Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The analogy of the acrobat

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The healthy system…may be compared to an acrobat on a high wire. To maintain the ongoing truth of his basic premise (“I am on the wire”), he must be free to move from one position of instability to another, i.e., certain variables such as the position of his arms and the rate of movement of his arms must have great flexibility, which he uses to maintain the stability of other more fundamental and general characteristics. If his arms are fixed or paralyzed (isolated from communication), he must fall…Note, in passing, that the analogy of the acrobat can be applied at a higher level. During the period when the acrobat is learning to move his arms in an appropriate way, it is necessary to have a safety net under him, i.e., precisely to give him the freedom to fall off the wire.

Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind

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May 27, 2018 at 7:30 am

The end of unity

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Your parents in the nineteenth century were not to blame for losing the sense of unity in art. As early as the fourteenth century, signs of unsteadiness appeared, and, before the eighteenth century, unity became only a reminiscence…Truth, indeed, may not exist; science avers it to be only a relation; but what men took for truth stares one everywhere in the eye and begs for sympathy. The architects of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries took the Church and the universe for truths, and tried to express them in a structure which should be final. Knowing by an enormous experience precisely where the strains were to come, they enlarged their scale to the utmost point of material endurance, lightening the load and distributing the burden until the gutters and gargoyles that seem mere ornament, and the grotesques that seem rude absurdities, all do work either for the arch or for the eye; and every inch of material, up and down, from crypt to vault, from man to God, from the universe to the atom, had its task, giving support where support was needed, or weight where concentration was felt, but always with the condition of showing conspicuously to the eye the great lines which led to unity and the curves which controlled divergence; so that, from the cross on the flèche and the keystone of the vault, down through the ribbed nervures, the columns, the windows, to the foundation of the flying buttresses far beyond the walls, one idea controlled every line; and this is true of Saint Thomas’s Church as it is of Amiens Cathedral. The method was the same for both, and the result was an art marked by singular unity, which endured and served its purpose until man changed his attitude toward the universe.

Henry Adams, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres

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May 26, 2018 at 7:30 am

A season of disenchantment

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A few days ago, Matt Groening announced that his new animated series, Disenchantment, will premiere in August on Netflix. Under other circumstances, I might have been pleased by the prospect of another show from the creator of The Simpsons and Futurama—not to mention producers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein—and I expect that I’ll probably watch it. At the moment, however, it’s hard for me to think about Groening at all without recalling his recent reaction to the long overdue conversation around the character of Apu. When Bill Keveny of USA Today asked earlier this month if he had any thoughts on the subject, Groening replied: “Not really. I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.” It was a profoundly disappointing statement, particularly after Hank Azaria himself had expressed his willingness to step aside from the role, and it was all the more disillusioning coming from a man whose work has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. As I noted in my earlier post, the show’s unfeeling response to this issue is painful because it contradicts everything that The Simpsons was once supposed to represent. It was the smartest show on television; it was simply right about everything; it offered its fans an entire metaphorical language. And as the passage of time reveals that it suffered from its own set of blinders, it doesn’t just cast doubt on the series and its creators, but on the viewers, like me, who used it for so long as an intellectual benchmark.

And it’s still an inescapable part of my personal lexicon. Last year, for instance, when Elon Musk defended his decision to serve on Trump’s economic advisory council, I thought immediately of what Homer says to Marge in “Whacking Day”: “Maybe if I’m part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions.” Yet it turns out that I might have been too quick to give Musk—who, revealingly, was the subject of an adulatory episode of The Simpsons—the benefit of the doubt. A few months later, in response to reports of discrimination at Tesla, he wrote an email to employees that included this remarkable paragraph:

If someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology. If you are part of a lesser represented group, you don’t get a free pass on being a jerk yourself. We have had a few cases at Tesla were someone in a less represented group was actually given a job or promoted over more qualified highly represented candidates and then decided to sue Tesla for millions of dollars because they felt they weren’t promoted enough. That is obviously not cool.

The last two lines, which were a clear reference to the case of A.J. Vandermeyden, tell us more about Musk’s idea of a “sincere apology” than he probably intended. And when Musk responded this week to criticism of Tesla’s safety and labor practices by accusing the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting of bias and proposing a site where users could provide a “credibility score” for individual journalists, he sounded a lot like the president whose circle of advisers he only reluctantly left.

