Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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The last catch

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This time Milo had gone too far.

—Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Yesterday, the Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos finally lost his book deal. The turning point was a video that surfaced over the weekend of Yiannopoulos appearing to condone the sexual abuse of young boys—which, for future reference, is a useful data point for establishing what the conservative movement considers excessive. Shortly after Yiannopoulos was dropped from his speaking slot at an upcoming conference sponsored by the American Conservative Union, Simon & Schuster, which had awarded him a lucrative contract to write his memoirs, decided to cut him loose, too. As far as the merits of that action are concerned, the author Roxane Gay, who put her money where her mouth was last month by withdrawing her own book from the publisher, sees it for what it is:

In canceling Milo’s book contract, Simon & Schuster made a business decision the same way they made a business decision when they decided to publish that man in the first place. When his comments about pedophilia/pederasty came to light, Simon & Schuster realized it would cost them more money to do business with Milo than he could earn for them. They did not finally “do the right thing” and now we know where their threshold, pun intended, lies…Simon & Schuster was not alone in what they were willing to tolerate. A great many people were perfectly comfortable with the targets of Milo’s hateful attention until that attention hit too close to home.

But the sequence of events is enlightening in itself. The video, which was taped on January 4, 2016, was leaked by the Reagan Battalion, a conservative outlet active mostly on Twitter and Facebook, on Sunday morning. It took the ACU one full day to rescind their invitation, and Simon & Schuster tweeted out their decision four hours later. I don’t have any way of knowing when the internal conversation about the video at the publisher began, and they might well have been discussing it intensively ever since the comments became public knowledge. Perhaps the fact that the announcement was made soon after the conference cut its ties with Yiannopoulos was just an accident of timing. But that isn’t how it looks. It feels a lot more like Simon & Schuster—the company as a whole, that is, not the imprint Threshold Editions—had been angling to get rid of Yiannopoulos as soon as he became a bigger headache than he was worth, but was unwilling or reluctant to move until it got the signal that it was fine to proceed. The response from the Conservative Political Action Conference gave the publisher the cover that it needed. If Yiannopoulos is too offensive even for mainstream conservatives, the reasoning must have gone, then we can’t be blamed for canceling his book, too. The video alone wasn’t enough. It also had to lead to action on the right. And as soon as it did, the publisher acted with suspicious quickness. Nothing ever happens that fast in publishing, which implies that Simon & Schuster was eager to act for a long time, but was afraid to do so until now.

Joseph Heller

Which, in a way, is the most frightening thing of all. Simon & Schuster—which, let’s not forget, is also the publisher of the novel Catch-22—found itself caught in a similar bind. It seems fairly clear that an internal understanding had been reached long ago that publishing Yiannopoulos’s book was a bad idea, for reasons of branding, if not ethics. No matter how well it sold, it had already tarnished the publisher’s reputation in ways that couldn’t be easily erased. Yet it seemed better to endure whatever attacks from the left it received, rather than to incite a similar reaction from the right by doing the reasonable thing and pulling the book. Maybe it’s because Simon & Schuster calculated that the protests from the left would be noisy but ineffectual, as they all too often are, or, more likely, that it felt that liberal outrage was already baked into the cake, and drawing the ire of the right would push them into unexplored territory. Whatever the reason, the result was that the parent company was effectively held hostage by one of its imprints. (In retrospect, the statement in which Simon & Schuster blandly reiterated its opposition to hate speech, while defending its decision to publish authors with “frequently controversial opinions,” seems to have been all but dictated at gunpoint.) I have a feeling that the decision by the ACU was greeted by many at the publisher with a sigh of relief. But it also means that they allowed the terms of the conversation to be set by the conservative movement, not by their own editorial standards. And it says a lot about the times in which we live that a formerly respected New York publishing house is relying on the right to police itself.

Yet it also gets at a more important point, which is that change will have to be driven by reasonable voices on the right. I don’t know much about the Reagan Battalion, which appears to have emerged last year as part of the Never Trump movement, but there’s no question that the video gained much of its impact from its source. If a liberal blog had released it, it might not have made so much as a ripple. And it’s clear now, if it wasn’t before, that any attempt to deal with all that Yiannopoulos represents will have to come from conservatives. This isn’t meant to understate the importance of protest on the left, which forms the kind of indispensable backdrop—or power source—necessary to motivate those who are in a position to effect real change. But it’s revealing that Yiannopoulos imploded just a few days after none other than Bill Maher bent over backwards in an attempt to normalize him. A lot of Republicans seem like “the treacherous old man” whom Joseph Heller describes in his novel:

I was a fascist when Mussolini was on top, and I am an anti-fascist now that he has been deposed. I was fanatically pro-German when the Germans were here to protect us against the Americans, and now that the Americans are here to protect us against the Germans I am fanatically pro-American…When the Germans marched into the city, I danced in the streets like a youthful ballerina and shouted, “Heil Hitler!” until my lungs were hoarse. I even waved a small Nazi flag that I had snatched away from a beautiful little girl while her mother was looking the other way.

