Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Lawrence Wright

The confidence tricksters

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When I look back at my life, I find that I’ve always been fascinated by a certain type of personality, at least when observed from a safe distance. I may as well start with Orson Welles, who has been on my mind a lot recently. As David Thomson writes in Rosebud: “Yes, he was a trickster, a rather nasty operator, a credit thief, a bully, a manipulator, a shallow genius…a less than wholesome great man…oh, very well, a habitual liar, a liar of genius.” But in his discussion of the late masterwork F for Fake, Thomson also hints at the essence of Welles’s appeal:

The happiness in F for Fake, the exhilaration, comes from the discovery and the jubilation that knows there is no higher calling than being a magician, a storyteller, a fake who passes the time. This is the work in which Welles finally reconciled the lofty, European, intellectual aspect of himself and the tent show demon who sawed cute dames and wild dreams in half. For it can be very hard to live with the belief that nothing matters in life, that nothing is solid or real, that everything is a show in the egotist’s head. It loses friends, trust, children, home, money, security, and maybe reason. So it is comforting indeed, late in life, to come upon a proof that the emptiness and the trickery are valid and sufficient.

Welles claimed afterward that he had been “faking” his confession of being a charlatan, as if it were somehow incompatible with being an artist—although the great lesson of his life is that it can be possible and necessary to be both at the same time.

This is the kind of figure to whom I’m helplessly drawn—the genius who is also a con artist. You could even make much the same case, with strong reservations, for L. Ron Hubbard. I don’t like him or most of his work, and he caused more pain to other people than anyone else in Astounding. Yet the best clue I’ve ever found to figuring out his character is a passage by Lawrence Wright, who writes shrewdly in Going Clear:

The many discrepancies between Hubbard’s legend and his life have overshadowed the fact that he genuinely was a fascinating man…The tug-of-war between Scientologists and anti-Scientologists over Hubbard’s biography has created two swollen archetypes: the most important person who ever lived and the world’s greatest con man. Hubbard himself seemed to revolve on this same axis…But to label him a pure fraud is to ignore the complex, charming, delusional, and visionary features of his character that made him so compelling.

I’ve spent more time thinking about this than I ever wanted, and I’ve grudgingly concluded that Wright has a point. Hubbard was frankly more interesting than most of his detractors, and he couldn’t have accomplished half of what he did if it weren’t for his enormous, slippery gifts for storytelling, in person if not on the page. (On some level, he also seems to have believed in his own work, which complicates our picture of him as a con artist—although he certainly wasn’t averse to squeezing as much money out of his followers as possible.) I’ve often compared Welles to Campbell, but he has equally profound affinities with Hubbard, whose favorite film was Citizen Kane, and who perpetuated a science fiction hoax that dwarfed The War of the Worlds.

But I’m also attracted by such examples because they get at something crucial about the life of any artist, in which genius and trickery are often entwined. I don’t think of myself as a particularly devious person, but I’ve had to develop certain survival skills just to keep working, and a lot of writers come to think of themselves in the fond terms that W.H. Auden uses in The Dyer’s Hand:

All those whose success in life depends neither upon a job which satisfies some specific and unchanging social need, like a farmer’s, nor, like a surgeon’s, upon some craft which he can be taught by others and improve by practice, but upon “inspiration,” the lucky hazard of ideas, live by their wits, a phrase which carries a slightly pejorative meaning. Every “original” genius, be he an artist or a scientist, has something a bit shady about him, like a gambler or madman.

The similarities between the artist and the confidence man tend to appeal to authors with a high degree of technical facility, like David Mamet, who returns to the subject obsessively. In the lovely essay “Pool Halls,” Mamet writes: “The point of the pool hall was the intersection of two American Loves: the Game of Skill and the Short Con…Well, I guess that America is gone. We no longer revere skill, and the short con of the pool hustle and the Murphy Man and the Fuller Brush Man. The short con, which flourished in a life lived on the street and among strangers, has been supplanted by the Big Con of a life with no excitement in it at all.”

