Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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The breaking of the vessels

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In his famous Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson defines chemistry as “an art whereby sensible bodies contained in vessels, or capable of being contained therein, are so changed, by means of certain instruments, and principally fire, that their several powers and virtues are thereby discovered, with a view to philosophy, or medicine.” As his source, Johnson cites the Dutch chemist and physician Herman Boerhaave, who writes in Elements of Chemistry, a textbook that was first published in the early eighteenth century:

Chemistry is an art that teaches us how to perform certain physical operations, by which bodies that are discernible by the senses, or that may be rendered so, and that are capable of being contained in vessels, may by suitable instruments be so changed, that particular determined effects may be thence produced, and the causes of those effects understood by the effects themselves, to the manifold improvement of various arts…The objects, in observing or changing of which this art is conversant, are all sensible bodies…especially if they are naturally capable of being contained in vessels, or by the power of this art, may be so changed, as to be confined within.

As a nineteenth-century professor and science writer named T. Berry Smith rather poetically explains: “The moon, though a sensible body, is no object of chemistry, for it is not capable of being contained in vessels.”

I was charmed enough by this definition to want to learn more about Boerhaave, whose biography Johnson wrote up as a young man in four issues of The Gentleman’s Magazine. Boerhaave is best remembered today for his work as a teacher and for his isolation of the chemical urea from urine, but in Johnson’s hands, he becomes a kind of early superscience hero in whom physical strength is inseparable from mental ability:

Boerhaave [was] a man formed by nature for great designs, and guided by religion in the exertion of his abilities. He was of a robust and athletic constitution of body, so hardened by early severities, and wholesome fatigue, that he was insensible of any sharpness of air, or inclemency of weather. He was tall, and remarkable for extraordinary strength. There was, in his air and motion, something rough and artless, but so majestic and great, at the same time, that no man ever looked upon him without veneration, and a kind of tacit submission to the superiority of his genius…The diligence with which he pursued his studies, is sufficiently evident from his success. Statesmen and generals may grow great by unexpected accidents, and a fortunate concurrence of circumstances, neither procured nor foreseen by themselves; but reputation in the learned world must be the effect of industry and capacity.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is a line that seems to anticipate Sherlock Holmes, or at least Dr. Joseph Bell: “He could, with uncommon readiness and certainty, make a conjecture of men’s inclinations and capacity by their aspect.”

There’s a lot of Johnson himself in this description, which, as the writer Paul Fussell points out, is really about a combined figure whom “we can only call Boerhaave-Johnson.” Boerhaave is never mentioned by name in The Life of Johnson, but its subject was intensely interested in chemistry, as Boswell observed during a visit to his library: “I observed an apparatus for chymical experiments, of which Johnson was all his life very fond.” He also conflated his own physical strength with his intelligence, as we see in some of the stories that Boswell recounts:

Many instances of [Johnson’s] resolution may be mentioned. One day, at Mr. Beauclerk’s house in the country, when two large dogs were fighting, he went up to them, and beat them till they separated; and at another time, when told of the danger there was that a gun might burst if charged with many balls, he put in six or seven, and fired it off against a wall. Mr. Langton told me, that when they were swimming together near Oxford, he cautioned Dr. Johnson against a pool, which was reckoned particularly dangerous; upon which Johnson directly swam into it. He told me himself that one night he was attacked in the street by four men, to whom he would not yield, but kept them all at bay, till the watch came up, and carried both him and them to the round-house. In the playhouse at Lichfield, as Mr. Garrick informed me, Johnson having for a moment quitted a chair which was placed for him between the side-scenes, a gentleman took possession of it, and when Johnson on his return civilly demanded his seat, rudely refused to give it up; upon which Johnson laid hold of it, and tossed him and the chair into the pit.

In his later essays, Johnson mentions Boerhaave only a couple of times, most notably in a discussion of clearly defining one’s terms, in which he praises the chemist for not assuming any previous knowledge on the part of his readers. This impulse found its greatest expression in the Dictionary, in which we can glimpse Boerhaave—a friend and early supporter of Carl Linnaeus, who took this project to its ultimate level—in its determination to confine everything in the world to its own proper vessel. And Boerhaave seems to have remained Johnson’s ideal of what a man might accomplish. In Young Sam Johnson, James L. Clifford writes:

One might almost piece together a picture of Johnson as he saw himself, or as he hoped to be, from selected passages in the life of Boerhaave—a man whose fortune had not been “sufficient to bear the expenses of a learned eduction,” but who through sheer determination had broken through “the obstacles of poverty.” Always it was Boerhaave’s “insatiable curiosity after knowledge” that had driven him on. Though subject to depression and lowness of spirits, yet “he asserted, on all occasions, the divine authority and sacred efficacy of the holy scriptures.” He had a large, robust physique and was remarkable for physical strength…The vigor and activity of his mind “sparkled visibly in his eyes,” and “he was always cheerful and desirous of promoting mirth by a facetious and humorous conversation.”

