Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 2018

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 1

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If there’s a single theme that runs throughout my book Astounding, it’s the two sides of the editor John W. Campbell. These days, Campbell tends to be associated with highly technical “hard” science fiction with an emphasis on physics and engineering, but he had an equally dominant mystical side, and from the beginning, you often see the same basic impulses deployed in both directions. (After the memory of his career had faded, much of this history was quietly revised, as Algis Burdrys notes in Benchmarks Revisited: “The strong mystical bent displayed among even the coarsest cigar-chewing technists is conveniently overlooked, and Campbell’s subsequent preoccupation with psionics is seen as an inexplicable deviation from a life of hitherto unswerving straight devotion to what we all agree is reasonability.”) As an undergraduate at M.I.T. and Duke, Campbell was drawn successively to Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, and Joseph Rhine, the psychologist best known for his statistical studies of telepathy. Both professors fed into his fascination with a possible science of the mind, but along strikingly different lines, and he later pursued both dianetics, which he originally saw as a kind of practical cybernetics, and explorations of psychic powers. Much the same holds true of his other great obsession—the problem of foreseeing the future. As I discuss today in an essay in the New York Times, its most famous manifestation was the notion of psychohistory, the fictional science of prediction in Asimov’s Foundation series. But at a time of global uncertainty, it wasn’t the method of forecasting that counted, but the accuracy of the results, and even as Campbell was collaborating with Asimov, his interest in prophecy was taking him to even stranger places.

The vehicle for the editor’s more mystical explorations was Unknown, the landmark fantasy pulp that briefly channeled these inclinations away from the pages of Astounding. (In my book, I argue that the simultaneous existence of these two titles purified science fiction at a crucial moment, and that the entire genre might have evolved in altogether different ways if Campbell had been forced to express all sides of his personality in a single magazine.) As I noted here the other day, in an attempt to attract a wider audience, Campbell removed the cover paintings from Unknown, hoping to make it look like a more mainstream publication. The first issue with the revised design was dated July 1940, and in his editor’s note, Campbell explicitly addressed the “new discoverers” who were reading the magazine for the first time. He grandly asserted that fantasy represented “a completely untrammeled literary medium,” and as an illustration of the kinds of subjects that he intended to explore in his stories, he offered a revealing example:

Until somebody satisfactorily explains away the unquestionable masses of evidence showing that people do have visions of things yet to come, or of things occurring at far-distant points—until someone explains how Nostradamus, the prophet, predicted things centuries before they happened with such minute detail (as to names of people not to be born for half a dozen generations or so!) that no vague “Oh, vague generalities—things are always happening that can be twisted to fit!” can possibly explain them away—until the time those are docketed and labeled and nearly filed—they belong to The Unknown.

It was Campbell’s first mention in print of Nostradamus, the sixteenth-century French prophet, but it wouldn’t be the last. A few months later, Campbell alluded in another editorial to the Moberly-Jourdain incident, in which two women claimed to have traveled over a century back in time on a visit to the Palace of Versailles. The editor continued: “If it happens one way—how about the other? How about someone slipping from the past to the future? It is known—and don’t condemn till you’ve read a fair analysis of the old man’s works—that Nostradamus, the famous French prophet, did not guess at what might happen; he recorded what did happen—before it happened. His accuracy of prophecy runs considerably better, actually, than the United States government crop forecasts, in percentage, and the latter are certainly used as a basis for business.” Campbell then drew a revealing connection between Nostradamus and the war in Europe:

Incidentally, to avoid disappointment, Nostradamus did not go into much detail about this period. He was writing several hundred years ago, for people of that time—and principally for Parisians. He predicted in some detail the French Revolution, predicted several destructions of Paris—which have come off on schedule, to date—and did not predict destruction of Paris for 1940. He did, however, for 1999—by a “rain of fire from the East.” Presumably he didn’t have any adequate terms for airplane bombs, so that may mean thermite incendiaries. But the present period, too many centuries from his own times, would be of minor interest to him, and details are sketchy. The prophecy goes up to about the thirty-fifth century.

