Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jorge Luis Borges

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.

The world of Tlön

leave a comment »

Portrait of Jorge Luis Borges by Ferdinando Scianna

Last month, my wife suffered a miscarriage in her eighth week of pregnancy. We had been trying for a second baby for a long time, and it devastated us. She has already written about it more eloquently than I ever could, and I don’t want to relive it all here. But there’s one memory that I’ve been turning over in my head for most of a sleepless night. It was during our first visit to the hospital, when we were waiting to go upstairs to hear the results of my wife’s blood test and ultrasound. I ended up alone in the lobby for a little while, and I caught myself wondering if this would be the last happy moment I would ever have. At such times, you try to strike bargains with the universe, and my personal life already felt so entangled with the election that I made a silent offer: I would accept a Trump presidency, if only it meant that I could have this baby. A few minutes later, we were seated across from a midwife who told us that the fetal heartbeat was abnormally slow, and that it didn’t seem to be viable. There was a chance that it would survive, but it was very low. We went home, spent a tense week waiting to see what would happen, and finally returned for a second appointment. The fetus was already gone. And when I think back now to the deal I tried to strike—Trump in exchange for that baby—I’m reminded of what the late Gene Wilder screams at Charlie at the end of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: “You get nothing.”

Of course, that isn’t exactly true. I’m fortunate enough to have a life that is mostly shielded from the obvious fallout of a Trump administration. There isn’t any risk that I’ll be deported. I’m a heterosexual male in the middle class. If I want to tune out the news for weeks or months, I’ve got an absorbing project that was going to take up most of my time anyway. But the prospect of doing any work on my book now reminds me of how Jorge Luis Borges ends the story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in which the world is devoured by the alternative reality of a fictional encyclopedia:

Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a resemblance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet? It is useless to answer that reality is also orderly…Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön. I pay no attention to all this and go on revising, in the still days at the Adrogue hotel, an uncertain Quevedian translation (which I do not intend to publish) of Browne’s Urn Burial.

We’re all about to take the plunge into unreality that Borges describes here—and it isn’t a fantasy spun by a secret society of encyclopedists, as the Borges fan Karl Rove might have foreseen, but the product of a single man’s brain. And part of me is tempted to pay no attention to it and go on revising.

Goethe

In many ways, it feels like any reasonable person is faced with two alternatives. Either you can fully accept that this is the time that you’ve been given, as Gandalf says to Frodo, and gird yourself for four years of battle, or you can withdraw, tend your own garden, and try to make as much happiness as you can for yourself and your loved ones—which is a luxury that not everyone can afford. I’m an imperfect creature, so I suspect that my reaction will be some combination of the two. I’ll unplug for a while, wait for the noise to die down, and then figure out a way to muddle through and do the best I can. It’s not so different from the way in which I dealt with the George W. Bush administration, which, in retrospect, encompassed eight of the happiest years of my life. It had nothing to do with politics: I was in my twenties, I was making my way in the world for the first time, and I felt no need to identify with the man in the White House. Trump may well turn out to be similar, if far worse. For one thing, I’m not twenty anymore. But I’ve also been spoiled by Obama. For most of the last decade, the president was a man I admired and understood. He made me feel that I was part of something larger. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel that way again. Part of me sensed this, which is why I tried to savor this last, awful year in whatever way I could. Maybe my relationship to politics has simply been restored to what should be its natural state, as forcefully and abruptly as possible. But that doesn’t make it any less painful.

As for Trump himself, I don’t think there’s any point in denying that what he did was extraordinary. As L. Ron Hubbard, a charismatic leader with disturbing affinities to Trump, once wrote: “I have high hopes of smashing my name into history so violently that it will take a legendary form even if all books are destroyed.” Trump did this unequivocally, and along the way, he reminded us of how little we know about anything, both individually and collectively. Maybe it’s a lesson that all we needed to be taught, although I sincerely doubt it will be worth the cost. And I still don’t know what to make of it. Goethe said of another historic figure:

The story of Napoleon produces in me an impression like that produced by the Revelation of St. John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.

Despite its apocalyptic tone—or perhaps because of it—this is pretty much what I’m feeling now. I don’t have any illusions that Trump will be a decent president, and even a mediocre presidency seems like too much to ask. What consoles me now is that there are good things in this country, and in all our lives, that Trump can never take away. As the world becomes Tlön, the rest of us will muddle through, even if it has to be on our own. My wife and I lost one baby, but we’ll try for another. But I still don’t know what to say to my daughter.