At one point in his biography of Boerhaave, Johnson writes in a revealing aside: “It is, I believe, a very just observation that men’s ambition is, generally, proportioned to their capacity.” The real vessel, in short, is the individual human being. And great accomplishment only occurs in lives that are big enough to contain it.

The large rug

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A few days ago, I was browsing through The Journals of André Gide, 1914-1927 in search of a quotation when my eye was caught by the following passage:

What a wonderful subject for a novel: X. indulges in a tremendous effort of ingenuity, scheming, and duplicity to succeed in an undertaking that he knows to be reprehensible. He is urged on by his temperament, which has its exigences, then by the rule of conduct he has built in order to satisfy them. It takes an extreme and hourly application; he expends more resolve, energy, and patience in this than would be needed to succeed in the best. And when eventually the event is prepared to such a point that he has only to let it take its course, the letdown he experiences allows him to reflect; he then realizes that he has ceased to desire greatly that felicity on which he had counted too much. But it is too late now to back out; he is caught in the mechanism he has built and set in motion and, willy-nilly, he must now follow its impetus to its conclusion.

Reading this over, I naturally thought of Donald Trump, who seems less happy to be in the White House than any other president in recent memory. Before I reveal how the story ends, however, I need to talk about Gide himself, a man of letters who was awarded the Nobel Prize later in life in honor of a career of extraordinary range and productivity. The plot that he outlines here sounds at first like a crime novel, but he may well have had a political context in mind—he wrote this journal entry on May 9, 1918, adding a few days later of the war: “The victory will be due to an invention, to something surprising or other; and not so much to the army as to the scientist and the engineer.”

But there’s also an uncomfortable truth about Gide that we need to confront. In 1999, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker wrote an appreciation of Gide’s work, saying that his “sincerity” was “alarmingly apposite to our own era, when a few insincere words to the press corps are almost enough to unseat a president.” This reads now as merely quaint. But a few pages later, Lane writes: “Gide was true to his inconstancy; he would never relinquish his sweet tooth for young Arabs, or for teenagers of every race.” In the book André and Oscar, Jonathan Fryer, a sympathetic biographer, describes a trip to North Africa that Gide took in his early twenties:

André’s illness did not prevent his going out to sit with [the painter] Paul Laurens, as his friend painted local scenes, or persuaded local children to pose for him. The children fascinated André. Groups of boys would gather outside the hotel where the two friends were staying, out of curiosity or a wish to earn a few coins through some trivial service. André’s attention had been particularly caught by one brown-skinned lad called Ali, who one day suggested that he should carry André’s overcoat and invalid’s rug to the dunes, where André could enjoy some of the weak autumn sun…As soon as they got into the crater, the boy threw his coat and rug to the ground, then flung himself down, stretched out on his back, his arms spread out, all the while laughing. André sat down primly at a distance, well aware of what was on offer, but not quite ready to accept. Ali’s face clouded; his smile disappeared. “Goodbye then,” he said, rising to his feet. But André seized the hand that the boy held out and pulled him to the ground.

I’ll skip over Frye’s description of what happened next on that “invalid’s rug,” but I’m compelled to note that he concludes of what he calls “this restorative treatment”: “André had indeed found himself.”

What are we supposed to think about this? Many of Gide’s admirers have done their best not to think about it at all. Lane, writing two decades ago, mentions it only in passing. (His article, incidentally, is titled “The Man in the Mirror,” a pop culture reference that I sincerely hope wasn’t intentional.) Fryer does what he can in the line of extenuation, in terms that have an uncomfortably familiar ring: “Most of André’s and Paul’s little visitors were on the wrong side of puberty, as moralists these days would view it. Not that André’s pedophilia seems to have taken on any physical dimension. Many of his future sexual partners would range between the ages of fourteen to seventeen, with the initiative coming from the adolescent himself.” This wouldn’t fly today, and even if we try to ignore Gide’s interest in very young children—Fryer compares him to Lewis Carroll—there’s no getting around those teenagers. In André Gide: A Life in the Present, the biographer Alan Sheridan shares the following story, which took place when Gide was in his thirties:

The train journey to Weimar was not without its “petite aventure.” No doubt as the result of his usual systematic inspection of the entire train, Gide found himself in a compartment with two German boys, brothers aged sixteen and fourteen. After falling asleep, Gide woke up to find the younger boy standing near him looking out of the window. Gide got up and stood beside him. Wandering fingers were met with encouragement—the elder brother was still asleep. Under a large rug, matters proceeded, further helped when the train entered a long tunnel.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. And Sheridan’s “matters proceeded,” like Fryer’s “restorative treatment,” feels like another large rug flung over our ability to honestly talk about it.

