breakup of its landmass requiring many centuries, its inhabitants migrated via North Africa and Iberia to Europe’s Atlantic littoral areas and the British Isles. Ensconced in those new bases, they did their best to preserve their traditions and codify the knowledge of their origin. The fleeing Atlanteans, whom Spence calls Aurignacians, and whom he identifies with the Cro-Magnons, also crossed the ocean in the other direction, contributing to the cultural matrix of the emerging societies in North and South America. Spence’s argument about Atlantis was a radical version of a then-current anthropological theory known as dissemination or cultural radiation, which posited a monogenesis for human culture.
Spence’s subsequent books on Atlantis and on the related topic of Lemuria at first maintained the cautious approach of The Problem of Atlantis. Later, as Spence became increasingly fascinated by the Atlantis Myth as a symbolic articulation of the structure of reality, his interpretation of the evidence became more metaphysical than archeological. He seems to have taken a cue from that master of Christian-Platonist allegoresis, Origen, whose comments on the Biblical catastrophes he cites in his later work. Spence began to think in symbols rather than in literalistic propositions so put as to appear as scientific as possible. The trend culminated in Will Europe Follow Atlantis and The Occult Sciences in Atlantis (1944). Modern readers of a logical-positivistic or politically correct inclination will have no idea what to make of such discourse, being committed, as they are, to various totally reductive views of human and cosmic existence. Even sympathetic readers of The Problem of Atlantis might find Spence’s later thesis that moral actions invite cosmic reactions difficult to accept despite the fact that it is none other than the Tragic view of Aeschylus in the Oresteia and of Plato in Critias. Spence’s Atlantis in America (1925) belongs, however, to its author’s earlier phase.
Atlantis in America, with its companion-volume The Problem of Lemuria (1932), also provides the background to a sub-sub-genre of Twentieth-Century popular fiction that riffs, to borrow another jazz term, on the basic Atlantis Myth by transferring it to the West Coast of North America. As does most everything that Spence wrote, Atlantis in America offers considerable entertainment and makes arguments that remain within the horizon of more or less plausible speculation. Even if there were no sunken continent in the Mid-Pacific, ocean-levels would nevertheless have fallen and risen over the millennia and that would mean that pelagic regions that once reared above the waves later dropped below them and vice versa. Submergence has undoubtedly forced the evacuation of some low-lying atolls. Geology will even affirm that, at one time, the Channel Islands were connected tot her Southern California mainland.
The prehistory of North America has an official codification that is both simplistic, like a moral fable intended for children, and difficult to reconcile with all the known facts: Thirteen thousand years ago at the end of the last glacial period (so the schoolbook fable asserts) when the ice was retreating but the Aleutian land-bridge was still in existence, red-skinned hunter-gatherers crossed from Siberia to Alaska; gradually, generation after generation, they spread themselves across the hitherto unpopulated continental expanse. In the Sixteenth Century, Europeans showed up; they immediately and aggressively began the programmatic humiliation of the peaceable aborigines. The facts suggest a far more complicated story, with several waves crossing from Siberia into Alaska at different times, and with influxes from the Old World by people, Spence’s very Aurignacians, who “coasted” from Iberia in a northward-swinging arc past Atlantic Europe and who, finally, established themselves along the American East Coast from the Canadian Maritimes to the Carolinas. These wanderers from Europe might have arrived as long ago as thirty thousand years. It is tempting to link them to monumental artifacts like the Ohio Valley “mounds,” which betoken the existence of societies, today nameless and unhistoried, whose organization differed in quality from that of the “Red Indians” of the easy-to-digest, because insipid, textbook account.
As far back as 1832, William Cullen Bryant turned his speculative eye on the anomalous character of the “mounds.” In Bryant’s poem “The Prairies,” the poet speculates concerning what those structures signified and who had planned and raised them. The probing mind suspects that, “a race, / that long has passed away, / built them.” It was, the poem continues, “a disciplined and populous race” that –
Heaped, with long toil, the earth, while yet the Greek
Was hewing the Pentelicus to forms
Of symmetry, and rearing on its rock
The glittering Parthenon. These ample fields
Nourished their harvests, here their herds were fed,
When haply by their stalls the bison lowed,
And bowed his maned shoulder to the yoke.
All day this desert murmured with their toils,
Till twilight blushed, and lovers walked, and wooed
In a forgotten language, and old tunes,
From instruments of unremembered form,
Gave the soft winds a voice. The red man came –
The roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce,
And the mound-builders vanished from the earth.
The solitude of centuries untold
Has settled where they dwelt.
For Bryant, the imposing tumuli relate not to a medieval timeline corresponding with the Gothic Lady-Churches, as some scholars in the poet’s day argued, but rather to a far older chronology considerably anterior to the acme of Classical Greek civilization in Fifth-Century BC Athens – hence the reference to the Parthenon. Before the Athens of Pericles came Homer’s Age of Heroes, the ones who sang their swansong in besieging Troy. Bryant puts the American hill-forts or temples – or whatever they were functionally – in what modern archeology would call the Bronze Age. In Bryant’s scenario, the “hunter-tribes” fill the role of the Dorians or “Sons of Hercules,” whose “return,” according to Herodotus’ account of post-Homeric legend, violently brought an end to the kingdoms that, under Agamemnon’s confederation, wrought the violent end of Troy. Bryant’s versified speculation bespeaks an audacity which the modern prosaic mentality tries to in vain achieve. The poet’s phrase “vanished from the earth” resembles a euphemism, but it belongs especially in the category of litotes. More importantly, Bryant’s verbal figure signifies a profession of ignorance before a mystery, combined with a sense of awe, precisely what the buttoned collars of the academy never allow or experience.
