Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 2017

Live from Silicon Valley

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Last week, on an impulse, I picked up a used copy of Live From New York by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, an oral history of Saturday Night Live that came out more than fifteen years ago. I honestly don’t know why it took me so long to get to it—it’s a fantastic read, particularly if you allow yourself to browse at random, and it seems to have singlehandedly kicked off the oral history boom that has become pervasive enough to be the object of satire itself. There are countless anecdotes that I’d love to turn into the subject of a post, but I’ll start with this one, from legendary comedy writer James Downey:

Lorne [Michaels] at the time was anxious to get into movies in a big way, and he had a deal with Paramount. And different writers and teams of writers—like Tom Schiller wrote a movie—each had movie ideas. Lorne was pushing [Al] Franken and [Tom] Davis and myself the most to do a movie. But we didn’t really have an idea. We had the deal before we had the idea, which is not a good way to do anything. So from like the summer of 1980 on and off for the next two years, we just in a desultory way wrote the screenplay, which once we finished it Paramount was then able to officially reject.

The italics are mine. And while it’s tempting to agree that you should start with the idea, that’s often not how it works in Hollywood. Instead, like Michaels, you get a development deal, which amounts to a bet by a studio that you’re talented enough to eventually come up with something interesting.

And you don’t just see this in the entertainment industry. Yesterday, my wife brought my attention to a post on Hacker News with the title “We have a great team and capital but can’t find a good idea.” The poster noted that he had a group consisting of himself and two friends, one with a lot of money from a stint in private equity, the other with a doctorate in computer science. They had “investors that are willing to write blank checks” and “cash in the bank to continue experimenting,” but they were missing one crucial element. The poster elaborated:

We have read everything on how to come up with startup ideas (ranging from Paul Graham essays to The Mom Test). We have ran interviews with friends in corporate and startups, asked old colleagues, attended conferences, organized meetups in our city, a ton of time spent networking, etc. The few product ideas we came up with following the above process we dropped, often because we discovered that that space is ultra crowded or commoditized. We will not give up but are getting unsure on how to break the stalemate. Any tips or advice?

The suggestions, not surprisingly, ranged from “stop looking for ideas and…start looking for problems” to hiring an “idea generator” to getting out of the game entirely. (My favorite: “Find an unsexy domain that you have more access to than the average person. Start to build domain expertise in that area as quickly as you can…Loop back with the people in the unsexy industry to get feedback.” I like this because it’s basically how I wrote my book.)

It’s easy to smile at this sort of thing, but it reflects an assumption that still permeates much of Silicon Valley, which is that what matters isn’t the idea, but the team. Hacker News is an affiliate of the startup incubator Y Combinator, which essentially provides development deals for promising entrepreneurs, with a business philosophy to match. In his book The Launch Pad, Randall Stross says of its cofounder Paul Graham: “Graham is much more interested in the founders than in the proposed business idea. When he sees a strong team of founders with the qualities that he believes favor success, he will overlook a weak idea.” Elsewhere, Graham himself has written:

The fact is, most startups end up nothing like the initial idea. It would be closer to the truth to say the main value of your initial idea is that, in the process of discovering it’s broken, you’ll come up with your real idea…Since a startup ought to have multiple founders who were already friends before they decided to start a company, the rather surprising conclusion is that the best way to generate startup ideas is to do what hackers do for fun: cook up amusing hacks with your friends.

And the notion that the team itself is what truly counts has led to a lot of talk, legitimate or otherwise, about the concept of the pivot, in which a startup that began by doing one thing abruptly decides to do something else.

In fact, the underlying point here seems sound enough. Ideas are cheap, and incubators are probably right in investing in founders rather than in concepts. If I had the money to be a venture capitalist, I’d do the same thing. But in the end, the real test of the team is its ability to generate and execute a good idea. (Most people who get development deals of any kind have already managed to do it at least once.) And you only get the tools that you need to do anything well by coming up with ideas on your own and taking them as far as you can. Just as you can learn vastly more from writing a novel from scratch than from fanfic or ghostwriting somebody else’s book, shepherding an idea to start to finish is the most reliable way of developing certain indispensable skills. As Chris Rock says in Live from New York:

The best thing about the show is that when you did write a piece, you were responsible for it. You were in charge of the casting. You were in charge of the costumes. You produced the piece. I wouldn’t know what the fuck I was doing if I hadn’t been on Saturday Night Live. It’s the absolute best training you can have in show business.

You could say much the same thing about any project, as long as you see it to the end. Its lifespan may not be any longer than that of your average comedy sketch, but its lessons remain—which is just another way of saying that ideas and experience emerge from the same cycle. And the apprenticeship is necessarily brutal, in Silicon Valley or anywhere else. As Martin Short puts it elsewhere in the same book: “You’re a star on Saturday night, but if forty-eight hours later you haven’t come up with an idea, you’re a failure.”

Quote of the Day

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In the greatest confusion there is still an open channel to the soul. It may be difficult to find because by midlife it is overgrown, and some of the wildest thickets that surround it grow out of what we describe as our education. But the channel is always there and it is our business to keep it open, to have access to the deepest part of ourselves—to that part of us which is conscious of a higher consciousness by means of which we make final judgments and put everything together.

Saul Bellow, in the introduction to The Closing of the American Mind

Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2017 at 7:30 am

The sound of the teletypes

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A few days ago, after a string of horrifying sexual harassment accusations were leveled against the political journalist Mark Halperin, HBO announced that it was canceling a planned miniseries based on an upcoming book by Halperin and John Heilemann about last year’s presidential election. (Penguin, their publisher, pulled the plug on the book itself later that day.) It’s hard to argue with this decision, which also raises the question of why anyone thought that there would be demand for a television series on this subject at all. We’re still in the middle of this story, which shows no sign of ending, and the notion that viewers would voluntarily submit themselves to a fictionalized version of it—on top of everything else—is hard to believe. But it isn’t the first time that this issue has come up. Over four decades ago, while working on the adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, the screenwriter William Goldman ran up against the same skepticism, as he recounts in his great book Adventures in the Screen Trade:

When I began researching the Woodward-Bernstein book, before it was published, it seemed, at best, a dubious project. Politics were anathema at the box office, the material was talky, there was no action, etc., etc. Most of all, though, people were sick to fucking death of Watergate. For months, whenever anyone asked me what I was working on, and I answered, there was invariably the same reply: “Gee, don’t you think we’ve heard enough about Watergate?” Repeated often enough, that can make you lose confidence.