I’m not an expert on Gide, so I really can’t do anything more at this stage than flag this and move on. But it seems clear that we’re at the early stages of a reckoning that is only now beginning to turn to the figures of the past. Much of the pain of recent revelations comes from the realization that men we admired and saw as intellectual or artistic role models have repeatedly betrayed that trust, and the fact that the person in question is no longer alive shouldn’t exempt him from scrutiny. If anything, it’s only going to get harder from here, since we’re talking in many cases about literary giants whose behavior has been a matter of public record for decades. (Just last week, Orhan Pamuk, another Nobel laureate, mentioned Gide in the New York Times in an essay on the rise of nationalism in the West, but omitted any discussion of his personal life—and if you think that this isn’t relevant, try to imagine doing it now with a consideration of the ideas of, say, Israel Horovitz or Leon Wieseltier.) Here’s the conclusion of Gide’s “wonderful subject for a novel” that I quoted above:

The event that [X.] no longer dominates carries him along and it is almost passively that he witnesses his perdition. Unless he suddenly gets out of it by a sort of cowardice; for there are some who lack the courage to pursue their acts to their conclusion, without moreover being any more virtuous for this reason. On the contrary they come out diminished and with less self-esteem. This is why, everything considered, X. will persevere, but without any further desire, without joy and rather through fidelity. This is the reason why there is often so little happiness in crime—and what is called “repentance” is frequently only the exploitation of this.

This still seems to shed light on Trump and his enablers—but also on Harvey Weinstein and so many others. And it can’t just be swept under the rug.

Thinking on the page

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Over the last few weeks, I’ve been hinting strongly to everyone that I want a copy of Monograph by Chris Ware for Christmas. I haven’t had a chance to look closely yet at this gargantuan career overview of the man whom I’ve elsewhere called our best novelist, artist, and graphic designer, but I’ve been making up for it by reading a book of his interviews that came out earlier this year. My favorite passage is his response to an interviewer who expressed amazement that he figured out all of his work as he went along:

There’s nothing to wow about because I think it’s much easier that way. I don’t see how anyone could sit down and try to think ahead of themselves. I would create the most boring stuff if I sat down and scripted things because the sort of associations that occur while you’re drawing and the ideas that you get are real ideas. I don’t think it’s possible to have a fundamental idea when you start scripting or laying out a strip. I think that’s silly. What’s the point? You get bored, first of all, drawing it. I never know how any of my strips is going to end at all. I start out with a blank page. I might make some basic decision like “The first row will be three and three-quarter inches. Tall panels and maybe I’ll stick one in that’s taller.” Then as I go along I might draw something in the background and think, “Wow, I’ll use this.” I’ll draw it again or light it up with another image on the page, or I might redraw something…As far as in the long term storytelling, the source of associations that you want to occur in a story can only happen if you let them occur naturally. Your brain is a very organized thing. I think mine is, I hope, because things keep on popping up, and I notice them.

This is at the beginning of Ware’s career, before Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth had even begun, but his approach across the decades has remained consistent. Two years later, he told another interviewer: “I do know where I’m going, the essential outline is there. I don’t write conversations and dialogue unless I have bits and pieces I want to insert. I don’t write scripts or thumbnails. I let it happen. I try to keep it lively and allow it to develop on the page. This of course might be the absolute worst way of working possible…I don’t know.” Six years after that, Ware said to Ira Glass: “It’s totally improvisatory. I know how I want to start and where it’s going to go. I just draw and hope that it works. I really don’t know how to describe it beyond that.” And he offered this account of his process while being interviewed for the documentary Tintin and I:

As I get older I find myself thinking about stories more and more before I work so that by the time I eventually sit down to write them, I know more or less how it’s going to look, start, or feel. Once I do actually set pencil to paper, though, everything changes and I end up erasing, redrawing, and rewriting more than I keep. Once a picture is on the page I think of about ten things that never would have occurred to me otherwise. Then when I think of the strip at other odd times during the day, it’s a completely different thing than it was before I started.

By now, Ware is probably tired of being asked about this, but I find it objectively fascinating, even staggering. And part of the explanation lies in the contrast between the time that it takes and the relatively compressed period in which it can be absorbed, as Ware stated in a more recent interview: “I think there’s a certain value in spending a lot of time on something and condensing thought into something that maybe only takes two seconds to read but maybe takes forty hours to draw.”

I think that this gets at something fundamental about Ware’s career, which is a testament to how the art of a miniaturist can turn into something profoundly epic, even colossal, when diligently pursued for a lifetime. (In this respect, Ware has a lot in common with Stephin Merritt, a figure to whom I’m surprised he isn’t compared more often.) And his approach on the page is mirrored in his attitude toward storytelling as a whole, which is to disclaim the existence of any larger plan at all. Ware often suggests that his narrative structure emerges almost by accident, saying in his interview with Glass: “I started drawing this character, Jimmy Corrigan, in my sketchbook and did a couple of stories with him, and I realized he’s my only human character so I better hold on to him.” He expanded on this point a few years later:

I was still in art school when I started [Jimmy Corrigan], and I thought this story would only last maybe about three months or so, just a few episodes. Because I had absolutely no idea what I was doing at all and I am a terrible writer, it got completely out of hand. It ended up lasting for seven years, which is why when you read the book, the first hundred pages or so are completely insensate. It’s very poorly written, which I apologize for—I didn’t really think of a way to try and fix that, but that’s just the way it is…I did a couple of joke strips with this character Jimmy Corrigan, and I kind of latched onto him as my only contact with humanity on the comics page. Then he became this main character. There’s no planning to this at all; it’s this crazy way of working organically and letting something happen on the page for lack of any better thoughtful literary charter…I think that’s actually the way most of my characters start, as joke characters, and then I become more empathetic or sympathetic towards them.

