Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Philip José Farmer: A Tribute

I want to give a personal tribute to Philip José Farmer the renowned author who passed on to his reward on 25 February 2009. He has been a major influence on my life and thought for 40 years. His work brought me many years of entertainment and thoughtful reflection. From his imagination sprang The Lovers, The Riverworld, the Wold Newton family, The World of Tiers, The Dungeon, The Night of Light, A Feast Unknown, and far too many thoughtful stories for me to catalogue here.

I first came to know Phil through his novel "A Feast Unknown" which was a parody loosely based on the pulp characters Tarzan, Lord Greystroke and Doc Savage. Phil's pastiche characters -- Lord Grandrith and Doc Caliban -- were his take on what a true feral human and Übermensch might be like. These characters were very different from the Pulp heroes upon which they were based. They were heroes for sure, but more human and apt to have flaws and foibles that made them more distant and frightening than their Pulp models.

This was a theme that went through all of Phil's work. He saw the hypocrisy in American society with its racism and prejudices. In his life he had been the victim of scams by powerful men who outwardly praised virtues of fairness and generosity but who stole his ideas and peddled them as their own. Phil was especially sensitive to propaganda that demonized "the other" whether in political, sexual, racial, cultural, or religious terms. He opposed such things openly and wrote some very controversial material which is somewhat tame by modern standards but in its day pushed the envelope of literary propriety.

But Phil never lost a sense of what was right and good. In a time when anti-heroes were popular, Phil Farmer wrote about REAL heroes who had values and standards and fought for them. Phil in fact was obsessed with the idea of the hero and in what that actually meant in the real world.

In his literary biographies Tarzan Alive! and Doc Savage: an Apocalyptic Life he took heroic icons from his own childhood and fleshed them out as real people. It was almost a religion to him. Phil once remarked to an interviewer that while some people believed in Jesus, he believed in Doc Savage.

This comment reveals to me that Phil Farmer was on a quest to find meaning in life and something in which to believe. He wrote several stories that were critical of the Fundamentalist Christianity which was so prevalent around him. In reaction against this, there was a time when he flirted with Catholicism. During that time he wrote the Fr. John Carmody stories which are personal favorites of mine. (It is one of my great regrets that Phil died before he could tell the story of what happened at Johns Hopkins to convert the master criminal John Carmody and move him to become a priest.) As a devout Catholic myself, it is obvious that Phil read widely in theology and understood the Catholic faith. In many ways, I can see remnants of that in his later works as well. But Phil could not reconcile the Catholic Church's teachings on sexuality with his own perceptions. I think this in large part inhibited him from converting.

One of my favorite stories by Phil is "St. Francis Kisses his Ass Goodbye." In it, Phil showed an in-depth understanding of St. Francis of Assisi which surprised me. This was projected on to a back drop of the dehumanizing aspects of poverty in the modern world when Il Poverello is projected forward into the 20th Century by a time-machine experiment gone haywire. To save the world from destruction St. Francis must be sent back to his own time. I think this story showed that Phil was not sure the piety of St. Francis really had a place in our day. Yet it was obvious that he appreciated and admired what St. Francis had accomplished in his own time.

Similarly, there was an episode in the Riverworld series where a Catholic Prince established a kingdom along the river which embodied all the virtues of the Catholic faith. Phil described is as a wholesome and good place.

I don't think that Phil ever gave up on God or on the Church. He just could not find a way to believe in perennial values. What Phil could believe in was personal integrity and the heroic spirit. This is what he found in Tarzan and Doc Savage. Good men who made virtuous choices and who persevered against evil even when against the odds.

Phil took this love of the hero to a greater length and created the Wold Newton Family to bring together his favorite heroes from all fiction into one literary universe where goodness and justice would in the end prevail. This was a religious vision of faith and hope in the heroic spirit as something working in history in the hearts and minds of people who projected their values into the stories which entertained and sustained them.

Phil Farmer has moved on now and our prayers and thanks go with him. I hope he finds in eternity what he was searching for in the world's longing for literary heroes. He has left us a great legacy which I will cherish and which I hope to help pass on to posterity. We will likely not see his like again for quite sometime.

Rest in peace, Phil. Thanks for everything. We will miss you. I hope to see you again soon.

Art Sippo MD, MPH


Win Scott Eckert said...

Very nicely done, Art.

Phil would be proud.

Looking forward to seeing you in June.



Henry Covert said...

Great job indeed, Art! Excellent selection of photos & illustrations - a few of which I'd never seen before. Hope you'll check out my tribute to Phil on my blog next month, and my article on Phil's relationship with Forry Ackerman in the new issue of Dark Discoveries magazine if you get a chance (excuse the shameless plug there).

I'm also honoured to be joining you soon in the Thrilling Adventures/ Age of Adventure family of contributors.:)

Hope you & Win have a great time at FarmerCon, despite the sad occasion. Maybe I'll meet you at next year's.


Henry Covert said...

Okay, my word verification phrase just now as "monat". Now how incredible is that?


James Bojaciuk said...

is it just me, or does anyone else feel like blowing up the image at the top of the page to see what Phil had in his library?

Art Sippo: said...

The only books I can identify for certain are just next to Phil's right elbow. They are Will and Ariel Durant's series "The Story of Civilization".


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