Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Waldo Emerson

The war of ideas

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Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about a pair of tweets. One is from Susan Hennessy, an editor for the national security blog Lawfare, who wrote: “Much of my education has been about grasping nuance, shades of gray. Resisting the urge to oversimplify the complexity of human motivation. This year has taught me that, actually, a lot of what really matters comes down to good people and bad people. And these are bad people.” This is a remarkable statement, and in some ways a heartbreaking one, but I can’t disagree with it, and it reflects a growing trend among journalists and other commentators to simply call what we’re seeing by its name. In response to the lies about the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School—including the accusation that some of them are actors—Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post wrote:

When people act like cretins, should they be ignored? Does talking about their misdeeds merely give them oxygen? Maybe so. But the sliming—there is no other word for it—of the survivors of last week’s Florida high school massacre is beyond the pale…Legitimate disagreement over policy issues is one thing. Lies, conspiracy theories and insults are quite another.

And Paul Krugman went even further: “America in 2018 is not a place where we can disagree without being disagreeable, where there are good people and good ideas on both sides, or whatever other bipartisan homily you want to recite. We are, instead, living in a kakistocracy, a nation ruled by the worst, and we need to face up to that unpleasant reality.”

The other tweet that has been weighing on my mind was from Rob Goldman, a vice president of advertising for Facebook. It was just one of a series of thoughts—which is an important detail in itself—that he tweeted out on the day that Robert Mueller indicted thirteen Russian nationals for their roles in interfering in the presidential election. After proclaiming that he was “very excited” to see the indictments, Goldman said that he wanted to clear up a few points. He had seen “all of the Russian ads” that appeared on Facebook, and he stated: “I can say very definitively that swaying the election was not the main goal.” But his most memorable words, at least for me, were: “The majority of the Russian ad spend happened after the election. We shared that fact, but very few outlets have covered it because it doesn’t align with the main media narrative of Tump [sic] and the election.” This is an astounding statement, in part because it seems to defend Facebook by saying that it kept running these ads for longer than most people assume. But it’s also inexplicable. It may well be, as some observers have contended, that Goldman had a “nuanced” point to make, but he chose to express it on a forum that is uniquely vulnerable to being taken out of context, and to unthinkingly use language that was liable to be misinterpreted. As Josh Marshall wrote:

[Goldman] even apes what amounts to quasi-Trumpian rhetoric in saying the media distorts the story because the facts “don’t align with the main media narrative of Trump and the election.” This is silly. Elections are a big deal. It’s hardly surprising that people would focus on the election, even though it’s continued since. What is this about exactly? Is Goldman some kind of hardcore Trumper?

I don’t think he is. But it also doesn’t matter, at least not when his thoughts were retweeted approvingly by the president himself.

This all leads me to a point that the events of the last week have only clarified. We’re living in a world in which the lines between right and wrong seem more starkly drawn than ever, with anger and distrust rising to an unbearable degree on both sides. From where I stand, it’s very hard for me to see how we recover from this. When you can accurately say that the United States has become a kakistocracy, you can’t just go back to the way things used to be. Whatever the outcome of the next election, the political landscape has been altered in ways that would have been unthinkable even two years ago, and I can’t see it changing during my lifetime. But even though the stakes seem clear, the answer isn’t less nuance, but more. If there’s one big takeaway from the last eighteen months, it’s that the line between seemingly moderate Republicans and Donald Trump was so evanescent that it took only the gentlest of breaths to blow it away. It suggests that we were closer to the precipice than we ever suspected, and unpacking that situation—and its implications for the future—requires more nuance than most forms of social media can provide. Rob Goldman, who should have known better, didn’t grasp this. And while I hope that the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas do better, I also worry about how effective they can really be. Charlie Warzel of Buzzfeed recently argued that the pro-Trump media has met its match in the Parkland students: “It chose a political enemy effectively born onto the internet and innately capable of waging an information war.” I want to believe this. But it may also be that these aren’t the weapons that we need. The information war is real, but the only way to win it may be to move it into another battlefield entirely.

Which brings us, in a curious way, back to Robert Mueller, who seems to have assumed the same role for many progressives that Nate Silver once occupied—the one man who was somehow going to tell us that everything was going to be fine. But their differences are also telling. Silver generated reams of commentary, but his reputation ultimately came down to his ability to provide a single number, updated in real time, that would indicate how worried we had to be. That trust is clearly gone, and his fall from grace is less about his own mistakes than it’s an overdue reckoning for the promises of data journalism in general. Mueller, by contrast, does everything in private, avoids the spotlight, and emerges every few months with a mountain of new material that we didn’t even know existed. It’s nuanced, qualitative, and not easy to summarize. As the coverage endlessly reminds us, we don’t know what else the investigation will find, but that’s part of the point. At a time in which controversies seem to erupt overnight, dominate the conversation for a day, and then yield to the next morning’s outrage, Mueller embodies the almost anachronistic notion that the way to make something stick is to work on it diligently, far from the public eye, and release each piece only when you’re ready. (In the words of a proverbial saying attributed to everyone from Buckminster Fuller to Michael Schrage: “Never show fools unfinished work.” And we’re all fools these days.) I picture him fondly as the head of a monastery in the Dark Ages, laboriously preserving information for the future, or even as the shadowy overseer of Asimov’s Foundation. Mueller’s low profile allows him to mean whatever we want to us, of course, and for all I know, he may not be the embodiment of all the virtues that Ralph Waldo Emerson identified as punctuality, personal attention, courage, and thoroughness. I just know that he’s the only one left who might be. Mueller can’t save us by himself. But his example might just show us the way.