He concludes: “Because, of course, we had. Had enough and more than enough. Years of headlines, claims and disclaimers, lies, and occasional clarifying truths.”

This certainly sounds familiar. And even if that Trump miniseries never happens, we can still learn a lot from the effort by one of America’s smartest writers to come to terms with the most complicated political story of his time. When Goldman was brought on board by Robert Redford, he knew that he could hardly turn down the assignment, but he was uncomfortably aware of the challenges that it would present: “There were all those goddam names that no one could keep straight: Stans and Sturgis and Barker and Segretti and McCord and Kalmbach and Magruder and Kleindienst and Strachan and Abplanalp and Rebozo and backward reeled the mind.” (If we’re lucky, there will come a day when Manafort and Gates and Goldstone and Veselnitskaya and Page and even Kushner will blur together, too.) As he dug into the story, he was encouraged to find a lot of interesting information that nobody else seemed to know. There had actually been an earlier attempt to break into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate, for instance, but the burglars had to turn back because they had brought the wrong set of keys. Goldman was so taken by this story that it became the opening scene in his first draft, as a way of alerting viewers that they had to pay attention, although he later admitted that it was perhaps for the best that it was cut: “If the original opening had been incorporated, and you looked at it today, I think you would wonder what the hell it was doing there.” Despite such wrong turns, he continued to work on the structure, and as he was trying to make sense of it, he asked Bob Woodward to list what he thought were the thirteen most important events in the Watergate story. Checking what he had written so far, he saw that he had included all of them already: “So even if the screenplay stunk, at least the structure would be sound.”

As it turned out, the structure would be his primary contribution to the movie that eventually won him an Academy Award. After laboring over the screenplay, Goldman was infamously ambushed at a meeting by Redford, who informed him that Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron had secretly written their own version of the script, and that he should read it. (Goldman’s account of the situation, which he calls “a gutless betrayal” by Redford, throws a bit of shade that I’ve always loved: “One other thing to note about [Bernstein and Ephron’s] screenplay: I don’t know about real life, but in what they wrote, Bernstein was sure catnip to the ladies.”) From his perspective, matters got even worse after the hiring of director Alan Pakula, who asked him for multiple versions of every scene and kept him busy with rewrites for months. A subplot about Woodward’s love life, which Goldman knew would never make it into the film, turned out to be a huge waste of everyone’s time. Finally, he says, the phone stopped ringing, and he didn’t have any involvement with the film’s production. Goldman recalls in his book:

I saw it at my local neighborhood theater and it seemed very much to resemble what I’d done; of course there were changes but there are always changes. There was a lot of ad-libbing, scenes were placed in different locations, that kind of thing. But the structure of the piece remained unchanged. And it also seemed, with what objectivity I could bring to it, to be well directed and acted, especially by the stars.

In the end, however, Goldman says that if he could live his entire movie career over again, “I’d have written exactly the screenplays I’ve written. Only I wouldn’t have come near All the President’s Men.”

But the thing that sticks in my head the most about the screenplay is the ending. Goldman writes: “My wife remembers my telling her that my biggest problem would be somehow to make the ending work, since the public already knew the outcome.” Here’s how he solved it:

Bernstein and Woodward had made one crucial mistake dealing with the knowledge of one of Nixon’s top aides. It was a goof that, for a while, cost them momentum. I decided to end the story on their mistake, because the public already knew they had eventually been vindicated, and one mistake didn’t stop them. The notion behind it was to go out with them down and let the audience supply their eventual triumph.

In practice, this meant that the movie doesn’t even cover the book’s second half, which is something that most viewers don’t realize. (In his later memoir Which Lie Did I Tell?, Goldman writes: “In All the President’s Men, we got great credit for our faithfulness to the Woodward-Bernstein book. Total horseshit: the movie ended halfway through the book.”) Instead, it gives us the unforgettable shot of the reporters working in the background as Nixon’s inauguration plays on television, followed by the rattle of the teletype machines covering the events of the next two years. The movie trusts us to fill in the blanks because we know what happened next, and it works brilliantly. If I bring this up now, it’s because the first charges have just been filed in the Mueller investigation. This is only the beginning. But when the Trump movie gets made, and it probably will, today might be the very last scene.

Quote of the Day

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There should be a law establishing twenty thousand words as the target length for a book—if you write more, you get taxed so much per word. We’d all get through life a lot quicker.

Michael Frayn, to The Telegraph

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October 30, 2017 at 7:30 am

The essential solidarity of poets

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We now give more serious weight to the words of a country’s poets than to the words of its politicians—though we know the latter may interfere more drastically with our lives. Religions, ideologies, mercantile competition divide us. The essential solidarity of the very diverse poets of the world…is one we can be thankful for, since its terms are exclusively those of love, understanding and patience. It is one of the few spontaneous guarantees of possible unity that mankind can show, and the revival of an appetite for poetry is like a revival of an appetite for all man’s saner possibilities, and a revulsion from the materialist cataclysms of recent years and the worse ones which the difference of nations threatens for the years ahead. The idea of global unity is not new, but the absolute necessity of it has only just arrived, like a sudden radical alteration of the sun, and we shall have to adapt or disappear.

Ted Hughes, Selected Translations

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October 29, 2017 at 7:30 am

Renoir at work

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Renoir could not deal with two ideas simultaneously, but he could go from one motif to another and forget the proceeding one. All the problems in a picture on which he was working were perfectly clear to him, and the rest of the world disappeared as completely as if it had never existed. When he did not feel for a picture he never forced it. Those around him knew at once. He would cease humming to himself and rub the left side of his nose violently with the index finger of the left hand. And he would finally say to the society woman whose portrait he was doing, or to the model who had stopped his tune: “We’re marking time. I think it would be better if we put it off till tomorrow.” The lady or the model would look crestfallen. He would smoke a cigarette, play a little with his game of bilboquet, and then make up his mind. “Gabrielle, go and get Jean and his foulard scarf.” Sometimes he would go out for five or ten minutes and walk as far as Manière’s to get a packet of Maryland cigarettes. “You have to stop work and take a stroll once in a while.”

