Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Janet Malcolm

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.

My ten creative books #8: The Silent Woman

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

For various reasons, there are fewer useful books on the craft of literary nonfiction than there are on writing novels. This may just be a result of market demand, since more people seem to think that they might make good novelists than biographers or journalists. (As W.H. Auden devastatingly notes: “In our age, if a young person is untalented, the odds are in favor of his imagining he wants to write.” And he was probably thinking of aspiring fiction writers.) This is a gap that needs to be filled—I’ve learned firsthand that writing a nonfiction book can be practical and rewarding in itself, and I wish that I’d had more models to follow. In recent years, there have been a number of notable efforts, including Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd and the indispensable Draft No. 4 by John McPhee. But by far the best work on the subject that I’ve found is The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm, which, as I recently noted, is probably the best book of any kind that I’ve read in years. It isn’t a guidebook, and if anything, reading it might dissuade a lot of writers from tackling nonfiction at all. Those who persist, however, are rewarded with a book that has more insights per page into the creative process than almost any other that I can name. To pick just one example at random, here’s Malcolm on the biographer’s use of letters:

Letters are the great fixative of experience. Time erodes feeling. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to us that we once cared. They are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so: they are biography’s only conduit to unmediated experience. Everything else the biographer touches is stale, hashed over, told and retold, dubious, unauthentic, suspect. Only when he reads a subject’s letters does the biographer feel he has come fully into his presence, and only when he quotes from the letters does he share with his readers the sense of life retrieved. And he shares something else: the feeling of transgression that comes from reading letters not meant for one’s eyes.

And perhaps the book’s most memorable passage comes after Malcolm visits the home of a minor player in the Sylvia Plath saga, who turns out to be a hoarder. Afterward, it strikes her that the house was “a kind of monstrous allegory of truth,” both in how we look at the world around us and in how we face the problem of writing:

This is the way things are, the place says. This is unmediated actuality, in all its multiplicity, randomness, inconsistency, redundancy, authenticity. Before the magisterial mess…the orderly houses that most of us live in seem meagre and lifeless—as, in the same way, the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life…Each person who sits down to write faces not a blank page but his own vastly overfilled mind. The problem is to clear out most of what is in it, to fill huge plastic garbage bags with a confused jumble of things that have accreted there over the days, months, years of being alive and taking things in through the eyes and ears and heart. The goal is to make a space where a few ideas and images and feelings may be so arranged that the reader will want to linger a while among them, rather than to flee…But this task of housecleaning (of narrating) is not merely arduous; it is dangerous. There is the danger of throwing the wrong things out and keeping the wrong things in; there is the danger of throwing too much out and being left with too bare a house; there is the danger of throwing everything out.

Malcolm concludes: “Once one starts throwing out, it may become hard to stop. It may be better not to start. It may be better to hang onto everything…lest one be left with nothing.” Obviously, she hasn’t listened to her own advice, and we’re all the better for it. But that doesn’t mean that she—or the reader—has to be fine with the outcome.

Written by nevalalee

August 8, 2018 at 9:00 am

Breaking the silence

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On Saturday, I participated in an event at the American Library Association conference in New Orleans with the authors Alex White (A Big Ship At the Edge of the Universe), Tessa Gratton (The Queens of Innis Lear), and Robert Jackson Bennett (Foundryside). It went fine—I signed books, met some interesting people, and had the chance to speak to librarians about Astounding, which is why I was there in the first place. I had also been told that I should talk about a book that I had recently read, but because of a miscommunication, the other writers on the panel never got the message, so the idea was quietly dropped. This wasn’t a serious problem, but it deprived me of the chance to recommend the title that I’d selected, which I feel comfortable describing as the most interesting book that I’ve read in at least two or three years. It isn’t about science fiction, but about the art of biography, which can be a form of speculative fiction in itself. As regular readers of this blog know, I stumbled into the role of a biographer almost by accident, and ever since, I’ve been seeking advice on the subject wherever I can find it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that biographers are eager to speak about their art and struggles, and that they’ll sometimes overshare at moments when they should be fading into the background. (I have a sneaking fondness for books like The Life of Graham Greene by Norman Sherry and Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis, in which the biographer smuggles himself into the life of his subject, even if I can’t defend it. And James Atlas recently published an entire book, The Shadow in the Garden, mostly as an excuse to air his grievances about the reception of his biography of Saul Bellow.) But it wasn’t until recently that I found a book that captured everything that I had been feeling and thinking, along with so much else.

