Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ezekiel

The flicker effect

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In 1953, the neurologist and roboticist W. Grey Walter published an extraordinary book titled The Living Brain. Among his many other accomplishments, Walter was a pioneer in the use of the electroencephalograph to study the brain’s electrical activity, which was described here for the first time for a wide popular audience, although his book become more famous for the chapter “Revelation by Flicker.” It described how stroboscopic light could produce epileptic seizures and other neurological reactions, including one particularly memorable anecdote: “A man found that when he went to the cinema he would suddenly feel an irresistible impulse to strangle the person next to him.” And when Walter tested the equipment on his own team, he became aware of some unusual effects:

In the biological sciences it is a good principle to be your own rabbit, to experiment on yourself; in electroencephalography the practice is widespread, convenient, and harmless. Whenever a new instrument is to be tested or calibrated, normal subjects from among the laboratory staff are used as “signal generators”…When we started to use high-power electronic stroboscopes to generate flicker, with the aim of testing the hypothesis of resonant synchronization in epilepsy, we took a large number of records from one another while looking at the brilliant flashing light…The tests were entirely satisfactory and in fact gave us much information which will be discussed later, but as well as that we all noticed a peculiar effect. The effect was a vivid illusion of moving patterns whenever one closed one’s eyes and allowed the flicker to shine through the eyelids.

Walter characterized these patterns as “whirling spirals, whirlpools, explosions, Catherine wheels,” quoting an evocative passage from a memoir by Margiad Evans, a poet who suffered from epilepsy:

I lay there holding the green thumbless hand of the leaf while things clicked and machinery came to life, and commands to gasp, to open and shut my eyes, reached me from across the unseen room, as though by wireless. Lights like comets dangled before me, slow at first and then gaining a fury of speed and change, whirling color into color, angle into angle. They were all pure ultra unearthly colors, mental colors, not deep visual ones. There was no glow in them but only activity and revolution.

After investigating further, Walter concluded that the imagery wasn’t an optical illusion caused by the light, but a phenomenon that occurred within the eye or brain itself, and that it involved more than one sensory system. (Walter doesn’t mention this in particular, but after reading his description of “whirling spirals,” I was surprised that it hasn’t been more widely used to explain away the vision of the chariot—with its mysterious “wheel within a wheel”—of the prophet Ezekiel, who has been diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy.) And his work with strobe lights inspired a number of interested readers to try it out for themselves, although to rather different ends, in the fifties equivalent of neurohacking.

One was John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction. After reading The Living Brain, he wrote—but evidently never sent—a long letter to Walter himself, and he also built a “panic generator” with a flickering fluorescent tube in his basement workshop. (The idea of using flickering lights to induce hypnotism was a familiar one in the genre, and it had appeared in stories including Campbell’s short novel The Elder Gods and in L. Sprague de Camp’s “The Exalted.”) When he tried the device on his family, his wife’s throat tightened up, his stepson felt asthmatic, and his daughter’s head hurt, but it bothered Campbell for just ten seconds. He was, he proudly noted, “immune.” Writing to his father, he said that he thought that it might have therapeutic value:

The only way a human being exposed to this device can continue to think coherently is by shifting his method of thinking. He either changes his method—his frequency—or is hopelessly scrambled in panic. The device, however, doesn’t tell him to think; it simply forces him to think in some new manner. The result is that the problems he’s been denying existed, the ideas he’s been refusing to consider—all of these will now come into sight, and he’ll be forced to at least consider them. The one sure and certain thing is that he can not continue to think in the terms he has been!

This insight inspired one of Campbell’s best editorials, “The Value of Panic,” as well as a premise that he gave to G. Harry Stine, who wrote under the pen name Lee Correy. The resulting story, “Design Flaw,” was about an experimental rocket plane plagued by a series of accidents that turn out to be caused by a flashing screen that provides landing data, which accidentally interferes with the pilot’s alpha rhythms.