Jean Renoir, Renoir, My Father

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October 28, 2017 at 7:30 am

Luther on the couch

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Five hundred years ago this month, Martin Luther introduced the world to the Ninety-Five Theses. As far as anniversaries go, this is about as big as it gets, but if you find it hard to work up much excitement about it, it might be because Luther himself isn’t read much these days, at least not in English. (He’s notably absent from my beloved set of Great Books of the Western World, which finds room for two gigantic volumes of Thomas Aquinas but nothing from the Protestant Reformation.) As a result, Luther can seem remote to us, when in fact he’s one of the most scandalously vivid of all historical figures. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella refers in passing to his Anfechtungen, or trials, which she lists as “cold sweats, nausea, constipation, crushing headaches, ringing in his ears, together with depression, anxiety, and a general feeling that, as he put it, the angel of Satan was beating him with his fists.” Constipation appears here as just one affliction among many, but there are readings of Luther that place his time in the bathroom—a part of all of our lives that goes largely uncovered by biographers—at the center of his career. In Life Against Death, the classicist Norman O. Brown quotes Luther’s own account of a key moment in his religious awakening:

Once when in this tower I was meditating on those words, “the just lives by faith,” “justice of God,” I soon had the thought whether we ought to live justified by faith, and God’s justice ought to be the salvation of every believer, and soon my soul was revived. Therefore it is God’s justice which justifies us and saves us. And these words became a sweeter message for me. This knowledge the Holy Spirit gave me on the privy in the tower.

This is one of the most extraordinary paragraphs ever written, and you can glimpse much of twentieth century literature in its transition to that last, unforgettable sentence. If it isn’t as familiar as it should be, it’s mostly because Luther’s defenders tried to minimize it, his detractors read too much into it, and psychoanalysts seized eagerly on it in ways that have started to seem embarrassing. In the years when the psychoanalytic interpretation of history—not to be confused with other forms of psychohistory—was briefly in vogue, Luther became the case study of choice, in part because he afforded so much material to Freudians. Luther was unusually candid about the bathroom, and excremental images fill his work and conversation. As Brown puts it: “Such historical facts are hard to come by…and historical science should make the most of them.” You could make a strong case that Luther’s openness on the subject encouraged critics to give it an excessive amount of emphasis, just because it’s easier to do this sort of reading on him than on pretty much anybody else. But it’s also hard to claim that these images weren’t somehow central to Luther’s vision. As Brown writes:

Luther records that in one encounter, when Lutheran doctrines had not sufficed to rout the Devil, he had routed him “mit einem Furz”…Other anal weapons employed by Luther in his fight with the Devil—my language here is more refined than Luther’s—are injunctions to “lick (or kiss) my posteriors” or to “defecate in his pants and hang them round his neck,” and threats to “defecate in his face” or to “throw him into my anus, where he belongs.”

And Acocella approvingly quotes Luther’s famous metaphor as he felt death approaching: “I am like a ripe shit, and the world is a gigantic asshole. We will both probably let go of each other soon.”

In retrospect, it’s easy to find something comical in Freudian readings of Luther: “Today, psychoanalytic interpretations tend to be tittered at by Luther biographers,” Acocella writes. But perhaps we shouldn’t discourage Freudians from going after the one historical figure whom they might understand better than anybody else. In Life Against Death, after linking Luther’s fascination with excrement with his feelings toward money, usury, and the devil, Brown claims him as one of his own: “Lutheranism can be explicated not only as theology but also as psychoanalysis. Luther, like a psychoanalyst, penetrates beneath the surface of life and finds a hidden reality; religion, like psychoanalysis, must say that things are not what they seem to be.” You could even argue that a psychoanalyst in the first half of the last century would have been uniquely equipped to understand the Reformation from the inside. As Janet Malcolm writes so memorably in Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession:

Soon after the Big Bang of Freud’s major discoveries…the historian of psychoanalysis notes a fork in the road. One path leads outward into the general culture, widening to become the grand boulevard of psychoanalytic influence—the multilane superhighway of psychoanalytic thought’s incursions into psychiatry, social philosophy, anthropology, law, literature, education, and child-rearing. The other is the narrow, inward-turning path of psychoanalytic therapy: a hidden, almost secret byway travelled by few (the analysts and their patients), edged by decrepit mansions with drawn shades (the training institutes and the analytic societies), marked with inscrutable road signs (the scientific papers).

This dual dynamic, which had been enacted within living memory, recalled the Reformation itself, which took Luther’s secret struggle and turned it into a movement that could overthrow kings and empires, with the two tracks running in parallel. And their affinities go even deeper. Luther, like Freud, marked a divide in mankind’s understanding of itself, and their fans and followers don’t shy away from grandiose statements. Acocella quotes a recent biography by Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World: “The quintessentially modern idea of the individual was as unthinkable before Luther as is color in a world of black and white. And the more recent ideas of pluralism, religious liberty, self-government, and liberty all entered history through the door that Luther opened.” You could make the same claim—with a different list of values—for Freud. And even their enemies speak of them in analogous terms. In Freud for Historians, Peter Gay writes:

Inevitably, those most hostile to psychoanalysis have been those most alarmed at psychohistory. To them, it is nothing less than a disfiguring, perhaps incurable epidemic that has invaded their craft. The “reckless psychologizing of the “woolly-minded men and women who call themselves psychohistorians,” Kenneth S. Lynn wrote in 1978, has grown into “a cancer that is metastasizing through the whole body of the historical profession.”

The language here is startlingly similar to what Acocella says of Luther’s legacy: “The Reformation wasn’t led, exactly; it just spread, metastasized.” Freud’s revolution may be over, while Luther’s, in some strange way, is just beginning. And if we want to understand one, we can still learn a lot from the other.

Quote of the Day

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What I am asking for, I think, is the state of mind that can see and accept and believe ideas in conflict, without ambivalence or a sense of self-divisiveness. Call it eclecticism if you will. I’ve been accused of it often enough, the word flung at me like a curse. But just as I, a radical, distrust other radicals who are not in part conservatives—i.e., who are ideologues—so I distrust poets who cannot perceive the multiplexity of their art, preserve it and relish it. Poetry is where you find it.

