Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Road to Foundation

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As I’ve recounted here before, on August 1, 1941, Isaac Asimov was riding the subway to John W. Campbell’s office in New York when the history of science fiction changed forever. In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, Asimov, who was twenty-one at the time, recalls the moment at which he first conceived of what became the Foundation series:

On the way down I racked my brain for a story idea. Failing, I tried a device I sometimes used. I opened a book at random and then tried free association, beginning with whatever I saw. The book I had with me was a collection of the Gilbert and Sullivan plays. I opened it to Iolanthe—to the picture of the Fairy Queen throwing herself at the feet of Private Willis, the sentry. Thinking of sentries, I thought of soldiers, of military empires, of the Roman Empire—of the Galactic Empire—aha!

For reasons that I’ll discuss below, I’m reasonably sure that the illustration that Asimov describes is the one reproduced above, which was drawn by the lyricist W.S. Gilbert himself. And what strikes me the most about this anecdote now is the fact that Asimov looked at this particular picture, ignored the Fairy Queen entirely, and turned it into a series in which no women of any consequence would appear for years. To make a slightly facetious comparison, if I were a therapist giving Asimov the Thematic Apperception Test, in which the subject is asked to look at a picture and make up a story about it, this is the point at which I would sit up slightly in my chair.

Recently, it occurred to me to try to figure out which book Asimov was carrying on the train that day, if only because it’s interesting to dig into what a writer might have been reading at a given moment. The great model here is John Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu, which obsessively connects the imagery of “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to the travel narratives that Samuel Coleridge was studying at the time. Asimov, it’s worth noting, was skeptical of Lowes’s approach:

I tried reading the book in my youth, but gave up. It could only interest another Coleridge scholar. Besides, I saw no point to it. Granted that the phrases already existed scattered through a dozen books, they existed for everybody. It was only Coleridge who thought of putting them together, with the necessary modifications, to form one of the great poems of the English language. Coleridge might not have been a hundred percent original but he was original enough to make the poem a work of genius.

But this kind of search can be diverting in itself, and it didn’t take me long to conclude that Asimov’s book was likely to have been Plays and Poems of W.S. Gilbert, which was published by Random House in 1932. As far as I can tell, it’s one of only two books available at the time that included both the lyrics to Iolanthe and the illustrations by Gilbert, and it would have been easy to find. (The other is a book titled Authentic Libretti of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas, which was published a few years later to coincide with a tour by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and it doesn’t look like something that Asimov would have brought on the subway.)

The edition, as it happens, is available online for free, and it can be amusing to left through it while keeping the young Asimov in mind. This isn’t literary criticism, exactly, but a kind of scholarly reverie, and it’s valuable primarily for the chain of associations that it evokes. The book opens with a lengthy introduction by Deems Taylor, a music critic and occasional member of the Algonquin Round Table, and I’d like to think that Asimov would have seen aspects of himself in it. For example, here’s Taylor on Gilbert’s early years as a writer:

For a time, his writings, although voluminous, attracted no attention whatsoever. He tried everything—reporting, dramatic criticism, editorials, weekly news letters to provincial papers, political polemics, essays—all the forms of quotidian literature that flow from the pen of any young person who vaguely “wants to write” (a sentence that, appropriately, has no object). The results were financially negligible. Nor did he have the meagre satisfaction of knowing that there were those who were watching him, believing in him. Nobody was watching a young journalistic hack who was no different from scores of his fellows except that he combined a gift for saying cutting things with a complete inability to refrain from saying them.

This sounds a lot like Asimov in the days when he was trying to break into Astounding, and as I thought more about Gilbert and Sullivan themselves, who brought out the best in each other, I saw them for the first time as shadows of Asimov and Campbell in the thirties, of whose partnership the former once wrote: “Campbell and I, in those first three years of my writing career—the crucial and formative ones—were a symbiotic organism.”

But the section that intrigues me the most comes near the end of the introduction. Speaking fondly of the characters of HMS Pinafore, The Mikado and all the rest, Taylor writes:

As this gay, silly, endearing crew skip upon the stage, the sum of all that they say is always the same thing; and it is a romantic thing: That the light of pure reason casts grotesque shadows; that a world in which there is nothing but the letter of the law, and the logical conclusion, and the inevitable deduction, and the axiomatic fact, and the rational course of conduct, is, in the last account, a ridiculous one. Looking at their world, in which there is everything but the truth that lies beyond logic, we perceive that it is, in more ways than one, an impossible world.

It’s hard for me to read this now without reflecting that Asimov was just moments away, as he rode the train to Campbell’s office, from conceiving nothing less than “a world in which there is nothing but the letter of the law, and the logical conclusion, and the inevitable deduction, and the axiomatic fact, and the rational course of conduct,” which would end up dominating much of the rest of his life. And while I’m no expert on Gilbert and Sullivan, viewing the Foundation series through that lens seems like a promising approach. Asimov, as I’ve noted elsewhere, never seems to have been particularly interested in psychohistory, which was mostly Campbell’s invention, and he was more conscious of its limitations than many of its fans are. (In The End of Eternity, Asimov describes a similar group of scientists as a collection of “psychopaths.”) And what Taylor writes of these operettas applies just as well to many of the stories that they inspired: “The sky has cleared, the problems solve themselves, and everything has suddenly turned out all right. Every fundamental axiom of human motive and conduct has been outraged, and we are delighted.”

Quote of the Day

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This power [of the poet], first put in action by the will and understanding, and retained under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed, control…reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order; judgement ever awake and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner to the matter; and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria

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October 18, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Poetry is certainly something more than good sense, but it must be good sense, at all events; just as a palace is more than a house, but it must be a house.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Table Talk

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May 15, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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July 8, 2015 at 7:30 am

The real thing

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It's the real thing

I don’t think there’s anything better in this world than an icy bottle of Mexican Coke, made with real sugar, with a slice of lemon. My wife and I have recently taken to picking up a six-pack of it whenever we visit our local grocery store, and for the past few weeks, it’s been my afternoon treat—although you have to do it right. The lemon is essential, and the bottle needs to be as cold as possible, which means ten minutes or so in the freezer before I pop the cap. The other day, though, I put one in the freezer and promptly forgot about it for hours. When I finally retrieved it, anxious at the thought of losing something so precious, I found, to my surprise, that the Coke was still liquid, at least at first glance. As soon as I added the lemon, however, the entire bottle nucleated at once, transforming its contents before my eyes into something brown, slushy, and delicious. (I’m not the first person to observe this phenomenon, of course: apparently there are vending machines in Hong Kong that sell bottles of supercooled Coke, and you can read more about the science behind it here.)

And because this is how my mind works, and also because I wanted an excuse to talk about it on this blog, I was struck by how much this resembled the process in which an idea takes root in the brain. If you’re a writer, you’ve felt it before: the moment when the seed crystal of a single image or concept rockets through your imagination, altering everything it touches, and transforms a pool of unrelated thoughts into something crystalline and structured. I’ve spoken about this before in relation to my own work. When I was researching The Icon Thief, I started with the vague desire to write a novel about the art world, but it wasn’t until I saw a picture of Duchamp’s Étant Donnés that the rest locked into place: at once, the story had its central image, the engine that would drive the narrative all the way to its ending. The same was true of the Dyatlov Pass incident in City of Exiles and the Shambhala story in Eternal Empire. In each case, I immediately knew what I’d found, and within seconds, a shapeless and unformed web of impressions became a structure on which I could build something substantial.

Vending machine of supercooled Coke

But you need to be ready for it. Coke needs to be supercooled first before it can freeze in an instant, and a long period of preparation is equally necessary for an idea to take hold. I don’t think I would have been nearly as struck by Étant Donnés, at least not as the basis for a novel, if I hadn’t already saturated myself for weeks with books and articles on art. The ideas for the next two books had the ground prepared for them by their predecessor: a world of characters and potential relationships was there already, waiting to be catalyzed. Habit, as I’ve said before, is just a way of staying in practice—and of physically being at the keyboard—while you wait for inspiration to strike, and that’s as true of the search for ideas as for the writing process itself. Even if you don’t have a particular project in mind, it’s necessary to think as much as possible like a novelist as you go about your daily business: looking for connections, images, moments of behavior that might be incorporated into something more. This requires taking good notes, and also supercooling your mind into that state of receptivity without which even the best idea can settle briefly into place without triggering a larger reaction.

Of course, some ideas are like ice-nine; if you touch them even lightly, the reaction occurs instantaneously. It happened to Peter Benchley, walking along the beach, when an idea occurred to him that would change the course of popular entertainment forever: “What if a shark got territorial?” But Benchley had been thinking about sharks for a long time, and he was a professional writer—not to mention the son and grandson of writers who were famous in their own right. Similarly, Samuel Coleridge dreamed of Kubla Khan’s palace only after reading about it in Purchas his Pilgrimage,  and there’s a good reason that the melody for “Yesterday” happened to drift into the dreaming mind of Paul McCartney and not some other young Liverpudian. The more we look at any case of “sudden” inspiration, the more it seems like the result of a long incubation, arising in a mind that has been prepared to receive it. The process can be a quiet, private one, unperceived even by the artist himself, as superficially dormant as that bottle of Coke in the freezer. But once you feel it, when you’re ready, you’ll know it’s the real thing.

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October 24, 2013 at 8:46 am

How long does it take to write an epic poem?

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I should not think of devoting less than twenty years to an epic poem. Ten to collect materials and warm my mind with universal science. I would be a tolerable Mathematician, I would thoroughly know Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Optics, and Astronomy, Botany, Metallurgy, Fossilism, Chemistry, Geology, Anatomy, Medicine—then the mind of man—then the minds of men—in all Travels, Voyages and Histories. So I would spend ten years—the next five to the composition of the poem—and the five last to the correction of it. So I would write haply not unhearing of that divine and nightly whispering Voice, which speaks to mighty minds of predestinated garlands, starry and unwithering.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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August 3, 2013 at 9:50 am

John Keats on negative capability

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Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton

At once it struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

John Keats, in a letter to George and Thomas Keats

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June 2, 2013 at 9:50 am

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