A few years afterward, Walter’s work had an even more striking afterlife, and it serves as a reminder of the surprising overlap in those decades between science fiction and the counterculture. On September 14, 1960, William S. Burroughs wrote enigmatically to his friend Brion Gysin: “Also will see Grey Walter when he returns from vacation.” He followed up two weeks later: “I heard Grey Walter. Most interesting and will make a flicker date with him in Bristol.” Burroughs also wrote to Walter directly about “possible therapeutic applications in drug addiction” and “the effect of flicker on the creative process,” neatly tying together the two major threads of his career. His interest in the flicker effect emerged from the same impulse that led to his ongoing dalliance with Scientology, and he often mentioned the two in the same breath in his letters. And it led Gysin and his collaborator Ian Sommerville to build the Dream Machine, a rotating cylinder with flashing slits that was viewed with the eyes closed. In an interview, Burroughs vividly described its effects: “Elaborate geometric constructions of incredible intricacy build up from multidimensional mosaic into living fireballs like the mandalas of Eastern mysticism or resolve momentarily into apparently individual images and powerfully dramatic scenes like brightly colored dreams.” And he closed in terms that echoed Margiad Evans, who had spoken of “lights like comets”:

“Flicker” creates a dazzling multiplicity of images in constantly altering relationships which makes the “collages” and “assemblages” of so-called “modern” art appear utterly ineffectual and slow. Art history is no longer being created. Art history as the enumeration of individual images ended with the direct introduction of light as the principal agents in the creation of images which have become infinitely multiple, complex and all-pervading. The comet is Light.

“We can’t trust our eyes or ears…”

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"A very interesting possibility..."

Note: This post is the fortieth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 39. You can read the earlier installments here

As I’ve noted here many times before, a conspiracy novel is really just an extreme manifestation of the rage for order that drives so much of fiction, as well as life itself. Given a seemingly random string of symbols, we’re naturally inclined to look for patterns, and the same holds true for events or artistic works that lend themselves to a range of interpretations. This is why paranoid readings of art and history so often go hand in hand. We tend to associate this inclination with the likes of Dan Brown, in whose books the reading of a painting becomes inextricable from a larger reinterpretation of historical events, but the impulse is much older and deeper. The urge to impose meaning on a text and to find a pattern in history, if not identical, are at least manifestations of a common need. And it’s no surprise that the methods used in both cases—analogy, juxtaposition, substitution, selective emphasis and deemphasis—are so similar. A conspiracy theorist poring over the records of the Kennedy assassination thinks in much the same way as a literary critic constructing a new reading of Pale Fire.

Yet there’s something qualitatively different about applying conspiratorial thinking to real history and doing the same to works of art. In the latter case, the reader runs the risk of distorting the author’s intentions and missing the work’s real value, but whatever harm it does is localized and subjective. A work of art should be open to various readings, and while some may be more valid than others, it’s easy to treat the process as a game. When we turn to actual events, though, the fallout from conspiratorial thinking is more troubling. Even in ambiguous situations, we know that there is one version of the truth, however hard it might be to uncover, and misrepresenting it does a disservice—or worse—to the facts. This is particularly true for events that occurred within living memory. When a theory began to circulate within days that the tragedy at Sandy Hook was a false-flag operation, we were rightly horrified, but few of us blink twice at stories that construct conspiracies around, say, Jack the Ripper, or even the Black Dahlia murder. And if we’re confronted by conspiracy theorists who pick targets that are too close to home, it’s tempting to respond, as Buzz Aldrin once did, with a punch to the face.

"We can't trust our eyes or ears..."

I like reading and writing conspiracy fiction as much as anyone else, but I’m uncomfortably aware of these issues. At the end of The Icon Thief, I was careful to blow up the paranoid story I’d constructed around Marcel Duchamp and the Rosicrucians, even though I’d like to believe that Duchamp himself would have been amused by it. City of Exiles posed similar problems. Like many conspiracy novels, it consists of two threads, one literary, focusing on the Book of Ezekiel, and one historical, focusing on the mystery of the Dyatlov Pass. When it came to the merkabah, I didn’t feel the need to hedge my bets: Ezekiel’s vision has been a locus for elaborate interpretation for centuries, and I felt that my reading—heavily indebted to David J. Halperin’s work in The Faces of the Chariot—was as valid as any other. The Dyatlov Pass was a different matter. This was a real event in which nine people died, and for those directly affected by it, the memory is a living one. I had what I thought was a plausible theory that covered much of the available evidence, but I wasn’t ready to commit to it altogether, especially because I suspected that many readers were encountering the story here for the first time.

