Alec Nevala-Lee

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The Bad Pennies, Part 1

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For the last couple of months, I’ve been trying to pull together the tangled ends of a story that seems so complicated—and which encompasses so many unlikely personalities—that I doubt that I’ll ever get to the bottom of it, at least not without devoting more time to the project than I currently have to spare. (It really requires a good biography, and maybe two, and in the meantime, I’m just going to throw out a few leads in the hopes that somebody else will follow up.) It centers on a man named William Herbert Sheldon, who was born in 1898 and died in 1977. Sheldon was a psychologist and numismatist who received his doctorate from the University of Chicago and studied under Carl Jung. He’s best known today for his theory of somatotypes, which classified all human beings into degrees of endomorph, mesomorph, or ectomorph, based on their physical proportions. Sheldon argued that an individual’s build was an indication of character and ability, as Ron Rosenbaum wrote over twenty years ago in a fascinating investigative piece for the New York Times:

[Sheldon] believed that every individual harbored within him different degrees of each of the three character components. By using body measurements and ratios derived from nude photographs, Sheldon believed he could assign every individual a three-digit number representing the three components, components that Sheldon believed were inborn—genetic—and remained unwavering determinants of character regardless of transitory weight change. In other words, physique equals destiny.

Sheldon’s work carried obvious overtones of eugenics, even racism, which must have been evident to many observers even at the time. (In the early twenties, Sheldon wrote a paper titled “The Intelligence of Mexican Children,” in which he asserted that “Negro intelligence” comes to a “standstill at about the tenth year.”) And these themes became even more explicit in the writings of his closest collaborator, the anthropologist Earnest A. Hooton. In the fifties, Hooton’s “research” on the physical attributes that were allegedly associated with criminality was treated with guarded respect even by the likes of Martin Gardner, who wrote in his book Fads and Fallacies:

The theory that criminals have characteristic “stigmata”—facial and bodily features which distinguish them from other men—was…revived by Professor Earnest A. Hooton, of the Harvard anthropology faculty. In a study made in the thirties, Dr. Hooton found all kinds of body correlations with certain types of criminality. For example, robbers tend to have heavy beards, diffused pigment in the iris, attached ear lobes, and six other body traits. Hooton must not be regarded as a crank, however—his work is too carefully done to fall into that category—but his conclusions have not been accepted by most of his colleagues, who think his research lacked adequate controls.

Gardner should have known better. Hooton, like Sheldon, was obsessed with dividing up human beings on the basis of their morphological characteristics, as he wrote in the Times in 1936: “Our real purpose should be to segregate and eliminate the unfit, worthless, degenerate and anti-social portion of each racial and ethnic strain in our population, so that we may utilize the substantial merits of the sound majority, and the special and diversified gifts of its superior members.”

Sheldon and Hooton’s work reached its culmination, or nadir, in one of the strangest episodes in the history of anthropology, which Rosenbaum’s article memorably calls “The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal.” For decades, such institutions as Harvard College had photographed incoming freshmen in the nude, supposedly to look for signs of scoliosis and rickets. Sheldon and Hooton took advantage of these existing programs to take nude photos of students, both male and female, at colleges including Harvard, Radcliffe, Princeton, Yale, Wellesley, and Vassar, ostensibly to study posture, but really to gather raw data for their work on somatotypes. The project went on for decades, and Rosenbaum points out that the number of famous alumni who had their pictures taken staggers the imagination: “George Bush, George Pataki, Brandon Tartikoff and Bob Woodward were required to do it at Yale. At Vassar, Meryl Streep; at Mount Holyoke, Wendy Wasserstein; at Wellesley, Hillary Rodham and Diane Sawyer.” After some diligent sleuthing, Rosenbaum determined that most of these photographs were later destroyed, but a collection of negatives survived at the National Anthropological Archives in the Smithsonian, where he was ultimately allowed to view some of them. He writes of the experience:

As I thumbed rapidly through box after box to confirm that the entries described in the Finder’s Aid were actually there, I tried to glance at only the faces. It was a decision that paid off, because it was in them that a crucial difference between the men and the women revealed itself. For the most part, the men looked diffident, oblivious. That’s not surprising considering that men of that era were accustomed to undressing for draft physicals and athletic-squad weigh-ins. But the faces of the women were another story. I was surprised at how many looked deeply unhappy, as if pained at being subjected to this procedure. On the faces of quite a few I saw what looked like grimaces, reflecting pronounced discomfort, perhaps even anger.

And it’s clearly the women who bore the greatest degree of lingering humiliation and fear. Rumors circulated for years that the pictures had been stolen and sold, and such notable figures as Nora Ephron, Sally Quinn, and Judith Martin speak candidly to Rosenbaum of how they were haunted by these memories. (Quinn tells him: “You always thought when you did it that one day they’d come back to haunt you. That twenty-five years later, when your husband was running for president, they’d show up in Penthouse.” For the record, according to Rosenbaum, when the future Hillary Clinton attended Wellesley, undergraduates were allowed to take the pictures “only partly nude.”) Rosenbaum captures the unsavory nature of the entire program in terms that might have been published yesterday:

Suddenly the subjects of Sheldon’s photography leaped into the foreground: the shy girl, the fat girl, the religiously conservative, the victim of inappropriate parental attention…In a culture that already encourages women to scrutinize their bodies critically, the first thing that happens to these women when they arrive at college is an intrusive, uncomfortable, public examination of their nude bodies.

If William Herbert Sheldon’s story had ended there, it would be strange enough, but there’s a lot more to be told. I haven’t even mentioned his work as a numismatist, which led to a stolen penny scandal that rocked the world of coin collecting as deeply as the nude photos did the Ivy League. But the real reason I wanted to talk about him involves one of his protégés, whom Sheldon met while teaching in the fifties at Columbia. His name was Walter H. Breen, who later married the fantasy author Marion Zimmer Bradley—which leads us in turn to one of the darkest episodes in the entire history of science fiction. I’ll be talking more about this tomorrow.

Written by nevalalee

December 3, 2018 at 8:35 am

Mailer in Hollywood

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“I would love to get out to Hollywood for several months,” Norman Mailer wrote in a letter to an agent on May 10, 1948. “I have several ideas for novels now, but all of them are a little too small. The trouble with writing something like The Naked and the Dead is that you get frightened if your next can is smaller. And Hollywood, I think, would fit the bill.” When Mailer wrote these words, he was just twenty-five years old, and his first novel had made him famous overnight, complete with offers for the movie rights, which he was eager to explore. In secret, he was planning to use the experience in other ways, as he later confessed: “I went to Hollywood four years ago because in the back of my mind was the idea that I would write a nice big fat collective novel about the whole works—the idea I suppose with which every young writer goes out.” But he also had hopes of more tangible forms of success. He negotiated a deal with Warner Bros. to work on scripts with his good friend Jean Malaquais, to whom he optimistically wrote a few months after his arrival:

Hollywood-wise our position is not bad. I am not at all without hope, for in the last week a few small things have happened which lead me to believe that we shall reap the wind yet—the golden wind. Also I have a wonderful idea for a movie—just right for you and us. There is a young actor here who is in fabulous demand—Montgomery Clift, and he likes me, respects me, et al [sic]. My idea is that when he comes back to town in a couple of weeks, I will see him, and suggest the movie—The Red and the Black. It will be of necessity an extravaganza which means our pay would be higher.

The “extravaganza” never went anywhere, although Mailer and Malaquais worked on a script for Clift loosely based on Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West, and they seem to have considered a project inspired by the organized crime group Murder, Inc. (Most of this information, as well as all quotes from letters, comes from the recent book Selected Letters of Norman Mailer, an astonishingly rich volume that offers countless possible avenues for exploration. I’ve chosen the Hollywood thread at random, but I hope to dig into it in other ways soon.) By 1950, Mailer had grown disillusioned, writing to his sister Barbara: “We got out of Hollywood by brute force, i.e., we made a decision to leave and by gosh and by God we did. I still can’t believe it. I thought I’d spend the rest of my life trying to produce that damn movie. Except I’m probably the only writer who actually lost money by going to Hollywood.” His last remaining point of interest—apart from working on the novel that eventually became The Deer Park—was to sell the rights to his most famous book. A few years later, he wrote to his lawyer Charles Rembar that he hoped to get at least $100,000 for The Naked and the Dead, explaining:

If Naked is going to be bought and crapped up it makes sense only if I’ll get real financial independence from it. Otherwise, I’d just as soon spare myself the heartache…The key to what I feel with all of the above is that the old saw about Hollywood psychology—if you don’t want them, they want you—is very true, at least from my experience. And my other feeling is that if I have to hump for a living in a couple of years, it may not be the worst thing in the world for me. So I’d rather be big or little but not in between.

The Naked in the Dead was ultimately filmed by Raoul Walsh, and Mailer called the result, which I haven’t seen, “one of the worst movies ever made.” (It was evidently in development at one point for Charles Laughton to direct with Robert Mitchum in the lead, only to be scrapped by the failure of The Night of the Hunter—which has to count as one of the most intriguing unmade movies in an industry with no shortage of broken dreams.) But the experience left Mailer with some valuable insights. In 1966, he wrote to Tony Macklin, the editor of the magazine Film Heritage:

I think as a working rule of thumb, a novelist or playwright cannot hope for their work to survive in Hollywood. It can only be adulterated or improved, and since filming a good novel makes everyone concerned quite tense, and justifiably so, since no one wishes particularly to adulterate good art—there are a few rewards in heaven for that—I think if I were a director I would look for the kind of modest novel which can make a fine movie. I think the best example is The Asphalt Jungle.

Mailer never forgot this, and he wrote years later to his frequent business partner Lawrence Schiller, with whom he had collaborated on The Executioner’s Song, to propose a few potential projects: “I think it can be said that any of Raymond Chandler’s novels that are available would be splendid for movies, and I think I could do a lot with them in adaptation, since Chandler has marvelous plots and terrific settings, but is occasionally a little thing in characterization…While we’re at it, it might be worth checking into Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.” None of these adaptations ever came to pass, and Mailer couldn’t resist one more hopeful query: “What’s the story on A Farewell to Arms? I can’t remember when the last remake was done, but if that’s around, it’s a $30 million movie and the event of the year.”

When you read through Mailer’s letters on Hollywood, you’re left with a depressing sense of one of the most important writers of his generation repeatedly failing to gain traction in an industry that stubbornly resisted all his talent, ambition, and charisma. His correspondence is filled with fascinating hints of what might have been, some of which might have better been left unrealized, as when he wrote to the producer Mickey Knox to propose a version of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King starring Orson Welles and Sonny Liston. (A decade later, he wrote to Peter Bogdanovich, who was interested in adapting his novel An American Dream, to ask if Welles would be interested in reading an unproduced screenplay by Mailer titled The Trial of the Warlock: “I agree it’s hardly the sort of thing he’d want to do—why ever get into something like that at this point in his career?—but he might have quick insight into how to make it better, or approach the problem of the horror. I could use that. Truth, I’d be delighted to have him read it in any case just for fun.” Nothing ever came of it, and to the best of my knowledge, the two great wunderkinds of the forties never even crossed paths.) Mailer worked with varying degrees of seriousness on scripts for Henry Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion and the story that became Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and he eventually did write a couple of teleplays for Schiller, including the O.J. Simpson movie American Tragedy. For the most part, however, he concluded that he was better off making movies on his own, leading to such directorial oddities as Beyond the Law, Maidstone, and Tough Guys Don’t Dance, the last of which is one of those films that has intrigued me for years without ever prompting me to actually watch it—and I have the feeling that it could hardly be other than a huge disappointment. And perhaps the final lesson is simply that writers, even the greatest ones, should adjust their expectations accordingly. As Mailer wrote to Tony Macklin: “A novelist or playwright sells his work to Hollywood not in order that the work shall survive in translation, but to purchase time for himself.” And Mailer, like all writers, needed all the time that he could get.

The apostolic succession

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Ever since I began working as a biographer—which is one of the few acceptable ways of earning a living as a private eye of culture—I’ve naturally become interested in what other writers have had to say on the subject. My favorite example, as I’ve noted here before, is Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, which isn’t just the best book that I’ve read on the art of biography, but one of the best that I’ve read about anything. James Atlas’s The Shadow in the Garden offers an engaging look at the profession from the inside, even if you sometimes get the sense that Atlas wrote it mostly to settle a few old scores relating to his biography of Saul Bellow. And there are certain loose, baggy monsters of the form that can’t help but comment on their own monstrousness. A book like The Life of Graham Greene by Norman Sherry functions both as a straight work of scholarship and as a bizarre mediation on its own creation, and by the last volume, the two elements become so unbalanced that you’re forced to confront the underlying strangeness of the whole biographical enterprise. Such hybrid books, which read like unwitting enactments of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, tend to have three qualities in common. One is the biographer’s extensive use of the first person, which allows him to insert himself into the narrative like a shadowy supporting player. Another is the inordinate amount of time or wordage devoted to the project, which usually occupies multiple decades or volumes. And the last, which should probably serve as a warning, is that this tendency is often most pronounced when the biographer is investigating the life of another living writer, which leads to insidious problems of identification, admiration, and resentment. As Sherry said of his biography of Greene to the New York Times: “I almost destroyed myself. By the time I had finished, my life had been taken from me.”

