Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Scientology

The science of survival

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When I heard that Christopher McQuarrie had been hired to write and direct a second movie in the Mission: Impossible series, my initial reaction, curiously enough, was disappointment. I loved Rogue Nation, but I’ve always liked the way in which the franchise reinvents itself with every installment, and it was a little strange to contemplate a film that simply followed up on the characters and storylines from the previous chapter. (When I saw the trailer for Mission: Impossible—Fallout, my first thought was, “Oh, it’s a sequel.”) Now the reviews are in, and they indicate that Fallout might not just be the best of them all, but one of the greatest action movies of all time. This is a tribute to McQuarrie, of course, whom I’ve admired for decades, but the reaction also indicates that the rest of the world is catching up to a central fact about Tom Cruise himself. In the past, I’ve described him as a great producer who happens to occupy the body of a movie star—like a thetan occupying its host, perhaps—and Mission: Impossible is his unlikely masterpiece. Like one of the legendary moguls of old Hollywood, Cruise has treated it as a springboard for untapped talent (J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird), a showcase for memorable supporting performances (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paula Patton, Rebecca Ferguson), or a halfway house for gifted screenwriters who had spent years in the wilderness (Robert Towne, McQuarrie). It’s a secret studio that Cruise has built and run in plain sight, with far more skill and success than he displayed at the head of United Artists. Whether or not it’s a breakaway hit, Fallout seems to have awakened critics to the singular nature of his accomplishment. I can’t wait to see it.

Yet there’s a darker element to Cruise’s career, obviously, and I’ve never really addressed it here. There are countless possible approaches to the problem of his relationship to Scientology, but I may as well start with the video—which has been publicly available for over a decade—of Cruise accepting an award from David Miscavage. With a huge medal hanging from his neck, Cruise addresses the crowd at the podium, standing near a huge portrait of L. Ron Hubbard:

I’m really honored to be with you…Thank you for your confidence in me. I’ve personally been very privileged to see what you do to help, to protect, to serve all of us. I’ll tell you something—that I have never met a more competent, a more intelligent, a more tolerant or compassionate being outside of what I’ve experienced from LRH. And I’ve met the leaders of leaders, okay. I’ve met them all. So I say to you, sir, we are lucky to have you and thank you—and to you, L. Ron Hubbard, sir, I will take this as a half-ack. I will continue on my way. Okay, these are the times now, people. Okay, these are the times we will all remember. Were you there? What did you do? I think you know that I am there for you. And I do care so very, very, very much. So what do you say? We gonna clean this place up? Okay? Because we’re counting on you. Okay? All right? To LRH!

Apart from “half-ack,” a reference to a concept in Scientology that might count as the weirdest inside joke of all time, I’m struck the most by the offhand familiarity of “LRH.” It isn’t “Hubbard,” or “Ron,” or even “the Commodore,” but his initials. I use the same abbreviation in the notes in my book, because I need to repeat it so often, and its usage here makes it seem as if Hubbard is never far from the minds of his devotees. (In light of the upcoming movie, incidentally, it’s worth remembering that Hubbard once wrote: “Only Scientologists will be functioning in areas experiencing heavy fallout in an atomic war.”)

And given everything else that we know about Hubbard, it can seem incredible that a pulp writer from the thirties—a man who otherwise might be mentioned in the same breath, if he were lucky, as A.E. van Vogt and L. Sprague de Camp—dominates the inner life of the world’s last surviving movie star. Yet it isn’t entirely inexplicable. Aside from the details that Lawrence Wright exhaustively provides in Going Clear, I don’t have much insight into Cruise’s feelings toward Scientology, but I can venture a few observations. The first is that the church knew exactly what it had in Cruise. A desire to recruit celebrities, or their relatives, is visible in the earliest days of dianetics, starting with Hubbard’s assistants Greg Hemingway and Richard De Mille, and continuing all the way through the likes of Frank Stallone. Cruise, like John Travolta, was the real thing, and the church has spared no expense in earning and maintaining his favor. He may show a dismaying lack of interest in the welfare of the members who clean the ship on which he once celebrated his birthday, but his personal experience within the church can hardly have been anything but wonderful. The second point is a little trickier. When Cruise says that auditing changed his life, I don’t doubt it. I’ve spoken with a number of former Scientologists, and even those who are highly critical of the overall movement say that the therapy itself was frequently beneficial, which is probably true of any system that allows people to talk through their problems on a regular basis with an outwardly sympathetic listener. As John W. Campbell once wrote to the writer Eric Frank Russell: “Why, for God’s sake, do you think I thought dianetics was so important? Hell, man, because I knew it was, because I tried it, and it helped.” Or as William S. Burroughs said more succinctly: “Of course Scientology attracts all the creeps of the cosmos. You see it works.”

