Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The agreement of components

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Truth is, according to Gibbs, not a stream that flows from a source, but an agreement of components. In a poem, these components are, not the words or images, but the relations between the words and images. Truth is an accord that actually makes the whole “simpler than its parts”; as he was fond of saying. Originality is important before the accord is reached; it is the most vivid of the means in a poem, and the daring of the images allows the reader to put off his emotional burden of association with the single words, allows him to come fresh to memory and to discovery. But when the whole poem has taken its effect—even its first effect—then the originality is absorbed into a sense of order, and order then becomes the important factor.

Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry

Written by nevalalee

August 19, 2017 at 7:30 am

Eclipsing the truth

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Take a good look at this comic strip. I’ve erased the date and the copyright information, but it should still be possible to figure out the precise day on which it first appeared, using nothing but the resources in your average local library. Even if you aren’t a Peanuts buff, it wouldn’t be hard to verify the historical window in which the strip originally ran, or to infer, based on the style, that this installment was published sometime in the sixties. On the assumption that it refers to a real solar eclipse that generated a fair amount of attention in the United States, you could plausibly deduce that it was the eclipse of July 20, 1963, and that this strip was printed the day before. And you’d be right. It wasn’t even a total eclipse when seen from America, but it still created enough of a lingering sensation to be mentioned both on Mad Men and in John Updike’s Couples, in which he writes of “that summer of the solar eclipse”:

Three weeks ago, it had been ninety percent at their latitude. An invisible eater moved through the sun’s disc amid a struggle of witnessing clouds. The dapples of light beneath the elm became crescent-shaped; the birds sang as in the evening. Seen through smoked glass the sun was a shaving, a sideways eyebrow, a kindergarten boat riding a tumult of contorted cumulus. The false dusk reversed; the horns of the crescents beneath the trees pointed in the opposite direction; the birds sang to greet the day. Not a month before, [Piet] had first slept with Foxy.

This is part of Updike’s standard narrative strategy, which is to place his protagonist’s extramarital dalliances against a backdrop of recent historical events. But even if you removed all other topical references from the novel except the eclipse, future literary critics would still be able to determine the date—within a month or so—in which Piet and Foxy began their affair.

Eclipses are useful that way. In a fascinating essay with the dry title “Some Uses of Eclipses in Early Modern Chronology,” the historian Anthony Grafton writes: “To this day eclipses provide historians with the best tools they have for fixing the absolute dates of events in ancient and medieval history…[They] form part of every ancient and medieval historian’s normal toolbox.” The earliest chronologist to draw upon eclipse data in a systematic fashion was Heinrich Bünting, who, in the late sixteenth century, used the Prutenic Tables of Erasmus Reinhold to put together a timeline of the world. “Bünting treated eclipses as facts like any other, except that they were more certain,” Grafton notes, quoting a revealing passage:

I had to examine the eclipses of the sun and moon and observations of other celestial motions. For they reveal chronological intervals with absolute precision. Two forms of computation are the most certain of all: that which is undertaken with sacred scripture, and that which is undertaken through the intervals of eclipses. If authors disagree with one another, you should see which of them agrees more properly with the chronological interval revealed by the eclipses. You will find it safest to follow him.

“Even the most reliable ancient texts, in other words, required the confirmation of the heavens,” Grafton observes, “and eclipses, which could be dated not only to the year and day, but to the hour and moment, provided this in its most precise form.” And the sentence in which Bünting cites both “sacred scripture” and “the intervals of eclipses” in the same breath feels like a moment in which science simultaneously looks, like Janus, into the past and the future.

Bünting used eclipses, Grafton writes, to provide fixed points for “human events that floated loosely in the ancient sources, located only by season or by regnal year,” including the conception of Romulus and Remus and the dates of the Peloponnesian War. Grafton concludes: “Long before eclipses lost their theoretical standing as signs, they had mutated in one kind of learned practice into facts of a particular, undramatic kind.” But when you attack the foundations of the eclipses themselves, a lot of that drama returns. If you’ve spent any time poking into conspiracy theories online, you’ve probably come across the New Chronology, a theory associated with the Russian mathematician Anatoly Fomenko that claims that nearly all of recorded history occurred within the last nine hundred years or so, and that any events attributed to dates before the eleventh century are either accidental distortions or deliberate forgeries. I had always assumed that this argument could be debunked simply by looking at historical eclipses, but it turns out that eclipses were actually where Fomenko started. In the delightfully titled History: Fiction or Science?, Fomenko writes:

One often hears the question about what could possibly motivate a mathematician into wanting to study a seemingly historical problem. The answer is as follows. My primary interests are those of a professional mathematician; they are thus rather distant from historical and chronological issues. However, in the early seventies, namely in 1972-1973, I had to deal with the dates of ancient eclipses during my studies of one of the key problems in celestial mechanics.

