Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Paul Fussell

The breaking of the vessels

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In his famous Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson defines chemistry as “an art whereby sensible bodies contained in vessels, or capable of being contained therein, are so changed, by means of certain instruments, and principally fire, that their several powers and virtues are thereby discovered, with a view to philosophy, or medicine.” As his source, Johnson cites the Dutch chemist and physician Herman Boerhaave, who writes in Elements of Chemistry, a textbook that was first published in the early eighteenth century:

Chemistry is an art that teaches us how to perform certain physical operations, by which bodies that are discernible by the senses, or that may be rendered so, and that are capable of being contained in vessels, may by suitable instruments be so changed, that particular determined effects may be thence produced, and the causes of those effects understood by the effects themselves, to the manifold improvement of various arts…The objects, in observing or changing of which this art is conversant, are all sensible bodies…especially if they are naturally capable of being contained in vessels, or by the power of this art, may be so changed, as to be confined within.

As a nineteenth-century professor and science writer named T. Berry Smith rather poetically explains: “The moon, though a sensible body, is no object of chemistry, for it is not capable of being contained in vessels.”

I was charmed enough by this definition to want to learn more about Boerhaave, whose biography Johnson wrote up as a young man in four issues of The Gentleman’s Magazine. Boerhaave is best remembered today for his work as a teacher and for his isolation of the chemical urea from urine, but in Johnson’s hands, he becomes a kind of early superscience hero in whom physical strength is inseparable from mental ability:

Boerhaave [was] a man formed by nature for great designs, and guided by religion in the exertion of his abilities. He was of a robust and athletic constitution of body, so hardened by early severities, and wholesome fatigue, that he was insensible of any sharpness of air, or inclemency of weather. He was tall, and remarkable for extraordinary strength. There was, in his air and motion, something rough and artless, but so majestic and great, at the same time, that no man ever looked upon him without veneration, and a kind of tacit submission to the superiority of his genius…The diligence with which he pursued his studies, is sufficiently evident from his success. Statesmen and generals may grow great by unexpected accidents, and a fortunate concurrence of circumstances, neither procured nor foreseen by themselves; but reputation in the learned world must be the effect of industry and capacity.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is a line that seems to anticipate Sherlock Holmes, or at least Dr. Joseph Bell: “He could, with uncommon readiness and certainty, make a conjecture of men’s inclinations and capacity by their aspect.”

There’s a lot of Johnson himself in this description, which, as the writer Paul Fussell points out, is really about a combined figure whom “we can only call Boerhaave-Johnson.” Boerhaave is never mentioned by name in The Life of Johnson, but its subject was intensely interested in chemistry, as Boswell observed during a visit to his library: “I observed an apparatus for chymical experiments, of which Johnson was all his life very fond.” He also conflated his own physical strength with his intelligence, as we see in some of the stories that Boswell recounts:

Many instances of [Johnson’s] resolution may be mentioned. One day, at Mr. Beauclerk’s house in the country, when two large dogs were fighting, he went up to them, and beat them till they separated; and at another time, when told of the danger there was that a gun might burst if charged with many balls, he put in six or seven, and fired it off against a wall. Mr. Langton told me, that when they were swimming together near Oxford, he cautioned Dr. Johnson against a pool, which was reckoned particularly dangerous; upon which Johnson directly swam into it. He told me himself that one night he was attacked in the street by four men, to whom he would not yield, but kept them all at bay, till the watch came up, and carried both him and them to the round-house. In the playhouse at Lichfield, as Mr. Garrick informed me, Johnson having for a moment quitted a chair which was placed for him between the side-scenes, a gentleman took possession of it, and when Johnson on his return civilly demanded his seat, rudely refused to give it up; upon which Johnson laid hold of it, and tossed him and the chair into the pit.

In his later essays, Johnson mentions Boerhaave only a couple of times, most notably in a discussion of clearly defining one’s terms, in which he praises the chemist for not assuming any previous knowledge on the part of his readers. This impulse found its greatest expression in the Dictionary, in which we can glimpse Boerhaave—a friend and early supporter of Carl Linnaeus, who took this project to its ultimate level—in its determination to confine everything in the world to its own proper vessel. And Boerhaave seems to have remained Johnson’s ideal of what a man might accomplish. In Young Sam Johnson, James L. Clifford writes:

One might almost piece together a picture of Johnson as he saw himself, or as he hoped to be, from selected passages in the life of Boerhaave—a man whose fortune had not been “sufficient to bear the expenses of a learned eduction,” but who through sheer determination had broken through “the obstacles of poverty.” Always it was Boerhaave’s “insatiable curiosity after knowledge” that had driven him on. Though subject to depression and lowness of spirits, yet “he asserted, on all occasions, the divine authority and sacred efficacy of the holy scriptures.” He had a large, robust physique and was remarkable for physical strength…The vigor and activity of his mind “sparkled visibly in his eyes,” and “he was always cheerful and desirous of promoting mirth by a facetious and humorous conversation.”

At one point in his biography of Boerhaave, Johnson writes in a revealing aside: “It is, I believe, a very just observation that men’s ambition is, generally, proportioned to their capacity.” The real vessel, in short, is the individual human being. And great accomplishment only occurs in lives that are big enough to contain it.