Quote of the Day

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Nature forever puts a premium on reality. What is done for effect is seen to be done for effect; what is done for love is felt to be done for love. A man inspires affection and honor because he was not lying in wait for these. The things of a man for which we visit him were done in the dark and cold.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Behavior”

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September 15, 2017 at 7:30 am

Money and the hidden self

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The American psychosis has not yet come to anything like a provisional end…Through all the testimony, one fact anyway stands out with distinctness. This is the growing importance of money as a dissolvent of manners and customs, money as a power that converts every rival symbolism to a language of its own. In every period of our history, but never more so than today, money has been the leveler by which self-engrossment is made to adapt to a surface ideal of gregarious practicality. Money has taken increasingly to itself the obscure and compelling charge that Emerson assigned to the hidden self. It has the right kind of abstraction, and the right kind of opacity. It is at once an embodiment and a creator of value: the further from any produced object, the better. It is the thing, more convenient than a person, that absolves you to yourself. By comparison with money, the soul has lapsed to the inferior reality of an entity that cannot be modified or exchanged.

David Bromwich, Moral Imagination

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June 11, 2017 at 7:30 am

The art of thoroughness

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Napoleon Dictating by W.Q. Orchardson

The life of Napoleon Bonaparte, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in his book Representative Men, “showed us how much may be accomplished by the mere force of such virtues as all men possess in less degrees; namely, by punctuality, by personal attention, by courage and thoroughness.” I’ve never forgotten this sentence, in large part because the qualities that Emerson lists—apart from courage—are all so boring and mundane. Emerson, I think, is being deliberately provocative in explaining the career of Napoleon, the most overwhelming public figure who ever lived, in terms of qualities that we’d like to see in a certified public accountant. But he’s also right in noting that Napoleon’s fascination is rooted in his “very intelligible merits,” which give us the idea, which seems more plausible when we’re in our early twenties, that we might have done the same thing in his position. It’s an observation that must have seemed even more striking to Emerson’s audience than it does to us now. Napoleon rose from virtually nothing to become an emperor, and he emerged at a moment, just after the fall of a hereditary monarchy, in which such examples were still rare. A commoner could never hope to become a king, but every citizen could fantasize about being Napoleon. These days, when we tell our children that anyone can become president, we’re more likely to take such dreams for granted. (It’s noteworthy that Emerson delivered this lecture a decade before the election of Abraham Lincoln, who fills exactly that role in the American imagination.) As Emerson says: “If Napoleon is Europe, it is because the people whom he sways are little Napoleons.”

This is true of other forms of achievement, too. I’ve been thinking about this passage a lot recently, because it also seems like a list of the qualities that characterize a certain kind of writer, particularly one who works in nonfiction. I can’t speak for the extent to which courage enters into it, aside from the ordinary kind that is required to write anything at all—although some writers, now more than ever, display far greater courage than others. But the more you write, the more you come to value the homely virtues that Emerson catalogs here, both in yourself and in the books you read. Even fiction, which might seem to draw more on creativity and inspiration, is an act of sustained organization, and the best novels tend to be the ones that are so superbly organized that the writer can take the time to see clearly into every part. To stretch the military analogy even further, there’s a fog of war that descends on any extended writing project: it’s hard to keep both the details and the big picture in your head at once, and you don’t have time to follow up on every line of investigation. All books inevitably leave certain things undone. For a writer, personal attention and thoroughness come down to the ability to keep everything straight for long enough to develop every element exactly as far as it needs to extend. One of the attractions of a book like The Power Broker by Robert Caro is the sense that every paragraph represents the fruits of maximal thoroughness. The really funny thing is that Caro thought it would take him just nine months to write. But maybe that’s what all writers need to tell themselves before they start.

Robert Caro

There’s a place, obviously, for inspiration, insight, and other factors that can’t be reduced to mere diligence. But organization is the essential backdrop from which ideas emerge, exactly as it was for Napoleon. It may not be sufficient, but it’s certainly necessary. Our university libraries are filled with monuments to thoroughness that went nowhere, but there’s also something weirdly logical about the notion of giving a doctoral candidate the chance to spend a few years thoroughly investigating a tiny slice of knowledge that hasn’t been explored before, on the off chance that something useful might come of it. Intuition is often described as a shortcut that allows the thinker to skip the intermediate steps of an argument, which suggests to me that the opposite should also be true: a year of patiently gathering data can yield a result that a genius would get in an instant. The tradeoff may not always be worth it for any one individual, but it’s certainly worth it for society as a whole. We suffer from a shortage of geniuses, but we’ve got plenty of man-hours in our graduate schools. Both are indispensable in their own way. To some extent, thoroughness can be converted into genius, just as one currency can be exchanged for another—it’s just that the exchange rate is sometimes unfavorable. And it’s even more accurate to say that insight is the paycheck you get for the hard daily work of thoroughness. (Which just reminds me of the fact that “earning a living” as an artist is both about putting a roof over your head and about keeping yourself in a position to utilize good ideas when they come.)