The book is The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm, which was originally published in 1994. I think it’s a masterpiece—it’s one of the best nonfiction books that I’ve ever read of any kind—and it instantly elevated Malcolm, whom I’ve long respected, into the pantheon of my intellectual heroes. I’ve read a lot of her work in The New Yorker, of course, and I greatly admired her books Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives. (The former includes a passage about the history of psychoanalysis that I find so insightful that I’ve quoted it here no fewer than three times.) But The Silent Woman is on another level entirely. On the surface, it’s a close reading of all the biographies that have been written by others about Plath and Hughes, but as you read it, it unfolds into a work of fiendish complexity that operates on multiple planes at once. It’s a fascinating—and gossipy—consideration of Plath and Hughes themselves; an account of Malcolm’s own investigation of some of the figures on the sidelines; a meditation on biographical truth; and a fantastically involving reading experience. Malcolm has a knack for crafting a phrase or analogy that can change the way you think about a subject forever. Writing about the appearance of the first collection of Plath’s letters, for instance, she uses an image that reminds me of the moment in certain movies when the screen suddenly widens into Cinemascope size:

Before the publication of Letters Home, the Plath legend was brief and contained, a taut, austere stage drama set in a few bleak, sparsely furnished rooms…Now the legend opened out, to become a vast, sprawling movie-novel filmed on sets of the most consummate and particularized realism: period clothing, furniture, and kitchen appliances; real food; a cast of characters headed by a Doris Dayish Plath (a tall Doris Day who “wrote”) and a Laurence Olivier-Heathcliffish Hughes.

The result is as twisty as Nabokov’s Pale Fire, but even better, I think, because it doesn’t wear its cleverness on its sleeve. Instead, it subtly ensnares you, and you end up feeling—or at least I did—that you’re somehow implicated in the story yourself. I read the first half online, in the archive of The New Yorker, and as soon as I realized how special it was, I checked out the hardcover from the library. Once I was done, I knew that this was a book that I had to own, so I picked up a used copy of the paperback at Open Books in Chicago. I leafed through it occasionally afterward, and I even lent it to my wife to read, but I didn’t look at it too closely. As a result, it wasn’t until I brought it last weekend to New Orleans that I realized that it included a new afterword. Unlike many books, it didn’t advertise the presence of any additional material, and it isn’t mentioned on the copyright page, which made it seem like a secret message straight out of Dictionary of the Khazars. It’s also a confession. In the original edition, Malcolm states that Ted Hughes decided to posthumously release Plath’s novel The Bell Jar in America because he needed money to buy a second home. After the book was published, Malcolm reveals in the afterword, Hughes wrote to her to say that this was incorrect:

One part of your narrative is not quite right…You quote my letter to [Plath’s mother] Aurelia in which I ask her how she feels about our publishing The Bell Jar in the U.S. That was early 1970; I wanted cash to buy a house…When Aurelia wrote back and made her feelings clear, even though she said the decision to publish or not rested with me, I dropped my idea of buying the house. My letter reassuring her is evidently not in the archive you saw (or obviously your account would be different).

Before I get to Malcolm’s response to Hughes, who is politely but firmly pointing out a possible mistake, I should mention my own situation. Yesterday, I delivered the final set of corrections to Astounding. In the process, I’ve checked as much of the book as I can against my primary sources, and I’ve found a few small mistakes—mistyped dates, minor transcription errors—that I’m glad to have caught at this stage. But it means that I’m very conscious of how it feels to be a writer who learns that something in his or her book might be wrong. As for Malcolm, she wrote back to Hughes, saying that she checked her notes from the Lilly Library at Indiana University Bloomington:

In 1971, Aurelia made an annotation on your letter of March 24, 1970. She wrote, in tiny handwriting, “’71—children said this was a horrible house’ and they didn’t want to live there. Ted did send me $10,000 from the royalties (I protested the publication, which Sylvia would not have allowed) and deposited [illegible] in accounts for Frieda and Nick—Ted [illegible] bought the property!!!” Not knowing anything to the contrary, I took Aurelia at her word.