Spence, that ultra-diligent browser of dusty archives and culler of long-shelved curiosities, contemplated North America’s anomalous relics with the same audacious intuition of a Homeric catastrophe as had Bryant. Of course, Spence saw the evidence, including the rich lore of myths and sagas of the North American tribes, under his general thesis of the Sunken Continent. Spence summarizes the starting-point of his investigation in Atlantis in America: “A great continent formerly occupied the whole or major portion of the North Atlantic Region, and a considerable portion of its southern basin.” Over geological time this continent “experienced many changes in contour and mass, probably undergoing frequent submergence and emergence” until at the end of the Micoene period “it began to disintegrate, owing to successive volcanic and other causes.” These cataclysms resulted finally in “two island-continents,” the ones known to legend as Atlantis and Antillia. According to Spence, “Final disaster appears to have overtaken Atlantis about 10,000 B.C.,” while, on the other hand, “Antillia… seems to have survived until a much more recent period, and still exists fragmentally [sic] in the Antillean group, or West India Islands.” One cohort of Atlantean refugees reached Antillia, from which, when new catastrophe struck, they sought safety in the Americas.
In Mesoamerica, the ex-Antilleans, who were the descendants of the ex-Atlanteans, established the cultural matrix of the Maya civilization. In his wartime masterpiece Will Europe Follow Atlantis (1943), Spence expresses the opinion that the Maya gradually repeated the pattern of cultural corruption that had afflicted the society of the Mother Continent in its last phase. Just as the oceanic waters that overwhelmed Atlantis constituted a kind of divine justice; so too, the jungles that devoured the Mayan cities obeyed the logic of cosmic retribution against moral wickedness. Spence rejects the standing view of the Ohio Valley mounds as relics of a peaceful elder race, the view taken by Bryant in his poem. Spence regards the earthen towers as evidence, rather, of cultural re-radiation from Mesoamerica to North America, proleptically implicating them, or rather their dereliction, in his later theory that criminal reprobation among men invites from the cosmos itself condign punishment just as surely as, in physics, any action invites its reaction. In Atlantis in America, Spence writes, “Their structures, indeed, are much too similar to the teocalli pyramids of Mexico not to have had a common origin with these, and when we learn that human sacrifice was occasionally celebrated on their summits, little more proof is required to make it clear that the race which introduced them into the Mississippi region was one and the same with that which raised the horrid pyramids of slaughter to Uitzilopochtli and his brother in Mexico.” Spence also finds that “the erections of the Mound Builders can scarcely be anything else than reminiscences of the sacred hill of Atlantis,” as described by Plato in the Critias.
Atlantis in America devotes its antepenultimate chapter to “The Analogy of Lemuria.” Just as the cumulus of geological facts, myths, folk memories, archeological remains, artistic styles, and religious practices points, as Spence sees it, to a monistic ethogenesis in the Lost Continent with subsequent radiation to Europe and the eastern parts of North America; so again a similar congeries of natural and cultural facts requires for its explanation a Pacific-Ocean counterpart of Atlantis, the hypothetical Lemuria of the zoologists. “There seems to be good reason,” Spence writes, “for the inference that this Pacific land persisted until comparatively recent geological times.” Spence cites “the immense dry-stone monuments of Easter Island” and “other mysterious cyclopean ruins,” such as those at Ponape, as evidence of a submerged “archipelagic empire” that existed in the final phase of Lemuria. In The Problem of Lemuria, Spence discovers numerous instances in Pacific-Island myth of submerged terrains, to the escape from whose overwhelming this or that pelagic race assigns its origin. Spence finds parallels between Polynesian and Greek lore: “Lemuria, like Atlantis, had its Poseidon, but one who was much more furiously disposed than the oceanic deity of the Atlantic, earthquake-begetter as he undoubtedly was.” A reminiscence of this proto-deity “is repeated in the Polynesian god Whiro, a cyclonic deity” who in one iteration “is a god of the underworld [who torments] mankind with eruption and cataclysm.”
Spence remarks how these far-flung myths of the South Seas frequently foreground the theme of divine retribution. The heavenly powers sent catastrophe to effectuate “the destruction of human elements [that] refused to recognize the ‘way’ of the gods, the path of righteousness which had been laid down by [the gods] for humanity.” Polynesian narrative thus also parallels Plato’s interpretation of the Atlantis Myth and the Bible’s Deluge Story. In The Problem of Lemuria, Spence denies the implication of the myths that “the celestial powers destroyed Atlantis and Lemuria because of their moral infirmities.” Spence means only that “the peoples of the ancient world construed visitation by earthquake or volcanic eruption and consequent submergence as of the nature of dire punishment.” Eleven years later, however, in Will Europe Follow Atlantis, Spence accepts what The Problem of Lemuria prudently calls “allegorical reasons for divine punitive action” as indicative of the actual chastising responsiveness of the cosmos to moral offenses. When similar myths appear among the tribes and nations of the coasts of North and South America and of Pacific Asia, Spence sees further vindication of a foundered landmass.
