Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jorge Luis Borges

The Borges Test

leave a comment »

In his introduction to The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges, who was arguably the greatest writer of speculative fiction of the twentieth century, offers a useful piece of advice:

It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that these books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them. That was Carlyle’s procedure in Sartor Resartus, Butler’s in The Fair Haven—though those works suffer under the imperfection that they themselves are books, and not a whit less tautological than the others. A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books. Those notes are “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain.”

Later stories in the same vein include “Three Versions of Judas” and “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” one of my favorites, in which Borges writes: “In my spare evenings I have conceived this plot—which I will perhaps commit to paper but which already somehow justifies me.” It’s a considerate way of saving time for both the author and the reader, and it’s unfortunate that it’s become so associated with Borges that it’s hard for other writers to utilize it without turning it into an homage. And it only works for stories in which an idea, rather than characterization or style, constitutes the primary attraction.

It’s also no accident that Borges arrived at this method after years as a great reader of mystery fiction and, to a lesser extent, of science fiction and fantasy, which are the genres most vulnerable to the charge that they have nothing to offer but an idea. The most damning case against the hard science fiction epitomized by John W. Campbell’s Astounding is that many of these stories could be reduced to a paragraph of plot summary with minimal loss. Most fans, I think, can relate to the experience of being halfway through a story and impatiently skipping to the end, since the writing and characters don’t provide nearly enough incidental pleasure to justify wading through the rest. At its worst, you get the kind of scientific problem story published by Analog at its least inviting, with the reader forced to stare at names on the page and incomprehensible jargon for twenty minutes, only to be rewarded with the narrative equivalent of a word problem in a physics textbook. And this doesn’t extend to bad stories alone, but to some of the important works ever published in the genre. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that almost all of Asimov’s robot stories could be condensed to a few sentences that lay out the situation and the solution without losing much of the experience. (A trickier example is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which I suspect would work better as a five-page Borges story. The idea of an alternate World War II novel in which the characters are reading an alternate World War II novel about our own world, filled with plausible inaccuracies, is one that Borges would have loved. Ursula K. LeGuin famously referred to Dick as “our own homegrown Borges,” and it’s noteworthy that Dick, as an American novelist, just went ahead and wrote the whole book.)

You could say much the same of detective fiction of the locked-room variety, which exists entirely to deliver the twist, and which might work better as one of the one-minute mysteries that children consume in grade school. (“What made Encyclopedia Brown so sure? Turn to page 61 for the solution to ‘The Case of the Giant Mousetrap.’”) This frequent inability of the mystery to rise above its origins as a puzzle is part of the reason that they irritated the critic Edmund Wilson, who wrote in his famous essay “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?”:

I finally got to feel that I had to unpack large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails…It is not difficult to create suspense by making people await a revelation, but it does demand a certain talent to come through with a criminal device which is ingenious or picturesque or amusing enough to make the reader feel that the waiting has been worth while…You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out.

Under such circumstances, it can be a courtesy for one reader to summarize the contents of such a story for another. Many of Borges’s best essays consist of little more than a condensed version of another book, from William Beckford’s Vathek to Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, as filtered through his unique sensibilities. And you see a similar impulse, at much lower level, when we go online to read the spoilers for a bad movie that we have no intention of ever seeing.

But when you’re a writer, particularly of mystery or science fiction, you need to constantly ask yourself why your story is better than its own summary. (If anything, this is especially true of science fiction mysteries, which is the category in which I tend to write.) One obvious answer is to make it as short as possible. There’s a grand tradition of short science fiction—one of the first anthologies I ever owned was One Hundred Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, which I still love—and the platonic ideal is a story that takes no longer to read than it would to be orally told the premise. The other approach is to emphasize qualities that can’t be summarized, like character, style, atmosphere, and suspense. In science fiction, my favorite example is A.E. van Vogt, whose plots defy summarization, and who justifies his existence only by making readers feel as if they’ve lived through an experience that they can’t explain. On the mystery side, Edmund Wilson hints at this when he describes the Sherlock Holmes stories as “fairy tales,” and in his consideration of Raymond Chandler, he also gets at one of the risks:

It is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms…It was only when I got to the end that I felt my old crime-story depression descending upon me again—because here again, as is so often the case, the explanation of the mysteries, when it comes, is neither interesting nor plausible enough.