Musk, who benefited from years of uncritical coverage from people who will forgive anything as long as you talk about space travel, seems genuinely wounded by any form of criticism or scrutiny, and he lashes out just as Trump does—by questioning the motives of ordinary reporters or sources, whom he accuses of being in the pocket of unions or oil companies. Yet he’s also right to be worried. We’re living in a time when public figures and institutions are going to be judged by their responses to questions that they would rather avoid, which isn’t likely to change. And the media itself is hardly exempt. For the last two weeks, I’ve been waiting for The New Yorker to respond to stories about the actions of two of its most prominent contributors, Junot Díaz and the late David Foster Wallace. I’m not even sure what I want the magazine to do, exactly, except make an honest effort to grapple with the situation, and maybe even offer a valuable perspective, which is why I read it in the first place. (In all honesty, it fills much the same role in my life these days as The Simpsons did in my teens. As Norman Mailer wrote back in the sixties: “Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people in the most established parts of the middle class kill their quickest impulses before they dare to act in such a way as to look ridiculous to the private eye of their taste whose style has been keyed by the eye of The New Yorker.”) As the days passed without any comment, I assumed that it was figuring out how to tackle an admittedly uncomfortable topic, and I didn’t expect it to rush. Now that we’ve reached the end of the month without any public engagement at all, however, I can only conclude that it’s deliberately ignoring the matter in hopes that it will go away. I hope that I’m wrong. But so far, it’s a discouraging omission from a magazine whose stories on Harvey Weinstein and Eric Schneiderman implicitly put it at the head of an entire movement.

The New Yorker has evidently discovered that it’s harder to take such stands when they affect people whom we know or care about— which only means that it can get in line. Our historical moment has forced some of our smartest individuals and organizations to learn how to take criticism as well as to give it, and it’s often those whose observations about others have been the sharpest who turn out to be singularly incapable, as Clarice Starling once put it, when it comes to pointing that high-powered perception on themselves. (In this list, which is constantly being updated, I include Groening, Musk, The New Yorker, and about half the cast of Arrested Development.) But I can sympathize with their predicament, because I feel it nearly every day. My opinion of Musk has always been rather mixed, but nothing can dislodge the affection and gratitude that I feel toward the first eight seasons of The Simpsons, and I expect to approvingly link to an article in The New Yorker this time next week. But if our disenchantment forces us to question the icons whose influence is fundamental to our conception of ourselves, then perhaps it will have been worth the pain. Separating our affection for the product from those who produced it is a problem that we all have to confront, and it isn’t going to get any easier. As I was thinking about this post yesterday, the news broke that Morgan Freeman had been accused by multiple women of inappropriate behavior. In response, he issued a statement that read in part: “I apologize to anyone who felt uncomfortable or disrespected.” It reminded me a little of another man who once grudgingly said of some remarks that were caught on tape: “I apologize if anyone was offended.” But it sounds a lot better when you imagine it in Morgan Freeman’s voice.

Written by nevalalee

May 25, 2018 at 9:21 am

Quote of the Day

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Many writers and thinkers in the last century and a half, still more in the last half century, have chosen, whether consciously or not, the side of the irrational—mauvais clercs, in my belief, if ever there were. Many men of action have done the same…Those who take the other side, the side of reason—who try to believe nothing unless there are rational grounds for it, and otherwise to be content with probabilities, or frank uncertainty, may be wrong—or they may be right, yet destined to defeat. None of them can live long enough to know. But at least they will not have frivolously undermined the foundations of their own civilization.

F.L. Lucas, The Search for Good Sense

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May 25, 2018 at 7:30 am

The Big One

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In a heartfelt appreciation of the novelist Philip Roth, who died earlier this week, the New York Times critic Dwight Garner describes him as “the last front-rank survivor of a generation of fecund and authoritative and, yes, white and male novelists…[that] included John Updike, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow.” These four names seem fated to be linked together for as long as any of them is still read and remembered, and they’ve played varying roles in my own life. I was drawn first to Mailer, who for much of my adolescence was my ideal of what a writer should be, less because of his actual fiction than thanks to my repeated readings of the juiciest parts of Peter Manso’s oral biography. (If you squint hard and think generously, you can even see Mailer’s influence in the way I’ve tried to move between fiction and nonfiction, although in both cases it was more a question of survival.) Updike, my favorite, was a writer I discovered after college. I agree with Garner that he probably had the most “sheer talent” of them all, and he represents my current model, much more than Mailer, of an author who could apparently do anything. Bellow has circled in and out of my awareness over the years, and it’s only recently that I’ve started to figure out what he means to me, in part because of his ambiguous status as a subject of biography. And Roth was the one I knew least. I’d read Portnoy’s Complaint and one or two of the Zuckerman novels, but I always felt guilty over having never gotten around to such late masterpieces as American Pastoral—although the one that I should probably check out first these days is The Plot Against America.

