Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Norman Mailer

Levitating the Pentagon

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On October 21, 1967, over fifty thousand activists marched on the Pentagon to protest the war in Vietnam. The participants included Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Rubin, Ed Sanders, and Norman Mailer, who describes one of the day’s most memorable episodes in The Armies of the Night:

This was the beginning of the exorcism of the Pentagon, yes the papers had made much of the permit requested by a hippie leader named Abbie Hoffman to encircle the Pentagon with twelve hundred men in order to form a ring of exorcism sufficiently powerful to raise the Pentagon three hundred feet. In the air the Pentagon would then, went the presumption, turn orange and vibrate until all evil emissions had fled this levitation. At that point the war in Vietnam would end.

The notion of levitating the Pentagon—an occult symbol that had been corrupted into an emblem of war—was the brainchild of Michael Bowen, a San Francisco artist and political organizer whose friends included Timothy Leary and Gary Snyder. As the ceremony proceeded, a flyer was circulated that encouraged the attendees to concentrate their minds on casting out evil: “A billion stars in a billion galaxies of space and time is the form of your power, and limitless is your name.” Rubin and Ginsberg led the crowd in invocations and mantras, and Bowen distributed flowers to the protesters, who inserted daisies into the gun barrels of the military police. Watching the scene unfold, Mailer marveled: “On which acidic journeys had the hippies met the witches and the devils and the cutting edge of all primitive awe?”

It was a rhetorical question, but the real answer is genuinely surprising. Bowen credited the basic idea for the ceremony to his guru, an occultist living in Mexico named John Starr Cooke. As a recent article in Smithsonian recounts:

Cooke had sent his protégé as a missionary of sorts in search of fellow travelers in New York, London, and most recently San Francisco, where he had found his greatest success rallying people to the cause…Following the Be-In [in January 1967]…Bowen returned to Mexico to be with his teacher. They worked on extrasensory perception, ancient Mayan shamanic rituals, and the metaphysical symbology that informed the artist’s paintings. Then the guru dispatched his student back to the United States—arming him this time with an outlandish idea that found a surprisingly receptive audience.

Attentive readers of this blog might remember that Cooke was also an associate of L. Ron Hubbard, an early proponent of dianetics, and allegedly the first “clear” in America. As I’ve noted here before, Cooke spent time with Hubbard in London and Tangier, and it was through him that Byron Gysin and William S. Burroughs were introduced to Scientology. But if the idea of levitating the Pentagon truly came from Cooke, it may well have been influenced in turn by Hubbard, who described the individual who has reached the stage beyond clear: “A thetan who is completely rehabilitated and can do everything a thetan should do, such as move MEST [matter, energy, space, and time] and control others from a distance, or create his own universe; a person who is able to create his own universe or, living in the MEST universe is able to create illusions perceivable by others at will, to handle MEST universe objects without mechanical means.” And Hubbard himself was rumored to be able to move objects with his mind, as one of his former followers later recalled: “People thought he could levitate things.”

In my original post on the subject, I wrote of Cooke: “It may have been through him that aspects of dianetics entered the counterculture—another important story that has yet to be told.” When I wrote those words, I didn’t know the half of it. For now, though, I’d like to focus on the mysterious way in which one of Hubbard’s wild promises was transmuted, as in a game of telephone, into something genuinely moving and memorable. It didn’t succeed in levitating the Pentagon, but only in the sense that Sgt. Pepper didn’t end the Vietnam War. As none other than Daniel Ellsberg notes in an oral history of the event by Arthur magazine:

I was working on the Pentagon Papers that fall in a room which happened to be right next to MacNamara’s office. I’d come back from Vietnam very anxious to see the war end and to do whatever I could to help that. So I was very sympathetic to the anti-war movement, what I knew of it. The idea of levitating the Pentagon struck me as a great idea because the idea of removing deference from any of these institutions is very, very important, and this is of course the kind of thing that Abbie understood very instinctively. It was not just a matter of clowning and a way to get the attention of the media, or to make people smile. And the idea that you would jointly piss on the Pentagon as part of a pagan ceremony raises so many associations. One might think of the Pentagon as pagan in itself, but that’s a slander of pagan religion.