As Mamet implies, there’s something undeniably American about these figures. The confidence man has been part of this country’s mythology from the beginning, undoubtedly because it was a society that was inventing itself as it went along. There’s even an element of nostalgia at work. But I also don’t want to romanticize it. Most of our trickster heroes are white and male, which tells us something about the privilege that underlies successful fakery. A con man, like a startup founder, has to evade questions for just long enough to get away with it. That’s true of most artists, too, and the quintessentially American advice to fake it till you make it applies mostly to those who have the cultural security to pull it off. (If we’re so fascinated by confidence tricksters who were women, it might be because they weren’t held back by impostor syndrome.) Of course, the dark side of this tradition, which is where laughter dies in the throat, can be seen in the White House, which is currently occupied by the greatest con artist in American history. I don’t even mean this as an insult, but as a fundamental observation. If we’re going to venerate the con man as an American archetype, we have to acknowledge that Trump has consistently outplayed us all, even when the trick, or troll, was unfolding in plain sight. This also says something about our national character, and if Trump reminds me of Hubbard, he’s also forced me to rethink Citizen Kane. But there’s another side to the coin. During times of oppression and reaction, a different kind of deviousness can emerge, one that channels these old impulses toward ingenuity, inventiveness, resourcefulness, humor, and trickery, which are usually used to further the confidence man’s private interests, toward very different goals. If we’re going to make it through the next two years, we need to draw deeply on this tradition of genius. I’ll be talking about this more tomorrow.

Written by nevalalee

November 8, 2018 at 8:32 am

The science of survival

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When I heard that Christopher McQuarrie had been hired to write and direct a second movie in the Mission: Impossible series, my initial reaction, curiously enough, was disappointment. I loved Rogue Nation, but I’ve always liked the way in which the franchise reinvents itself with every installment, and it was a little strange to contemplate a film that simply followed up on the characters and storylines from the previous chapter. (When I saw the trailer for Mission: Impossible—Fallout, my first thought was, “Oh, it’s a sequel.”) Now the reviews are in, and they indicate that Fallout might not just be the best of them all, but one of the greatest action movies of all time. This is a tribute to McQuarrie, of course, whom I’ve admired for decades, but the reaction also indicates that the rest of the world is catching up to a central fact about Tom Cruise himself. In the past, I’ve described him as a great producer who happens to occupy the body of a movie star—like a thetan occupying its host, perhaps—and Mission: Impossible is his unlikely masterpiece. Like one of the legendary moguls of old Hollywood, Cruise has treated it as a springboard for untapped talent (J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird), a showcase for memorable supporting performances (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paula Patton, Rebecca Ferguson), or a halfway house for gifted screenwriters who had spent years in the wilderness (Robert Towne, McQuarrie). It’s a secret studio that Cruise has built and run in plain sight, with far more skill and success than he displayed at the head of United Artists. Whether or not it’s a breakaway hit, Fallout seems to have awakened critics to the singular nature of his accomplishment. I can’t wait to see it.

Yet there’s a darker element to Cruise’s career, obviously, and I’ve never really addressed it here. There are countless possible approaches to the problem of his relationship to Scientology, but I may as well start with the video—which has been publicly available for over a decade—of Cruise accepting an award from David Miscavage. With a huge medal hanging from his neck, Cruise addresses the crowd at the podium, standing near a huge portrait of L. Ron Hubbard:

I’m really honored to be with you…Thank you for your confidence in me. I’ve personally been very privileged to see what you do to help, to protect, to serve all of us. I’ll tell you something—that I have never met a more competent, a more intelligent, a more tolerant or compassionate being outside of what I’ve experienced from LRH. And I’ve met the leaders of leaders, okay. I’ve met them all. So I say to you, sir, we are lucky to have you and thank you—and to you, L. Ron Hubbard, sir, I will take this as a half-ack. I will continue on my way. Okay, these are the times now, people. Okay, these are the times we will all remember. Were you there? What did you do? I think you know that I am there for you. And I do care so very, very, very much. So what do you say? We gonna clean this place up? Okay? Because we’re counting on you. Okay? All right? To LRH!