And it gives me hope for my current project. John W. Campbell, of all people, put it best. On July 5, 1967, he wrote to Larry Niven: “The readers lay their forty cents on the counter to employ me to think things through for them with more depth, more detail, and more ingenuity than they can, or want to bother achieving.” This is possibly my favorite thing that Campbell ever said—although it’s important to note that it dates from a period when his thinking was hideously wrong on countless matters. A writer is somebody you hire to be thorough about something when you don’t have the time or the inclination. (Journalism amounts to a kind of outsourcing of our own efforts to remain informed about the world, which makes it all the more important to choose our sources wisely.) I’m about halfway through this book, and it’s already clear that there are plenty of other people who would be more qualified than I am to write it. My only advantage is that I’m available. I can think about this subject every day for two to three years, and I can afford to spend my time chasing down details that even a diligent writer who only touches on the topic tangentially wouldn’t be able to investigate. All writing comes down to a process of triage, and as I work, I’m aware of potential avenues that I’ll need to leave unexplored or assertions that I’ll have to take on faith, trusting that someone else will look into them one day. The most I can do is flag them and move on. There are also days when even the humdrum qualities that Emerson lists seem impossibly out of reach, and I’m confronted by the physical limits to how thorough I can be, just as I’m aware of the limits to my insight. As a writer, you hope that these limitations will cancel each other out over a long enough period of time, but there’s no way of knowing until you’re finished. And maybe that’s where the courage comes in.

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March 3, 2017 at 9:38 am

The size of writers

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Society has, at all times, the same want, namely of one sane man with adequate powers of expression to hold up each object of monomania in its right relations,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in Representative Men, a collection of seven lectures that he first delivered in 1850. He goes on to describe the situation in strikingly modern terms:

The ambitious and mercenary bring their last new mumbo-jumbo, whether tariff, Texas, railroad, Romanism, mesmerism, or California; and, by detaching the object from its relations, easily succeed in making it seen in a glare; and a multitude go mad about it, and they are not to be reproved or cured by the opposite multitude who are kept from this particular insanity by an equal frenzy on another crotchet. But let one man have the comprehensive eye that can replace this isolated prodigy in its right neighborhood and bearings—the illusion vanishes, and the returning reason of the community thanks the reason of the monitor.

The first half of this passage perfectly captures our current predicament, but the last sentence comes off as a form of wishful thinking that wasn’t true even when Emerson wrote it. The influence of “one sane man,” even if we assume that he exists, can feel meaningless compared to the power of the mob. Writers like to think that their work puts the world in perspective, but they rarely reach anyone outside their own small circle, and even if they change minds, it’s usually only to nudge them in the direction that they were already going.

I read Emerson’s essay on Inauguration Day, when the influence of responsible writers seemed weaker than ever before. In the era of alternative facts, of a free press that is dismissed as the opposition party, and of countless eloquent voices for reason whose arguments ultimately came to nothing, the stock of the public intellectual is at a historic low. But as Emerson reminds us, this isn’t anything new:

The scholar is the man of the ages, but he must also wish with other men to stand well with his contemporaries. But there is a certain ridicule, among superficial people, thrown on the scholars or clerisy…In this country, the emphasis of conversation and of public opinion commends the practical man; and the solid portion of the community is named with significant respect in every circle…Ideas are subversive of social order and comfort, and at last make a fool of the possessor. It is believed, the ordering a cargo of goods from New York to Smyrna, or the running up and down to procure a company of subscribers to set a-going five or ten thousand spindles, or the negotiations of a caucus and the practicing on the prejudices and facility of country people to secure their votes in November—is practical and commendable.

This certainly sounds familiar. There’s something inescapably American about the cult of big business and its corresponding contempt for ideas. And plenty of us have been left with the uncomfortable feeling that maybe ideas do “make a fool of the possessor,” at least when we try to find evidence to the contrary.

Goethe in the Roman Campagna by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein

The observations that I’ve quoted appear in Emerson’s essay on Goethe, whom he holds up as the epitome of the writer. This is a revealing choice in itself. Goethe was the most practical of artists: Emerson calls him “the philosopher of this multiplicity; hundred-handed, Argus-eyed, able and happy to cope with [the] rolling miscellany of facts and sciences, and by his own versatility to dispose of them with ease…None was so fit to live, or more heartily enjoyed the game.” His cultural presence is diminished these days, but he remains a hugely seductive role model for young people who feel torn between a life in the world and a life of the mind. Goethe was a poet, a novelist, a scientist, a dramatist, and a productive figure in public life, overseeing the construction of mines and running the theater in Weimar. He may have been the most naturally brilliant man who ever lived—he placed first in the psychologist Lewis Terman’s controversial ranking of historical figures by intelligence—and he used his gifts to become the kind of person at forty that everyone dreams of being at twenty. A bright college graduate, brimming with unrealized potential, is a sort of larval Goethe, a Hamlet in embryo, but life has a way of closing off most of those avenues. Goethe, almost uniquely, developed every piece of himself to its fullest. But it’s worth remembering that we only remember his work as a privy councillor because he also happened to write Faust, and he was lucky to be a big fish in a small pond. As Emerson puts it: “He lived in a small town, in a petty state, in a defeated state, and in a time when Germany played no such leading part in the world’s affairs as to swell the bosom of her sons with any metropolitan pride.”