Or as Ginsberg says in the same article: “The levitation of the Pentagon was a happening that demystified the authority of the military. The Pentagon was symbolically levitated in people’s minds in the sense that it lost its authority which had been unquestioned and unchallenged until then…Once the kid put his flower in the barrel of the kid looking just like himself but tense and nervous, the authority of the Pentagon psychologically was dissolved.”

And this kind of demystification is exactly the kind of thing that the confidence trickster is born to do. It’s a vital form of protest, and the fact that it may have indirectly drawn inspiration from Hubbard, of all people, is revealing in itself. These impulses can go in any number of directions. Abbie Hoffman himself had a lot in common with the denizens of the pool halls that also filled David Mamet with nostalgia, as John Escow told Arthur: “Abbie’s political program was just a hastily thrown together amalgamation of some things he had read, certain life lessons that he had picked up in pool halls and on the street.” Writing in his introduction to Hoffman’s autobiography, Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture, Mailer intuitively makes the connection to an even older archetype:

Abbie was one of the most incredible-looking people I ever met. In fact, he wasn’t twentieth century, but nineteenth. Might just as well have emerged out of Oliver Twist. You could say he used to look like a chimney sweep. In fact, I don’t know what chimney sweeps looked like, but I always imagined them as having a manic integrity that glared out of their eyes through all the soot and darked-up skin. It was the knowledge that they were doing an essential job that no one else would do. Without them, everybody in the house would slowly, over the years, suffocate from the smoke.

These skills are far older than modern politics, and they’re ideologically neutral, which can frustrate more “serious” activists—but which also makes them even more effective at certain kinds of mobilization. (As Paul Krassner recalls in the same oral history: “[Abbie] saw that people who could be organized to go to a smoke-in, could be organized to go to an antiwar rally.) Jerry Rubin once pointed out in the Berkeley Barb: “The worst thing you can say about a demonstration is that it is boring, and one of the reasons that the peace movement has not grown into a mass movement is that the peace movement—its literature and its events—is a bore. Good theatre is needed to communicate revolutionary content.” That’s as true today as it ever was. And the show is just getting started.

Quote of the Day

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The invasion of the moon was signal direct to commence his new psychology…He would call it The Psychology of Astronauts, for they were either the end of the old or the first of the new men, and one would have nothing to measure them by until the lines of the new psychology had begun to be drawn.

Norman Mailer, Of a Fire on the Moon

Written by nevalalee

October 24, 2018 at 7:30 am

The technical review

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One of my favorite works of science fiction, if we define the term as broadly as possible, is Space Colonies, a collection of articles and interviews edited by Stewart Brand that was published in 1977. The year seems significant in itself. It was a period in which Star Trek and Dune—both of which were obviously part of the main sequence of stories inaugurated by John W. Campbell at Astounding—had moved the genre decisively into the mainstream. After the climax of the moon landing, the space race seemed to be winding down, or settling into a groove without a clear destination, and the public was growing restless. (As Norman Mailer said a few years earlier on the Voyage Beyond Apollo cruise, people were starting to view space with indifference or hostility, rather than as a form of adventure.) It was a time in which the environmental movement, the rise of the computer culture, and the political climate of the San Francisco Bay Area were interacting in ways that can seem hard to remember now. In retrospect, it feels like the perfect time for the emergence of Gerard O’Neill, whose ideas about space colonies received widespread attention in just about the only window that would have allowed them to take hold. During the preparation and editing of Space Colonies, which was followed shortly afterward by O’Neill’s book The High Frontier, another cultural phenomenon was beginning to divert some of those energies along very different lines. And while I can’t say for sure, I suspect that the reception of his work, or at least the way that people talked about it, would have been rather different if it had entered the conversation after Star Wars.