In the end, I pulled back, although this doesn’t become clear until the novel’s closing pages. In Chapter 39, the two threads meet decisively for the first time, with Ilya and Wolfe moving toward a solution to both mysteries. Their appearance here together is no accident; throughout the novel, the study of the merkabah—which was said to call fire from heaven upon those who embarked on it without the proper preparation—has served as a metaphor for the investigation of secrets that might best be left in darkness. Here, at last, we also see that there’s another level of connection: just as a divine vision can lead to madness or death, the hikers at the Dyatlov Pass may have died in a similar way. Ilya only hints at the possibility here, and the full story will emerge gradually in the following chapters. The result is an extended piece of speculation and conjecture, and to my eyes, it’s at least as convincing as any other explanation that has been proposed. Ultimately, though, I undermine it, out of what I can only call respect for a tragedy that resists any definitive solution. I have a feeling that a lot of readers may have been left dissatisfied by this. But I really don’t think I had any other choice…

Written by nevalalee

July 17, 2014 at 10:11 am

“But the changes reveal more than they intend…”

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"But the body of God appears throughout scripture..."

Note: This post is the thirty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 35. You can read the earlier installments here

Yesterday, I alluded to the cartographer Arthur H. Robinson’s story of how he developed his famous projection of the globe: he decided on the shapes he wanted for the continents first, then went back to figure out the underlying mathematics. Authors, of course, engage in this kind of inverted reasoning all the time. One of the peculiar things about a novel—and about most kinds of narrative art—is that while, with a few exceptions, it’s designed to be read in a linear fashion, the process of its conception is anything but straightforward. A writer may begin with a particular scene he wants to write, or, more commonly, a handful of such scenes, then assemble a cast of characters and an initial situation that will get him from one objective to the next. He can start with an outrageous plot twist and then, using the anthropic principle of fiction, set up the story so that the final surprise seems inevitable. Or he can take a handful of subjects or ideas he wants to explore and find a story that allows him to talk about them all. Once the process begins, it rarely proceeds straight from start to finish: it moves back and forth, circling back and advancing, and only in revision does the result begin to feel like all of a piece.

And I’ve learned that this tension between the nonlinear way a novel is conceived and the directional arrow of the narrative is a central element of creativity. (In many ways, it’s the reverse of visual art: a panting is built up one element at a time, only to be experienced all at once when finished, which leads to productive tensions and discoveries of its own.) In most stories, the range of options open to the characters grows increasingly narrow as the plot advances: the buildup of events and circumstance leaves the protagonist more and more constrained, whether it’s by a web of danger in a thriller or the slow reduction of personal freedom in a more realistic novel. That’s how suspense emerges, covertly or overtly; we read on to see how the characters will maneuver within the limits that the story has imposed. What ought to be less visible is the fact that the author has been operating under similar constraints from the very first page. He has some idea of where the story is going; he knows that certain incidents need to take place, rather than their hypothetical alternatives, to bring the characters to the turning points he’s envisioned; and this knowledge, combined with the need to conceal it, forces him to be more ingenious and resourceful than if he’d simply plowed ahead with no sense of what came next.

"But the changes reveal more than they intend..."

This is why I always set certain rules or goals for myself in advance of preparing a story, and it often helps if they’re a little bit arbitrary. When I started writing City of Exiles, for instance, I decided early on that the vision of Ezekiel would play a role in the plot, even if I didn’t know how. This is partially because I’d wanted to write something on the merkabah—the vision of the four fabulous creatures attending the chariot of God—for a long time, and I knew the material was rich and flexible enough to inform whatever novel I decided to write. More important, though, was my need for some kind of overriding constraint in the first place. Knowing a big element of the novel in advance served as a sort of machine for making choices: certain possibilities would suggest themselves over others, from the highest level to the lowest, and if I ever felt lost or got off track, I had an existing structure to guide me back to where I needed to be. And really, it could have been almost anything; as James Joyce said of the structure of Ulysses, it’s a bridge that can be blown up once the troops have gotten to the other side.  (Not every connective thread is created equal, of course. Using the same approach I’d used for my previous novels, I spent a long time trying to build Eternal Empire around the mystery of the Urim and Thummim, only to find that the logical connections I needed just weren’t there.)