Apart from “half-ack,” a reference to a concept in Scientology that might count as the weirdest inside joke of all time, I’m struck the most by the offhand familiarity of “LRH.” It isn’t “Hubbard,” or “Ron,” or even “the Commodore,” but his initials. I use the same abbreviation in the notes in my book, because I need to repeat it so often, and its usage here makes it seem as if Hubbard is never far from the minds of his devotees. (In light of the upcoming movie, incidentally, it’s worth remembering that Hubbard once wrote: “Only Scientologists will be functioning in areas experiencing heavy fallout in an atomic war.”)

And given everything else that we know about Hubbard, it can seem incredible that a pulp writer from the thirties—a man who otherwise might be mentioned in the same breath, if he were lucky, as A.E. van Vogt and L. Sprague de Camp—dominates the inner life of the world’s last surviving movie star. Yet it isn’t entirely inexplicable. Aside from the details that Lawrence Wright exhaustively provides in Going Clear, I don’t have much insight into Cruise’s feelings toward Scientology, but I can venture a few observations. The first is that the church knew exactly what it had in Cruise. A desire to recruit celebrities, or their relatives, is visible in the earliest days of dianetics, starting with Hubbard’s assistants Greg Hemingway and Richard De Mille, and continuing all the way through the likes of Frank Stallone. Cruise, like John Travolta, was the real thing, and the church has spared no expense in earning and maintaining his favor. He may show a dismaying lack of interest in the welfare of the members who clean the ship on which he once celebrated his birthday, but his personal experience within the church can hardly have been anything but wonderful. The second point is a little trickier. When Cruise says that auditing changed his life, I don’t doubt it. I’ve spoken with a number of former Scientologists, and even those who are highly critical of the overall movement say that the therapy itself was frequently beneficial, which is probably true of any system that allows people to talk through their problems on a regular basis with an outwardly sympathetic listener. As John W. Campbell once wrote to the writer Eric Frank Russell: “Why, for God’s sake, do you think I thought dianetics was so important? Hell, man, because I knew it was, because I tried it, and it helped.” Or as William S. Burroughs said more succinctly: “Of course Scientology attracts all the creeps of the cosmos. You see it works.”

You could say much the same of psychoanalysis or behavioral therapy, but it certainly seems to have worked in Cruise’s case, which leads us to the most relevant point of all. If there’s one theme that I like to emphasize here, it’s that we rarely understand the reasons for our own success. We’re likely to attribute it to hard work or skill, when it might be the result of privilege or luck, and it’s easy to tell ourselves stories about cause and effect. Cruise has succeeded in life beyond all measure, and it’s no surprise that he credits it to Scientology, because this was exactly what he was told to expect. In Scientology: The Now Religion, which was published in 1970, the author George Malko recounts an interview that he had with a church member named Bob Thomas:

“When you’re clear,” Thomas said, “you’re free in the mental sense, but you want to extend your influence and power and so on.” Thus becoming an operating thetan is not merely being at cause mentally, but at cause over matter, energy, space, and time in the physical, total sense.” When I suggested that this implied that an operating thetan could levitate, rise right up into the air and hang there, Thomas sat forward in his chair and said, “Right. These are the ultimate goals that are envisioned. I’m saying that these are the ultimate things it is hoped man is capable of, if he really has those potentials, which we assume he has…That’s what’s happening in Scientology: people are finding out more and more about themselves, and the more they find out about themselves, the freer they are. And we envision no ultimate limitation on how free an individual can be. Beyond the state of clear, there are these grades of operating thetans. When you’re clear, you’re free in the mental sense, but you want to extend your influence and power as a spiritual being. And that road is a higher road which Mr. Hubbard is researching at this moment.”