Spence naturally takes interest in the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Andean Cordillera, but he also mentions the coastal peoples of North America in his survey of Lemurian evidence. Spence writes: “The Ascochimi of California had a flood myth which recounted the drowning of the world so that no man escaped. But by planting the feathers of various birds the Coyote grew a crop of men of [diverse] tribes.” Generally speaking, according to Spence, “the Indians of the north-west coast of America still possess many customs resembling those of the Oceanic peoples.” Spence encourages his readers to have confidence in him when he remarks that “wild theories regarding [Lemuria’s] occupation by a race with superhuman attributes cannot be entertained.” As with Atlantis, “we must imagine the culture of Lemuria to be that of the late Stone Age,” but it is also important to remember that “the New Stone Age… was an epoch of very considerable culture.” Following the pattern attested in archeology, Lemurian culture must have boasted “a religion and probably a theology of high advancement from which, indeed, our modern systems of religion and thought have descended.” Spence goes so far as to speculate that the equivalent of the Greek Mystery Religions existed in Lemuria, as it did, primordially, in Atlantis. If remnant religious practices in the radial areas revealed little evidence of this, it would be because such a refined cultus suffered suppression by savage conquerors or by degenerate insurrectionists in its place of origin before the final catastrophe. Nevertheless, Spence concludes, “there can be little doubt that the professors of the ancient Lemurian Mysteries found a refuge in one or other of the lands surrounding the Pacific Ocean.” Spence attributes credibility to the rumor that “in knowledgeable occult circles… a definite legend is handed down to initiates concerning the fate and destiny of the Lemurian schools of religion.”
Hints such as these dropped by Spence – and their assertive counterparts in the rather less staid books of James Churchward (1851 – 1936), who referred to Lemuria as “Mu” – exercised great appeal among other, later writers in both the fiction and non-fiction categories, which, where it concerns this toic, not infrequently overlap. In the compendious Hidden Realms, Lost Civilizations, and Beings from Other Worlds (2010), the strictly skeptical Jerome Clark records numerous instances of the occult story that colonies or vestiges of the supernatural Lemuria, which Spence explicitly rejected, exist in places of concealment on and around Lassen Peak and Mount Shasta, in California, and northward through the whole of the Cascade Range in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Interested parties should examine Clark’s book, which richly rewards perusal. One of Clark’s sources for the Lemuria-in-the-Cascades tradition, W. S. Cervé’s Lemuria the Lost Continent of the Pacific (Rosicrucian Society 1931 with a sixth edition a late as 1954), is especially apposite to the present discussion. The W in W. S. Cervé stands for “Wishar,” but beyond that not even the omniscient Internet has anything to say. Cervé tantalizes connoisseurs of lost-continent lore by affirming that, before its devastation, Lemuria’s eastern maritime province included present-day California from the coastline to the Sierra Nevada Range and the southern extent of the Cascades.
Cervé’s Lemurians conform to the Theosophical model, based ultimately on Helena Blavatsky’s speculations in The Secret Doctrine (1888). Cervé describes his subjects as tall, fair, tending to blond, and as wholly virtuous in their habits. “The ears were smaller than we find them today but the nostrils were larger and the nose broader.” A protrusion on the forehead marked the presence of a subcutaneous “third eye,” sensitive to psychic emanations. As one might expect, these saintly supermen “lived principally upon vegetables and fruits,” disdaining the hunt or animal husbandry because they disdained meat. The Lemurians traded by the sea-lanes with South America, powering their ships by means of “certain stones… which had a peculiar activity which affected water.” They used steam for locomotion on land and employed windmills in industry. They derived illumination indoors from radioactive decay. Despite their technological competency, the Lemurians were a spiritual rather than a material people. They “learned the lessons of life and attained mastership through perseverance, industry, study, and cooperation with the highest laws,” as Cervé writes; and furthermore “they had the advantage of being free from the contaminating influence of false knowledge and a material conception of life.” Lemurian history is, moreover, not only thousands of years old, but hundreds of thousands of years old.
In the chapter entitled “Mysterious California” Cervé writes, “There is a sweet loveliness about the spirit of the people, accompanied by a broad toleration for all viewpoints, for all religions, all customs, and habits, and a united determination to make life worth living and to make the enjoyment of life a primary motive rather than a secondary one.” This is so, of course, because the Lemurian aura lingers in the place, radiating from buried monuments, and sustained by an actual, but concealed, Lemurian presence. “The stranger, therefore, is never surprised when the first citizen of this western Republic begins to tell him of the uncommon things to be seen or even heard in the daytime or the night.” The cumulus and remnant of hundreds of thousands of years of development make the State of California actually “the oldest inhabited, cultivated, civilized land on the face of the earth that is still in the same physical form, and in the same environment, as when God first created it.” Cervé claims the Chumash people, whose range was the Channel Islands and the coastal region from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, as “direct descendants of the Lemurians.” He attributes to the Chumash, the rumored but unattested prehistoric fortification of the Channel Islands and the creation ubiquitously in California of “an architecture distinctly their own” whose deeply buried remains the archeologist’s shovel has yet to detect. In the chapter entitled “Present-Day Mystic Lemurians in California” Cervé tells of strange nocturnal lights seen in remote places in California, especially near Mount Shasta, and of encounters with charismatic white-robed people who guide lost hikers to safety or appear in town to make odd purchases. These Lemurians live in subterranean cities into whose precincts they sometimes conduct a few carefully vetted outsiders, who undoubtedly experience occult initiation. One consequence of this subtle influence is that California is, for Cervé, the most “progressive” of the then forty-eight states.
