Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘James H. Billington

Eclipsing the truth

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Take a good look at this comic strip. I’ve erased the date and the copyright information, but it should still be possible to figure out the precise day on which it first appeared, using nothing but the resources in your average local library. Even if you aren’t a Peanuts buff, it wouldn’t be hard to verify the historical window in which the strip originally ran, or to infer, based on the style, that this installment was published sometime in the sixties. On the assumption that it refers to a real solar eclipse that generated a fair amount of attention in the United States, you could plausibly deduce that it was the eclipse of July 20, 1963, and that this strip was printed the day before. And you’d be right. It wasn’t even a total eclipse when seen from America, but it still created enough of a lingering sensation to be mentioned both on Mad Men and in John Updike’s Couples, in which he writes of “that summer of the solar eclipse”:

Three weeks ago, it had been ninety percent at their latitude. An invisible eater moved through the sun’s disc amid a struggle of witnessing clouds. The dapples of light beneath the elm became crescent-shaped; the birds sang as in the evening. Seen through smoked glass the sun was a shaving, a sideways eyebrow, a kindergarten boat riding a tumult of contorted cumulus. The false dusk reversed; the horns of the crescents beneath the trees pointed in the opposite direction; the birds sang to greet the day. Not a month before, [Piet] had first slept with Foxy.

This is part of Updike’s standard narrative strategy, which is to place his protagonist’s extramarital dalliances against a backdrop of recent historical events. But even if you removed all other topical references from the novel except the eclipse, future literary critics would still be able to determine the date—within a month or so—in which Piet and Foxy began their affair.

Eclipses are useful that way. In a fascinating essay with the dry title “Some Uses of Eclipses in Early Modern Chronology,” the historian Anthony Grafton writes: “To this day eclipses provide historians with the best tools they have for fixing the absolute dates of events in ancient and medieval history…[They] form part of every ancient and medieval historian’s normal toolbox.” The earliest chronologist to draw upon eclipse data in a systematic fashion was Heinrich Bünting, who, in the late sixteenth century, used the Prutenic Tables of Erasmus Reinhold to put together a timeline of the world. “Bünting treated eclipses as facts like any other, except that they were more certain,” Grafton notes, quoting a revealing passage:

I had to examine the eclipses of the sun and moon and observations of other celestial motions. For they reveal chronological intervals with absolute precision. Two forms of computation are the most certain of all: that which is undertaken with sacred scripture, and that which is undertaken through the intervals of eclipses. If authors disagree with one another, you should see which of them agrees more properly with the chronological interval revealed by the eclipses. You will find it safest to follow him.

“Even the most reliable ancient texts, in other words, required the confirmation of the heavens,” Grafton observes, “and eclipses, which could be dated not only to the year and day, but to the hour and moment, provided this in its most precise form.” And the sentence in which Bünting cites both “sacred scripture” and “the intervals of eclipses” in the same breath feels like a moment in which science simultaneously looks, like Janus, into the past and the future.

Bünting used eclipses, Grafton writes, to provide fixed points for “human events that floated loosely in the ancient sources, located only by season or by regnal year,” including the conception of Romulus and Remus and the dates of the Peloponnesian War. Grafton concludes: “Long before eclipses lost their theoretical standing as signs, they had mutated in one kind of learned practice into facts of a particular, undramatic kind.” But when you attack the foundations of the eclipses themselves, a lot of that drama returns. If you’ve spent any time poking into conspiracy theories online, you’ve probably come across the New Chronology, a theory associated with the Russian mathematician Anatoly Fomenko that claims that nearly all of recorded history occurred within the last nine hundred years or so, and that any events attributed to dates before the eleventh century are either accidental distortions or deliberate forgeries. I had always assumed that this argument could be debunked simply by looking at historical eclipses, but it turns out that eclipses were actually where Fomenko started. In the delightfully titled History: Fiction or Science?, Fomenko writes:

One often hears the question about what could possibly motivate a mathematician into wanting to study a seemingly historical problem. The answer is as follows. My primary interests are those of a professional mathematician; they are thus rather distant from historical and chronological issues. However, in the early seventies, namely in 1972-1973, I had to deal with the dates of ancient eclipses during my studies of one of the key problems in celestial mechanics.

Drawing on the results of the astronomer Robert Newton and the Russian scientist N.A. Morozov, Fomenko concluded that the conventional dates for many ancient eclipses were incorrect, which inexorably led him, he writes, to an even more audacious question: “The satisfaction from having finished a body of scientific work was accompanied by a sudden awareness of a very knotty point arising in this respect, one of great peculiarity and paramount importance. Namely, that of whether the consensual chronology of ancient history was to be trusted at all.”

Fomenko and his colleagues proceeded to wade into an insane morass of theorizing, spread across seven huge volumes, that frankly makes my head hurt. (Just browsing though the first book, which is available in full online, is a disorienting, sometimes amazing experience.) Refuting it here would take more room and time than I can afford, but it’s worth noting that Fomenko’s work has inescapable political overtones. As James H. Billington writes in Russia in Search of Itself, many of its adherents are drawn to its vision of a Eurasian Union with Russia at its center:

Using dating techniques and probability theory, [Fomenko and his colleague Gleb Nosovsky] conclude that the Russian and Mongol empires were, in fact, one and the same entity during the two hundred and fifty years wrongly referred to as the period of the “Mongol yoke.” Accordingly, “Russia and Turkey are parts of a previously single empire.” This astonishing conclusion is part of Nosovsky and Fomenko’s “new chronology” of world history that uses equations and graphs to cast in doubt the accepted views on much of premodern times…They argue that almost nothing in the traditional view of Russian history prior to the fourteenth century can be factually verified…All of this might have been quietly blown away in the wind tunnels of academia had not the popular chess hero Garry Kasparov lustily taken up the cause of the new chronology…[i]nsisting that “whoever controls the past, controls the future.”

Billington quotes the archeologist V.L. Yanin, who tries to explain why Fomenko’s views have become popular in certain circles: “We live in an epoch of total non-professionalism, which spreads through the entire society from the power structures to the lowest levels of the educational system. The ordinary school produces dilettantes who assume that their miserable and faulty knowledge is adequate for judging professionals. A society bought up on scandals craves negativity and shock effects. It craves the sleight-of-hand trickery of a David Copperfield or an Anatoly Timofeevich Fomenko.” That has a familiar ring to it. And as we all gather to watch the solar eclipse next week, we should take a minute to remember that with the right motivation, even something as unequivocal as an eclipse can turn into an alternative fact.

“This had never been a game of chance…”

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"Do you know how Russian roulette began?"

Note: This post is the fifty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 57. You can read the previous installments here.

Earlier this week, in my discussion of Michael Cimino and The Deer Hunter, I managed to avoid mentioning its single most famous—and controversial—plot point. Here’s what William Goldman had to say on the subject in Adventures in the Screen Trade:

Does anyone remember, say, the last part of Deer Hunter? Saigon is going up in flames, and Robert De Niro…is out of service and back in Pennsylvania. He hears about his old buddy, Christopher Walken, who’s still back there…Do you know what Walken has been doing all this time? He’s been playing that game of Russian roulette with real bullets. (The Russian roulette ploy was made up by the movie’s creators, by the way; it didn’t happen in reality.) For months and months, Walken has been taking on all comers in this loony tunes Russian roulette, and…he’s undefeated, untied, and unscored on.

It would take a computer a while to give the odds against that happening, but never mind, because now we’re into the confrontation scene. De Niro versus Walken at Russian roulette. If you looked at the billing of the picture on your way in, did you ever doubt who was going to win?