In other words, Ware’s decisions on the level of the individual panel, which might amount to an hour’s work, effectively reproduce—or anticipate—his approach over the course of years. And while you see this pattern in the life of nearly every artist, it’s particularly evident in Ware, both because he’s been relatively candid about his creative process and because so much of it has unfolded in plain sight.

The trouble is that it can be hard to draw lessons for ourselves from the work of such a singular talent. If nothing else, we can take it as a reminder on the value of small units of work completed on a regular basis, whether or not they involve a fixed deadline. In the earliest interview that I quoted above, Ware said: “I can’t do anything without having some sort of deadline; otherwise, I’m too lazy. I wouldn’t get it done.” A decade later, he modified his view:

As for my workday, I used to sit down and fritter away my time, but now I work within a more compressed schedule because I spend most of the day looking after my daughter. I’ve also given up my weekly deadline to allow the work to happen at a more natural pace, and I think I can say that for these two reasons I’m genuinely happy for the first time in my adult life. I’m glad I put myself through the misery of deadlines for twenty years, but if I can’t do it now for its own sake, then I shouldn’t be doing it at all.

At another talk, he told the audience: “If you simply trust yourself as an artist to allow those things to come out naturally, without your intellect to stop it from going onto the page, you’ll be surprised at how things in your work will connect in very surprising and strange ways. There’re things that you do that you are not even necessarily aware of.” And he’s perfectly right. But it’s equally obvious that Ware has developed strategies and techniques, often at great personal cost, to allow for such themes to emerge “naturally” in a form that can channel and control them, to the point where his cold, almost alienating style serves as a vessel to contain unbearable emotion. Perhaps one approach requires the other. But it’s also easier when you’re the smartest kid on earth.

Written by nevalalee

December 12, 2017 at 8:39 am

The manufacturers of worlds

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For the last few days, as part of a deliberate break from writing, I’ve been browsing contentedly through my favorite book, The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould. It was meant to be a comforting read that was as far removed from work as possible, but science fiction, unsurprisingly, can’t seem to let me go. Yesterday, I was looking over The Sign of the Four when I noticed a line that I’ve read countless times without really taking note of it. As Holmes leaves Baker Street to pursue a line of the investigation, he says to Watson, who has remained behind: “Let me recommend this book—one of the most remarkable ever penned. It is Winwood Reade’s Martyrdom of Man. I shall be back in an hour.” Toward the end of the novel, speaking of the difficulty in predicting what any given human being will do, Holmes elaborates:

Winwood Reade is good upon the subject…He remarks that, while the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty. You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant. So says the statistician.

This is remarkably like what Isaac Asimov writes of psychohistory, a sociological version of the ideal gas law that can predict the future based on the existence of a huge number—perhaps in the trillions—of individual lives. And it seemed worth checking to see if this passage could cast any light on the origins of the imaginary science that I’ve spent so much time exploring.

It pains me to say that Holmes himself probably wasn’t a direct influence on the Foundation series. There was a considerable overlap between Sherlockians and science fiction writers—prominent members of both camps included Anthony Boucher, Poul Anderson, Fletcher Pratt, and Manly Wade Wellman—but John W. Campbell wasn’t among them, and Asimov was drafted only reluctantly into the Baker Street Irregulars. (He writes in I. Asimov: “Conan Doyle was a slapdash and sloppy writer…I am not really a Holmes enthusiast.”) For insight, we have to go back to Winwood Reade himself, a British historian, explorer, and correspondent of Charles Darwin whose discussion of the statistical predictability of the human race appears, interestingly, in an argument against the efficacy of prayer. Here’s the full passage from The Martyrdom of Man, which was published in 1872:

All phenomena, physical and moral, are subject to laws as invariable as those which regulate the rising and setting of the sun. It is in reality as foolish to pray for rain or a fair wind as it would be to pray that the sun should set in the middle of the day. It is as foolish to pray for the healing of a disease or for daily bread as it is to pray for rain or a fair wind. It is as foolish to pray for a pure heart or for mental repose as it is to pray for help in sickness or misfortune. All the events which occur upon the earth result from Law: even those actions which are entirely dependent on the caprices of the memory, or the impulse of the passions, are shown by statistics to be, when taken in the gross, entirely independent of the human will. As a single atom, man is an enigma; as a whole, he is a mathematical problem. As an individual, he is a free agent; as a species, the offspring of necessity.