And the timing was highly significant. Earlier that year, Campbell had published the nonfiction piece “The Science of Whithering” by L. Sprague de Camp in Astounding, shortly after German troops marched into Paris. De Camp’s article, which discussed the work of such cyclical historians as Spengler and Toynbee, represented the academic or scientific approach the problem of forecasting, and it would soon find its fictional expression in such stories as Jack Williamson’s “Breakdown” and Asimov’s “Foundation.” As usual, however, Campbell was playing both sides, and he was about to pursue a parallel train of thought in Unknown that has largely been forgotten. Instead of attempting to explain Nostradamus in rational terms, Campbell ventured a theory that was even more fantastic than the idea of clairvoyance:

Occasionally a man—vanishes…And somehow, he falls into another time. Sometimes future—sometimes past. And sometimes he comes back, sometimes he doesn’t. If he does come back, there’d be a tendency, and a smart one, to shut up; it’s mighty hard to prove. Of course, if he’s a scholarly gentlemen, he might spend his unintentional sojourn in the future reading histories of his beloved native land. Then, of course, he ought to be pretty accurate at predicting revolutions and destruction of cities. Even be able to name inconsequential details, as Nostradamus did.

To some extent, this might have been just a game that he was playing for his readers—but not completely. Campbell’s interest in Nostradamus was very real, and just as he had used Williamson and Asimov to explore psychohistory, he deployed another immensely talented surrogate to look into the problem of prophecy. His name was Anthony Boucher. I’ll be exploring this in greater detail tomorrow.

Note: Please join me today at 12:00pm ET for a Twitter AMA to celebrate the release of the fantastic new horror anthology Terror at the Crossroads, which includes my short story “Cryptids.”

Quote of the Day

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Everything is directed toward utility with the greatest possible severity. The tendency toward utility does not, however, impede the accession to a state of beauty. The case of the evolution of the automobile form is a striking example of my point; it is even a curious fact that the more the machine perfects its utilitarian functions, the more beautiful it becomes.

Fernand Léger, “The Aesthetic of the Machine”

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October 31, 2018 at 7:30 am

Fire and Fury

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Brian De Palma’s horror movie The Fury, which celebrated its fortieth anniversary earlier this year. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about Pauline Kael’s review, which is one of the pieces included in her enormous collection For Keeps. I’ve read that book endlessly for two decades now, and as a result, The Fury is one of those films from the late seventies—like Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers—that endure in my memory mostly as a few paragraphs of Kael’s prose. In particular, I often find myself remembering these lines:

De Palma is the reverse side of the coin from Spielberg. Close Encounters gives us the comedy of hope. The Fury is the comedy of cruelly dashed hope. With Spielberg, what happens is so much better than you dared hope that you have to laugh; with De Palma, it’s so much worse than you feared that you have to laugh.

That sums up how I feel about a lot of things these days, when everything is consistently worse than I could have imagined, although laughter usually feels very far away. (Another line from Kael inadvertently points to the danger of identifying ourselves with our political heroes: “De Palma builds up our identification with the very characters who will be destroyed, or become destroyers, and some people identified so strongly with Carrie that they couldn’t laugh—they felt hurt and betrayed.”) And her description of one pivotal scene, which appears in her review of Dressed to Kill, gets closer than just about anything else to my memories of the last presidential election: “There’s nothing here to match the floating, poetic horror of the slowed-down sequence in which Amy Irving and Carrie Snodgress are running to freedom: it’s as if each of them and each of the other people on the street were in a different time frame, and Carrie Snodgress’s face is full of happiness just as she’s flung over the hood of a car.”