If you can’t do either of the above, then the idea probably isn’t ready yet. That’s the Borges test. And if you decide that it would work better as a short story by Borges, you can console yourself with the fact that it’s far from alone.

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2017 at 9:10 am

My ten great books #4: Labyrinths

leave a comment »

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

To understand the appeal of Jorge Luis Borges, it helps to begin with the encyclopedia. Not with the fantastic encyclopedia of Tlön, which describes an imaginary country—its fishes, its playing cards—in monumental detail, or even with the countless inaccessible encyclopedias, with their autobiographies of the archangels and the true story of your own death, that populate the infinite Library of Babel. I’m talking about the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which Borges read endlessly. Borges sometimes strikes us as a monster of erudition, and there’s no doubt that he was deeply familiar with such subjects as the cabala and the history of philosophy. He also underwent prolonged engagements with the likes of Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Scheherazade. Yet his true intellectual heritage was that of a reader of encyclopedias, a connoisseur of enigmatic facts filtered through the perspective of an army of anonymous compilers, superficially orderly but opening into ever darker mysteries. Many readers, including me, were first drawn to Borges for the richness and quality of his mind, which tosses out fascinating ideas in a paragraph or aside in an otherwise densely textured story. Dig a little deeper, though, and you find a man who is profoundly ambivalent about his own learning, to whom a book can be a paradise, a labyrinth, or the hybrid creature of a nightmare. If Proust is the ultimate noticer, Borges is our ultimate reader, and he has troubling lessons for those of us who spend most of our lives among books.

That said, it’s foolish to discount the incidental pleasures of his fictions, which include some of the finest mystery and fantasy stories in any language. Borges comes from an unbroken line of storytellers that includes Edgar Allan Poe, G.K. Chesterton, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and his best stories can be enjoyed simply as displays of virtuoso cleverness: “The Garden of Forking Paths” is a philosophical fable that includes a twist worthy of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, where it first appeared in English, and “The Immortals” packs more wonderful ideas into fourteen pages than most authors could manage in ten times that length. (All of these stories appear in Labyrinths, still the best introduction to Borges, which collects the cream of his work from the fifties. My other favorites include “Death and the Compass,” “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” and “Three Versions of Judas.”) The more we read him, though, the more disturbing he becomes. Borges was a master librarian who finally lost his eyesight, an irony that he would have found too obvious to include in his own fiction. His finest works are about other kinds of blindness: overinterpretation, the conflation of the reader and the text, the unreliability of apparently factual narratives, and the uncanny relationship between ideas and the shape of the world around us. “Death and the Compass” is the tale of a perfect detective, a Holmes, undone by a villain who constructs a puzzle to lure him to his death, and it’s hard not to identify both men with Borges himself, weaving the web that traps the author along with his readers.

Written by nevalalee

May 11, 2017 at 9:00 am

Our fearful symmetry

with one comment

Yesterday, I spent an hour fixing my garage door, which got stuck halfway up and refused to budge. I went about it in the way I usually approach such household tasks: I took a flashlight and a pair of vise-grips and stared at it for a while. In this case, for once, it worked, even if I’m only postponing the inevitable service call. But it wouldn’t have occurred to me to tackle it myself in the first place—when I probably wouldn’t have tried to fix, say, my own car by trial and error—if it hadn’t been for two factors. The first is that the workings were all pretty visible. On each side, there’s basically just a torsion spring, a steel cable, and two pulleys, all of it exposed to plain sight. The second point, which was even more crucial, is that a garage door is symmetrical, and only one side was giving me trouble. Whenever I wasn’t sure how the result should look, I just had to look at the other half and mentally reflect it to its mirror image. It reminded me of how useful symmetry can be in addressing many problems, as George Pólya notes in How to Solve It:

Symmetry, in a general sense, is important for our subject. If a problem is symmetric in some ways we may derive some profit from noticing its interchangeable parts and it often pays to treat those parts which play the same role in the same fashion…Symmetry may also be useful in checking results.

And if I hadn’t been able to check my work along the way using the other side of the door, I doubt I would have attempted to fix it at all.

But it also points at a subtle bias in the way we pick our problems. There’s no question that symmetry plays an important role in the world around us, and it provides a solid foundation for the notion that we can use beauty or elegance as an investigative tool. “It seems that if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one’s equations, and if one has a really sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress,” Paul Dirac famously said, and Murray Gell-Mann gave the best explanation I’ve ever found of why this might be true:

There’s a quotation from Newton, I don’t remember the exact words but lots of other physicists have made the same remark since—that nature seems to have a remarkable property of self-similarity. The laws—the fundamental laws—at different levels seem to resemble one another. And that’s probably what accounts for the possibility of using elegance as a criterion [in science]. We develop a mathematical formula, say, for describing something at a particular level, and then we go to a deeper level and find that in terms of mathematics, the equations at the deeper level are beautifully equivalent. Which means that we’ve found an appropriate formula.

Gell-Mann concludes: “And that takes the human being, human judgment, out of it a little. You might object that after all we are the ones who say what elegance is. But I don’t think that’s the point.”

He’s right, of course, and there are plenty of fields in which symmetry and self-similarity are valuable criteria. Yet there’s also a sense in which we’re drawn to problems in which such structures appear, while neglecting those that aren’t as amenable to symmetrical thinking. Just as I was willing to take apart my garage door when I wouldn’t have done the same with my car—which, after all, has a perfectly logical design—it’s natural for us to prefer problems that are obviously symmetrical or that hold out the promise of elegance, much as we’re attracted to the same qualities in the human face. But there are plenty of important questions that aren’t elegant at all. I’m reminded of what Max Perutz, who described the structure of hemoglobin, said about the work of his more famous colleague James Watson:

I sometimes envied Jim. My own problem took thousands of hours of hard work, measurements, calculations. I often thought that there must be some way to cut through it—that there must be, if only I could see it, an elegant solution. There wasn’t any. For Jim’s there was an elegant solution, which is what I admired. He found it partly because he never made the mistake of confusing hard work with hard thinking; he always refused to substitute one for the other.

In The Eighth Day of Creation, Horace Freehand Judson calls this “the most exact yet generous compliment I have ever heard from one scientist to another.” But there’s also a wistful acknowledgement of the luck of the draw. Both Perutz and Watson were working on problems of enormous importance, but only one of them had an elegant solution, and there was no way of knowing in advance which one it would be.

Given the choice, I suspect that most of us would prefer to work on problems that exhibit some degree of symmetry: they’re elegant, intuitive, and satisfying. In the absence of that kind of order, we’re left with what Perutz calls “thousands of hours of hard work, measurements, calculations,” and it isn’t pretty. (As Donald Knuth says in a somewhat different context: “Without any underlying symmetry properties, the job of proving interesting results becomes extremely unpleasant.”) When we extrapolate this preference to the culture as a whole, it leads to two troubling tendencies. One is to prioritize problems that lend themselves to this sort of attack, while overlooking whole fields of messier, asymmetrical phenomena that resist elegant analysis—to the point where we might even deny that they’re worth studying at all. The other is to invent a symmetry that isn’t there. You can see both impulses at work in the social sciences, which tend to deal with problems that can’t be reduced to a series of equations, and they’re particularly insidious in economics, which is uniquely vulnerable to elegant models that confirm what existing interest groups want to hear. From there, it’s only a small step to more frightening forms of fake symmetry, as Borges writes in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”: “Any symmetry with a resemblance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was sufficient to entrance the minds of men.” And the first habit has a way of leading to the second. The more we seek out problems with symmetry while passing over those that lack it, the more likely we become to attribute false symmetries to the world around us. Symmetry, by definition, is a beautiful thing. But it can also turn us into suckers for a pretty face.

The innumerable ways of being a man

with one comment

If you wanted to design the competent man of adventure and science fiction from first principles, you couldn’t do much better than Sir Richard Francis Burton. Elsewhere, I’ve spoken of him as “an unlikely combination of James Frazer, T.E. Lawrence, and Indiana Jones who comes as close as any real historical figure to the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials,” and, if anything, that description might be too conservative. As Jorge Luis Borges recounts in his excellent essay “The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights”:

Burton, disguised as an Afghani, made the pilgrimage to the holy cities of Arabia…Before that, in the guise of a dervish, he practiced medicine in Cairo—alternating it with prestidigitation and magic so as to gain the trust of the sick. In 1858, he commanded an expedition to the secret sources of the Nile, a mission that led him to discover Lake Tanganyika. During that undertaking he was attacked by a high fever; in 1855, the Somalis thrust a javelin through his jaws…Nine years later, he essayed the terrible hospitality of the ceremonious cannibals of Dahomey; on his return there was no scarcity of rumors (possibly spread and certainly encouraged by Burton himself) that, like Shakespeare’s omnivorous proconsul, he had “eaten strange flesh.”

Unfounded rumors about his escapades were circulating even during his lifetime, and the only witness to many of his adventures was Burton himself. But his great translation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, which is one of my most treasured possessions, is a lasting monument. As Borges observes, it is the legendary Burton who remains:

It will be observed that, from his amateur cannibal to his dreaming polyglot, I have not rejected those of Richard Burton’s personae that, without diminution of fervor, we could call legendary. My reason is clear: The Burton of the Burton legend is the translator of the Nights…To peruse The Thousand and One Nights in Sir Richard’s translation is no less incredible than to read it in ‘a plain and literal translation with explanatory notes’ by Sinbad the Sailor.

This is the Burton whom we remember, and his influence can be strongly seen in the careers of two men. The first is the English occultist Aleister Crowley, who dedicated his autobiography to Burton, “the perfect pioneer of spiritual and physical adventure,” and referred to him repeatedly as “my hero.” As the scholar Alex Owen writes in her essay “The Sorcerer and His Apprentice”: “Burton represented the kind of man Crowley most wished to be—strong, courageous, intrepid, but also a learned scholar-poet who chafed against conventional restraints.” Crowley first read Burton in college, and he said of his own efforts at disguising himself during his travels: “I thought I would see what I could do to take a leaf out of Burton’s book.” He later included Burton in the list of saints invoked in the Gnostic Mass of the Ordo Templi Orientis—the same ritual, evidently, that was performed by the rocket scientist and science fiction fan Jack Parsons in Los Angeles, at meetings that were attended by the likes of Jack Williamson, Cleve Cartmill, and Robert A. Heinlein. (Heinlein, who received a set of the Burton Club edition of The Arabian Nights as a birthday present from his wife Ginny in 1963, listed it as part of the essential library in the fallout shelter in Farnham’s Freehold, and a character refers to reading “the Burton original” in Time Enough for Love, which itself is a kind of Scheherazade story.) It can be difficult to separate both Burton and Crowley from the legends that grew up around them, and both have been accused of murder, although I suspect that Crowley, like Burton, would have “confessed rather shamefacedly that he had never killed anybody at any time.” But as Crowley strikingly said of Burton: “The best thing about him is his amazing common sense.” Many of Crowley’s admirers would probably say the same thing, which should remind us that common sense, taken to its extreme, is often indistinguishable from insanity.

Jack Parsons, of course, was notoriously associated with L. Ron Hubbard, who once referred to Crowley as “my good friend,” although the two men never actually met. And Hubbard was fascinated by Burton as well. At the age of twelve, Hubbard encountered a kind of deutero-Burton, the naval officer Joseph “Snake” Thompson, a spy, linguist, zoologist, and psychoanalyst who seemed so implausible a figure that he was once thought to be fictional, although he was very real. In the short novel Slaves of Sleep, Hubbard writes:

A very imperfect idea of the jinn is born of the insipid children’s translations of The Arabian Nights Entertainment, but in the original work…the subject is more competently treated. For the ardent researcher, Burton’s edition is recommended, though due to its being a forbidden work in these United States, it is very difficult to find. There is, however, a full set in the New York Public Library where the wise librarians have devoted an entire division to works dealing with the black arts.

Burton’s translation might have been rare, but it wasn’t exactly forbidden: a few years earlier, L. Sprague de Camp had bought a full set from his boss at the International Correspondence School for seventeen dollars, and it isn’t hard to imagine that his friend Hubbard occasionally borrowed one of its volumes. Another story by Hubbard, The Ghoul, takes place in the fictitious Hotel Burton, and Burton’s influence is visible in all of the Arabian Nights stories that he published in Unknown, as well as in the smug tone of self-deprecation that he used to talk about his accomplishments. When Burton writes that, as a young man, he was “fit for nothing but to be shot at for six pence a day,” or that “I have never been so flattered in my life than to think it would take three hundred men to kill me,” you can hear a premonitory echo both of the voice that Hubbard adopted for his heroes and of his own bluff style of insincere understatement.

And it was Burton’s presentation of himself that resonated the most with Crowley and Hubbard. Burton was the patron saint of the multihyphenates whose fans feel obliged to garland them with a long list of careers, or what Borges calls “the innumerable ways of being a man that are known to mankind.” On their official or semiofficial sites, Burton is described as a “soldier, explorer, linguist, ethnologist, and controversialist”; Crowley as a “poet, novelist, journalist, mountaineer, explorer, chess player, graphic designer, drug experimenter, prankster, lover of women, beloved of men, yogi, magician, prophet, early freedom fighter, human rights activist, philosopher, and artist”; and Hubbard as an “adventurer, explorer, master mariner, pilot, writer, filmmaker, photographer, musician, poet, botanist and philosopher.” But a man only collects so many titles when his own identity remains stubbornly undefined. All three men, notably, affected Orientalist disguises—Burton during his forbidden journey to Mecca, Crowley in Madhura, India, where he obtained “a loincloth and a begging bowl,” and Hubbard, allegedly, in Los Angeles: “I went right down in the middle of Hollywood, I rented an office, got a hold of a nurse, wrapped a towel around my head and became a swami.” (There are also obvious shades of T.E. Lawrence. Owen notes: “While the relationships of Crowley, Burton, and Lawrence to imposture and disguise are different, all three men had vested interests in masking their origins and their uncertain social positions.” And it’s worth noting that all three men were the object of persistent rumors about their sexuality.) In the end, they never removed their masks. Burton may or may not have been the ultimate competent man, but he was a shining example of an individual who became the legend that he had created for himself. Crowley and Hubbard took it even further by acquiring followers, which Burton never did, at least not during his lifetime. But his cult may turn out to be the most lasting of them all.

A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 3

with 10 comments

Hermann Göring with falcon

Over the last few days, I’ve been doing my best Robert Anton Wilson impression, and, like him, I’ve been seeing hawks everywhere. Science fiction is full of them. Skylark of Space, which is arguably the story that kicked off the whole business in the first place, was written by E.E. Smith and his friend Lee Hawkins Garby, who is one of those women who seem to have largely fallen out of the history of the genre. Then there’s Hawk Carse, the main character of a series of stories, written for Astounding by editors Harry Bates and Desmond W. Hall, that have become synonymous with bad space opera. And you’ve got John W. Campbell himself, who was described as having “hawklike” features by the fan historian Sam Moskowitz, and who once said of his own appearance: “I haven’t got eyes like a hawk, but the nose might serve.” (Campbell also compared his looks to those of The Shadow and, notably, Hermann Göring, an enthusiastic falconer who loved hawks.) It’s all a diverting game, but it gets at a meaningful point. When Wilson’s wife objected to his obsession with the 23 enigma, pointing out that he was just noticing that one number and ignoring everything else, Wilson could only reply: “Of course.” But continued to believe in it as an “intuitive signal” that would guide him in useful directions, as well as an illustration of the credo that guided his entire career:

Our models of “reality” are very small and tidy, the universe of experience is huge and untidy, and no model can ever include all the huge untidiness perceived by uncensored consciousness.

We’re living at a time in which the events of the morning can be spun into two contradictory narratives by early afternoon, so it doesn’t seem all that original to observe that you can draw whatever conclusion you like from a sufficiently rich and random corpus of facts. On some level, all too many mental models come down to looking for hawks, noting their appearances, and publishing a paper about the result. And when you’re talking about something like the history of science fiction, which is an exceptionally messy body of data, it’s easy to find the patterns that you want. You could write an overview of the genre that draws a line from A.E. van Vogt to Alfred Bester to Philip K. Dick that would be just as persuasive and consistent as one that ignores them entirely. The same is true of individuals like Campbell and Heinlein, who, like all of us, contained multitudes. It can be hard to reconcile the Campbell who took part in parapsychological experiments at Duke and was editorializing in the thirties about the existence of telepathy in Unknown with the founder of whatever we want to call Campbellian science fiction, just as it can be difficult to make sense of the contradictory aspects of Heinlein’s personality, which is something I haven’t quite managed to do yet. As Borges writes:

Let us greatly simplify, and imagine that a life consists of 13,000 facts. One of the hypothetical biographies would record the series 11, 22, 33…; another, the series 9, 13, 17, 21…; another, the series 3, 12, 21, 30, 39…A history of a man’s dreams is not inconceivable; another, of the organs of his body; another, of the mistakes he made; another, of all the moments when he thought about the Pyramids; another, of his dealings with the night and the dawn.

It’s impossible to keep all those facts in mind at once, so we make up stories about people that allow us to extrapolate the rest, in a kind of lossy compression. The story of Arthur C. Clarke’s encounter with Uri Geller is striking mostly because it doesn’t fit our image of Clarke as the paradigmatic hard science fiction writer, but of course, he was much more than that.

The Falcon Killer

I’ve been focusing on places where science fiction intersects with the mystical because there’s a perfectly valid history to be written about it, and it’s a thread that tends to be overlooked. But perhaps the most instructive paranormal encounter of all happened to none other than Isaac Asimov. In July 1966, Asimov and his family were spending two weeks at a summer house in Concord, Massachusetts. One evening, his daughter ran into the house shouting: “Daddy, Daddy, a flying saucer! Come look!” Here’s how he describes what happened next:

I rushed out of the house to see…It was a cloudless twilight. The sun had set and the sky was a uniform slate gray, still too light for any stars to be visible; and there, hanging in the sky, like an oversize moon, was a perfect featureless metallic circle of something like aluminum.

I was thunderstruck, and dashed back into the house for my glasses, moaning, “Oh no, this can’t happen to me. This can’t happen to me.” I couldn’t bear the thought that I would have to report something that really looked as though it might conceivably be an extraterrestrial starship.

When Asimov went back outside, the object was still there. It slowly began to turn, becoming gradually more elliptical, until the black markings on its side came into view—and it turned out to be the Goodyear blimp. Asimov writes: “I was incredibly relieved!” Years later, his daughter told the New York Times: “He nearly had a heart attack. He thought he saw his career going down the drain.”

It’s a funny story in itself, but let’s compare it to what Geller writes about Clarke: “Clarke was not there just to scoff. He had wanted things to happen. He just wanted to be completely convinced that everything was legitimate.” The italics are mine. Asimov, alone of all the writers I’ve mentioned, never had any interest in the paranormal, and he remained a consistent skeptic throughout his life. As a result, unlike the others, he was very rarely wrong. But I have a hunch that it’s also part of the reason why he sometimes seems like the most limited of all major science fiction writers—undeniably great within a narrow range—while simultaneously the most important to the culture as a whole. Asimov became the most famous writer the genre has ever seen because you could basically trust him: it was his nonfiction, not his fiction, that endeared him to the public, and his status as a explainer depended on maintaining an appearance of unruffled rationality. It allowed him to assume a very different role than Campbell, who manifestly couldn’t be trusted on numerous issues, or even Heinlein, who convinced a lot of people to believe him while alienating countless others. But just as W.B. Yeats drew on his occult beliefs as a sort of battery to drive his poetry, Campbell and Heinlein were able to go places where Asimov politely declined to follow, simply because he had so much invested in not being wrong. Asimov was always able to tell the difference between a hawk and a handsaw, no matter which way the wind was blowing, and in some ways, he’s the best model for most of us to emulate. But it’s hard to write science fiction, or to live in it, without seeing patterns that may or may not be there.

The Valley of Lost Things

with 2 comments

Patti Smith

Patti Smith once lost her favorite coat. As the singer-songwriter relates in her memoir M Train, it was an old black coat that had been given to her by a friend, off his own back, as a present on her fifty-seventh birthday. It was worn and riddled with holes, but whenever she put it on, she felt like herself. Then she began wearing another coat during a particularly cold winter, and the other one went missing forever:

I called out but heard nothing; crisscrossing wavelengths obscured any hope of feeling out its whereabouts. That’s the way it is sometimes with the hearing and the calling. Abraham heard the demanding call of the Lord. Jane Eyre heard the beseeching cries of Mr. Rochester. But I was deaf to my coat. Most likely it had been carelessly flung on a mound with wheels rolling far away toward the Valley of the Lost.

The Valley of the Lost, as Smith explains, is the “half-dimensional place where things just disappear,” where she imagines her coat “on a random mound being picked over by desperate urchins.” Smith concludes: “The valley is softer, more silent than purgatory, a kind of benevolent holding center.” It’s an image that first appears in Dot and Tot of Merryland by L. Frank Baum, who describes the Valley of Lost Things as “covered with thousands and thousands of pins…A great pyramid of thimbles, of all sizes and made of many different materials. Further on were piles of buttons, of all shapes and colors imaginable, and there were also vast collections of hairpins, rings, and many sorts of jewelry…A mammoth heap of lead pencils, some short and stubby and worn, and others long and almost new.”