Emerson pretends to be surprised by this fact, but in reality, it’s only in such provincial surroundings that an author can hope to pass as a public figure. In Weimar, Goethe could do everything; in London or Paris, faced with competition from talented men who had nothing on their minds but practical matters, he would have had to be content with being a great writer. Any thinking human being feels small in comparison to Goethe, but when we remember how small he was compared with the world in which he lived, we start to realize that our smallness is all we have in common. At a moment when so many of us feel helpless, we should pay attention to Emerson when he writes: “Goethe teaches courage, and the equivalence of all times; that the disadvantages of any epoch exist only to the faint-hearted. Genius hovers with his sunshine and music close by the darkest and deafest eras.” And he also identifies Goethe’s only true weakness, which was his unwillingness to grasp the limits of action itself:

Mankind have such a deep stake in inward illumination, that there is much to be said by the hermit or monk in defense of his life of thought and prayer. A certain partiality, a headiness and loss of balance, is the tax which all action must pay. Act, if you like—but you do it at your peril. Men’s actions are too strong for them. Show me a man who has acted and who has not been the victim and slave of his action. What they have done commits and enforces them to do the same again. The first act, which was to be an experiment, becomes a sacrament.

Goethe lived a life of extraordinary productivity, but we only care about him—or even Weimar itself—because of what he accomplished when he was alone in his room. And at a time in which blunt, showy gestures and Faustian bargains seem to be valued over the tiny acts of secret courage that writing demands, we should take Emerson’s conclusion to heart: “The measure of action is the sentiment from which it proceeds. The greatest action may easily be one of the most private circumstance.”

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February 1, 2017 at 10:09 am

Napoleon and the art of the next

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Napoleon Bonaparte

History is full, down to this day, of the imbecility of kings and governors. They are a class of persons much to be pitied, for they know not what they should do. The weavers strike for bread, and the king and his ministers, knowing not what to do, meet them with bayonets. But Napoleon understood his business. Here was a man who in each moment and emergency knew what to do next. It is an immense comfort and refreshment to the spirits, not only of kings, but of citizens. Few men have any next; they live from hand to mouth, without plan, and are ever at the end of their line, and after each action wait for an impulse from abroad. Napoleon had been the first man of the world, if his ends had been purely public. As he is, he inspires confidence and vigor by the extraordinary unity of his action…

We can not, in the universal imbecility, indecision and indolence of men, sufficiently congratulate ourselves on this strong and ready actor, who took occasion by the beard, and showed us how much may be accomplished by the mere force of such virtues as all men possess in less degrees; namely, by punctuality, by personal attention, by courage and thoroughness.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Napoleon, or The Man of the World”

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October 2, 2016 at 7:30 am

Astounding Stories #11: The Moon is Hell

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The Moon is Hell

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

On May 11, 1953, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell wrote a long letter to his stepmother Helen. He never mailed it, but it was preserved among his papers, and it’s a document of immense biographical interest. Campbell, who was chafing under what he saw as his father’s lack of appreciation for what he had achieved in his career, spent a full page listing his professional accomplishments, and he concluded:

My current plans are long-range; when I took over Astounding seventeen years ago, my plans were long range, too…The next step which literature must take is to develop a novel-like story in which the story shows the development of a culture through various experiences…Science fiction is now trying to develop the presentation techniques whereby an individual can understand and appreciate the developmental processes affecting entire cultures. Naturally, we haven’t completed the development of these techniques yet, and we have, in consequence, a rather patchy, unsuccessful literature. It’s like the first automobiles; they were less reliable, rougher riding, noisier, and smellier than the horse and buggy.

But their developmental stage was well worth the effort; their inadequacies in the early days were properly forgiven, but also properly recognized as inadequacies.

When I read these lines, I found myself thinking of Campbell’s novel The Moon is Hell, which first appeared in book form in 1951. It’s best remembered now as one of the very few stories that Campbell published in the three decades after he became the editor of Astounding Science Fiction. By all indications, it’s an apprentice work that was first written sometime in the early thirties, but it appears to have been carefully revised by its author before publication—the writing is far smoother and more accomplished than anything else Campbell was putting out at that stage. And the timing of its release was significant in itself. Science fiction was in a transitional moment: the impact of dianetics was just beginning to be felt, ambitious new competitors were appearing on newsstands, and authors like Heinlein were making their big push into the mainstream. For Campbell, it must have seemed like a good time for a statement of purpose, which is what The Moon is Hell really is—the quintessential hard science fiction novel, built from the ground up from first principles. As the author P. Schuyler Miller wrote in his review in Astounding:

Surely everyone who has done any science fiction has dreamed of writing a realistic story of the first men on another world, worked out with an absolute minimum of hokum—no green princesses, no ruins of alien civilizations, no hostile high priests. The ultimate would be the story of the first men on the Moon—a world without air, without life, or the possibility of life.

John W. Campbell, Jr.

