Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for August 2018

The electric dream

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There’s no doubt who got me off originally and that was A.E. van Vogt…The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe that is not to be feared.

—Philip K. Dick, in an interview with Vertex

I recently finished reading I Am Alive and You Are Dead, the French author Emmanuel Carrère’s novelistic biography of Philip K. Dick. In an article last year about Carrère’s work, James Wood of The New Yorker called it “fantastically engaging,” noting: “There are no references and very few named sources, yet the material appears to rely on the established record, and is clearly built from the same archival labor that a conventional biographer would perform.” It’s very readable, and it’s one of the few such biographies—along with James Tiptree, Jr. by Julie Phillips and a certain upcoming book—aimed at intelligent audience outside the fan community. Dick’s life also feels relevant now in ways that we might not have anticipated two decades ago, when the book was first published in France. He’s never been as central to me as he has for many other readers, mostly because of the accidents of my reading life, and I’ve only read a handful of his novels and stories. I’m frankly more drawn to his acquaintance and occasional correspondent Robert Anton Wilson, who ventured into some of the same dark places and returned with his sanity more or less intact. (One notable difference between the two is that Wilson was a more prolific experimenter with psychedelic drugs, which Dick, apart from one experience with LSD, appears to have avoided.) But no other writer, with one notable exception that I’ll mention below, has done a better job of forcing us to confront the possibility that our understanding of the world might be fatally flawed. And it’s quite possible that he serves as a better guide to the future than any of the more rational writers who populated the pages of Astounding.

What deserves to be remembered about Dick, though, is that he loved the science fiction of the golden age, and he’s part of an unbroken chain of influence that goes back to the earliest days of the pulps. In I Am Alive and You Are Dead, Carrère writes of Dick as a young boy: “He collected illustrated magazines with titles like Astounding and Amazing and Unknown, and these periodicals, in the guise of serious scientific discussion, introduced him to lost continents, haunted pyramids, ships that vanished mysteriously in the Sargasso Sea.” (Carrère, weirdly, puts a superfluous exclamation point at the end of the titles of all these magazines, which I’ve silently removed in these quotations.) Dick continued to collect pulps throughout his life, keeping the most valuable issues in a fireproof safe at his house in San Rafael, California, which was later blown open in a mysterious burglary. Throughout his career, Dick refers casually to classic stories with an easy familiarity that suggests a deep knowledge of the genre, as in a line from his Exegesis, in which he mentions “that C.L. Moore novelette in Astounding about the two alternative futures hinging on which of two girls the guy marries in the present.” But the most revealing connection lies in plain sight. In a section on Dick’s early efforts in science fiction, Carrère writes:

Stories about little green men and flying saucers…were what he was paid to write, and the most they offered in terms of literary recognition was comparison to someone like A.E. van Vogt, a writer with whom Phil had once been photographed at a science fiction convention. The photo appeared in a fanzine above the caption “The Old and the New.”

Carrère persistently dismisses van Vogt as a writer of “space opera,” which might be technically true, though hardly the whole story. Yet he was also the most convincing precursor that Dick ever had. The World of Null-A may be stylistically cruder than Dick at his best, but it also appeared in Astounding in 1945, and it remains so hallucinatory, weird, and undefinable that I still have trouble believing that it was read by twelve-year-olds. (As Dick once said of it in an interview: “All the parts of that book do not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think it’s sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else’s writing inside or outside science fiction.”) Once you see the almost apostolic line of succession from van Vogt to Alfred Bester to Dick, the latter seems less like an anomaly within the genre than like an inextricable part of its fabric. Although he only sold one short story, “Impostor,” to John W. Campbell, Dick continued to submit to him for years, before concluding that it wasn’t the best use of his time. As Eric Leif Davin recounts in Partners in Wonder: “[Dick] said he’d rather write several first-draft stories for one cent a word than spend time revising a single story for Campbell, despite the higher pay.” And Dick recalled in his collection The Minority Report:

Horace Gold at Galaxy liked my writing whereas John W. Campbell, Jr. at Astounding considered my writing not only worthless but as he put it, “Nuts.” By and large I liked reading Galaxy because it had the broadest range of ideas, venturing into the soft sciences such as sociology and psychology, at a time when Campbell (as he once wrote me!) considered psionics a necessary premise for science fiction. Also, Campbell said, the psionic character in the story had to be in charge of what was going on.