Drawing on the results of the astronomer Robert Newton and the Russian scientist N.A. Morozov, Fomenko concluded that the conventional dates for many ancient eclipses were incorrect, which inexorably led him, he writes, to an even more audacious question: “The satisfaction from having finished a body of scientific work was accompanied by a sudden awareness of a very knotty point arising in this respect, one of great peculiarity and paramount importance. Namely, that of whether the consensual chronology of ancient history was to be trusted at all.”

Fomenko and his colleagues proceeded to wade into an insane morass of theorizing, spread across seven huge volumes, that frankly makes my head hurt. (Just browsing though the first book, which is available in full online, is a disorienting, sometimes amazing experience.) Refuting it here would take more room and time than I can afford, but it’s worth noting that Fomenko’s work has inescapable political overtones. As James H. Billington writes in Russia in Search of Itself, many of its adherents are drawn to its vision of a Eurasian Union with Russia at its center:

Using dating techniques and probability theory, [Fomenko and his colleague Gleb Nosovsky] conclude that the Russian and Mongol empires were, in fact, one and the same entity during the two hundred and fifty years wrongly referred to as the period of the “Mongol yoke.” Accordingly, “Russia and Turkey are parts of a previously single empire.” This astonishing conclusion is part of Nosovsky and Fomenko’s “new chronology” of world history that uses equations and graphs to cast in doubt the accepted views on much of premodern times…They argue that almost nothing in the traditional view of Russian history prior to the fourteenth century can be factually verified…All of this might have been quietly blown away in the wind tunnels of academia had not the popular chess hero Garry Kasparov lustily taken up the cause of the new chronology…[i]nsisting that “whoever controls the past, controls the future.”

Billington quotes the archeologist V.L. Yanin, who tries to explain why Fomenko’s views have become popular in certain circles: “We live in an epoch of total non-professionalism, which spreads through the entire society from the power structures to the lowest levels of the educational system. The ordinary school produces dilettantes who assume that their miserable and faulty knowledge is adequate for judging professionals. A society bought up on scandals craves negativity and shock effects. It craves the sleight-of-hand trickery of a David Copperfield or an Anatoly Timofeevich Fomenko.” That has a familiar ring to it. And as we all gather to watch the solar eclipse next week, we should take a minute to remember that with the right motivation, even something as unequivocal as an eclipse can turn into an alternative fact.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 18, 2017 at 7:30 am

Statues of limitations

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Over half a century ago, the British historian Michael Howard published an influential essay titled “The Use and Abuse of Military History.” It opens with a consideration of the ends to which historical studies—particularly on the military side—can legitimately be turned, with a particular emphasis on “myth-making,” which Howard defines with deliberate precision:

When I use the phrase “myth-making,” I mean the creation of the image of the past, through careful selection and interpretation, in order to create or sustain certain emotions or beliefs. Historians have been expected to do this almost since history began to be written at all, in order to encourage patriotic or religious feeling, or to create support for a dynasty or for a political regime. They usually have done so with no sense of professional dishonesty, and much splendid work they have produced in the process…In totalitarian regimes it is difficult and sometimes impossible to write any other kind of history. Even in mature democracies, subject to very careful qualifications, the “myth,” this selective and heroic view of the past, has its uses…Like Plato I believe that the myth does have a useful social function. I do not consider it to be an “abuse” of military history at all, but something quite different, to be judged by different standards. It is “nursery history,” and I use the phrase without any disparaging implications. Breaking children in properly to the facts of life is a highly skilled affair, as most of you know; and the realities of war are among the most disagreeable facts of life that we are ever called upon to face.

It seems obvious that the equestrian statue of a soldier in a park can hardly be anything else than “nursery history.” Historical myths tend to divide the world into heroes and villains, but there isn’t even a villain here, just a hero on horseback fighting on behalf of a cause that necessarily must remain undefined. There’s no room for nuance or complexity. A great work of public art like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial encourages reflection, but the vast majority of such statues weren’t erected for their aesthetic merits. You could even make a good case that this kind of statue gains meaning from only two moments in its existence: when it goes up and when it comes down. (As this excellent infographic created by the Southern Poverty Law Center reminds us, the timing of the dedication of Confederate monuments supplies a piece of information in itself. These symbols went up to send messages to very specific communities at particular times, and in many cases, I have a hunch that they were commissioned mostly as an excuse to hold a ceremony. They were installed with great fanfare and then promptly faded into the background, unseen by most of the people in the park who pass them every day—although they’re arguably more visible to members of certain groups who were around to receive that message in the first place.) The real irony of the current debate over Confederate statues is that by taking them down, or even by raising the question of whether we should do so, we’ve made them visible to a huge swath of the population by whom they had ceased to be seen. Far from erasing history, as the most historically incurious president of modern times has argued, the discussion has made it alive again, even if it means blowing up the nursery myths on which these statues were founded.