Yet I’ve been thinking about Roth for about as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer, largely because he came as close as anyone ever could to having the perfect career, apart from the lack of the Nobel Prize. He won the National Book Award for his debut at the age of twenty-six; he had a huge bestseller at an age when he was properly equipped to enjoy it; and he closed out his oeuvre with a run of major novels that critics seemed to agree were among the best that he, or anyone, had ever written. (As Garner nicely puts it: “He turned on the afterburners.”) But he never seemed satisfied by his achievement, which you can take as an artist’s proper stance toward his work, a reflection of the fleeting nature of such rewards, a commentary on the inherent bitterness of the writer’s life, or all of the above. Toward the end of his career, Roth actively advised young writers not to become novelists, and in his retirement announcement, which he delivered almost casually to a French magazine, he quoted Joe Louis: “I did the best I could with what I had.” A month later, in an interview with Charles McGrath of the New York Times, he expanded on his reasoning:

I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration—it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time…I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore…I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it.

And on his computer, he posted a note that gave him strength when he looked at it each day: “The struggle with writing is over.”

Roth’s readers, of course, rarely expressed the same disillusionment, and he lives most vividly in my mind as a reference point against which other authors could measure themselves. In an interview with The Telegraph, John Updike made one of the most quietly revealing statements that I’ve ever heard from a writer, when asked if he felt that he and Roth were in competition:

Yes, I can’t help but feel it somewhat. Especially since Philip really has the upper hand in the rivalry as far as I can tell. I think in a list of admirable novelists there was a time when I might have been near the top, just tucked under Bellow. But since Bellow died I think Philip has…he’s certainly written more novels than I have, and seems more dedicated in a way to the act of writing as a means of really reshaping the world to your liking. But he’s been very good to have around as far as goading me to become a better writer.

I think about that “list of admirable novelists” all the time, and it wasn’t just a joke. In an excellent profile in The New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpoint memorably sketched in all the ways in which other writers warily circled Roth. When asked if the two of them were friends, Updike said, “Guardedly,” and Bellow seems to have initially held Roth at arm’s length, until his wife convinced him to give the younger writer a chance. Pierpont concludes of the relationship between Roth and Updike: “They were mutual admirers, wary competitors who were thrilled to have each other in the world to up their game: Picasso and Matisse.”

And they also remind me of another circle of writers whom I know somewhat better. If Bellow, Mailer, Updike, and Roth were the Big Four of the literary world, they naturally call to mind the Big Three of science fiction—Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. In each case, the group’s members were perfectly aware of how exceptional they were, and they carefully guarded their position. (Once, in a conference call with the other two authors, Asimov jokingly suggested that one of them should die to make room for their successors. Heinlein responded: “Fuck the other writers!”) Clarke and Asimov seem to have been genuinely “thrilled to have each other in the world,” but their relationship with the third point of the triangle was more fraught. Toward the end, Asimov started to “avoid” the combative Heinlein, who had a confrontation with Clarke over the Strategic Defense Initiative that effectively ended their friendship. In public, they remained cordial, but you can get a hint of their true feelings in a remarkable passage from the memoir I. Asimov:

[Clarke] and I are now widely known as the Big Two of science fiction. Until early 1988, as I’ve said, people spoke of the Big Three, but then Arthur fashioned a little human figurine of wax and with a long pin— At least, he has told me this. Perhaps he’s trying to warn me. I have made it quite plain to him, however, that if he were to find himself the Big One, he would be very lonely. At the thought of that, he was affected to the point of tears, so I think I’m safe.

As it turned out, Clarke, like Roth, outlived all the rest, and perhaps they felt lonely in the end. Longevity can amount to a kind of victory in itself. But it must be hard to be the Big One.

Quote of the Day

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There is no reason why a mentally well-balanced young painter should not exhibit, but he must remember that there is danger in being “discovered” before he has a firm understanding of his own vision, of his own metaphor. In recent years young painters have been pushed all the way to national success on the strength of too limited vision, on the strength of “difference” supplied by gimmicks…The only real way is paint until a genuine and new metaphor has been fully understood—its images, laws, future possibilities—then make the move into the public domain.

Hiram Williams, Notes for a Young Painter

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May 24, 2018 at 7:30 am

The osmotic experience

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“When I was a kid, I was a science fiction freak,” Jimmy Webb says in an interview in the book Songwriters on Songwriting. Webb, who is best remembered today for writing “Wichita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park,” tells the interviewer Paul Zollo:

I remember one Sunday that I was sitting in my dad’s church. He was a Baptist preacher. I was sitting about halfway back and I had a science fiction novel snugged up under my Baptist hymnal and I was reading away. My dad was preaching a mighty sermon. He looked back and I guess the sight of me in this pious pose must have struck him as altogether unlikely. He said, “Jimmy, what are you doing back there? Come down here right now.” So I took that long walk down the aisle of the church to the front. He said, “Stand up right here.” I turned around and faced the congregation. He said, “Tell this congregation what you’re reading.” So I had to say, “Martian Chronicles, sir.”

And what I like best about this story, which dates from around 1958, is that there isn’t anything about Webb’s career—aside from the song “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” which he admits he took directly from Heinlein—that would particularly stamp him as shaped by science fiction. He might have been changed by it in ways that aren’t immediately visible, but then again, he didn’t need to be. Unlike the readers of an earlier period, to be a science fiction “freak” in the late fifties, you didn’t need to be an obsessive outsider living in a city big enough to sustain a vibrant fan community. You could just be a twelve-year-old kid from Oklahoma.

As it happened, I didn’t go looking for that anecdote from Webb—I found it while I was randomly browsing in a book that I already owned. Just a few hours later, I came across a reference to the pulps in another unlikely place, the “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. The speaker is the Reverend James E. Post, a chaplain who served as a character witness for the killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock in 1960. After the jury retires to deliberate, the Reverend Post says to a handful of the other attendees:

“Sometimes I despair. Sometimes I think old Doc Savage had the right idea.” The Doc Savage to whom he referred was a fictional hero popular among adolescent readers of pulp magazines a generation ago. “If you boys remember, Doc Savage was a kind of superman. He’d made himself proficient in every field—medicine, science, philosophy, art. There wasn’t much old Doc didn’t know or couldn’t do. One of his projects was, he decided to rid the world of criminals. First he bought a big island out in the ocean. Then he and his assistants—he had an army of trained assistants—kidnapped all the world’s criminals and brought them to the island. And Doc Savage operated on their brains. He removed the part that holds wicked thoughts. And when they recovered they were all decent citizens. They couldn’t commit crimes because that part of their brain was out. Now it strikes me that surgery of this nature might really be the answer to—”

At that point, the jury returns to sentence Smith and Hickock to death by hanging, so we don’t know what else the Reverend Post might have said about Doc Savage, whose creator, John Nanovic, worked out of an office at Street & Smith Publications next to the one occupied by John W. Campbell.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve repeatedly found myself coming across this kind of material, usually while thinking about something else entirely. While reading Saul Bellow’s Herzog, I found a reference to Isaac Asimov; shortly afterward, I opened my copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to a random page and saw a mention of Stranger in a Strange Land, which I’d completely forgotten was there. You could say that these are instances of the synchronicity that Robert Graves describes in his account of researching The White Goddess: “Though I had no more than one or two of the necessary books in my very small library the rest were soon sent, unasked for, by poet friends or tumbled down into my hands from the shelves of a secondhand seaside bookshop.” If that’s the case, it’s a somewhat cruel sort of coincidence, since it’s too late in the publication process for any of it to end up in Astounding—unless I manage to sneak it into the paperback. But it isn’t all that mysterious. All of these examples date from a window of roughly a decade in which science fiction was quietly embedded in the mainstream, either through the memories of the fans who had encountered it at a younger age, like the Reverend Post, or because contemporary readers were discovering authors like Asimov or Bradbury. A while back, in my discussion of Charles Manson, I wrote that he was influenced by Heinlein and Hubbard only in the sense that he was “influenced” by the Beatles: “Manson was a scavenger who assembled his notions out of scraps gleaned from whatever materials were currently in vogue, and science fiction had saturated the culture to an extent that it would have been hard to avoid it entirely, particularly for someone who was actively searching for such ideas. On some level, it’s a testament to the cultural position that both Hubbard and Heinlein had attained.” And that’s true of all the examples that I’ve just mentioned.

But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t significant, or that they aren’t clues to a larger pattern that I’m just starting to grasp. I still think that science fiction has influenced the inner life of our culture in ways that aren’t always obvious, and that the full picture can only be glimpsed by assembling such pieces. While I was writing Astounding, I often thought back to a passage from On the Road, another work from the same period, which I once seriously thought about using as an epigraph. It’s from the sequence in which Sal and Dean wander into an all-night movie theater in Detroit, where they end up repeatedly watching a singing cowboy picture and Background to Danger with George Raft, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre, until the double feature takes up permanent residence in Sal’s brain:

We saw them waking, we heard them sleeping, we sensed them dreaming, we were permeated completely with the strange Gray Myth of the West and the weird dark Myth of the East when morning came. All my actions since then have been dictated automatically to my subconscious by this horrible osmotic experience.

For me, this is the most—and maybe the only—authentic passage in the entire book, in that it hints at the way in which such stories can seem more real than our own lives: “I heard big Greenstreet sneer a hundred times; I heard Peter Lorre make his sinister come-on; I was with George Raft in his paranoiac fears; I rode and sang with Eddie Dean and shot up the rustlers innumerable times.” I think that we all know what Kerouac means, even if we don’t often speak of it. There’s an entire secret history of America to be constructed out of these fragments. And in the meantime, all I can do is gather the evidence.

Written by nevalalee

May 23, 2018 at 8:51 am

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