Alec Nevala-Lee

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Eclipsing the truth

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Take a good look at this comic strip. I’ve erased the date and the copyright information, but it should still be possible to figure out the precise day on which it first appeared, using nothing but the resources in your average local library. Even if you aren’t a Peanuts buff, it wouldn’t be hard to verify the historical window in which the strip originally ran, or to infer, based on the style, that this installment was published sometime in the sixties. On the assumption that it refers to a real solar eclipse that generated a fair amount of attention in the United States, you could plausibly deduce that it was the eclipse of July 20, 1963, and that this strip was printed the day before. And you’d be right. It wasn’t even a total eclipse when seen from America, but it still created enough of a lingering sensation to be mentioned both on Mad Men and in John Updike’s Couples, in which he writes of “that summer of the solar eclipse”:

Three weeks ago, it had been ninety percent at their latitude. An invisible eater moved through the sun’s disc amid a struggle of witnessing clouds. The dapples of light beneath the elm became crescent-shaped; the birds sang as in the evening. Seen through smoked glass the sun was a shaving, a sideways eyebrow, a kindergarten boat riding a tumult of contorted cumulus. The false dusk reversed; the horns of the crescents beneath the trees pointed in the opposite direction; the birds sang to greet the day. Not a month before, [Piet] had first slept with Foxy.

This is part of Updike’s standard narrative strategy, which is to place his protagonist’s extramarital dalliances against a backdrop of recent historical events. But even if you removed all other topical references from the novel except the eclipse, future literary critics would still be able to determine the date—within a month or so—in which Piet and Foxy began their affair.

Eclipses are useful that way. In a fascinating essay with the dry title “Some Uses of Eclipses in Early Modern Chronology,” the historian Anthony Grafton writes: “To this day eclipses provide historians with the best tools they have for fixing the absolute dates of events in ancient and medieval history…[They] form part of every ancient and medieval historian’s normal toolbox.” The earliest chronologist to draw upon eclipse data in a systematic fashion was Heinrich Bünting, who, in the late sixteenth century, used the Prutenic Tables of Erasmus Reinhold to put together a timeline of the world. “Bünting treated eclipses as facts like any other, except that they were more certain,” Grafton notes, quoting a revealing passage:

I had to examine the eclipses of the sun and moon and observations of other celestial motions. For they reveal chronological intervals with absolute precision. Two forms of computation are the most certain of all: that which is undertaken with sacred scripture, and that which is undertaken through the intervals of eclipses. If authors disagree with one another, you should see which of them agrees more properly with the chronological interval revealed by the eclipses. You will find it safest to follow him.

“Even the most reliable ancient texts, in other words, required the confirmation of the heavens,” Grafton observes, “and eclipses, which could be dated not only to the year and day, but to the hour and moment, provided this in its most precise form.” And the sentence in which Bünting cites both “sacred scripture” and “the intervals of eclipses” in the same breath feels like a moment in which science simultaneously looks, like Janus, into the past and the future.

Bünting used eclipses, Grafton writes, to provide fixed points for “human events that floated loosely in the ancient sources, located only by season or by regnal year,” including the conception of Romulus and Remus and the dates of the Peloponnesian War. Grafton concludes: “Long before eclipses lost their theoretical standing as signs, they had mutated in one kind of learned practice into facts of a particular, undramatic kind.” But when you attack the foundations of the eclipses themselves, a lot of that drama returns. If you’ve spent any time poking into conspiracy theories online, you’ve probably come across the New Chronology, a theory associated with the Russian mathematician Anatoly Fomenko that claims that nearly all of recorded history occurred within the last nine hundred years or so, and that any events attributed to dates before the eleventh century are either accidental distortions or deliberate forgeries. I had always assumed that this argument could be debunked simply by looking at historical eclipses, but it turns out that eclipses were actually where Fomenko started. In the delightfully titled History: Fiction or Science?, Fomenko writes:

One often hears the question about what could possibly motivate a mathematician into wanting to study a seemingly historical problem. The answer is as follows. My primary interests are those of a professional mathematician; they are thus rather distant from historical and chronological issues. However, in the early seventies, namely in 1972-1973, I had to deal with the dates of ancient eclipses during my studies of one of the key problems in celestial mechanics.