And that’s exactly what Campbell gives us here. The Moon is Hell is told in the form of a journal kept by Dr. Thomas Ridgley Duncan, a physicist and second in command of the first mission to the dark side of the Moon. After the expedition’s relief ship crashes on landing, the astronauts are left stranded with no way to contact Earth; a steadily diminishing supply of food, air, and water; and the knowledge that it will be months before anyone back home realizes that they need to be rescued. They set to work with admirable discipline to obtain the necessities of life from the rocks around them, extracting hydrogen and oxygen from gypsum, developing new techniques for synthesizing nutrients, building generators and engines, turning the starch in their clothes and books into bread, and finally digging out an entire settlement underground, complete with a library and swimming pool. (Much of the plot anticipates The Martian in its determination to science the shit out of the situation.) The diary format allows Campbell to deliver all of this material unencumbered by any interruptions: long sections of it read like a briefing or an extract from a textbook. It’s a novel written by a chemist for other chemists, posing a series of ingenious scientific problems and solutions, and it has enough good ideas to fuel a dozen hard science fiction stories. Reading it, I was reminded of the joke title of the book on which the three protagonists are working in Foucault’s Pendulum: The Wonderful Adventure of Metals. Because although there are no recognizable characters in sight, this is a calculated choice—the real hero is chemistry itself.

The result, to be honest, can be pretty hard going, and although it gets better toward the end, the pages don’t exactly fly by. I found myself admiring each paragraph while vaguely dreading the next: it’s a relatively short novel, but it seems very long. (In its original edition, it was published together with The Elder Gods, a story that Campbell wrote on assignment for Unknown—its original author, Arthur J. Burks, had failed to deliver a publishable manuscript—that provides a much more engaging display of his talents.) But it’s also exactly the novel that Campbell wanted to publish. It provides as perfect a summation as you could want of its author’s strengths and limitations, as well as those of hard science fiction as a whole. This isn’t a narrative about individuals, but about the scientific method itself, and it succeeds in some respects in his goal of telling a story about a culture: it’s implied that the stranded astronauts are laying the foundations for a permanent presence in space. And although it doesn’t work as a novel by any conventional standard, it’s indispensable as a sort of baseline. It’s as if Campbell decided to stake out the limits of hard science fiction as an example to his readers and writers: this is a novel that nobody ought to imitate, but which provides an essential reference point by which all efforts in that vein can be judged. And it’s no accident that it was published at a moment when Campbell was about to push into dianetics, psionics, and fringe science, as if he had already gone as far in the other direction as he possibly could. As Emerson said of Shakespeare, Campbell wanted to plant the standard of humanity “some furlongs forward into chaos,” but first, he had to give us an ideal of order, even if it was hell to read.

Multiple personalities

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Harry Nilsson

When I was in my early twenties, I was astonished to learn that “One,” “Coconut,” the soundtrack to The Point, and “He Needs Me”—as sung by Shelley Duvall in Popeye and, much later, in Punch-Drunk Love—were all written by the same man, who also sang “Everybody’s Talkin'” from Midnight Cowboy. (This doesn’t even cover “Without You” or “Jump Into the Fire,” which I discovered only later, and it also ignores some of the weirder detours in Harry Nilsson’s huge discography.) At the time, I was reminded of Homer Simpson’s response when Lisa told him that bacon, ham, and pork chops all came from the same animal: “Yeah, right, Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.” Which is exactly what Nilsson was. But it’s also the kind of diversity that arises from decades of productive, idiosyncratic work. Nilsson was a facile songwriter with a lot of tricks up his sleeve, as he notes in an interview in the book Songwriters on Songwriting:

Most [songs] I find you can write in less time than it takes to sing them. The concept, if there is a concept, or the hook, is all you’re concerned with. Because you know you can go back and fill in the pieces. If you get a front line and a punch line, it’s a question of just filling in the missing bits.

And given Nilsson’s diverse, prolific output, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I encountered him in so many different guises before realizing that they were all aspects of a single creative personality.

Of course, not every career generates this kind of enticing randomness. Nilsson occupied a curious position for much of his life, stuck somewhere halfway between superstardom and seclusion, and it freed him to make a long series of odd, peculiar choices. When other artists end up in the same position, it’s often less by choice than by necessity. When you look at the résumé of a veteran supporting actor or working writing, you usually find that they resist easy categorizations, since each credit resulted from a confluence of circumstances that may never be repeated. A glance at the filmography of any character actor inspires moment after moment of recognition, as you realize, for instance, that the same guy who played Mr. Noodle on Sesame Street was also the dad in Rachel Getting Married and Tars in Interstellar. A few artists have the luxury of shaping careers that seem all of a piece, but others aren’t all that interested in it, or find that their body of work is determined more by external factors. Most actors aren’t in a position to turn down a paycheck, and learning how and why they took one role and not another is part of what makes Will Harris’s A.V. Club interviews in “Random Roles” so fascinating. When you’re at the constant mercy of trends and casting agents, you can end up with a career that looks like it should belong to three different people. And as someone like Matthew McConaughey can tell you, that goes for stars as well.