When I read these words, and then watch Cruise hanging off an airplane or scaling the Burj Khalifa, they take on another resonance. Cruise may be our greatest movie star and producer—but he also acts like a man who thinks that he can fly.

Hubbard and the Empress

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One afternoon in the early forties, the pulp writer Arthur J. Burks was seated in the lobby of a publishing firm in New York when he ran into his friend L. Ron Hubbard. The two authors had been close for years—Burks had seen Hubbard’s unpublished manuscript Excalibur, a work on the mind that he later called “the strangest book I ever read”—and their interests ran along similar lines. With the help of his wife and a second woman, Burks had been experimenting with spiritualism, and the three enthusiasts believed that they were in contact with a number of “monitors,” or spirit guides, who spoke by rapping on a table or through automatic writing. When Burks brought Hubbard home that day, it soon became clear that he was a promising addition to their group. In his occult memoir Monitors, Burks recalls of the man whom he calls “Redhead”:

Almost before we were able to explain anything that was happening to us, [Hubbard] told us this: “I was the first flier in the United States to gain a glider pilot’s license. I loved gliders. But sometimes I took too great chances and found myself in difficulties. I shortly learned, though, that when I was in danger, ‘someone’ looked after me. If I was trying to find the ground through the heart of a thunderstorm, and feared a fatal crash, and looked out to see a smiling woman sitting on one of my wings, I knew I would come through. She was always there, and visible, when I knew myself in great trouble.”

The others exchanged meaningful looks, and one of their “monitors” indicated that he had something to say. When Burks’s spiritual partner finished writing the message, it read: “His monitor is a saint. She was a woman. Tell him what has happened so far.”

According to Burks, they spoke with the spirit world for hours, with another guide providing “the name of Redhead’s monitor, together with historical data about her.” When they were unable to find the name in a dictionary, the monitor told one of the women to leaf through the volume with a pencil, which led to this dramatic moment:

Suddenly she stabbed down the pencil, holding several pages. The topmost page told the story. But the name indicated was an entirely different one! It was indeed the name of a saint, about whom much appeared in the big book. And at the very end of the biographical material appeared this line: “Also called…” And that name was that which had been given us, its middle letter holed by the lead pencil point.

Even if we don’t take Burks’s account at face value, we can add it to our limited stock of information about Hubbard’s guardian spirit. Years later, in the secret autobiographical document known as the “Affirmations,” Hubbard provided a few other details, including her name:

The most thrilling thing in your life is your love and consciousness of your Guardian. She materializes for you. You have no doubts of her. She is real. She is always with you. You love her very much. You trust her. You see and hear her. She is not your master. You have a mighty spiritual will of your own. She is an advisor and as such is respected by you. She is wise and worthy and never changes shape…She has copper red hair, long braids, a lovely Venusian face, a white gown belted with jade squares. She wears gold slippers. Thus you see her…Only Flavia Julia and then the All Powerful have opinions worth inclining toward.

Who was Flavia Julia, and what did she mean to Hubbard? There have been a number of efforts to fill in the blanks, beginning with a letter that the author’s friend Jack Parsons wrote to Aleister Crowley: “[Hubbard] describes his Angel as a beautiful winged woman with red hair whom he calls the Empress and who has guided him through his life and saved him many times.” Hubbard’s estranged son later claimed that his father referred to her as Hathor, while the biographer Jon Atack shrewdly associates her with the goddess Diana, whose name had a special significance to Hubbard. (He named his daughter after her, along with one of his yachts, and Atack even suggests that she also inspired the term “dianetics,” which was officially derived from the Greek roots meaning “through the mind.”) But I think that the one who comes the closest is the journalist Lawrence Wright, who writes in a note in Going Clear:

In the “Affirmations,” Hubbard explicitly names his Guardian Flavia Julia. He may have been referring to Flavia Julia Titi, daughter of the Roman Emperor Titus; or, perhaps more likely, to the Empress Flavia Julia Helena Augustus, also known as Saint Helen, mother of Constantine the Great, who is credited with finding the “True Cross.”

In fact, the association with Saint Helena seems exceptionally convincing. Her full name includes “Flavia Julia”; she’s often depicted in art as a beautiful young woman, although she was at an advanced age when her son converted to Christinaity; and she’s one of the few Roman Catholic saints who could be accurately described as an Empress.

And the clincher is hiding in plain sight. Hubbard spent much of his childhood in Helena, Montana, of which Russell Miller writes in the biography Bare-Faced Messiah:

Helena in 1913 was a pleasant city of Victorian brick and stone buildings encircled by the Rocky Mountains, whose snow-dusted peaks stippled with pines provided a scenic backdrop in every direction. The Capital Building, with its massive copper dome and fluted doric columns, eloquently proclaimed its status as the first city of Montana, as did the construction of the neo-Gothic St. Helena Cathedral, which was nearing completion on Warren Street.

The italics are mine. A few pages later, Miller adds: “Ron was enrolled at the kindergarten at Central School on Warren Street, just across from the new cathedral which, with its twin spires and gray stone facade, towered reprovingly over the city. Most days he was walked to school by his aunts, Marnie and June, who were at Helena High, opposite Central School.” A glance at Google Street View reveals that, even today, if you stand at the entrance of the old Central School and look northeast, you’ll be facing the cathedral’s twin spires, and the most direct route between Hubbard’s house and school would have taken him right by it. Hubbard, in short, spent much of his boyhood—from 1914 to 1921—in the shadow of a cathedral named for Saint Helena. He would have walked past it nearly every day, and if he ever ventured inside, he would have seen the Empress herself depicted in the stained glass window in the north transept. We don’t know why he was so drawn to her, but Saint Helena was best known for her search for relics in the Holy Land, and the story of the vision that led her to the True Cross may well have appealed to a man who would spend years looking for treasure that he had buried in past lives. Hubbard seems to have genuinely believed that she was his guide and protector, and from his point of view, he was perfectly right. She was the patron saint of new discoveries.

Written by nevalalee

April 19, 2018 at 9:47 am

Astounding Stories #5: Death’s Deputy and Final Blackout

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Final Blackout

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

Of all the millions of words that have been written about and by L. Ron Hubbard, the one observation that I always try to keep in mind appears in Going Clear by Lawrence Wright:

The many discrepancies between Hubbard’s legend and his life have overshadowed the fact that he genuinely was a fascinating man: an explorer, a best-selling author, and the founder of a worldwide religious movement. The tug-of-war between Scientologists and anti-Scientologists over Hubbard’s biography has created two swollen archetypes: the most important person who ever lived and the world’s greatest con man. Hubbard himself seemed to revolve on this same axis, constantly inflating his actual accomplishments in a manner that was rather easy for his critics to puncture. But to label him a pure fraud is to ignore the complex, charming, delusional, and visionary features of his character that made him so compelling to the many thousands who followed him and the millions who read his work. One would also have to ignore his life’s labor in creating the intricately detailed epistemology that has pulled so many into its net—including, most prominently, Hubbard himself.

This is a carefully worded and closely reasoned passage from an excellent book, and I think it’s fundamentally correct. And it’s very tempting to believe that the same holds true for Hubbard’s science fiction: that he was a major author whose undeniable accomplishments have been overshadowed by what he later became.