As a result, the two men never worked closely together, although Dick had surprising affinities with the editor who believed wholeheartedly in psionics, precognition, and genetic memory, and whose magazine never ceased to play a central role in his inner life. In his biography, Carrère provides an embellished version of a recurring dream that Dick had at the age of twelve, “in which he found himself in a bookstore trying to locate an issue of Astounding that would complete his collection.” As Dick describes it in his autobiographical novel VALIS:

In the dream he again was a child, searching dusty used-book stores for rare old science fiction magazines, in particular Astoundings. In the dream he had looked through countless tattered issues, stacks upon stacks, for the priceless serial entitled “The Empire Never Ended.” If he could find it and read it he would know everything; that had been the burden of the dream.

Years later, the phrase “the empire never ended” became central to Dick’s late conviction that we were all living, without our knowledge, in the Rome of the Acts of the Apostles. But the detail that sticks with me the most is that the magazines in the dream were “in particular Astoundings.” The fan Peter Graham famously said that the real golden age of science fiction was twelve, and Dick reached that age at the end of 1940, at the peak of Campbell’s editorship. The timing was perfect for Astounding to rewire his brain forever. When Dick first had his recurring dream, he would have just finished reading a “priceless serial” that had appeared in the previous four issues of the magazine, and I’d like to think that he spent the rest of his life searching for its inconceivable conclusion. It was van Vogt’s Slan.

Quote of the Day

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The more completely the dramatist is emancipated from the illusion that men and women are primarily reasonable beings, and the more powerfully he insists on the ruthless indifference of their great dramatic antagonist, the external world, to their whims and emotions, the surer he is to be denounced as blind to the very distinction on which his whole work is built.

George Bernard Shaw, in the preface to Mrs. Warren’s Profession

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August 31, 2018 at 7:30 am

Science for the people

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“My immediate reaction was one of intense loss,” Fern MacDougal, a graduate student in ecology, says in the short documentary “Science for the People.” She’s referring to the experience of speaking with the founders of the organization of the same name, which was formed in the late sixties to mobilize scientists and engineers for political change, and which recently returned after a long hiatus. As Rebecca Onion elaborates in an article on Slate:

In some areas—climate, reproductive justice—our situation has become even more perilous now than it was then. Biological determinism has a stubborn way of cropping up again and again in public discourse…Then there’s the sad reality that the very basic twentieth-century concept that science is helpful in public life because it helps us make evidence-based decisions is increasingly threatened under Trump. “It feels as though we’re fighting like heck to defend what would have been ridiculous to think we had to defend, back in those old days,” [biologist Katherine] Yih said. “It was just so obvious that science has that capability to improve the quality of life for people, even if it was often being used for militaristic purposes and so forth. But the notion that we had to defend science against our government was just—it wouldn’t have been imaginable, I think.”

Science for the People has since been revived as a nonprofit organization and an online magazine, and its presence now is necessary and important. But it also feels sad to reflect on the fact that we need it again, nearly half a century after it was originally founded.

In the oral history The World Only Spins Forward, Tony Kushner is asked what he would tell himself at the age of twenty-nine, when he was just commencing work on the play that became Angels in America. His response is both revealing and sobering:

What a tough time to ask that question…I don’t think that I would talk to him. I think it’s better that we don’t know the future. The person that I was at twenty-nine very deeply believed that there would be great progress. I believed back then, with great certainty—I mean I wrote it in the play, “the world only spins forward,” “the time has come,” et cetera, et cetera…Working on all this stuff right after Reagan had been reelected, it felt very dark. I’m glad that I didn’t know back then that at sixty I’d be looking at some of the same fucking fights that I was looking at at twenty-nine.

And one of the great, essential, difficult things about this book is the glimpse it provides of a time that briefly felt like a turning point. One of its most memorable passages is simply a quote from a review by Steven Mikulan of L.A. Weekly: “Tony Kushner’s epic play about the death of the twentieth century has arrived at the very pivot of American history, when the Republican ice age it depicts has begun to melt away.” This was at the end of 1992, when it was still possible to look ahead with relief to the end of the administration of George H.W. Bush.

It’s no longer possible to believe, in other words, that the world only spins forward. The fact that recent events have coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of so many milestones from 1968 may just be a quirk of the calendar, but it also underlines the feeling that history is repeating itself—or rhyming—in the worst possible way. It forces us to contemplate the possibility that any trend in favor of liberal values over the last half century may have been an illusory blip, and that we’re experiencing a correction back to the way human society has nearly always been. (And it isn’t an accident that Francis Fukuyama, who famously proclaimed the end of history and the triumph of western culture in the early nineties, has a new book out that purports to explain what happened instead. Its title is Identity.) But I can think of two possible forms of consolation. The first is that this is a necessary reawakening to the nature of history itself, which we need to acknowledge in order to deal with it. One of the major influences on Angels in America was the work of the philosopher Walter Benjamin, of whom Kushner’s friend and dramaturge Kimberly Flynn observes:

According to Benjamin, “One reason fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm,” a developmental phase on the way to something better. Opposing this notion, Benjamin wrote, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that ‘the state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” This is the insight that should inform the conception of history. This, not incidentally, is the way in which ACT UP, operating in the tradition of the oppressed, understood the emergency of AIDS.

