VARDIS FISHER'S "TESTAMENT OF MAN"
Vardis Fisher was a distinguished American novelist (1895-1968) whose early works promised to place him in the ranks of literary giants like Thomas Wolfe and James Branch Cabell. Midway through his career he embarked upon the most ambitious and significant project ever undertaken in historical fiction: The Testament of Man, an eleven-novel series tracing the evolution of humanity’s religious and moral ideas from the dawn of intelligence two million years ago to the Christian Middle Ages. A twelfth novel, set in the present, was autobiographical, revealing the personal life and thought of the man behind the Testament and telling the story of its writing and publication.
(If he were writing today, Fisher and his publisher would no doubt choose a more ‘politically appropriate’ title for the series, but I will continue to use it here without further qualification.)
Much of the content of these novels, especially those that dealt with the Jewish and Christian periods, was controversial. Some of it still is. Fisher, together with many of the scholars he drew upon, grew out of the explosion of freethought and humanism which began late in the last century and continued halfway through this one. (That explosion, in scholarly circles at least, subsided for a time, but in the last decade or so it has undergone something of a resurgence.) The controversial subject matter made it difficult for Fisher to find a courageous publisher for the latter half of the Testament, until Alan Swallow of Denver, Colorado came to the rescue. By the time the project was finished (1960) and for a few years thereafter, Fisher enjoyed a modest revival. But the Testament never received the public exposure and acclaim it deserves, and today it languishes in an unfortunate obscurity. Unfortunate, because no writer has ever brought to the medium of historical fiction such a broad overview, such a depth of analysis and insight, and one unclouded by the entrenched preconceptions of theology and psychology which have rendered much of the novelization of the past simply a mirror of the prejudices of the present.
As part of his personal beliefs as an atheist, Fisher was an idealist who profoundly believed in intellectual honesty, something which he saw as being in inadequate supply in the religious and social milieu of his time. (This, of course, could be said to be a universal condition, existing at all times.) He wrote to a friend, "Until we learn to accept the truths that outrage us, we may as well stand in the barn with the cows and the bulls." He believed that the understanding of the present lies in the past. Contrary to the popular saying, the explanation for the man is not to be found in the child, it is found "in all the centuries of our past history." Even though he faced years of research and writing, Fisher embarked on the Testament of Man in order to uncover that past, to reveal the sources of the symbols and myths which govern (and often restrict) us today.
It is easy to see that certain themes of the Testament were and still are intensely unpalatable to many readers and critics. This is no doubt the main reason why the novels did not become the influential bestsellers Fisher hoped, despite his belief that their controversial content would be the very thing that would bring them to public attention. This is not to say that Fisher’s ideas and the research he drew upon are not subject to question (and they have been). But the great value of the Testament is that such ideas have been put forward, in an entertaining and accessible context, for examination.
In the course of his research Fisher read thousands of books, drawing most strongly on those scholars who he believed had not brought prejudice and preconception to their work. He once said that the difference between a first-rate scholar and a second-rate scholar was not necessarily one of mind, but of courage. To his reading he brought his own insights. One technique he used was to sink himself as deeply as he could into the situations and thought processes he was writing about. He spent time in caves, in deserts; he adopted the manners, movements, hygienic practices (or lack of them) of his characters; he tried to "feel himself into" the various states of mind of primitive peoples, of ascetics, of victims and oppressors. He created his own dungeons and he entered them. Only an empathetic and supportive wife and a basically sound mind enabled him to survive the task, made doubly difficult by the resistance within the publishing world which the later books of the series faced. Almost all publishers were afraid of antagonizing the religious establishment with novels like Jesus Came Again: A Parable, A Goat For Azazel and My Holy Satan. But Fisher had not set out with the purpose of destroying or undermining the churches, as some of his critics charged. He was simply trying to illuminate the collected baggage of superstition, cultic practices and prejudiced ideas which western society has inherited from its formative past. He believed that by understanding how these came about, society could free itself from their influence. Moreover, he was as concerned to convey the glory of human strivings, humanity’s powers toward good and reason, as to expose its darker side. The Testament of Man, though it faces squarely the race’s ignorance, cruelty and immaturity, is nevertheless an affirmation of its potential.
