Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 2018

Lessons of darkness

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Yesterday night, while browsing through the movies available on Netflix, I stumbled across Werner Herzog’s documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. I’d never seen it, so I put it on, and I was immediately entranced—it’s one of the most fascinating films I’ve ever seen. By now, the story is a familiar one, both through Herzog’s initial treatment of the material and his return to it in the movie Rescue Dawn. Dieter Dengler was born in Germany in 1938, fell in love with the idea of flying, emigrated to the United States to join the Air Force, and was shot down on his first bombing run over Laos. After his capture, torture, and imprisonment, he made a bloody escape, survived a barefoot trek through the jungle and downriver, and was rescued six months after his disappearance. Herzog never forgot the news reports, and in the finished film, which consists almost entirely of Dengler recounting his memories to the camera, he sticks mostly to the facts. Occasionally, he indulges in a heightening touch, as in a scene when Dengler arrives at his house in the Bay Area. As Herzog reveals in his wonderful book A Guide for the Perplexed:

When he gets out of his car, Dieter repeatedly opens and closes the car door before walking to the front door, which he again opens and closes. Eventually he goes inside. This is a scene I created…“Open and close your front door a couple of times,” I said, “then talk about the door as a symbol of freedom.” He hesitated and said, “I’ll look weird to my buddies.” What finally convinced him was when I told him how charming the ladies would think it was.

There are a few other staged moments, and most of them draw attention to themselves, as when Dengler delivers a monologue on death while standing before an aquarium tank of glowing jellyfish. For the most part, he seems happy to indulge Herzog, and we only gradually become aware of the reservoir of emotion and endurance behind his air of guilelessness. We never see Herzog, who speaks only in voiceover, but the film slowly reveals itself as a dialogue with a subject for whom the director feels nothing but respect. Herzog has made a point of cultivating his own mythology, and he more than lives up to it in practice, most famously when he was shot while talking to the BBC and made a point of finishing the interview. But he’s the one who really seems obsessed with jails, locks, and doors. In A Guide to the Perplexed, he tells us: “There is nothing wrong with spending a night in a jail cell if it means getting the shot you need.” A few lines later, he follows it with perhaps my favorite piece of advice for all aspiring artists: “Carry bolt cutters everywhere.” We can only imagine his feelings when confronted with Dengler, who, even in civilian life, is the epitome of the competent man. In his youth, he trained as a tool-and-die maker and a blacksmith, rebuilt church clocks, and willed himself into his dream job as a pilot. (Robert A. Heinlein would have loved him.) In the film, he nonchalantly shows us how to make a fire using two tubes of bamboo and how to escape from handcuffs using a paper clip, noting casually that it’s a skill that might come in handy. When Dengler displays the drums of rice and honey that he keeps under the floor of his house, just in case he needs them, you can sense Herzog nodding in agreement behind the camera.

Yet the film is also a remarkable interrogation of the myth of competence, and the ways in which it seems inseparable from luck, good timing, and even destiny. After years of trying to become a pilot, Dengler was shot down forty minutes into his first mission. In his escape from the camp, seven other prisoners got away, and five were never heard from again. The man with whom he fled, Duane W. Martin, was beheaded by a villager, and Dengler only narrowly escaped. A few weeks later, on the verge of death, he was rescued by the purest chance, when an American pilot happened to see a flash of white at the bend in the river. Only an extraordinary personality would have survived at all, but Dengler had been placed in a situation in which training, intelligence, and endurance were necessary, but not sufficient. There are obvious parallels to the American experience in Vietnam, but Herzog resists them, presumably because he doesn’t find them all that interesting. What intrigues him is the idea of competence pressed to its limits, which Dengler was forced to experience, while Herzog has actively courted it for his entire life. In a profile in The New Yorker that I’ve never forgotten, published before the release of Rescue Dawn, Daniel Zalewski quotes Herzog’s first assistant director Josef Lieck:

I have formed this theory that Werner has, probably from midpuberty, been trying very hard to die a grand, poetic death. Whenever there is anything dangerous, you can be sure he’ll run out to do it first. But I think he will have his grand, poetic death in a different way. I think he will live to be a hundred and five. He’ll have tried all his life to get chopped to pieces or fall from a helicopter, and, in the end, he will die on his pillowcase.

