Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Quote of the Day

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With half an hour’s reading in bed every night as a steady practice, the busiest man can get a fair education before the plasma sets in the periganglionic spaces of his grey cortex.

William Osler, in the British Medical Journal

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February 14, 2018 at 7:30 am

Life in four dimensions

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Yesterday, I happened to stumble across a review that the pianist Glenn Gould gave to the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Gould had performed on the soundtrack of George Roy Hill’s movie—which I haven’t seen—but he had mixed feelings about both the result and its source material, and he wasn’t shy about expressing them in public:

Slaughterhouse-Five has been brought to the screen with such fidelity that if you happen to be one of that black-humored author’s legion of fans, an outing at your neighborhood cinema will probably provide one of the cinematic highlights of the season…Vonnegut, of course, is to the current crop of college frosh as J.D. Salinger was to the youth of my day—a dispenser of those too-easily accessible home truths that one somehow never does get at home. And precisely because he quite ruthlessly exploits certain aspects of the generation gap—especially those widened by an inability to agree on forms of humor appropriate to the articulation of the human situation—I suspect that much of his work will date quickly and reveal that supposed profundities of an opus like Slaughterhouse-Five as the inevitable clichés of an overgeneralized, underparticularized view of humanity.

This is a little harsh, and in retrospect, Gould underestimated Vonnegut’s staying power, which turned out to be considerable indeed. I’ve occasionally resisted Vonnegut for some of the same reasons that he gives here, but I don’t think there’s any denying his skill and intelligence, even if his great talent was to put just the right words to feelings that his core group of fans already wanted to believe.

It isn’t clear what drew Gould to work on the movie version, for which he provided about fifteen minutes of music. In his review, he places particular emphasis on the novel’s treatment of time, which is what readers tend to remember best:

[The protagonist Billy Pilgrim] becomes, as Vonnegut puts it, “unstuck in time” and thereafter meanders back and forth across the expanse of his quite unexceptional life and finally uncovers an ability to project himself fourth-dimensionally as well. When going on Earth gets tough, Billy simply fantasizes an extraterrestrial existence [and] shacks up in a geodesic dome with the woman of his dreams.

The inhabitants of the planet Tralfamadore, who resemble sentient plumber’s helpers, exist in the fourth dimension, as Vonnegut explains through one of Billy Pilgrim’s letters:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was what when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

Purely by coincidence, I read Gould’s review on the same day that I saw an article in the journal Electric Lit titled “What Kurt Vonnegut Can Teach Us About Coping with the Internet.” Once you get past the obligatory clickbait headline, Jaya Saxena’s essay is a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on one of the unavoidable facts about our online lives, which is that all of our past selves exist on it simultaneously. Saxena writes:

On Earth, I am always quoting an article about health care in America. I am always calling someone “retarded” as a term of endearment. I am always telling people that I am safe and nowhere near Mumbai. I am always defending the concept of “Steak and Blowjob” day. I am always hugging a friend I see every day and never see anymore, bragging about stealing rum from a frat house, performatively announcing that I will be using Twitter to amplify other voices, telling someone I’ve cut out of my life that I love them…Anyone scrolling through my Facebook feed, which has existed since 2004, or who Googles enough to unearth my awful old blog, can see everything I’ve posted — every misguided opinion, every drunk photo and inside joke — with the clarity and presence of the moment I posted it. I am 17 and 24 and 31, forever.

But Saxena resists the solution presented by the Tralfamadorians, which is to focus on the good moments in life and ignore the rest, as “irresponsible,” proposing instead that we do the opposite: “We can remember that between one post a decade ago and now, there were endless versions of ourselves and others, changing and choosing. And that we will continue to do so in ways we can’t see until we look back.”

Gould was also critical of what he saw as “Vonnegut’s favorite message, [which] is that we must concentrate on the good moments and ignore the bad ones.” But by the early seventies, when his review of the movie appeared, Gould had come “unstuck in time” himself. He had retired from live performance nearly a decade earlier, preferring to concentrate on recording. In the studio, he could literally focus on the good moments and ignore the rest, splicing together performances out of the best parts of multiple takes—and you could even see the physical album itself as a representation, like the Rocky Mountains, of a work of art that an audience could only experience “like beads on a string.” Unlike a listener at a concert, I can drop the needle on my vinyl copy of Two and Three Part Inventions wherever I like. (I’m reminded of the character in Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach who hangs a record album on his living room wall so that he can enjoy the music all at once.) Gould also welcomed the chance to engage in a dialogue with his past selves in a way that would have been impossible before the advent of recording. He recorded The Goldberg Variations twice, a quarter of a century apart, and I’ve always wondered what a third version would have sounded like, if he hadn’t died at the age of fifty. And he might have had some useful insights into our online lives. In “The Prospects of Recording,” which he published shortly after his retirement from touring, Gould quoted a character from Jean-Luc Godard’s A Married Woman: “The first thing we require of a machine is to have a memory.” And he hinted obliquely at a way in which we can cope in a world that exists in four dimensions, whether we’re talking about all of history or simply about our own lives:

In the electronic age a caretaking comprehension of those encompassing chronicles of universal knowledge which were tended by the medieval scholastics—an encumbrance as well as an impossibility since the early Middle Ages—can be consigned to computer repositories that file away the memories of mankind and leave us free to be inventive in spite of them.

Quote of the Day

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Hunches and intuitive impressions are essential for getting the work started, but it is only through the quality of the numbers at the end that the truth can be told.

Lewis Thomas, “Biostatistics in Medicine”

Written by nevalalee

February 13, 2018 at 7:30 am

The stories of our lives

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Last week, I mentioned the evocative challenge that the writer and literary agent John Brockman recently posed to a group of scientists and intellectuals: “Ask the question for which you will be remembered.” I jokingly said that my own question would probably resemble the one submitted by the scholar Jonathan Gottschall: “Are stories bad for us?” As often happens with such snap decisions, however, this one turned out to be more revealing than I had anticipated. When I look back at my work as a writer, it’s hard to single out any overarching theme, but I do seem to come back repeatedly to the problem of reading the world as a text. My first novel, The Icon Thief, was openly inspired by Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, which inverts the conventions of the conspiracy thriller to explore how we tell ourselves stories about history and reality. I didn’t go quite as far as Eco did, but it was a subject that I enjoyed, and it persisted to a lesser extent in my next two books. My science fiction stories tend to follow a formula that I’ve described as The X-Files in reverse, in which a paranormal interpretation of a strange event is supplanted by another that fits the same facts into a more rational pattern. And I’m currently finishing up a book that is secretly about how the stories that we read influence our behavior in the real world. As Isaac Asimov pointed out in his essay “The Sword of Achilles,” most readers are drawn to science fiction at a young age, and its values and assumptions subtly affect how they think and feel. If there’s a single thread that runs through just about everything I’ve written, then, it’s the question of how our tendency to see the world as a story—or a text—can come back to haunt us in unexpected ways.

As it happens, we’re all living right now through a vast social experiment that might have been designed to test this very principle. I got to thinking about this soon after reading an excellent essay, “The Weight of the Words,” by the political scientist Jacob T. Levy. He begins with a discussion of Trump’s “shithole countries” remark, which led a surprising number of commentators—on both the right and the left—to argue that the president’s words were less important than his actions. Levy summarizes this view: “Ignore the tweets. Ignore Trump’s inflammatory language. Ignore the words. What counts is the policy outcomes.” He continues:

I have a hard time believing that anyone really thinks like this as a general proposition…The longstanding view among conservatives was that Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech and Reagan’s call to “tear down this wall” were important events, words that helped to mobilize western resistance to Communism and to provide moral clarity about the stakes of that resistance.

On a more basic level, since it’s impossible for the government to accomplish everything by force, much of politics lies in emotional coercion, which suggest that words have power in themselves. Levy refers to Hannah Arendt’s argument in The Human Condition, in which a familiar figure appears:

The stature of the Homeric Achilles can be understood only if one sees him as “the doer of great deeds and the speakers of great words”…Thought was secondary to speech, but speech and action were considered to be coeval and coequal, of the same rank and the same kind; and this originally meant not only that most political action, in so far as it remains outside the sphere of violence, is indeed transacted in words, but more fundamentally that finding the right words at the right moment, quite apart from the information or communication they may convey, is action.

Levy then lists many of the obvious ways in which Trump’s words have had tangible effects—the erosion of America’s stature abroad, the undermining of trust in law enforcement and the civil service, the growth of tribalism and xenophobia, and the redefinition of what it means to be a Republican. (As Levy notes of Trump’s relationship to his supporters: “He doesn’t speak for them; how many of them had a view about ‘the deep state’ two years ago? He speaks to them, and it matters.”) Trump routinely undercuts the very notion of truth, in what seems like the ultimate example of the power of speech over the world of fact. And Levy’s conclusion deserves to be read whenever we need to be reminded of how this presidency differs from all the others that have come before:

The alleged realism of those who want to ignore words will often point to some past president whose lofty rhetoric obscured ugly policies. Whether those presidents are named “Reagan and George W. Bush” or “JFK and Barack Obama” varies in the obvious way, but the deflationary accounts are similar; there are blunders, crimes, abuses, and atrocities enough to find in the record of every American president. But all those presidents put forward a public rhetorical face that was better than their worst acts. This inevitably drives political opponents crazy: they despise the hypocrisy and the halo that good speeches put on undeserving heads. I’ve had that reaction to, well, every previous president in my living memory, at one time or another. But there’s something important and valuable in the fact that they felt the need to talk about loftier ideals than they actually governed by. They kept the public aspirations of American political culture pointed toward Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.”

He concludes of all of our previous presidents: “In words, even if not in deeds, they championed a free and fair liberal democratic order, the protection of civil liberties, openness toward the world, rejection of racism at home, and defiance against tyranny abroad. And their words were part of the process of persuading each generation of Americans that those were constitutively American ideals.” America, in short, is a story that Americans tell one another—and the world—about themselves, and when we change the assumptions behind this narrative, it has profound implications in practice. We treat others according to the roles that we’ve imagined for ourselves, or, more insidiously, that our society has imagined for us. Those roles are often restrictive, but they can also be liberating, both for good and for bad. (Levy perceptively notes that the only federal employees who don’t feel devalued these days are immigration and border agents.) And Levy sounds a warning that we would all do well to remember:

“Ignore the tweets, ignore the language, ignore the words” is advice that affects a kind of sophistication: don’t get distracted by the circus, keep your eye on what’s going on behind the curtain. This is faux pragmatism, ignoring what is being communicated to other countries, to actors within the state, and to tens of millions of fellow citizens. It ignores how all those actors will respond to the speech, and how norms, institutions, and the environment for policy and coercion will be changed by those responses. Policy is a lagging indicator; ideas and the speech that expresses them pave the way.

“Trump has spent a year on the campaign trail and a year in office telling us where he intends to take us,” Levy concludes. And we’re all part of this story now. But we should be even more worried if the words ever stop. As Arendt wrote more than half a century ago: “Only sheer violence is mute.”

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

February 12, 2018 at 7:30 am

The very dark house

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In the old times, the knowledge of biology was perhaps similar to what could be made out in a very large, very dark house. Many objects could be more felt than seen with equal dimness, once the eyes got used to the darkness; and scientists were conscious of the limiting conditions under which they worked. In our time, however, a few very powerful and very narrow beams of light have been thrown into a few corners of this dark house, and several things can be seen in a clarity and illumination that almost distort their significance. But at the same time we have lost our dark-adaptation; and since we all have a tendency to follow the light, we have moved into these cozy corners, to the detriment of the rest, which still is, by far, the major part of nature. In pointing this out one runs the risk of being accused of trying to spread darkness.

Erwin Chargaff, Essays on Nucleic Acids

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February 11, 2018 at 7:30 am

A margin for accidents

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The art of war deals with living and with moral forces. Consequently, it cannot attain the absolute, or certainty; it must always leave a margin for uncertainty, in the greatest things as much as in the smallest. With uncertainty in one scale, courage and self-confidence must be thrown into the other to correct the balance. The greater they are, the greater the margin that can be left for accidents. Thus courage and self-confidence are essential in war, and theory should propose only rules that give ample scope to these finest and least dispensable of military virtues, in all their degrees and variations. Even in daring there can be method and caution; but here they are measured by a different standard.

Carl von Clausewitz, On War

Written by nevalalee

February 10, 2018 at 7:30 am

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