Chapter 35 contains the longest extended discussion of Ezekiel’s vision in the novel so far, as Wolfe pays her second visit to Ilya in prison, and it provides an illustration in miniature of the problems I had to confront throughout the entire story. The material may be interesting in its own right, but if I can’t find ways of tying it back to events in the larger narrative, readers might well wonder what it’s doing here at all. (To be fair, some readers did have this reaction.) At various points in this chapter, you can see me, in the person of Wolfe, trying to bring the discussion back around to what is happening elsewhere in the story. According to the rabbis, Ezekiel’s vision can’t be discussed with a student under forty, and those who analyze the merkabah without the proper preparation run the risk of being burned alive by fire from heaven, which turns it into a metaphor for forbidden knowledge of any kind. And my own theory about the vision’s meaning, in which I’m highly indebted to David J. Halperin’s book The Faces of the Chariot, centers on the idea that elements of the story have been redacted or revised, which points to the acts of deception and erasure practiced by the Russian intelligence services. In the end, Wolfe leaves with a few precious hints, and if she’s able to put them to good use, that’s no accident. The entire story is designed to take her there…

Written by nevalalee

June 19, 2014 at 9:55 am

“Manuel was watching the man with the books…”

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"Manuel was watching the man with the books..."

Note: This post is the first installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering the prologue. You can read my earlier commentary for The Icon Thief here.)

If I have one small regret about City of Exiles, it involves a minor quirk of its publication history. When I agreed to write a sequel to The Icon Thief, my editor at Penguin said that they wanted to include a teaser for the second novel at the end of the first, which seemed like it made sense. I happily got to work on a prologue that would set up the events of the next installment, which was revised and edited in advance of the rest of the novel, and it was ultimately published on schedule as a bonus chapter in the first book. What I didn’t anticipate was the effect that the prologue would create when it was read immediately after the last page of its predecessor. At the end of the The Icon Thief—which was originally intended to stand alone—I bring Ilya, my central protagonist, to a moment of closure and relative peace: he’s made his choice and walked away from his old life. A gap of nine months between the two novels, I thought, would give him an adequate break, but in reality, it lasts for less than a page. The reader finishes The Icon Thief, then turns to the prologue of City of Exiles, and before you know it, Ilya is on the run again, which doesn’t seem entirely fair or satisfying.

That said, this was a fun, if difficult, prologue to write. I was returning to these characters after a long hiatus: I’d written the final draft of The Icon Thief many months earlier, and part of me felt as if I were starting from scratch. My initial challenge, then, was to figure out what Ilya was doing and where he would be when he was overtaken by his violent past. I decided, first of all, that Ilya would need a real job: I’ve never been a fan of the plot convention, best typified by the Bourne films, that a lone man on the run nevertheless seems to have access to unlimited cash and resources. I also wanted Ilya to be doing something that was consistent with the character I’d established, and I finally hit on the idea of making him a translator. Like the heroes of many suspense novels, Ilya speaks whatever language is required by the demands of the plot—in The Icon Thief, at minimum, he seems to know Russian, English, Hebrew, and Assyrian—and I figured I could at least bake this talent into the character itself. As for where he’d be, I chose the town of Marbella in Spain, both because of its associations with continental crime and because I’d spent my honeymoon there, which meant that my location research was already done.

"A bird, perhaps an eagle..."

Up to this point, the prologue was conceived almost from first principles, but when the time came to actually write it, I took a serious wrong turn. The first draft was outlined and written from the point of view of a secondary character we won’t see again, a waitress named Malena who gets to know Ilya as a regular customer. They strike up a friendship; he agrees to tutor her in English to help her get her degree; and when she’s attacked on the way home from work, Ilya comes to her rescue, dispatching her assailants with a degree of skill that frightens her—and forces him to go on the run again. I liked the conceit of seeing Ilya through someone else’s eyes, as well as the chance to give him a moment of ordinary human connection before it’s abruptly torn away. When I went back to read it, however, I found that it didn’t work. For one thing, unlike the prologue to the previous book, it took forever to get going: I needed a page or two of Ilya and Malena chatting before the action began, and as much as I cut it, I couldn’t make it play. More to the point, it didn’t have much to do with the plot of the novel that followed, and it didn’t strike me as a strong advertisement for the book, which was the role it had to play as a bonus to The Icon Thief.