It isn’t clear yet how Herzog will die, a prospect that fills me with more dread than that of any other celebrity. But we know a little about how Dengler passed away. In A Guide for the Perplexed, Herzog only says: “[Dieter] died some years ago of Lou Gehrig’s disease, and the first thing the illness took was his power of speech. How scandalous that in his final days he was bereft of words…He died…a few years after Little Dieter Needs to Fly was released, having battled the disease like a warrior.” In fact, he shot himself in front of a fire station, and you can read a lot into Herzog’s unusual reticence. Dengler, a fundamentally gentle man, was repeatedly confronted by the kind of physical and spiritual struggle that Herzog seeks out, and the comparison only makes the director seem more like “a clown,” as he once described himself, particularly in the way in which he drags along his collaborators. (My favorite moment in Zalewski’s profile comes when Herzog dismisses a safety issue in a scene involving Christian Bale, who erupts: “I am not going to feckin’ die for you, Werner!”) It’s been a quarter of a century since Little Dieter was released, but I’m glad that I saw it only now, at a point in my life when I can better understand Herzog’s awe toward his subject:

What I continue to find wondrous is that Dieter emerged from his experiences without so much as a hint of bitterness; he was forever able to bear the misery with great optimism. Dieter had such an impressive and jubilant attitude to life, able to brush his experiences aside and deal with them, never making a fuss. He has been a role model for me, and even today when I am in a complicated situation I ask myself, “What would Dieter do?”

Written by nevalalee

May 31, 2018 at 9:09 am

Quote of the Day

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It is only when others take aspects of what an author has thought and said in order to develop, twist, and reinterpret his ideas to fit their own predilections and answer their own problems that the cold type of a printed page leaps to life, and, if this happens often enough, a single book…may become a real force in the cultural history of mankind. Without irony, therefore, I hope my book may be richly and repeatedly misunderstood.

William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West

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May 31, 2018 at 7:30 am

How to ask a question

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“A moment’s reflection should suffice to establish the simple proposition that every historian, willy-nilly, must begin his research with a question,” David Hackett Fischer writes in Historians’ Fallacies. Despite its title, this fascinating book, which was first published in the early seventies, is a valuable guide for critical thinking of any kind, and if you replace “historian” in the previous sentence with “writer,” or even “journalist,” you get a better sense of how widely applicable its advice can be. Fischer continues:

Questions are the engines of intellect, the cerebral machines which convert energy to motion, and curiosity to controlled inquiry. There can be no thinking without questioning—no purposeful study of the past, nor any serious planning for the future. Moreover, there can be no questioning in a sophisticated sense without hypothesizing, and no systematic testing of hypotheses without the construction of hypothetical models which can be put to the test. Often, this intricate process is partly hidden from a historian, as well as from his readers. Occasionally it is entirely invisible. But always it exists.

Fischer concludes: “Without questions of some sort, a historian is condemned to wander aimlessly through dark corridors of learning.” He’s right. And at a moment at which diligent questioning and investigation by responsible journalists—whose work often amounts to writing history in real time—is under active attack, it seems worth looking at the kinds of questions that lead to real answers, or at least to a deeper understanding of the problems involved.

Of course, this assumes that a historian, reporter, or biographer should enter a project with a specific set of questions in mind, which not everyone accepts. Fischer calls this attitude the Baconian fallacy, or “the idea that a historian can operate without the aid of preconceived questions, hypotheses, ideas, assumptions, theories, paradigms, postulates, prejudices, presumptions, or general presuppositions of any kind.” And he isn’t just inventing a straw man here. Fischer quotes Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, a French historian of the nineteenth century, who writes:

Since [the historian] cannot know the cause beforehand, he should not be content to study a specific category of facts; he should carefully observe all the facts, all the institutions, all regulations public or private, all the customs of domestic life, and particularly everything that relates to the possession of land [sic!]. He should study all of these things with equally careful attention, for he does not know beforehand from which side enlightenment will come to him. This method is slow, but it is the only one which is sure. It is not the method of the doctrinaire, but of the inquirer.