The kitsch of survival

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Bomb Shelter

A few weeks ago, The New Yorker published a fascinating article by Evan Osnos on the growing survivalist movement among the very rich. Osnos quotes an unnamed source who estimates that fifty percent of Silicon Valley billionaires have some kind of survival plan in place—an estimate that strikes me, if anything, as a little too low. (As one hedge fund manager is supposed to have said: “What’s the percentage chance that Trump is actually a fascist dictator? Maybe it’s low, but the expected value of having an escape hatch is pretty high.”) Osnos also pays a visit to the Survival Condo Project, a former missile silo near Wichita, Kansas that has been converted into a luxury underground bunker. It includes twelve private apartments, all of which have already been sold, and which prospective residents can decorate to their personal tastes:

We stopped in a condo. Nine-foot ceilings, Wolf range, gas fireplace. “This guy wanted to have a fireplace from his home state”—Connecticut—“so he shipped me the granite,” [developer Larry] Hall said. Another owner, with a home in Bermuda, ordered the walls of his bunker-condo painted in island pastels—orange, green, yellow—but, in close quarters, he found it oppressive. His decorator had to come fix it.

Osnos adds: “The condo walls are fitted with L.E.D. ‘windows’ that show a live video of the prairie above the silo. Owners can opt instead for pine forests or other vistas. One prospective resident from New York City wanted video of Central Park.”

As I read the article’s description of tastefully appointed bunkers with fake windows, it occurred to me that there’s a word that perfectly sums up most forms of survivalism, from the backwoods prepper to the wealthy venture capitalist with a retreat in New Zealand. It’s kitsch. We tend to associate the concept of kitsch with cheapness or tackiness, but on a deeper level, it’s really about providing a superficial emotional release while closing off the possibility of meaningful thought. It offers us sentimental illusions, built on clichés, in the place of real feeling. As the philosopher Roger Scruton has said: “Kitsch is fake art, expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking he feels something deep and serious.” Even more relevant is Milan Kundera’s unforgettable exploration of the subject in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which he observes that kitsch is the defining art form of the totalitarian state and concludes: “Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” This might seem like an odd way to characterize survivalism, which is supposedly a confrontation with the unthinkable, but it’s actually a perfect description. The underling premise of survivalism is that by stocking up on beans and bullets, you can make your existence after the collapse of civilization more tolerable, even pleasant, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. It’s a denial of shit on the most fundamental level, in which a nuclear war causing the incendiary deaths of millions is sentimentalized into a playground for the competent man. And, like all kitsch, it provides a comforting daydream that allows its adherents to avoid more important questions of collective survival.

Family Fallout Shelter

Survivalism has often been dismissed as a form of consumerism, an excuse to play Rambo with expensive guns and toys, but it also embodies a perverse form of nostalgia. The survivalist mindset is usually traced back to the Cold War, in which schoolchildren were trained to duck and cover in their classrooms while the government encouraged their parents to build fallout shelters, and it came into its own as a movement during the hyperinflation and oil shortages of the seventies. In fact, the impulse goes back at least to the days after Pearl Harbor, when an attack on the East or West Coasts seemed like a genuine possibility, leading to blackout drills, volunteer air wardens, and advice on how to prepare for the worst at home. (I have a letter from John W. Campbell to Robert A. Heinlein dated December 12, 1941, in which he talks about turning his basement into a bomb shelter, complete with porch furniture and a lamp powered by a car battery, and coldly evaluates the odds of an air raid being directed at his neighborhood in New Jersey.) It’s significant that World War II was the last conflict in which the prospect of a conventional invasion of the United States—and the practical measures that one would take to prepare for it—was even halfway plausible. Faced with the possibility of the war coming to American shores, households took precautions that were basically reasonable, even if they amounted to a form of wishful thinking. And what’s horrifying is how quickly the same assumptions were channeled toward a nuclear war, an utterly different kind of event that makes nonsense of individual preparations. Survivalism is a type of kitsch that looks back fondly to the times in which a war in the developed world could be fought on a human scale, rather than as an impersonal cataclysm in which the actions of ordinary men and women were rendered wholly meaningless.

Like most kinds of kitsch, survivalism reaches its nadir of tastelessness among the nouveau riche, who have the resources to indulge themselves in ways that most of us can’t afford. (Paul Fussell, in his wonderful book Class, speculated that the American bathroom is the place where the working classes express the fantasy of “What I’d Do If I Were Really Rich,” and you could say much the same thing about a fallout shelter, which is basically a bathroom with cots and canned goods.) And it makes it possible to postpone an uncomfortable confrontation with the real issues. In his article, Osnos interviews one of my heroes, the Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, who gets at the heart of the problem:

[Brand] sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, How do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”

Survivalism ignores these questions, and it also makes it possible for someone like Peter Thiel, who has the ultimate insurance policy in the form of a New Zealand citizenship, to endorse an experiment in which millions of the less fortunate face the literal loss of their insurance. But we shouldn’t be surprised. When you look at the measures that many survivalists take, you find that they aren’t afraid of the bomb, but of other Americans—the looters, the rioters, and the leeches whom they expect to descend after the grid goes down. There’s nothing wrong with making rational preparations for disaster. But it’s only a short step from survival kits to survival kitsch.

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