Poet, story-writer, painter, sculptor, farmer, handyman, correspondent of H. P. Lovecraft, and lifelong resident of Auburn, California, Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961) was perhaps destined to participate in the tradition of Atlantean and Lemurian lore by the fact that his father’s given name was Timeus, no less. Where Spence treats the topics of Atlantis and Lemuria as tragic myth and Cervé as utopian narrative, Smith treats it as a combination of Swiftian satire, invariably tongue-in-cheek, and Baudelairean poetic apocalypse. Smith indeed began his authorial career as the writer of exquisite lyric poetry consciously and studiously modeled after the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, a Catholic reactionary who refused to participate in the euphoria of Progress. Smith gained a wider audience, however, when, to eke out his living during the Great Depression, he began to submit stories to Weird Tales, a “pulp” monthly specializing in lurid exploitations of horrific and supernatural themes. A great many of Smith’s stories have their setting in one or another disintegrating continent, all of which are home to a variety of baroquely corrupt civilizations. Hyperborea and Poseidonis belong in the remote past, but Smith places Zothique in the far future. All three are tropes, not only of Atlantis and Lemuria, but also of modernity, reflecting many of its aspects, and are intended by their author to show the direction in which the vaunted Progress tends.
In Smith’s versions of Atlantis and Lemuria, which reflect the autodidact small-town-dweller’s experience of Metropolitan California in San Francisco and Los Angeles, those New Babylons built atop a major earthquake fault, everyone is a lore-versed hyper-aesthete – and everyone implacably resents and hates everyone else. Smith attuned himself to see modernity as the triumph of resentment over generosity through his immersion in Baudelaire, who preceded Friedrich Nietzsche in that type of acuity. Inspecting the future, Smith, like Baudelaire, saw no “sweet loveliness,” but rather pervasive Cainite invidiousness expressing itself in magical-technical expertise, inveterate status-seeking, and cults of refined (that is to say, debased) sadomasochism. When Smith invoked the past, he did so to hold up a mirror to the present, as Spence had done in Will Europe Follow Atlantis. Just about any of Smith’s stories is therefore implicitly an answer to the question whether California will follow Atlantis, and for Smith the question is unavoidably prejudicial and self-answering. “The Empire of the Necromancers” (Weird Tales September 1932) offers itself as a case in point. In it, the “Golden State” appears allegorically in its true guise, not as the gateway to a radiant future, but as the Abendland in the moment of its Untergang.
The narrator’s self-invocation at the beginning of the tale is, of itself, pregnant with significance, but only for its reader, and not for the imaginary person who makes it. Normally the story teller invokes his muse, but in this case there is no muse – only the weight of degenerate matter, abandoned by the gods, and gradually decaying into demon-infested nothingness. Smith gives to his exhausted bard these words: “The legend of Mmatmuor and Sodosma shall arise only in the latter cycles of Earth, when the glad legends of the prime have been forgotten… Perhaps in that day it will serve to beguile for a while the black weariness of a dying race, grown hopeless of all but oblivion.” Mmatmuor and Sodosma – the latter’s name being related seemingly to the Biblical story of the Cities of the Plain – are necromancers, driven from Tinarath by the outraged inhabitants, who make their way to Yethlyreom, the ancient imperial city of Cincor, which has ages before succumbed to the desert, and whose “lofty spires and fair unbroken domes” are, when the two wizards first glimpse them, “steeped in the darkening stagnant blood of ominous sunset.” Mmatmuor and Sodosma wreak their spells to call forth the dead, over whom they propose to rule, as slave-masters over their slaves.
Not only in “The Empire,” but in Smith’s other tales of Zothique, the reanimated dead, whether skeletal or lichenous, act under beguiling compulsion to return to the “diverse tasks” of their daily routines in labor and repose. The dead, resurrected by the magicians, “heard and saw and felt with a similitude of the senses that had been theirs before death; but their brains were enthralled by a dreadful necromancy.” The image is a nightmarish one, but it is also darkly comic. Readers should take it as satirical – Smith’s Bohemian vision of the all-assimilating middle-class existence that evolved its consumerist, media-dominated routines of life in California’s ever-expanding suburbs in the middle of the last century. Illeiro and Hestiyon differ from the other tyrannized dead in that they belonged before death to the higher echelons of the society and were more conscious, when in life, than others both of themselves and of the social order that gave them station. Illeiro “recalled the pomp of his reign in Yethlyreom, and the golden pride and exultation that had been his in youth.” As he remembers, as Smith writes, Illeiro “felt a vague stirring of revolt, a ghostly resentment against the magicians who had haled him forth to this calamitous mockery of life.” The former king and his former chief-priest retrieve the talismans that effectuate tyrannicide, but once resentment slakes itself of its thirst there is no rejoicing. The liberated slaves descend into a chasm beneath the palace where everyone throws himself into a volcanic cleft.
