Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Paul Valery

The lantern battery and the golem

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Science means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful. All the rest is literature.

—Paul Valéry

Yesterday morning, my wife asked me: “Have you seen the illustration for Michael Chabon’s new essay?” She thrust the latest issue of The New Yorker in my direction, and when I looked down, I saw a drawing by Greg Clarke of a little boy reading what was unmistakably a copy of Astounding Science Fiction. The kid is evidently meant to be Chabon himself, and his article, “The Recipe for Life,” is about nothing less than how his inner life was shaped by his father’s memories of an earlier era. Chabon writes:

He talked about comic books, radio dramas, Astounding magazine, and the stories they’d all told: of rocket-powered heroes, bug-eyed monsters, mad scientists bent on ruling the world. He described to me how he had saved box tops from cold cereals like Post Toasties, and redeemed them by mail for Junior G-Man badges or cardboard Flying Fortresses that carried payloads of black marbles. He told me about playing games like potsy, stickball, handball, and ringolevio, and, for the first time but by no means the last, about an enchanted pastry called a charlotte russe, a rosette of whipped cream on a disk of sponge cake served in a scalloped paper cup, topped with a Maraschino cherry. He described having spent weeks in the cellar of his Flatbush apartment building as a young teen-ager, with some mail-order chemicals, five pounds of kosher salt, and a lantern battery, trying to re-create “the original recipe for life on earth,” as detailed in the pages of Astounding.

The younger Chabon listened to his father intently, and all the while, he was “riding the solitary rails of my imagination into our mutual story, into the future we envisioned and the history we actually accumulated; into the vanished world that he once inhabited.”

Chabon’s father seems to have been born around 1938, or right around the time that John W. Campbell took over Astounding, positioning him to barely catch the tail end of the golden age. He would have been about twelve when the article “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” appeared in the May 1950 issue, which means that he snuck in right under the wire. (As the fan Peter Graham once said: “The golden age of science fiction is twelve.”) In fact, when you account for a gap in age of about eighteen years, the fragments of his childhood that we glimpse here are intriguingly reminiscent of Isaac Asimov. Both were bright Jewish boys growing up in Brooklyn—otherwise known as the center of the universe—and they shared the same vocabulary of nostalgia. Robert Chabon reminisced about stickball and the charlotte russe; Asimov lamented the disappearance of the egg cream and wrote in his memoirs:

We used to play “punchball,” for instance. This was a variant of baseball, played without a lot and without a bat. All you needed was a street (we called it a “gutter”) and a rubber ball. You hit the ball with your clenched fist and from then on it was pretty much like baseball.

I don’t know if kids these days still play punchball, but it survived for long enough to be fondly remembered by Stephen Jay Gould, who was born in 1941 in Queens. For Gould, punchball was nothing less than “the canonical ‘recess’ game…It was the game we would play unless kids specifically called for another form.”

Like many polymaths who thrived at the intersection between science and the arts, Gould and Asimov were raised in secular Jewish households, and Chabon’s essay unfolds against a similar, largely unstated cultural background. He notes that his father knew “the birth names of all five Marx Brothers,” as well as the rather startling fact that Underdog’s archenemy was named Simon Bar Sinister. Recalling his father’s “expression of calm intensity,” Chabon links it to another Jewish icon: “A few years later, I will watch Leonard Nimoy, as Mr. Spock, look up from his scanner on the bridge of the USS Enterprise, and catch an echo of my father’s face.” As he silently watches Fritz Lang’s science fiction epic Metropolis in his ailing father’s bedroom, he imagines the conversation that might have unfolded between them under happier circumstances: “Lang’s mother was Jewish. His wife was a member of the Nazi Party.” “Hey, that would make a great sitcom.” Chabon doesn’t emphasize these connections, perhaps because he’s explored them endlessly elsewhere. In his earlier essay “Imaginary Homelands,” he writes:

For a long time now I’ve been busy, in my life and in my work, with a pair of ongoing, overarching investigations: into my heritage—rights and privileges, duties and burdens—as a Jew and as a teller of Jewish stories; and into my heritage as a lover of genre fiction…Years spent writing novels and stories about golems and the Jewish roots of American superhero comic books, Sherlock Holmes and the Holocaust, medieval Jewish freebooters, Passover Seders attended by protégés of forgotten Lovecraftian horror writers, years of writing essays, memoirs, and nervous manifestos about genre fiction of Jewishness.

This is one of the richest veins imaginable for cultural exploration, and Chabon has conducted it so expertly for so long that he can trust us to make many of the associations for ourselves. Revealingly, this is actually the second essay that he has written under the title “The Recipe for Life.” The first, published almost two decades ago, was a meditation on the myth of the golem, a prototypical science fiction story with anticipatory shades of Frankenstein. In his earlier piece, Chabon quotes the philosopher Gershom Scholem: “Golem-making is dangerous; like all major creation it endangers the life of the creator—the source of danger, however, is not the golem…but the man himself.” Chabon continues:

When I read these words, I saw at once a connection to my own work. Anything good that I have written has, at some point during its composition, left me feeling uneasy and afraid. It has seemed, for a moment at least, to put me at risk…I have come to see this fear, this sense of my own imperilment by my creations, as not only an inevitable, necessary part of writing fiction but as virtual guarantor, insofar as such a thing is possible, of the power of my work: as a sign that I am on the right track, that I am following the recipe correctly, speaking the proper spells.

The recipe, Chabon implies, can come from either “The Idea of the Golem” or Astounding, and we owe much of his remarkable career to that insight, which he implicitly credits, in turn, to his father: “The past and the future became alloyed in my imagination: magic and science, heroes and villains, brick-and-steel Brooklyn and the chromium world of tomorrow.”

Quote of the Day

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It’s a good plan to work on several things at the same time. It yields the best results; one thing helps out the other and each is purer, more itself. For when ideas crop up you can fit each of them into the place that suits it best, since there are several pigeonholes to choose from.

Paul Valéry, Analects

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December 11, 2017 at 7:30 am

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The exact placing of a comma

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Paul Valéry

It happened at certain stages in my life that poetry became a way of cutting myself off from the world…It is no bad thing if certain men have the strength of mind to attach more value and significance to determining a remote decimal number, or to the exact placing of a comma, than to the most resounding of news items, the most terrible catastrophe, or even to their own lives…

To outlaw the arbitrary: to shut out accidents, politics, the chaos of events, and the fluctuations of fashion; to attempt to draw from oneself some work more exquisite than one might have hoped for; to find strength in oneself not to be satisfied with less than prolonged struggles, to set about a passionate quest for the solving of problems imperceptible to most people, in defiance of the headlong rush, the distractions (however affecting) that intrude from the outside world—this is something that appeals to me…In circumstances so appalling, what could be done except to endure, destitute as one was of any means of action that might cope with the extraordinary commotion of a world gone mad?

Paul Valéry, Collected Works

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September 24, 2016 at 7:30 am

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Reading your own future

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Ender's Game

If you were to ask me why you should bother reading the science fiction of the thirties and forties, I’d say that you probably shouldn’t. At least not until you really felt like it. “The golden age of science fiction is twelve,” the fan Peter Graham famously said, and he was even more right than he knew: most readers get into science fiction in their preteens, and they read it in the way everyone should at that age—which is to say, essentially at random. A tattered paperback cover that catches your eye counts for a lot more than a recommendation from any adult, and you follow your nose from one title to the next, like a bee moving between flowers. For my generation, the gateway drug was likely to be a novel like Ender’s Game, which is still going strong, but the specific books and authors don’t matter very much. What counts is that science fiction scratches an itch that certain young readers never knew they had, and once they’ve experienced that feeling, they’re bound to seek it out again, even if it’s in a haphazard fashion. And it should be haphazard, at least at first. Science fiction has always been characterized by the intense pleasure that it gives to its readers, and by the inexpressible psychic craving that it satisfies, and the writers who do it best for any given individual can’t be predicted in advance. What young readers are really doing, aside from falling in love with the idea of the genre, is refining their instincts about where the loot is buried, which often involves finding characters who look and talk more or less like they do. They take plenty of wrong turns and they read a lot of junk along the way, but it mostly evens out in the end.

Here’s the funny thing: a young reader of twelve today, left to his or her own devices, is recreating exactly the same process that led to the creation of the science fiction community more than eighty years ago. Readers of that generation weren’t particularly picky. They were mostly limited to what appeared in the newsstand pulps every month, much of which was frankly terrible, and there weren’t any anthologies available. When you go back to read some of those forgotten stories now, it’s easy to wonder how the genre survived at all. But if it hung on so tenaciously, even as the magazines themselves struggled or folded, it was because of the urgent, primal need that it filled. When you’re reading to save your life, or to convince yourself that there’s something more to this world than the sticky hell of early adolescence, you’re not going to be overly discriminating in what you consume. This isn’t to say that fans couldn’t criticize the stories once they were done: one of the first things you notice when you go back to read the old letters columns in Astounding is how cheerfully the readers savage the magazines that they claimed to love. Tearing apart stories that don’t meet your standards is a pastime as honorable as fandom itself, and it only works when your confidence isn’t limited by your age or experience. Their opinions were idiosyncratic, unreasonable, prone to falling into violent disputes over tiny differences, and cobbled together from some of the least orderly reading lives imaginable. They were sorting it out for themselves, and the last thing you wanted was to tell them what to read—no more than you’d try to control a preteen who was discovering science fiction for the first time today. The only project that matters is the creation of the reader, and it emerges when it’s left mostly alone.

The World of Null-A

This doesn’t happen overnight. It might take six months, or twenty years. But once that reader bursts into existence—full of conviction, righteous prejudice, and disdain for the status quo—it becomes easier to see why it’s worth going back to those older writers. Along the way, the average fan will have read scraps of the old tradition here and there, but as soon as you go back to engage with it more systematically, it’s usually for a reason. As Paul Valéry said: “One only reads well that which one reads with some quite personal purpose. It may be to acquire some power. It can be out of hatred for the author.” And it’s fair to say that you can only arrive at these emotions after you’ve spent a while figuring out the genre for yourself. The reasons will differ widely between readers. You may read these stories so that you can cross a title off a list and say so, even if it’s just to a hypothetical interlocutor in your head. Maybe you’re starting to write your own stories, and you see yourself as “a wildcat miner drilling out resources that are shrinking,” in David Brin’s words, which means that you have to see what your predecessors have done for the sake of competitive advantage. You might be reading them solely with an eye to picking them apart. And you might even simply be reading these authors because you’ve heard from multiple sources that you’ll enjoy the hell out of the experience. None of these motivations is better than any other, and they probably only achieve their true strength in combination. But reading the stories of the past is just one aspect, and not always the most important one, of a reading life that can hardly help but assume its own unique, necessary form.

And along the way, something strange happens. If you’ve remained true to yourself, followed your nose, and expressed strong opinions in advance of having the knowledge to back them up, you discover that you’re part of a conversation that has been going on since long before you were born. The test for admission isn’t the mastery of any particular list of stories, but the fact of having been a certain kind of twelve year old—and it’s never too late to begin. Unlike most conversations, much of it took place in print, so you’ll eventually want to investigate what has been said before you arrived on the scene. You may not see much of yourself in the writers you discover, and they might not have seen much of themselves in you, but you also have more in common with them than you will with anyone else. Maybe you’ll only dig a little, or not at all, or maybe you’ll dig so deeply that it becomes an obstacle to your development in itself. But you’re building up an inner life that won’t look like any other, and you’ll spend much of it raiding other writers for parts. Sooner or later, I think, most readers realize that there are useful components that they won’t find if they confine themselves to the obvious: it’s how I felt when I discovered A.E. van Vogt, whom I never would have read if I hadn’t made a conscious effort to seek out these older stories. It will probably be someone else for you, and I can’t tell you who it will be or where to begin, although I’m happy to give you a list if you want it. All that matters is that you become the reader you were meant to be, who is both utterly unlike and surprisingly similar to all those who came before you. Because the only future science fiction has ever been good at predicting is that of its own readers.

Written by nevalalee

August 12, 2016 at 8:43 am

Quote of the Day

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Paul Valéry

It takes two to invent anything. The one makes up combinations; the other one chooses, recognizes what he wishes and what is important to him in the mass of the things which the former has imparted to him. What we call genius is much less the work of the first one than the readiness of the second one to grasp the value of what has been laid before him and to choose it.

Paul Valéry

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April 23, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 28, 2014 at 7:30 am

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Quote of the Day

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Paul Valéry

One only reads well that which one reads with some quite personal purpose. It may be to acquire some power. It can be out of hatred for the author.

Paul Valéry

Written by nevalalee

April 9, 2014 at 7:30 am

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