Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jorge Luis Borges

The minor key

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“What keeps science fiction a minor genre, for all the brilliance of its authors and apparent pertinence of its concerns?” The critic who asked this question was none other than John Updike, in his New Yorker review of David G. Hartwell’s anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction, which was published at the end of the eighties. Updike immediately responded to his own question with his usual assurance:

The short answer is that each science-fiction story is so busy inventing its environment that little energy is left to be invested in the human subtleties. Ordinarily, “mainstream” fiction snatches what it needs from the contemporary environment and concentrates upon surprising us with details of behavior; science fiction tends to reverse the priorities…It rarely penetrates and involves us the way the quest realistic fiction can…”The writer,” Edmund Wilson wrote, “must always find expressions for something which has never yet been exposed, must master a new set of phenomena which has never yet been mastered.” Those rhapsodies, for instance, which Proust delivered upon the then-fresh inventions of the telephone, the automobile, and the airplane point up the larger relativities and magical connections of his great novel, as well as show the new century breaking upon a fin-de-siècle sensibility. The modest increments of fictional “news,” of phenomena whose presentation is unprecedented, have the cumulative weight of true science—a nudging, inching fidelity to human change ultimately far more impressive and momentous than the great glittering leaps of science fiction.

I’ll concede that Updike’s underlying point here is basically correct, and that a lot of science fiction has to spend so much time establishing the premise and the background that it has to shortchange or underplay other important qualities along the way. (At its highest level, this is less a reflection of the author’s limitations than a courtesy to the reader. It’s hard to innovate along every parameter at once, so complex works of speculative fiction as different as Gravity’s Rainbow and Inception need to strategically simplify wherever they can.) But there’s also a hidden fallacy in Updike’s description of science fiction as “a minor genre.” What, exactly, would a “major” genre look like? It’s hard to come up with a definitive list, but if we’re going to limit ourselves to a conception of genre that encompasses science fiction and not, say, modernist realism, we’d probably include fantasy, horror, western, romance, erotica, adventure, mystery, suspense, and historical fiction. When we ask ourselves whether Updike would be likely to consider any of these genres “major,” it’s pretty clear that the answer is no. Every genre, by definition, is minor, at least to many literary critics, which not only renders the distinction meaningless, but raises a host of other questions. If we honestly ask what keeps all genres—although not individual authors—in the minor category, there seem to be three possibilities. Either genre fiction fails to attract or keep major talent; it suffers from various systemic problems of the kind that Updike identified for science fiction; or there’s some other quirk in the way we think about fiction that relegates these genres to a secondary status, regardless of the quality of specific works or writers.

And while all three of these factors may play a role, it’s the third one that seems most plausible. (After all, when you average out the quality of all “literary fiction,” from Updike, Bellow, and Roth down to the work put out by the small presses and magazines, it seems fairly clear that Sturgeon’s Law applies here as much as anywhere else, and ninety percent of everything is crud. And modernist realism, like every category coherent enough to earn its own label, has plenty of clichés of its own.) In particular, if a genre writer is deemed good enough, his or her reward is to be elevated out of it entirely. You clearly see this with such authors as Jorge Luis Borges, perhaps the greatest writer of speculative fiction of the twentieth century, who was plucked out of that category to complete more effectively with Proust, Joyce, and Kafka—the last of whom was arguably also a genre writer who was forcibly promoted to the next level. It means that the genre as a whole can never win. Its best writers are promptly confiscated, freeing up critics to speculate about why it remains “minor.” As Daniel Handler noted in an interview several years ago:

I believe that children’s literature is a genre. I resisted the idea that children’s literature is just anything that children are reading. And I certainly resisted the idea that certain books should get promoted out of children’s literature just because adults are reading them. That idea is enraging too. That’s what happens to any genre, right? First you say, “Margaret Atwood isn’t really a science fiction writer.” Then you say, “There really aren’t any good science fiction writers.” That’s because you promoted them all!