Which brings us to Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis, which combines all of these ingredients into one of the strangest books I’ve ever seen. It first caught my eye over a decade ago, with its striking cover inspired by Philip Castle’s poster for A Clockwork Orange, but I’m glad that I’m only reading it now, when perhaps I have a better understanding of the emotions that it expresses. After describing his first encounter as a young man with Burgess, whom he compares to a baboon with “vampiral” red eyes,  Lewis writes:

My need to know about Burgess twenty years ago: what lack or absence in me was being compensated for? I was youthful, full of ambition and ideals; he was a constellation, larger than life-size, a writer’s writer, crammed with allusions. He was, as Carlyle said of Danton, “a gigantic mass of ostentation,” and the piratical swagger was alluring and I had an abiding affinity with it. The facets which you are taken in by when you are young—the languages, the apparent wide knowledge—genuine academics and professionals, people in the know, see it as so nonsensical, it’s beneath them to contradict Burgess’s bluster. His success came from impressing people who didn’t quite know better; he was left alone by those who did. He fell into that gap, and made a fortune for himself.

If it isn’t abundantly clear by this point, Lewis goes on to explain that his feelings have curdled toward his old mentor, whom he later describes as a “pretentious prick” and a ”complete fucking fool.” But Lewis also adds incongruously: “Twenty years on from my days as a student prince, if I’m allegedly repudiating the lion of my late adolescence, it’s no doubt because deep down I continue to feel close to him.”

Not surprisingly, many reviewers regarded the book as an act of “character assassination,” as Blake Morrison put it in The Guardian, or a case study in the pathology of hero worship. But the tangled lines of influence are even weirder than they seem. Lewis’s real mentor wasn’t Burgess, but Richard Ellmann, his thesis adviser, the biographer of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde who is generally regarded as the greatest modern practitioner of literary biography. He played a similar role in the life of none other than James Atlas, who devotes many pages to Ellmann in The Shadow in the Garden, writing of his first encounter with the man who agreed to supervise his work at Oxford: “Steven [sic] Dedalus had stumbled upon his Leopold Bloom.” In a lengthy footnote on the very first page of Anthony Burgess, Lewis uses almost identical language to describe their relationship:

Ellmann was my supervisor (though he didn’t do much supervising) for a doctoral dissertation on Ezra Pound, of which I wrote not one word. We became friends and used to dine lavishly at the Randolph…We were both aware of a Bloom/Dedalus dynamic in our relationship. I was immensely cocky and callow, Ellmann wholly lacked the Oxford way of people being interested in each other only for their own advantage.

It was probably impossible to be mentored by Richard Ellmann, of all people, without thinking of the surrogate father and son of Ulysses, but in Lewis’s case, the Joycean labyrinth was even more twisted—because it was through Ellmann that Lewis met Burgess in the first place. His biography opens with an account of the evening of May 7, 1985, when Ellmann and Lewis picked up Burgess at a train station and gave him a ride to Oxford: “We all went to find Ellman’s rusty, seldom-washed car…Ellmann took us through the city, turning corners by mounting the kerb, grazing bollards and scattering cyclists.” And all the while, Lewis informs us, Burgess had been “murmuring to Ellmann about Joyce.”

And it gets even stranger. One of Ellmann’s other students was the biographer Henry Hart, who later wrote an essay on his mentor titled “Richard Ellmann’s Oxford Blues.” Hart is also the author of the biography James Dickey: The World as a Lie, another book full of mixed feelings toward its self-mythologizing subject, of whom he writes: “To my great relief, Dickey expressed little animosity toward my project. But he obviously had worries, the main one being the way I would address the romanticized versions of his life that he had aired so free-spiritedly in conversations and publications.” Hart addresses these problems in depth, as the full title of the book indicates. (The subtitle, he claims, was Dickey’s idea.) And I’m fascinated by how Richard Ellmann, the author of perhaps the most acclaimed literary biography of all time, produced three separate protégés whose work—Atlas on Bellow, Hart on Dickey, Lewis on Burgess—all but explodes with ambivalence toward their subjects, their own ambitions, and the whole notion of biography itself. Thinking of Ellmann and his literary progeny, I’m reminded, as many of them undoubtedly were, of Stephen Dedalus’s famous speech in the library scene in Ulysses:

A father, Stephen said, battling against hopelessness, is a necessary evil…Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten…Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?

That uneasy succession, which assumes unpredictable shapes in its passage from one generation to another, must be as difficult for biographers as for anyone else. And Ellmann may well have had other students whose names I don’t know yet. There’s obviously a good story here. Somebody should write a book about it.

The passion of the pulps

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Note: I’m heading out early this morning to speak to a class at McCormick Theological Seminary, followed by a reading tonight at 57th Street Books in Chicago. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 12, 2017.

Last year, I happened to read an essay by a distinguished but elderly science fiction writer who did his best to explain the absence of women in the pulp stories of the late thirties and early forties. See if you can spot the flaw in his reasoning:

Prior to public recognition in the United States that babies are not brought by the stork, there was simply no sex in the science fiction magazines. This was not a matter of taste, it was a matter of custom that had the force of law. In most places, non-recognition of the existence of sex was treated as though it was the law, and for all I know, maybe it was indeed local law. In any case, words or actions that could bring a blush to the leathery cheek of the local censor were clearly out.

But if there’s no sex, what do you do with female characters? They can’t have passions and feelings. They can’t participate on equal terms with male characters because that would introduce too many complications where some sort of sex might creep in. The best thing to do was to keep them around in the background, allowing them to scream in terror, to be caught and rescued, and, at the end, to smile prettily at the hero. (It can be done safely then because The End is the universal rescue.)

The man who wrote this, I’m sorry to say, was Isaac Asimov. It appeared in his essay “Women and Science Fiction,” which was published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1983 and later reprinted in the posthumous collection Gold. And it might be the least convincing explanation that the man whom Carl Sagan called “the greatest explainer of the age” ever gave about anything.

Before I dig into the argument itself, I should probably review Asimov’s earlier statements about women in science fiction, which go back half a century. In the late thirties, before he became a published writer, he was a regular contributor to the letters column in Astounding. As I’ve noted here before, he had reason to later regret some of his comments, as when he wrote: “When we want science fiction, we don’t want swooning dames…Come on, men, make yourself heard in favor of less love mixed with our science.” And he wasn’t kidding. In “Women and Science Fiction,” Asimov acknowledged:

No doubt there were a number of tough young men and girl-chasing young men who read science fiction [in those days], but by and large, I suspect it was the stereotypical “skinny intellectual” who wrote letters to the magazines and denounced any intrusion of femininity. I know. I wrote such letters myself. And in the days when I was reading and rating every science fiction story written, I routinely deducted many points for any intrusion of romance, however sanitized it might be.

To be fair, Asimov later outgrew these feelings, and while women rarely figured in his fiction, there were a few notable exceptions. Later in the same essay, he derided the science fiction magazines for showing “no guts whatsoever” in dealing with the absence of women in its pages, in large part because of its heavily masculine audience, and in his memoir In Joy Still Felt, he simply wrote: “I am a feminist.” (His actual track record on the subject has been discussed elsewhere by other writers, notably Cat Rambo, and I talk about his horrendous treatment of women at length in Astounding.)

So what do we do with the statement that I quoted above, which was made with a straight face toward the end of Asimov’s career? It’s factually correct on exactly one level, which is that the pulps had to be mindful of obscenity laws, and any explicit sexual content would place the entire magazine at risk. John W. Campbell—along with his assistant editor Kay Tarrant, whom he used as a scapegoat for writers who complained about being censored—had a reputation for prudery, and in the period in question, even a more adventurous editor wouldn’t have much of a choice. This is all true enough. But to argue that women couldn’t be depicted “on equal terms” with men because sex would inevitably enter the equation, as if the writer had no control over his characters, is so flimsy a justification that it reflects poorly on a writer who needed so badly to think of himself as rational. In its implication that sexual entanglements would naturally follow from the “passions and feelings” of women who work alongside men, it uncomfortably recalls similar arguments about women in the military and the sciences. It isn’t just wrong, but dumb, and it feels for all the world like a living fossil of an opinion that was somehow planted in Asimov’s brain in the thirties and then casually transmitted, fifty years later, to the readers of his magazine. And we don’t need to look far to find counterexamples. In the May 1940 issue of Super Science Stories, for instance, a short story appeared titled “Let There Be Light,” credited to Lyle Monroe. It was basically a Campbellian gadget yarn, and its basic plot—about two inventors who develop a free source of electricity and are targeted by the power companies—recalled a story that Campbell himself had written seven years earlier called “The Battery of Hate.” But one of the inventors was a woman. (The story does end with her male colleague literally dragging her to the courthouse to get married, but I suppose you can’t have everything.)

And even Asimov noticed. On May 4, 1940, he wrote a letter to his friend Frederik Pohl, the editor of Super Science Stories, that began: “I’m going to have to take up a new role today. At least it looks as if I’m under the painful necessity of defending the love interest in a story which is being attacked by other readers on that account.” He continued:

As official anti-love-interest-spouter of science fiction, I should have been the first to howl, but, strangely enough, I liked “Let There Be Light” a lot…There’s no denying that Lyle Monroe gave the story a liberal dash of femininity and I certainly can’t deny that several spots of the story called for raised eyebrows…However, Monroe was not obscene, or anything faintly approaching it. He was witty, I think, and humorous and the—shall we say—daring style of the humor is not too out of place in this good year 1940. Let’s not be prudes, ladies and gentlemen and—don’t look now—Queen Victoria died in 1902.

Asimov concluded: “The name may be a pseudonym for someone—I don’t know—but one thing! It is not a pseudonym for Isaac Asimov, in case someone wants to be funny.” The notion that anyone could think that Asimov could have written it was funny in itself, but in any case, it was a pen name—for Robert A. Heinlein. He had submitted the story to Campbell, who rejected it with a letter that hinted at the real reason why female characters so rarely appeared. There were “passions and feelings” involved, all right, but they didn’t belong to the women. The words are Campbell’s, but the italics are mine:

Your work is good. Even this is good, despite the fact that it’s bouncing. Main reason: the femme is too good. The science fiction readers have shown a consistent distaste for…feminine scenery in science fiction stories. She’s much more nicely handled than the average woman in science fiction, but I’m still afraid of her.

The private eyes of culture

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Yesterday, in my post on the late magician Ricky Jay, I neglected to mention one of the most fascinating aspects of his long career. Toward the end of his classic profile in The New Yorker, Mark Singer drops an offhand reference to an intriguing project:

Most afternoons, Jay spends a couple of hours in his office, on Sunset Boulevard, in a building owned by Andrew Solt, a television producer…He decided now to drop by the office, where he had to attend to some business involving a new venture that he has begun with Michael Weber—a consulting company called Deceptive Practices, Ltd., and offering “Arcane Knowledge on a Need to Know Basis.” They are currently working on the new Mike Nichols film, Wolf, starring Jack Nicholson.

When the article was written, Deceptive Practices was just getting off the ground, but it went on to compile an enviable list of projects, including The Illusionist, The Prestige, and most famously Forrest Gump, for which Jay and Weber designed the wheelchair that hid Gary Sinise’s legs. It isn’t clear how lucrative the business ever was, but it made for great publicity, and best of all, it allowed Jay to monetize the service that he had offered for free to the likes of David Mamet—a source of “arcane knowledge,” much of it presumably gleaned from his vast reading in the field, that wasn’t available in any other way.

As I reflected on this, I was reminded of another provider of arcane knowledge who figures prominently in one of my favorite novels. In Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, the narrator, Casaubon, comes home to Milan after a long sojourn abroad feeling like a man without a country. He recalls:

I decided to invent a job for myself. I knew a lot of things, unconnected things, but I wanted to be able to connect them after a few hours at a library. I once thought it was necessary to have a theory, and that my problem was that I didn’t. But nowadays all you needed was information; everybody was greedy for information, especially if it was out of date. I dropped in at the university, to see if I could fit in somewhere. The lecture halls were quiet; the students glided along the corridors like ghosts, lending one another badly made bibliographies. I knew how to make a good bibliography.

In practice, Casaubon finds that he knows a lot of things—like the identities of such obscure figures as Lord Chandos and Anselm of Canterbury—that can’t be found easily in reference books, prompting a student to marvel at him: “In your day you knew everything.” This leads Casaubon to a sudden inspiration: “I had a trade after all. I would set up a cultural investigation agency, be a kind of private eye of learning. Instead of sticking my nose into all-night dives and cathouses, I would skulk around bookshops, libraries, corridors of university departments…I was lucky enough to find two rooms and a little kitchen in an old building in the suburbs…In a pair of bookcases I arranged the atlases, encyclopedias, catalogs I acquired bit by bit.”