As it turned out, the timing was just right for a wide range of unusually interesting people to earnestly debate the prospect of space colonization. In his introduction to Space Colonies, which consists mostly of material that had previously appeared in CoEvolution Quarterly, Brand notes that “no one else has published the highly intelligent attacks” that O’Neill had inspired, and by far the most interesting parts of the book are the sections devoted to this heated debate. Brand writes:

Something about O’Neill’s dream has cut deep. Nothing we’ve run in The CQ has brought so much response or opinions so fierce and unpredictable and at times ambivalent. It seems to be a paradigmatic question to ask if we should move massively into space. In addressing that we’re addressing our most fundamental conflicting perceptions of ourself, of the planetary civilization we’ve got under way. From the perspective of space colonies everything looks different. Choices we’ve already made have to be made again, because changed context changes content. Artificial vs. Natural, Let vs. Control, Local vs. Centralized, Dream vs. Obey—all are re-jumbled. And space colonies aren’t even really new. That’s part of their force—they’re so damned inherent in what we’ve been about for so long. But the shift seems enormous, and terrifying or inspiring to scale. Hello, stars. Goodbye, earth? Is this the longed-for metamorphosis, our brilliant wings at last, or the most poisonous of panaceas?

And the most striking parts of the book today are the passionate opinions on space colonies, both positive and negative, from some very smart respondents who thought that the idea was worth taking seriously.

Leafing through the book now, I feel a strange kind of double awareness, as names that I associate with the counterculture of the late seventies argue about a future that never happened. It leads off with a great line from Ken Kesey: “A lot of people who want to get into space never got into the earth.” (This echoes one of my favorite observations from Robert Anton Wilson, quoting Brad Steiger: “The lunatic asylums are full of people who naively set out to study the occult before they had any real competence in dealing with the ordinary.”) The great Lewis Mumford dismisses space colonies as “another pathological manifestation of the culture that has spent all of its resources on expanding the nuclear means for exterminating the human race.” But the most resonant critical comment on the whole enterprise comes from the poet Wendell Berry:

What cannot be doubted is that the project is an ideal solution to the moral dilemma of all those in this society who cannot face the necessities of meaningful change. It is superbly attuned to the wishes of the corporation executives, bureaucrats, militarists, political operators, and scientific experts who are the chief beneficiaries of the forces that have produced our crisis. For what is remarkable about Mr. O’Neill’s project is not its novelty or its adventurousness, but its conventionality. If it should be implemented, it will be the rebirth of the idea of Progress with all its old lust for unrestrained expansion, its totalitarian concentrations of energy and wealth, its obliviousness to the concerns of character and community, its exclusive reliance on technical and economic criteria, its disinterest in consequence, its contempt for human value, its compulsive salesmanship.

And another line from Berry has been echoing in my head all morning: “It is only a desperate attempt to revitalize the thug morality of the technological specialist, by which we blandly assume that we must do anything whatever that we can do.”

What interests me the most about his response, which you can read in its entirety here, is that it also works as a criticism of many of the recent proposals to address climate change—which may be the one place in which the grand scientific visions of the late seventies may actually come to pass, if only because we won’t have a choice. Berry continues:

This brings me to the central weakness of Mr. O’Neill’s case: its shallow and gullible morality. Space colonization is seen as a solution to problems that are inherently moral, in that they are implicit in our present definitions of character and community. And yet here is a solution to moral problems that contemplates no moral change and subjects itself to no moral standard. Indeed, the solution is based upon the moral despair of Mr. O’Neill’s assertion that “people do not change.” The only standards of judgment that have been applied to this project are technical and economic. Much is made of the fact that the planners’ studies “continue to survive technical review.” But there is no human abomination that has not, or could not have, survived technical review.

Replace “space colonization” with “geoengineering,” and you have a paragraph that could be published today. (My one modification would be to revise Berry’s description of the morality of the technical specialist, which has subtly evolved into “we can do anything whatever that we must do.”) In a recent article in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert throws up her hands when it comes to the problem of how to discuss the environment without succumbing to despair. After quoting the scientist Peter Wadhams on the need for “technologies to block sunlight, or change the reflectivity of clouds,” she writes: “Apparently, this is supposed to count as inspirational.” Yet the debate still needs to happen, and Space Colonies is the best model I’ve found for this sort of technical review, which has to involve voices of all kinds. Because it turns out that we were living on a space colony all along.