But the funny thing is that the old man isn’t even wrong. He’s just looking out for his own survival, and when another character calls him “a shameful, unscrupulous opportunist,” he smugly replies: “I am a hundred and seven years old.” It’s hard to argue with that kind of logic. The conservative movement tolerates Yiannopoulos or Trump only because it thinks that it’s better off than it would be without them. And it won’t be the left that convinces it otherwise.

Written by nevalalee

February 21, 2017 at 9:17 am

A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 3

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Hermann Göring with falcon

Over the last few days, I’ve been doing my best Robert Anton Wilson impression, and, like him, I’ve been seeing hawks everywhere. Science fiction is full of them. Skylark of Space, which is arguably the story that kicked off the whole business in the first place, was written by E.E. Smith and his friend Lee Hawkins Garby, who is one of those women who seem to have largely fallen out of the history of the genre. Then there’s Hawk Carse, the main character of a series of stories, written for Astounding by editors Harry Bates and Desmond W. Hall, that have become synonymous with bad space opera. And you’ve got John W. Campbell himself, who was described as having “hawklike” features by the fan historian Sam Moskowitz, and who once said of his own appearance: “I haven’t got eyes like a hawk, but the nose might serve.” (Campbell also compared his looks to those of The Shadow and, notably, Hermann Göring, an enthusiastic falconer who loved hawks.) It’s all a diverting game, but it gets at a meaningful point. When Wilson’s wife objected to his obsession with the 23 enigma, pointing out that he was just noticing that one number and ignoring everything else, Wilson could only reply: “Of course.” But continued to believe in it as an “intuitive signal” that would guide him in useful directions, as well as an illustration of the credo that guided his entire career:

Our models of “reality” are very small and tidy, the universe of experience is huge and untidy, and no model can ever include all the huge untidiness perceived by uncensored consciousness.

We’re living at a time in which the events of the morning can be spun into two contradictory narratives by early afternoon, so it doesn’t seem all that original to observe that you can draw whatever conclusion you like from a sufficiently rich and random corpus of facts. On some level, all too many mental models come down to looking for hawks, noting their appearances, and publishing a paper about the result. And when you’re talking about something like the history of science fiction, which is an exceptionally messy body of data, it’s easy to find the patterns that you want. You could write an overview of the genre that draws a line from A.E. van Vogt to Alfred Bester to Philip K. Dick that would be just as persuasive and consistent as one that ignores them entirely. The same is true of individuals like Campbell and Heinlein, who, like all of us, contained multitudes. It can be hard to reconcile the Campbell who took part in parapsychological experiments at Duke and was editorializing in the thirties about the existence of telepathy in Unknown with the founder of whatever we want to call Campbellian science fiction, just as it can be difficult to make sense of the contradictory aspects of Heinlein’s personality, which is something I haven’t quite managed to do yet. As Borges writes:

Let us greatly simplify, and imagine that a life consists of 13,000 facts. One of the hypothetical biographies would record the series 11, 22, 33…; another, the series 9, 13, 17, 21…; another, the series 3, 12, 21, 30, 39…A history of a man’s dreams is not inconceivable; another, of the organs of his body; another, of the mistakes he made; another, of all the moments when he thought about the Pyramids; another, of his dealings with the night and the dawn.

It’s impossible to keep all those facts in mind at once, so we make up stories about people that allow us to extrapolate the rest, in a kind of lossy compression. The story of Arthur C. Clarke’s encounter with Uri Geller is striking mostly because it doesn’t fit our image of Clarke as the paradigmatic hard science fiction writer, but of course, he was much more than that.

The Falcon Killer

I’ve been focusing on places where science fiction intersects with the mystical because there’s a perfectly valid history to be written about it, and it’s a thread that tends to be overlooked. But perhaps the most instructive paranormal encounter of all happened to none other than Isaac Asimov. In July 1966, Asimov and his family were spending two weeks at a summer house in Concord, Massachusetts. One evening, his daughter ran into the house shouting: “Daddy, Daddy, a flying saucer! Come look!” Here’s how he describes what happened next:

I rushed out of the house to see…It was a cloudless twilight. The sun had set and the sky was a uniform slate gray, still too light for any stars to be visible; and there, hanging in the sky, like an oversize moon, was a perfect featureless metallic circle of something like aluminum.

I was thunderstruck, and dashed back into the house for my glasses, moaning, “Oh no, this can’t happen to me. This can’t happen to me.” I couldn’t bear the thought that I would have to report something that really looked as though it might conceivably be an extraterrestrial starship.

When Asimov went back outside, the object was still there. It slowly began to turn, becoming gradually more elliptical, until the black markings on its side came into view—and it turned out to be the Goodyear blimp. Asimov writes: “I was incredibly relieved!” Years later, his daughter told the New York Times: “He nearly had a heart attack. He thought he saw his career going down the drain.”

It’s a funny story in itself, but let’s compare it to what Geller writes about Clarke: “Clarke was not there just to scoff. He had wanted things to happen. He just wanted to be completely convinced that everything was legitimate.” The italics are mine. Asimov, alone of all the writers I’ve mentioned, never had any interest in the paranormal, and he remained a consistent skeptic throughout his life. As a result, unlike the others, he was very rarely wrong. But I have a hunch that it’s also part of the reason why he sometimes seems like the most limited of all major science fiction writers—undeniably great within a narrow range—while simultaneously the most important to the culture as a whole. Asimov became the most famous writer the genre has ever seen because you could basically trust him: it was his nonfiction, not his fiction, that endeared him to the public, and his status as a explainer depended on maintaining an appearance of unruffled rationality. It allowed him to assume a very different role than Campbell, who manifestly couldn’t be trusted on numerous issues, or even Heinlein, who convinced a lot of people to believe him while alienating countless others. But just as W.B. Yeats drew on his occult beliefs as a sort of battery to drive his poetry, Campbell and Heinlein were able to go places where Asimov politely declined to follow, simply because he had so much invested in not being wrong. Asimov was always able to tell the difference between a hawk and a handsaw, no matter which way the wind was blowing, and in some ways, he’s the best model for most of us to emulate. But it’s hard to write science fiction, or to live in it, without seeing patterns that may or may not be there.

A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 2

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Detail from the cover of the January 1974 issue of Analog

Yesterday, I mentioned the series of incidents from the early seventies that the writer Robert Anton Wilson memorably described as “some mysterious hawks that follow Uri Geller around.” Geller, the Israeli magician and purported telepath, claimed to be in contact with an alien entity that three other men—Saul-Paul Sirag, Andrija Puharich, and Ray Stanford—believed they had seen in the form of a hawk. A few months after his own encounter, in which he thought he saw Geller turn into a bird of prey, Sirag was startled to see the Kelly Freas cover of the January 1974 issue of Analog, which depicted a man with a hawklike helmet and the last name “Stanford” embroidered over his breast pocket. The story, “The Horus Errand” by William E. Cochrane, follows a psychic named Stanford as he attempts to guide the consciousness of a deceased millionaire through its reincarnation into the body of a newly born infant, only to lose track of his client along the way. (There are shades of Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil, which had been published a few years earlier.) Egyptian imagery plays a significant role in the plot, with Stanford comparing his task to that of the mythological Isis, who gathered up the pieces of the dead Osiris and used them to conceive their son Horus. An enormous modern pyramid serves as a backdrop to the action. Decades later, the real Ray Stanford, who was associated with research into unidentified flying objects, provided a sketch, pictured below, of what he said was the real insignia on the famous spacecraft seen in Socorro, New Mexico on April 24, 1964 by police officer Lonnie Zamora. It looks a lot like a pyramid.

In itself, it isn’t surprising to see Egyptian symbolism turning up repeatedly in these contexts. Such images are popular for much the same reason that a character in Foucault’s Pendulum says you find pyramids on both sides of the Atlantic: “Because the wind produces dunes in the shape of pyramids and not in the shape of the Parthenon.” (Another character responds: “I hate the spirit of the Enlightenment.”) But the timing is suggestive for other reasons. We can start with Andrija Puharich, the parapsychological researcher who introduced Geller to a large popular audience. In his book Uri, which presents Geller as a kind of messiah figure who draws his abilities from extraterrestrial sources, Puharich describes a few hawk encounters of his own. He had traveled to Tel Aviv to study Geller, and he quickly became convinced of the other man’s powers. While driving through the countryside on New Year’s Day of 1972, Puharich saw two white hawks, followed by others at his hotel two days later:

At times one of the birds would glide in from the sea right up to within a few meters of the balcony; it would flutter there in one spot and stare at me directly in the eyes. It was a unique experience to look into the piercing, “intelligent” eyes of a hawk. It was then that I knew I was not looking into the eyes of an earthly hawk. This was confirmed about 2 P.M. when Uri’s eyes followed a feather, loosened from the hawk, that floated on an updraft toward the top of the Sharon Tower. As his eye followed the feather to the sky, he was startled to see a dark spacecraft parked directly over the hotel.

Geller insisted that there weren’t any hawks in Israel, and that the birds had been sent to protect them. “I dubbed this hawk ‘Horus’ and still use this name each time he appears to me,” Puharich concludes, adding that he saw it on two other occasions.