Drawing on the results of the astronomer Robert Newton and the Russian scientist N.A. Morozov, Fomenko concluded that the conventional dates for many ancient eclipses were incorrect, which inexorably led him, he writes, to an even more audacious question: “The satisfaction from having finished a body of scientific work was accompanied by a sudden awareness of a very knotty point arising in this respect, one of great peculiarity and paramount importance. Namely, that of whether the consensual chronology of ancient history was to be trusted at all.”

Fomenko and his colleagues proceeded to wade into an insane morass of theorizing, spread across seven huge volumes, that frankly makes my head hurt. (Just browsing though the first book, which is available in full online, is a disorienting, sometimes amazing experience.) Refuting it here would take more room and time than I can afford, but it’s worth noting that Fomenko’s work has inescapable political overtones. As James H. Billington writes in Russia in Search of Itself, many of its adherents are drawn to its vision of a Eurasian Union with Russia at its center:

Using dating techniques and probability theory, [Fomenko and his colleague Gleb Nosovsky] conclude that the Russian and Mongol empires were, in fact, one and the same entity during the two hundred and fifty years wrongly referred to as the period of the “Mongol yoke.” Accordingly, “Russia and Turkey are parts of a previously single empire.” This astonishing conclusion is part of Nosovsky and Fomenko’s “new chronology” of world history that uses equations and graphs to cast in doubt the accepted views on much of premodern times…They argue that almost nothing in the traditional view of Russian history prior to the fourteenth century can be factually verified…All of this might have been quietly blown away in the wind tunnels of academia had not the popular chess hero Garry Kasparov lustily taken up the cause of the new chronology…[i]nsisting that “whoever controls the past, controls the future.”

Billington quotes the archeologist V.L. Yanin, who tries to explain why Fomenko’s views have become popular in certain circles: “We live in an epoch of total non-professionalism, which spreads through the entire society from the power structures to the lowest levels of the educational system. The ordinary school produces dilettantes who assume that their miserable and faulty knowledge is adequate for judging professionals. A society bought up on scandals craves negativity and shock effects. It craves the sleight-of-hand trickery of a David Copperfield or an Anatoly Timofeevich Fomenko.” That has a familiar ring to it. And as we all gather to watch the solar eclipse next week, we should take a minute to remember that with the right motivation, even something as unequivocal as an eclipse can turn into an alternative fact.

The creeps of the cosmos

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“Of course Scientology attracts all the creeps of the cosmos,” the novelist William S. Burroughs wrote to the poet Allen Ginsberg on October 30, 1959. “You see it works.” Burroughs had just been introduced to the ideas of L. Ron Hubbard through the mystics John and Mary Cooke, whom he had met through their mutual friend Brion Gysin in Tangiers. Gysin, who is probably best remembered today for his development of the cut-up technique, had recently built the Dream Machine, a flicker gadget made of a light bulb placed on a record turntable. The device, which Gysin assembled with the help of an electronics engineer named Ian Sommerville, was designed to stimulate the brain’s alpha rhythms when viewed with the eyes closed. It was inspired by a discussion of “the flicker effect” in W. Grey Walter’s book The Living Brain, and it hints at the striking extent to which the counterculture was venturing into territory that science fiction had previously colonized. John W. Campbell had utilized a similar setup while working with Hubbard himself to access his buried memories in 1949, and after reading Walter’s book, he built what he called “a panic generator” with a fluorescent bulb in his basement. And the fact that Hubbard’s work was circulating among the Beats at the same time reflects how both communities—which seemed so different on the surface—were looking for new approaches to the mind. (Science fiction, like Scientology or Beat culture, has a way of attracting “all the creeps of cosmos,” and for similar reasons.)

I’m not an expert on Burroughs, so I can’t speak directly about the influence of Scientology on his work, but there’s no question that he remained actively interested in Hubbard’s ideas for the better part of a decade, even as he came to question and finally reject the authoritarian tendencies of the church itself. (This article from io9 is the best discussion I’ve found of the subject online, although it makes one factual misstatement, which I’ll mention in a moment.) In a letter to Ginsberg from a few days before the one that I quoted above, Burroughs wrote: “The method of directed recall is the method of Scientology. You will recall I wrote urging you to contact local chapter and find an auditor. They do the job without hypnosis or drugs, simply run the tape back and forth until the trauma is wiped off. It works. I have used the method—partially responsible for recent changes.” And shortly afterward: “I have a new method of writing and do not want to publish anything that has not been inspected and processed. I cannot explain this method to you until you have necessary training. So once again and most urgently…I tell you: ‘Find a Scientology auditor and have yourself run.’” Burroughs’s letters over the next twelve years, which have been collected in the volume Rub Out the Words, are liberally sprinkled with terms drawn from Hubbard’s writings, and when you read them all in one sitting, as I recently did, you can’t help but be struck by how long Burroughs circled around Scientology, alternately intrigued and repulsed by the man of whom he insightfully wrote: “I would not expect Mr. Hubbard’s system to crack mazes the existence of which it does not allow.”