First man, first communion

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On July 5, 1969, eleven days before the launch of Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins took part in an unusual press conference at the Manned Space Center in Houston. Because they were being kept in quarantine, the astronauts answered questions while seated behind a desk inside a large plastic box. One of the attendees was Norman Mailer, who describes the scene in his book Of a Fire on the Moon, which he narrates under the name Aquarius:

Behind them at the rear of the plastic booth stood an American flag; the Press actually jeered when somebody brought it onstage in advance of the astronauts. Aquarius could not remember a press conference where Old Glory had ever been mocked before, but it had no great significance, suggesting rather a splash of derision at the thought that the show was already sufficiently American enough.

When an international correspondent asked about the decision to plant an American flag on the lunar surface, Armstrong offered a characteristic answer: “Well, I suspect that if we asked all the people in the audience and all of us up here, all of us would give different ideas on what they would like to take to the moon and think should be taken, everyone within his own experience. I don’t think there is any question what our job is. Our job is to fly the spacecraft as best as we can. We never would suggest that it is our responsibility to suggest what the U.S. posture on the moon should be. That decision has been made where it should be made, namely in the Congress of this country. I wouldn’t presume to question it.”

I was reminded of Armstrong’s measured reply in light of the controversy that briefly flared up over Damien Chazelle’s upcoming biopic First Man, which apparently fails to show the moment in which the flag was raised on the moon. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t displayed at all—it seems to be prominently featured in several shots—but the absence of a scene in which the flag is explicitly planted on lunar soil has led to criticism from exactly the sort of people you might suspect. In response, Chazelle has explained: “My goal with this movie was to share with audiences the unseen, unknown aspects of America’s mission to the moon—particularly Neil Armstrong’s personal saga and what he may have been thinking and feeling during those famous few hours.” And it seems clear that Armstrong wasn’t particularly concerned with the flag itself. Decades later, he said to James R. Hansen, the author of the authorized biography on which the film is based:

Some people thought a United Nations flag should be there, and some people thought there should be flags of a lot of nations. In the end, it was decided by Congress that this was a United States project. We were not going to make any territorial claim, but we ought to let people know that we were here and put up a U.S. flag. My job was to get the flag there. I was less concerned about whether that was the right artifact to place. I let other, wiser minds than mine make those kinds of decisions.

This feels like Armstrong’s diplomatic way of saying that he had more pressing concerns, and the planting of the flag seems to have been less important to him in the moment than it would later be, say, to Marco Rubio.

For any event as complicated and symbolically weighted as the first moon landing, we naturally choose which details to emphasize or omit, which was true even at the time. In the book First Man, Hansen recounts a scene in the Lunar Module that wasn’t widely publicized:

Aldrin…reached into his Personal Preference Kit, or PPK, and pulled out two small packages given to him by his Presbyterian minister, Reverend Dean Woodruff, back in Houston. One package contained a vial of wine, the other a wafer. Pouring the wine into a small chalice that he also pulled from his kit, he prepared to take Holy Communion…Buzz radioed, “Houston, this is the LM pilot speaking. I would like to request a few moments of silence. I would like to invite each person listening in, wherever or whoever he may be, to contemplate the events of the last few hours and to give thanks in his own individual way.”

Originally, Aldrin had hoped to read aloud from the Book of John, but NASA—evidently concerned by the threat of legal action from the atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair—encouraged him to keep the ritual to himself. (Word did leak from the minister to Walter Cronkite, who informed viewers that Aldrin would have “the first communion on the moon.”) And Armstrong’s feelings on the subject were revealing. As Hansen writes:

Characteristically, Neil greeted Buzz’s religious ritual with polite silence. “He had told me he planned a little celebratory communion,” Neil recalls, “and he asked me if I had any problems with that, and I said, ‘No, go right ahead.’ I had plenty of things to keep busy with. I just let him do his own thing.”

The fact that NASA hoped to pass over the moment discreetly only reflects how much selection goes into the narratives of such events—and our sense of what matters can change from one day to the next. In Of a Fire on the Moon, Mailer follows up his account of the jeers at the press conference with a striking anecdote from the landing itself:

When the flag was set up on the moon, the Press applauded. The applause continued, grew larger—soon they would be giving the image of the flag a standing ovation. It was perhaps a way of apologizing for the laughter before, and the laughter they knew would come again, but the experience was still out of register. A reductive society was witnessing the irreducible.