Jessica Alba

It’s particularly true of actresses. I’ve spoken here before of the starlet’s dilemma, in which young actresses are required to balance the needs of extending their shelf life as ingenues for a few more seasons with the very different set of choices required to sustain a career over decades. In many cases, the decisions that make sense now, like engaging in cosmetic surgery, can come back to haunt them later, but the pressure to extend their prime earning years is immense, and it’s no surprise that few manage to navigate the pitfalls that Hollywood presents. I was reminded of this while leafing—never mind why—through the latest issue of Allure, which features Jessica Alba on its cover. Alba has recently begun a second act as the head of her own consumer goods company, and she seems far happier and more satisfied in that role than she ever was as an actress: she admits that she tried to be what everyone else wanted her to be, and she accepted roles and made choices without a larger plan in mind. The result, sadly, was a career without shape or character, determined by an industry that could never decide whether Alba was best suited for comedy, romance, or action. I don’t think any of her movies will still be watched twenty years from now, and I expect that we’ll be surprised one day to remember that the founder of the Honest Company was also a movie star, in the way it amuses us to reflect that Martha Stewart used to be a model.

So how do you end up with a career more like Nilsson’s and less like Alba’s, given countless uncontrollable factors that can govern a life in the arts? You can begin, perhaps, by remembering like an artist, like any human being, will play many roles, and not all of them are going to be consistent. When you look back at what you’ve done, it can be hard to find any particular shape, aside from what was determined by the needs of the moment, and it may even be difficult to recognize the person who thought that a particular project was a good idea—if you had any choice in the matter at all. (When I look at my own career, I find that it divides neatly in two, with one half in science fiction and the other in suspense, with no overlap between them whatsoever, a situation that was created almost entirely by the demands of the market.) But if you need to wear multiple hats, or even multiple personalities, you can at least strive to make all of them interesting. Consistency, as Emerson puts it, is the hobgoblin of little minds, and it’s an equally elusive goal in the arts: the only way to be consistent is to be dependably mediocre. The life you get by staying true to yourself in the face of external pressure will be more interesting than the one that results from a perfect plan. It can even be easier to have two careers than one. And if you try too hard to make everything fit into a single frame, you might find that one is the loneliest number.

Written by nevalalee

September 11, 2015 at 10:40 am

“Pretty clever!”

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The Simpsons episode "Hurricane Neddy"

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What pop-culture concepts have you found to be ripe for everyday use?”

A few years ago, my wife and I went on a trip to Peru and Bolivia. It was meant as one last stab at adventure travel before kids—which we knew would soon figure in our future—made that kind of vacation impossible, and we’d planned an ambitious itinerary: Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, the salt flats of Uyuni. As soon as we landed in Cuzco, though, I was felled by a bout of altitude sickness that made me wonder if we’d have to cancel the whole thing. A few pills and a day of acclimation made me feel stable enough to proceed, but I never got entirely used to it, and before long, I found myself hiking up a hillside in the Lares Valley, my heart jackhammering in my chest like an animal that was trying to escape. To save face, I’d periodically pause on the trail to look around, as if to take in the view, when I was just trying to get my pulse under control. But what got me through it, weirdly, was the thought of Frodo and Samwise slogging their way toward Mount Doom: if a couple of hobbits could do it, then I could climb this hill, too. It was an image to which I clung for the rest of the way, and the fantasy that I was heading toward Mordor sustained me to the top. And later, when I confessed this to my wife, she only smiled and said: “Yeah. I was thinking of the Von Trapp family.”

We relate to pop culture in all kinds of complicated ways, but one of the most curious aspects of that dynamic is how it can motivate us to become slightly better versions of ourselves, even if such exemplars aren’t entirely realistic. (The real Von Trapps didn’t hike over the mountains into Switzerland: they took a train.) Yesterday, Patrick Stewart showed up on Reddit to answer some questions, and if there was one common thread to the comments, it was that Jean-Luc Picard had been a role model, and almost a surrogate father, for many viewers as they were growing up. Just as fairy tales, with their fantasies of power and destiny, allow children to come to terms with their physical vulnerability as they risk a greater engagement with the world, the heroes we admire in books and movies give us an ideal toward which to aspire. As long as we’re aware that complete success is probably unattainable—”We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” as Emerson said—I don’t see anything wrong with this. And such comparisons often cross our minds at the least dignified moments. Whenever I’m struggling to open a package, an image flits through my mind of Daniel Craig as James Bond, and I think to myself: “Bond wouldn’t have trouble opening a bag of pretzels, would he?” It doesn’t make what I’m doing any less annoying, but it usually inspires me to do something marginally more decisive, like getting a pair of scissors.

The Sound of Music

Pop culture can also provide ways of seeing our own lives from a new perspective, often by putting words to concepts and emotions that we couldn’t articulate before. At its highest level, it can take the form of the recognition that many readers feel when encountering an author like Proust or Montaigne: for long stretches, it feels eerily like we’re reading about ourselves. And a show like Seinfeld has added countless terms to our shared vocabulary of ideas, even if it was by accident, with the writers as surprised as anyone else by what struck a nerve. As writer Peter Mehlman says:

Every line was written just to be funny and to further the plot. But, actually, there was one time that I did think that a certain phrase would become popular. And I was completely wrong. In the “Yada Yada” episode, I really thought it was going to be the “antidentite” line that was going to be the big phrase, and it was not. That line went: “If this wasn’t my son’s wedding day, I’d knock your teeth out, you antidentite bastard.” The man who said it was a dentist. And no one remembers that phrase; it’s the “yada yada yada” line that everyone remembers.

Sometimes a free-floating line will just snag onto an existing feeling and crystalize it, and along with Seinfeld, The Simpsons has been responsible for more such epiphanies than any other series. Elsewhere, I’ve compared the repository of Simpsons quotes that we all seem to carry in our heads to the metaphorical language that Picard encountered in “Darmok,” and there’s no question that it influences the way many of us think about ourselves.

Take “Hurricane Neddy,” which first aired during the show’s eighth season. It probably wouldn’t even make it onto a list of my fifty favorite episodes, but there’s one particular line from it that has been rattling around in my brain ever since. After a hurricane destroys Flanders’s house, the neighborhood joins forces to rebuild it, only to do a spectacularly crappy job. It all leads to the following exchange:

Ned: “The floor feels a little gritty here.”
Moe: “Yeah, we ran out of floorboards there, so we painted the dirt. Pretty clever!”

Those last two words, which Moe delivers with a nudge to Ned’s ribs and an air of self-satisfaction, are ones that I’ve never forgotten. At least once a week, I’ll say to myself, in Moe’s voice: “Pretty clever!” The reason, as far as I can pinpoint it, is that I’m working in a field that calls for me to be “clever” on a regular basis, whether it’s solving a narrative problem, coming up with a twist for a short story, or just figuring out a capper for a blog post. Not all of these ideas are equally clever, and many of them fall into the category of what Frederik Pohl calls “monkey tricks.” But Moe’s delivery, which is so delighted with itself, reminds me both of how ridiculous so much of it is and of the necessity of believing otherwise. Sometimes I’m just painting the dirt, but I couldn’t go on if I wasn’t sort of pleased by it. And if I had to sum up my feelings for my life’s work, for better or worse, it would sound a lot like “Pretty clever!”

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August 21, 2015 at 8:34 am

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July 17, 2015 at 7:30 am

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April 26, 2013 at 7:30 am

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October 26, 2012 at 7:30 am

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What do you do with twenty-five books?

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Yesterday, I finally received the promised delivery of twenty-five contractual copies of The Icon Thief, which took me overnight from regarding my few author’s copies as the most precious things in the world to having more copies of my book than I’ll ever need. I’m not alone in this, of course: every author I’ve ever met has had a box or two of his or her own books on hand, or a whole bookcase taken up with that single title, like the Da Vinci Code shelf at your local thrift store. (As David Thomson says of his insane, widely derided, and oddly compelling study of Nicole Kidman: “I have fortress walls made of it.” Similarly, the biographer Michael Holroyd describes seeing “a long tall corridor that had been built entirely out of unsold copies of my books,” which he calls “an impressive, an undeniable spectacle.”)

So what do authors do with their own books? Ideally, if you’re of a certain temperament, you want to end up with a library like that of Isaac Asimov, who initially kept all the editions of his books, including translations, but finally ran out of room for anything but the English-language originals (and had to throw away the non-Asimov pages from magazines in which his work appeared). All the same, there’s a limit to the amount of space you have for your own work, at least until you can sell all of it to the University of Texas. Any prolific author will inevitably end up with more books than he needs, and may be tempted to shout to his publisher, like James Thurber in his story “File and Forget”: “I don’t want any more copies of my book. I don’t want any more copies of my book. I don’t want any more copies of my book.”

Of course, the best thing to do with spare copies of one’s own book is to send them around to various influential readers. Even the greatest authors have done this, as we see in a letter by Charles Darwin to Thomas Huxley:

Can you tell me of any good and speculative foreigners to whom it would be worth while to send copies of my book, on the ‘Origin of Species’?…I should like to send a few copies about, but how many I can afford I know not yet till I hear what price Murray affixes.

Emerson, among countless others, made sure that copies of his books were sent to all the important New York editors, listing each one by name, while Aleister Crowley eventually took over the job of selling the unsold copies of his books himself, and indignantly noted, against the rumors circulating in London, that his decision to leave his publisher “had nothing at all to do with the strangling of any woman.” (I know that this last story is a little off-topic, but I couldn’t resist.)

As for my own copies, I’ll keep a few around the house, one to read, one for the archives in a mylar bag, and a couple of spares for emergencies. I owe copies to a number of people thanked in the acknowledgments, including those who kindly read earlier versions of the novel. As for the rest, they’ll probably end up in various hands, maybe even yours, if I ever get around to figuring out some kind of giveaway. (But don’t let that stop you from buying your own copy, just in case.) In the meantime, though, it’s nice to see them all lined up in one place, before they wander off to make their way in the world, and in this respect, if no other, I feel a little like Thomas Wolfe, who stared at copies of his first book in a store window so intently that somebody called the police.

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February 16, 2012 at 10:37 am

Quote of the Day

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July 29, 2011 at 7:53 am

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Let us now forget famous men

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“More books have been written about [Lincoln] than any figure in human history, with the possible exception of Jesus Christ.”

The photo above was taken three years ago by my then girlfriend, now wife, at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. I didn’t get to go, alas—I was living in New York at the time—but the museum, as I was endlessly informed over the next few days, is tons of fun, with elaborate dioramas of the White House, Ford’s Theater, and other family-friendly attractions, including life-size figures of the entire Lincoln clan. When I saw the text of the plaque above, though, I was outraged, for reasons that might seem hard to understand at first. Here’s my verbatim response, at least as well as I can remember: “What about Napoleon?” I demanded. “What about Napoleon?”

You see, I like Napoleon. I like him a lot. Twenty or so books about Napoleon line my shelves, and I’m always on the lookout for more, the older and more adulatory, the better. Why? Emerson’s essay from Representative Men provides a decent starting point, but the short answer is that Napoleon is the most fascinating person I know in world history—”among the most perceptive, penetrating, retentive, and logical minds ever seen in one who was predominantly a man of action,” as Will Durant nicely puts it. He’s the foremost figure of Western history, a man who, for all his flaws, embodies more than any other individual the limits of human energy, intelligence, and ambition. And I was pretty sure that more books had been written about him than anyone else, including Lincoln.

And yet here’s the thing. Napoleon came from almost nothing, and became emperor of Europe. At his coronation, he took the crown out of the Pope’s hands and placed it on his own head. He was, by almost any measure, the most purely productive human being who ever lived. But these days, all that most people could say about Napoleon, if they recognized the name at all, was that he was a short little guy with a funny hat. (Not that short, by the way: he was 5 feet, 7 inches, or roughly the height of Tom Cruise.) That’s what time does: it reduces even the most monumental figures into caricatures of themselves. Two centuries is all it took to turn the leading light of Western civilization to Ian Holm in Time Bandits. It will happen to Lincoln, too, if it hasn’t already happened.

Napoleon, of course, isn’t alone. I was recently reminded of this whole kerfuffle while reading Dean Simonton’s Origins of Genius, inspired by the Malcolm Gladwell article I mentioned last week. Simonton mentions the work of the psychologist James McKeen Cattell, who, back in 1903, made one of the first systematic attempts to rank the thousand most eminent men in history—there were hardly any women on his list—by toting up mentions in major biographical dictionaries and tabulating the results. Here’s his top hundred:

Napoleon, Shakespeare, Mohammed, Voltaire, Bacon, Aristotle, Goethe, Julius Caesar, Luther, Plato, Napoleon III, Burke, Homer, Newton, Cicero, Milton, Alexander the Great, Pitt, Washington, Augustus, Wellington, Raphael, Descartes, Columbus, Confucius, Penn, Scott, Michelangelo, Socrates, Byron, Cromwell, Gautama, Kant, Leibnitz, Locke, Demosthenes, Mary Stuart [the only woman on the list], Calvin, Moliere, Lincoln, Louis Philippe, Dante, Rousseau, Nero, Franklin, Galileo, Johnson, Robespierre, Frederick the Great, Aurelius, Hegel, Petrarch, Horace, Charles V (Germany), Mirabeau, Erasmus, Virgil, Hume, Guizot, Gibbon, Pascal, Bossuet, Hobbes, Swift, Thiers, Louis XIV, Wordsworth, Louis XVI, Nelson, Henry VIII, Addison, Thucydides, Fox, Racine, Schiller, Henry IV (France), W. Herschel, Tasso, Jefferson, Ptolemy, Claudius, Augustine, Pope, Machiavelli, Swedenborg, Philip II, Leonardo da Vinci, George III, Julian, Pythagoras, Macaulay, Rubens, Burns, Mozart, Humboldt, Comte, Cousin, Cuvier, Justinian, Euripides, Camoens.

Now, much of this list remains unimpeachable. The top ten, in particular, would presumably be very similar today, though Bacon would probably give place to Newton, and we’d need to find room for Einstein and, yes, Lincoln. (Also, hopefully, for some women. The only other women, besides Mary Queen of Scots, to make Cattell’s top two hundred were Elizabeth and Joan of Arc, although, at this rate, it’s only a matter of time before we see Sarah Palin.) But with all due respect to my French readers, when I see names like Guizot, Bossuet, Thiers, Comte, and Cousin, among others, my only response is a blank stare. And this is coming from someone who loves Napoleon.

All in all, though, Cattell’s list reminds us how quickly even major reputations can fade. (For an even more sobering reminder, look no further than the bottom of his top thousand. Fauriel, Enfantin, Babeuf, anyone?) And I have no doubt that a contemporary list of the top hundred figures in history, like this one, will look equally strange to a reader a century from now. Just because you made the list once, it seems, doesn’t mean you’ll stay there.

“An obscure and profane life”

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[Shakespeare] was master of the revels to mankind…As long as the question is of talent and mental power, the world of men has not his equal to show. But when the question is, to life and its materials and its auxiliaries, how does he profit me?…Other admirable men have led lives in some sort of keeping with their thought; but this man, in wide contrast. Had he been less, had he reached only the common measure of great authors, of Bacon, Milton, Tasso, Cervantes, we might leave the fact in the twilight of human fate: but that this man of men, he who gave to the science of mind a new and larger subject than had ever existed, and planted the standard of humanity some furlongs forward into Chaos,—that he should not be wise for himself;—it must even go into the world’s history that the best poet led an obscure and profane life, using his genius for the public amusement.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Representative Men

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May 22, 2011 at 9:56 am

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January 7, 2011 at 12:00 am

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