Which brings us to the second source of consolation, which is that we’ve been through many of the same convulsions before, and we can learn from the experiences of our predecessors—which in itself amount to a sort of science for the people. (Alfred Korzybski called it time binding, or the unique ability of the human species to build on the discoveries of earlier generations.) We can apply their lessons to matters of survival, of activism, of staying sane. A few years ago, I would have found it hard to remember that many of the men and women I admire most lived through times in which there was no guarantee that everything would work out, and in which the threat of destruction or reversion hung threateningly over every incremental step forward. Viewers who saw 2001: A Space Odyssey on its original release emerged from the theater into a world that seemed that it might blow apart at any moment. For many of them, it did, just as it did for those who were lost in the emergency that produced Angels in America, whom one character imagines as “souls of the dead, people who had perished,” floating up to heal the hole in the ozone layer. It’s an unforgettable image, and I like to take it as a metaphor for the way in which a culture forged in a crisis can endure for those who come afterward. Many of us are finally learning, in a limited way, how it feels to live with the uncertainty that others have felt for as long as they can remember, and we can all learn from the example of Prior Walter, who says to himself at the end of Millennium Approaches, as he hears the thunder of approaching wings: “My brain is fine, I can handle pressure, I am a gay man and I am used to pressure.” It’s true that the world only spins forward. But it can also bring us back around to where we were before.

Quote of the Day

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All I am suggesting is that the mescalin experience what Catholic theologians call “a gratuitous grace,” not necessary to salvation but potentially helpful and to be accepted thankfully, if made available. To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large—this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.

Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception 

Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2018 at 7:30 am

The beefeaters

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Every now and then, I get the urge to write a blog post about Jordan Peterson, the Canadian professor of psychology who has unexpectedly emerged as a superstar pundit in the culture wars and the darling of young conservatives. I haven’t read any of Peterson’s books, and I’m not particularly interested in what I’ve seen of his ideas, so until now, I’ve managed to resist the temptation. What finally broke my resolve was a recent article in The Atlantic by James Hamblin, who describes how Peterson’s daughter Mikhailia has become an unlikely dietary guru by subsisting almost entirely on beef. As Hamblin writes:

[Mikhailia] Peterson described an adolescence that involved multiple debilitating medical diagnoses, beginning with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis…In fifth grade she was diagnosed with depression, and then later something called idiopathic hypersomnia (which translates to English as “sleeping too much, of unclear cause”—which translates further to sorry we really don’t know what’s going on). Everything the doctors tried failed, and she did everything they told her, she recounted to me. She fully bought into the system, taking large doses of strong immune-suppressing drugs like methotrexate…She started cutting out foods from her diet, and feeling better each time…Until, by December 2017, all that was left was “beef and salt and water,” and, she told me, “all my symptoms went into remission.”

As a result of her personal experiences, she began counseling people who were considering a similar diet, a role that she characterizes with what strikes me as an admirable degree of self-awareness: “They mostly want to see that I’m not dead.”

Mikhailia Peterson has also benefited from the public endorsement of her father, who has adopted the same diet, supposedly with positive results. According to Hamblin’s article:

In a July appearance on the comedian Joe Rogan’s podcast, Jordan Peterson explained how Mikhaila’s experience had convinced him to eliminate everything but meat and leafy greens from his diet, and that in the last two months he had gone full meat and eliminated vegetables. Since he changed his diet, his laundry list of maladies has disappeared, he told Rogan. His lifelong depression, anxiety, gastric reflux (and associated snoring), inability to wake up in the mornings, psoriasis, gingivitis, floaters in his right eye, numbness on the sides of his legs, problems with mood regulation—all of it is gone, and he attributes it to the diet…Peterson reiterated several times that he is not giving dietary advice, but said that many attendees of his recent speaking tour have come up to him and said the diet is working for them. The takeaway for listeners is that it worked for Peterson, and so it may work for them.