Hayden Carruth, Selected Essays

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October 27, 2017 at 7:30 am

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On the paper trail of the assassins

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At the climax of Oliver Stone’s JFK, a movie that has obsessed and exasperated me for the last quarter of a century, Kevin Costner, as New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, delivers what by some measures is the longest courtroom speech in movie history. It goes on for something like forty minutes, interspersed with vivid recreations of the scene in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and the closing argument, which ends with Costner looking directly at the camera, includes the following odd passage:

There’s a simple way to determine if I am paranoid. Ask the two men who profited most from the assassination—former President Johnson and your new President Nixon—to release the fifty-one CIA documents pertaining to Lee Oswald and Jack Ruby. Or the secret CIA memo on Oswald’s activities in Russia that was destroyed while being photocopied. These documents are yours. The people’s property. You pay for it. But as the government sees you as children who might be too disturbed to face this reality, or because you might lynch those involved, you cannot see these documents for another seventy-five years. I’m in my forties, so I’ll have shuffled off this mortal coil by then. But I’m telling my eight-year-old son to keep himself physically fit, so that one glorious September morning, in 2038, he can go to the National Archives and learn what the CIA and FBI knew.

As Costner makes his appeal, we cut to the young actor playing Jasper Garrison, who is actually Sean Stone, the director’s son. And there’s little doubt that Stone is speaking here with his own voice. (In fact, the date for the release of these records was 2039, not 2038, which raises the tragicomic image of eighty-year-old Jasper eagerly showing up one year early at the National Archives, only to be turned away.)

In the most surprising twist of all, JFK upset its own timeline, and the film’s success inspired the creation of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, which released the vast majority of the files related to Kennedy’s death and stipulated that the rest be disclosed within “twenty-five years after the date of the enactment of this act, October 26, 1992.” Well, that’s today. So what exactly does this mean? For answers, we can turn to the biggest book in the world, Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi, which is so physically huge that it includes a thousand pages of endnotes in a separate bonus disc. Freed up to talk about whatever he wants at length, Bugliosi spends close to fifteen pages of small type discussing the JFK Records Act, and he takes pains to debunk the notion that these records were deliberately “sealed” by the Warren Commission. In reality, at the commission’s last meeting on September 24, 1964, a motion was made and carried that “all of the remaining materials and records of the Commission shall be delivered to the National Archives to be held in perpetuity for the use and benefit of the people of the United States.” Two months later, over three hundred cubic feet of documents and numerous boxes of physical evidence, including Oswald’s rifle, were transferred to the archives. At the time, materials related to all investigations conducted by the executive branch were kept classified for seventy-five years, and the Warren Commission itself had nothing to do with it. In an interview with the New York Herald-Tribune toward the end of that same year, Dr. Robert Bahmer, the deputy archivist, explained that this period was chosen “because it is considered to be the life span of an individual…to serve as protection for innocent persons who could otherwise be damaged because of their relationship with participants in the case.”

The interview with Bahmer prompted the mayor of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to write a letter to President Johnson protesting the classification of “off-the record testimony and exhibits” from the investigation. (Bugliosi points out that all of the testimony before the Warren Commission was actually on the record, and everything had been released in the fifteen volumes of the full report.) Johnson looked into making an exception, and Earl Warren himself advocated for “the fullest possible disclosure.” In consequence, as early as 1966, about eighty percent of documents from federal agencies had been released. Yet the notion persisted that the unreleased files would provide important evidence for the existence of a conspiracy. Bugliosi has some choice words for this notion:

In the first place, the belief that any alleged conspirators who plotted Kennedy’s assassination would commit to paper anything that expressly, obliquely, or in any other way referred to the murderous plot is ridiculous on its face. Moreover, even if we make the assumption that one or more of these documents did exist, the only reason why anyone would want to suppress their existence would be if they were involved in the conspiracy to murder Kennedy…But you see, if that were the case, these people would simply destroy these documents, not leave them in any file. If they were immoral enough to murder Kennedy, or do whatever they could to cover up for those who did, surely they would eliminate an incriminating document. To suggest otherwise is to say that they would have, in effect, the following state of mind: “It’s one thing for me to be a part of the conspiracy to murder President Kennedy or to be an accessory after the fact to his murder, but don’t expect me to throw away any incriminating document. That’s just going too far. You have to draw a line in the sand somewhere. How immoral do you think I am?”

Bugliosi concedes that it might be possible for incriminating information to be overlooked and uncovered by a diligent search, but at the time that he wrote his book, ten years ago, virtually all the documents had already been released. His source at the National Archives estimated that about five thousand pages remained, which were withheld because they contained such information as the names of intelligence agents or details about investigative methods. Bugliosi concludes:

Three things are very clear: First, after an unprecedented and historic four-year scavenger hunt by the [JFK Assassination Records Review Board] for all documents “reasonably related” to the assassination, no smoking gun or even a smoldering ember of conspiracy was found. The reason is that no such smoking gun or ember ever existed. Second, if it did exist, it would never have been left in any file for discovery. And finally, assassination researchers and conspiracy theorists will never be satisfied, not even when the cows come home.

But the real punchline, as the New York Times has pointed out, is that after all these decades, an accident of timing means that these files will be released “by the administration of a president who dabbles in conspiracy theories himself.” (One of the categories of documents specifically exempted from the JFK Records Act, by the way, is income tax returns. I don’t really have anything to say about this—I’m just pointing it out.) And in at least one respect, the fears of the truly paranoid might turn out to be justified. It’s hard to imagine a moment in history when these documents would seem less interesting. The obsessions of aging conspiracy theorists can only seem quaint compared to the outrages unfolding in plain sight every day. Trump has inadvertently done what no genuine coverup could possibly have accomplished. He’s made all of the old conspiracy theories seem boring.

Written by nevalalee

October 26, 2017 at 8:21 am

Quote of the Day

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In little things and big, the mind works more by way of gestalts than by algorithmic procedures. This is because our life as a whole is made up of a hierarchy of projects, some trivial and repetitive, some special and spectacular. The mind is naturally a spinner of projects, meaning it sets goals, choosing them from among all the things we might be doing with our lives. Pondering choices, making projects—these are the mind’s first order of activity…Thinking means—most significantly—forming projects and reflecting upon the values that the project involves.