In fact, we reduce all such events sooner or later to a few simple components, which tend to confirm our own beliefs. (Aldrin later had second thoughts about his decision to take communion on the moon, noting that “we had come to space in the name of all mankind—be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists.” Notably, in her lawsuit against NASA, O’Hair had alleged that the agency was covering up the fact that Armstrong was an atheist. Armstrong, who described himself as a “deist,” wasn’t much concerned with the matter, as he later told Hansen: “I can’t say I was very familiar with that. I don’t remember that ever being mentioned to me until sometime in the aftermath of the mission.” And my favorite lunar urban legend is the rumor that Armstrong converted to Islam after hearing the Muslim call to prayer on the moon.) But such readings are a luxury granted only to those whose role is to observe. Throughout his career, Armstrong remained focused on the logistics of the mission, which were more than enough to keep him busy. He was content to leave the interpretation to others. And that’s a big part of the reason why he got there first.

A poet’s education

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If you want to be a writer, sooner or later, you’re faced with the question of how much you need to read in your field before you can start to write in it. You’ve probably done a lot of reading already, but you still have the nagging feeling that you should be approaching it more systematically. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves observes that the standard training for an Irish oral poet included memorizing epic poems and tales, studying advanced metrical forms, and much more: “He knew the history and mythic value of every word he used…His education, which was a very general one, including history, music, law, science, and divination, encouraged him to versify in all these departments of knowledge.” Robert Anton Wilson outlines a similar course of study in Cosmic Trigger:

[Aleister] Crowley always insisted that nobody should try his more advanced techniques without (a) being in excellent health, (b) being competent in at least one athletic skill, (c) being able to conduct experiments accurately in at least one science, (d) having a general knowledge of several sciences, (e) being able to pass an examination in formal logic and (f) being able to pass an examination in the history of philosophy, including Idealism, Materialism, Rationalism, Spiritualism, Comparative Theology, etc. Without that kind of general knowledge and the self-confidence and independence of thought produced by such study, magick investigation will merely blow your mind. As Brad Steiger has said, the lunatic asylums are full of people who naively set out to study the occult before they had any real competence in dealing with the ordinary.

I love this last sentence, which is as true of writing as it is of mysticism, and I’m also of the school of thought that believes that you need to know the rules before you can break them. Yet I’m also aware that this attitude can turn into a kind of gatekeeping, which discourages beginners from doing what they love until they’ve mastered a body of canonical knowledge. And a true writer doesn’t wait. But there are good practical reasons for becoming familiar with the tradition in which you’re working, and despite what you may have been told, they have nothing to do with “avoiding” what other writers have done. In his fascinating book The Singer of Tales, the classicist Albert Lord lays out the pitfalls that confront the oral poet, whose situation is even more challenging:

There are two factors in oral composition that are not present in a written tradition. We must remember that the oral poet has no idea of a fixed model text to serve as his guide. He has models enough, but they are not fixed and he has no idea of memorizing them in a fixed form. Every time he hears a song sung, it is different. Secondly, there is a factor of time. The literate poet has leisure to compose at any rate he pleases. The oral poet must keep singing. His composition, by its very nature, must be rapid. Individual singers may and do vary in their rate of composition, of course, but it has limits because there is an audience waiting to hear the story. Some singers…begin very slowly with fairly long pauses between lines, working up gradually to very rapid rhythmic composition. Others insert many musical interludes of brief duration while they think of what is coming next. Still others have a formulaic phrase of general character addressed to the audience which they use to mark time…But these devices have to be used sparingly, because the audience will not tolerate too many of them.

Lord’s great insight—which he based on the work of his late mentor Milman Parry—is that the form of oral poetry and the poet’s education are designed to address these exact problems. He continues:

If the singer has no idea of the fixity of the form of a song, and yet has to pour his ideas into a more or less rigid rhythmic pattern in rapid composition, what does he do? To phrase the question a little differently, how does the oral poet meet the need of the requirements of rapid composition without the aid of writing and without memorizing a fixed form? His tradition comes to the rescue. Other singers have met the same need, and over many generations there have been developed many phrases which express in the several rhythmic patterns the ideas most common in the poetry. These are the formulas of which Parry wrote.