As Hamblin points out, not everyone agrees with this approach. He quotes Jack Gilbert, a professor of surgery at the University of Chicago: “Physiologically, it would just be an immensely bad idea. A terribly, terribly bad idea.” After rattling off a long list of the potential consequences, including metabolic dysfunction and cardiac problems, Gilbert concludes: “If [Mikhaila] does not die of colon cancer or some other severe cardiometabolic disease, the life—I can’t imagine.”

“There are few accounts of people having tried all-beef diets,” Hamblin writes, and it isn’t clear if he’s aware of one case study that was famous in its time. Buckminster Fuller—the futurist, architect, and designer best known for popularizing the geodesic dome—inspired a level of public devotion at his peak that can only be compared to Peterson’s, or even Elon Musk’s, and he ate little more than beef for the last two decades of his life. Fuller’s reasoning was slightly different, but the motivation and outcome were largely the same, as L. Steven Sieden relates in Buckminster Fuller’s Universe:

[Fuller] suddenly noticed his level of energy decreasing and decided to see if anything could be done about that change…Bucky resolved that since the majority of the energy utilized on earth originated from the sun, he should attempt to acquire the most highly concentrated solar energy available to him as food…He would be most effective if he ate more beef because cattle had eaten the vegetation and transformed the solar energy into a more protein-concentrated food. Hence, he began adhering to a regular diet of beef…His weight dropped back down to 140 pounds, identical to when he was in his early twenties. He also found that his energy level increased dramatically.

Fuller’s preferred cut was the relatively lean London broil, supplemented with salad, fruit, and Jell-O. As his friend Alden Hatch says in Buckminster Fuller: At Home in the Universe: “[London broil] is usually served in thin strips because it is so tough, but Bucky cheerfully chomps great hunks of it with his magnificent teeth.”

Unlike the Petersons, Fuller never seems to have inspired many others to follow his example. In fact, his diet, as Sieden tells it, “caused consternation among many of the holistic, health-oriented individuals to whom he regularly spoke during the balance of his life.” (It may also have troubled those who admired Fuller’s views on sustainability and conservation. As Hamblin notes: “Beef production at the scale required to feed billions of humans even at current levels of consumption is environmentally unsustainable.”) Yet the fact that we’re even talking about the diets of Jordan Peterson and Buckminster Fuller is revealing in itself. Hamblin ties it back to a desire for structure in times of uncertainty, which is precisely what Peterson holds out to his followers:

The allure of a strict code for eating—a way to divide the world into good foods and bad foods, angels and demons—may be especially strong at a time when order feels in short supply. Indeed there is at least some benefit to be had from any and all dietary advice, or rules for life, so long as a person believes in them, and so long as they provide a code that allows a person to feel good for having stuck with it and a cohort of like-minded adherents.

I’ve made a similar argument about diet here before. And Mikhailia Peterson’s example is also tangled up in fascinating ways with the difficulty that many women have in finding treatments for their chronic pain. But it also testifies to the extent to which charismatic public intellectuals like Fuller and Jordan Peterson, who have attained prominence in one particular subject, can insidiously become regarded as authority figures in matters far beyond their true area of expertise. There’s a lot that I admire about Fuller, and I don’t like much about Peterson, but in both cases, we should be just as cautious about taking their word on larger issues as we might when it comes to their diet. It’s more obvious with beef than it is with other aspects of our lives—but it shouldn’t be any easier to swallow.

Quote of the Day

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Think of the following items: tires, doughnuts, Cheerios cereal, Life Savers candy, life preservers, wedding rings, men’s and women’s belts, band saws, plastic pools, barrel hoops, curtain rings, Mason jar gaskets, hangman’s nooses—one could go on almost indefinitely. They are all obviously united by a common circular shape…By juxtaposing any half dozen of these items, an idea for a happening could emerge. And from this combination meanings not normally associated with such things could be derived by minds sensitive to symbols.

Allan Kaprow, “Assemblages, Environments, and Happenings”

Written by nevalalee

August 29, 2018 at 7:30 am

The dreamlife of angels

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A few weeks ago, I finally got my hands on a copy of The World Only Spins Forward, the oral history of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. The journalists Isaac Butler and Dan Kois have delivered a book that feels indispensable, particularly at this historical moment, and it’s impossible to open it to a random page without being immediately sucked into the narrative. Its most vivid figure, not surprisingly, is Kushner himself, who emerges both as an authentic genius and as an insufferable collaborator. Here, for instance, is the account of his first viewing of Declan Donnellan’s landmark production in London:

Kushner: I typed up my notes on the plane flying back to the United States. I spent the entire flight just typing up notes. There were, like, fifty pages of notes. I hit the send button on the fax machine as soon as I landed, not thinking about what time it was in London.