At the end of the book, Reade takes his own principles to their logical conclusion, becoming, in effect, an early writer of science fiction. Its closing section, “Intellect,” sketches out a universal history that anticipates Toynbee, but Reade goes further: “When we understand the laws which regulate the complex phenomena of life, we shall be able to predict the future as we are already able to predict comets and eclipses and planetary movements.” He describes three inventions that he believes will lead to an era of global prosperity:

The first is the discovery of a motive force which will take the place of steam, with its cumbrous fuel of oil or coal; secondly, the invention of aerial locomotion which will transport labour at a trifling cost of money and of time to any part of the planet, and which, by annihilating distance, will speedily extinguish national distinctions; and thirdly, the manufacture of flesh and flour from the elements by a chemical process in the laboratory, similar to that which is now performed within the bodies of the animals and plants.

And after rhapsodizing over the utopian civilization that will result—in which “poetry and the fine arts will take that place in the heart which religion now holds”—he turns his thoughts to the stars:

And then, the earth being small, mankind will migrate into space, and will cross the airless Saharas which separate planet from planet, and sun from sun. The earth will become a Holy Land which will be visited by pilgrims from all the quarters of the universe. Finally, men will master the forces of nature; they will become themselves architects of systems, manufacturers of worlds. Man then will be perfect; he will then be a creator; he will therefore be what the vulgar worship as a god.

Reade was inevitably seen as an atheist, and although he didn’t like the label, he inclined many readers in that direction, as he did in one of the most interesting episodes in this book’s afterlife. The scene is World War II, which tested the idea of psychohistory to its limit, and the speaker is the author of the memoir The Enchanted Places:

The war was on. I was in Italy. From time to time [my father] used to send me parcels of books to read. In one of them were two in the Thinker’s Library series: Renan’s The Life of Jesus and Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man. I started with The Life of Jesus and found it quite interesting; I turned to The Martyrdom and found it enthralling…There was no God. God had not created Man in His own image. It was the other way round: Man had created God. And Man was all there was. But it was enough. It was the answer, and it was both totally convincing and totally satisfying. It convinced and satisfied me as I lay in my tent somewhere on the narrow strip of sand that divides Lake Comacchio from the Adriatic; and it has convinced and satisfied me ever since.

I wrote at once to my father to tell him so and he at once wrote back. And it was then that I learned for the first time that these were his beliefs, too, and that he had always hoped that one day I would come to share them…So he had sent me The Martyrdom. But even then he had wanted to play absolutely fair, and so he had added The Life of Jesus. And then he had been content to leave the verdict to me. Well, he said, the church had done its best. It had had twenty-four years’ start—and it had failed.

The author adds: “If I had to compile a list of books that have influenced my life, high on the list would undoubtedly be Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man. And it would probably be equally high on my father’s list too.” The father in question was A.A. Milne. And the son was named Christopher Robin.

Calder’s baggage

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For most of the last week, I’ve been obsessively leafing through all of the multivolume biographies that I own, glancing over their endnotes, reading their acknowledgments, and marveling both at their sheer bulk and at the commitment of time that they require. You don’t need to be a psychologist to understand why. If all goes well, on Monday, I’ll be delivering a draft of Astounding to my editor. It’s a little anticlimactic—there’s plenty of rewriting to come, and I’m sending it out now mostly because that’s what it says in my contract. But it means, if nothing else, that I’m technically done, which I don’t take for granted. This project will have taken up three years of my life from initial conception to publication, which feels like a long time, although you don’t need to look far to find examples that dwarf it. (The champion here might be Muriel St. Clare Byrne, who spent fifty years on The Lisle Letters.) I would have happily worked for longer, and one of my readers rather deflatingly suggested, after reading a recent draft, that I ask my publisher for another year. But the more this kind of project drags out, the greater the chance that it won’t be finished at all, and on balance, I think it’s best for me to push ahead. The dust jacket of Robert A. Caro’s The Path to Power refers to it as “the first of the three volumes that will constitute The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” and we’re all still waiting patiently for number five to take us even as far as Vietnam. Much the same thing happened with John Richardson’s massive life of Picasso, which was originally supposed to be just one book, only to be touted later as an “exceedingly detailed yet readable three-volume life.” Richardson is currently at work on the fourth volume, which only follows Picasso up through World War II, with three decades still left to be covered. When recently asked if he thought he would ever get to a fifth, the author replied: “Listen, I’m ninety-one—I don’t think I have time for that.”