This feels a little like the fond daydream of a scholar like Umberto Eco himself, who spent decades acquiring arcane knowledge—not all of it required by his academic work—before becoming a famous novelist. And I suspect that many graduate students, professors, and miscellaneous bibliophiles cherish the hope that the scraps of disconnected information that they’ve accumulated over time will turn out to be useful one day, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. (Casaubon is evidently named after the character from Middlemarch who labors for years over a book titled The Key to All Mythologies, which is already completely out of date.) To illustrate what he does for a living, Casaubon offers the example of a translator who calls him one day out of the blue, desperate to know the meaning of the word “Mutakallimūn.” Casaubon asks him for two days, and then he gets to work:

I go to the library, flip through some card catalogs, give the man in the reference office a cigarette, and pick up a clue. That evening I invite an instructor in Islamic studies out for a drink. I buy him a couple of beers and he drops his guard, gives me the lowdown for nothing. I call the client back. “All right, the Mutakallimūn were radical Moslem theologians at the time of Avicenna. They said the world was a sort of dust cloud of accidents that formed particular shapes only by an instantaneous and temporary act of the divine will. If God was distracted for even a moment, the universe would fall to pieces, into a meaningless anarchy of atoms. That enough for you? The job took me three days. Pay what you think is fair.”

Eco could have picked nearly anything to serve as a case study, of course, but the story that he choses serves as a metaphor for one of the central themes of the book. If the world of information is a “meaningless anarchy of atoms,” it takes the private eyes of culture to give it shape and meaning.

All the while, however, Eco is busy undermining the pretensions of his protagonists, who pay a terrible price for treating information so lightly. And it might not seem that such brokers of arcane knowledge are even necessary these days, now that an online search generates pages of results for the Mutakallimūn. Yet there’s still a place for this kind of scholarship, which might end up being the last form of brainwork not to be made obsolete by technology. As Ricky Jay knew, by specializing deeply in one particular field, you might be able to make yourself indispensable, especially in areas where the knowledge hasn’t been written down or digitized. (In the course of researching Astounding, I was repeatedly struck by how much of the story wasn’t available in any readily accessible form. It was buried in letters, manuscripts, and other primary sources, and while this happens to be the one area where I’ve actually done some of the legwork, I have a feeling that it’s equally true of every other topic imaginable.) As both Jay and Casaubon realized, it’s a role that rests on arcane knowledge of the kind that can only be acquired by reading the books that nobody else has bothered to read in a long time, even if it doesn’t pay off right away. Casaubon tells us: “In the beginning, I had to turn a deaf ear to my conscience and write theses for desperate students. It wasn’t hard; I just went and copied some from the previous decade. But then my friends in publishing began sending me manuscripts and foreign books to read—naturally, the least appealing and for little money.” But he perseveres, and the rule that he sets for himself might still be enough, if you’re lucky, to fuel an entire career:

Still, I was accumulating experience and information, and I never threw anything away…I had a strict rule, which I think secret services follow, too: No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections.

Written by nevalalee

November 27, 2018 at 8:41 am

Ghosts and diversions

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Over the weekend, after I heard that the magician Ricky Jay had died, I went back to revisit the great profile, “Secrets of the Magus,” that Mark Singer wrote over a quarter of a century ago for The New Yorker. Along with Daniel Zalewski’s classic piece on Werner Herzog, it’s one of the articles in that magazine that I’ve thought about and reread the most, but what caught my attention this time around was a tribute from David Mamet:

I’ll call Ricky on the phone. I’ll ask him—say, for something I’m writing—“A guy’s wandering through upstate New York in 1802 and he comes to a tavern and there’s some sort of mountebank. What would the mountebank be doing?” And Ricky goes to his library and then sends me an entire description of what the mountebank would be doing. Or I’ll tell him I’m having a Fourth of July party and I want to do some sort of disappearance in the middle of the woods. He says, “That’s the most bizarre request I’ve ever heard. You want to do a disappearing effect in the woods? There’s nothing like that in the literature. I mean, there’s this one 1760 pamphlet—Jokes, Tricks, Ghosts, and Diversions by Woodland, Stream and Campfire. But, other than that, I can’t think of a thing.” He’s unbelievably generous. Ricky’s one of the world’s great people. He’s my hero. I’ve never seen anybody better at what he does.

Coming from Mamet, this is high praise indeed, and it gets at most of the reasons why Ricky Jay was one of my heroes, too. Elsewhere in the article, Mamet says admiringly: “I regard Ricky as an example of the ‘superior man,’ according to the I Ching definition. He’s the paradigm of what a philosopher should be: someone who’s devoted his life to both the study and the practice of his chosen field.”

And what struck me on reading these lines again was how deeply Jay’s life and work were tied up in books. A bookseller quoted in Singer’s article estimates that Jay spent more of his disposable income on rare books than anyone else he knew, and his professional legacy might turn out to be even greater as a writer, archivist, and historian as it was for sleight of hand. (“Though Jay abhors the notion of buying books as investments, his own collection, while it is not for sale and is therefore technically priceless, more or less represents his net worth,” Singer writes. And I imagine that a lot of his fellow collectors are very curious about what will happen to his library now.) His most famous book as an author, Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women, includes a chapter on Arthur Lloyd, “The Human Card Index,” a vaudevillian renowned for his ability to produce anything printed on paper—a marriage license, ringside seats to a boxing match, menus, photos of royalty, membership cards for every club imaginable—from his pockets on demand. This feels now like a metaphor for the mystique of Jay himself, who fascinated me for many of the same reasons. Like most great magicians, he exuded an aura of arcane wisdom, but in his case, this impression appears to have been nothing less than the truth. Singer quotes the magician Michael Weber:

Magic is not about someone else sharing the newest secret. Magic is about working hard to discover a secret and making something out of it. You start with some small principle and you build a theatrical presentation out of it. You do something that’s technically artistic that creates a small drama. There are two ways you can expand your knowledge—through books and by gaining the confidence of fellow magicians who will explain these things. Ricky to a large degree gets his information from books—old books—and then when he performs for magicians they want to know, “Where did that come from?” And he’s appalled that they haven’t read this stuff.

As a result, Jay had the paradoxical image of a man who was immersed in the lore of magic while also keeping much of that world at arm’s length. “Clearly, Jay has been more interested in the craft of magic than in the practical exigencies of promoting himself as a performer,” Singer writes, and Jay was perfectly fine with that reputation. In Learned Pigs, Jay writes admiringly of the conjurer Max Malini:

Yet far more than Malini’s contemporaries, the famous conjurers Herrmann, Kellar, Thurston, and Houdini, Malini was the embodiment of what a magician should be—not a performer who requires a fully equipped stage, elaborate apparatus, elephants, or handcuffs to accomplish his mysteries, but one who can stand a few inches from you and with a borrowed coin, a lemon, a knife, a tumbler, or a pack of cards convince you he performs miracles.

This was obviously how Jay liked to see himself, as he says with equal affection of the magician Dai Vernon: “Making money was only a means of allowing him to sit in a hotel room and think about his art, about cups and balls and coins and cards.” Yet the reality must have been more complicated. You don’t become as famous or beloved as Ricky Jay without an inhuman degree of ambition, however carefully hidden, and he cultivated attention in ways that allowed him to maintain his air of remove. Apart from Vernon, his other essential mentor was Charlie Miller, who seems to have played the same role in the lives of other magicians that Joe Ancis, “the funniest man in New York City,” did for Lenny Bruce. Both were geniuses who hated to perform, so they practiced their art for a small handful of confidants and fellow obsessives. And the fact that Jay, by contrast, lived the kind of life that would lead him to be widely mourned by the public indicates that there was rather more to him than the reticent persona that he projected.

Jay did perform for paying audiences, of course, and Singer’s article closes with his preparations for a show, Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, that promises to relieve him from the “tenuous circumstances” that result from his devotion to art. (A decade later, my brother and I went to see his second Broadway production, On the Stem, which is still one of my favorite memories from a lifetime of theatergoing.) But he evidently had mixed feelings about the whole enterprise, which left him even more detached from the performers with whom he was frequently surrounded. As Weber notes: “Ricky won’t perform for magicians at magic shows, because they’re interested in things. They don’t get it. They won’t watch him and be inspired to make magic of their own. They’ll be inspired to do that trick that belongs to Ricky…There’s this large body of magic lumpen who really don’t understand Ricky’s legacy—his contribution to the art, his place in the art, his technical proficiency and creativity. They think he’s an élitist and a snob.” Or as the writer and mentalist T.A. Walters tells Singer:

Some magicians, once they learn how to do a trick without dropping the prop on their foot, go ahead and perform in public. Ricky will work on a routine a couple of years before even showing anyone. One of the things that I love about Ricky is his continued amazement at how little magicians seem to care about the art. Intellectually, Ricky seems to understand this, but emotionally he can’t accept it. He gets as upset about this problem today as he did twenty years ago.

If the remarkable life that he lived is any indication, Jay never did get over it. According to Singer, Jay once asked Dai Vernon how he dealt with the intellectual indifference of other magicians to their craft. Vernon responded: “I forced myself not to care.” And after his friend’s death, Jay said wryly: “Maybe that’s how he lived to be ninety-eight years old.”

The authoritarian personality

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Note: I’m taking a few days off for Thanksgiving. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 29, 2017.

In 1950, a group of four scholars working at UC Berkeley published a massive book titled The Authoritarian Personality. Three of its authors, including the philosopher and polymath Theodor W. Adorno, were Jewish, and the study was expressly designed to shed light on the rise of fascism and Nazism, which it conceived in large part as the manifestation of an abnormal personality syndrome magnified by mass communication. The work was immediately controversial, and some of the concerns that have been raised about its methodology—which emphasized individual pathology over social factors—appear to be legitimate. (One of its critics, the psychologist Thomas Pettigrew, conducted a study of American towns in the North and South that cast doubt on whether such traits as racism could truly be seen as mental illnesses: “You almost had to be mentally ill to be tolerant in the South. The authoritarian personality was a good explanation at the individual level, but not at the societal level.” The italics are mine.) Yet the book remains hugely compelling, and we seem to be living in a moment in which its ideas are moving back toward the center of the conversation, with attention from both ends of the political spectrum. Richard Spencer, of all people, wrote his master’s thesis on Adorno and Richard Wagner, while a bizarre conspiracy theory has emerged on the right that Adorno was the secret composer and lyricist for the Beatles. More reasonably, the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross wrote shortly after the last presidential election:

The combination of economic inequality and pop-cultural frivolity is precisely the scenario Adorno and others had in mind: mass distraction masking elite domination. Two years ago, in an essay on the persistence of the Frankfurt School, I wrote, “If Adorno were to look upon the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century, he might take grim satisfaction in seeing his fondest fears realized.” I spoke too soon. His moment of vindication is arriving now.

And when you leaf today through The Authoritarian Personality, which is available in its entirety online, you’re constantly rocked by flashes of recognition. In the chapter “Politics and Economics in the Interview Material,” before delving into the political beliefs expressed by the study’s participants, Adorno writes:

The evaluation of the political statements contained in our interview material has to be considered in relation to the widespread ignorance and confusion of our subjects in political matters, a phenomenon which might well surpass what even a skeptical observer should have anticipated. If people do not know what they are talking about, the concept of “opinion,” which is basic to any approach to ideology, loses its meaning.

Ignorance and confusion are bad enough, but they become particularly dangerous when combined with the social pressure to have an opinion about everything, which encourages people to fake their way through it. As Adorno observes: “Those who do not know but feel somehow obliged to have political opinions, because of some vague idea about the requirements of democracy, help themselves with scurrilous ways of thinking and sometimes with forthright bluff.” And he describes this bluffing and bluster in terms that should strike us as uncomfortably familiar:

The individual has to cope with problems which he actually does not understand, and he has to develop certain techniques of orientation, however crude and fallacious they may be, which help him to find his way through the dark…On the one hand, they provide the individual with a kind of knowledge, or with substitutes for knowledge, which makes it possible for him to take a stand where it is expected of him, whilst he is actually not equipped to do so. On the other hand, by themselves they alleviate psychologically the feeling of anxiety and uncertainty and provide the individual with the illusion of some kind of intellectual security, of something he can stick to even if he feels, underneath, the inadequacy of his opinions.

So what do we do when we’re expected to have opinions on subjects that we can’t be bothered to actually understand? Adorno argues that we tend to fall back on the complementary strategies of stereotyping and personification. Of the former, he writes:

Rigid dichotomies, such as that between “good and bad,” “we and the others,” “I and the world” date back to our earliest developmental phases…They point back to the “chaotic” nature of reality, and its clash with the omnipotence fantasies of earliest infancy. Our stereotypes are both tools and scars: the “bad man” is the stereotype par excellence…Modern mass communications, molded after industrial production, spread a whole system of stereotypes which, while still being fundamentally “ununderstandable” to the individual, allow him at any moment to appear as being up to date and “knowing all about it.” Thus, stereotyped thinking in political matters is almost inescapable.

Adorno was writing nearly seventy years ago, and the pressure to “know all about” politics—as well as the volume of stereotyped information being fed to consumers—has increased exponentially. But stereotypes, while initially satisfying, exist on the level of abstraction, which leads to the need for personalization as well:

[Personalization is] the tendency to describe objective social and economic processes, political programs, internal and external tensions in terms of some person identified with the case in question rather than taking the trouble to perform the impersonal intellectual operations required by the abstractness of the social processes themselves…To know something about a person helps one to seem “informed” without actually going into the matter: it is easier to talk about names than about issues, while at the same time the names are recognized identification marks for all current topics.