Like Cervé’s California, Smith’s Zothique is undermined by tunnels, caverns, and sunless seas. For Cervé, the Rosicrucian and Theosophist, such places are the asylums of the ancient benevolent Lemurians, who occasionally venture forth to prevent human foolishness. For Smith, the Baudelairean prophet, the same places can be only one thing: The redoubts of the demons whose notion of duty is to raise envy among human beings to a homicidal pitch. In “Necromancy in Naat” (Weird Tales July 1936), the two necromancer sons of the High Necromancer reveal to the protagonist that, “It is our thought that Vachar [their father] has lived beyond the allotted term, and has imposed his authority on us too long.” They judge it “rightful” that, as Smith gives it to them to say, “We should inherit the stored treasures and the magical supremacy of our father ere age has debarred us from their enjoyment.” To this end they seek the protagonist’s help, but the only result is the total devastation of the already depopulated Naat. In a letter to Lester Anderson (22 May 1932) Smith writes, “Devolution is a grand theme.” Having mulled over its implication, Smith concludes that, “I rather suspect that Darwin inadvertently dropped a d when he promulgated his famous theory,” adding that, “the sort of evolution that is going on is hardly upward.”
In a letter to Genevieve K. Sully (23 July 1932) Smith speculates about a story that he would like to write, “a super-scientific satire, farcical but devastating,” in which “atavistic undesirables, such as poets who wrote in rhyme and meter, and musicians who employed harmony, were banished by means of a super-electric projector!” In the letter to Anderson previously cited, Smith defends the fantastic genres, and links the professorial rejection of them to his “devolution” theme: “As to the popular condemnation of the weird by readers and reviewers, it seems to me that this can be simply and solely accounted for by a lack of imagination. The nearer people are to the animal, the feebler their powers of imagination and abstraction.” Smith had been studying the literature of Atlantis and Lemuria. He had written to H. P. Lovecraft (16 November 1930) that, “I have just been reading [Ignatius T. Donnelly] on Atlantis, which strikes me as being quite solidly done.” In the same letter he mentions “the book by James Churchward, The Lost Continent of Mu,” which he finds “truly interesting, especially in the mass of data relating to South Sea ruins.” In Churchward’s book, Smith would have run across this statement in Chapter XIV: “The orthodox theory among scientists of today is that man came up from a brute beast to a savage, and from savagery traveled on by degrees until he reached civilization. I do not stand alone when I say that savagery came out of civilization, not civilization out of savagery.”
Smith’s stories of Zothique – and Hyperborea and Poseidonis – ensconce themselves firmly in the tradition of Atlantean narrative stemming from Plato and inspiring eccentric late Nineteenth- and early Twentieth-Century writers like Donnelly, Churchward, and especially Lewis Spence. Smith grasps the mythic, cosmic, and moral purports of the Lost-Continent idea, whether it manifests itself in quasi-non-fiction as Plato’s Atlantis and its avatars or as their Pacific-Ocean counterpart, Lemuria. The great landmasses foundered because their inhabitants trespassed every limit of righteousness and decency. In terms of moral causality, the people undermined the very ground of their social existence, thereby guaranteeing their descent into the abyss; they became parricides, fratricides, and regicides and habituated themselves to the grossest of entertainments, at the expense of others. Finally, criminal hubris solicited cosmic chastisement, the cataclysm of which reduced any survivors to mute bestiality. The cause-effect sequence illustrates Churchward’s point, which is also Spence’s, that civilization gives rise to savagery. In a letter to R. H. Barlow (16 May 1937), using Swiftian language, Smith refers to his country, by which he means not only the larger USA but also and more locally his own California, as “hell-bedunged and heaven-bespitted.” Announcing that he has “no faith in any political or economic isms, schisms, [or] panaceas,” he articulates his judgment that, “no matter what system you have – Capitalism, Fascism, Bolshevism – the greed and power-lust of men will produce the same widespread injustice, the same evils and abuses: or will merely force them to take slightly different forms.”
No writer could differ more from Smith in personality, convictions, and style than Robert Anson Heinlein (1907 – 1988). Two of Heinlein’s short stories nevertheless make a bid to be included under the prevailing topic. One, “The Year of the Jackpot” (Galaxy March 1952), bleakly satirizes the vulgarity and nuttiness of Californian, or more particularly Angeleno, culture in the context of an implacable end-of-the-world scenario. The other, earlier one, “Water is for Washing” (Argosy November 1947), also taking place in Southern California, tells a grim tale of survival in the diluvian aftermath of a great earthquake. “Water is for Washing” is more compelling than “The Year of the Jackpot,” but the latter, being more editorial than the former, divulges Heinlein’s phiosophical premises with greater clarity. The two protagonists of “The Year of the Jackpot” are Potiphar “Potty” Breen, a statistician, and Meade Barstow, a young woman in her twenties whom Breen first glimpses in the act of denuding herself on a Los Angeles street corner. As onlookers, apart from Breen, Heinlein furnishes “the corner newsboy [and] a mixed pair of transvestites,” one of whom is “a female attorney.” There are no more newsboys in Los Angeles, but of transvestites and female attorneys there is probably an oversupply.