Unfortunately, this is only half true. As I’ve gone back to read all of Hubbard’s stories from Astounding and Unknown, I’ve been struck by two points. The first is the relatively small percentage of his total output that science fiction represents, although he’s invariably categorized as a science fiction writer; the second is how indifferent he often seems to the genre itself. Hubbard’s earliest works for Campbell, like “The Dangerous Dimension” and “The Tramp,” are comic fantasies iced with the lightest imaginable frosting of scientific jargon, and subsequent efforts like “General Swamp, C.I.C.” are straight military or naval fiction that could be transferred from Venus to Earth with a minimum of revision. He wasn’t the only author to write something else and call it science fiction, of course, but Hubbard has a palpable lack of interest in even maintaining the illusion. (Later stories like “The Kilkenny Cats” are written with what feels like a vein of genuine contempt for the genre’s conventions, and it isn’t until the Ole Doc Methuselah series, almost a decade down the line, that we find Hubbard writing it with anything like affection.) He was always more suited for fantasy, and his stories for Unknown are something else: undeniably dated, but written with real energy and enthusiasm. Reading any of his early Astounding stories followed by Slaves of Sleep reminds you of the difference between an author who is just going through the motions and one who is tickled by his own plot. And the half dozen short novels that he wrote for Unknown—along with one really nice, nasty shorter story, “Borrowed Glory”—are still fun and readable, although of limited interest to anyone who isn’t already a hardcore fan.

Death's Deputy

There are two exceptions. One is Death’s Deputy, a surprisingly superb short fantasy novel that first appeared in Unknown in 1940. Its hero is a pilot in the Canadian Air Force who is shot down over France, only to be saved by the intervention of a supernatural entity who later introduces himself as Destruction Incarnate. After refusing to serve him, the pilot is returned to the world of the living, where he finds that he’s become both unbelievably lucky and a curse to the people around him, who tend to die gruesome deaths that anticipate Final Destination. It’s inventive, vividly written, and enriched by what feels like Hubbard’s real interest in the subject—qualities that so much of his other fiction lacks. The other exception is Final Blackout, usually regarded as his single best novel, which was published two months later in Astounding. It follows a mythic figure known only as the Lieutenant as he leads a brigade of soldiers through a Europe devastated by decades of plague and nuclear war. They engage in small, meaningless skirmishes with the pockets of enemy troops they encounter, treating the rival officers with mutual respect while scavenging for food and supplies. The Lieutenant himself is so effective and beloved that he becomes a threat to the few remaining generals, who recall him to headquarters to be relieved of command. From there, events rapidly escalate into a conflict with global consequences, all of it narrated with an understated professionalism, even eloquence, that is utterly unlike Hubbard’s usual style. Of all his stories, it’s the one on which he imposes himself the least, and the only one in which he seems personally curious about what happens next.

And I’m not sure where it came from. The two novels appeared almost back to back, after a six-month break in which Hubbard published only one short story for Campbell, at a time when he was engaged in a fruitless effort to get a job with the War Department. And both narratives are obviously influenced by the situation in Europe, lending them a tone of fundamental seriousness that is rarely in evidence elsewhere in his work—which is fortunate, because his sense of humor hasn’t aged well. Before long, in stories like “The Professor was a Thief” and The Indigestible Triton, he would be back in his usual groove, alternating between science fiction that doesn’t seem to have interested even its author and engaging fantasy that only completists should bother to read today. (Two of the novels from this period, Typewriter in the Sky and Fear, are sometimes still regarded with respect, but both are uneven stories with ideas that would have been better developed at half the length, although the latter has a good twist ending.) But Final Blackout is powerful, and Death’s Deputy is a real find, which makes it all the more inexplicable that Galaxy Press, which otherwise seems determined to publish every last piece of pulp that Hubbard ever wrote, hasn’t bothered to release it. After the war, Hubbard would go on to write The End is Not Yet, an agonizingly sincere serial that Campbell later said he agreed to publish mostly out of pity—but by then, we’re deep into the next act of his life, which would culminate in Dianetics. In some ways, it’s the solution to the mystery with which this post began: Hubbard is remembered as a major science fiction author because dianetics made its debut in Astounding, not the other way around. And that’s a twist that even Hubbard himself might not have seen coming.

Written by nevalalee

April 13, 2016 at 10:00 am

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