The Fury seems to have been largely forgotten by mainstream audiences, but references to it pop up in works ranging from Looper to Stranger Things, and I suspect that it might be due for a reappraisal. It’s about two teenagers, a boy and a girl, who have never met, but who share a psychic connection. As Kael notes, they’re “superior beings” who might have been prophets or healers in an earlier age, but now they’ve been targeted by our “corrupt government…which seeks to use them for espionage, as secret weapons.” Reading this now, I’m slightly reminded of our current administration’s unapologetic willingness to use vulnerable families and children as political pawns, but that isn’t really the point. What interests me more is how De Palma’s love of violent imagery undercuts the whole moral arc of the movie. I might call this a problem, except that it isn’t—it’s a recurrent feature of his work that resonated uneasily with viewers who were struggling to integrate the specter of institutionalized violence into their everyday lives. (In a later essay, Kael wrote of acquaintances who resisted such movies because of its association with the “guilty mess” of the recently concluded war: “There’s a righteousness in their tone when they say they don’t like violence; I get the feeling that I’m being told that my urging them to see The Fury means that I’ll be responsible if there’s another Vietnam.”) And it’s especially striking in this movie, which for much of its length is supposedly about an attempt to escape this cycle of vengeance. Of the two psychic teens, Robyn, played by Andrew Stevens, eventually succumbs to it, while Gillian, played by Amy Irving, fights it for as long as she can. As Kael explains: “Both Gillian and Robyn have the power to zap people with their minds. Gillian is trying to cling to her sanity—she doesn’t want to hurt anyone. And, knowing that her power is out of her conscious control, she’s terrified of her own secret rages.”

And it’s hard for me to read this passage now without connecting it to the ongoing discussion over women’s anger, in which the word “fury” occurs with surprising frequency. Here’s the journalist Rebecca Traister writing in the New York Times, in an essay adapted from her bestselling book Good and Mad:

Fury was a tool to be marshaled by men like Judge Kavanaugh and Senator Graham, in defense of their own claims to political, legal, public power. Fury was a weapon that had not been made available to the woman who had reason to question those claims…Most of the time, female anger is discouraged, repressed, ignored, swallowed. Or transformed into something more palatable, and less recognizable as fury—something like tears. When women are truly livid, they often weep…This political moment has provoked a period in which more and more women have been in no mood to dress their fury up as anything other than raw and burning rage.

Traister’s article was headlined: “Fury is a Political Weapon. And Women Need to Wield It.” And if you were so inclined, you could take The Fury as an extended metaphor for the issue that Casey Cep raises in her recent roundup of books on the subject in The New Yorker: “A major problem with anger is that some people are allowed to express it while others are not.” In the film, Gillian spends most of the movie resisting her violent urges, while her male psychic twin gives into them, and the climax—which is the only scene that most viewers remember—hinges on her embrace of the rage that Robyn passed to her at the moment of his death.

This brings us to Childress, the villain played by John Cassavetes, whose demise Kael hyperbolically describes as “the greatest finish for any villain ever.” A few paragraphs earlier, Kael writes of this scene:

This is where De Palma shows his evil grin, because we are implicated in this murderousness: we want it, just as we wanted to see the bitchy Chris get hers in Carrie. Cassavetes is an ideal villain (as he was in Rosemary’s Baby)—sullenly indifferent to anything but his own interests. He’s so right for Childress that one regrets that there wasn’t a real writer around to match his gloomy, viscous nastiness.

“Gloomy, viscous nastiness” might ring a bell today, and Childress’s death—Gillian literally blows him up with her mind—feels like the embodiment of our impulses for punishment, revenge, and retribution. It’s stunning how quickly the movie discards Gillian’s entire character arc for the sake of this moment, but what makes the ending truly memorable is what happens next, which is nothing. Childress explodes, and the film just ends, because it has nothing left to show us. That works well enough in a movie, but in real life, we have to face the problem of what Brittney Cooper, whose new book explicitly calls rage a superpower, sums up as “what kind of world we want to see, not just what kind of things we want to get rid of.” In her article in The New Yorker, Cep refers to the philosopher and classicist Martha Nussbaum’s treatment of the Furies themselves, who are transformed at the end of the Oresteia into the Eumenides, “beautiful creatures that serve justice rather than pursue cruelty.” It isn’t clear how this transformation takes place, and De Palma, typically, sidesteps it entirely. But if we can’t imagine anything beyond cathartic vengeance, we’re left with an ending closer to what Kael writes of Dressed to Kill: “The spell isn’t broken and [De Palma] doesn’t fully resolve our fear. He’s saying that even after the horror has been explained, it stays with you—the nightmare never ends.”