You could say much the same of psychoanalysis or behavioral therapy, but it certainly seems to have worked in Cruise’s case, which leads us to the most relevant point of all. If there’s one theme that I like to emphasize here, it’s that we rarely understand the reasons for our own success. We’re likely to attribute it to hard work or skill, when it might be the result of privilege or luck, and it’s easy to tell ourselves stories about cause and effect. Cruise has succeeded in life beyond all measure, and it’s no surprise that he credits it to Scientology, because this was exactly what he was told to expect. In Scientology: The Now Religion, which was published in 1970, the author George Malko recounts an interview that he had with a church member named Bob Thomas:

“When you’re clear,” Thomas said, “you’re free in the mental sense, but you want to extend your influence and power and so on.” Thus becoming an operating thetan is not merely being at cause mentally, but at cause over matter, energy, space, and time in the physical, total sense.” When I suggested that this implied that an operating thetan could levitate, rise right up into the air and hang there, Thomas sat forward in his chair and said, “Right. These are the ultimate goals that are envisioned. I’m saying that these are the ultimate things it is hoped man is capable of, if he really has those potentials, which we assume he has…That’s what’s happening in Scientology: people are finding out more and more about themselves, and the more they find out about themselves, the freer they are. And we envision no ultimate limitation on how free an individual can be. Beyond the state of clear, there are these grades of operating thetans. When you’re clear, you’re free in the mental sense, but you want to extend your influence and power as a spiritual being. And that road is a higher road which Mr. Hubbard is researching at this moment.”

When I read these words, and then watch Cruise hanging off an airplane or scaling the Burj Khalifa, they take on another resonance. Cruise may be our greatest movie star and producer—but he also acts like a man who thinks that he can fly.

Howdy and farewell

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Last night, I was a guest at the first evening of HowdyCon, the annual convention organized by the journalist and prominent Scientology critic Tony Ortega. Tony’s website, The Underground Bunker, is both the best online resource that I’ve ever seen on the subject—I’ve often used it for background and insight—and a watering hole for a passionate community that is gathering this week in Chicago. The event that I attended was an informal one, with maybe twenty people chatting in a hotel lounge, and I spent most of it talking casually with the others. But I don’t think that I’ll ever forget it. Many attendees were former Scientologists themselves or have lost family members to the church, and I quickly figured out that my time was best spent keeping my mouth shut and listening to what they had to say. Without exception, their experiences are remarkable, and they reminded me of the real stakes involved. Because I’ve been so focused on Hubbard’s early career, I sometimes find myself acting as if this were a story confined to books, faded letters, and yellowing issues of old pulp magazines, but it isn’t. It’s still happening now. And I’m grateful to Tony and everyone else for the chance to meet them all.

I would have loved to stay for the entire weekend, but I’m flying out tonight to New Orleans to attend the annual conference of the American Library Association. On Saturday at 3pm, I’ll be participating in an event with the authors Alex White (A Big Ship At the Edge of the Universe), Tessa Gratton (The Queens of Innis Lear), and Robert Jackson Bennett (Foundryside), at which I’ll be talking about Astounding and the best book that I’ve read in the last year. (I won’t reveal its title yet, but I can say that it was published nearly a quarter of a century ago and I’m only just catching up to it now. It casts an unexpected light on the art of biography, as well as being an unforgettable read in itself, and next week, I plan to write about it here in greater detail.) A few other readings and appearances for the autumn are gradually starting to fall into place, including a reading on November 18 at the Oak Park Public Library, and I’m hoping to have further announcements soon. Work on the book itself is winding down—I’m delivering my final set of corrections on Monday—and I’m slowly beginning to think about what might come next. I don’t yet know what it will be, but I have an idea or two, and I promise that you’ll hear about it here first.

Written by nevalalee

June 22, 2018 at 8:25 am

The casualty contact

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In early 1956, writing in a confidential memo intended to be seen only by members of the inner circle of the Church of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard laid out three methods for finding new recruits. The first, which he claimed to have successfully tested in Washington, D.C., was to place a newspaper ad that began: “Personal counseling. I will talk to anyone for you about anything.” Any respondents could be screened over the phone—although Hubbard cautioned against “talk[ing] to the person in such a way as to ease the problem”—and encouraged to join a weekly group therapy session. Another approach was based on a similar advertisement that was allegedly placed by Hubbard and his wife Mary Sue in Wichita toward the end of 1951. As Hubbard described it:

The exact wording of the ad was as follows: “Polio victims. A research foundation, investigating polio desires volunteers suffering from the after effects of that illness to call for examination at address.” When the people arrived usually with a phone interview first, they were immediately given about three hours of auditing…We did this for polio victims, arthritics and were about to do it for asthmatics when the surging success of the project frightened various individuals who had other plans for dianetics…The interesting hooker [sic] in this ad is that anyone suffering from a lasting illness is suffering from it so as to attract attention and bring about an examination of it. These people will go on being examined endlessly.