The low road to Xanadu

with 3 comments

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane

It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote of Donald Trump: “He’s like Charles Foster Kane, without any of the qualities that make Kane so misleadingly attractive.” If anything, that’s overly generous to Trump himself, but it also points to a real flaw in what can legitimately be called the greatest American movie ever made. Citizen Kane is more ambiguous than it was ever intended to be, because we’re distracted throughout by our fondness for the young Orson Welles. He’s visible all too briefly in the early sequences at the Inquirer; he winks at us through his makeup as an older man; and the aura he casts was there from the beginning. As David Thomson points out in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film:

Kane is less about William Randolph Hearst—a humorless, anxious man—than a portrait and prediction of Welles himself. Given his greatest opportunity, [screenwriter Herman] Mankiewicz could only invent a story that was increasingly colored by his mixed feelings about Welles and that, he knew, would be brought to life by Welles the overpowering actor, who could not resist the chance to dress up as the old man he might one day become, and who relished the young showoff Kane just as he loved to hector and amaze the Mercury Theater.

You can see Welles in the script when Susan Alexander asks Kane if he’s “a professional magician,” or when Kane, asked if he’s still eating, replies: “I’m still hungry.” And although his presence deepens and enhances the movie’s appeal, it also undermines the story that Welles and Mankiewicz set out to tell in the first place.

As a result, the film that Hearst wanted to destroy turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to his legacy—it makes him far more interesting and likable than he ever was. The same factor tends to obscure the movie’s politics. As Pauline Kael wrote in the early seventies in the essay “Raising Kane”: “At some campus showings, they react so gullibly that when Kane makes a demagogic speech about ‘the underprivileged,’ stray students will applaud enthusiastically, and a shout of ‘Right on!’ may be heard.” But in an extraordinary review that was published when the movie was first released, Jorge Luis Borges saw through to the movie’s icy heart:

Citizen Kane…has at least two plots. The first, pointlessly banal, attempts to milk applause from dimwits: a vain millionaire collects statues, gardens, palaces, swimming pools, diamonds, cars, libraries, men and women…The second plot is far superior…At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by any apparent unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances…In a story by Chesterton—“The Head of Caesar,” I think—the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center. This film is precisely that labyrinth.

Borges concludes: “We all know that a party, a palace, a great undertaking, a lunch for writers and journalists, an enterprise of cordial and spontaneous camaraderie, are essentially horrendous. Citizen Kane is the first film to show such things with an awareness of this truth.” He might well be talking about the Trump campaign, which is also a labyrinth without a center. And Trump already seems to be preparing for defeat with the same defense that Kane did.

Everett Sloane in Citizen Kane

Yet if we’re looking for a real counterpart to Kane, it isn’t Trump at all, but someone standing just off to the side: his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. I’ve been interested in Kushner’s career for a long time, in part because we overlapped at college, although I doubt we’ve ever been in the same room. Ten years ago, when he bought the New York Observer, it was hard not to think of Kane, and not just because Kushner was twenty-five. It recalled the effrontery in Kane’s letter to Mr. Thatcher: “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.” And I looked forward to seeing what Kushner would do next. His marriage to Ivanka Trump was a twist worthy of Mankiewicz, who married Kane to the president’s daughter, and as Trump lurched into politics, I wasn’t the only one wondering what Ivanka and Kushner—whose father was jailed after an investigation by Chris Christie—made of it all. Until recently, you could kid yourself that Kushner was torn between loyalty to his wife’s father and whatever else he might be feeling, even after he published his own Declaration of Principles in the Observer, writing: “My father-in-law is not an anti-Semite.” But that’s no longer possible. As the Washington Post reports, Kushner, along with former Breitbart News chief Stephen K. Bannon, personally devised the idea to seat Bill Clinton’s accusers in the family box at the second debate. The plan failed, but there’s no question that Kushner has deliberately placed himself at the center of Trump’s campaign, and that he bears an active, not passive, share of the responsibility for what promises to be the ugliest month in the history of presidential politics.

So what happened? If we’re going to press the analogy to its limit, we can picture the isolated Kane in his crumbling estate in Xanadu. It was based on Hearst Castle in San Simeon, and the movie describes it as standing on the nonexistent desert coast of Florida—but it could just as easily be a suite in Trump Tower. We all tend to surround ourselves with people with whom we agree, whether it’s online or in the communities in which we live, and if you want to picture this as a series of concentric circles, the ultimate reality distortion field must come when you’re standing in a room next to Trump himself. Now that Trump has purged his campaign of all reasonable voices, it’s easy for someone like Kushner to forget that there is a world elsewhere, and that his actions may not seem sound, or even sane, beyond those four walls. Eventually, this election will be over, and whatever the outcome, I feel more pity for Kushner than I do for his father-in-law. Trump can only stick around for so much longer, while Kushner still has half of his life ahead of him, and I have a feeling that it’s going to be defined by his decisions over the last three months. Maybe he’ll realize that he went straight from the young Kane to the old without any of the fun in between, and that his only choice may be to wall himself up in Xanadu in his thirties, with the likes of Christie, Giuliani, and Gingrich for company. As the News on the March narrator says in Kane: “An emperor of newsprint continued to direct his failing empire, vainly attempted to sway, as he once did, the destinies of a nation that had ceased to listen to him, ceased to trust him.” It’s a tragic ending for an old man. But it’s even sadder for a young one.

%d bloggers like this: