Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Winter

The beauty of the world

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In the fall of 1953, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He wasn’t impressed, saying that the results could have been “duplicated in any major insane asylum” and that modern art was the expression of a “violent neurosis.” But the trip wasn’t entirely wasted. As he wrote in a letter to his father, Campbell and his wife Peg were able to spend the day in the company of a good friend:

We went with Alejandro Cañedo, a fine-arts partner friend of mine. We’d just been up to his apartment to see his incredibly lovely land-sea-sky-scapes. He does beach scenes that look as though they might have been painted 3,000,000,000 years ago in the pre-Cambrian period, where raw rock meets long, curling waves, under a vast, spacious sky. He can actually paint a cloud so it looks like a cloud, instead of a bit of white cotton fluff. The pictures are magnificently spacious, and patient and calm. They have eternity and timelessness and action built in them all at once.

Campbell continued: “I was very glad [Cañedo] was along when we went to the museum. He is an artist, and an artist who can, and does, paint beauty. He’s a gentleman, a philosopher, and he’s lived in a number of parts of the world. Mexican by birth, served in the Mexican state department, and studied in Paris and Rome.” And Campbell drew a strong contrast between Cañedo’s “incredibly lovely” canvases and the excesses of abstract act, which was full of nothing but “hate and anger and confusion and frustration.”

And the artist whom Campbell described in another letter as “considerable of a philosopher” was a fascinating figure in his own right. He was born Alejandro de Cañedo in Mexico City in 1902, which made him nearly a decade older than Campbell, and he became known for his exquisitely rendered male figure studies, which he later exhibited under the name Alexander Cañedo. For the December 1946 issue of Astounding, he provided a cover painting for Eric Frank Russell’s “Metamorphosite,” but he might never have made any impression on the magazine’s fans—or its editor—if it hadn’t been for a happy accident. As Campbell told readers the following August:

Item the first is Astounding’s cover for September. It’s different. It’s unique. And it’s more than good. It came about in the following way; Alejandro Cañedo, who did our last cover, was in, and invited me to come up to his studio where he had some paintings he was about to ship to a showing. I did. And he had some strikingly beautiful and wholly unique artwork. I had never seen anything like it—and immediately demanded why he hadn’t done one like that for Astounding.

Campbell concluded: “It seems that Cañedo doing what he likes, and Cañedo doing what he thinks someone else wants, are quite, quite different. I think you’ll want a lot more of the type he’s done. And I can’t describe it.” The cover of the September issue featured the painting reproduced above, and over the next few years, Campbell published several more “symbolic” covers credited to “Alejandro,” which were striking images that didn’t illustrate any specific story.

As even a casual glance reveals, they were also blatantly homoerotic. I haven’t been able to find much in the way of biographical information on Cañedo, but his work appears in the permanent collection of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, and his article on Wikipedia includes the unsourced statement that he painted works of gay erotica for private collectors that couldn’t be displayed in public. And it’s very hard to look at these covers now and see them as anything but erotic reveries. (Even at the time, Cañedo’s cover for the July 1954 issue, titled “Inappropriate,” apparently made some fans uncomfortable, although few seem to have seen anything strange about this cover from several years earlier.) Campbell doesn’t appear to have noticed anything out of the ordinary, and his unabashed admiration for Cañedo’s work stands in remarkable contrast to the sentiments that he expressed elsewhere. Just one year after Cañedo’s first “symbolic” cover, he published an article in which Dr. Joseph Winter, who later became a member of the original dianetics team, expressed the hope that endocrinology would lead to a world with “no homosexuality.” Campbell later claimed that dianetics had been used for successful “cures” of gay men, and he stated both in private and in the pages of the magazine that homosexuality was a sign of cultural decline. And he didn’t think that he had any trouble identifying such individuals, writing in an unbelievably horrifying passage in a letter to Isaac Asimov in 1958:

And Ike, my friend, consider the case of a fairy, a queer. They can, normally, be spotted about as far off as you can spot a mulatto. I’ll admit a coal-black Negro can be spotted a bit further than a fairy can, but the normal mulatto can’t. Sure, I know a lot of queers don’t look that way—but they’re simply “passing.”