And this pattern isn’t a new one. It’s revealing that Updike quoted Edmund Wilson, who in his essays “Why Do People Read Detective Stories” and “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” dismissed the entire mystery genre as minor or worse. Yet when it came to defending his fondness for one author in particular, he fell back on a familiar trick:

I will now confess, in my turn, that, since my first looking into this subject last fall, I have myself become addicted, in spells, to reading myself to sleep with Sherlock Holmes, which I had gone back to, not having looked at it since childhood, in order to see how it compared with Conan Doyle’s latest imitators. I propose, however, to justify my pleasure in rereading Sherlock Holmes on grounds entirely different from those on which the consumers of the current product ordinarily defend their taste. My contention is that Sherlock Holmes is literature on a humble but not ignoble level, whereas the mystery writers most in vogue now are not. The old stories are literature, not because of the conjuring tricks and the puzzles, not because of the lively melodrama, which they have in common with many other detective stories, but by virtue of imagination and style. These are fairy-tales, as Conan Doyle intimated in his preface to his last collection, and they are among the most amusing of fairy-tales and not among the least distinguished.

Strip away the specifics, and the outlines of the argument are clear. Sherlock Holmes is good, and mysteries are bad, so Sherlock Holmes must be something other than mystery fiction. It’s maddening, but from the point of view of a working critic, it makes perfect sense. You get to hold onto the works that you like, while keeping the rest of the genre safely minor—and then you can read yourself happily to sleep.

The metal vultures and the dragon

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If you’ve ever wasted an hour of your life arguing with a total stranger online, you might feel like echoing Jorge Luis Borges when he writes of such encounters: “[This is] something in which I swear never to involve myself again, for the time granted to mortals is not infinite and the fruit of these discussions is in vain.” The difference is that Borges was writing of his conversations with German sympathizers in 1940, at a time when Argentina was officially neutral, and the interactions of which he speaks occurred in person, with those whom he calls “the charlatans and apologists that indefatigable fate obliges me to encounter on the streets and in the houses of Buenos Aires.” These days, our political discourse has been irrevocably balkanized, with each group relying on its own separate news sources and websites, and any hope of a real dialogue seems to be gone. As a result, when I picture Argentina in the forties—which Borges describes in an extraordinary series of essays, “Notes on Germany and the War,” collected in his Selected Non-Fictions—I can’t help but see it as a test case for happens when such attitudes clash between men and women who are likely to speak to each other on the sidewalk, at the grocery store, and at cocktail parties, and at a time when it was still socially permissible to express support of Adolf Hitler. I’m far from an expert in this period, and my knowledge of it comes entirely from Borges, so whatever conclusions I draw from it can hardly be anything but artificial. But I think that it’s still worth seeing if we can find any insights here into our own era, when such debates tend to be conducted either remotely or not at all.

And when I read these essays now, I find that what Borges reports of Buenos Aires in the early years of the war seems uncomfortably resonant. Borges loved German culture, which didn’t make it any easier for him to talk to Argentine Germanophiles: “I have tried to speak of Germany and the German things that are imperishable; I have mentioned Hölderlin, Luther, Schopenhauer, and Leibniz; I have discovered that my ‘Germanophile’ interlocutor could barely identify those names and preferred to discuss a more or less Antarctic archipelago that the English discovered in 1592 and whose relation to Germany I have yet to perceive.” His description of the hodgepodge of ideas on which the Germanophile’s worldview depended is both devastating and utterly familiar:

Total ignorance of things Germanic does not, however, exhaust the definition of our Germanophiles. There are other unique characteristics that are, perhaps, equally essential. Among them: the Germanophile is greatly distressed that the railroad companies of a certain South American republic have English stockholders. He is also troubled by the hardships of the South African war of 1902.

Replace “the railroad companies” with “Uranium One” and “the South African war” with “Benghazi,” or your choice of fixations, and this paragraph might have been written yesterday. As Borges sums up: “One might infer from this that the Germanophile is actually an Anglophobe. He is perfectly ignorant of Germany, and reserves his enthusiasm for any country at war with England.”