Adorno concludes that “spurious personalization is an ideal behavior pattern for the semi­-erudite, a device somewhere in the middle between complete ignorance and that kind of ‘knowledge’ which is being promoted by mass communication and industrialized culture.” This is a tendency, needless to say, that we find on both the left and the right, and it becomes particularly prevalent in periods of maximum confusion:

The opaqueness of the present political and economic situation for the average person provides an ideal opportunity for retrogression to the infantile level of stereotypy and personalization…Stereotypy helps to organize what appears to the ignorant as chaotic: the less he is able to enter into a really cognitive process, the more stubbornly he clings to certain patterns, belief in which saves him the trouble of really going into the matter.

This seems to describe our predicament uncannily well, and I could keep listing the parallels forever. (Adorno has an entire subchapter titled “No Pity for the Poor.”) Whatever else you might think of his methods, there’s no question that he captures our current situation with frightening clarity: “As less and less actually depends on individual spontaneity in our political and social organization, the more people are likely to cling to the idea that the man is everything and to seek a substitute for their own social impotence in the supposed omnipotence of great personalities.” Most prophetically of all, Adorno draws a distinction between genuine conservatives and “pseudoconservatives,” describing the former as “supporting not only capitalism in its liberal, individualistic form but also those tenets of traditional Americanism which are definitely antirepressive and sincerely democratic, as indicated by an unqualified rejection of antiminority prejudices.” And he adds chillingly: “The pseudoconservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”

Written by nevalalee

November 23, 2018 at 9:00 am

Beyond the Whole Earth

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Earlier this week, The New Yorker published a remarkably insightful piece by the memoirist and critic Anna Wiener on Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. Brand, as I’ve noted here many times before, is one of my personal heroes, almost by default—I just wouldn’t be the person I am today without the books and ideas that he inspired me to discover. (The biography of Buckminster Fuller that I plan to spend the next three years writing is the result of a chain of events that started when I stumbled across a copy of the Catalog as a teenager in my local library.) And I’m far from alone. Wiener describes Brand as “a sort of human Venn diagram, celebrated for bridging the hippie counterculture and the nascent personal-computer industry,” and she observes that his work remains a touchstone to many young technologists, who admire “its irreverence toward institutions, its emphasis on autodidacticism, and its sunny view of computers as tools for personal liberation.” Even today, Wiener notes, startup founders reach out to Brand, “perhaps in search of a sense of continuity or simply out of curiosity about the industry’s origins,” which overlooks the real possibility that he might still have more meaningful insights than anybody else. Yet he also receives his share of criticism:

“The Whole Earth Catalog is well and truly obsolete and extinct,” [Brand] said. “There’s this sort of abiding interest in it, or what it was involved in, back in the day…There’s pieces being written on the East Coast about how I’m to blame for everything,” from sexism in the back-to-the-land communes to the monopolies of Google, Amazon, and Apple. “The people who are using my name as a source of good or ill things going on in cyberspace, most of them don’t know me at all.”

Wiener continues with a list of elements in the Catalog that allegedly haven’t aged well: “The pioneer rhetoric, the celebration of individualism, the disdain for government and social institutions, the elision of power structures, the hubris of youth.” She’s got a point. But when I look at that litany of qualities now, they seem less like an ideology than a survival strategy that emerged in an era with frightening similarities to our own. Brand’s vision of the world was shaped by the end of the Johnson administration and by the dawn of Nixon and Kissinger, and many Americans were perfectly right to be skeptical of institutions. His natural optimism obscured the extent to which his ideas were a reaction to the betrayals of Watergate and Vietnam, and when I look around at the world today, his insistence on the importance of individuals and small communities seems more prescient than ever. The ongoing demolition of the legacy of the progressive moment, which seems bound to continue on the judicial level no matter what happens elsewhere, only reveals how fragile it was all along. America’s withdrawal from its positions of leadership on climate change, human rights, and other issues has been so sudden and complete that I don’t think I’ll be able to take the notion of governmental reform seriously ever again. Progress imposed from the top down can always be canceled, rolled back, or reversed as soon as power changes hands. (Speaking of Roe v. Wade, Ruth Bader Ginsburg once observed: “Doctrinal limbs too swiftly shaped, experience teaches, may prove unstable.” She seems to have been right about Roe, even if it took half a century for its weaknesses to become clear, and much the same may hold true of everything that progressives have done through federal legislation.) And if the answer, as incomplete and unsatisfying as it might be, lies in greater engagement on the state and local level, the Catalog remains as useful a blueprint as any that we have.

Yet I think that Wiener’s critique is largely on the mark. The trouble with Brand’s tools, as well as their power, is that they work equally well for everyone, regardless of the underlying motive, and when detached from their original context, they can easily be twisted into a kind of libertarianism that seems callously removed from the lives of the most vulnerable. (As Brand says to Wiener: “Whole Earth Catalog was very libertarian, but that’s because it was about people in their twenties, and everybody then was reading Robert Heinlein and asserting themselves and all that stuff.”) Some of Wiener’s most perceptive comments are directed against the Clock of the Long Now, a project that has fascinated and moved me ever since it was first announced. Wiener is less impressed: “When I first heard about the ten-thousand-year clock, as it is known, it struck me as embodying the contemporary crisis of masculinity.” She points out that the clock’s backers include such problematic figures as Peter Thiel, while the funding comes largely from Jeff Bezos, whose impact on the world has yet to receive a full accounting. And after concluding her interview with Brand, Wiener writes:

As I sat on the couch in my apartment, overheating in the late-afternoon sun, I felt a growing unease that this vision for the future, however soothing, was largely fantasy. For weeks, all I had been able to feel for the future was grief. I pictured woolly mammoths roaming the charred landscape of Northern California and future archeologists discovering the remains of the ten-thousand-year clock in a swamp of nuclear waste. While antagonism between millennials and boomers is a Freudian trope, Brand’s generation will leave behind a frightening, if unintentional, inheritance. My generation, and those after us, are staring down a ravaged environment, eviscerated institutions, and the increasing erosion of democracy. In this context, the long-term view is as seductive as the apolitical, inward turn of the communards from the nineteen-sixties. What a luxury it is to be released from politics––to picture it all panning out.

Her description of this attitude as a “luxury” seems about right, and there’s no question that the Whole Earth Catalog appealed to men and women who had the privilege of reinventing themselves in their twenties, which is a form of freedom that can evolve imperceptibly into complacency and selfishness. I’ve begun to uneasily suspect that the relationship might not just be temporal, but causal. Lamenting that the Catalog failed to save us from our current predicament, which is hard to deny, can feel a little like what David Crosby once said to Rolling Stone:

Somehow Sgt. Pepper’s did not stop the Vietnam War. Somehow it didn’t work. Somebody isn’t listening. I ain’t saying stop trying; I know we’re doing the right thing to live, full on. Get it on and do it good. But the inertia we’re up against, I think everybody’s kind of underestimated it. I would’ve thought Sgt. Pepper’s could’ve stopped the war just by putting too many good vibes in the air for anybody to have a war around.

When I wrote about this quote last year, I noted that a decisive percentage of voters who were old enough to buy Sgt. Pepper on its first release ended up voting for Donald Trump, just as some fans of the Whole Earth Catalog have built companies that have come to dominate our lives in unsettling ways. And I no longer think of this as an aberration, or even as a betrayal of the values expressed by the originals, but as an exposure of the flawed idea of freedom that they represented. (Even the metaphor of the catalog itself, which implies that we can pick and choose the knowledge that we need, seems troubling now.) Writing once of Fuller’s geodesic domes, which were a fixture in the Catalog, Brand ruefully confessed that they were elegant in theory, but in practice, they “were a massive, total failure…Domes leaked, always.” Brand’s vision, which grew out of Fuller’s, remains the most compelling way of life that I know. But it leaked, always.

The creeps of the cosmos

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Note: I’m taking the day off, so I’m republishing a piece from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 16, 2017.

“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 remarkable 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 described as 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 beatnik 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 dated shortly before the one quoted above, Burroughs explained: “The method of directed recall is the method of Scientology. You will recall I wrote urging you to contact [a] 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 soon 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 once 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 participated in 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 OT III, or The Wall of Fire, in which 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. It’s hard to imagine how Burroughs would have avoided paying for it in full, and he evidently 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.”

A Fuller Life

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I’m pleased to announce that I’ve finally figured out the subject of my next book, which will be a biography of the architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably know how much Fuller means to me, and I’m looking forward to giving him the comprehensive portrait that he deserves. (Honestly, that’s putting it mildly. I’ve known for over a week that I’ll have a chance to tackle this project, and I still can’t quite believe that it’s really happening. And I’m especially happy that my current publisher has agreed to give me a shot at it.) At first glance, this might seem like a departure from my previous work, but it presents an opportunity to explore some of the same themes from a different angle, and to explore how they might play out in the real world. The timelines of the two projects largely coincide, with a group of subjects who were affected by the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the social upheavals of the sixties. All of them had highly personal notions about the fate of America, and Fuller used physical artifacts much as Campbell, Asimov, and Heinlein employed science fiction—to prepare their readers for survival in an era of perpetual change. Fuller’s wife, Anne, played an unsung role in his career that recalls many of the women in Astounding. Like Campbell, he approached psychology as a category of physics, and he hoped to turn the prediction of future trends into a science in itself. His skepticism of governments led him to conclude that society should be changed through design, not political institutions, and like many science fiction writers, he acted as if all disciplines could be reduced to subsets of engineering. And for most of his life, he insisted that complicated social problems could be solved through technology.

Most of his ideas were expressed through the geodesic dome, the iconic work of structural design that made him famous—and I hope that this book will be as much about the dome as about Fuller himself. It became a universal symbol of the space age, and his reputation as a futurist may have been founded largely on the fact that his most recognizable achievement instantly evoked the landscape of science fiction. From the beginning, the dome was both an elegant architectural conceit and a potent metaphor. The concept of a hemispherical shelter that used triangular elements to enclose the maximum amount of space had been explored by others, but Fuller was the first to see it as a vehicle for social change. With design principles that could be scaled up or down without limitation, it could function as a massive commercial pavilion or as a house for hippies. (Ken Kesey dreamed of building a geodesic dome to hold one of his acid tests.) It could be made out of plywood, steel, or cardboard. A dome could be cheaply assembled by hand by amateur builders, which encouraged experimentation, and its specifications could be laid out in a few pages and shared for free, like the modern blueprints for printable houses. It was a hackable, open-source machine for living that reflected a set of tools that spoke to the same men and women who were teaching themselves how to code. As I noted here recently, a teenager named Jaron Lanier, who was living in a tent with his father on an acre of desert in New Mexico, used nothing but the formulas in Lloyd Kahn’s Domebook to design and build a house that he called “Earth Station Lanier.” Lanier, who became renowned years later as the founder of virtual reality, never got over the experience. He recalled decades later: “I loved the place; dreamt about it while sleeping inside it.”

During his lifetime, Fuller was one of the most famous men in America, and he managed to become an idol to both the establishment and the counterculture. In the three decades since his death, his reputation has faded, but his legacy is visible everywhere. The influence of his geodesic structures can be seen in the Houston Astrodome, at Epcot Center, on thousands of playgrounds, in the dome tents favored by backpackers, and in the emergency shelters used after Hurricane Katrina. Fuller had a lasting impact on environmentalism and design, and his interest in unconventional forms of architecture laid the foundation for the alternative housing movement. His homegrown system of geometry led to insights into the biological structure of viruses and the logic of communications networks, and after he died, he was honored by the discoverers of a revolutionary form of carbon that resembled a geodesic sphere, which became known as fullerene, or the buckyball. And I’m particularly intrigued by his parallels to the later generation of startup founders. During the seventies, he was a hero to the likes of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, who later featured him prominently in the first “Think Different” commercial, and he was the prototype of the Silicon Valley types who followed. He was a Harvard dropout who had been passed over by the college’s exclusive social clubs, and despite his lack of formal training, he turned himself into an entrepreneur who believed in changing society through innovative products and environmental design. Fuller wore the same outfit to all his public appearances, and his personal habits amounted to an early form of biohacking. (Fuller slept each day for just a few hours, taking a nap whenever he felt tired, and survived mostly on steak and tea.) His closest equivalent today may well be Elon Musk, which tells us a lot about both men.

And this project is personally significant to me. I first encountered Fuller through The Whole Earth Catalog, which opened its first edition with two pages dedicated to his work, preceded by a statement from editor Stewart Brand: “The insights of Buckminster Fuller initiated this catalog.” I was three years old when he died, and I grew up in the shadow of his influence in the Bay Area. The week before my freshman year in high school, I bought a used copy of his book Critical Path, and I tried unsuccessfully to plow through Synergetics. (At the time, this all felt kind of normal, and it’s only when I look back that it seems strange—which tells you a lot about me, too.) Above all else, I was drawn to his reputation as the ultimate generalist, which reflected my idea of what my life should be, and I’m hugely excited by the prospect of returning to him now. Fuller has been the subject of countless other works, but never a truly authoritative biography, which is a project that meets both Susan Sontag’s admonition that a writer should try to be useful and the test that I stole from Lin-Manuel Miranda: “What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?” Best of all, the process looks to be tremendously interesting for its own sake—I think it’s going to rewire my brain. It also requires an unbelievable amount of research. To apply the same balanced, fully sourced, narrative approach to his life that I tried to take for Campbell, I’ll need to work through all of Fuller’s published work, a mountain of primary sources, and what might literally be the largest single archive for any private individual in history. I know from experience that I can’t do it alone, and I’m looking forward to seeking help from the same kind of brain trust that I was lucky to have for Astounding. Those of you who have stuck with this blog should be prepared to hear a lot more about Fuller over the next three years, but I wouldn’t be doing this at all if I didn’t think that you might find it interesting. And who knows? He might change your life, too.