Obviously, De Niro survives and Walken dies. Goldman concludes that The Deer Hunter, for all its trappings of realism, is ultimately “a comic book movie,” and he adds: “What Deer Hunter told me was what I already knew and believed in: No matter how horrid the notion of war, Robert De Niro would end up staring soulfully at the beautiful, long-suffering Meryl Streep.” And while the film’s Russian roulette sequences are far from its only implausible element, they’ve always served as a focal point for the movie’s critics, both because of their air of racism and because they were invented by the screenwriters out of thin air. What really fascinates me, though, is that these scenes were actually the seed of the entire story, and they came before Vietnam, Pennsylvania, or anything else. The producer Michael Deeley had bought a script called The Man Who Came to Play about games of Russian roulette in Las Vegas, which he called “a very clever piece of writing,” and it was rewritten by Cimino and his collaborator Deric Washburn to take place during the war. You could almost say that these scenes, as arbitrary as they seem in relation to the real Vietnam experience, are what is truly essential, and the rest—all that loving atmosphere at the steel mill and the wedding and the deer hunt and Chopin’s Nocturne—is incidental. And despite my mixed feelings about the movie, I have to concede that Cimino’s fundamental instinct, which was that the Russian roulette element would provide a spine strong enough for him to tell literally any story he wanted, was brilliant. As Roger Ebert, who liked The Deer Hunter far more than I did, wrote, it becomes “the organizing symbol of the film.”

"This had never been a game of chance..."

Elsewhere, I’ve said that discovering this kind of narrative trick can feel like stumbling across a new industrial process, and I don’t think that’s ever been more true than it is here. Russian roulette, as a tool for generating suspense, is a writer’s dream: it’s infinitely expansible and compressible, meaning that it can be used to fill thirty seconds of screen time or serve as the motor that drives an entire third act, and it requires a minimum of setup. I’ve often suspected that the whole legal procedural genre sprang up around the fact that a jury delivering its verdict is the most foolproof scene in all of drama: even if the outcome is foreordained, when the foreman passes the folded note to the judge and the defendant is asked to rise, there’s always an increase in tension and anticipation. The trouble—if you’re a writer with the right amount of laziness, which is just another word for the pragmatic use of your limited resources—is you can’t just jump into a verdict scene without any preparation. It requires a fair amount of work to get there. Russian roulette, for better or worse, is a self-contained component: you can slide it in almost anywhere and it works, if only on the most primitive levels of the brain. It delivers violence, or the threat of it, at an unpredictable time in a structured way. I can’t think of anything else in fiction or real life that comes even close to it. Fortunately, perhaps, it’s the sort of thing that can only be done once on this kind of scale. As much as I dislike The Deer Hunter, I almost feel that Cimino deserved to win Best Picture, if only because he recognized the opportunity that the device presented and capitalized on it before anyone else ever could.

Of course, this hasn’t prevented other opportunistic writers from occasionally making use of it. (Among other things, it provides the backbone for the final act of my favorite episode of The X-Files.) And I resort to it here, in Chapter 57 of Eternal Empire, for all the reasons that I mentioned above. Pragmatically, the scene could be about anything or nothing: Maddy has been brought back by her enemies to the isolated dacha in Sochi, and the chapter’s only function is to crank our concern for her safety up to as high a pitch as possible, in roughly five pages, before Wolfe and Ilya storm the compound. A scene like this has to walk a fine line, and I do what I can to give Maddy as much agency as I can, as she tries to turn her captors against one another. But when Vasylenko takes out his revolver and removes all of the cartridges except for one, suddenly it’s all business, and you can almost sense me, as the writer, looking ahead to the next chapter and seeing that I have only a page or two to get my point across. It helps, obviously, that we’re in Russia itself, and Vasylenko’s brief excursus on the history of the game—which I lifted from James H. Billington’s The Icon and the Axe—goes a long way toward justifying it in my eyes. And Maddy’s final revelation, which is that none of this has been a game of chance, is really a character’s glimpse of her author. Like Cimino, I’ve rigged the game to get her here. In the end, the scene works, and Vasylenko doesn’t even need to pull the trigger. That’s the beauty of it. And it’s also why it still makes me a little uneasy…

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