At first glance, this seems reasonable enough, and even we conclude that it expresses an unattainable ideal, we might be inclined to agree with the historian G.R. Elton, whose more moderate position Fischer quotes as well: “Preconceived notions are a much greater danger to historical truth than either deficiency of evidence or error in detail…The historian must certainly make one initial choice, of main area of study or line of approach. But after that (if he is worth considering at all) he becomes the servant of his evidence of which he will, or should, ask no specific questions until he has absorbed what it says.”

Yet even if this were a practicable approach for the working writer or scholar, when it comes to making real discoveries, it’s markedly inferior to framing an initial question as consciously as possible, and then revising it as necessary in light of new information. Fischer uses a striking image to express the contrast between these two conceptions of the historian’s task:

The most common everything-about-something school imagines that historical science might be constructed on the same architectural principles as the Pyramid of Khufu, with monographs stacked upon thick square monographs in one vast granite pile, the whole massy structure to be crowned some day with the gilded figure of a historiographical Newton. But a glance at the history of historical writing suggests that this is not at all the way in which historiography develops. The monographs do not commonly come first and the general interpretations second. Instead some master architect—not master builder—draws a rough sketch of a pyramid in the sand, and many laborers begin to hew their stones to fit. Before many are made ready, the fashion suddenly changes—pyramids are out; obelisks are in. Another master architect draws a sketch in the sand, and the hewing and chipping starts all over again. A few stones can be salvaged, but most have to be cut from scratch. As Huizinga writes, “when the master builder comes, he will find most of the stones you have laid ready for him unusable.”

And his conclusion seems just as valid today as it did nearly half a century ago: “But there is no whole truth to be discovered by a simple method of induction. Every true historical statement is an answer to a question which a historian has asked. Not to The Question. Not to questions about everything. But to questions about something.”

So how do we know which questions to ask? After listing eleven common fallacies, Fischer proposes a few positive axioms for framing “a proper historical question,” including this piece of excellent advice: “One way to balance the difficult dual requirement of freedom and control is to begin with a cluster of questions, and for each of them, a cluster of answers which are generated by hunches and preliminary explanations…These clusters of questions and hypotheses can and indeed must be designed in such a way as to neutralize a predisposition to actualize any one of them.” This is what good historians and journalists do in practice, even if they aren’t always conscious of it. And Fischer’s most helpful insight of all may be about the word “why,” of which he warns us:

In my opinion—and I may be a minority of one—that favorite adverb of historians should be consigned to the semantical rubbish heap. A “why” question tends to become a metaphysical question. It is also an imprecise question, for the adverb “why” is slippery and difficult to define. Sometimes it seeks a cause, sometimes a motive, sometimes a reason, sometimes a description, sometimes a process, sometimes a purpose, sometimes a justification. A “why” question lacks direction and clarity; it dissipates a historian’s energies and interests. “Why did the Civil War happen?” “Why was Lincoln shot?” A working historian receives no clear signals from these woolly interrogatories as to which way to proceed, how to begin, what kinds of evidence will answer the problem, and indeed what kind of problem is raised. There are many more practicable adverbs—who, when, where, what, how—which are more specific and more satisfactory.

This seems particularly applicable today, when many of us are asking “Why?” of problems that would benefit from more practicable adverbs. My personal favorite is “How?” And if journalists are under fire these days, it’s because they have an advantage over historians, which makes them more dangerous. They can implicitly raise, if not answer, the question that matters the most: “What now?”

Written by nevalalee

May 30, 2018 at 8:01 am

Quote of the Day

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I have not often formulated the lessons of my apprenticeship as a writer; but I did once write down in a notebook something like this: You cannot be an artist until you have contracted yourself within the limits of your art.