Donnellan: Nick [Ormerod] and I came home, and I thought we’d been burgled because there was so much paper floating around! It turned out it was all coming from the fax machine.

And the director Oskar Eustis recalls: “The way Tony gives notes on his shows is incredibly difficult for every director he’s ever worked with. There’s a few directors who have essentially turned the room over to Tony and let him do the line-by-line work with the actors. There are directors who have barred Tony from the room and forced him to accept it. But there’s never been the ‘normal’ relationship between playwright and director with Tony. It doesn’t exist.”

Yet as much as I enjoyed Butler and Kois’s book, which should be required reading for anyone interested in politics or theater, it leaves one aspect of the story unexplored. Kushner is present throughout as an activist, an intellectual, a creative force, and a prickly personality, but only rarely as a writer. We hear surprisingly little about the decisions that went into the construction of these two massive plays. As far as the oral version is concerned, it’s as if Kushner took his grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, went away for a while, and came back with Millennium Approaches. Even his struggles with Perestroika, which he has never finished revising, occur mostly offstage. The closest we get to a look at his process is a tantalizing glimpse like this:

Kushner: We made a mistake. When I wrote Perestroika, it was five acts long. We had this play, Millennium Approaches, that everybody was really loving. Oskar and I both felt that Perestroika should replicate it in some way. It was inevitable that we were going to try to squeeze Perestroika into a three-act structure. It doesn’t work in three acts…

Eustis: The thing he did, and it remains the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen a writer do: he took this difficulty of making these characters change and he made it the content of the play.

This is heady stuff, but it just leaves us wanting more. And when Kushner does appear in the book, it’s often in the thankless role of a giver of notes, not that of the artist who somehow set this whole unlikely project into motion in the first place.

The picture that emerges is that of a play shaped profoundly by its cast and directors, which seems fair enough—Kushner wrote many of these roles for the actors who originally performed them in San Francisco. But also points to a weakness of the oral history format itself. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen an explosion in the form, both online and in print, and I’ve devoted entire posts here to similar books about the Creative Artists Agency and Saturday Night Live. And it isn’t difficult to see why they’re so popular. When properly done, they’re compulsively readable, and it’s much easier to envision the average reader plowing through ten thousand words of oral history than a conventional article of the same length. (For me, the ultimate example remains the twelve thousand words that Thrillist devoted to a single scene from The Avengers.) It also has its problems, as The World Only Spins Forward, which is an exemplary model of the genre, makes all too clear. It values the anecdotal over the introspective. The fact that it depends on good stories means that it can overstate how much of a phenomenon took place in public, or overemphasize the importance of elements that lend themselves to retelling. It naturally hinges on the candor and cooperation of the participants, which means that Kushner’s reticence about his own creative process leaves a hole in the narrative, however open he might be on other topics. When you rely entirely on the voices of others, it can lead to insights that wouldn’t emerge in any other way, but it also means that certain subjects receive less attention than they deserve. You can’t write an oral history about how a play was written in private, which would require a combination of memoir, interview, and textual analysis that just isn’t possible in the oral form. And the result serves as a reminder between the difference between history and what another gay icon once called “the bones from which someday a man might make history.”

None of this would matter if Butler and Kois’s book weren’t so good, and its limits only serve to highlight Kushner’s genius. The greatness of Angels in America lies precisely in its ability to orchestrate a range of voices, including ones that had rarely been seen before on the stage, and to fit them into a compelling structure. It demands something more than simple transcription, including weird, intuitive choices of the kind that an oral history can never completely manage. (Kushner’s play also deserves credit for making its viewers uncomfortable. The book compares its cultural impact to that of Hamilton, which is comparatively reluctant to explore the darker aspects of American history. Hamilton isn’t likely to disturb or implicate you unless you’re actually Mike Pence, and I have little doubt that Angels, which inspired protests as well as huge box office, is ultimately the greater work of art.) It’s the kind of play that could only have emerged through much solitary, unglamorous work, and it’s this unspoken element that may end up being the most instructive. We’re living in a time in which private life is under constant threat of being obliterated by the public, which may be another reason why oral history is thriving. At such moments, it can seem hard to justify the creation of imaginative literature, much of which necessarily occurs out of sight. The World Only Spins Forward is one of the best books I’ve read all year, and it provides a crucial perspective as we try to figure out what kind of culture we’re going to get out of this agonized period of regression and rebellion, which has so much in common with the decade that produced Angels in America. But it takes a real effort of the will to keep the silent, lonely, even prophetic figure of the writer alive in the murmur of so many other voices. And that’s where the great work begins.

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