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October 30, 2018 at 9:24 am

Quote of the Day

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The craft of fashion is not yet constructive, but rather multiplies details and refinements. Instead of adapting the dress to the necessities of daily life, to the movements which it dictates, it complicates them, believing that it thereby satisfies the taste of the buyer or the exporter. For this reason skirts must be too narrow or too short or too long, and the skirt is not adapted to walking but walking to the skirt, which is nonsense.

Sonia Delaunay, “The Future of Fashion”

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October 30, 2018 at 7:30 am

The beauty of the world

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In the fall of 1953, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He wasn’t impressed, saying that the results could have been “duplicated in any major insane asylum” and that modern art was the expression of a “violent neurosis.” But the trip wasn’t entirely wasted. As he wrote in a letter to his father, Campbell and his wife Peg were able to spend the day in the company of a good friend:

We went with Alejandro Cañedo, a fine-arts partner friend of mine. We’d just been up to his apartment to see his incredibly lovely land-sea-sky-scapes. He does beach scenes that look as though they might have been painted 3,000,000,000 years ago in the pre-Cambrian period, where raw rock meets long, curling waves, under a vast, spacious sky. He can actually paint a cloud so it looks like a cloud, instead of a bit of white cotton fluff. The pictures are magnificently spacious, and patient and calm. They have eternity and timelessness and action built in them all at once.

Campbell continued: “I was very glad [Cañedo] was along when we went to the museum. He is an artist, and an artist who can, and does, paint beauty. He’s a gentleman, a philosopher, and he’s lived in a number of parts of the world. Mexican by birth, served in the Mexican state department, and studied in Paris and Rome.” And Campbell drew a strong contrast between Cañedo’s “incredibly lovely” canvases and the excesses of abstract act, which was full of nothing but “hate and anger and confusion and frustration.”

And the artist whom Campbell described in another letter as “considerable of a philosopher” was a fascinating figure in his own right. He was born Alejandro de Cañedo in Mexico City in 1902, which made him nearly a decade older than Campbell, and he became known for his exquisitely rendered male figure studies, which he later exhibited under the name Alexander Cañedo. For the December 1946 issue of Astounding, he provided a cover painting for Eric Frank Russell’s “Metamorphosite,” but he might never have made any impression on the magazine’s fans—or its editor—if it hadn’t been for a happy accident. As Campbell told readers the following August:

Item the first is Astounding’s cover for September. It’s different. It’s unique. And it’s more than good. It came about in the following way; Alejandro Cañedo, who did our last cover, was in, and invited me to come up to his studio where he had some paintings he was about to ship to a showing. I did. And he had some strikingly beautiful and wholly unique artwork. I had never seen anything like it—and immediately demanded why he hadn’t done one like that for Astounding.

Campbell concluded: “It seems that Cañedo doing what he likes, and Cañedo doing what he thinks someone else wants, are quite, quite different. I think you’ll want a lot more of the type he’s done. And I can’t describe it.” The cover of the September issue featured the painting reproduced above, and over the next few years, Campbell published several more “symbolic” covers credited to “Alejandro,” which were striking images that didn’t illustrate any specific story.

As even a casual glance reveals, they were also blatantly homoerotic. I haven’t been able to find much in the way of biographical information on Cañedo, but his work appears in the permanent collection of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, and his article on Wikipedia includes the unsourced statement that he painted works of gay erotica for private collectors that couldn’t be displayed in public. And it’s very hard to look at these covers now and see them as anything but erotic reveries. (Even at the time, Cañedo’s cover for the July 1954 issue, titled “Inappropriate,” apparently made some fans uncomfortable, although few seem to have seen anything strange about this cover from several years earlier.) Campbell doesn’t appear to have noticed anything out of the ordinary, and his unabashed admiration for Cañedo’s work stands in remarkable contrast to the sentiments that he expressed elsewhere. Just one year after Cañedo’s first “symbolic” cover, he published an article in which Dr. Joseph Winter, who later became a member of the original dianetics team, expressed the hope that endocrinology would lead to a world with “no homosexuality.” Campbell later claimed that dianetics had been used for successful “cures” of gay men, and he stated both in private and in the pages of the magazine that homosexuality was a sign of cultural decline. And he didn’t think that he had any trouble identifying such individuals, writing in an unbelievably horrifying passage in a letter to Isaac Asimov in 1958:

And Ike, my friend, consider the case of a fairy, a queer. They can, normally, be spotted about as far off as you can spot a mulatto. I’ll admit a coal-black Negro can be spotted a bit further than a fairy can, but the normal mulatto can’t. Sure, I know a lot of queers don’t look that way—but they’re simply “passing.”

But I’m frankly more interested in what in the world Cañedo thought of Campbell. Even in the rare glimpses that we find in Campbell’s letters, it’s possible to discern glints of an ironic humor. (In a another letter to his father, the editor quoted Cañedo’s philosophy of life: “Sometimes I have not had a nickel in the bank, and sometimes I’ve had plenty, but I have been rich all the time, because I have had the friends I want to talk to, the work I want to do, and the things I want to learn about.” The same letter includes another anecdote that makes me wonder: “By the way, Alex had his apartment redecorated, and had a painter repaint the walls. Alex was out while the painter was on the job; when Alex came back that evening he made a horrifying discovery. God knows how that could be, but the painter was red-green colorblind! Instead of painting the walls the pale tan Alex wanted, he’d done them in a sort of baby pink!” God knows how indeed.) And it’s worth juxtaposing Campbell’s unqualified admiration for Cañedo’s nudes, which he saw as an answer to the lunacy of modern art, with his editorial of December 1958:

In England, there is a strong movement to remove homosexuality from the list of crimes. After all, we mustn’t impose our opinions on others, must we? Yes…and homosexuality was accepted in Greece, just before its fall. And in Rome, in the latter days. And in Hitlerite Germany. After all, now, you can’t prove, logically, that the homosexual doesn’t have as much right to his opinion as you do to yours, can you?

But perhaps we should just be glad that Campbell was obtuse enough to publish these remarkable covers. As he wrote to his father of modern artists: “They don’t want to see the truth, and reject seeing the beauty of the world. That an individual can make such a mistake is perfectly understandable.”

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October 29, 2018 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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Important emotion is a menace to those who live for their own selfish interest; so they have invented the philanthropic lie, and with that philanthropic lie have reduced the artist to the condition of a hostage. They have instituted an “Art Police,” a police which operates against deep-rooted human emotion…This new poet-hostage is always conspiring against their selfishness. To be this hostage one must put poetry at the center of one’s life.

Roberto Matta, “On Emotion”

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October 29, 2018 at 7:30 am

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The domain of the marvelous

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No longer is it a matter of the narrow roads where traditional beauty is offered in its clarity and obviousness to the admiration of the crowds. The crowds were taught the victory of intelligence over the world and the sub­ mission of the forces of nature to man. Now it is a question of seizing and admiring a new art which leaves humankind in its true condition, fragile and dependent, and which nevertheless, in the very spectacle of things ignored or silenced, opens unsuspected possibilities to the artist.

And this is the domain of the strange, the marvelous, and the fantastic, a domain scorned by people of certain inclinations. Here is the freed image, dazzling and beautiful, with a beauty that could not be more unexpected and overwhelming. Here are the poet, the painter, and the artist, presiding over the metamorphoses and the inversions of the world under the sign of hallucination and madness…Here at last the world of nature and things makes direct contact with the human being who is again in the fullest sense spontaneous and natural. Here at last is the true communion and the true knowledge, chance mastered and recognized, the mystery now a friend and helpful.

Suzanne Césaire, “The Domain of the Marvelous”

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October 28, 2018 at 7:30 am

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