The italics are mine. An oral poet’s performance is only the most extreme case of the challenge that faces all writers, which is the problem of what to do next. The more models you’ve absorbed, the more easily you can draw on solutions that other writers have found, which is an honorable form of creativity in itself. Sometimes, of course, this kind of craft can be a trap. Graves notes that some of the most educated Welsh bards strayed from what was best about their art, “while the despised and unendowed minstrel…showed the greater poetic integrity, even though his verse was not so highly polished.” And Norman Mailer memorably wrote: “Craft is merely a series of way stations. I think of it as being like a Saint Bernard with that little bottle of brandy under his neck. Whenever you get into trouble, craft can keep you warm long enough to be rescued. Of course, this is exactly what keeps good novelists from becoming great novelists.”

He’s right. But it’s also necessary for survival. For an oral poet, craft is literally a way station—a place to pause and gather one’s thoughts—and it serves much the same role for writers who can’t rely solely on inspiration. At its best, it also provides material that an author would never be able to invent on his or her own, which leads in turn to greater freedom. As Lord writes: “We might say that the final period of training comes to an end when the singer’s repertory is large enough to furnish entertainment for several nights. Yet it is better to define the end of the period by the freedom with which he moves in his tradition, because that is the mark of the finished poet. When he has a sufficient command of the formula technique to sing any song that he hears, and enough thematic material at hand to lengthen or shorten a song according to his own desires and to create a new song if he sees fit, then he is an accomplished singer and worthy of his art.” And he concludes with a description that applies just as well to those who write as to those who sing:

The singer never stops in the process of accumulating, recombining, and remodeling formulas and themes, thus perfecting his singing and enriching his art. He proceeds in two directions: he moves toward refining what he already knows and toward learning new songs. The latter process has now become for him one of learning proper names and of knowing what themes make up the new song. The story is all that he needs; so in this stage he can hear a song once and repeat it immediately afterwards—not word for word, of course—but he can tell the same story again in his own words. Sometimes singers prefer to have a day or so to think the song over, to put it in order, and to practice it to themselves. Such singers are either less confident of their ability, or they may be greater perfectionists.

A season of disenchantment

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A few days ago, Matt Groening announced that his new animated series, Disenchantment, will premiere in August on Netflix. Under other circumstances, I might have been pleased by the prospect of another show from the creator of The Simpsons and Futurama—not to mention producers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein—and I expect that I’ll probably watch it. At the moment, however, it’s hard for me to think about Groening at all without recalling his recent reaction to the long overdue conversation around the character of Apu. When Bill Keveny of USA Today asked earlier this month if he had any thoughts on the subject, Groening replied: “Not really. I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.” It was a profoundly disappointing statement, particularly after Hank Azaria himself had expressed his willingness to step aside from the role, and it was all the more disillusioning coming from a man whose work has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. As I noted in my earlier post, the show’s unfeeling response to this issue is painful because it contradicts everything that The Simpsons was once supposed to represent. It was the smartest show on television; it was simply right about everything; it offered its fans an entire metaphorical language. And as the passage of time reveals that it suffered from its own set of blinders, it doesn’t just cast doubt on the series and its creators, but on the viewers, like me, who used it for so long as an intellectual benchmark.

And it’s still an inescapable part of my personal lexicon. Last year, for instance, when Elon Musk defended his decision to serve on Trump’s economic advisory council, I thought immediately of what Homer says to Marge in “Whacking Day”: “Maybe if I’m part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions.” Yet it turns out that I might have been too quick to give Musk—who, revealingly, was the subject of an adulatory episode of The Simpsons—the benefit of the doubt. A few months later, in response to reports of discrimination at Tesla, he wrote an email to employees that included this remarkable paragraph:

If someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology. If you are part of a lesser represented group, you don’t get a free pass on being a jerk yourself. We have had a few cases at Tesla were someone in a less represented group was actually given a job or promoted over more qualified highly represented candidates and then decided to sue Tesla for millions of dollars because they felt they weren’t promoted enough. That is obviously not cool.