The novels certainly have a message, and were designed as such, but they are also true pieces of storytelling, often quite powerful. A criticism voiced by more than one reviewer is true, but not valid: that the author often intrudes by simply telling the reader, in narrative insertions or contrived dialogue, some of the broader meanings and insights he wants to convey, rather than embody them solely in dramatic action and characterization. But authorial intrusion has always been a legitimate literary device, even if less in fashion at some times than others, and only occasionally does Fisher’s use of it seem awkward or obtrusive. In fact, the freshness of authorial spirit that shines through much of the writing is one of its strengths and appeals. There is, moreover, such a wealth and sophistication of ideas Fisher wishes to get across, that to expect all of it to be translated to the reader through strict literary means is unrealistic; in some cases it would be impossible. Weaknesses and transgressions may be present, and novels like The Island of the Innocent and A Goat For Azazel might be considered imperfect by certain literary standards. But the unique scope and content of the Testament should override such considerations. Any reader who delights in bold ideas and provocative insights at almost every turn of the page, set within dramatic and moving contexts and conveyed in strong, poetic style, should leave no stone unturned to seek out and read Vardis Fisher’s Testament of Man.
"Upon the geography of space, there are no boundaries where all is infinite, nor age where time is only the measure of change within the changeless, nor death where life is the indestructible pulse of energy in the hot and the cold. . . ."
Thus begins the first book in the Testament of Man, a unique and powerful novel about the birth of human intelligence. It opens with a description of the formation of the earth and the development of life before humans. This "Backdrop" is poetic and breathtaking, evoking vast, slow eons of time: the planet coalesces, nature relentlessly and patiently creates wind-swept continents and volcanic mountains, primitive plants and forests, sentient creatures of the ocean deeps. Then comes life’s long struggle to adapt to the open sun-seared land: "Nature cared little if it cost a thousand million lives to achieve one barely perceptible change in the evolution of gills into lungs." Those species that achieve security, like the dinosaurs, sentence themselves to death, for security stifles innovation. But the mammals—and humanity—are "creatures of fear," and from this primary shaping emotion comes intelligence.
The curtain rises on Africa where jungle and grassland meet, where small bands of primitive humans eke out their short, perilous lives, prey to the great cats, the giant python, their own violent and competitive instincts. This is before language and fire, before tools, before hunting. One dominant male controls each little social unit roaming its own territory, jealous of his sexual prerogatives, killing or repelling encroachers. Wuh is a young male interloper in one such unit, one of evolution’s tiny steps forward in that he is a little more imaginative and thoughtful than his fellows. If the history of humanity is primarily the history of ideas, it all had to begin with the first one: the concept that an idea itself was possible, that action could result from a thought-out intention rather than mere instinctual behavior. Wuh is one of those geniuses to whom such a realization comes. Through a spark of cunning born of sexual frustration, he kills a rival in a new fashion — using a stone as a weapon — and gains a young female who is as innovative as he. Together they stumble onto new concepts, like building shelters, storing food, using sticks as clubs and primitive implements. They are the first to vocalize sounds that take on fixed meanings.
Because his characters stand only at the threshold of awareness and conceptualization, Fisher must tell his story at a level of thought which is beyond theirs. He gives them crude names which they never use of themselves. He analyzes the psychology of their behavior, the factors in their environment which spur evolution. He shows the first impulse to dancing and adorning the body. Human egotism is becoming a force, but mercy, love, sympathy for others will be a long time coming, and the dead are quickly forgotten. In a powerful scene, Fisher describes how one member of the band is seized by a python, who pauses to complete its ingestion of the unfortunate victim. The rest of the group mill about, but by the time the process has been completed, they have largely lost interest and even memory of their loss and simply move on. Questions about male aggression, the differences in instinct between male and female, how children, time, nature, sex, death are perceived: all these are effortlessly woven into a narrative full of fascinating insight and convincing incident.
At the core of this novel lies a stark, classic Darwinism: the survival of the fittest. The picture it conveys of violence in primitive man has tended to be softened a little by more recent anthropological thinking. But this does not compromise the essence of Fisher’s tale: how mind emerged from the fog-bound darkness of instinct into perception, reason and invention, the essence of animal becoming human. Through the power of his writing, the author brings home to the reader the exhilaration of this achievement. And there is a moment, too, when he creates an image that is at once awe-inspiring and unsettling: an image of the vastness of the world and its billion-year span, all its intricacies of nature and life and instinctual processes groping and evolving automatically, as though a cosmic switch has been thrown and the whole thing left unattended. The beings that form a part of this world are ignorant of their own nature and place within it. So would they be for millions of years; and a part of their long progress would be a blind search for intelligence and understanding.
More than a million years have passed since Darkness and the Deep. Humans have spread across the earth, to colder climates where survival is dependent on one thing: fire. The harnessing of fire was humanity’s greatest single achievement in the long struggle to understand and control the environment. Huddled within its protective shield, its aura of warmth and light, people had created for themselves "golden rooms."
In Fisher’s stark, violent world of the ice age two groups, Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon, have just come into contact and competition. The more primitive Neanderthals are brutish, aggressive creatures, filthy and malodorous, who speak only the most rudimentary words. They show little emotion but anger and vanity, and of love only a mother knows it for her child. They are miserable, starving and cold until one of their number, Harg, discovers how to make fire. Now they learn to trap animals more efficiently, to cook meat, to wrest caves from the wild bears and make them safe and livable. Existence has become a little more endurable in a world full of dreadful and inexplicable forces, where life is "a desperate and haunted pilgrimage."
A more advanced race, taller and straighter, already controls fire, uses the bow and arrow and the spear. Their range of emotion is wider and their language more complex. Through these people Fisher portrays the dawning of feelings and insights which we can recognize as our own. Because they dream, imagining that a part of themselves leaves the body at night, they are developing a sense of ‘soul.’ They have no symbols or rituals, but because they feel a reverence for fire, an instinct for religion is emerging. The men are also developing art as an outlet for their frustrated egos, since their part in the process of procreation is as yet unknown. They seek a sense of importance to compensate for the inferiority they feel beside woman’s all-important child bearing role. For the most part, women are scornful of men, tolerating them only as hunters and protectors.
When Gode, the head of a family unit and an accomplished hunter, finds that a wolf cub whose mother he has killed attaches itself warily to him, emotions of friendship and caring start to surface. These are things he has rarely known even toward fellow humans, for they are mostly competitors with whom he only occasionally and grudgingly cooperates. It is something of a shock to realize that there was a time when people lived on the earth, and yet things like love, guilt and pity had not yet awakened in the human brain. For Gode, the latter are born after a merciless clash with a group of the more primitive race. And from his haunted dreams of the slaughter comes a belief in ghosts: the birth of the supernatural, the dread of unknown and unseen powers which must be placated. The world had split into two: the visible and the invisible. Humanity had embarked on the path leading to gods and religion.
As fire produced a golden room of light, intelligence created a golden room in the mind. Fisher vividly conveys the wonder and elation when a fundamental truth enters the brain for the first time. But intelligence proved to be a curse as well. For with the light of awareness and self-discovery came greater questions and greater fears. When humans began to know, they also realized how much they did not know. And with the awareness of one’s own existence came the fear of non-existence.
Part Two will survey the three novels dealing with the more recent period of prehistory following the Ice Age, focusing on the evolution of religion, relations between the sexes and the emergence of patriarchy.
PART TWO: Intimations of Eve; Adam and the Serpent; The Divine Passion