George Bernard Shaw, in a letter to Charles Charrington

Written by nevalalee

May 30, 2018 at 7:30 am

The uranium in the wine bottle

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In the March 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, readers were treated to the story “Deadline” by Cleve Cartmill, which was set on an alien planet consumed by a war between two factions known as the “Sixa” and the “Seilla.” Its hero was a spy, complete with a prehensile tail, whose mission was to fly into enemy territory and destroy the ultimate weapon before it could be detonated. The story itself was undeniably mediocre, and it would be utterly forgotten today if it weren’t for its description of the weapon in question, an atomic bomb, which Cartmill based almost verbatim on letters from the editor John W. Campbell, who had pitched the idea in the first place. According to the physicist Edward Teller, it was plausible enough to cause “astonishment” at the Manhattan Project, which counted many readers of the magazine among its scientists, and after it was brought to the attention of the Counterintelligence Corps, both Campbell and Cartmill were interviewed to investigate the possibility of a leak. In reality, “Deadline” wasn’t even much of a prediction—Campbell, who was feeling frustrated about his lack of involvement in war research, had a hunch that an atomic bomb was in the works, and he packed the story with technical information that was already in the public domain. He evidently hoped that it would draw official interest that might lead to a real defense role, which failed to materialize. After the war, however, it paid off immensely, and Campbell found himself hailed as a prophet. Cartmill, the credited author, neatly fell out of the picture, and the fact that the story hadn’t predicted much of anything was lost on most readers. Campbell had essentially orchestrated the most famous anecdote of his career, planting “Deadline” in the magazine expressly so that he could point to it later, and across multiple retellings, the details of the ensuing investigation were exaggerated beyond recognition. As the historian Donald Spoto aptly puts it: “[His] calculated image of himself as a prophet does not coincide with the truth; inspired by his sense of publicity, he told a better story than the facts reveal.”

But Spoto isn’t writing about Campbell, but about Alfred Hitchcock, in his classic biography The Dark Side of Genius, and the story here isn’t “Deadline,” but the great romantic thriller Notorious. As legend has it, when Hitchcock had to come up with the MacGuffin, or the plot point that would drive the rest of the movie, he proposed a sample of uranium hidden in a wine bottle by a group of Nazis in Brazil. As he said to François Truffaut in their famous book-length interview:

The producer said, “What in the name of good­ness is that?” I said, “This is uranium; it’s the thing they’re going to make an atom bomb with.” And he asked, “What atom bomb?” This, you must remember, was in 1944, a year before Hiroshima. I had only one clue. A writer friend of mine had told me that scientists were working on a secret project someplace in New Mexico. It was so secret that once they went into the plant, they never emerged again. I was also aware that the Germans were conducting experiments with heavy water in Norway. So these clues brought me to the uranium Mac­Guffin. The producer was skeptical, and he felt it was absurd to use the idea of an atom bomb as the basis for our story. I told him that it wasn’t the basis for the story, but only the MacGuffin, and I explained that there was no need to attach too much importance to it.

In the end, the idea was approved, and Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht allegedly went to Pasadena to get background information from the physicist Robert A. Millikan. According to Hitchcock, Millikan responded: “You want to have yourselves arrested and have me arrested as well?” After this outburst, Milkian informed them—in something of a non sequitur—that the idea was impossible anyway, although others evidently felt that they had come too close for comfort. As Hitchcock confided in Truffaut: “I learned later that after­ward the FBI had me under surveillance for three months.”

Like many movie buffs, I accepted this story without question for years, but when you encounter it after the “Deadline” incident, it starts to seem too good to be true, which it was. As Spoto writes in The Dark Side of Genius: “The business of the uranium remained a considerable source of publicity for Hitchcock  to the end of his life. To François Truffaut, to this writer, and to many others, he always insisted that he had chosen the device of uranium ore in Nazi experiments quite coincidentally, far in advance of the detonation of the atomic bomb in Japan in August 1945…He always emphasized, in every discussion of Notorious, that he was virtually a prophet.” The truth, Spoto continues, was very different:

By the time Notorious actually began filming, in October 1945, Hitchcock had made yet another trip to London…and he had returned to Los Angeles for final script work in September—after the bombings of Japan, and after he had spent several weeks in New York testing actors, among whom were several famous German refugees he finally cast in the film. On the basis of news from these German contacts, and from the accounts that flooded the world press…Hitchcock and Hecht refined the last addenda to their script just before the first day of production…All the evidence suggests that in truth the uranium was included after the fact.