But I’m frankly more interested in what in the world Cañedo thought of Campbell. Even in the rare glimpses that we find in Campbell’s letters, it’s possible to discern glints of an ironic humor. (In a another letter to his father, the editor quoted Cañedo’s philosophy of life: “Sometimes I have not had a nickel in the bank, and sometimes I’ve had plenty, but I have been rich all the time, because I have had the friends I want to talk to, the work I want to do, and the things I want to learn about.” The same letter includes another anecdote that makes me wonder: “By the way, Alex had his apartment redecorated, and had a painter repaint the walls. Alex was out while the painter was on the job; when Alex came back that evening he made a horrifying discovery. God knows how that could be, but the painter was red-green colorblind! Instead of painting the walls the pale tan Alex wanted, he’d done them in a sort of baby pink!” God knows how indeed.) And it’s worth juxtaposing Campbell’s unqualified admiration for Cañedo’s nudes, which he saw as an answer to the lunacy of modern art, with his editorial of December 1958:

In England, there is a strong movement to remove homosexuality from the list of crimes. After all, we mustn’t impose our opinions on others, must we? Yes…and homosexuality was accepted in Greece, just before its fall. And in Rome, in the latter days. And in Hitlerite Germany. After all, now, you can’t prove, logically, that the homosexual doesn’t have as much right to his opinion as you do to yours, can you?

But perhaps we should just be glad that Campbell was obtuse enough to publish these remarkable covers. As he wrote to his father of modern artists: “They don’t want to see the truth, and reject seeing the beauty of the world. That an individual can make such a mistake is perfectly understandable.”

Written by nevalalee

October 29, 2018 at 9:00 am

The Imaginary Dr. Kutzman

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A Criticism of Dianetics

In my recent piece on Longreads about L. Ron Hubbard and the origins of Scientology, I note that Hubbard initially didn’t want the first important article on dianetics to appear in Astounding Science Fiction at all. In April of 1949, he made efforts to reach out to such organizations as the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the Gerontological Society in Baltimore, and he only turned to the science fiction editor John W. Campbell after all of these earlier attempts had failed. Most of the standard biographies of Hubbard mention this fact, but what isn’t always emphasized is that even Campbell, who became one of Hubbard’s most passionate supporters, didn’t seem all that eager to publish the piece in Astounding. Campbell knew perfectly well that printing this material in a pulp magazine would make it hard for it to be taken seriously, and he was also concerned that it would be mistaken for a hoax article, like Isaac Asimov’s story about the fictional compound thiotimoline. As a result, even as Campbell served as a key member of the team that was developing dianetics in Bay Head, New Jersey, he continued to push for it to make its first appearance in a professional journal. Later that year, Dr. Joseph Winter, their third crucial collaborator, reached out “informally” about a paper to the Journal of the American Medical Association, only to be told that it lacked sufficient evidence, and he got much the same response from the American Journal of Psychiatry. It was only after they had exhausted these avenues that they decided to publish “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” in the magazine that Campbell himself edited—which tells us a lot about how they had originally wanted their work to be received.

At that point, Campbell was hardly in a position to be objective, but he wanted to present the article to his readers in a way that at least gave the appearance of balance. Accordingly, he proposed that they find a psychiatrist to write a critical treatment of dianetics, presumably to run alongside Hubbard’s piece—but he was doomed to be disappointed in this, too. On December 9, 1949, Hubbard wrote: “In view of the fact that no psychiatrist to date has been able to look at Dianetics and listen long enough to find out the fundamentals, Dianetic explanations being dinned out by his educational efforts about Freud, we took it upon ourselves to compose the rebuttal.” Incredibly, Hubbard and Winter wrote up an entire article, “A Criticism of Dianetics,” that spent over five thousand words laying out the case against the new therapy, credited to the nonexistent “Irving R. Kutzman, M.D.” (In his letter, Hubbard argued that the “M.D.” was justified, since it reflected the contributions of Winter, a general practitioner and endocrinologist from Michigan.) Hubbard claimed that the essay consisted of the verbatim comments of four psychiatrists he had consulted on the subject, including one he had met while living in Savannah, Georgia, and that he had “played them back very carefully,” using the perfect memory that a dianetic “clear” possessed. He also described setting up “a psychiatric demon” to write the piece, which refers to the notion that a clear can deliberately create and break down temporary delusions for his private amusement. To the best of my knowledge, this paper, which I discovered among Campbell’s correspondence, hasn’t been published or discussed anywhere else, and it provides some fascinating insights into Hubbard’s thinking at the time.