This rings painfully true of our own moment, in which politics, from the national to the personal,  often seems to consist of the members of one party relishing the punishment of another, even if it goes against their own best interests. But Borges—who, as I discussed in detail years ago, is Karl Rove’s favorite writer—isn’t done yet:

Disdaining these dry abstractions, my interlocutor begins or outlines a panegyric to Hitler: that providential man whose indefatigable discourses preach the extinction of all charlatans and demagogues, and whose incendiary bombs, unmitigated by verbose declarations of war, announce from the firmament the ruin of rapacious imperialism…I always discover that my interlocutor idolizes Hitler, not in spite of the high-altitude bombs and the rumbling invasions, the machine guns, the accusations and lies, but because of those acts and instruments. He is delighted by evil and atrocity. The triumph of Germany does not matter to him; he wants the humiliation of England and a satisfying burning of London. He admires Hitler as he once admired his precursors in the criminal underworld of Chicago. The discussion becomes impossible because the offenses I ascribe to Hitler are, for him, wonders and virtue. The apologists of Amigas, Ramírez, Quiroga, Rosas, or Urquiza pardon or gloss over their crimes; the defender of Hitler derives a special pleasure from them…He is the cunning man who longs to be on the winning side.

The italics are mine. As Borges writes in his story “Emma Zunz,” all that need to be changed here are “the circumstances, the time, and one or two proper names.”

In another essay, Borges remembers the man who came to his house to proudly announce that the Germans had taken Paris: “I felt a confusion of sadness, disgust, malaise. Then it occurred to me that his insolent joy did not explain the stentorian voice or the abrupt proclamation. He added that the German troops would soon be in London. Any opposition was useless, nothing could prevent their victory. That was when I knew that he, too, was terrified.” This speaks for itself. But what troubles me the most is Borges’s conclusion:

Nazism suffers from unreality, like Erigena’s hell. It is uninhabitable; men can only die for it, lie for it, wound and kill for it. No one, in the intimate depths of his being, can wish it to triumph. I shall risk this conjecture: Hitler wants to be defeated. Hitler is blindly collaborating with the inevitable armies that will annihilate him, as the metal vultures and the dragon (which must have known that they were monsters) collaborated, mysteriously, with Hercules.

After the war, Borges explored these themes in one of his most haunting stories, “Deutsches Requiem,” in which he attempted to write from the point of view of “the ideal Nazi.” Its narrator, the subdirector of a concentration camp, writes out his confession as he prepares to face the firing squad, and his closing words feel like a glimpse of our own future, regardless of the names of those in power: “Now an implacable age looms over the world. We forged that age, we who are now its victim. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil? What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules. If victory and injustice and happiness do not belong to Germany, let them belong to other nations. Let heaven exist, though our place be in hell.”

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November 17, 2017 at 8:54 am

The inconceivable figure

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Whenever I’m working on a project longer than a short story, there comes a point where something strange happens: I find that I’m suddenly writing it in my head all the time. And it tends to occur at a very specific stage in the process. It’s after I’ve written a complete rough draft, but before I’m totally happy with it, and only once I’ve done enough cutting to bring it down considerably from its initial length. The first assembly of any book is too large to hold in my brain all at once, and I tend to see it as a collection of individual pieces that I’ve researched, outlined, and revised separately, bound loosely together by the plan that I had at the beginning. Cutting it down, as I’ve said before, brings all these parts closer together, which leads to new resonances and connections, but it also allows me to finally grasp its shape as a whole. It’s as if my mind has a limited amount of storage space, and a file has to be under a certain size to fit. (In Behind the Seen, which recounts the editing of the film Cold Mountain, Charles Koppelman speaks of the turning point that comes when the rough cut is short enough to be viewed as a single sequence in Final Cut Pro, rather than split into two parts.) Once that threshold is reached, it feels as if a switch has been flipped, and I can mentally edit, write, and rearrange large sections without being at my desk. Even more useful is the fact that if a phrase or sentence occurs to me when I’m washing the dishes, I can usually think of a place to put it, assuming that I remember to write it down. Eventually, it becomes continuous, like a program running in the background, to the point where I have trouble turning it off when I go to bed at night.