As a result, a few weeks before the prologue was due, I rewrote it completely to unfold from the point of view of one of two local hitmen who have been contracted to take out Ilya in Marbella. This way, the intrigue starts in the first paragraph, rather than being delayed for several pages, and it gives me an excuse to indulge in a few of the reversals and bits of tradecraft I enjoy, as Ilya turns the tables on his pursuers. And it allowed me to give Ilya a few clues that would shape his actions in the coming novel—although I was careful to keep them fairly vague, giving me the freedom to take the plot in whatever direction I needed. When questioned, one of the two men admits that he came from London; later, on examining his body, Ilya finds the tattoo of an eagle, inscribed in raised white lines on his chest. When he flees the scene a moment later, his only regret is for all the books he’s leaving behind. The reference to London was simply a way to get Ilya to where I wanted him to be, and the reference to his books helps motivate a future plot point, in which Ilya’s bookish habits give Wolfe a means of tracking him. The eagle’s meaning is a little more subtle. In Ezekiel’s vision of the merkabah, he describes heavenly creatures with four faces: those of a man, an eagle, a lion, and an ox. We’ve just seen the eagle. And we’ll meet the others soon…

Written by nevalalee

September 6, 2013 at 9:08 am

A vision of the chariot

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Technically, you aren’t supposed to study the work of the chariot until the age of forty, but I first encountered it as a teenager, in the pages of The White Goddess by Robert Graves. At the time, I thought that this was one of the greatest books ever written, and although it’s still among my favorites, I’ve since come to regard it with a degree of ambivalence. In fact, it’s an incredibly evolved version of the sort of obsessive overinterpretation that we see among the characters in Foucault’s Pendulum, or even the novels of Dan Brown, only executed at a immeasurably higher level of sophistication. If anything, this makes me love the book all the more: it’s unsustainable as a religious or historical argument, but as an example of an unparalleled intuitive intellect exercising his talents on the whole range of poetic and mystical literature, it’s a delight, and there’s never been anything quite like it. I still think it’s a book that everyone should read, but with full awareness that it’s more like an ingenious magic trick, infinitely repeated, than a tenable work of religious history.

Not surprisingly, the parts of the book that have stuck with me most strongly are the ones that seem, at first, like sidelines to the main argument. Graves tells us, in an aside, how to untie the Gordian knot, and gives us practical solutions to the “unanswerable” questions from Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial: what song the sirens sang, and what name Achilles assumed when he hid among the women. And he also deals, unforgettably, with the vision in the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, in a handful of pages that have haunted me for most of my life. Ezekiel is in exile, standing by the river Chebar, when the heavens open and he has visions of God. From out of a whirlwind, he sees four winged cherubim emerge, each with the head of a man, a lion, an eagle, and an ox, as well as the feet of a calf, and the wheels of a vast chariot—each “a wheel within a wheel”—that turn of their own accord. Above the chariot is the figure of a man, made of fire from the waist down. Ezekiel falls into a swoon, and out of the sky, a voice begins to speak.

The first point that needs to be made about this vision is that it was literally dangerous to its readers: the rabbinical tradition tells of students who studied the vision before they were adequately prepared, and were struck by lightning or consumed by heavenly fire. It was forbidden to be read aloud in the synagogue. Yet the very act of setting up warning signs around a text like this amounts to an invitation for certain readers to study it more closely, resulting in a vast tradition of merkabah, or chariot, mysticism designed to allow the initiate to experience a similar vision, even at the risk of madness or death. Graves, for his part, believed that the vision amounted to a religious revolution, initiated by Ezekiel, in which the cult of the mother goddess and her two consorts was replaced by that of a masculine creator set against the goddess and the devil. At least, that’s what I seem to remember—the argument here is even more convoluted than usual, although frequently spellbinding on the page.

And the story continues to fascinate me. Part of it, I suppose, is the idea of a text that can cause the death or madness of an unprepared reader, which might be taken as an extreme example of the power of secrets and the risks of incautious interpretation. As I result, I spent years trying to get it into a novel, starting with an unfinished manuscript I began in high school, and intermittently in the years since. When it came time to write City of Exiles, which also centered on questions of interpretation—and the dangers that come with its misuse—I finally had an excuse to delve into it more deeply, in the person of my character Ilya Severin, who I knew would take an interest in such things. And it wasn’t until recently, when I discovered the extraordinary book The Faces of the Chariot by David J. Halperin, that I began to glimpse a solution that made literary and dramatic sense. Halperin’s book is very hard to find, and I wound up devouring it in one sitting, taking copious notes, in the reading room of the British Library. Tomorrow, I’ll explain how I ended up there, and why I decided to set my second novel in London.

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2012 at 9:43 am

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