L. Ron Hubbard to John W. Campbell

The most interesting thing about “A Criticism of Dianetics” is how straightforward it is. Hubbard told Campbell that “it is in no sense an effort to be funny and it is not funny,” and for most of the piece, there’s little trace of burlesque. Notably, it anticipates many of the objections that would be raised against dianetics, including the idea that it merely repackaged existing psychological concepts. As “Kutzman” writes: “Further examination…disclosed that scraps of Dianetics have been known for thousands of years. Except for one or two relatively minor matters, all of them are known to the modern psychologist.” He also observes that Hubbard has only thirteen months of data—which is actually generous, given how little he disclosed about any of his alleged cases—and that there’s no evidence that any perceived improvements will last. It’s only toward the end that the mask begins to slip. “Kutzman” speaks glowingly of “the new technique of trans-orbital leukotomy and the older and more reliable technique of pre-frontal lobotomy,” with which “patients can be treated more swiftly and will be less of a menace to society than heretofore.” He concludes: “By such operations…[the neurosurgeon] can get rid of that part of your personality which is causing all your trouble.” (Even the name “Kutzman,” I suspect, is a bad pun.) The piece dismisses General Semantics and cybernetics, the latter of which it attributes to a “Dr. Werner [sic],” and closes with an odd account of the fictional Kutzman being audited by Hubbard, in which he explains away the prenatal and childhood memories that he recovered as delusions: “I had eaten excessively at supper and…my ulcer had been troubling me for some time.” It ends: “Discoveries not solidly founded in classical psychoanalysis are not likely to be easily accepted by a social world which already comprehends all the basic problems of the human mind.”

In any event, it was never published, and it isn’t clear whether Hubbard or Winter ever thought that it would be. Hubbard wrote to Campbell: “Any article you receive will, I know, run something on this order if written by a psychiatrist…May I invite you to peruse same, not in any misguided spirit of levity, but as a review of the composite and variously confirmed attitudes Dianetics meets in the field of those great men who guide our minds.” No actual rebuttal ever materialized, and dianetics was presented in the pages of Astounding without any critical analysis whatsoever. (Interestingly, Hubbard did contribute to a point/counterpoint discussion on at least two other occasions. One was in the November 1950 issue of Why Magazine, which ran Hubbard’s “The Case For It” with “The Case Against It” by Dr. Oscar Sachs of Mount Sinai, and the other was in the May 1951 installment of Marvel Science Stories, which contained positive articles on dianetics from Hubbard and Theodore Sturgeon and a critical one from Lester del Rey. Campbell could have arranged for something similar in Astounding, if he had really wanted it.) But it provides a valuable glimpse into a transitional moment in Hubbard’s career. Compared to the author’s later attacks on psychiatry, its tone is restrained, even subtle—which isn’t a description that usually comes to mind for Hubbard’s work. Yet it’s equally clear that he had already given up on reaching mainstream psychologists and psychiatrists, even to the extent of convincing one to compose an objective response. Campbell, for his part, still clung to the hope of obtaining academic or scientific recognition. Much of the tragicomedy of what happened over the next eighteen months emerged from that basic misunderstanding. And the seeds of it are visible here.

Written by nevalalee

February 23, 2017 at 8:50 am

Astounding Stories #17: The Thiotimoline Papers

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The Micropsychiatric Applications of Thiotimoline

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

In May of 1947, Isaac Asimov, who was then a graduate student in organic chemistry at Columbia University, was hard at work in the lab. As part of the research he was conducting for his doctorate, he had to dissolve a compound called catechol in an enzyme solution and time the reaction with a stopwatch. As he describes it in his memoir In Memory Yet Green:

Catechol, as it happens, is very readily soluble, especially when it exists as fluffy crystals that present a large surface to the water. The result is that as soon as the catechol touches the surface of the water it dissolves. It just seems to vanish without ever penetrating the water’s skin.

As I watched it one morning I thought idly: What if it dissolves just before it hits the water?

Asimov saw immediately that this would be a good idea for a science fiction story, and he had the additional inspiration to write it up as a spoof article for a scientific journal about this imaginary compound. He was dreading the process of writing his dissertation in a dry academic style, and he thought that composing a parody would allow him to blow off some steam. Asimov proposed the idea to the editor John W. Campbell, who loved it, and the result, “The Endochronic Properties of Resubliminated Thiotimoline,” was published in the March 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.

The article was a big hit with readers, and it remains a minor classic. At a time when many of us dread the unfunny fake press releases that appear on every April Fool’s Day, it can be hard to appreciate the impression that it made. Unlike most stories in the same vein, it keeps a poker face throughout, and it evidently fooled a lot of readers, at least at first glance: Campbell later claimed that the New York Public Library was flooded with requests for the fictitious papers listed in its bibliography. It inspired letters from fans describing their own experiments, including one on “neurotic thiotimoline”—in which the dissolution of thiotimoline activated a mechanism that prevented the water from being added, creating a paradox—and another on a “prediction machine” built from a chain of thiotimoline reactors. (The second letter criticized the first as “a pack of lies,” saying: “I strongly suspect that it was a cheap publicity trick for some sort of new religious cult [the writer] is planning to start which will involve the worship of a thiotimoline god.”) A second gag article along the same lines, “The Aphrodite Project” by Philip Latham, took the form of an abstract of a government report on an unmanned probe to Venus. This one caused a fair amount of bewilderment as well, and Campbell even got a few phone calls about it, prompting him to clarify that it was fictional in an editor’s note, and to warn readers that an upcoming piece, “Progress Report” by John Pomeroy, would have “gags at all levels.” He ultimately instituted an informal editorial policy that such articles could only appear once every eighteen months or so, clearly labeled as “Special Features,” and by that point, much of the fun was gone.

Isaac Asimov

This much of the story, at least, is familiar to many science fiction fans. What isn’t as well known is how the thiotimoline gag complicated Campbell’s plans for a more significant project: the introduction of dianetics. In the December 1949 issue, Campbell wrote: “But the item that most interests me at the moment is an article on the most important subject imaginable. This is not a hoax article. It is an article on the science of the mind, of human thought.” Campbell, in other words, realized that a lot of readers might think that the dianetics article was just another parody, and I suspect that his attempts to flag all spoof articles more explicitly going forward was an attempt to head off any confusion. When the article “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” appeared the following year, Dr. Joseph Winter, the endocrinologist who collaborated with Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard on its development, drew the distinction even more emphatically in his introduction:

[Campbell] wanted to make certain that you readers would not confuse dianetics with thiotimoline or any other bit of scientific sporting. This is too important to be misunderstood.

Anecdotally, it seems that more than a few readers did think that the article was a spoof of the language of psychiatry. And while this probably would have happened anyway, it isn’t hard to believe that thiotimoline made it all the more difficult for many people to take it seriously.

But that isn’t quite the end of the story. In 1953, after Campbell had broken away from Hubbard, he published a sequel to the original thiotimoline paper, titled “The Micropsychiatric Applications of Thiotimoline.” In the article, Asimov writes that he has received funding from the American Association for the Advancement of Quantitative Psychiatry, which believes that thiotimoline can be used to quantify mental disorders: “It is the purpose of the present paper, in part, to show that by use of thiotimoline, certain mental disorders can be quantitated and their diagnosis converted from an uncertain art to an exact science.” The time at which thiotimoline dissolves depends on the willpower of the person adding it to the solution, which means that it can provide a benchmark for measuring the strength of the human will, in a new science that Asimov calls “willometry.” Observing that subjects with multiple personalities cause a sample of thiotimoline to dissolve at different times, he uses this fact to establish ten “grades” of deviations, as well as to classify schizophrenics into “levo” and “dextro” varieties. Asimov concludes:

The value of such a subdivision of schizophrenia may well be said to be of incalculable potentialities and, indeed, to found new science of quantitative micropsychiatry. How much more useful is it to say of a patient that he is a vertical schizophrenic, levo variety, Grade 3, than simply to say that he is schizophrenic.

It’s a conscious parody of dianetics, with its tone scale, its elaborate pseudoscientific vocabulary, and its claim to have transformed psychiatry into an exact science. Campbell would have seen this, too—and I’d like to believe that he published it as a small act of revenge on Hubbard, long after their partnership had dissolved.

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