And this only happens, at least in my experience, when I’ve finished the entire manuscript, which is a good argument in itself for trying to get it all down on paper as soon as possible. A draft acts like a kind of magnet that draws the iron filings of your stray thoughts and arranges them in a pattern, or like a massive set of pigeonholes in which items can be filed for later use. Without the draft, which exerts a gravitational pull of its own, those ideas have a way of just drifting off into space. (That’s three different analogies in a row, but they all seem right to me.) As I’ve stated elsewhere, there are a lot of reasons for wanting a complete draft as early in the process as you can. A line on the last page can help you solve a problem on the first, and you’re more likely to end up with something publishable if you rough out the whole thing first as a crude sketch and then revise it, instead of obsessing over a tiny slice of the beginning. But the way in which it provides you with a place to organize your passing thoughts may be the most compelling argument of all. There’s a limit to how long you can sit at your desk each day—my own upper bound seems to be about three or four hours. The rest of that time, including sleep, goes unused, even though you’re most likely to come up with useful insights when you’re doing something else. Having a finished draft opens up the remaining five-sixths of your life for productive thought, which feels like a huge practical advantage. I’ve often speculated as to why so many good ideas seem to come in the shower or on the bus, but it may simply be that such moments account numerically for the bulk of our time, and the existence of the draft is what activates those otherwise wasted hours.

This state is also enormously pleasurable. When we speak of the joys of revising, we’re often talking about the mechanical process of looking at an existing sentence and tinkering with it until it reads better. That can be a significant source of satisfaction, but I think that the real joy comes from studying the project as a whole in your head, as a sort of hyperobject that has suddenly become comprehensible. There’s a line from Jorge Luis Borges that I’ve quoted here before: “The steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his death trace in time an inconceivable figure. The Divine Mind intuitively grasps that form immediately, as men do a triangle.” Writing a book is the closest most of us will ever get to seeing that “inconceivable figure,” and that heightened sense of awareness is only temporary. For me, it seems to last for a few months, after I’ve finished the first round of cuts and before I’ve delivered the final version. (If you don’t have a deadline, this phase can drag on indefinitely, and the desire to extend it partially explains why some authors can work on a novel for decades. Given the choice, many writers would prefer not to wake up from that dream, which intensifies their experience of the world until everything seems relevant. It’s a wonderful feeling, but you also have to be ready to give it up if you ever want to see your words in print.) After the book is finished, the sensation fades, and for good reason—it would be painful to feel so attuned to a project that has become effectively unchangeable. You could even argue that the amnesia that sets in shortly after a book is delivered is a survival mechanism that prevents writers from breaking under the tension between the changes that they’d still like to make and the fixed nature of the work on the page.

This also leads to another apparent contradiction, which is that a writer is most likely to be making countless small changes at the exact moment when the work is ready to enter the world for the first time. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, because if all goes well, a full draft of my book Astounding will be going out to readers for comments later today. I’m pretty happy with my manuscript, which is more or less where it needs to be, since it isn’t due at my publisher for another four months—and I deliberately gave myself an earlier deadline, in part to extend the fertile period that I’ve discussed above. Even as I format the printed version of the file, though, I find that I’m making numerous edits, some small, some significant. This might imply that the draft isn’t ready, but on a deeper level, it indicates that it’s going out at just the right time, or so I try to tell myself. Ideally, you want to solicit notes after the draft can stand on its own, but before you’ve become psychologically attached to it. You want it to be alive, malleable, and amenable to cuts and changes, and the longer you put it off, the more painful any revisions become. Inevitably, this means that it goes out right when you’re likely to see dozens of things that need to be fixed, which is how you know, paradoxically, that it’s time to let it go. This is why the final days of any project have a way of feeling like a mad scramble, no matter how protracted the process has been. In Behind the Seen, we witness director Anthony Minghella and editor Walter Murch making substantial edits to Cold Mountain on the very last night of postproduction. Minghella says: “Enormous changes at the last minute.” And Murch replies: “Our specialty.”

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August 3, 2017 at 9:06 am

The Borges Test

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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.

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June 21, 2017 at 9:10 am

My ten great books #4: Labyrinths

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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.

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May 11, 2017 at 9:00 am

Our fearful symmetry

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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

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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.

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