And Burroughs went remarkably far. In 1968, he underwent a two-month training session at Saint Hill Manor, the headquarters of Scientology in the United Kingdom, and he appears to have achieved the level of at least OT III, or The Wall of Fire, which is when members pay to learn the story of Xenu. In the article from io9 that I mentioned above, the author writes: “Absent from Burroughs’s writing are any references to body thetans, Xenu, the Galactic Confederacy, Douglas DC-8 airliners, volcanic hydrogen bombs, or other beliefs more recently associated with Scientology.” Another recent book on Burroughs and Scientology calls this material “conspicuously absent” from his writings. In fact, it clearly appears at several points in his correspondence. In a letter to John Cooke on October 25, 1971, for instance, Burroughs wrote:

So leaving aside galactic federations and Zmus [sic] there may be some validity in Hubbard’s procedure and I would be interested to make a systematic test on the E-Meter…Exactly how are these body thetans contacted and run? Are they addressed directly and if so in what terms? Do they have names? Do they have dates? Are they run through the alleged shooting freezing and bombing incidents as if you are an auditor running an internal parasite through these incidents?

These are unquestionably references to the Xenu material, as is a letter that Burroughs wrote to Gysin a few days later, in which he casually refers to “Teegeeack”—Hubbard’s word for earth millions of years ago—and “Teegeeack hitchhikers.”

I don’t know how much the Church of Scientology was charging for this information in 1968, but it must have amounted to hundreds or thousands of dollars, and it’s hard to imagine how Burroughs would have avoided paying it in full. And he believed in aspects of it long after he had become aware of Hubbard’s shortcomings. On October 4, 1967, he wrote to his son:

Point about Scientology is that it works. In fact it works so well as to be highly dangerous in the wrong hands. The curious thing about L. Ron Hubbard who devised this system is that he is very uneven as a writer and a thinker. This tends to put people off. You find very profound and original thinking together with very shallow and banal thinking, so you have to read every word very carefully.

Burroughs was expelled in 1968 after publishing articles that were critical of the church, and he later said of its founder: “Hubbard has the satisfied look of a man who has just sold the widow a fraudulent peach orchard, but he is engaged in something much more pernicious than old style con tricks…His real specialty is spiritual theft.” If Burroughs stuck with it for so long, it was for much the same reason that Campbell once gave to Eric Frank Russell: “Why, for God’s sake, do you think I thought dianetics was so important? Hell, man, because I knew it was, because I tried it, and it helped.” Burroughs might have said much the same thing, even as his suspicions of its methods and origins continued to grow. As he wrote to Barry Miles in 1970: “I feel sure that there is an undisclosed source for this material. Probably science fiction.”

Zen in America

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In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik discusses the recent books Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright and Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism, the latter of which he calls “in many ways the most intellectually stimulating book on Buddhism of the past few years.” As with most of the articles under the magazine’s departmental heading A Critic at Large, it’s less a review than an excuse to explore the subject in general, and Gopnik ends up delivering a gentle pitch for Buddhism as a secular philosophy of life. He writes:

As for the mind’s modules [Batchelor writes], “Gotama [Buddha] is interested in what people can do, not with what they are…We may have no control over the rush of fear prompted by finding a snake under our bed, but we do have the ability to respond to the situation in a way that is not determined by that fear.” Where Wright insists that the Buddhist doctrine of not-self precludes the possibility of freely chosen agency, Batchelor insists of Buddhism that “as soon as we consider it a task-based ethics…such objections vanish. The only thing that matters is whether or not you can perform a task.”

This idea was enormously appealing to certain Americans of the nineteenth century, as Gopnik notes earlier on: “These American Buddhists, drawn East in part by a rejection of Gilded Age ostentation, recognized a set of preoccupations like those they knew already—Whitman’s vision of a self that could shift and contain multitudes, or Thoreau’s secular withdrawal from the race of life…The quietist impulse in New England spirituality and the pantheistic impulse in American poetry both seemed met, and made picturesque, by the Buddhist tradition.”

I find something especially revealing in the way that such adherents hoped to combat certain stereotypically American tendencies, such as material striving and competition, with the equally American notion of a “task-based ethics.” The promise of turning one’s preference for concrete action—or rules of behavior—from a weakness into a strength is very attractive to someone like me, and I’ve always liked R.H. Blyth’s memorable description of the training of a Zen novitiate:

I remember when I began to attend lectures, at a Zen temple…I was surprised to find that there were no lofty spiritual truths enunciated at all. Two things stuck in my head, because they were repeated so often, and with such gusto. One of them, emphasized with extreme vigor, was that you must not smoke a cigarette while making water. The other was that when somebody calls you (in Japanese, “Oi!”) you must answer (“Hai!”) at once, without hesitation. When we compare this to the usual Christian exhortatory sermon, we cannot help being struck by the difference.

But I’ve also learned to be cautious about appropriating it for myself. I’ve been interested in Zen for a long time, particularly since discovering Blyth’s wonderful books Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics and Haiku, but I don’t feel comfortable identifying with it. For one thing, it’s a complicated subject that I’ve never entirely gotten my head around, and I don’t follow its practice in fundamental ways. (I don’t meditate, for instance, although reading Gopnik’s article makes me think that I probably should.) My understanding of it is mediated through such Western interpreters as Blyth, and I feel less than qualified to talk about it for much the same reason that Robert Pirsig gives in his disclaimer to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “What follows…should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.”

And my understanding of Zen can best be described as being not very factual on motorcycles. What I like about it is what Stewart Brand, speaking on the related issue of voluntary poverty, once called “the sheer practicality of the exercise,” and I’ve taken as much of its advice to heart as I can. It feels like common sense. The trouble, obviously, is that this extracts a tiny sliver of meaning from a vast spiritual tradition that most Westerners haven’t studied firsthand, and its cultural distance makes it easy for us to abstract whatever we want from it. As Gopnik points out:

[Batchelor’s] project is unashamedly to secularize Buddhism. But, since it’s Buddhism that he wants to secularize, he has to be able to show that its traditions are not hopelessly polluted with superstition…Batchelor, like every intelligent believer caught in an unsustainable belief, engages in a familiar set of moves. He attempts to italicize his way out of absurdity by, in effect, shifting the stresses in the simple sentence “We don’t believe that.” First, there’s “We don’t believe that”…Next comes “We don’t believe that”…In the end, we resort to “We don’t believe that”: we just accept it as an embedded metaphor of the culture that made the religion.

And Buddhism is probably more conducive to this “set of moves” by Americans than, say, Christianity, simply because it feels exotic and unfamiliar. If you look at the picture of Jesus that emerges from a study like The Five Gospels, you end up with a religious ethic that has important differences from Buddhism, but which also shares deep affinities in how it positions the self against the world. Yet it’s so tangled up with its history in America that secular types are unlikely to embrace it as a label.

Of course, this scavenging of traditions for spare parts is quintessentially American as well, and it comes out of an understandable impulse to correct our worst tendencies. In all honesty, I’m one of the least “Zen” people I know—I’m ambitious, competitive, and deeply invested in measuring myself against worldly standards of success, all of which I intend to renounce as soon as I’ve proven that I can win in all the conventional ways. It’s all very American of me. Yet it would be equally true to say that I’m drawn to the doctrine of nonattachment because I need it, and because it serves as a corrective to ingrained personality traits that would otherwise make me miserable. I’m not alone, either. Gopnik refers briefly to the San Francisco Zen Center and “its attempted marriage of spiritual elevation with wild entrepreneurial activity,” and the one thing that the most famous exponents of Zen had in common is that they were all hugely ambitious, as well as highly systematic in the way that they pursued their goals. You don’t become the spokesman for an entire religious tradition by accident, and I suspect that their ambition usually came first, and their lifelong effort to come to terms with it was channeled, not into withdrawal, but into a more active engagement with the world. This might seem contradictory, but we’re also simply more likely to talk about Blyth, Pirsig, D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and the rest than the nameless monks who did the sensible thing and entered a life of quiet meditation. It skews our picture of Zen a bit, in particular by presenting it in intellectual terms that have more to do with the needs of writing a book than the inner experience of a principled adept, but not to an extent that seems impossible to overcome. It may well be, as Gopnik notes, that “secular Buddhism ends up being…secularism.” But even if we arrive there in a roundabout way, or call it by different names, it still amounts to the best set of tools that we have for survival in America, or just about anywhere else.

The weight of lumber

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In my discussion yesterday of huge scholarly projects that expanded to take up the lives of their authors, I deliberately left out one name. Arnold J. Toynbee was a British historian and author of the twelve volumes of A Study of History, the most ambitious attempt to date at a universal theory of the rise and fall of civilizations. Toynbee has intrigued me for as long as I can remember, but he’s a little different from such superficially similar figures as Joseph Needham and Donald Knuth. For one thing, he actually finished his magnum opus, and even though it took decades, he more or less stuck to the plan of the work that he published in the first installment, which was an achievement in itself. He also differed from the other two in reaching a wide popular audience. Thousands of sets of his book were sold, and it became a bestseller in its two-volume abridgment by D.C. Somervell. It inspired countless essays and thick tomes of commentary, argument, and response—and then, strangely, it simply went away. Toynbee’s name has all but disappeared from mainstream and academic consideration, maybe because his ideas were too abstruse for one and too grandiose for the other, and if he’s recognized today at all, it’s probably because of the mysterious Toynbee tiles. (One possible successor is the psychohistory of the Foundation series, which has obvious affinities to his work, although Isaac Asimov played down the connection. He read the first half of A Study of History in 1944, borrowing the volumes one at a time from L. Sprague de Camp, and recalled: “There are some people who, on reading my Foundation series, are sure that it was influenced basically by Toynbee. They are only partly right. The first four stories were written before I had read Toynbee. ‘Dead Hand,’ however, was indeed influenced by it.”)

At the Newberry Library Book Fair last week, I hesitated over buying a complete set of Toynbee, and by the time I made up my mind and went back to get it, it was gone—which is the kind of mistake that can haunt me for the rest of my life. As a practical matter, though, I have all the Toynbee I’ll ever need: I already own the introductory volume of A Study of History and the Somervell abridgment, and it’s frankly hard to imagine reading anything else. But I did pick up the twelfth and last volume, Reconsiderations, published seven years after the rest, which might be the most interesting of them all. It’s basically Toynbee’s reply to his critics in over seven hundred pages of small type, in the hardcover equivalent of a writer responding to all the online comments on his work one by one. Toynbee seems to have read every review of his book, and he sets out to engage them all, including a miscellaneous section of over eighty pages simply called Ad Hominem. It’s a prickly, fascinating work that is probably more interesting than the books that inspired it, and one passage in particular caught my eye:

One of my critics has compared earlier volumes of this book to a “palace” in which “the rooms…are over-furnished to the point of resembling a dealer’s warehouse.” This reviewer must also be a thought-reader; for I have often thought of myself as a man moving old furniture about. For centuries these lovely things had been lying neglected in the lumber-rooms and attics. They had been piled in there higgledy-piggledy, in utter disorder, and had been crammed so tight that nobody could even squeeze his way in to look at them and find out whether they were of any value. In the course of ages they had been accumulating there—unwanted rejects from a score of country houses. This unworthy treatment of these precious pieces came to trouble me more and more; for I knew that they were not really junk; I knew that they were heirlooms, and these so rare and fine that they were not just provincial curiosities; they were the common heritage of anyone who had any capacity for appreciating beauty in Man’s handiwork.

In speaking of “lumber-rooms and attics,” Toynbee is harking back to a long literary tradition of comparing the mind itself to a lumber-room, which originally meant a spare room in a house full of unused furniture and other junk. I owe this knowledge to Nicholson Baker’s famous essay “Lumber,” reprinted in his collection The Size of Thoughts, in which he traces the phrase’s rise and fall, in a miniature version of what Toynbee tries to do for entire civilizations. Baker claims to have chosen the word “lumber” essentially at random, writing in his introduction: “Now feels like a good time to pick a word or a phrase, something short, and go after it, using the available equipment of intellectual retrieval, to see where we get…It should be representatively out of the way; it should have seen better days. Once or twice in the past it briefly enjoyed the status of a minor cliché, but now, for one reason or another, it is ignored or forgotten.” This might be a description of A Study of History itself—and yet, remarkably, Baker doesn’t mention the passage that I’ve quoted here. I assume that this is because he wasn’t aware of it, because it fits in beautifully with the rest of his argument. The dread of the mind becoming a lumber-room, crammed with useless odds and ends, is primarily a fear of intellectuals, as expressed by their patron saint Sherlock Holmes:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic…It is a mistake to think that this little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.

Baker explains: “This is a form of the great scholarly worry—a worry which hydroptically book-thirsty poets like Donne, Johnson, Gray, Southey, and Coleridge all felt at times—the fear that too much learning will eventually turn even an original mind into a large, putty-colored regional storage facility of mislabeled and leaking chemical drums.”

Toynbee’s solution to the problem of mental lumber, like that of Needham and Knuth, was simply to pull it out of his brain and put it down on paper, even if it took three decades and twelve volumes. It’s hard not to be stirred by his description of his efforts:

At last I found that I could not bear this shocking situation any longer, so I set my own hand to a back-breaking job. I began to drag out the pieces, one by one, and to arrange them in the hall. I could not pretend to form a final judgement on the order in which they should be placed. Indeed, there never could be a final judgement on this, for a number of attractive different orders could be imagined, each of them the right order from some particular point of view. The first thing to be done was to get as many of the pieces as possible out into the open and to assemble them in some order or other. If once I had them parked down in the hall, I could see how they looked and could shift them and re-shift them at my leisure. Perhaps I should not have the leisure; perhaps the preliminary job of extracting these treasures from the lumber-rooms and attics would turn out to be as much as I could manage with my single pair of hands. If so, this would not matter; for there would be plenty of time afterwards for other people to rearrange the pieces, and, no doubt, they would be doing this again and again as they studied them more closely and came to know more about them than would ever be known by me.

It’s through arrangement and publication that lumber becomes precious again, and from personal experience, I know how hard it can be to relinquish information that has been laboriously brought to light. But part of the process is knowing when to stop. As Baker, a less systematic but equally provocative thinker, concludes:

I have poked through verbal burial mounds, I have overemphasized minor borrowings, I have placed myself deep in the debt of every accessible work of reference, and I have overquoted and overquibbled—of course I have: that is what always happens when you pay a visit to the longbeards’ dusty chamber…All the pages I have flipped and copied and underlined will turn gray again and pull back into the shadows, and have no bearing on one another. Lumber becomes treasure only temporarily, through study, and then it lapses into lumber again. Books open, and then they close.

Science and civilization

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Over the last week, I picked up two books—at the annual Newberry Library and Oak Park Public Library book sales, which are always a high point of my year—that I’d been hoping to find for a long time. One is a single volume, Civil Engineering and Nautics, of Joseph Needham’s landmark Science and Civilization in China, which currently consists of twenty-seven huge books that I all unreasonably hope to own one day. The other is a slim fascicle, or paperbound installment from a work in progress, from Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming, which, if we’re lucky, will release its fourth volume sometime in the next decade. These two projects are rather different in scale, but remarkably similar in their conception and incubation. Needham worked on his book for close to half a century without finishing it, and Knuth has been laboring on his for even longer, with no obvious end in sight. I’ve been intrigued by such grand projects for most of my life, but I’ve become even more interested after embarking on my own venture into nonfiction. Replace “computer programming” with “science fiction” and “discovered” with “written,” and what Knuth once said in an interview gets very close to my attitude two years ago when I started writing Astounding:

At the time, everybody I knew who could write a book summarizing what was known about computer programming had discovered quite a lot of the ideas themselves…By contrast, I hadn’t really discovered anything new by myself at that point. I was just a good writer…I had this half-conceited and half-unconceited view that I could explain it more satisfactorily than the others because of my lack of bias. I didn’t have any axes to grind but my own.

Knuth concludes: “Then, of course, as I started to write things I naturally discovered one or two new things as I went, and now I am just as biased as anybody.” Which pretty sums up my experience, too.

And what really fascinates me about both projects is how monstrously these tomes grew past their projected dimensions, both in space and in time. Both Needham and Knuth thought at first that their work would fit within a single volume, and although they each expanded it to the magic number of seven, neither seems to have grasped just how long it would take. Knuth recalls:

My original motivation was to write a text about how to write compilers, so I began drafting chapters. I was seriously planning to finish the book before my son was born…In June 1965, I had finally finished the first draft of the twelve chapters. It amounted to three thousand handwritten pages of manuscript…I figured about five pages of my handwriting would be about one page of a book.

As it turned out, he was a little off: the real proportion was one and a half handwritten pages to a single page in type, which meant that he had already written two thousand pages without even getting past the subject of compilers. Needham had a similar moment of clarity. As Simon Winchester writes in his biography The Man Who Loved China:

Needham had decreed early on in the process, as he watched each volume begin to swell and threaten to burst out of its covers, that no one volume should be “too big for a man to read comfortably in his bath.” But it was happening nonetheless…One book became two, three, or four. Volume V, a special case, became not five, but thirteen formal subsidiary parts, each one of them big and complicated enough to be made into a separate, self-standing, and equally enormous new volume of its own.

It’s frankly hard to imagine reading any of these expensive books in the tub, but Needham says elsewhere, more realistically, that critics found the volumes “too heavy and bulky for meditative evening reading,” which led to the work being repeatedly subdivided.

The Art of Computer Programming was released by a commercial educational publisher, Addison-Wesley, but it isn’t surprising that most such books tend to appear at academic presses, which are the only institutions capable of sustaining a project that lasts for decades. (Their sole competition here might be the Catholic Church, which has been underwriting a critical edition of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas since 1879. They’re about halfway through.) Winchester refers in passing to “the beleaguered Cambridge University Press, which was obliged to tolerate the constant expansion of the project,” and for the full picture, you can turn to the book A Skeptic Among Scholars, by August Frugé, the director of the University of California Press. He writes of The Plan of St. Gall, a three-volume monument of scholarship that is probably the most beautiful book I own:

The St. Gall manuscript…was said in 1960 to be in semifinal draft, about one hundred and fifty pages in length. When approved by the Editorial Committee and accepted by me in 1967, it came to several hundred typed pages, about right for a single quarto volume. As the work moved through the production process during the next twelve years, we paused every now and then to call for new estimates of size and cost, and each time discovered that new sections had been added, along with a few dozen new diagrams and drawings.

At one point, concerns about cost threatened to derail the whole enterprise, and Frugé retired before the three huge folios were published. James H. Clark, his successor, saw it to completion, writing later: “But what is a university press for if not to take these kinds of risks, make these investments, and publish books that make a difference?” Aside from Knuth, one of the few comparable examples on the commercial side must be Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson, which was originally planned as three volumes to be written over about six years. Forty years and four books later, Caro still isn’t done, and the fact that he has been allowed to keep working at the same methodical pace is a tribute to his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb at Knopf.

And if there’s one key takeaway from the examples I’ve mentioned, it’s that none of these authors set out to devote their lives to these projects—they all thought at first that they could finish it within a few years. Knuth recalls:

It gradually dawned on me how large a project this was going to be. If I had realized that at the beginning, I wouldn’t have been foolish enough to start; I wouldn’t have dared to tackle such a thing…[But] I had collected so much material that I felt it was my duty to continue with the project even though it would take a lot longer than I had originally expected.

You also realize that you can’t explain the subject at hand without covering a lot of other material first. Caro treats his books on Johnson as windows onto such vistas as local politics, Texas, and the Senate, which is a big part of their appeal. (The equivalent in my case would be deciding that I couldn’t write the life of John W. Campbell in a comprehensible form without telling the entire history of science fiction, too, which might well be true.) Frugé, perhaps to his credit, ventures a more cynical reading:

In my skeptical and perhaps scatterbrained way, I sometimes wonder how a research scholar can work on the same project decade after decade and retain faith in its intellectual importance. Perhaps some do not, and that is why their books are never completed. But we can also observe an opposite phenomenon. As the years go by the object or document for study may swell and expand in importance until—until, for example, “The Plan of St. Gall is…one of the most fascinating creations of the human mind.”

He makes a good point. The cycle feeds on itself, with the work expanding in scope to justify the amount of time it takes. It’s human nature, and there’s something a little absurd about it. But it’s also the only way we get art, science, or civilization.

Quote of the Day

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[Science fiction] is, then, a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.

Darko Suvin, “Estrangement and Cognition”

Written by nevalalee

July 31, 2017 at 7:30 am

The fanfic disposition

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Yesterday, I mentioned Roxane Gay’s insightful opinion piece on the proposed HBO series Confederate, which was headlined “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction.” I’m still sorting out my own feelings toward this show, an alternate history set in the present day in which the South won the Civil War, but I found myself agreeing with just about everything that Gay writes, particularly when she confesses to her own ambivalence:

As a writer, I never wish to put constraints upon creativity nor do I think anything is off limits to someone simply because of who they are. [Creators] Mr. Benioff and Mr. Weiss are indeed white and they have as much a right to create this reimagining of slavery as anyone. That’s what I’m supposed to say, but it is not at all how I feel.

And I was especially struck by Gay’s comparison of the show’s premise to fanfic. Her essay, which appeared in the New York Times, only uses the phrase “fan fiction” once, linking to a tweet from the critic Pilot Bacon, and while its use in reference to Confederate isn’t literally true—at least not if we define fanfic as a derivative work based on characters or ideas by another author—its connotations are clear. Fairly or not, it encapsulates the notion that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are appropriating existing images and themes to further their own artistic interests.

Even if we table, for now, the question of whether the criticism is justified, it’s worth looking at the history of the word “fanfic” as a pejorative term. I’ve used it that way here myself, particularly in reference to works of art that amount to authorial wish fulfillment toward the characters, like the epilogue to Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. (Looking back at my old posts, I see that I even once used it to describe a scene in one of my own novels.) Watching The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies recently with my wife, I commented that certain scenes, like the big fight at Dol Guldur, felt like fanfic, except that Peter Jackson was somehow able to get Cate Blanchett, Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee to reprise all their old roles. And you often see such comparisons made by critics. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw devoted an entire article on The Daily Dot to the ways in which J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child resembled a wok of “badfic,” while Ian Crouch of The New Yorker tried to parse the difference between fanfic and such works as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea:

Fan fiction is surely not a new phenomenon, nor is it an uninteresting one, but it is different in kind and quality from a work like Rhys’s, or, to take a recent example, Cynthia Ozick’s remarkable new novel, Foreign Bodies, which reimagines the particulars of The Ambassadors, by Henry James. Not only do these books interpret texts in the public domain…but they do so with an admirable combination of respect and originality.

As a teenager, I wrote a lot of X-Files fanfic, mostly because I knew that it would give me a readily available audience for the kind of science fiction that I liked, and although I look back on that period in my life with enormous affection—I think about it almost every day—I’m also aware of the limitations that it imposed on my development as a writer. The trouble with fanfic is that it allows you to produce massive amounts of material while systematically avoiding the single hardest element of fiction: the creation of imaginary human beings capable of sustaining our interest and sympathy. It begins in an enviable position, with a cast of characters to which the reader is already emotionally attached. As a result, the writer can easily be left in a state of arrested development, with superb technical skills when it comes to writing about the inner life of existing characters, but little sense of how to do it from scratch. This even holds true when the writer is going back to characters that he or she originally created or realized onscreen. When J.K. Rowling revisits her most famous series or Peter Jackson gives us a fight scene with Elrond and the Ringwraiths, there’s an inescapable sense that all of the heavy lifting took place at an earlier stage. These artists are trading on the affection that we hold toward narrative decisions made years ago, instead of drawing us into the story in the moment. And even when the name on the title page or the director’s credit is the same, readers and viewers can sense when creators are indulging themselves, rather than following the logic of the underlying material.

This all means that fanfic, at its worst, is a code word for a kind of sentimentality, as John Gardner describes it in The Art of Fiction:

If the storyteller appears to stock response (our love of God or country, our pity for the downtrodden, the presumed warm feelings all decent people have for children and small animals)…then the effect is sentimentality, and no reader who’s experienced the power of real fiction will be pleased by it.

Replace “children and small animals” with Harry Potter and Gandalf, and you have a concise description of how fanfic works, encouraging readers to plow through tens of thousands of words because of the hard work of imaginative empathy that someone else did long ago. When Gay and Bacon compare Confederate to fan fiction, I think that this is what they mean. It isn’t drawing on existing characters, but on a collection of ideas, images, and historical events that carry an overwhelming emotional charge before Benioff and Weiss have written a line. You could argue that countless works of art have done the same thing—the canonical work of Civil War fanfic has got to be Gone With the Wind—but if slavery seems somehow different now, it’s largely because of the timing, as Gay notes: “We do not make art in a vacuum isolated from sociopolitical context. We live in a starkly divided country with a president who is shamefully ill equipped to bridge that divide.” Benioff and Weiss spent years developing their premise, and when they began, they couldn’t have anticipated the environment in which their announcement would be received. I don’t want the project to be canceled, which would have a freezing effect throughout the industry, but they should act as if they’re going to be held to a higher standard. Because they will be.

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