Written by nevalalee

November 16, 2018 at 8:50 am

The tunnel and the labyrinth

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Last week, the publisher Alfred A. Knopf released The William H. Gass Reader, a dense, beautiful volume of almost nine hundred pages devoted to one of the strangest, most serious, and most uncompromising writers of our time. (As I’ve noted here before, Gass’s The Tunnel may have more to say about our era than any other novel.) I hope to discuss it in detail soon, but today, I want to focus on the essay “Imaginary Borges and His Books,” in which Gass takes on my favorite author, whom he admires, but only with strong reservations. After quoting a line in which Borges hints at his fondness for Ralph Waldo Emerson, Gass writes acidly:

Emerson? Many of Borges’s other enthusiasms are equally dismaying, like the Russians’ for Jack London, or the symbolist poets’ for Poe; on the whole they tend to be directed toward obscure or marginal figures, to stand for somewhat cranky, wayward, even decadent choices: works at once immature or exotic, thin though mannered, clever rather than profound, neat instead of daring, too often the products of learning, fancy, and contrivance to make us comfortable; they exhibit a taste that is still in its teens, one becalmed in backwater, and a mind that is seriously intrigued by certain dubious or jejune forms, forms which have to be overcome, not simply exploited: fantastic tales and wild romances, science fiction, detective stories, and other similar modes which, with a terrible theological energy and zeal, impose upon implausible premises a rigorous gamelike reasoning.

For now, I’ll pass over the disparaging reference to science fiction—because Gass isn’t quite finished yet. He disapprovingly continues: “Thus for this minutely careful essayist and poet it’s not Aristotle, but Zeno, it’s not Kant, but Schopenhauer; it’s not even Hobbes, but Berkley, not Mill or Bradley, but—may philosophy forgive him—Spencer; it’s Dunne, Beckford, Bloy, the Cabalists; it’s Stevenson, Chesterton, Kipling, Wells and William Morris, Browne and De Quincey Borges turns and returns to, while admitting no such similar debt to James, Melville, Joyce, and so on.”

At this point, I could point out that Borges is also one of our most fascinating modern interpreters of such authors as Shakespeare, Cervantes, and especially Dante—but that would simply be playing Gass’s own game, which he’s amply qualified to win. It’s better, I think, to consider what Borges does in practice with these writers, which Gass declines to specify. Take this passage, for instance, which Borges liked so much that he used it in two different essays:

Stevenson (“A Chapter on Dreams”) tells of being pursued in the dreams of his childhood by a certain abominable “hue” of the color brown; Chesterton (The Man Who Was Thursday) imagines that at the western borders of the world there is perhaps a tree that is more or less than a tree; and that at the eastern borders, there is something, perhaps a tower, whose very shape is wicked. Poe, in his “MS Found in a Bottle,” speaks of a southern sea where the ship itself will grow in bulk like the living body of the seaman; Melville devotes many pages of Moby-Dick to an elucidation of the horror of the unbearable whiteness of the whale.

Borges is using these examples to explain the idea of the unheimlich, but along the way, he does much more. These lines appear in a passage in which Borges suggests that William Beckford, author of the novel Vathek, conjures up a more frightening hell than Dante, and the collage of supporting images that he provides here implies that there’s something fundamental in life—its uneasiness, its uncanniness—that we find more clearly in Poe and Chesterton than in any of the supposedly greater writers that Gass would evidently prefer to read. And I suspect that Borges is right.

In fact, nearly all of Gass’s objections can be refuted by looking at the use to which Borges actually puts his materials. While discussing The Book of Imaginary Beings, in which Borges defines mythical creatures from Bahamut to the Simurgh, Gass writes: “Most of these beasts are mechanically made—insufficiently imaginary to be real, insufficiently original to be wonderful or menacing…There’s no longer a world left for these creatures to inhabit—even our own world has expelled them—so that they seem like pieces from a game we’ve forgotten how to play.” I could reply by saying that I’ve been thinking of Bahamut—the gigantic fish that holds up the world in Islamic cosmology—for most of my life. But it would be even better to respond with a few lines from an essay that Borges wrote shortly after the Nazis entered Paris:

Nazism suffers from unreality, like Erigena’s hell. It is uninhabitable; men can only die for it, lie for it, wound and kill for it. No one, in the intimate depths of his being, can wish it to triumph. I shall risk this conjecture: Hitler wants to be defeated. Hitler is blindly collaborating with the inevitable armies that will annihilate him, as the metal vultures and the dragon (which must have known that they were monsters) collaborated, mysteriously, with Hercules.

This is an unforgettable passage, and it depends enormously on Borges’s intuitive ability to zero in on the “metal vultures,” rather than, say, the Erymanthian Boar, which serve as a more effective symbol than any realistic image ever could. As Borges writes elsewhere of another imaginative writer: “How can these fantasies move me, and in such an intimate manner? All literature (I would dare to answer) is symbolic; there are a few fundamental experiences, and it is unimportant whether a writer, in transmitting them, makes use of the ‘fantastic’ or the ‘real,’ Macbeth or Raskolnikov, the invasion of Belgium in August 1914 or an invasion of Mars.”

Borges is speaking here of The Martian Chronicles, of which he continues: “In this outwardly fantastic book, Bradbury has set out the long empty Sundays, the American tedium, and his own solitude.” This comes very close to what Borges notes of his own achievement in his lecture “The Argentine Writer and Tradition”:

For many years, in books now fortunately forgotten, I tried to compose the flavor, the essence, of the outskirts of Buenos Aires; naturally I abounded in local words…Then, about a year ago, I wrote a story called “Death and the Compass,” which is a kind of nightmare, a nightmare in which elements of Buenos Aires appear, deformed by the horror of the nightmare…After the story was published, my friends told me that at last they had found the flavor of the outskirts of Buenos Aires in my writing. Precisely because I had not abandoned myself to the dream, I was able to achieve, after so many years, what I once sought in vain.

Borges’s greatness lies precisely in his ability to find the deeper psychological truth in those very genres, like detective stories or speculative fiction, that Gass thinks should be “overcome.” And part of that gift lies in his genius—which he shares with Proust, an author with whom he might seem to have little else in common—to integrate his mature talents with the mood of the fantasy stories that he read as a child. (Gass dismisses his taste as “still in its teens,” but it would be more accurate to call them the tastes of a boy of twelve, or the golden age, which is something very different.) Gass asks incredulously: “And what about those stories which snap together at the end like a cheap lock? with a gun shot? Is this impish dilettante the same man who leaves us so often uneasily amazed?” He doesn’t name any titles, but any list of such works has to include “Death and the Compass,” one of the most essential short stories of the century, and perhaps also “The Garden of Forking Paths,” which was first translated into English by Anthony Boucher for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. These qualities aren’t incidental to Borges’s work, as Gass seems to believe, but the indispensable building blocks of his labyrinth. And if this is the dream, or nightmare, in which we’ve all found ourselves, Borges is still the best guide that we have.

The end of an era

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On July 11, 1971, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell passed away quietly at his home in New Jersey. When he died, he was alone in his living room, watching Mexican wrestling on the local Spanish channel, which was his favorite television show. (I should also note in passing that it was a genre with deep affinities to superhero culture and comic books.) Word of his death quickly spread through fandom. Isaac Asimov was heartbroken at the news, writing later of the man whom he had always seen as his intellectual father: “I had never once thought…that death and he had anything in common, could ever intersect. He was the fixed pole star about which all science fiction revolved, unchangeable, eternal.” For the last decade, Analog had been on the decline, and Campbell was no longer the inescapable figure he had been in the thirties and forties, but it was impossible to deny his importance. In The Engines of the Night, Barry N. Malzberg spends several pages chronicling the late editor’s failings, mistakes, and shortcomings, but he concludes unforgettably:

And yet when I heard of Campbell’s sudden death…and informed Larry Janifer, I trembled at Janifer’s response and knew that it was so: “The field has lost its conscience, its center, the man for whom we were all writing. Now there’s no one to get mad at us anymore.”

Tributes appeared in such magazines as Locus, and Campbell’s obituary ran in the New York Times, but the loss was felt most keenly within the close community of science fiction readers and writers—perhaps because they sensed that it marked an end to the era in which the genre could still be regarded as the property of a small circle of fans.

I thought of this earlier this week, when the death of Stan Lee inspired what seemed like a national day of mourning. For much of the afternoon, he all but took over the front page of Reddit, which is an achievement that no other nonagenarian could conceivably have managed. And it’s easy to draw a contrast between Lee and Campbell, both in their cultural impact and in the way in which they were perceived by the public. Here’s how Lee is described in the book Men of Tomorrow:

His great talent, in both writing and life, was to win people’s affection. He was raised to be lovable by a mother who worshipped him. “I used to come home from school,” said Stan, “and she’d grab me and fuss over me and say, ‘You’re home already? I was sure today was the day a movie scout would discover you and take you away from me!’” She told Stan that he was the most handsome, most talented, most remarkable boy who’d ever lived. “And I believed her!” Stan said. “I didn’t know any better!” Stan attacked the world with a crooked grin and a line of killer patter. No one else in comics ever wanted to badly to be liked or became so good at it. He was known as a soft touch on advances, deadlines, and extra assignments. Even people who didn’t take him seriously as an editor or writer had to admit that Stan truly was a nice guy.

This couldn’t be less like Campbell, who also had a famous story about coming home from school to see his mother—only to be confronted by her identical twin, his aunt, who hated him. He claimed that this memory inspired the novella that became The Thing. And while I’m not exactly a Freudian biographer, it isn’t hard to draw a few simple conclusions about how these two boys might have grown up to see the world.

Yet they also had a surprising amount in common, to the point that I often used Lee as a point of comparison when I was pitching Astounding. Lee was over a decade younger than Campbell, which made him nearly the same age as Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl—which testifies both to his longevity and to how relatively young Campbell and Asimov were when they died. Lee’s first job in publishing was as an assistant in the comics division of the pulp publisher Martin Goodman, presumably just a few steps away from Uncanny Tales, which suggests that he could just as easily have wound up in one as well as the other. He became the interim comics editor at the age of nineteen, or the same age as Pohl when he landed his first editing job. (I’m not aware of Lee crossing paths with any of my book’s major figures during this period, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they moved in the same circles in New York.) Like Campbell, Lee’s legacy is conventionally thought to consist of moving the genre toward greater realism, better writing, and more believable characters, although the degree to which each man was responsible for these developments has been disputed. Both also cultivated a distinct voice in their editorials and letters columns, which became a forum for open discussion with fans, although they differed drastically in their tones, political beliefs, and ambitions. Campbell openly wanted to make a discovery that would change the world, while Lee seemed content to make his mark on the entertainment industry, which he did with mixed success for decades. It can be hard to remember now, but there was a long period when Lee seemed lost in the wilderness, with a sketchy production company that filed for bankruptcy and pursued various dubious projects. If he had died in his seventies, or just after his cameo in Mallrats, he might well have been mourned, like Campbell, mostly by diehard fans.

Instead, he lived long enough to see the movie versions of X-Men and Spider-Man, followed by the apotheosis of the Marvel Universe. And it’s easy to see the difference between Campbell and Lee as partially a matter of longevity. If Campbell had lived to be the same age, he would have died in 2005, which is a truly staggering thought. I have trouble imagining what science fiction would have been like if he had stuck around for three more decades, even from the sidelines. (It isn’t hard to believe that he might have remained a fixture at conventions. The writer and scholar James Gunn—not to be confused with the director of Guardians of the Galaxy—is almost exactly Stan Lee’s age, and I sat down to chat with him at Worldcon two years ago.) Of course, Campbell was already estranged from many writers and fans at the time of his death, and unlike Lee, he was more than willing to alienate a lot of his readers. It seems unlikely that he would have been forgiven for his mistakes, as Lee was, simply out of the affection in which he was held. If anything, his death may have postponed the reckoning with his racism, and its impact on the genre, that otherwise might have taken place during his lifetime. But the differences also run deeper. When you look at the world in which we live today, it might seem obvious that Lee’s comics won out over Campbell’s stories, at least when measured by their box office and cultural impact. The final installment in E.E. Smith’s Galactic Patrol was published just a few months before the debut of a character created by the science fiction fans Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, but you still see kids dressed up as Superman, not the Gray Lensman. That may seem inevitable now, but it could easily have gone the other way. The story of how this happened is a complicated one, and Lee played a huge part in it, along with many others. His death, like Campbell’s, marks the end of an era. And it may only be now that we can start to figure out what it all really meant.

The soul of a new machine

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Over the weekend, I took part in a panel at Windycon titled “Evil Computers: Why Didn’t We Just Pull the Plug?” Naturally, my mind turned to the most famous evil computer in all of fiction, so I’ve been thinking a lot about HAL, which made me all the more sorry to learn yesterday of the death of voice actor Douglas Rain. (Stan Lee also passed away, of course, which is a subject for a later post.) I knew that Rain had been hired to record the part after Stanley Kubrick was dissatisfied by an earlier attempt by Martin Balsam, but I wasn’t aware that the director had a particular model in mind for the elusive quality that he was trying to evoke, as Kate McQuiston reveals in the book We’ll Meet Again:

Would-be HALs included Alistair Cooke and Martin Balsam, who read for the part but was deemed too emotional. Kubrick set assistant Benn Reyes to the task of finding the right actor, and expressly not a narrator, to supply the voice. He wrote, “I would describe the quality as being sincere, intelligent, disarming, the intelligent friend next door, the Winston Hibler/Walt Disney approach. The voice is neither patronizing, nor is it intimidating, nor is it pompous, overly dramatic, or actorish. Despite this, it is interesting. Enough said, see what you can do.” Even Kubrick’s U.S. lawyer, Louis Blau, was among those making suggestions, which included Richard Basehart, José Ferrer, Van Heflin, Walter Pigeon, and Jason Robards. In Douglas Rain, who had experience both as an actor and a narrator, Kubrick found just what he was looking for: “I have found a narrator…I think he’s perfect, he’s got just the right amount of the Winston Hibler, the intelligent friend next door quality, with a great deal of sincerity, and yet, I think, an arresting quality.”

Who was Winston Hibler? He was the producer and narrator for Disney who provided voiceovers for such short nature documentaries as Seal Island, In Beaver Valley, and White Wilderness, and the fact that Kubrick used him as a touchstone is enormously revealing. On one level, the initial characterization of HAL as a reassuring, friendly voice of information has obvious dramatic value, particularly as the situation deteriorates. (It’s the same tactic that led Richard Kiley to figure in both the novel and movie versions of Jurassic Park. And I have to wonder whether Kubrick ever weighed the possibility of hiring Hibler himself, since in other ways, he clearly spared no expense.) But something more sinister is also at play. As I’ve mentioned before, Disney and its aesthetic feels weirdly central to the problem of modernity, with its collision between the sentimental and the calculated, and the way in which its manufactured feeling can lead to real memories and emotion. Kubrick, a famously meticulous director who looked everywhere for insights into craft, seems to have understood this. And I can’t resist pointing out that Hibler did the voiceover for White Wilderness, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short, but also included a scene in which the filmmakers deliberately herded lemmings off a cliff into the water in a staged mass suicide. As Hibler smoothly narrates in the original version: “A kind of compulsion seizes each tiny rodent and, carried along by an unreasoning hysteria, each falls into step for a march that will take them to a strange destiny. That destiny is to jump into the ocean. They’ve become victims of an obsession—a one-track thought: ‘Move on! Move on!’ This is the last chance to turn back, yet over they go, casting themselves out bodily into space.”

And I think that Kubrick’s fixation on Hibler’s voice, along with the version later embodied by Rain, gets at something important about our feelings toward computers and their role in our lives. In 2001, the astronauts are placed in an artificial environment in which their survival depends on the outwardly benevolent HAL, and one of the central themes of science fiction is what happens when this situation expands to encompass an entire civilization. It’s there at the very beginning of the genre’s modern era, in John W. Campbell’s “Twilight,” which depicts a world seven million years in the future in which “perfect machines” provide for our every need, robbing the human race of all initiative. (Campbell would explore this idea further in “The Machine,” and he even offered an early version of the singularity—in which robots learn to build better versions of themselves—in “The Last Evolution.”) Years later, Campbell and Asimov put that relationship at the heart of the Three Laws of Robotics, the first of which states: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” This sounds straightforward enough, but as writers realized almost right away, it hinges on the definition of certain terms, including “human being” and “harm,” that are slipperier than they might seem. Its ultimate expression was Jack Williamson’s story “With Folded Hands,” which carried the First Law to its terrifying conclusion. His superior robots believe that their Prime Directive is to prevent all forms of unhappiness, which prompts them to drug or lobotomize any human beings who seem less than content. As Williamson said much later in an interview with Larry McCaffery: “The notion I was consciously working on specifically came out of a fragment of a story I had worked on for a while about an astronaut in space who is accompanied by a robot obviously superior to him physically…Just looking at the fragment gave me the sense of how inferior humanity is in many ways to mechanical creations.”

Which brings us back to the singularity. Its central assumption was vividly expressed by the mathematician I.J. Good, who also served as a consultant on 2001:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

That last clause is a killer, but even if we accept that such a machine would be “docile,” it also embodies the fear, which Campbell was already exploring in the early thirties, of a benevolent dictatorship of machines. And the very Campbellian notion of “the last invention” should be frightening in itself. The prospect of immortality may be enticing, but not if it emerges through a technological singularity that leaves us unprepared to deal with the social consequences, rather than through incremental scientific and medical progress—and the public debate that it ought to inspire—that human beings have earned for themselves. I can’t imagine anything more nightmarish than a world in which we can all live forever without having gone through the necessary ethical, political, and ecological stages to make such a situation sustainable. (When I contemplate living through the equivalent of the last two years over the course of millennia, the notion of eternal life becomes considerably less attractive.) Our fear of computers taking over our lives, whether on a spacecraft or in society as a whole, is really about the surrender of control, even in the benevolent form embodied by Disney. And when I think of the singularity now, I seem to hear it speaking with Winston Hibler’s voice: “Move on! Move on!”

The ethereal phase

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Like many readers, I first encountered the concept of the singularity—the idea that artificial intelligence will eventually lead to an era of exponential technological change—through the work of the futurist Ray Kurzweil. Fifteen years ago, I was browsing in a bookstore when I came across a copy of his book The Singularity is Near, which I bought on the spot. Kurzweil’s thesis is a powerful one, and, to a point, it remains completely convincing:

What, then, is the Singularity? It’s a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed…The key idea underlying the impending Singularity is that the pace of change of our human-created technology is accelerating and its powers are expanding at an exponential pace. Exponential growth is deceptive. It starts out almost imperceptibly and then explodes with unexpected fury—unexpected, that is, if one does not take care to follow its trajectory.

Kurzweil seems particularly enthusiastic about one purported consequence of this development: “We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want (a subtly different statement from saying we will live forever).” And he suggests that the turning point will occur “before the middle of this century.”

This line of thinking, which was much more novel back then than it is today, was enough to briefly turn me into a transhumanist, or at least into the approximation of one. But I’m more skeptical now. As I noted here recently, one of Kurzweil’s core arguments—that incremental advances in medical technology will lead to functional immortality to those who can hang around for long enough—was advanced by John W. Campbell as far back as 1949. (Writing in Astounding Science Fiction, Campbell muses that a child will be born one day who never has to do die, and he concludes: “I wonder if that point has been passed? And my own guess is—it has.” There’s no proof yet that he was wrong, but I have my doubts.) And the notion of accelerating change is even older. The historian Henry Adams explores the possibility in an essay published in 1904, and a few years later, in the book Degradation of the Democratic Dogma, he writes of the pace of technological progress:

As each newly appropriated force increased the attraction between the sum of nature’s forces and the volume of human mind, by the usual law of squares, the acceleration hurried society towards the critical point that marked the passage into a new phase as though it were heat impelling water to explode as steam…The curve resembles that of the vaporization of water. The resemblance is too close to be disregarded, for nature loves the logarithm, and perpetually recurs to her inverse square. For convenience, if only as a momentary refuge, the physicist-historian will probably have to try the experiment of taking the law of inverse squares as his standard of social acceleration for the nineteenth century, and consequently for the whole phase, which obliges him to accept it experimentally as a general law of history.

Adams thought that the point of no return would occur around 1917, while Buckminster Fuller, writing over a generation later, speculated that technological change would lead to a post-scarcity society sometime in the late seventies. Such futurists tend to place the pivotal moment at a far enough remove to be plausible, while still potentially within their own lifetimes, which hints at the element of wishful thinking involved. (It’s worth noting that the same amount of time has passed since the publication of The Singularity is Near as elapsed between Adams’s first essay on the subject and the date that he posited for what he liked to call the Ethereal Phase.) And unlike other prophets, they benefit from their ability to frame such speculations in the language of science—and especially of physics and mathematics. Writing from the point of view of a historian, in fact, Adams arrives at something that sounds remarkably like psychohistory:

If values can be given to these attractions, a physical theory of history is a mere matter of physical formula, no more complicated than the formulas of Willard Gibbs or Clerk Maxwell; but the task of framing the formula and assigning the values belongs to the physicist, not to the historian…If the physicist-historian is satisfied with neither of the known laws of mass, astronomical or electric, and cannot arrange his variables in any combination that will conform with a phase-sequence, no resource seems to remain but that of waiting until his physical problems shall be solved, and he shall be able to explain what Force is…Probably the solution of any one of the problems will give the solution for them all.

And each of these men sees exactly what he wants to find in this phenomenon, which amounts to a kind of Rorschach test for futurists. On my bookshelf, I have a book titled The 10% Solution to a Healthy Life, which outlines a health plan based largely on the work of Nathan Pritikin, whose thoughts on diet—and longevity—have turned out to be surprisingly influential. Its author says of his decision to write a book: “Being a scientist and a trained skeptic, I was always turned off by people with strong singular agendas. People out to save my soul or even just my health or well-being were strongly suspect. I felt very uncomfortable, therefore, in this role myself, telling people how they should eat or live.” The author was Ray Kurzweil. He makes no mention of the singularity here, but after another decade, he had moved on to such titles as Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever and Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever. Immortality clearly matters a lot to him, which naturally affects how he views the prospect of accelerating change. By contrast, Adams was most attracted by the possibility of refining the theory of history into a science, as Campbell and Asimov later were, while Fuller saw it as the means to an ecological utopia, which had less to do with environmental awareness than with his desire to free the world’s population to do whatever it wanted with its time. Kurzweil, in turn, sees it as a way for us to live for as long as we want, which is an interest that predated his public association with the singularity, and this is reason enough to be skeptical of everything that he says. Kurzweil is a genius, but he’s also just about the last person we should trust to be objective when it comes to the consequences of accelerating change. I’ll be talking about this more tomorrow.

Levitating the Pentagon

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On October 21, 1967, over fifty thousand activists marched on the Pentagon to protest the war in Vietnam. The participants included Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Rubin, Ed Sanders, and Norman Mailer, who describes one of the day’s most memorable episodes in The Armies of the Night:

This was the beginning of the exorcism of the Pentagon, yes the papers had made much of the permit requested by a hippie leader named Abbie Hoffman to encircle the Pentagon with twelve hundred men in order to form a ring of exorcism sufficiently powerful to raise the Pentagon three hundred feet. In the air the Pentagon would then, went the presumption, turn orange and vibrate until all evil emissions had fled this levitation. At that point the war in Vietnam would end.

The notion of levitating the Pentagon—an occult symbol that had been corrupted into an emblem of war—was the brainchild of Michael Bowen, a San Francisco artist and political organizer whose friends included Timothy Leary and Gary Snyder. As the ceremony proceeded, a flyer was circulated that encouraged the attendees to concentrate their minds on casting out evil: “A billion stars in a billion galaxies of space and time is the form of your power, and limitless is your name.” Rubin and Ginsberg led the crowd in invocations and mantras, and Bowen distributed flowers to the protesters, who inserted daisies into the gun barrels of the military police. Watching the scene unfold, Mailer marveled: “On which acidic journeys had the hippies met the witches and the devils and the cutting edge of all primitive awe?”

It was a rhetorical question, but the real answer is genuinely surprising. Bowen credited the basic idea for the ceremony to his guru, an occultist living in Mexico named John Starr Cooke. As a recent article in Smithsonian recounts:

Cooke had sent his protégé as a missionary of sorts in search of fellow travelers in New York, London, and most recently San Francisco, where he had found his greatest success rallying people to the cause…Following the Be-In [in January 1967]…Bowen returned to Mexico to be with his teacher. They worked on extrasensory perception, ancient Mayan shamanic rituals, and the metaphysical symbology that informed the artist’s paintings. Then the guru dispatched his student back to the United States—arming him this time with an outlandish idea that found a surprisingly receptive audience.

Attentive readers of this blog might remember that Cooke was also an associate of L. Ron Hubbard, an early proponent of dianetics, and allegedly the first “clear” in America. As I’ve noted here before, Cooke spent time with Hubbard in London and Tangier, and it was through him that Byron Gysin and William S. Burroughs were introduced to Scientology. But if the idea of levitating the Pentagon truly came from Cooke, it may well have been influenced in turn by Hubbard, who described the individual who has reached the stage beyond clear: “A thetan who is completely rehabilitated and can do everything a thetan should do, such as move MEST [matter, energy, space, and time] and control others from a distance, or create his own universe; a person who is able to create his own universe or, living in the MEST universe is able to create illusions perceivable by others at will, to handle MEST universe objects without mechanical means.” And Hubbard himself was rumored to be able to move objects with his mind, as one of his former followers later recalled: “People thought he could levitate things.”

In my original post on the subject, I wrote of Cooke: “It may have been through him that aspects of dianetics entered the counterculture—another important story that has yet to be told.” When I wrote those words, I didn’t know the half of it. For now, though, I’d like to focus on the mysterious way in which one of Hubbard’s wild promises was transmuted, as in a game of telephone, into something genuinely moving and memorable. It didn’t succeed in levitating the Pentagon, but only in the sense that Sgt. Pepper didn’t end the Vietnam War. As none other than Daniel Ellsberg notes in an oral history of the event by Arthur magazine:

I was working on the Pentagon Papers that fall in a room which happened to be right next to MacNamara’s office. I’d come back from Vietnam very anxious to see the war end and to do whatever I could to help that. So I was very sympathetic to the anti-war movement, what I knew of it. The idea of levitating the Pentagon struck me as a great idea because the idea of removing deference from any of these institutions is very, very important, and this is of course the kind of thing that Abbie understood very instinctively. It was not just a matter of clowning and a way to get the attention of the media, or to make people smile. And the idea that you would jointly piss on the Pentagon as part of a pagan ceremony raises so many associations. One might think of the Pentagon as pagan in itself, but that’s a slander of pagan religion.

Or as Ginsberg says in the same article: “The levitation of the Pentagon was a happening that demystified the authority of the military. The Pentagon was symbolically levitated in people’s minds in the sense that it lost its authority which had been unquestioned and unchallenged until then…Once the kid put his flower in the barrel of the kid looking just like himself but tense and nervous, the authority of the Pentagon psychologically was dissolved.”

And this kind of demystification is exactly the kind of thing that the confidence trickster is born to do. It’s a vital form of protest, and the fact that it may have indirectly drawn inspiration from Hubbard, of all people, is revealing in itself. These impulses can go in any number of directions. Abbie Hoffman himself had a lot in common with the denizens of the pool halls that also filled David Mamet with nostalgia, as John Escow told Arthur: “Abbie’s political program was just a hastily thrown together amalgamation of some things he had read, certain life lessons that he had picked up in pool halls and on the street.” Writing in his introduction to Hoffman’s autobiography, Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture, Mailer intuitively makes the connection to an even older archetype:

Abbie was one of the most incredible-looking people I ever met. In fact, he wasn’t twentieth century, but nineteenth. Might just as well have emerged out of Oliver Twist. You could say he used to look like a chimney sweep. In fact, I don’t know what chimney sweeps looked like, but I always imagined them as having a manic integrity that glared out of their eyes through all the soot and darked-up skin. It was the knowledge that they were doing an essential job that no one else would do. Without them, everybody in the house would slowly, over the years, suffocate from the smoke.

These skills are far older than modern politics, and they’re ideologically neutral, which can frustrate more “serious” activists—but which also makes them even more effective at certain kinds of mobilization. (As Paul Krassner recalls in the same oral history: “[Abbie] saw that people who could be organized to go to a smoke-in, could be organized to go to an antiwar rally.) Jerry Rubin once pointed out in the Berkeley Barb: “The worst thing you can say about a demonstration is that it is boring, and one of the reasons that the peace movement has not grown into a mass movement is that the peace movement—its literature and its events—is a bore. Good theatre is needed to communicate revolutionary content.” That’s as true today as it ever was. And the show is just getting started.

The dark suspense

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“The world is a great dodger, and the Americans the greatest,” D.H. Lawrence writes in Studies in Classic American Literature. “Because they dodge their own very selves.” He wrote these lines exactly one hundred years ago, in 1918, when he was living in a tiny village in England, and the resulting essay, “The Sense of Place,” falls in the long tradition of European authors writing from overseas about the New World, which can seem too large to see clearly up close. Lawrence argues that the notion that America was founded “in search of freedom of worship” is little more than a lie, and he makes his case in terms that ring uncomfortably true today:

Freedom anyhow? The land of the free! This the land of the free! Why, if I say anything that displeases them, the free mob will lynch me, and that’s my freedom. Free? Why, I have never been in any country where the individual has such an abject fear of his fellow countrymen. Because, as I say, they are free to lynch the moment he shows he is not one of them.

America’s founding myth, Lawrence implies, emerged from its inability to recognize the true reasons for the vast movement away from Europe that drove its existence from the beginning. As he observes dryly: “Those Pilgrim Fathers and their successors never came here for freedom of worship. What did they set up when they got here? Freedom, would you call it? They didn’t come for freedom. Or if they did, they sadly went back on themselves.”

And I’ve been thinking about this essay a lot recently. The Democrats may have won back the House, but the deeper fissures exposed by the midterms can no longer be dismissed as an aberration. These divisions are an inherent part of America, and they always have been, which suggests that much of the American experience has consisted of its constant self-deception, or dodging, about what kind of country this has been from the beginning. And I suspect that this has something to do with the nature of the impulse that led to its formation in the first place, which Lawrence defines as a “revulsion” from Europe and everything it represented. It was a negative force, not a positive one, and it left a void at this country’s heart:

They came largely to get away—that most simple of motives. To get away. Away from what? In the long run, away from themselves. Away from everything. That’s why most people have come to America, and still do come. To get away from everything they are and have been…Which is all very well, but it isn’t freedom. Rather the reverse. A hopeless sort of constraint. It is never freedom till you kind something you really positively want to be. And people in America have always been shouting about the things they are not. Unless, of course, they are millionaires, made or in the making.

Of course, many Americans have always seen themselves as millionaires “in the making,” and they continue to act, speak, and vote as if they were already there, no matter what the consequences are in the meantime.

At this point, it’s worth remembering that Lawrence was hardly a defender of popular democracy, which he regarded with suspicion. In a notorious letter to Bertrand Russell, Lawrence wrote in 1915 of his ideal form of government: “The electors for the highest places should be the governors of the bigger districts—the whole thing should work upwards, every man voting for that which he more or less understands though contact—no canvassing of mass votes. And women shall vote equally with the men, but for different things…And if a system works up to a Dictator who controls the greater industrial side of the national life, it must work up to a Dictatrix who controls the things relating to private life.” But the same line of thought also leads Lawrence to put his finger on some of the paradoxes of American life—a desire for “freedom” combined with an embrace of systems of oppression, and a contempt toward the immigrants without whom the entire machine would collapse:

Liberty is all very well, but men cannot live without masters. There is always a master. And men either live in glad obedience to the master they believe in, or they live in a frictional opposition to the master they wish to undermine. In America this frictional opposition has been the vital factor. It has given the Yankee his kick. Only the continual influx of more servile Europeans has provided America with an obedient laboring class. The true obedience never outlasting the first generation.

And another line seems especially prescient now: “At the bottom of the American soul was always a dark suspense…And this dark suspense hated and hates the old European spontaneity, watches it collapse with satisfaction.”

As I read this essay over again today, it seems to me that Lawrence’s central point—that American freedom has always defined itself by what it isn’t, rather than what it is—remains as true as ever. And our inability to articulate what we collectively believe reflects the toxic nature of many of those unspoken assumptions. This country was built on the rejection of one set of masters, but it reserves its right to impose unilateral mastery on others, and much of what we’ve been taught to believe about ourselves amounts to an evasion of this fact. We’re still dodging the truth, which leaves us with nothing but words, as beautiful as some of them may be. As Lawrence writes:

Men are freest when they are most unconscious of freedom. The shout is a rattling of chains, always was…The real American day hasn’t begun yet. Or at least, not yet sunrise. So far it has been the false dawn. That is, in the progressive American consciousness there has been the one dominant desire, to do away with the old thing. Do away with masters, exalt the will of the people. The will of the people being nothing but a figment, the exalting doesn’t count for much. So, in the name of the will of the people, get rid of masters. When you have got rid of masters, you are left with this mere phrase of the will of the people. Then you pause and bethink yourself, and try to recover your own wholeness.

Lawrence concludes: “Democracy in America is just the tool with which the old master of Europe, the European spirit, is undermined. Europe destroyed, potentially, American democracy will evaporate. America will begin.” He wrote those words a century ago. And we’re still waiting.

Written by nevalalee

November 7, 2018 at 8:43 am

Astounding Stories #22: None But Lucifer

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Note: This is the latest entry in a series in which I highlight works of speculative fiction that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

None But Lucifer, a short novel by H.L. Gold and L. Sprague de Camp that appeared in the September 1939 issue of Unknown, opens with its lead character figuring out a foolproof way of getting whatever he wants—and it isn’t a fantasy. The story begins with its protagonist, Hale, living in deliberate poverty in a tenement in New York, and within the space of a few pages, merely as an experiment, he talks his way into a lucrative job, a beautiful apartment, and a luxurious lifestyle, mostly just to prove that he can. Hale’s system depends on aiming absurdly high while showing as much apparent contempt for his true goal as possible. As he explains to an incredulous listener:

I can get anything I want any time I want it…Moreover, anybody can use my system…I go after what I want obliquely, by seeming to aim at something else, but grabbing sideways at what I really want…I can be aiming at money, fame, love, an easy life, or influence—but I wouldn’t show which one I really wanted. You’d have to guess…The main thing is to keep your mouth shut about what you really want. The next most important thing is to get out of your social class. You can depend on your own class or the one just above it to defeat you…But if you break out of your class, the one you’re crashing isn’t sure of your aims, and can’t crush you so effectively.

He concludes: “If you’re trying to get a job as a clerk, your objective is pathetically simple to figure out. You want to eat. But if you go after a hundred-thousand-a-year position, with a crack at the boss’s daughter, it gets tougher to analyze your goal.” And that’s particularly true if you manage to break through the barriers that your social class has imposed.

As a list of commandments for con artists and other hustlers—you keep your motives hidden, avoid your own social class, and show as much contempt for possible for what you really want—this approach is as valid as ever, and there are times when it reminds me queasily of Neil Strauss’s The Game. But Gold and de Camp have larger ambitions of their own. The man to whom Hale is describing his strategy isn’t an ordinary human being at all. It’s Lucifier himself, who has been quietly running the world for thousands of years in the guise of an unassuming businessman named Mr. Johnson. Hale has figured out the sinister truth, which is that our world is Hell, and we’re all being punished without our knowledge for sins that we committed in a previous lifetime. (Hale’s first clue came from a line from the novelist Arnold Bennett: “Of all the inhabitants of the inferno, none but Lucifer knows that hell is hell.” Or as Eleanor Shellstrop memorably realized: This is the Bad Place!”) With this information in hand, Hale approaches Lucifer with an ultimatum. He wants to be an equal partner in the management of Hell, or he’ll tell the world about his system for getting whatever you want, which will upset the delicate balance of suffering. Lucifer agrees, and he takes Hale under his wing. And while we reasonably suspect that there’s more to the deal than meets the eye, for the moment, we’re more interested in hearing Lucifer expound on his methods of keeping mankind in an ideal state of misery. For instance:

Running Hell on an efficient basis happens to be my business, and I run it the same as any other businessman runs his business, by practical, common-sense methods…I’m immortal, of course. Hence I can control the world’s money simply by investing a little and waiting for the interest charges to pile up. Outside of that, I can run the world merely by a magnificent system of obtaining information, an understanding of men’s desires, and a knowledge of how to use pivot men. And, of course, the ability to start and stop the flow of money. In most cases the last can be done without a penny.

This is a terrific premise for a story, although None But Lucifer—which de Camp rewrote from Gold’s initial draft, with uncredited contributions from John W. Campbell—doesn’t quite live up to its opening. The middle sags a bit, and it doesn’t follow through completely on its promise. But it’s deliciously quotable throughout, and I can hardly imagine the effect that it must have had on the impressionable teenagers who bought it for twenty cents in 1939. Here, for example, is Lucifer on the efficiency of his strategies for causing pain, which don’t involve tracking every last person on earth, but just a few crucial people: “It’s enough to keep track of trade and production and social, political, and economic movements, with the key figures in each category, their influence, their motives and objectives, and what effect certain…uh…stimuli will have on their own categories and on society in general…No black magic—just detailed information and a knowledge of human nature.” A few pages later, Lucifer explains his attitude toward war:

Except in unusual cases, I never concentrate on tormenting a single person. That would be inefficient…The chronic state of crisis, never quite reaching war, which I have labored incessantly to create, is kept simmering. The world was growing apathetic, but now there is a very gratifying turmoil. Millions of people have been made afraid and unhappy. Others have had their hopes raised. At the proper moment those hopes will be dashed, and they, too, will be unhappy.

When Lucifer poses the problem of what should be done as humanity proceeds toward an inevitable global conflict, Hale gives the correct answer: “I guess I’d try to prevent war…To keep the world frightened for as long as possible.” Lucifer praises his insight, but he adds a reminder: “Even though the war crisis is our most absorbing problem at the moment, we must never cease using the smaller torments.”