The last two lines, which were a clear reference to the case of A.J. Vandermeyden, tell us more about Musk’s idea of a “sincere apology” than he probably intended. And when Musk responded this week to criticism of Tesla’s safety and labor practices by accusing the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting of bias and proposing a site where users could provide a “credibility score” for individual journalists, he sounded a lot like the president whose circle of advisers he only reluctantly left.

Musk, who benefited from years of uncritical coverage from people who will forgive anything as long as you talk about space travel, seems genuinely wounded by any form of criticism or scrutiny, and he lashes out just as Trump does—by questioning the motives of ordinary reporters or sources, whom he accuses of being in the pocket of unions or oil companies. Yet he’s also right to be worried. We’re living in a time when public figures and institutions are going to be judged by their responses to questions that they would rather avoid, which isn’t likely to change. And the media itself is hardly exempt. For the last two weeks, I’ve been waiting for The New Yorker to respond to stories about the actions of two of its most prominent contributors, Junot Díaz and the late David Foster Wallace. I’m not even sure what I want the magazine to do, exactly, except make an honest effort to grapple with the situation, and maybe even offer a valuable perspective, which is why I read it in the first place. (In all honesty, it fills much the same role in my life these days as The Simpsons did in my teens. As Norman Mailer wrote back in the sixties: “Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people in the most established parts of the middle class kill their quickest impulses before they dare to act in such a way as to look ridiculous to the private eye of their taste whose style has been keyed by the eye of The New Yorker.”) As the days passed without any comment, I assumed that it was figuring out how to tackle an admittedly uncomfortable topic, and I didn’t expect it to rush. Now that we’ve reached the end of the month without any public engagement at all, however, I can only conclude that it’s deliberately ignoring the matter in hopes that it will go away. I hope that I’m wrong. But so far, it’s a discouraging omission from a magazine whose stories on Harvey Weinstein and Eric Schneiderman implicitly put it at the head of an entire movement.

The New Yorker has evidently discovered that it’s harder to take such stands when they affect people whom we know or care about— which only means that it can get in line. Our historical moment has forced some of our smartest individuals and organizations to learn how to take criticism as well as to give it, and it’s often those whose observations about others have been the sharpest who turn out to be singularly incapable, as Clarice Starling once put it, when it comes to pointing that high-powered perception on themselves. (In this list, which is constantly being updated, I include Groening, Musk, The New Yorker, and about half the cast of Arrested Development.) But I can sympathize with their predicament, because I feel it nearly every day. My opinion of Musk has always been rather mixed, but nothing can dislodge the affection and gratitude that I feel toward the first eight seasons of The Simpsons, and I expect to approvingly link to an article in The New Yorker this time next week. But if our disenchantment forces us to question the icons whose influence is fundamental to our conception of ourselves, then perhaps it will have been worth the pain. Separating our affection for the product from those who produced it is a problem that we all have to confront, and it isn’t going to get any easier. As I was thinking about this post yesterday, the news broke that Morgan Freeman had been accused by multiple women of inappropriate behavior. In response, he issued a statement that read in part: “I apologize to anyone who felt uncomfortable or disrespected.” It reminded me a little of another man who once grudgingly said of some remarks that were caught on tape: “I apologize if anyone was offended.” But it sounds a lot better when you imagine it in Morgan Freeman’s voice.

Written by nevalalee

May 25, 2018 at 9:21 am

The Big One

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In a heartfelt appreciation of the novelist Philip Roth, who died earlier this week, the New York Times critic Dwight Garner describes him as “the last front-rank survivor of a generation of fecund and authoritative and, yes, white and male novelists…[that] included John Updike, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow.” These four names seem fated to be linked together for as long as any of them is still read and remembered, and they’ve played varying roles in my own life. I was drawn first to Mailer, who for much of my adolescence was my ideal of what a writer should be, less because of his actual fiction than thanks to my repeated readings of the juiciest parts of Peter Manso’s oral biography. (If you squint hard and think generously, you can even see Mailer’s influence in the way I’ve tried to move between fiction and nonfiction, although in both cases it was more a question of survival.) Updike, my favorite, was a writer I discovered after college. I agree with Garner that he probably had the most “sheer talent” of them all, and he represents my current model, much more than Mailer, of an author who could apparently do anything. Bellow has circled in and out of my awareness over the years, and it’s only recently that I’ve started to figure out what he means to me, in part because of his ambiguous status as a subject of biography. And Roth was the one I knew least. I’d read Portnoy’s Complaint and one or two of the Zuckerman novels, but I always felt guilty over having never gotten around to such late masterpieces as American Pastoral—although the one that I should probably check out first these days is The Plot Against America.