These days, such books are testing the limits of mortality, not just for authors and editors, but possibly for print media itself. When Caro published The Path to Power back in 1982, it would have been impossible to anticipate the changes in publishing that were looming on the horizon, and perhaps the arrival of another doorstopper about Lyndon Johnson every decade or so provides us with a sentimental connection to an earlier era of books. Yet the multivolume life seems more popular than ever, at least among major publishers. In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik issues a mild protest against “the multivolume biography of the single-volume life”:

In the nineteenth century, the big sets were usually reserved for the big politicians. Disraeli got seven volumes and Gladstone three, but the lives of the poets or the artists or even the scientists tended to be enfolded within the limits of a single volume. John Forster’s life of Dickens did take its time, and tomes, but Elizabeth Gaskell kept Charlotte Brontë within one set of covers, and Darwin got his life and letters presented in one compact volume, by his son. The modern mania for the multivolume biography of figures who seem in most ways “minor” may have begun with Michael Holroyd’s two volumes devoted to Lytton Strachey, who was wonderful and influential but a miniaturist perhaps best treated as such. Strachey, at least, talked a lot and had a vivid sex life. But we are now headed toward a third volume of the life of Bing Crosby, and already have two volumes on Dai Vernon, the master card magician (a master, yes, but of card magic). This season, the life of Alexander Calder, toymaker to the modernist muses, arrives in the first volume of what promises to be two.

Gopnik seems bemused by the contrast between the size of Jed Perl’s Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898-1940, which is seven hundred pages long, and the delicacy of the mobiles on which its subject’s reputation rests. And although he asks why we seem to be seeing more such efforts, which come off as oddly anachronistic at a time when publishing as a whole is struggling, he doesn’t really answer his own question. I can think of a few possible reasons. The most plausible explanation, I suspect, is that there’s an economic incentive to extending a life over multiple volumes, as long as the publisher is reasonably confident that an audience for it exists. If you’re the sort of person who would buy a huge biography of Alexander Calder at all, you’re probably going to buy two, and the relationship between the number of volumes and the rate of return—even after you account for time, production costs, and the loss of readers turned off by its size or lack of completion—might be narrowly positive. (You might think that these gains would be offset by the need to pay the author more money, but that probably isn’t the case. Looking at the acknowledgments for Richardson’s A Life of Picasso, it seems clear that his years of work were largely underwritten by outside sources, including nothing less than the John Richardson Fund for Picasso Research, set up by Sid and Mercedes Bass.) There’s a psychological side to this. As our online reading habits become divided into ever smaller particles of attention, perhaps we’re more drawn to these huge tomes as a sort of counterbalance, whether or not we have any intention of reading them. Publishing is as subject to the blockbuster mentality as any other art form, and it may well be that a book of fourteen hundred pages on Calder has a greater chance of reaching readers than one of three hundred pages would.

This kind of logic isn’t altogether unfamiliar in the art world, and Gopnik identifies a similar trend in Calder’s career, in which “the early sense of play gave way to dulled-down, chunk-of-metal-in-a-plaza heaviness.” Bigger can seem better for certain books as well, and biographers fill pages in the only way that they can. As Gopnik writes:

Calder’s is not a particularly dramatic life—he was neither much of a talker nor a prolific lover. In broad strokes, the career follows the customary arc of a modern artist, going from small, animated Parisian experiments, in the twenties, and ending with big, dull American commissions fifty years later—and though we are hungry to get him, we are not perhaps hungry to get him at quite this length. A dubious density of detailing—“In Paris, Calder had to wait an hour for his luggage, which he had checked through in London”—of the kind inevitable to such multivolume investigations may daunt even the reader who was eager at the start.

And that image of Calder waiting an hour for his luggage is one that every biographer should regard with dread. (It belongs on the same shelf as the line from Allan Folsom’s The Day After Tomorrow that Anthony Lane quoted to illustrate the accretion of procedural detail that deadens so many thrillers: “Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt.”) Not every big book suffers from this tendency—I don’t think that many readers wish that The Power Broker were shorter, even if its size discourages others from starting in the first place. And some lives do benefit from multiple books delivered over the course of many years. But they can also put readers in the position of waiting for more baggage—and when it comes at last, they’re the ones who get to decide whether or not it was worth it.

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Fatted Ram, Part 3

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In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy never actually mentions the hedgehog and the fox, but he does talk at length about another animal made famous by an ancient Greek. About a third of the way from the end of the novel, he inserts an extended aside about Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, which allegedly proves that all motion is impossible. Tolstoy notes that calculus, “a modern branch of mathematics having achieved the art of dealing with the infinitely small,” offers one possible solution, and he goes on to make the same argument for historical science:

In seeking the laws of historical movement just the same thing happens. The movement of humanity, arising as it does from innumerable arbitrary human wills, is continuous. To understand the laws of this continuous movement is the aim of history. But to arrive at these laws, resulting from the sum of all those human wills, man’s mind postulates arbitrary and disconnected units…Only by taking infinitesimally small units for observation (the differential of history, that is, the individual tendencies of men) and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history. To study the laws of history we must completely change the subject of our observation, must leave aside kings, ministers, and generals, and study the common, infinitesimally small elements by which the masses are moved. No one can say in how far it is possible for man to advance in this way toward an understanding of the laws of history; but it is evident that only along that path does the possibility of discovering the laws of history lie.