I encountered the story of the black coat in the recent wonderful essay “When Things Go Missing” by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker, in which she, like Smith, uses the disappearance of physical objects as an entry point for exploring other kinds of loss. After a very funny opening in which she discusses a short period in which she lost her car keys, her wallet, and her friend’s pickup truck, she provides a roundup of the extant advice on finding lost items, including the “suspect” rule that states that most objects are less than two feet from where you think you left them. As it happens, I’m familiar with that rule, which appears in How to Find Lost Objects by Professor Solomon, which I’ve quoted here before. Personally, I like his idea of the Eureka Zone, the eighteen-inch radius that he recommends we measure with a ruler and then explore meticulously. It’s a codification of the practical insight that our mistakes rarely travel far from their point of origin. Joe Armstrong, the creator of the programming language Erlang, makes a similar point in the book Coders at Work:

Then there’s—I don’t know if I read it somewhere or if I invented it myself—Joe’s Law of Debugging, which is that all errors will be plus/minus three statements of the place where you last changed the program…It’s the same everywhere. You fix your car and it goes wrong—it’s the last thing you did. You changed something—you just have to remember what it was. It’s true with everything.

By this logic, the Valley of Lost Things is all around us, and we’re wandering through it with various degrees of incomprehension. As Daniel Boone is supposed to have said: “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.”

Charles Fort

I’ve been thinking of the loss and retrieval of objects a lot recently, in my unexpected role as biographer and amateur archivist. When I began my research for Astounding, I had to start by recovering countless scraps of information that must once have seemed obvious. Even something as basic as the number and names of John W. Campbell’s children turned out to be hard to verify, and there are equally immense facts, like how he met his first wife, that seem to have vanished into the Valley of Lost Things forever. (Not even his own daughter knows the answer to that last one.) I also have thousands of seemingly minor details that I hope to assemble into some kind of portrait, and they’re vulnerable to loss as well. I’ve spoken before about the challenge of keeping my notes straight, and how I’ve basically resorted to throwing everything into four huge text files and trusting in its searchability. Mostly, it works, but sometimes it doesn’t. During the editing process for my Longreads article on L. Ron Hubbard, a very diligent fact checker sent me questions about more than fifty individual statements, for which I had to dig up citations or revise the language for accuracy. I was able to find just about everything he mentioned, but one detail—about Hubbard’s hair, of all things—was frustratingly elusive, and it had to come out. Similarly, as I work on the book, I’ll occasionally come across a statement in my notes that I can’t find in my sources, and I have no idea where it came from. This has only happened once or twice, but whenever it does, it feels as if I’ve carelessly let something slip back into the Valley of the Lost, and I’ve let my subject down.

But as Proust knew, it’s in the search for lost things, however trivial, that we also find deeper meaning. As a biographer, I’m haunted by Borges’s devastating putdown: “One life of Poe consists of seven hundred octavo pages; the author, fascinated by changes of residence, barely manages one parenthesis for the Maelstrom or the cosmogony of ‘Eureka.’” I’ve often found myself obsessed by exactly those “changes of residence,” but it’s only in the accumulation of such material that the big picture starts to emerge, and the search often means more than the goal. If there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, it’s that a dead end almost always turns into a doorway. Whenever I’ve had to deal with a frustrating absence of of information, it invariably becomes a blessing, because it forces me to talk to real people and leave my comfort zone to find what I need, which never would have happened if it had been there for the taking. The most beautiful description I’ve found of the Valley of Lost Objects is in The Book of the Damned by Charles Fort, who calls it the Super-Sargasso Sea:

Derelicts, rubbish, old cargoes from interplanetary wrecks; things cast out into what is called space by convulsions of other planets, things from the times of the Alexanders, Caesars and Napoleons of Mars and Jupiter and Neptune; things raised by this earth’s cyclones: horses and barns and elephants and flies and dodoes, moas, and pterodactyls; leaves from modern trees and leaves of the Carboniferous era—all, however, tending to disintegrate into homogeneous-looking muds or dusts, red or black or yellow—treasure-troves for the paleontologists and for the archaeologists—accumulations of centuries—cyclones of Egypt, Greece, and Assyria—fishes dried and hard, there a short time: others there long enough to putrefy.

As Baum notes, however, it’s mostly pins. The paleontologists, archeologists, and biographers comb through it, like “desperate urchins,” and pins are usually all we find. But occasionally there’s a jewel. Or even a beloved coat.