Theodore Roszak, The Cult of Information

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October 26, 2017 at 7:30 am

The notebook and the brain

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A little over two decades ago, the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers published a paper titled “The Extended Mind.” Its argument, which no one who encounters it is likely to forget, is that the human mind isn’t confined to the bounds of the skull, but includes many of the tools and external objects that we use to think, from grocery lists to Scrabble tiles. The authors present an extended thought experiment about a man named Otto who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, which obliges him to rely on his notebook to remember how to get to a museum. They argue that this notebook is effectively occupying the role of Otto’s memory, but only because it meets a particular set of criteria:

First, the notebook is a constant in Otto’s life—in cases where the information in the notebook would be relevant, he will rarely take action without consulting it. Second, the information in the notebook is directly available without difficulty. Third, upon retrieving information from the notebook he automatically endorses it. Fourth, the information in the notebook has been consciously endorsed at some point in the past, and indeed is there as a consequence of this endorsement.

The authors conclude: “The information in Otto’s notebook, for example, is a central part of his identity as a cognitive agent. What this comes to is that Otto himself is best regarded as an extended system, a coupling of biological organism and external resources…Once the hegemony of skin and skull is usurped, we may be able to see ourselves more truly as creatures of the world.”

When we think and act, we become agents that are “spread into the world,” as Clark and Chalmers put it, and this extension is especially striking during the act of writing. In an article that appeared just  last week in The Atlantic, “You Think With the World, Not Just Your Brain,” Sam Kriss neatly sums up the problem: “Language sits hazy in the world, a symbolic and intersubjective ether, but at the same time it forms the substance of our thought and the structure of our understanding. Isn’t language thinking for us?” He continues:

This is not, entirely, a new idea. Plato, in his Phaedrus, is hesitant or even afraid of writing, precisely because it’s a kind of artificial memory, a hypomnesis…Writing, for Plato, is a pharmakon, a “remedy” for forgetfulness, but if taken in too strong a dose it becomes a poison: A person no longer remembers things for themselves; it’s the text that remembers, with an unholy autonomy. The same criticisms are now commonly made of smartphones. Not much changes.

The difference, of course, is that our own writing implies the involvement of the self in the past, which is a dialogue that doesn’t exist when we’re simply checking information online. Clark and Chalmers, who wrote at a relatively early stage in the history of the Internet, are careful to make this distinction: “The Internet is likely to fail [the criteria] on multiple counts, unless I am unusually computer-reliant, facile with the technology, and trusting, but information in certain files on my computer may qualify.” So can the online content that we make ourselves—I’ve occasionally found myself checking this blog to remind myself what I think about something, and I’ve outsourced much of my memory to Google Photos.

I’ve often written here about the dialogue between our past, present, and future selves implicit in the act of writing, whether we’re composing a novel or jotting down a Post-It note. Kriss quotes Jacques Derrida on the humble grocery list: “At the very moment ‘I’ make a shopping list, I know that it will only be a list if it implies my absence, if it already detaches itself from me in order to function beyond my ‘present’ act and if it is utilizable at another time.” And I’m constantly aware of the book that I’m writing as a form of time travel. As I mentioned last week, I’m preparing the notes, which means that I often have to make sense of something that I wrote down over two years ago. There are times when the presence of that other self is so strong that it feels as if he’s seated next to me, even as I remain conscious of the gap between us. (For one thing, my past self didn’t know nearly as much about John W. Campbell.) And the two of us together are wiser, more effective, and more knowledgeable than either one of us alone, as long as we have writing to serve as a bridge between us. If a notebook is a place for organizing information that we can’t easily store in our heads, that’s even more true of a book written for publication, which serves as a repository of ideas to be manipulated, rearranged, and refined over time. This can lead to the odd impression that your book somehow knows more than you do, which it probably does. Knowledge is less about raw data than about the connections between them, and a book is the best way we have for compiling our moments of insight in a form that can be processed more or less all at once. We measure ourselves against the intelligence of authors in books, but we’re also comparing two fundamentally different things. Whatever ideas I have right now on any given subject probably aren’t as good as a compilation of everything that occurred to my comparably intelligent double over the course of two or three years.

This implies that most authors are useful not so much for their deeper insights as for their greater availability, which allows them to externalize their thoughts and manipulate them in the real world for longer and with more intensity than their readers can. (Campbell liked to remind his writers that the magazine’s subscribers were paying them to think on their behalf.) I often remember one of my favorite anecdotes about Isaac Asimov, which he shares in the collection Opus 100. He was asked to speak on the radio on nothing less than the human brain, on which he had just published a book. Asimov responded: “Heavens! I’m not a brain expert.” When the interviewer pointed out that he had just written an entire book on the subject, Asimov explained:

“Yes, but I studied up for the book and put in everything I could learn. I don’t know anything but the exact words in the book, and I don’t think I can remember all those in a pinch. After all,” I went on, a little aggrieved, “I’ve written books on dozens of subjects. You can’t expect me to be expert on all of them just because I’ve written books about them.”

Every author can relate to this, and there are times when “I don’t know anything but the exact words in the book” sums up my feelings about my own work. Asimov’s case is particularly fascinating because of the scale involved. By some measures, he was the most prolific author in American history, with over four hundred books to his credit, and even if we strip away the anthologies and other works that he used to pad the count, it’s still a huge amount of information. To what extent was Asimov coterminous with his books? The answer, I think, lies somewhere between “Entirely” and “Not at all,” and there was presumably more of Asimov in his memoirs than in An Easy Introduction to the Slide Rule. But he’s only an extreme version of a phenomenon that applies to every last one of us. When the radio interviewer asked incredulously if he was an expert on anything, Asimov responded: “I’m an expert on one thing. On sounding like an expert.” And that’s true of everyone. The notes that we take allow us to pose as experts in the area that matters the most—on the world around us, and even our own lives.

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October 25, 2017 at 8:40 am

Quote of the Day

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In the structure the artist speaks as an artist purely. There he cannot lie. The artist as a man of action perpetuates his deed and records himself as a reality in the structure of his work—for which the content is merely useful.

William Carlos Williams, Selected Essays

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October 25, 2017 at 7:30 am

Bringing up the bodies

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For the last few weeks, my wife and I have been slowly working our way through Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s devastating documentary series Vietnam. The other night, we finished the episode “Resolve,” which includes an extraordinary sequence—you can find it here around the twenty-five minute mark—about the war’s use of questionable metrics. As narrator Peter Coyote intones: “Since there was no front in Vietnam, as there had been in the first and second World Wars, since no ground was ever permanently won or lost, the American military command in Vietnam—MACV—fell back more and more on a single grisly measure of supposed success: counting corpses. Body count.” The historian and retired Army officer James Willbanks observes:

The problem with the war, as it often is, are the metrics. It is a situation where if you can’t count what’s important, you make what you can count important. So, in this particular case, what you could count was dead enemy bodies.

And as the horrifying images of stacked bodies fill the screen, we hear the quiet, reasonable voice of Robert Gard, a retired lieutenant general and former chairman of the board of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation: “If body count is the measure of success, then there’s the tendency to count every body as an enemy soldier. There’s a tendency to want to pile up dead bodies and perhaps to use less discriminate firepower than you otherwise might in order to achieve the result that you’re charged with trying to obtain.”

These days, we casually use the phrase “body count” to describe violence in movies and video games, and I was startled to realize how recent the term really is—the earliest reported instance is from 1962, and the oldest results that I can find in a Google Book search are from the early seventies. (Its first use as a book’s title, as far as I can determine, is for the memoir of William Calley, the officer convicted of murder for his involvement in the My Lai massacre.) Military metaphors have a way of seeping into everyday use, in part because of their vividness and, perhaps, because we all like to think of ourselves as fighting in one war or another, but after watching Vietnam, I think that “body count” ought to be forcibly restored to its original connotations. It doesn’t take a lot of introspection to see that it was a statistic that was only possible in a war in which the enemy could be easily dehumanized, and that it encouraged a lack of distinction between military and civilian combatants. Like most faulty metrics, it created a toxic set of incentives from the highest levels of command to the soldiers on the ground. As the full extent of the war’s miscalculations grew more clear, these facts became hard to ignore, and the term itself came to encapsulate the mistakes and deceptions of the conflict as a whole. Writing in Playboy in 1982, Philip Caputo called it “one of the most hideous, morally corrupting ideas ever conceived by the military mind.” Yet most of its emotional charge has since been lost. Words matter, and as the phrase’s significance is obscured, the metric itself starts to creep back. And the temptation to fall back on it increases in response to a confluence of specific factors, as a country engages in military action in which the goals are unclear and victory is poorly defined.

As a result, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a return to body count. As far back as 2005, Bradley Graham of the Washington Post reported: “The revival of body counts, a practice discredited during the Vietnam War, has apparently come without formal guidance from the Pentagon’s leadership.” More recently, Reed Richardson wrote on FAIR:

In the past few years, official body count estimates have made a notable comeback, as U.S. military and administration officials have tried to talk up the U.S. coalition’s war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq…For example, last August, the U.S. commander of the Syrian-Iraq war garnered a flurry of favorable coverage of the war when he announced that the coalition had killed 45,000 ISIS militants in the past two years. By December, the official ISIS body count number, according to an anonymous “senior U.S. official,” had risen to 50,000 and led headlines on cable news. Reading through that media coverage, though, one finds little skepticism about the figures or historical context about how these killed in action numbers line up with the official estimates of ISIS’s overall size, which have stayed stubbornly consistent year after year. In fact, the official estimated size of ISIS in 2015 and 2016 averaged 25,000 fighters, which means the U.S. coalition had supposedly wiped out the equivalent of its entire force over both years without making a dent in its overall size.

Richardson sums up: “As our not-too-distant past has clearly shown, enemy body counts are a handy, hard-to-resist tool that administrations of both parties often use for war propaganda to promote the idea we are ‘winning’ and to stave off dissent about why we’re fighting in the first place.”

It’s worth pointing out, as Richardson does, that such language isn’t confined to any one party, and it was equally prevalent during the Obama administration. But we should be even more wary of it now. (Richardson writes: “In February, Gen. Tony Thomas, the commander of US Special Operations Command, told a public symposium that 60,000 ISIS fighters had been killed. Thomas added this disingenuous qualifier to his evidence-free number: ‘I’m not that into morbid body count, but that matters.’”) Trump has spent his entire career inflating his numbers, from his net worth to the size of his inauguration crowds, and because he lacks a clear grasp of policy, he’s more inclined to gauge his success—and the lack thereof by his enemies—in terms that lend themselves to the most mindless ways of keeping score, like television ratings. He’s also fundamentally disposed to claim that everything that he does is the biggest and the best, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. This extends to areas that can’t be easily quantified, like international relations, so that every negotiation becomes a zero-sum game in which, as Joe Nocera put it a few years ago: “In every deal, he has to win and you have to lose.” It encourages Trump and his surrogates to see everything as a war, even if it leads them to inflict just as much damage on themselves, and the incentives that he imposes on those around him, in which no admission of error is possible, drag down even the best of his subordinates. And we’ve seen this pattern before. As the journalist Joe Galloway says in Vietnam: “You don’t get details with a body count. You get numbers. And the numbers are lies, most of ‘em. If body count is your success mark, then you’re pushing otherwise honorable men, warriors, to become liars.”

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October 24, 2017 at 8:15 am

Quote of the Day

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It is absurd to dwell in the domain of the absurd but it is even more absurd to assume that art can offer a way of going beyond it…The writer cannot hope to solve his existential conflicts by dealing with them aesthetically. There is no direct passageway between art and reality.

Charles I. Glicksberg, The Tragic Vision in Twentieth-Century Literature

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October 24, 2017 at 7:30 am

The fifteen missing pages

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In 1972, after the massive success of The Godfather, the director Francis Ford Coppola announced that his next project would be an original screenplay that he had been trying to make for years. It was a curious blend of paranoid thriller and character study—Coppola would later describe it as a cross between Blow-Up and Steppenwolf—about a surveillance expert named Harry Caul. Paramount was anxious for him to get to work on the sequel to his first big hit, but Coppola optimistically hoped to squeeze in this more personal project between the two Godfather films. As the editor Walter Murch told the novelist Michael Ondaatje in their great book The Conversations, that isn’t quite how it worked out:

A good ten days of material [on The Conversation] was never filmed—Francis and the production team just ran out of time and money to shoot the entire script, and he had to go off to do preproduction on Godfather II. His advice to me at that point was, Well, let’s just cut what we have together and see if we can find a way to compensate for that missing footage. So from the beginning we couldn’t structure it the way the screenplay called for. I’d say there were about fifteen pages of script material that were not shot.