The real question is whether this kind of history has any value for adults. Howard argues convincingly that under certain circumstances, it does, citing its use within the military itself:

The regimental historian, for instance, has, consciously or unconsciously, to sustain the view that his regiment has usually been flawlessly brave and efficient, especially during its recent past. Without any sense of ill-doing he will emphasize the glorious episodes in its history and pass with a light hand over its murkier passages, knowing full well that his work is to serve a practical purpose in sustaining regimental morale in the future…The young soldier in action for the first time may find it impossible to bridge the gap between war as it has been painted and war as it really is—between the way in which he, his peers, his officers, and his subordinates should behave, and the way in which they actually do. He may be dangerously unprepared for cowardice and muddle and horror when he actually encounters them, unprepared even for the cumulative attrition of dirt and fatigue. But nevertheless the “myth” can and often does sustain him, even when he knows, with half his mind, that it is untrue.

There’s a big difference between serving as a soldier and living in a civil society, but there’s a grain of truth in the notion that nursery history can console and motivate us when we’re faced with the contrast between our lives as we want them to be and how they actually are. White nationalism exists in large part as an outlet for the frustrations of men and women who feel angry, helpless, and ignored, just as more innocuous attempts to sentimentalize history arise from a fear of the future. But what separates a romantic notion of the Confederacy from other nursery myths is that it isn’t predicated on the demonization of a foreign enemy in the past, but on the marginalization of human beings who live in the same towns in which these statues stand.

And if we content ourselves with nothing but nursery history, we limit ourselves. Myths have a way of closing off thought, telling us that we’re just fine the way we are simply because of the circumstances in which we happen to have been born. A more unsparing look at history enables the “hard preliminary thinking” that prepares us for action when the time comes, which is one of the reasons that Howard gives for studying the subject at all. (He notes that many officers spend so much energy on administrative issues in peacetime that they’re left unprepared for war itself, which leads him to the lovely line: “The advantage enjoyed by sailors in this respect is a very marked one; for nobody commanding a vessel at sea, whether battleship or dingy, is ever wholly at peace.”) Howard argues that one function of the historian is to puncture these myths for the good of the nation: “Inevitably the honest historian discovers, and must expose, things which are not compatible with the national myth; but to allow him to do so is necessary, not simply to conform to the values which the war was fought to defend, but to preserve military efficiency for the future.” Even in civilian life, the point still holds. Nursery history has its place, but as we put away childish things, we have to be prepared to give up our illusions about the past. And sometimes, as Howard acknowledges, it hurts, which doesn’t make it any less necessary:

The process of disillusionment is necessarily a disagreeable one and often extremely painful. For many of us, the “myth” has become so much a part of our world that it is anguish to be deprived of it…Such disillusion is a necessary part of growing up in and belonging to an adult society; and a good definition of the difference between a Western liberal society and a totalitarian one—whether it be Communist, Fascist, or Catholic authoritarian—is that in the former the government treats its citizens as responsible adults and in the latter it cannot.

Written by nevalalee

August 17, 2017 at 9:21 am

Quote of the Day

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You can be an artist without visual images, a reader without eyes, a mass of erudition with a bad elementary memory. In almost any subject your passion for the subject will save you. If you only care enough for a result, you will almost certainly attain it. If you wish to be rich, you will be rich; if you wish to be learned, you will be learned; if you wish to be good, you will be good. Only you must, then, really wish these things, and wish them with exclusiveness, and not wish at the same time a hundred other incompatible things just as strongly.

William James, “Memory”

Written by nevalalee

August 17, 2017 at 7:30 am

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The creeps of the cosmos

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“Of course Scientology attracts all the creeps of the cosmos,” the novelist William S. Burroughs wrote to the poet Allen Ginsberg on October 30, 1959. “You see it works.” Burroughs had just been introduced to the ideas of L. Ron Hubbard through the mystics John and Mary Cooke, whom he had met through their mutual friend Brion Gysin in Tangiers. Gysin, who is probably best remembered today for his development of the cut-up technique, had recently built the Dream Machine, a flicker gadget made of a light bulb placed on a record turntable. The device, which Gysin assembled with the help of an electronics engineer named Ian Sommerville, was designed to stimulate the brain’s alpha rhythms when viewed with the eyes closed. It was inspired by a discussion of “the flicker effect” in W. Grey Walter’s book The Living Brain, and it hints at the striking extent to which the counterculture was venturing into territory that science fiction had previously colonized. John W. Campbell had utilized a similar setup while working with Hubbard himself to access his buried memories in 1949, and after reading Walter’s book, he built what he called “a panic generator” with a fluorescent bulb in his basement. And the fact that Hubbard’s work was circulating among the Beats at the same time reflects how both communities—which seemed so different on the surface—were looking for new approaches to the mind. (Science fiction, like Scientology or Beat culture, has a way of attracting “all the creeps of cosmos,” and for similar reasons.)

I’m not an expert on Burroughs, so I can’t speak directly about the influence of Scientology on his work, but there’s no question that he remained actively interested in Hubbard’s ideas for the better part of a decade, even as he came to question and finally reject the authoritarian tendencies of the church itself. (This article from io9 is the best discussion I’ve found of the subject online, although it makes one factual misstatement, which I’ll mention in a moment.) In a letter to Ginsberg from a few days before the one that I quoted above, Burroughs wrote: “The method of directed recall is the method of Scientology. You will recall I wrote urging you to contact local chapter and find an auditor. They do the job without hypnosis or drugs, simply run the tape back and forth until the trauma is wiped off. It works. I have used the method—partially responsible for recent changes.” And shortly afterward: “I have a new method of writing and do not want to publish anything that has not been inspected and processed. I cannot explain this method to you until you have necessary training. So once again and most urgently…I tell you: ‘Find a Scientology auditor and have yourself run.’” Burroughs’s letters over the next twelve years, which have been collected in the volume Rub Out the Words, are liberally sprinkled with terms drawn from Hubbard’s writings, and when you read them all in one sitting, as I recently did, you can’t help but be struck by how long Burroughs circled around Scientology, alternately intrigued and repulsed by the man of whom he insightfully wrote: “I would not expect Mr. Hubbard’s system to crack mazes the existence of which it does not allow.”

And Burroughs went remarkably far. In 1968, he underwent a two-month training session at Saint Hill Manor, the headquarters of Scientology in the United Kingdom, and he appears to have achieved the level of at least OT III, or The Wall of Fire, which is when members pay to learn the story of Xenu. In the article from io9 that I mentioned above, the author writes: “Absent from Burroughs’s writing are any references to body thetans, Xenu, the Galactic Confederacy, Douglas DC-8 airliners, volcanic hydrogen bombs, or other beliefs more recently associated with Scientology.” Another recent book on Burroughs and Scientology calls this material “conspicuously absent” from his writings. In fact, it clearly appears at several points in his correspondence. In a letter to John Cooke on October 25, 1971, for instance, Burroughs wrote:

So leaving aside galactic federations and Zmus [sic] there may be some validity in Hubbard’s procedure and I would be interested to make a systematic test on the E-Meter…Exactly how are these body thetans contacted and run? Are they addressed directly and if so in what terms? Do they have names? Do they have dates? Are they run through the alleged shooting freezing and bombing incidents as if you are an auditor running an internal parasite through these incidents?

These are unquestionably references to the Xenu material, as is a letter that Burroughs wrote to Gysin a few days later, in which he casually refers to “Teegeeack”—Hubbard’s word for earth millions of years ago—and “Teegeeack hitchhikers.”

I don’t know how much the Church of Scientology was charging for this information in 1968, but it must have amounted to hundreds or thousands of dollars, and it’s hard to imagine how Burroughs would have avoided paying it in full. And he believed in aspects of it long after he had become aware of Hubbard’s shortcomings. On October 4, 1967, he wrote to his son:

Point about Scientology is that it works. In fact it works so well as to be highly dangerous in the wrong hands. The curious thing about L. Ron Hubbard who devised this system is that he is very uneven as a writer and a thinker. This tends to put people off. You find very profound and original thinking together with very shallow and banal thinking, so you have to read every word very carefully.

Burroughs was expelled in 1968 after publishing articles that were critical of the church, and he later said of its founder: “Hubbard has the satisfied look of a man who has just sold the widow a fraudulent peach orchard, but he is engaged in something much more pernicious than old style con tricks…His real specialty is spiritual theft.” If Burroughs stuck with it for so long, it was for much the same reason that Campbell once gave to Eric Frank Russell: “Why, for God’s sake, do you think I thought dianetics was so important? Hell, man, because I knew it was, because I tried it, and it helped.” Burroughs might have said much the same thing, even as his suspicions of its methods and origins continued to grow. As he wrote to Barry Miles in 1970: “I feel sure that there is an undisclosed source for this material. Probably science fiction.”

Quote of the Day

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Magic provides primitive man…with a definite mental and practical technique which serves to bridge over the dangerous gaps in every important pursuit or critical situation. It enables man to carry out with confidence his important tasks, to maintain his poise and his mental integrity in fits of anger, in the throes of hate, of unrequited love, of despair and anxiety. The function of magic is to ritualize man’s optimism, to enhance his faith in the victory of hope over fear.

Bronisław Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion

Written by nevalalee

August 16, 2017 at 7:30 am

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