Reading this section over again, I realized for the first time that I’d seen much the same language somewhere else. More than seventy years before the Foundation series, Tolstoy was talking about psychohistory, and in remarkably similar terms. For Tolstoy, the perfect historical science would be a matter of integrating all the infinitesimals of individual human behavior; for John W. Campbell, it would take the form of symbolic logic; for Isaac Asimov, it was something like the ideal gas law. (If there’s one thing we can say for sure, though, it’s that Asimov wasn’t directly influenced by Tolstoy—he says in his memoirs that he tried and repeatedly failed to finish War and Peace.) And all three men were interested in seeking what they conceived as the laws of history, which would allow it to be treated as a science with the same explanatory and predictive power as physics or chemistry. The problem, of course, is that this collides headlong with the troublesome notion of free will, as Tolstoy writes in a lengthy epilogue to his novel. The italics are mine:

In history what is known to us we call laws of inevitability, what is unknown we call free will. Free will is for history only an expression for the unknown remainder of what we know about the laws of human life…Only by reducing this element of free will to the infinitesimal, that is, by regarding it as an infinitely small quantity, can we convince ourselves of the absolute inaccessibility of the causes, and then instead of seeking causes, history will take the discovery of laws as its problem…And if history has for its object the study of the movement of the nations and of humanity and not the narration of episodes in the lives of individuals, it too, setting aside the conception of cause, should seek the laws common to all the inseparably interconnected infinitesimal elements of free will.

And Tolstoy was never able to reconcile his unmatched knowledge, as a novelist, of the unique qualities of individual men and women with his desire for a calculus of history, which requires, as Isaiah Berlin observes in The Hedgehog and the Fox, that all of its infinitesimals be “reasonably uniform.”

If Tolstoy were alive today, he’d presumably be interested in the rise of data journalism, which represents an attempt to implement some of these principles in practice. In reality, it’s as vulnerable to error and wishful thinking as anything else, and much of it represents the same old punditry dressed up with a fancy new infographic. Both the qualitative and quantitative forms of political coverage suffer from a tendency that Tolstoy identified nearly a century and a half ago:

Postulating some generalization as the goal of the movement of humanity, the historians study the men of whom the greatest number of monuments have remained: kings, ministers, generals, authors, reformers, popes, and journalists, to the extent to which in their opinion these persons have promoted or hindered that abstraction. But…the connection of the people with the rulers and enlighteners of humanity is only based on the arbitrary assumption that the collective will of the people is always transferred to the men whom we have noticed.

Replace “men” with “information” and you have a fairly good critique of the fundamental weakness of so much data journalism. Just because an available set of numbers is interesting, seemingly correlates with broader trends, and fits nicely into a spreadsheet doesn’t mean that it has predictive or analytical value, and equally important factors may go unremarked. And Tolstoy’s original point about the overemphasis on great men holds as well. Trump, if nothing else, is one of “the men whom we have noticed.” We can hardly help it. And this makes it hard to look past each day’s new outrage to get at anything deeper.

So where does that leave us? Tolstoy, unsurprisingly, ended by becoming cynical about intellectual claims of any kind, to the point of sounding a little like Trump himself, as Berlin writes: “Tolstoy looks on [intellectuals] as clever fools, spinners of empty subtleties, blind and deaf to the realities which simpler hearts can grasp, and from time to time he lets fly at them with the brutal violence of a grim, anarchical old peasant, avenging himself, after years of silence, on the silly, chattering, town-bred monkeys, so knowing, and full of words to explain everything, and superior, and impotent and empty.” (Tolstoy’s trust in “the untouched depths of the mass of the people” also has a slightly more sinister ring to it today.) Some degree of skepticism is obviously warranted, even if, as Berlin notes, it can all too easily turn into despair:

This, for both Schopenhauer and Tolstoy, is the central tragedy of human life; if only men would learn how little the cleverest and most gifted among them can control, how little they can know of all the multitude of factors the orderly movement of which is the history of the world; above all, what presumptuous nonsense it is to claim to perceive an order merely on the strength of believing desperately that an order must exist, when all one actually perceives is meaningless chaos—a chaos of which the heightened form, the microcosm in which the disorder of human life is reflected in an intense degree, is war.

The paradox of psychohistory—which we see in both Tolstoy and Asimov—is that it becomes especially attractive in wartime, when our desire to predict the future feels particularly urgent, even as the events themselves make nonsense of our pretensions. That’s worth remembering now, too. And perhaps the only lesson that we can take from all of this lies in Berlin’s conclusion: “We are part of a larger scheme of things than we can understand…We ourselves live in this whole and by it, and are wise only in the measure to which we make our peace with it.”