Zen and the art of survival

with 2 comments

R.H. Blyth

It’s probably too late to buy it as a Christmas gift, but I wanted to mention that Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics by R.H. Blyth, one of my favorite books, is now available in an affordable paperback edition from the Catholic publisher Angelico Press, after being out of print for decades. I’ve said before that if I could own just one book that had to fit in a backpack, it would be Blyth, and if there’s any time in which we could use his insights, it’s now. It’s a series of essays on such subjects as “Death,” “Children,” “Poverty,” and “Non-Attachment”—the last of which is so important that it gets four chapters to itself—and Blyth makes his points using copious quotations, anecdotes, and literary illustrations. His tone is captured by an aside toward the beginning:

I remember when I began to attend lectures, at a Zen temple…I was surprised to find that there were no lofty spiritual truths enunciated at all. Two things stuck in my head, because they were repeated so often, and with such gusto. One of them, emphasized with extreme vigor, was that you must not smoke a cigarette while making water. The other was that when somebody calls you (in Japanese, “Oi!”) you must answer (“Hai!”) at once, without hesitation. When we compare this to the usual Christian exhortatory sermon, we cannot help being struck by the difference.

Blyth continues: “I myself heard the ‘Oi!’ ‘Hai!’ so many times that I began to wait for it and look on it as a kind of joke, and as soon as I did this, I began to see a light, or ‘get warm’ as the children say. It is like the grooves of launching. Release the blocks and the ship moves.” Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics is a collection of grooves. It’s both the best anthology of poetry I know and a source of advice and ideas that are constantly rattling around in my brain:

That is all religion is: eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired. But to do such simple things properly is really the most difficult thing in the world.

We ourselves, as we read [Don Quixote], have an underlying sense of shame that our lives are directed to the acquisition of all the things Don Quixote so rightly despised.

Sometimes the inculcation of poverty may be a concession to human weakness, which finds the golden mean so difficult. Poverty then appears as a kind of universal Prohibition…Poverty appears again as a form of safety first, a kind of fire insurance by burning down the house.

Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

What Blyth describes isn’t Zen, exactly, and if you’re looking for a more approachable introduction, you’re probably better off going with Blyth’s friend D.T. Suzuki, or maybe Pippi Longstocking. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t take it as a primary text in itself, as channeled through its author’s specific experiences, tastes, and prejudices. To the extent that I have a personal philosophy, however rarely I manage to live up to it, it’s here. And it’s the last chapter, “Shakespeare,” that I’ve been thinking about the most. Blyth believed that Zen could be found in its purest form in poetry, even in doggerel, so it isn’t surprising that he devotes so much space to Shakespeare, who stands with Jesus and Bashō as one of the book’s central figures. On the very last page, Blyth quotes Macduff, who asks, after discovering that his entire family has been murdered: “Did heaven look on, / And would not take their part?” Blyth concludes:

What is the answer to the question? It cannot be given in Yes, or No, because as the question is understood by most people, it has the same form as, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” But you may say, “You are only equivocating: answer the question, does Heaven care for us or not?” The answer is the plays of Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, for when we are watching or reading the plays, and even for a short time afterwards, before the glow has died away, we know the answer. But it is not Yes, and it is not No.

This seems about right to me. But the most extraordinary thing about this book is left almost unspoken. In the closing lines of his preface, Blyth thanks his typist, Mrs. Saeko Kobayashi of Toyko, and he ends it with the simple words: “Kanazawa, May 1941.” It’s as evocative, in its own way, as the famous “Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914-1921” at the end of Ulysses, which reminds us that the epic of Dublin was written in exile. Blyth was also working in a place and time that couldn’t have seemed less conducive to his subject or its reception, and it was about to get worse. In the preface to his other masterpiece, the four-volume study Haiku, Blyth writes: “Of the great number of Japanese books that I referred to while writing this and the succeeding volumes, hardly any escaped the air raids.” It wasn’t a period in which Japan itself seemed particularly emblematic of the life of Zen, and certainly not one in which most of his intended readers would be receptive to what it had to say. There are times when Blyth, quietly preparing his manuscript as the war raged around him, reminds me of the narrator in Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” working on his translation of the Urn Burial while the world as he knows it ends. But that’s how a lot of us feel these days, and the fact that Blyth emerged with his faith in Zen intact consoles me just as much as his book does. I can’t think of a better Christmas present—and even if it’s too late to give it to someone you love, you can always get it for yourself.

%d bloggers like this: