Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 6th, 2018

The lantern battery and the golem

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Science means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful. All the rest is literature.

—Paul Valéry

Yesterday morning, my wife asked me: “Have you seen the illustration for Michael Chabon’s new essay?” She thrust the latest issue of The New Yorker in my direction, and when I looked down, I saw a drawing by Greg Clarke of a little boy reading what was unmistakably a copy of Astounding Science Fiction. The kid is evidently meant to be Chabon himself, and his article, “The Recipe for Life,” is about nothing less than how his inner life was shaped by his father’s memories of an earlier era. Chabon writes:

He talked about comic books, radio dramas, Astounding magazine, and the stories they’d all told: of rocket-powered heroes, bug-eyed monsters, mad scientists bent on ruling the world. He described to me how he had saved box tops from cold cereals like Post Toasties, and redeemed them by mail for Junior G-Man badges or cardboard Flying Fortresses that carried payloads of black marbles. He told me about playing games like potsy, stickball, handball, and ringolevio, and, for the first time but by no means the last, about an enchanted pastry called a charlotte russe, a rosette of whipped cream on a disk of sponge cake served in a scalloped paper cup, topped with a Maraschino cherry. He described having spent weeks in the cellar of his Flatbush apartment building as a young teen-ager, with some mail-order chemicals, five pounds of kosher salt, and a lantern battery, trying to re-create “the original recipe for life on earth,” as detailed in the pages of Astounding.

The younger Chabon listened to his father intently, and all the while, he was “riding the solitary rails of my imagination into our mutual story, into the future we envisioned and the history we actually accumulated; into the vanished world that he once inhabited.”

Chabon’s father seems to have been born around 1938, or right around the time that John W. Campbell took over Astounding, positioning him to barely catch the tail end of the golden age. He would have been about twelve when the article “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” appeared in the May 1950 issue, which means that he snuck in right under the wire. (As the fan Peter Graham once said: “The golden age of science fiction is twelve.”) In fact, when you account for a gap in age of about eighteen years, the fragments of his childhood that we glimpse here are intriguingly reminiscent of Isaac Asimov. Both were bright Jewish boys growing up in Brooklyn—otherwise known as the center of the universe—and they shared the same vocabulary of nostalgia. Robert Chabon reminisced about stickball and the charlotte russe; Asimov lamented the disappearance of the egg cream and wrote in his memoirs:

We used to play “punchball,” for instance. This was a variant of baseball, played without a lot and without a bat. All you needed was a street (we called it a “gutter”) and a rubber ball. You hit the ball with your clenched fist and from then on it was pretty much like baseball.

I don’t know if kids these days still play punchball, but it survived for long enough to be fondly remembered by Stephen Jay Gould, who was born in 1941 in Queens. For Gould, punchball was nothing less than “the canonical ‘recess’ game…It was the game we would play unless kids specifically called for another form.”

Like many polymaths who thrived at the intersection between science and the arts, Gould and Asimov were raised in secular Jewish households, and Chabon’s essay unfolds against a similar, largely unstated cultural background. He notes that his father knew “the birth names of all five Marx Brothers,” as well as the rather startling fact that Underdog’s archenemy was named Simon Bar Sinister. Recalling his father’s “expression of calm intensity,” Chabon links it to another Jewish icon: “A few years later, I will watch Leonard Nimoy, as Mr. Spock, look up from his scanner on the bridge of the USS Enterprise, and catch an echo of my father’s face.” As he silently watches Fritz Lang’s science fiction epic Metropolis in his ailing father’s bedroom, he imagines the conversation that might have unfolded between them under happier circumstances: “Lang’s mother was Jewish. His wife was a member of the Nazi Party.” “Hey, that would make a great sitcom.” Chabon doesn’t emphasize these connections, perhaps because he’s explored them endlessly elsewhere. In his earlier essay “Imaginary Homelands,” he writes:

For a long time now I’ve been busy, in my life and in my work, with a pair of ongoing, overarching investigations: into my heritage—rights and privileges, duties and burdens—as a Jew and as a teller of Jewish stories; and into my heritage as a lover of genre fiction…Years spent writing novels and stories about golems and the Jewish roots of American superhero comic books, Sherlock Holmes and the Holocaust, medieval Jewish freebooters, Passover Seders attended by protégés of forgotten Lovecraftian horror writers, years of writing essays, memoirs, and nervous manifestos about genre fiction of Jewishness.

This is one of the richest veins imaginable for cultural exploration, and Chabon has conducted it so expertly for so long that he can trust us to make many of the associations for ourselves. Revealingly, this is actually the second essay that he has written under the title “The Recipe for Life.” The first, published almost two decades ago, was a meditation on the myth of the golem, a prototypical science fiction story with anticipatory shades of Frankenstein. In his earlier piece, Chabon quotes the philosopher Gershom Scholem: “Golem-making is dangerous; like all major creation it endangers the life of the creator—the source of danger, however, is not the golem…but the man himself.” Chabon continues:

When I read these words, I saw at once a connection to my own work. Anything good that I have written has, at some point during its composition, left me feeling uneasy and afraid. It has seemed, for a moment at least, to put me at risk…I have come to see this fear, this sense of my own imperilment by my creations, as not only an inevitable, necessary part of writing fiction but as virtual guarantor, insofar as such a thing is possible, of the power of my work: as a sign that I am on the right track, that I am following the recipe correctly, speaking the proper spells.

The recipe, Chabon implies, can come from either “The Idea of the Golem” or Astounding, and we owe much of his remarkable career to that insight, which he implicitly credits, in turn, to his father: “The past and the future became alloyed in my imagination: magic and science, heroes and villains, brick-and-steel Brooklyn and the chromium world of tomorrow.”

Quote of the Day

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The role of science, like that of art, is to blend proximate imagery with more distant meaning, the parts we already understand with those given as new into larger patterns that are coherent enough to be acceptable as truth. Biologists know this relation by intuition during the course of fieldwork, as they struggle to make order out of the infinitely varying patterns of nature.

Edward O. Wilson, In Search of Nature

Written by nevalalee

February 6, 2018 at 7:30 am

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