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2017 at 8:36 am

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Fatted Ram, Part 2

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Almost a year ago, on the morning of the inauguration, I wrote on this blog: “Even now, I find myself wavering between seeing it as an outcome that could have gone either way or as a development, in retrospect, that feels inevitable.” That’s true not just of this election, but of human existence in general. As Isaiah Berlin puts it in The Hedgehog and the Fox: “Practical wisdom is to a large degree knowledge of the inevitable; of what, given our world order, could not but happen; and conversely, of how things cannot be, or could not have been, done; of why some schemes must, cannot help but, end in failure, although for this no demonstrative or scientific reason can be given.” The irony, of course, is that if fifty thousand votes had gone the other way last November, we’d be drawing a starkly different set of lessons from a confluence of circumstances that were fundamentally the same. In his discussion of Tolstoy’s view of war, Berlin brilliantly skewers the fallacy of so much of this kind of political and historical analysis:

With great force [Tolstoy] argues that only those orders or decisions issued by the commanders now seem particularly crucial (and are concentrated upon by historians) which happened to coincide with what later actually occurred; whereas a great many other exactly similar, perfectly good orders and decisions, which seemed no less crucial and vital to those who were issuing them at the time, are forgotten because, having been foiled by unfavorable turns of events, they were not, because they could not be, carried out, and for this reason now seem historically unimportant.

All history, to some extent, consists of retroactively picking out explanations that happen to fit with what actually happened, and since we tend to think in terms of narratives and protagonists, perhaps the most common model of all is the myth of the great man—and the gender isn’t an accident. Tolstoy is rightfully contemptuous of this whole notion, as Berlin notes:

There is a natural law whereby the lives of all human beings no less than those of nature are determined; but…men, unable to face this inexorable process, seek to represent it as a succession of free choices, to fix responsibility for what occurs upon persons endowed by them with heroic virtues and heroic vices, and called by them “great men.” What are great men? They are ordinary human beings, who are ignorant and vain enough to accept responsibility for the life of society, individuals who would rather take the blame for all the cruelties, injustices, disasters justified in their name, than recognize their own insignificance and impotence in the cosmic flow which pursues its course irrespective of their will and ideals.

Any individuals who believe that they can somehow influence the course of events are gravely mistaken, and Tolstoy devotes much of War and Peace to the castigation of “these hollow men, half self-deluded, half aware of being fraudulent, talking, writing, desperately and aimlessly in order to keep up appearances and avoid facing the bleak truths…[and] all this elaborate machinery for concealing the spectacle of human impotence and irrelevance and blindness.”

And it’s revealing that Tolstoy reserves his greatest scorn for the one person whom we’d be least likely to describe in such terms. His portrait of Napoleon is both hilariously unfair and not entirely inaccurate, and although any such comparison is inherently ridiculous, it’s hard not to read this description without thinking of Trump:

[Napoleon spoke] like a man who values every moment of his time and does not condescend to prepare what he has to say but is sure he will always say the right thing and say it well…It was plain that Balashëv’s personality did not interest him at all. Evidently only what took place within his own mind interested him. Nothing outside himself had any significance for him, because everything in the world, it seemed to him, depended entirely on his will…The commencement of his speech had obviously been made with the intention of demonstrating the advantages of his position and showing that he was nevertheless willing to negotiate. But he had begun talking, and the more he talked the less could he control his words. The whole purport of his remarks now was evidently to exalt himself and insult Alexander—just what he had least desired at the commencement of the interview…He evidently wanted to do all the talking himself, and continued to talk with the sort of eloquence and unrestrained irritability to which spoiled people are so prone.

And a little while later, we read: “It was evident that he had long been convinced that it was impossible for him to make a mistake, and that in his perception whatever he did was right, not because it harmonized with any idea of right and wrong, but because he did it.”

There are moments when Tolstoy deliberately takes this portrait too far, as Berlin writes of the views of the historian Nikolai Kareyev: “Napoleon may not be a demigod, but neither is he a mere epiphenomenon of a process which would have occurred unaltered without him; the ‘important people’ are less important than they themselves or the more foolish historians may suppose, but neither are they shadows; individuals…have social purposes, and some among them have strong wills too, and these sometimes transform the lives of communities.” This rings true of both Napoleon and Trump. But so does the following passage, in which Berlin goes beyond the hedgehog and the fox to uncover an animal that has been lurking in the background:

There is a particularly vivid simile [in War and Peace] in which the great man is likened to the ram whom the shepherd is fattening for slaughter. Because the ram duly grows fatter, and perhaps is used as a bellwether for the rest of the flock, he may easily imagine that he is the leader of the flock, and that the other sheep go where they go solely in obedience to his will. He thinks this and the flock may think it too. Nevertheless the purpose of his selection is not the role he believes himself to play, but slaughter—a purpose conceived by beings whose aims neither he nor the other sheep can fathom. For Tolstoy Napoleon is just such a ram, and so to some degree is Alexander, and indeed all the great men of history.

If Jared Kushner had actually read The Hedgehog and the Fox, I’d like to think that these lines would have given him pause, if only for a second. Tomorrow, I’ll conclude by considering what Tolstoy and Berlin have to say about the problem—which Kushner should be taking especially seriously these days—of “how and why things happen as they do and not otherwise,” and whether it’s at all possible to predict what might come next.

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2017 at 8:04 am

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