To make matters even more fraught, with Coppola effectively gone, the film was left in the hands of Murch and his assistant editor Richard Chew, neither of whom had ever edited a movie before. In Behind the Seen, Charles Koppelman describes their unlikely plan: “Coppola would show up every month or so…The three of them would screen [the film], spend a couple of days together going over ideas and making lists of things to try out. Then Coppola would disappear for another month.” It went on like this for an entire year.

More recently, another movie found itself in much the same situation, complete with a protagonist with a trademark raincoat and an oddly similar name. This time, it was the adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s thriller The Snowman, about the Oslo police detective Harry Hole. On paper, it looked great: the leads were Michael Fassbender and Rebecca Ferguson, Martin Scorsese was the executive producer, and Tomas Alfredson of the excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was directing. Even before its release, however, there were rumors of trouble, capped off by a remarkable interview that Alfredson gave to Norwegian public broadcasting, which was quickly picked up by the Independent. For a film that has been in development for most of the decade—Scorsese was announced as the director way back in 2011, only to be replaced by Alfredson three years later—its actual production seems to have been untidy and rushed. As Alfredson revealed:

Our shoot time in Norway was way too short. We didn’t get the whole story with us and when we started cutting we discovered that a lot was missing…It’s like when you’re making a big jigsaw puzzle and a few pieces are missing so you don’t see the whole picture…[The reshoots] happened very abruptly. Suddenly we got notice that we had the money and could start the shoot in London.

Alfredson estimated that “ten to fifteen percent” of the script was never shot. And while it isn’t clear how this happened, if we’re talking about a screenplay of average length, the unshot material amounted to more or less what it was for The Conversation. Postproduction is always an exhausting, stressful stage, and both films went into it with fifteen missing pages.

Faced with this sort of situation, an editor has no choice but to be a genius, creating structure, connections, and entirely new scenes from the footage that he or she has available. As Murch says drily to Ondaatje, with considerable understatement: “We had to be pretty inventive.” He provides one example:

For instance, in one scene Harry pursues Ann—the young woman who was his surveillance “target”—to a park, where he reveals to her who he is and what her concerns for her are. Francis shot the park material, but the material leading up to it, including a chase on electric buses, was never shot…Since we had no fabric with which to knit it into the reality of the film, it floated for a while, like a wild card, until we got the idea of making it a dream of Harry’s, which seemed to be the way to preserve it within the film…When you have restricted material you’re going to have to restructure things from the original intent, with sometimes felicitous juxtapositions.

Much and Chew were novices, working independently, by trial and error, which was extraordinary even in the early seventies and would be utterly unthinkable today. With The Snowman, Universal did the obvious thing and brought in a ringer—they already had editor Claire Simpson, a veteran of such films as Platoon and The Constant Gardener, and to supplement her work, they hired none other than Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s longtime collaborator and arguably the most acclaimed editor of her generation. (Murch himself was recruited to do similar duty for the remake of The Wolf Man, which implies that this sort of repair work is a good side gig for legendary editors in their twilight years.) The result, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to have been as inspired as it was for its predecessor. As Den of Geek writes of the opening of The Snowman: “The scene’s editing is full of jolts and strange elisions. Was the sequence originally much longer, but later cut down? Why does it all feel so disjointed?”

In the end, after seven years in development, The Snowman was dumped into theaters over the weekend to negative reviews and poor box office, and it seems likely to endure as one of those fascinating case studies that never get told in the full detail that they deserve. You could argue that it came down to the underlying material—The Conversation emerged from the creative peak of the most important American director since Orson Welles, while The Snowman, despite its elegant veneer of Nordic noir, was ultimately just another serial killer movie. But I think that the more accurate takeaway is that you never can tell. I’ve argued before that it doesn’t make sense to talk about a movie as being saved in the editing room, because every movie is saved in the editing room, but the conditions under which The Conversation and The Snowman were made certainly tested their editors’ ingenuity to the limit. It’s a situation that can produce great inventiveness and brilliant technical solutions, but a lot of it depends on luck, and we naturally remember the successes and forget the failures. At one point, Coppola considered halting work on The Conversation entirely, which prompted Murch to recall to Koppelman: “If we had postponed, The Conversation would have probably come out in late 1975, but with a cloud over it which would have been blamed on me—a rerecording mixer who had never edited a feature before.” Murch might well have never edited a movie again, and the history of film would be subtly different. Everyone involved with The Snowman seems likely to emerge unscathed, while the movie itself will live on as a cautionary tale of how all the skill in the world might not be enough to turn Harry Hole into Harry Caul. As Boris Lermontov says in my favorite movie by Michael Powell, Schoonmaker’s late husband and the idol of both Scorsese and Coppola: “Not even the best magician in the world can produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat.”

Quote of the Day

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October 23, 2017 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

The useful object

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“Objectism” [is] a word to be taken to stand for the kind of relation of man to experience which a poet might state as the necessity of a line or a work to be as wood is, to be as clean as wood as it issues from the hand of nature, to be as shaped as wood can be when a man has had his hand to it. Objectism is the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the “subject” and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature (with certain instructions to carry out) and those other creations of nature which we may, with no derogation, call objects. For man is himself an object, whatever he may take to be his advantages, the more likely to recognize himself as such the greater his advantages, particularly at that moment that he achieves an humilitas sufficient to make him of use.

Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”

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October 22, 2017 at 7:30 am

The poem you are writing

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We have gone back to thinking of poetry as something more than a bundle of techniques. Which is to say that we have gone back to emphasizing that there is something more to poetry than accomplishment…The literary career is sometimes a hideous notion. It brings out the worst in critics and reviewers. It develops cliques and antagonistic loyalties when what a poet most needs is to learn from that which most opposes him or her, most disturbs, most confronts…Good poems transcend these problems, and we find them. More to the point, the act of writing transcends everything for those of us who need to write. They can take away from you everything but this: the poems you have written, the poems you are writing.

Marvin Bell, “The Impure Every Time”

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October 21, 2017 at 7:30 am

When Del met Elron

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Last week, I posted a quote about the legendary acting teacher and performer Del Close, who is revered as one of the founders of modern improvisational comedy. (Close served as the “house metaphysician” for years on Saturday Night Live, and his students included John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Mike Meyers. He only rarely appeared on camera himself, but you might recognize him from a very peculiar cameo in one scene in The Untouchables, in which he plays the alderman who tries to bribe Eliot Ness.) While reading about his life, I also came across the interesting claim that Close had met L. Ron Hubbard sometime in the early fifties. As Kim Howard Johnson notes in the biography The Funniest One in the Room, Close was a science fiction fan in his teens in Kansas, reading such pulps as Startling Stories and making plans to publish his own fanzine, and his attention was caught by a noteworthy development in the genre: “During the summer of their sophomore year, Del introduced [a friend] to Dianetics, the book by then-science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, and Del led them in experiments in prebirth awareness.” There was nothing particularly unusual about this—dianetics was unquestionably the story of the year among fans, and a majority of readers were disposed to approach it favorably. Most teenagers in the midwest had to be content with observing the movement from a distance, but fate intervened, as Close recalled years later:

I immediately fell madly in love with [local actress Aneta Corsaut]…I was utterly enthralled with this young lady. I used to go down to Wichita—well, that’s where the bus went, then you get a bus from Wichita to Hutchinson, which is about thirty-five miles further on. That’s where I met L. Ron Hubbard, was visiting Aneta.

Hubbard had moved to Wichita at the invitation of his benefactor Don Purcell, a local real estate investor and businessman who had rescued him after the sudden implosions of the dianetics foundations in Los Angeles and Elizabeth, New Jersey. Close documented his visit to Hubbard, which seems to have taken place sometime in second half of 1951, in an autobiographical story in the comic book Wasteland, which he wrote with John Ostrander in the late eighties. I’ve gotten my hands on a copy of the issue, and it’s quite something. It opens with a dramatization of one of Close’s dreams, in which he’s living on an island with a goat, a lion, and a “mother bear.” He’s reluctant to leave, protesting that he can’t breathe water, but the goat butts him off the edge of a cliff. The scene then cuts to the auditing session in Wichita, where Hubbard, identified as “Elron,” asks Close: “Strange dream. Were you delivered with forceps?” Hubbard proposes that they check with Close’s mother, but the teenager refuses to consider it. After offering his interpretation—“Well, I don’t ordinarily deal in dreams—leave that to the psychiatrists—but this is obviously a birth dream”—Hubbard invites Close to have a fencing match. As they cross sabers, Hubbard suggests that the bear, who hums rhythmically throughout the dream, is a memory of the mother’s heartbeat, while the pressure of the goat’s horns represents her ribs. He informs Close that this will be their last auditing session, saying that he’s having “some serious difficulties with the powers that be,” and gives the unwary fan a whack across the face. Before they part ways, Hubbard muses over turning dianetics into a religion, and he’s thrilled when Close asks him to autograph his novel Death’s Deputy: “I don’t have a copy of this myself! Let me buy it off ya!” Close leaves, thinking to himself: “I feel like the goat has kicked me out again.” And the story ends there.

There’s no way to know for sure, but the account strikes me as utterly convincing, with many small details that would never occur to anyone who was simply fabricating a story. Hubbard’s suggestion that they call Close’s mother recalls an incident in the book Dianetics, in which an anonymous patient—actually John W. Campbell himself—recounted a birth memory that was then checked directly with the source:

Objective reality did not matter but this patient had a mother near at hand and objective reality was established simply by returning her in therapy to his birth. They had not communicated about it in detail. The recording of her sequence compared word for word with his sequence, detail for detail, name for name.

Hubbard had fenced with Jack Parsons in Pasadena, including one memorable incident with the woman who became his second wife, as George Pendle recounts in Strange Angel: “Hubbard, regaining his composure after the initial ferocity of the attack, fought the formidable Betty back a few steps and stopped the assault by rapping her smartly across the nose with his foil.” And Hubbard’s identification of the humming bear with the mother’s heartbeat recalls a similar lecture that Campbell gave to Frederik Pohl in 1950, after asking if he ever had migraines:

And I said, “No, I’ve never had a migraine headache,” and [Campbell] said, “Most people do, and I know how they’re caused—they’re caused by the fetal memory. Because in the womb of the mother, there are these rhythmic sounds. There’s this slow one”—the food gurgling down her intestinal canal or something—“and a rapid one which is her heartbeat.” And he beat them out simultaneously on the desk and I got the damnedest headache I ever had in my life.

The comic is also filled with numerous touches that aren’t conclusive in themselves, but which ring very true, like the fact that Close asks Hubbard to sign a copy of Death’s Deputy. (It’s probably Hubbard’s best novel, but it’s fallen into obscurity, and it isn’t a title that would occur to most people.) Johnson’s biography of Close takes it as an accurate representation:

The comic book story agrees with the accounts Del would give to friends of his time with Hubbard. In his later years, Del would explain that Hubbard cured his asthma in 1951 at the Witchita Dianetics Foundation; however, Del also said that Hubbard taught him to smoke Kools. He claimed that Hubbard was always complaining about the AMA and the IRS, reiterating his desire to start a religion. His retellings of his experiences with Hubbard remained consistent, and there is little doubt he was being truthful.

If anything, those Kools might be the most convincing detail of all—they were Hubbard’s cigarette of choice from at least the early fifties until his death. Close’s account is particularly valuable because it’s one of the few outside glimpses we have of Hubbard during a crucial period in his career, when he was transitioning from dianetics into what would soon become the Church of Scientology. If Close can be trusted, the transformation into a religion was on the founder’s mind as early as 1951, which is a useful data point—its earliest prior appearance in the public record was a letter from Hubbard to Helen O’Brien, dated April 10, 1953, in which he wrote: “I await your reaction on the religion angle.” Which doesn’t mean that it was a coherent plan. Hubbard rarely seemed to know what he was doing from one week to the next, and for most of his improbable life, he was improvising.

Quote of the Day

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Knowledge of poetry, which is gained, as in science or other areas, by induction and deduction, is likely to remain provisional by falling short in one of two ways: either it is too specific, too narrow and definite, to be widely applicable—that is, the principles suggested by one poem are not likely to apply in the same number or kind to another poem; or, the knowledge is too general, too abstract and speculative, to fit precisely the potentialities of any given poem. Each poem in becoming generates the laws by which it is generated: extensions of the laws to other poems never completely take.

A.R. Ammons, “A Poem is a Walk”

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October 20, 2017 at 7:30 am

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