Alec Nevala-Lee

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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.”

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