Yet I’ve been thinking about Roth for about as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer, largely because he came as close as anyone ever could to having the perfect career, apart from the lack of the Nobel Prize. He won the National Book Award for his debut at the age of twenty-six; he had a huge bestseller at an age when he was properly equipped to enjoy it; and he closed out his oeuvre with a run of major novels that critics seemed to agree were among the best that he, or anyone, had ever written. (As Garner nicely puts it: “He turned on the afterburners.”) But he never seemed satisfied by his achievement, which you can take as an artist’s proper stance toward his work, a reflection of the fleeting nature of such rewards, a commentary on the inherent bitterness of the writer’s life, or all of the above. Toward the end of his career, Roth actively advised young writers not to become novelists, and in his retirement announcement, which he delivered almost casually to a French magazine, he quoted Joe Louis: “I did the best I could with what I had.” A month later, in an interview with Charles McGrath of the New York Times, he expanded on his reasoning:

I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration—it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time…I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore…I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it.

And on his computer, he posted a note that gave him strength when he looked at it each day: “The struggle with writing is over.”

Roth’s readers, of course, rarely expressed the same disillusionment, and he lives most vividly in my mind as a reference point against which other authors could measure themselves. In an interview with The Telegraph, John Updike made one of the most quietly revealing statements that I’ve ever heard from a writer, when asked if he felt that he and Roth were in competition:

Yes, I can’t help but feel it somewhat. Especially since Philip really has the upper hand in the rivalry as far as I can tell. I think in a list of admirable novelists there was a time when I might have been near the top, just tucked under Bellow. But since Bellow died I think Philip has…he’s certainly written more novels than I have, and seems more dedicated in a way to the act of writing as a means of really reshaping the world to your liking. But he’s been very good to have around as far as goading me to become a better writer.

I think about that “list of admirable novelists” all the time, and it wasn’t just a joke. In an excellent profile in The New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpoint memorably sketched in all the ways in which other writers warily circled Roth. When asked if the two of them were friends, Updike said, “Guardedly,” and Bellow seems to have initially held Roth at arm’s length, until his wife convinced him to give the younger writer a chance. Pierpont concludes of the relationship between Roth and Updike: “They were mutual admirers, wary competitors who were thrilled to have each other in the world to up their game: Picasso and Matisse.”

And they also remind me of another circle of writers whom I know somewhat better. If Bellow, Mailer, Updike, and Roth were the Big Four of the literary world, they naturally call to mind the Big Three of science fiction—Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. In each case, the group’s members were perfectly aware of how exceptional they were, and they carefully guarded their position. (Once, in a conference call with the other two authors, Asimov jokingly suggested that one of them should die to make room for their successors. Heinlein responded: “Fuck the other writers!”) Clarke and Asimov seem to have been genuinely “thrilled to have each other in the world,” but their relationship with the third point of the triangle was more fraught. Toward the end, Asimov started to “avoid” the combative Heinlein, who had a confrontation with Clarke over the Strategic Defense Initiative that effectively ended their friendship. In public, they remained cordial, but you can get a hint of their true feelings in a remarkable passage from the memoir I. Asimov:

[Clarke] and I are now widely known as the Big Two of science fiction. Until early 1988, as I’ve said, people spoke of the Big Three, but then Arthur fashioned a little human figurine of wax and with a long pin— At least, he has told me this. Perhaps he’s trying to warn me. I have made it quite plain to him, however, that if he were to find himself the Big One, he would be very lonely. At the thought of that, he was affected to the point of tears, so I think I’m safe.

As it turned out, Clarke, like Roth, outlived all the rest, and perhaps they felt lonely in the end. Longevity can amount to a kind of victory in itself. But it must be hard to be the Big One.

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