Before Heinlein permits Breen to notice the “amateur ecdysiast,” he lets readers in on what momentarily has traction with the statistician’s interest. In the Times, the Herald Express, and the Daily News, Breen has been taking notes from stories about “maximum and minimum temperatures in Brownsville, Texas,” “a publicity release in which Miss National Cottage Cheese announced that she intended to marry and have twelve children by a man who could prove that he had been a life-long vegetarian,” “a circumstantial but wildly unlikely flying saucer report,” and testimonials by “three residents of Watts, California, who had been miraculously healed at a tent-meeting of the God-is-All First Truth Brethren by the Reverend Dickie Bottomley” – random crazy events. Indeed, when, having rescued Miss Barstow, Breen inquires why she pealed her clothes at a bus stop, she can only answer with, “I don’t know” and “I guess I just went crazy.” Breen tells her that she is “the three hundred and nineteenth case in Los Angeles County since the first of the year” of a young woman who suddenly felt compelled to strip naked. Compulsion is Breen’s leading notion.
Breen tells Miss Barstow about lemmings: “Those furry mouselike creatures… that periodically make a death migration until millions and millions of them drown themselves.” The individual lemming finds itself absorbed in a collective compulsion. It is not even certain that the compulsion comes from the lemming collective. If the individual lemming were articulate and if it received an inquiry why he went along, the creature would “rationalize his answer as well as any college graduate,” but the reply would not exceed rationalization. Breen also tells Miss Barstow about cycles. He says, “Cycles are everything.” There are cosmic, geological, biological, and sociological cycles, which seem to correlate. Thus, says Breen, “You can correlate sun spots with stock prices, or Columbia River salmon, or women’s skirts.” He adds, “You are just as much justified in blaming short skirts for sun spots as you are in blaming sun spots for salmon.” When Miss Barstow objects that “there has to be some reason behind it,” Breen replies: “A fact has no ‘why.’ There it stands, self-demonstrating.” Moreover, Breen’s research suggests that numerous cycles are cycling toward convergence in such a way that events are becoming increasingly chaotic and destabilized. Breen convinces Miss Barlow to join him in a survivalist attempt to escape the inevitable doomsday.
Doomsday comes swiftly. An earthquake submerges most of coastal California. Simultaneously, a nuclear exchange occurs between the Soviet Union and the USA, one consequence of which is the annihilation of what remains of Los Angeles. While epidemics of nudism sweep the surviving cities of North America, and outbursts of revivalism draw millions from what remains of organized routine, volcanoes go off all over the world, and plagues break out everywhere. In their mountain asylum in the Sierra Nevada Range, Breen studies astrophysical journals. One evening when Miss Barlow notices that “something funny is happening to the sunset,” Breen replies: “No, darling – to the sun.” All the cycles, from the sociological to the astrophysical, have converged, as the sun goes nova. It is, as Heinlein writes, “THE END.” A traditional fini is, however, not appropriate because there is no story. That is the point of Breen’s and presumably Heinlein’s denial that consciousness has either meaning or causal effectiveness. It is the opposite of Plato’s Atlantis Myth and of Spence’s exegesis thereof, both of which suppose meaning, objective morality, and causal effectiveness.
Where “The Year of the Jackpot” suggests the ragged first draft of an unwritten novel, “Water is for Washing” exemplifies Heinlein in total stylistic control by neither wasting nor misplacing as much as a single word. An earthquake bounces a traveling salesman’s car off the road at night on a lonely highway in California’s Imperial Valley. While the salesman changes a blown tire other vehicles speed past him. Driving north, he hears behind him “a train in the distance.” Soon, however, “the sound was recast in his mind.” It is a wall of water pouring into the valley from the south. A vagrant whom the salesman picks up tells him: “That’s no river, Mac. That’s the Gulf.” The social complications involving two stranded children humanize the story, but the imagery is foremost – the implacable rising tide, desperate people and animals seeking the refuge of a few high points, the “unbroken waste of water, stretching from the Chocolate Mountains beyond where the Salton Sea had been, to the nearer hills on the west.” Heinlein recognizes the element of sublimity in a major geological event and succeeds in conveying it. He has a feeling also for the signs of ancient catastrophes in the California landscape – like the lower-than-sea-level depressions such as the Salton Sea, where his story takes place.
In an essay antecedent to this one – “Will Europe Follow Atlantis” – I remarked on the cinematic imagination that seemed to inspire Spence’s speculations in the book from which I took my title, especially in the chapter where he describes in detail how Central Europe might be rent asunder by a seismic upheaval and the seas flood the abyss. It is not impossible that Spence had seen the American film Deluge (1933), which depicts a worldwide catastrophe that obliterates civilization, even devoting a fifteen-minute sequence to the violent destruction of New York City by earthquake and tidal wave. Again, Spence might well have seen the H. G. Wells-Alexander Korda film Things to Come (1936), which features a civilization-destroying war in extended sequences. Setting to work in 1965, veteran commercial writer Robert Moore Williams (1907 – 1977) might hopefully have had Hollywood in mind. If the disaster-melodrama Earthquake (1974) never exactly plagiarized Williams’ Second Atlantis, it would have avoided trespass by the narrowest of margins.
The Second Atlantis centers its storyline, in functional prose, on a single sample-family of Southern Californians, the Grays, an engineer, his wife, and their six-year-old daughter; but Williams anticipates the formula of the cinematic disaster-melodrama by surrounding the main story-line with numerous sub-plots, all of which converge in the climax. There is a cult-leader, Propher the Prophet; a playboy millionaire, two petty criminals, and a wino, who lives under the Santa Monica Pier. None emerges as a full character. Each serves rather as a minimally personalized point-of-view from whose perspective Williams can describe aspects of the cataclysm. The dialogue is as perfunctory as one might imagine, but the novel rises towards appreciability in its author’s recurrent editorial comments. “It was not that there was no warning of the coming horror,” Williams writes in the novel’s first sentence. When cities arise on active seismic faults or the slopes of volcanoes, the story writes its own end. “Possibly historians and psychologists in the future will ponder the question of why men will sit in the shadow of coming death,” Williams writes, “and wait to be gulped down to destruction rather than take steps in advance to save their lives and the lives of their families.” The author-narrator anticipates a range of answers to his own question: “Was it blind stupidity? Or was the blindness the action of karmic justice, a way to pay off by suffering and death the agony inflicted on others in a bygone age?”
Williams implicates California in the trope of civilization’s “westering.” In California, the old restless “westering” comes to its full stop because once arrived on the golden beaches “there was simply no place left on Earth to go.” It is more than mere geographical arrest, however, for Williams discerns symptoms of a cultural malaise. When the age-old movement stops, it stagnates and deracinates: “No one now knew what their homelands had once been”; the lotus-intoxication obliterates memory, and evaporates identity. Indeed, the sweet climate and the ease of the take-off economy have combined to enervate the people: “A mass of humanity had piled itself high on the shores of the western sea and had sat down there, drooling like idiots, to wait for the death which they refused to believe was coming.” Williams’ sentence is not rigorously grammatical, but despite the iteration’s formal disorder, it tells the reader that even when an old penny-a-word man turns, late in his career, to the Atlantis Myth, his vision deepens – as much as it can – and he tries to philosophize.
In describing the quake, Williams even produces something like a mythic symbol. As Jim Gray feels the first jolt of the temblor, which opens a fissure across his front lawn, he suddenly sees a rattlesnake, appearing out of the cleft earth like an omen from the chthonian gods. The construction men who built the tract of hillside houses in the Santa Monica Mountains – where Gray and his family live – had killed off most of the rattlesnakes: “But a few had remained,” Gray thinks, “hiding away in the rough patches of the hillsides, relics of an antediluvian world continuing to find a precarious existence at the very edge of the enormous industrial and cultural complex of Los Angeles.” Williams gives it to his religious fraudster to make an explicit link to Plato’s Atlantis. Propher the Prophet tells his followers that “he was a reincarnation of a priest of ancient Atlantis [who] had reincarnated in Los Angeles to protect his subjects of former days now also living in this city from the fate which had overtaken them when Atlantis sank.” Propher believes that he has beheld the pristine Atlantis in a vision: “A holy place, a city devoted to the arts and healing and to the correlation between arts and healing,” and much more, all of it resembling Cervé’s retro-utopia of benevolent Lemurians.
The Second Atlantis offers much spectacle. Williams arranges for the great hillside below the Sunset Strip, crowded with cheap apartment houses, to collapse at the first shock. “A mass of broken concrete, and broken bodies, became a river flowing down the side of the mountain.” On the second day of intermittent shaking, a new major jolt lowers the level of the already devastated Los Angeles Basin to let in the sea. “Santa Monica was left relatively untouched” and “Pacific Palisades was left on top of its high sea cliffs,” but as for “what had been called the Los Angeles basin… bay it became this morning.” Listening to a short-wave broadcast on the third day, Gray hears a summary of the disaster: “The Los Angeles basin has vanished… Very few have escaped alive… The casualty list will be almost as big as the total population of the area.” In addition: “The quakes… have set up enormous tidal waves which will strike with destructive violence on all the shores washed by the Pacific Ocean.” The quakes have also triggered volcanic eruptions, as far away as Mexico, and presumably in the Long Valley Caldera and the Cascades.
What is a deluge? What is the difference between a natural and a social catastrophe? The late writer-thinker René Girard (1923 – 2015) argued that myth invariably mixes up the two, in part because they mix up themselves. A drought, for example, strains the food and water supplies and instigates fierce competition for the decreasing remainder until people begin to kill one another in order to survive. The natural crisis segues into the social crisis such that it is difficult to know where one stops and the other begins. The influence can work the other way around, too, as when war, arrogating the yeomen from their fields and ditches, produces famine or plague. Moreover, as Girard notices, the images of natural catastrophe can stand for the processes of social catastrophe. World War I famously began with a double murder in Sarajevo, but soon became a slaughter of millions in fixed positions from which soldiers traded fire. War, men say, spreads like fire, and fire, like pestilence, is contagious. Resentment is contagious and leads to conflict. The Atlantis Myth participates in these patterns. Consider, for example, the Deucalion Myth, which Plato links to the Atlantis Myth in Timaeus.
The Deucalion Myth, the Greek deluge story, involves interaction between gods and men, as does the Atlantis Myth. The Deucalion Myth also brings the discussion back to Spence, who comments on it in his Problem of Atlantis (1925) and History of Atlantis (1927). According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses which synthesizes the different versions of the story and which The Problem quotes in Dryden’s translation, Jupiter, in coming to earth to test the moral quality of men, finds his Spartan host Lycaon to be so impious and cruel that his wickedness merits divine rebuke. In fact, the run of men strike Jupiter as degenerate whereupon he decides to abolish the race by sending a universal flood. In Dryden’s version, “The skies from pole to pole with peals resound,” until “the most of mortal perish in the flood” and “the small remainder die for want of food.” On advice of his father Prometheus, however, Deucalion has built himself an ark, into which he takes Pyrrha, his wife: “He with his wife were only left behind, of perished man; / they two were humankind.” Such clandestine survival might displease Jupiter, but Deucalion and Pyrrha distinguish themselves by exercising the piety that Lycaon flouted: “The mountain Nymphs and Thetis they adore, / And from her oracles relief implore. / The most upright of mortal men was he, / the most sincere and holy woman she.” Jupiter permits Deucalion and Pyrrha to raise a second generation of men and women by casting stones into the earth.
In The History, Spence quotes Lucian of Samosata’s commentary on Deucalion and Pyrrha. Lucian wrote that the people whom Jupiter condemned were “insolent and addicted to unjust actions; they neither regarded oaths, nor listened to suppliants; and this complicated wickedness was the cause of their destruction.” Plato, in Critias, says, of the last Atlanteans just before the foundering, precisely what Ovid and Lucian both say of the generation of Lycaon, before Deucalion’s flood: Poseidon established Atlantis under the rule of moira or “just apportionment,” with an implication of the ethics that upholding oaths, attending to supplication, and extending hospitality to strangers imply; but the Atlanteans alienated themselves from their divine origin. What indeed is a deluge? A deluge is a response to trespass against divine origin. But what is divine origin? It is a founding revelation, in which the community glimpses, perhaps through its specialized seer, its ineradicable human nature and in response institutes laws that rein in the destructive side of that nature. The moira-idea of just apportionment implies a fundamental rule under which everyone must suppress his basest resentments because those lead to contests of competitive acquisition with his neighbors. Under just apportionment, wise rulers see that everyone has enough and a little bit more and they remonstrate against jealous protests that some have too much – pointing out that affluence stems from productivity. At the same time moira limits how much any party might accumulate, on the understanding that resentment stokes itself on too-great differences.
Lycaon could not stand the idea that anyone in his kingdom owned anything, including happiness or freedom, against his claim to the totality of their things and lives. Piling up a too-great difference, he can only have incited violent actions against his own violence. The myth calls this response a deluge. Plato’s Atlanteans were “addicted… to unjust actions,” replicating Lycaon’s trespass in a campaign of concupiscent aggression against free nations, whom they proposed to take into slavery. Athens rallied the remaining free peoples to an active defense. The myth calls this response a catastrophe of continental foundering. As human nature is part of Nature writ large, observers may justly call responses to gross injustices instances of cosmic chastisement. To say so, however, is not to rule out the possibility that the cosmos might chastise anti-moira in a direct way that bypasses human agency. If the cosmos had a psychic component, as Plato argues in Timaeus, and if the limits of morality were hard-wired, so to speak, in the order of being, then Plato’s image in Critias of an emergency meeting of the Olympians would retain its germaneness. Modern science laughs at such a notion, but modern science, ensconced in the institutions and bought by governments and corporations alike is decreasingly authoritative.
Will California follow Atlantis? California’s conspicuous and vulgarly wealthy rich grow ever richer as they retreat into gated communities to shield themselves against the paycheck-to-paycheck rat-race without; the middle class wanes while the welfare class waxes; the state’s ravenous politicians, that coven of necromancers, demand ever more tribute in the form of taxes while the republic’s commons deteriorate from neglect and ever more people crowd into the expensive real estate, attracted by the second reality of television and the movies. The self-projected image of California is that of a Socialist-Theosophical Utopia, like the one that Cervé describes in his book about Lemuria. The reality of California is every affliction of the postmodern world-order, magnified and made more malignant by the local weirdness. Resentment plays its part in this malaise. The state’s motto is not, but perhaps ought to be, “We should inherit the stored treasures and the magical supremacy of our father ere age has debarred us from their enjoyment.” La-La Land is the Mecca of the Me-Cult and its trend-setters the Nabobs of Now. The great cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco burgeon on active continental rifts and its state capital basks in the sun behind by rotten levees that will collapse under the next strong temblor – letting in the Sacramento River Delta so that it can expand serenely into its new basin. The place is already being punished by a drought now in its tenth year. As early as 1926, in The Call of Cthulhu, H. P. Lovecraft hinted that the Golden State was enthralled by the Cthulhu Cult and itching to follow the demon-monster’s commands.
Will California follow Atlantis? Assuredly, California will follow Atlantis, but California is merely the harbinger of the West, the place where “westering” stopped when at last there was nowhere else to go.
Thomas F. Bertonneau earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Califonia at Los Angeles in 1990. He has taught at a variety of institutions, and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on literature, art, music, religion, anthropology, film, and politics. He is a frequent contributor to Anthropoetics, the ISI quarterlies, and others.