The Socorro Symbol

As it turns out, there are, in fact, hawks in Israel, and based on a few minutes of research and Puharich’s description—a two-foot wingspan, with gray plumage and a white underside with “darker stippling”—I think they might have been Eurasian sparrowhawks, which are sometimes observed around Tel Aviv. But the most striking point goes unspoken. Puharich’s book is set during a period of heightened tension between Israel and Egypt, and much of the action revolves Geller allegedly receiving information from a higher power about a pending Egyptian invasion. During a hypnotic trance on December 1, 1971, Geller heard the message: “Plans for war have been made by Egypt, and if Israel loses, the entire world will explode into war.” Similarly, in a second session: “In Khartoum and in Egypt there may be many dead. Sadat will be taken by his officers. Syria will attack. Jordan will not intervene. There will be many Egyptian soldiers in Jordan. You, you are the only one to save mankind.” Puharich spent much of his visit praying for peace, and ultimately, no attack took place, with the strong implication that Geller’s efforts had something to do with averting it. When the Yom Kippur War did break out on on October 6, 1973, Geller and Puharich consulted their extraterrestrial source, who replied: “The fight and the war will be fought just like an ordinary war. This war had to come, and they shall fight it out alone. You are not needed this time.” Earlier in the book, Puharich writes:

If [a cosmic being] wishes to appear to some earth person, it chooses a form suitable to the local taste. In ancient Egypt the sun god, Ra, for example, was said to appear in the form of a hawk called Hor, or as corrupted by the Greeks, Horus.

But as far as I can tell, neither Puharich nor Geller comment on the incongruity of a cosmic entity reaching out to an Israeli psychic in 1971 in the form of the Egyptian god of war.

If interest in paranormal phenomena tends to spike during times of uncertainty, it isn’t all that strange that it would draw upon Egyptian symbolism in a decade when global anxieties were shifting toward the Middle East. But there’s one other instance I want to mention. In 1956, the science fiction writers Damon Knight and Judith Merril organized the first Milford Science Fiction Writers’ Conference, which drew such authors as Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, and L. Sprague de Camp. Also in attendance was Cyril Kornbluth, who brought along a young woman, Jane Roberts, whom Knight describes as “slender and dark, thin to the point of emaciation,” with “enormous dark eyes.” During the conference, Kornbluth invited Knight, James Blish, and Algis Budrys to join him in Roberts’s hotel room. Here’s how Knight, in his book The Futurians, describes what occurred there:

I have often wished I had asked Cyril what he really had in mind and what he expected to happen. My memories of what did happen are fragmentary. I remember that after a while Jane was sitting on a straight chair with the rest of us grouped together, and that she went into a trance and prophesied. I have forgotten every word of what she said. Still later we were grouped in a tight circle with our arms around each other; all the lights had been turned out except one dim one; it may have been a candle. Cyril was expressing his misery, and I began to sob, feeling as I did so that I was crying as his surrogate. We left the meeting with a feeling of closeness that went beyond friendship.

Two years later, Kornbluth was dead of a heart attack, while Budrys subsequently denied that the incident had ever taken place. As for Jane Roberts, she later became famous for channeling “an energy personality” that first received widespread attention in a series of books published in the early seventies. The personality called itself Seth—which, of course, is the name of the Egyptian god who was the enemy of Horus. Tomorrow, I’ll do what I can to make sense of all this, and I’ll also talk about its relevance today, when a different kind of Israeli hawk seems to be making a comeback.

A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 1

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Uri Geller

I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.


In the summer of 1974, the Israeli magician and purported psychic Uri Geller arrived at Birkbeck College in Bloomsbury, London, where the physicist David Bohm planned to subject him to a series of tests. Two of the scheduled observers were the writers Arthur Koestler and Arthur C. Clarke, of whom Geller writes in his autobiography:

Arthur Clarke…would be particularly important because he was highly skeptical of anything paranormal. His position was that his books, like 2001 and Childhood’s End, were pure science fiction, and it would be highly unlikely that any of their fantasies would come true, at least in his own lifetime.

Geller met the group in a conference room, where Koestler was cordial, although, Geller says, “I sensed that I really wasn’t getting through to Arthur C. Clarke.” A demonstration seemed to be in order, so Geller asked Clarke to hold one of his own housekeys in one hand, watching it closely to make sure that it wasn’t being swapped out, handled, or subjected to any trickery. Sure enough, the key began to bend. Clarke cried out, in what I like to think was an inadvertent echo of one of his most famous stories: “My God, my eyes are seeing it! It’s bending!”

Geller went on to display his talents in a number of other ways, including forcing a Geiger counter to click at an accelerated rate merely by concentrating on it. (It has been suggested by the skeptic James Randi that Geller had a magnet taped to his leg.) “By that time,” Geller writes, “Arthur Clarke seemed to have lost all his skepticism. He said something like, “My God! It’s all coming true! This is what I wrote about in Childhood’s End. I can’t believe it.” Geller continues:

Clarke was not there just to scoff. He had wanted things to happen. He just wanted to be completely convinced that everything was legitimate. When he saw that it was, he told the others: “Look, the magicians and the journalists who are knocking this better put up or shut up now. Unless they can repeat the same things Geller is doing under the same rigidly controlled conditions, they have nothing further to say.”

Clarke also told him about the plot of Childhood’s End, which Geller evidently hadn’t read: “It involves a UFO that is hovering over the earth and controlling it. He had written the book about twenty years ago. He said that, after being a total skeptic about these things, his mind had really been changed by observing these experiments.”

The Horus Errand

It’s tempting to think that Geller is exaggerating the extent of the author’s astonishment, but here’s what Clarke himself wrote about it:

Although it’s hard to focus on that hectic and confusing day at Birkbeck College in 1974…I suspect that Uri Geller’s account in My Story is all too accurate…In view of the chaos at the hastily arranged Birkbeck encounter, the phrase “rigidly controlled conditions” is hilarious. But that last sentence is right on target, for [the reproduction of Geller’s effects by stage magicians] is precisely what happened…Nevertheless, I must confess a sneaking fondness for Uri; though he left a trail of bent cutlery and fractured reputations round the world, he provided much-needed entertainment at a troubled and unhappy time.

Geller has largely faded from the public consciousness, but Clarke—who continued to believe long afterward that paranormal phenomena “can’t all be nonsense”—wasn’t the only science fiction writer to be intrigued by him. Robert Anton Wilson, one of my intellectual heroes, discusses him at length in the book Cosmic Trigger, in which he recounts the strange experience of his friend Saul-Paul Sirag. The year before the Birkbeck tests, Sirag was speaking to Geller when he saw the other man’s head turn into a “bird of prey,” like a hawk: “His nose became a beak, and his entire head sprouted feathers, down to his neck and shoulders.” (Sirag was also taking LSD at the time, which Wilson neglects to mention.) The hawk, Sirag thought, was the form assumed by an extraterrestrial intelligence that was allegedly in contact with Geller, and he didn’t know then that it had appeared in the same shape to two other men, including a psychic named Ray Stanford and another who had nicknamed it “Horus,” after the Egyptian god with a hawk’s head.

It gets weirder. A few months later, Sirag saw the January 1974 issue of Analog, which featured the story “The Horus Errand” by William E. Cochrane. The cover illustration depicted a man wearing a hawklike helmet, with the name “Stanford” written over his breast pocket. According to one of Sirag’s friends, the occultist Alan Vaughan, the character even looked a little like Ray Stanford—and you can judge the resemblance for yourself. Vaughan was interested enough to write to the artist, the legendary Kelly Freas, for more information. (Freas, incidentally, was close friends with John W. Campbell, to the point where Campbell even asked him to serve as the guardian for his two daughters if anything ever happened to him or his wife.) Freas replied that he had never met Stanford in person or knew how he looked, but that he had once received a psychic consultation from him by mail, in which Stanford said that “Freas had been some sort of illustrator in a past life in ancient Egypt.” As a result, Freas began to employ Egyptian imagery more consciously in his work, and the design of the helmet on the cover was entirely his own, without any reference to the story. At that point, the whole thing kind of peters out, aside from serving as an example of the kind of absurd coincidence that was so close to Wilson’s heart. But the intersection of Arthur C. Clarke, Uri Geller, and Robert Anton Wilson at that particular moment in time is a striking one, and it points toward an important thread in the history of science fiction that tends to be overlooked or ignored. Tomorrow, I’ll be writing more about what it all means, along with a few other ominous hawks.

The first envoy

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The Left Hand of Darkness

And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of…and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?

—Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Genly Ai, the central character of The Left Hand of Darkness, is a lone envoy sent from Earth to convince the people of Gethen, an isolated planet of perpetual winter, to join the Ekumen, a confederation of eighty-three inhabited worlds. Genly’s mission is absurdly difficult, to the point where it often seems inherently impossible. He doesn’t carry any technology aside from an ansible, a communications device that can transmit messages instantaneously across the galaxy, and he’s set apart from the Gethenians in fundamental ways—the planet’s inhabitants are ambisexual, with no fixed gender, and the idea of being permanently male or female strikes many of them as a form of perversion. Not surprisingly, few believe his story. His spacecraft was confiscated on his arrival by the government, and although he could, in theory, call down a mother ship at any time, he refuses to do so until the Gethenians have agreed to join the coalition. (The situation is only complicated by a growing rivalry between the neighboring countries of Karhide and Orgoryen, which prompts one character to wonder: “How does one hate a country, or love one?…What is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply?”) Genly’s only option is to somehow persuade them on his own, which could take years, if it happens at all. In the past, envoys to other planets have been killed. When asked why the Ekumen takes this seemingly irrational approach, Genly explains: “I was sent alone, and remain here alone, in order to make it impossible of you to fear me.” Later, he expands upon this: “The First Envoy to a world always comes alone. One alien is a curiosity, two are an invasion.”

At first, inevitably, it goes poorly. The only person in the kingdom of Karhide who seems to believe Genly, the prime minister Estraven, is abruptly exiled, and his place is taken by another politician, Tibe, who is hostile to the envoy’s mission, openly nationalistic, and eager to manipulate a vulnerable king. As Genly observes in his report:

Tibe spoke on the radio a good deal. Estraven when in power had never done so, and it was not in the Karhidish vein: their government was not a public performance, normally; it was covert and indirect. Tibe, however, orated. Hearing his voice on the air I saw again the long-toothed smile and the face masked with a net of fine wrinkles. His speeches were long and loud: praises of Karhide, disparagements of Orgoreyn, vilifications of “disloyal factions,” discussions of the “integrity of the kingdom’s borders”…He talked much about pride of country and love of the parent land, but little about shifgrethor [mutual honor and respect], personal pride, or prestige…I decided that he was deliberately avoiding talk of shifgrethor because he wished to rouse elements of a more elemental, uncontrollable kind. He wanted to stir up something which the whole shifgrethor-pattern was a refinement upon, a sublimation of. He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, though he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate. He talked a great deal about Truth also, for he was, he said, “cutting down beneath the veneer of civilization.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

In this passage, Le Guin, writing in a novel that was first published in 1969, seems even more prescient than George Orwell. Genly continues: “It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer…hiding the nobler reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness…Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war.” And the situation in Karhide has obvious parallels to our own:

Slow as their material and technological advance had been, little as they valued “progress” in itself, they had finally, in the last five or ten or fifteen centuries, got a little ahead of Nature. They weren’t absolutely at the mercy of their merciless climate any longer; a bad harvest would not starve a whole province, or a bad winter isolate every city…Now Karhide was to pull herself together…and the way to make her do it was not by sparking her pride, or building up her trade, or improving her roads, farms, colleges, and so on; none of that; that’s all civilization, veneer, and Tibe dismissed it with scorn. He was after something surer, the sure, quick, and lasting way to make people into a nation: war.

But here’s the sentence that chills the blood my most: “[Tibe’s] ideas concerning it could not have been too precise, but they were quite sound.”

Yet I think that Le Guin is in some ways greater than Orwell, whom I admire enormously, because she hints at a way forward—although it isn’t an easy one. It lies in Genly’s ultimate understanding of his mission, which he only realizes toward the end of the book:

I thought it was for your sake that I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger boy. But there’s more to it than that. Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou…[The Ekumen’s] doctrine is just the reverse of the doctrine that the end justifies the means. It proceeds, therefore, by subtle ways, and slow ones, and queer, risky ones; rather as evolution does, which is in certain senses its model…So was I sent alone, for your sake? Or for my own? I don’t know.

Le Guin’s solution, which I won’t reveal, isn’t entirely satisfying, but the problem she poses is very real. The predicament that she describes is an extreme one, but on some level, we’re all in Genly’s position. We may acquire a few allies along the way, but we’re fundamentally alone, and we’re trying to deal with impersonal forces that seem too large for any one person to change. In all too many cases, they are. But it’s only on the individual level, and day by day, that true change ever happens. There have been envoys before us, of course. But whenever we reach out to make a connection with another human being, it’s as if it’s happening for the very first time.

Written by nevalalee

February 10, 2017 at 10:02 am

The size of writers

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Society has, at all times, the same want, namely of one sane man with adequate powers of expression to hold up each object of monomania in its right relations,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in Representative Men, a collection of seven lectures that he first delivered in 1850. He goes on to describe the situation in strikingly modern terms:

The ambitious and mercenary bring their last new mumbo-jumbo, whether tariff, Texas, railroad, Romanism, mesmerism, or California; and, by detaching the object from its relations, easily succeed in making it seen in a glare; and a multitude go mad about it, and they are not to be reproved or cured by the opposite multitude who are kept from this particular insanity by an equal frenzy on another crotchet. But let one man have the comprehensive eye that can replace this isolated prodigy in its right neighborhood and bearings—the illusion vanishes, and the returning reason of the community thanks the reason of the monitor.

The first half of this passage perfectly captures our current predicament, but the last sentence comes off as a form of wishful thinking that wasn’t true even when Emerson wrote it. The influence of “one sane man,” even if we assume that he exists, can feel meaningless compared to the power of the mob. Writers like to think that their work puts the world in perspective, but they rarely reach anyone outside their own small circle, and even if they change minds, it’s usually only to nudge them in the direction that they were already going.

I read Emerson’s essay on Inauguration Day, when the influence of responsible writers seemed weaker than ever before. In the era of alternative facts, of a free press that is dismissed as the opposition party, and of countless eloquent voices for reason whose arguments ultimately came to nothing, the stock of the public intellectual is at a historic low. But as Emerson reminds us, this isn’t anything new:

The scholar is the man of the ages, but he must also wish with other men to stand well with his contemporaries. But there is a certain ridicule, among superficial people, thrown on the scholars or clerisy…In this country, the emphasis of conversation and of public opinion commends the practical man; and the solid portion of the community is named with significant respect in every circle…Ideas are subversive of social order and comfort, and at last make a fool of the possessor. It is believed, the ordering a cargo of goods from New York to Smyrna, or the running up and down to procure a company of subscribers to set a-going five or ten thousand spindles, or the negotiations of a caucus and the practicing on the prejudices and facility of country people to secure their votes in November—is practical and commendable.

This certainly sounds familiar. There’s something inescapably American about the cult of big business and its corresponding contempt for ideas. And plenty of us have been left with the uncomfortable feeling that maybe ideas do “make a fool of the possessor,” at least when we try to find evidence to the contrary.

Goethe in the Roman Campagna by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein

The observations that I’ve quoted appear in Emerson’s essay on Goethe, whom he holds up as the epitome of the writer. This is a revealing choice in itself. Goethe was the most practical of artists: Emerson calls him “the philosopher of this multiplicity; hundred-handed, Argus-eyed, able and happy to cope with [the] rolling miscellany of facts and sciences, and by his own versatility to dispose of them with ease…None was so fit to live, or more heartily enjoyed the game.” His cultural presence is diminished these days, but he remains a hugely seductive role model for young people who feel torn between a life in the world and a life of the mind. Goethe was a poet, a novelist, a scientist, a dramatist, and a productive figure in public life, overseeing the construction of mines and running the theater in Weimar. He may have been the most naturally brilliant man who ever lived—he placed first in the psychologist Lewis Terman’s controversial ranking of historical figures by intelligence—and he used his gifts to become the kind of person at forty that everyone dreams of being at twenty. A bright college graduate, brimming with unrealized potential, is a sort of larval Goethe, a Hamlet in embryo, but life has a way of closing off most of those avenues. Goethe, almost uniquely, developed every piece of himself to its fullest. But it’s worth remembering that we only remember his work as a privy councillor because he also happened to write Faust, and he was lucky to be a big fish in a small pond. As Emerson puts it: “He lived in a small town, in a petty state, in a defeated state, and in a time when Germany played no such leading part in the world’s affairs as to swell the bosom of her sons with any metropolitan pride.”

Emerson pretends to be surprised by this fact, but in reality, it’s only in such provincial surroundings that an author can hope to pass as a public figure. In Weimar, Goethe could do everything; in London or Paris, faced with competition from talented men who had nothing on their minds but practical matters, he would have had to be content with being a great writer. Any thinking human being feels small in comparison to Goethe, but when we remember how small he was compared with the world in which he lived, we start to realize that our smallness is all we have in common. At a moment when so many of us feel helpless, we should pay attention to Emerson when he writes: “Goethe teaches courage, and the equivalence of all times; that the disadvantages of any epoch exist only to the faint-hearted. Genius hovers with his sunshine and music close by the darkest and deafest eras.” And he also identifies Goethe’s only true weakness, which was his unwillingness to grasp the limits of action itself:

Mankind have such a deep stake in inward illumination, that there is much to be said by the hermit or monk in defense of his life of thought and prayer. A certain partiality, a headiness and loss of balance, is the tax which all action must pay. Act, if you like—but you do it at your peril. Men’s actions are too strong for them. Show me a man who has acted and who has not been the victim and slave of his action. What they have done commits and enforces them to do the same again. The first act, which was to be an experiment, becomes a sacrament.

Goethe lived a life of extraordinary productivity, but we only care about him—or even Weimar itself—because of what he accomplished when he was alone in his room. And at a time in which blunt, showy gestures and Faustian bargains seem to be valued over the tiny acts of secret courage that writing demands, we should take Emerson’s conclusion to heart: “The measure of action is the sentiment from which it proceeds. The greatest action may easily be one of the most private circumstance.”

Written by nevalalee

February 1, 2017 at 10:09 am

The threshold figure

with one comment


Last week, the Hollywood Reporter revealed that Milo Yiannopoulos—a Breitbart editor best known for his online trolling of Muslims, feminists, and the actress Leslie Jones—would be publishing a memoir with Simon & Schuster. The outraged response to the book deal, which allegedly amounted to something like a quarter of a million dollars, appears to have taken the publisher by surprise, prompting it to release this statement:

We do not and never have condoned discrimination or hate speech in any form. At Simon & Schuster we have always published books by a wide range of authors with greatly varying, and frequently controversial opinions, and appealing to many different audiences of readers. While we are cognizant that many may disagree vehemently with the books we publish we note that the opinions expressed therein belong to our authors, and do not reflect either a corporate viewpoint or the views of our employees.

It’s a strange defense that tiptoes right up to the edge of acknowledging that Yiannopoulos is practicing hate speech, while also claiming not to “condone” it, and it carries the buried implication that this is just business as usual. The unstated premise is that publishers have been courting conservative readers with specialized imprints for years, and at a time when the entire publishing industry feels threatened by declining readership, you can’t blame them for going after an author with a proven audience, just as the same imprint, Threshold Editions, has done in the past with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Donald Trump.

Yet this case is different, and for reasons that don’t have anything to do with its timing. We can start with the fact that this book is being rushed into print in a ludicrously short window of time: it’s currently scheduled to be released on March 14, which pushes the physical limits of the production process to the breaking point. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, George R.R. Martin has said that whenever he finally finishes The Winds of Winter, Bantam could have a hardcover out “within three months of delivery”—which is about as fast as a book can be edited, typeset, printed, and shipped to stores, even with the full resources of a major publisher behind it. Even if we grant that whatever Yiannopoulos is planning on writing is something less than a thousand-page fantasy epic, it’s still a tall order, even if the book were already complete, which doesn’t seem to be the case. Yiannopoulos told the Hollywood Reporter: “I met with top execs at Simon & Schuster earlier in the year and spent half an hour trying to shock them with lewd jokes and outrageous opinions. I thought they were going to have me escorted from the building—but instead they offered me a wheelbarrow full of money.” In other words, he wasn’t shopping around a manuscript, but a brand. This isn’t a book that is being published on its merits, but an attempt to cash in on an existing audience at what seems like a favorable moment. (That said, I don’t have any doubt that Yiannopoulos will be able to deliver it on time, presumably with the assistance of the squadron of interns that he uses to write the articles that appear under his name.) 


You could argue, not without reason, that this isn’t anything new, and that publishers have been cranking out similar books by pundits on the right for years. But there’s a subtle but important distinction that needs to be made here, as Constance Grady of Vox points out:

But in identifying Yiannopoulos as a possible future of conservative thought, Threshold Editions is caught in a cycle. Because by giving him a book deal, they’re not looking at a figure who is already considered culturally legitimate and giving him another platform for his thoughts. They’re looking at a figure who is reviled in some corners of the culture and adored in others—a kind of threshold figure—and they are saying that they consider him to be legitimate. They are not just describing; they are prescribing. They have decided that Yiannopoulos seems like someone who is about to be mainstream, and so they have brought him into the mainstream themselves. When Yiannopoulos told the Hollywood Reporter that “this book is the moment Milo goes mainstream,” he was being entirely accurate.

I think this nails it, and I’m afraid that Grady is equally right when she says: “And having brought in one Milo Yiannopoulos, it will be increasingly easy to bring in another, and then another, until all of the hatred and all of the rage of the white supremacists and misogynists and bigots on the alt-right is considered a valid part of the cultural discourse, and just another strain of thought, as legitimate as any other. It will become normal.”

Which is just to say that Simon & Schuster is doing worse than “condoning” what Yiannopoulos represents—it’s enabling it, and in a particularly craven and gratuitous way. Yiannopoulos doesn’t lack for an audience: he already has multiple platforms, and he doesn’t need a book deal to reach those who want to buy what he’s selling. A book might not even expand his readership beyond where it already stands. But by bringing it onto the New Releases table at Barnes & Noble, it has the effect of normalizing it, and it taints the entire publisher by association. I’m reminded of the controversy that has swirled for the last few years over the Hugo Awards, which have been hijacked by a small group of bloggers and commenters, many of whom identify with the same movements that idolize Yiannopoulos. But here’s the dirty little secret: outside a fairly closed circle of online science fiction fans, nobody really cares. I’m part of that world, in a tangential way, and to the extent that even I’ve noticed it, it’s because I dislike how they’ve opportunistically assaulted a vulnerable slice of the fandom. That doesn’t change the fact that their impact on the culture as a whole has been a rounding error, however inflated their view of themselves might be in their own tiny ponds. (Even at Worldcon itself, their impact was barely perceptible.) I’ve kept an eye on them because it’s my job, but the reaction of most people would be one of befuddled nonrecognition. Until this week, that’s basically where Yiannopoulos was—a figure of marginal interest who gained attention mostly by attaching himself like a remora onto promising targets. Simon & Schuster rewarded him for it. Yiannopoulos thinks that this means that he’s won. And the sad part is that he’s probably right.

Written by nevalalee

January 6, 2017 at 9:34 am

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