None But Lucifer was written before the outbreak of war in Europe, and it was on newsstands when Hitler invaded Poland. Typically, in a later issue, Campbell was quick to play up the coincidence: “None But Lucifer was begun last spring, worked out in detail last summer, bought and started on the process of being set in type late last summer. And it was on the stands at the time Europe was busily proving for the world that Lucifer does rule this planet.” Yet there are few points in history when its insights wouldn’t seem relevant. Reading it over recently, I was most struck by the passage in which Hale marvels at the universal state of suffering:

Millions out of work; increase in the relief budget attacked by the economy lobby—and effectively, since they were now so powerful; hunger marches, riots, strikes, lockouts, freezing of credit. Out of all that torment and strife there should have been a little happiness. The isolationists and the economizers should have felt jubilant. But actually they were as frightened as the rest of the country…It seemed that people were unhappy no matter what you did.

Throughout the story, Hale wonders what the world’s inhabitants could possibly have done in a previous life to deserve such torment, and he never really finds out. In a closing twist, however, he finds that the very worst sinners are given the darkest punishment of all—in the next life, they’re doomed to become Lucifer himself. “Evidently we—those of us who are doomed, from time to time, to the supreme torment of indeterminate immortality as manager of Hell—committed the most unspeakable crimes in some other existence,” Lucifer explains before handing over the reins to the newly reluctant Hale. “While Hell would no doubt supply plenty of torment without our help, a manager is evidently required to assure the most efficient and economical distribution of misery.”

I’ll be appearing tonight at the Tuesday Funk reading series at Hopleaf Bar at 5148 N. Clark St. in Chicago at 7:30pm. Hope to see some of you there!

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 3

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By now, it might seem obvious that the best way to approach Nostradamus is to see it as a kind of game, as Anthony Boucher describes it in the June 1942 issue of Unknown Worlds: “A fascinating game, to be sure, with a one-in-a-million chance of hitting an astounding bullseye. But still a game, and a game that has to be played according to the rules. And those rules are, above all things else, even above historical knowledge and ingenuity of interpretation, accuracy and impartiality.” Boucher’s work inspired several spirited rebukes in print from L. Sprague de Camp, who granted the rules of the game but disagreed about its harmlessness. In a book review signed “J. Wellington Wells”—and please do keep an eye on that last name—de Camp noted that Nostradamus was “conjured out of his grave” whenever there was a war:

And wonder of wonders, it always transpires that a considerable portion of his several fat volumes of prophetic quatrains refer to the particular war—out of the twenty-odd major conflicts that have occurred since Dr. Nostradamus’s time—or other disturbance now taking place; and moreover that they prophesy inevitable victory for our side—whichever that happens to be. A wonderful man, Nostradamus.

Their affectionate battle culminated in a nonsense limerick that de Camp published in the December 1942 version of Esquire, claiming that if it was still in print after four hundred years, it would have been proven just as true as any of Nostradamus’s prophecies. Boucher responded in Astounding with the short story “Pelagic Spark,” an early piece of fanfic in which de Camp’s great-grandson uses the “prophecy” to inspire a rebellion in the far future against the sinister Hitler XVI.

This is all just good fun, but not everyone sees it as a game, and Nostradamus—like other forms of vaguely apocalyptic prophecy—tends to return at exactly the point when such impulses become the most dangerous. This was the core of de Camp’s objection, and Boucher himself issued a similar warning:

At this point there enters a sinister economic factor. Books will be published only when there is popular demand for them. The ideal attempt to interpret the as yet unfulfilled quatrains of Nostradamus would be made in an ivory tower when all the world was at peace. But books on Nostradamus sell only in times of terrible crisis, when the public wants no quiet and reasoned analysis, but an impassioned assurance that We are going to lick the blazes out of Them because look, it says so right here. And in times of terrible crisis, rules are apt to get lost.

Boucher observes that one of the best books on the subject, Charles A. Ward’s Oracles of Nostradamus, was reissued with a dust jacket emblazoned with such questions as “Will America Enter the War?” and “Will the British Fleet Be Destroyed?” You still see this sort of thing today, and it isn’t just the books that benefit. In 1981, the producer David L. Wolper released a documentary on the prophecies of Nostradamus, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, that saw subsequent spikes in interest during the Gulf War—a revised version for television was hosted by Charlton Heston—and after the September 11 attacks, when there was a run on the cassette at Blockbuster. And the attention that it periodically inspires reflects the same emotional factors that led to psychohistory, as the host of the original version said to the audience: “Do we really want to know about the future? Maybe so—if we can change it.”

The speaker, of course, was Orson Welles. I had always known that The Man Who Saw Tomorrow was narrated by Welles, but it wasn’t until I watched it recently that I realized that he hosted it onscreen as well, in one of my favorite incarnations of any human being—bearded, gigantic, cigar in hand, vaguely contemptuous of his surroundings and collaborators, but still willing to infuse the proceedings with something of the velvet and gold braid. Keith Phipps of The A.V. Club once described the documentary as “a brain-damaged sequel” to Welles’s lovely F for Fake, which is very generous. The entire project is manifestly ridiculous and exploitative, with uncut footage from the Zapruder film mingling with a xenophobic fantasy of a war of the West against Islam. Yet there are also moments that are oddly transporting, as when Welles turns to the camera and says:

Before continuing, let me warn you now that the predictions of the future are not at all comforting. I might also add that these predictions of the past, these warnings of the future are not the opinions of the producers of the film. They’re certainly not my opinions. They’re interpretations of the quatrains as made by scores of independent scholars of Nostradamus’ work.

In the sly reading of “my opinions,” you can still hear a trace of Harry Lime, or even of Gregory Arkadin, who invited his guests to drink to the story of the scorpion and the frog. And the entire movie is full of strange echoes of Welles’s career. Footage is repurposed from Waterloo, in which he played Louis XVIII, and it glances at the fall of the Shah of Iran, whose brother-in-law funded Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, which was impounded by the revolutionary government that Nostradamus allegedly foresaw.

Welles later expressed contempt for the whole affair, allegedly telling Merv Griffin that you could get equally useful prophecies by reading at random out of the phone book. Yet it’s worth remembering, as the critic David Thomson notes, that Welles turned all of his talk show interlocutors into versions of the reporter from Citizen Kane, or even into the Hal to his Falstaff, and it’s never clear where the game ended. His presence infuses The Man Who Saw Tomorrow with an unearned loveliness, despite the its many awful aspects, such as the presence of the “psychic” Jeane Dixon. (Dixon’s fame rested on her alleged prediction of the Kennedy assassination, based on a statement—made in Parade magazine in 1960—that the winner of the upcoming presidential election would be “assassinated or die in office though not necessarily in his first term.” Oddly enough, no one seems to remember an equally impressive prediction by the astrologer Joseph F. Goodavage, who wrote in Analog in September 1962: “It is coincidental that each American president in office at the time of these conjunctions [of Jupiter and Saturn in an earth sign] either died or was assassinated before leaving the presidency…John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960 at the time of a Jupiter and Saturn conjunction in Capricorn.”) And it’s hard for me to watch this movie without falling into reveries about Welles, who was like John W. Campbell in so many other ways. Welles may have been the most intriguing cultural figure of the twentieth century, but he never seemed to know what would come next, and his later career was one long improvisation. It might not be too much to hear a certain wistfulness when he speaks of the man who could see tomorrow, much as Campbell’s fascination with psychohistory stood in stark contrast to the confusion of the second half of his life. When The Man Who Saw Tomorrow was released, Welles had finished editing about forty minutes of his unfinished masterpiece The Other Side of the Wind, and for decades after his death, it seemed that it would never be seen. Instead, it’s available today on Netflix. And I don’t think that anybody could have seen that coming.

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 2

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In the early forties, William Anthony Parker White—who used the pen name “Anthony Boucher”—was a successful mystery novelist, a noted Sherlockian, and a member in good standing of the Mañana Literary Society of Los Angeles. On May 12, 1941, he submitted an article to John W. Campbell that he hoped their mutual friend, Robert A. Heinlein, had been “kind enough to mention.” In his cover letter, Boucher wrote:

This is an attempt to interpret Nostradamus in the light of present events and to go even further and take a chance on the immediate future…It is (so far as I know) the only completely honest contemporary interpretation of the prophecies. The film shorts and the popularizers have cheated right and left—misquoted, mistranslated, cut, transposed, amalgamated, and what have you. It’s startling enough without cheating, and a damned sight more impressive.

By “film shorts,” Boucher was presumably referring to such newsreels as “More About Nostradamus,” produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which loosely applied the French seer’s prophecies to the ongoing war in Europe. Boucher, not unreasonably, thought that he could do better. He proposed that the article run under his real name, but Campbell evidently saw his background in mystery fiction as a selling point, and on the cover of the issue in which the piece ran, the editor made the connection clear: “Nostradamus the Prophet…named names and places—and has been proven incredibly accurate. What specific prophecies did he make concerning our time? A famous author of detective stories does a little analyzing of the clues Nostradamus left.”

The result was “On a Limb,” a witty article that appeared in the October 1941 issue of the magazine that was then known as Unknown Worlds. Like Campbell, Boucher evokes “time travel” as one possible explanation for Nostradamus’s alleged gifts, and he has an interesting response to the objection of why no one has been able to take advantage of these prophecies to change events before they happen:

The essence of true prophecy is that it must be disbelieved or misinterpreted. If it can be circumvented, it will be false. Cassandra, whom Apollo blessed with prophecy and cursed with an incredulous public, is the perfect archetype of the prophet. Nostradamus realized this. He had first written his prophecies, we gather, clearly and in sequence. Then, foreseeing the impossible contradiction of this procedure, he cast them into cryptic quatrains, in the damnedest French you ever read, and shuffled them out of all time order. As a result, they can usually be interpreted only after the event. Attempts at reading the future result in such catastrophes as Bouys’s confident proof to Napoleon that Nostradamus promised him victory forever, including a satisfactory invasion of England.

And in an editor’s note in the June 1942 issue, Campbell drew a clever comparison: “It was customary, then, to publish a scientific discovery in code, in anagram, in horribly confused allegory, or by depositing a sealed description of the discovery with some trusted friend. That way, while the “publication” didn’t do anybody any good, the discoverer was able, later on when it became general knowledge, or was discovered by someone else, to give the key to his code, anagram, or what have you, and prove that the had been the first discoverer.”

The obvious consequence of such obscurity, as Boucher notes, is that Nostradamus is all but useless when it comes to forecasting events in advance. As a result, the second half of the article, which consists of specific prophecies about what the war will bring, takes the author out on “a long and shaky limb.” (“File this copy of Unknown Worlds away carefully,” Boucher writes dryly. “It may make good reading in another year or two.”) And in retrospect, the results are about as accurate as you might expect. Boucher’s most specific prophecy, based on the line “Because of war, the king will abandon his realm,” was that George VI would flee to Canada after the fall of his prime minister, which is about as wrong as it gets. And Boucher’s claim that one phrase—“la matiere du pont”—refers to armaments produced by the DuPont company seems to have been too much even for Campbell, who wrote in a closing note:

The foregoing article on the prophecies of Nostradamus is thoroughly incredible. Nostradamus’ prophecies were thoroughly incredible—in the degree of their accuracy. Somehow it seems easier to believe that a man might successfully predict the movements and broad sweeps of the histories of nations than that one, two, or four centuries before it happens, the individual directly involved can be named…That seems, somehow, beyond the realm of prophecy. That Nostradamus could name…a particular corporation, specifying one of the products of that corporation, seems even more improbable…Anagrams and puns do exist in Nostradamus; to read from his quatrains the names and exact circumstances seems much as though the interpreter were finding in them things the author had not put there.

But what really caught my eye is the italicized section above. At precisely the same time that Campbell was editing Boucher’s article, he was discussing psychohistory with Isaac Asimov, who was about to write in the original story “Foundation”: “A great psychologist such as [Hari] Seldon could unravel human emotions and human reactions sufficiently to be able to predict broadly the historical sweep of the future.” And I strongly suspect that Campbell’s treatment of prediction in Unknown affected its much more famous incarnation in Astounding. As I’ve noted before, in “Foundation,” psychohistory is presented less as a specific method than as a claim about results. We aren’t told the first thing about how it works, and not even the characters seem especially clear on the concept. (As one says blandly to another: “Seldon was the greatest psychologist of our time…It seems reasonable to assume that he used his science to determine the probable course of the history of the immediate future.” And that’s all we get, apart from the flat assertion that Seldon “could easily have worked out the historical trends of the future by simple psychological technique.”) Since the claim had to stand on its own, it had to be plausible in itself—which means that it could only apply to “the broad sweep” of events, and it couldn’t be too specific. As Campbell understood about Nostradamus, a system that was able to generate names and dates seemed to fall outside the realm of credible science. And Nostradamus certainly wasn’t useful in the way that psychohistory was supposed to be. In the June 1942 issue, Boucher granted that most of his earlier prophecies had been wrong, or remained unfulfilled, and he reminded readers of a point that he had made earlier:

Prophecy is of no practical value. Its interest lies solely in its appeal to intellectual curiosity and in its possible use as evidence of some extrasensory power latent in mankind. Interpreting prophecies concerning the past is a task for an abstract scholar. Attempting to apply prophecies to the future is nothing but a game.

But the game wasn’t quite over yet. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about two more players who appeared at slightly different stages. One was L. Sprague de Camp. The other was Orson Welles.

Written by nevalalee

November 1, 2018 at 9:29 am

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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