Malcolm and Hughes spoke on the phone to straighten out the misunderstanding, and everything seemed fine. But on the very last page of the book, Malcolm slips in the literary equivalent of a post-credits scene that changes everything that we thought we knew:

The next morning I awoke with one of those inklings by which detective fiction is regularly fueled. I telephoned the Lilly Library again and asked the librarian if she would read me Aurelia Plath’s annotation of Hughes’s letter of March 24, 1970—I was especially interested in a word that I had found illegible when I took notes at the library in 1991. Perhaps she could make it out? She said she would try. When she reached the relevant sentence, she paused for a suspenseful moment of effort. Then she read—as I felt certain she would—“Ted never bought the property.”

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June 27, 2018 at 9:22 am

The hoarder’s house

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Later, as I thought about [a hoarder’s] house (which I often did; one does not easily forget such a place), it appeared to me as a kind of monstrous allegory of truth. This is the way things are, the place says. This is unmediated actuality, in all its multiplicity, randomness, inconsistency, redundancy, authenticity. Before the magisterial mess…the orderly houses that most of us live in seem meagre and lifeless—as, in the same way, the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life. The house also stirred my imagination as a metaphor for the problem of writing. Each person who sits down to write faces not a blank page but his own vastly overfilled mind. The problem is to clear out most of what is in it, to fill huge plastic garbage bags with a confused jumble of things that have accreted there over the days, months, years of being alive and taking things in through the eyes and ears and heart. The goal is to make a space where a few ideas and images and feelings may be so arranged that the reader will want to linger a while among them, rather than to flee…But this task of housecleaning (of narrating) is not merely arduous; it is dangerous. There is the danger of throwing the wrong things out and keeping the wrong things in; there is the danger of throwing too much out and being left with too bare a house; there is the danger of throwing everything out. Once one starts throwing out, it may become hard to stop. It may be better not to start. It may be better to hang onto everything…lest one be left with nothing.

Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman

Written by nevalalee

March 17, 2018 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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The cosmic engineers

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On May 18, 1966, the novelist C.P. Snow delivered a talk titled “The Status of Doctors” before the Royal Society of Medicine in London. Snow—who had studied physics and chemistry at the University of Leicester and Cambridge—spent much of his speech comparing the fields of engineering and medicine, noting that doctors enjoyed a more exalted social status than engineers, perhaps because their work was easier to understand: “Doctors have a higher place in the popular imagination and I think also in the more esoteric imagination. A novelist can bring a doctor into a novel without any trouble at all, people know who he is; but try bringing an engineer into a novel and it is terribly difficult—they have not got recognition symbols in the way the medical profession has.” He continued:

I do not think doctors suffer from the other great weakness of engineers, that is, their complete lack of verbalism. Engineers can often be extremely clever but they cannot spell and they cannot speak. The doctors I have known are extremely articulate. I suspect the descriptive processes they have to go through, both themselves and presumably with their patients, are extremely good verbal training, and I do not think it is an accident that the one thing the medical profession has done, apart from producing doctors, is to produce writers. I do not think it is an accident that there are almost no engineering writers, and very few from the scientific professions. On the other hand, the medical profession has produced some really good writers in the last hundred years.

Snow would presumably have been mortified by the idea of a magazine that published nothing but stories written by and for engineers, but by the time that he gave his talk, Astounding Science Fiction—which had changed its name several years earlier to Analog—had been in that business for decades. In practice, science fiction writers came from a wide range of professional backgrounds, but there was no doubt that John W. Campbell’s ideal author was a working engineer who wrote for his own pleasure on the side. In an editorial in the February 1941 issue, the editor delivered a pitch to them directly:

Most of Astounding’s authors are, in the professional sense, amateur authors, spare-time writers who earn their bread and butter in one field of work, and use their writing ability as a source of the jam supply…”Jam” in the above sense is useful. Briefly, it amounts to the equivalent of a couple of new suits, or a suit and overcoat, for a short story, a new radio with, say, FM tuning for a novelette, and a new car or so for a novel.

He also made no secret of what kind of professional he was hoping to find. By the end of the decade, a survey indicated that fully fifteen percent of the magazine’s readers were engineers themselves. As Damon Knight wrote in In Search of Wonder: “[Campbell] deliberately built up a readership among practicing scientists and technicians.” And he expected to source most of his writers directly from that existing audience.

But his reasons for looking for engineers were more complicated than they might seem. When Campbell took over Astounding in 1937, the submissions that he received tended to fall into one of two categories. Some were from professional pulp writers who wrote for multiple genres; others were written by younger fans who had grown up with science fiction, loved it, and desperately wanted to break into the magazine. Neither was the kind of writer whom Campbell secretly wanted. Working authors had to write quickly to make a living at a penny a word, and they were usually content to stick to the tricks and formulas that they knew best. They certainly weren’t interested in repeated revisions, which meant that they weren’t likely to be receptive to the notes that Campbell was planning to give. (Some writers, like Edmond Hamilton, bowed out entirely because they didn’t feel like changing.) The fans were even worse. They had only emerged as a force in their own right within the last few years, and you couldn’t tell them anything—they treated science fiction as their personal property, which made it hard to give them any feedback. What Campbell wanted was a legion of successful engineers who wrote science fiction because they liked it, didn’t take it so personally that they would push back against his suggestions, and had the time and leisure to rework a story to his specifications. These men were understandably hard to find, and few of the major writers of the golden age fit that profile completely. It wasn’t until after the war that the figure of the engineer who wrote science fiction as a hobby really began to emerge.

By 1967, a year after C.P. Snow delivered his talk, however, it was possible for Harlan Ellison to refer in the anthology Dangerous Visions to “John W. Campbell, Jr., who used to edit a magazine that ran science fiction, called Astounding, and who now edits a magazine that runs a lot of schematic drawings, called Analog.” And there’s little doubt that it was exactly the magazine that Campbell wanted. His control over it was even more complete than it had been in the thirties and forties, largely because of the type of writer he had selected for it, as Damon Knight pointed out: “He deliberately cultivated technically oriented writers with marginal writing skills…Campbell was building a new stable he knew he could keep.” And this side of his legacy persists even today. In Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Janet Malcolm writes:

Soon after the Big Bang of Freud’s major discoveries…the historian of psychoanalysis notes a fork in the road. One path leads outward into the general culture, widening to become the grand boulevard of psychoanalytic influence…The other is the narrow, inward-turning path of psychoanalytic therapy: a hidden, almost secret byway travelled by few.

Replace “Freud” with “Campbell” and “psychoanalysis” with “science fiction,” and you have a decent picture of what happened with Analog. Science fiction took over the world, while Campbell’s old magazine continued to pursue his private vision, and its writers fit that profile now more than ever. It’s no longer possible to write short fiction for a living, which makes it very attractive for engineers who write on the side. I love Analog—it changed my life. But if you ever wonder why it looks so different from even the rest of the genre, it’s because it was engineered that way.

Luther on the couch

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Five hundred years ago this month, Martin Luther introduced the world to the Ninety-Five Theses. As far as anniversaries go, this is about as big as it gets, but if you find it hard to work up much excitement about it, it might be because Luther himself isn’t read much these days, at least not in English. (He’s notably absent from my beloved set of Great Books of the Western World, which finds room for two gigantic volumes of Thomas Aquinas but nothing from the Protestant Reformation.) As a result, Luther can seem remote to us, when in fact he’s one of the most scandalously vivid of all historical figures. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella refers in passing to his Anfechtungen, or trials, which she lists as “cold sweats, nausea, constipation, crushing headaches, ringing in his ears, together with depression, anxiety, and a general feeling that, as he put it, the angel of Satan was beating him with his fists.” Constipation appears here as just one affliction among many, but there are readings of Luther that place his time in the bathroom—a part of all of our lives that goes largely uncovered by biographers—at the center of his career. In Life Against Death, the classicist Norman O. Brown quotes Luther’s own account of a key moment in his religious awakening:

Once when in this tower I was meditating on those words, “the just lives by faith,” “justice of God,” I soon had the thought whether we ought to live justified by faith, and God’s justice ought to be the salvation of every believer, and soon my soul was revived. Therefore it is God’s justice which justifies us and saves us. And these words became a sweeter message for me. This knowledge the Holy Spirit gave me on the privy in the tower.

This is one of the most extraordinary paragraphs ever written, and you can glimpse much of twentieth century literature in its transition to that last, unforgettable sentence. If it isn’t as familiar as it should be, it’s mostly because Luther’s defenders tried to minimize it, his detractors read too much into it, and psychoanalysts seized eagerly on it in ways that have started to seem embarrassing. In the years when the psychoanalytic interpretation of history—not to be confused with other forms of psychohistory—was briefly in vogue, Luther became the case study of choice, in part because he afforded so much material to Freudians. Luther was unusually candid about the bathroom, and excremental images fill his work and conversation. As Brown puts it: “Such historical facts are hard to come by…and historical science should make the most of them.” You could make a strong case that Luther’s openness on the subject encouraged critics to give it an excessive amount of emphasis, just because it’s easier to do this sort of reading on him than on pretty much anybody else. But it’s also hard to claim that these images weren’t somehow central to Luther’s vision. As Brown writes:

Luther records that in one encounter, when Lutheran doctrines had not sufficed to rout the Devil, he had routed him “mit einem Furz”…Other anal weapons employed by Luther in his fight with the Devil—my language here is more refined than Luther’s—are injunctions to “lick (or kiss) my posteriors” or to “defecate in his pants and hang them round his neck,” and threats to “defecate in his face” or to “throw him into my anus, where he belongs.”

And Acocella approvingly quotes Luther’s famous metaphor as he felt death approaching: “I am like a ripe shit, and the world is a gigantic asshole. We will both probably let go of each other soon.”

In retrospect, it’s easy to find something comical in Freudian readings of Luther: “Today, psychoanalytic interpretations tend to be tittered at by Luther biographers,” Acocella writes. But perhaps we shouldn’t discourage Freudians from going after the one historical figure whom they might understand better than anybody else. In Life Against Death, after linking Luther’s fascination with excrement with his feelings toward money, usury, and the devil, Brown claims him as one of his own: “Lutheranism can be explicated not only as theology but also as psychoanalysis. Luther, like a psychoanalyst, penetrates beneath the surface of life and finds a hidden reality; religion, like psychoanalysis, must say that things are not what they seem to be.” You could even argue that a psychoanalyst in the first half of the last century would have been uniquely equipped to understand the Reformation from the inside. As Janet Malcolm writes so memorably in Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession:

Soon after the Big Bang of Freud’s major discoveries…the historian of psychoanalysis notes a fork in the road. One path leads outward into the general culture, widening to become the grand boulevard of psychoanalytic influence—the multilane superhighway of psychoanalytic thought’s incursions into psychiatry, social philosophy, anthropology, law, literature, education, and child-rearing. The other is the narrow, inward-turning path of psychoanalytic therapy: a hidden, almost secret byway travelled by few (the analysts and their patients), edged by decrepit mansions with drawn shades (the training institutes and the analytic societies), marked with inscrutable road signs (the scientific papers).

This dual dynamic, which had been enacted within living memory, recalled the Reformation itself, which took Luther’s secret struggle and turned it into a movement that could overthrow kings and empires, with the two tracks running in parallel. And their affinities go even deeper. Luther, like Freud, marked a divide in mankind’s understanding of itself, and their fans and followers don’t shy away from grandiose statements. Acocella quotes a recent biography by Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World: “The quintessentially modern idea of the individual was as unthinkable before Luther as is color in a world of black and white. And the more recent ideas of pluralism, religious liberty, self-government, and liberty all entered history through the door that Luther opened.” You could make the same claim—with a different list of values—for Freud. And even their enemies speak of them in analogous terms. In Freud for Historians, Peter Gay writes:

Inevitably, those most hostile to psychoanalysis have been those most alarmed at psychohistory. To them, it is nothing less than a disfiguring, perhaps incurable epidemic that has invaded their craft. The “reckless psychologizing of the “woolly-minded men and women who call themselves psychohistorians,” Kenneth S. Lynn wrote in 1978, has grown into “a cancer that is metastasizing through the whole body of the historical profession.”

The language here is startlingly similar to what Acocella says of Luther’s legacy: “The Reformation wasn’t led, exactly; it just spread, metastasized.” Freud’s revolution may be over, while Luther’s, in some strange way, is just beginning. And if we want to understand one, we can still learn a lot from the other.

The lure of true crime

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American Tragedy by Lawrence Schiller

A few months ago, I wrote a short blog post about Lawrence Schiller, the photographer, packager, and all-around hustler who famously collaborated with Norman Mailer on such books as The Executioner’s Song. I’d started thinking about Schiller again thanks to the birthday video he directed decades ago for Kris Jenner as a favor to her husband Robert Kardashian, which resurfaced recently online. And I was intrigued enough by the connection to dig a little further into Schiller and his work, which includes a massive tome called American Tragedy, billed as “the uncensored story of the O.J. Simpson defense.” I had a plane trip and a few quiet weeks coming up, so I snared a copy. And I devoured it. I liked it so much, in fact, that I moved on to Schiller’s Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, another “uncensored story,” this one about the JonBenét Ramsey case, which I never thought I’d want to read about again. After just a couple of days, I’ve already burned halfway through it. (American Tragedy sheds additional light, incidentally, on Schiller’s relationship with Kardashian, which I mischaracterized slightly in my initial post. I’d thought that Schiller and Kardashian simply moved in the same circles, but it turns out that they met each other through their ex-wives. And Stephanie Schiller even ended up working with Kris Jenner on the “little team of elves” that revived her husband Bruce’s career in the early nineties—which is just another example of the tangled connections that you find everywhere in Schiller’s life.)

It isn’t hard to figure out what makes Schiller’s books so compelling. Both American Tragedy and Perfect Murder, Perfect Town exist almost entirely in the present tense, with any backstory minimized in favor of a methodical, understated accumulation of detail and incident that Schiller seems to have learned from Mailer: they read like The Executioner’s Song with all the poetry removed. They aren’t great works of art, but there’s something undeniably seductive about the smooth way in which they feed information to the reader about such insanely complicated stories. Schiller also has genuine talents as a reporter, even if his methods and his relationships with his subjects raise questions of their own. (He got to know the O.J. Simpson team, for instance, while ghostwriting Simpson’s book I Want to Tell You, and he even helped to clean up, edit, and assemble the audio recordings of Mark Furhman’s racist statements that were played in court—a degree of involvement that would be unthinkable for most conventional journalists.) American Tragedy is loaded with stories and insights that I’d either forgotten or never known, particularly about the crucial role played by Barry Scheck, the founder of the Innocence Project, in raising reasonable doubt about the blood evidence. And it leaves me in a peculiar position as Ryan Murphy’s The People v. O.J. Simpson premieres tomorrow: I’ve relived every aspect of this case so recently that I don’t think I have the capacity to take any more. Except, of course, that I probably do.

Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss

As a culture, we’ve developed a newfound fixation on a certain kind of true crime story, embodied first of all by Serial, then by The Jinx, and these days by Making a Murderer, of which I’ve watched five out of ten episodes so far. (The fact that the second season of Serial, which abandons the crime angle, has received a fraction of the attention of the first indicates that listeners were drawn more to the story of Adnan and Hae than to anything about Sarah Koenig’s methods.) Like Schiller’s books, which run to close to a thousand pages in paperback, the podcast and miniseries formats allow cases to be examined at extravagant length, until we feel as if we’re being injected with a slow drip of names, dates, and circumstantial evidence. I’ve noted before that a filmmaker like Errol Morris could have covered the same ground as Serial—and Making a Murderer—in less than two hours, but I’ve since come to realize that the expansive runtime is part of the point. Such stories, like the conspiracy theories into which they often imperceptibly shade, satisfy a fundamental craving we have for information, at a time when processing and making sense of the facts at our disposal has begun to feel like a central challenge of modern life. We’re drawn to detective stories for much the same reason, but a true crime provides us with more details than a fictional one would ever dare, along with the tantalizing prospect of a hidden order visible if we just look at the clues from the right angle. And it’s only when the case is developed on an epic scale that it offers us the illusion that we can make sense of it ourselves.

Because it is an illusion, and it’s one to which a murder mystery lends itself particularly well. We can absorb thousands of details about an unsolved homicide to an extent that we generally can’t about, say, foreign policy or climate change, because the vivid nature of the crime generates a kind of electrical field in which all the pieces can align. (It’s why David Fincher, whose films, as I noted last week, are often about their own complexity, has been drawn to no fewer than three different stories about serial killers, to the point where, in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he insisted on using the term “serial murderer” instead, as if no one would notice that he was revisiting the same territory.) And it’s the futility of the search itself that we find so compelling. My return last year to the true crime genre came courtesy of Joe McGinniss’s Fatal Vision, a book so compulsively disturbing and fascinating that I almost wish I hadn’t read it. Those familiar with the Jeffrey MacDonald case know that it’s a bottomless pit that has swallowed up investigators like McGinniss, Janet Malcolm, and even Errol Morris himself. But it’s the messy, exasperating, unsolvable cases that obsess us the most. It’s only when the evidence refuses to come together into a coherent picture, extending the search indefinitely, that we can turn it into an obsession—a fact I find more intriguing than any of the mediations on the nature of truth that Koening provided at the end of Serial. Facts multiply, interpretations collide, patterns emerge and disappear, but only after a critical mass of information has been achieved. And the rest, as they say, is left as an exercise for the reader.

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