As for the allegation of government surveillance, it was evidently based on a general directive from the FBI that the producer David O. Selznick received in May, which cautioned that any movie that featured American intelligence would have to be cleared by the State Department. Like Campbell, Hitchcock liked to make people think that he had been given special attention, and over the years, in both cases, the stories only grew.

There are obvious similarities between these two incidents, as well as equally noteworthy differences. With “Deadline,” the description of the bomb is the story’s sole reason for existing, while Notorious would still be a masterpiece even if the MacGuffin had been something else entirely. (As Hitchcock allegedly told his producer: “Look, if you don’t like uranium, let’s make it industrial diamonds, which the Germans need to cut their tools with.” He claimed to have later told a movie executive who had objected to the screenplay on grounds of its implausibility: “You were wrong to attach any importance to the MacGuffin. Notorious was simply the story of a man in love with a girl who, in the course of her official duties, had to go to bed with another man and even had to marry him. That’s the story.” And even if he invented the conversation, his point still stands.) The other difference is the use to which each anecdote was put. For Hitchcock, the uranium incident, and the reputation that it gave him as a “prophet,” was just another way of burnishing his image, and although he enjoyed dining out on it, it was a minor part of his legend. Campbell, by contrast, used it as the basis for his entire postwar career. Just two weeks after Hiroshima, The New Yorker profiled him in a Talk of the Town piece titled “1945 Cassandra,” in which it credulously wrote:

If you want to keep up with, or possibly stay ahead of, the development of secret weapons in time of war, you had better…go to the pulps, preferably Astounding. One reason is that Astounding, which has for the past ten years or so been predicting atomic bombs and using them to liven up its stories, has been permitted to duck some of the security rules that made high-echelon government officials such halting conversationalists in recent months.

And that reputation hinged largely on the myth of “Deadline” and its creation. It bought Campbell tremendous credibility after the war, earned or otherwise, and it played a significant role in science fiction’s big push into the mainstream. Eventually, the editor would stake—and lose—all of that goodwill on dianetics. But for a few years, Campbell, like Hitchcock, got to play his audience like a piano, and both men liked to pretend that they had once been notorious.

Quote of the Day

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May 29, 2018 at 7:30 am

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The Constant Gardner

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Yesterday, I heard that the science fiction editor Gardner Dozois had passed away. Gardner and I never met, and we exchanged only a handful of emails over the last decade, but he profoundly affected my life on at least two occasions. The first was when I was twelve years old, and I received a copy of Asimov’s Science Fiction—which Gardner was editing at the time—for my birthday. As I’ve recounted here before, it was that present from my parents, given at exactly the right moment, that made me aware of short science fiction as a going concern, as embodied by its survival in the three print digests. My career ended up being more closely tied to Analog, but it was Asimov’s that set me on that path in the first place. Without that one issue, I don’t know if it would have occurred to me to write and submit short stories at all, and everything that followed would have been very different. I certainly wouldn’t have written Astounding, which I’m sad that I never had the chance to send to Gardner. He was on my list.

My other great debt to him lies in the form of the annual anthology The Year’s Best Science Fiction. Each installment represented a massive amount of work—Gardner seemed to read everything—and I sometimes think that they’ll turn out to be his most lasting legacy. When readers of the future want to figure out what was going on in literary science fiction over the last thirty years, they’ll turn here first, just as I relied heavily on similar collections to approach the stories of an earlier generation. When Gardner selected “The Boneless One” in 2011, it provided a huge boost to my confidence, and I felt exactly the same way last year when he said that he was taking “The Proving Ground” for what will turn out to be his last volume in the series. As a result, I’m hopeful that these two stories will continue to find the occasional reader in the decades to come, which may not be true of any of my other fiction. Making sense of this genre can be an overwhelming task, and we rely on editors and anthologists to give it a retrospective order. Along with so much else, Gardner was a curator of the imagination. And it’s hard to envision anyone filling quite the same role ever again.

Written by nevalalee

May 28, 2018 at 8:19 am

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