He concluded: “If I merely wanted a fortune out of Scientology…[I] would have continued to run this ad and run a clinic and school to care for its resultant callers.”

But perhaps the most striking—and morally questionable—proposal was one that Hubbard called “Casualty Contact,” which involved going actively after potential patients, or preclears, rather than waiting for them to take the initiative. The center of activity was again the local newspaper:

Every day in the daily papers one discovers people who have been victimized one way or the other by life. It does not much matter whether that victimizing is in the manner of mental or physical injury. It does matter that the newspapers have a full parade of oddities in terms of accident, illness and bereavement occurring at a constant parade before the eyes. The essence of “Casualty Contact” is good filing…One takes every daily paper he can get his hands on and cuts from it every story whereby he might have a preclear. He either has the address in the story itself or he gets the address as a minister from the newspaper. As speedily as possible he makes a personal call on the bereaved or injured person…He should represent himself to the person or the person’s family as a minister whose compassion was compelled by the newspaper story concerning the person. He should then enter the presence of the person and give a nominal assist, leave his card which states exactly where church services are held every Sunday.

And the part that really catches my eye is the statement that “it does not much matter” whether the target’s suffering is mental or physical. As long as it leaves a person vulnerable to an approach from the church, it can and should be exploited.

I was reminded of this after reading an excerpt from the novelist Porochista Khakpour’s new memoir Sick, which chronicles her experiences with Lyme disease. At one point, after her family and friends continue to doubt that she’s suffering from anything at all, she contacts a drug treatment program on the advice of a friend:

I called them and I got the founder, who immediately looked me up and treated me as a VIP. She kept assuring me, “You know, we handle quite a lot of celebrities here so you’ll fit right in with us.” They sent me their supplements—whey powder and sour cherry juice and all sorts of other natural products that were said to have superpowers, at very high prices—and gave me a daily schedule and told me I needed to call them all the time and stay in close touch for support and medial monitoring. I was suddenly talking to a network of doctors all over the country, who were giving me all sorts of advice without seeing me…They also sent me their book, their founder’s self-published memoir. I read through it, inspired, but I started to find some things familiar. It reminded me of snippets I’d heard about Scientology and all the emphasis on purity and detox and drug-free lifestyles started to click for me. I realized that they might all be Scientologists—that all through it were codes and analogies that pointed to Scientology and that certainly an anti-meds group might be linked to Scientology.

Khakpour finally confronted the founder, who responded over the phone: “It’s really inappropriate to ask about this. I want you to think about why you are asking, why you’d bother me with this.” The founder hung up, and Khakpour never heard from her again—although she still can’t get off the group’s mailing list.

Based on publicly available information, it isn’t whether the organization in question is truly affiliated with Scientology, but their methods certainly seem familiar, along with the needs that they subtly aim to fulfill. Just before she contacts them, Khakpour finds herself wondering: “Where to find community, my people?” The need for human contact, or simply to be believed, can render us vulnerable to what the critic Lidija Haas calls “quack treatments,” or to even more insidious approaches. As I read Khakpour’s account, I reflected that if Hubbard were still alive today, he might recommend that the church actively seek out patients who had been diagnosed with Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and other poorly understood medical conditions—and I may have been on to something. In a post at The Underground Bunker, the journalist Rod Keller profiles one of the few known medical doctors who is also openly a member of the church, noting that his practice is apparently “devoted to the treatment of Lyme disease, or more specifically, chronic Lyme disease.” Even more remarkable is a recent study at the University of Albany that examined the effect of Hubbard’s “detoxification” treatment on Gulf War Syndrome, which shares many characteristics with the conditions that I’ve listed above. (It’s associated with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, and it was long the object of skepticism as to whether it existed at all. The treatment, which consists of saunas, exercise, and doses of niacin, seems to be a simple repackaging of Hubbard’s earlier programs for drug addiction and radiation poisoning. And at least one of the doctors associated with the study is a prominent Scientologist who has also done work on chronic fatigue syndrome.) These amount to just a handful of data points, and further investigation is undoubtedly needed. But the pattern that they evoke is suggestive. If the Church of Scientology were proactively seeking a large and potentially lucrative group of patients, this is exactly what it would be doing. As Hubbard wrote back in 1956: “I can tell you the wrong thing to do about a practice—do nothing. These will work, and success is ahead of you.”

Written by nevalalee

June 7, 2018 at 9:17 am

The psychedelic nightmare

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Note: To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which held its premiere on April 2, 1968, I’ll be spending the week looking at various aspects of what remains the greatest science fiction movie ever made.

On June 24, 1968, Ron Hopkins, an officer of the Church of Scientology, issued a secret policy statement to all members under his jurisdiction in the United Kingdom. It read in full: “No staff or current students are to see the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film produces heavy and unnecessary restimulation.” A few months later, the author William S. Burroughs wrote to his friend Brion Gysin: “Incidentally I thoroughly enjoyed 2001. More fun than a roller coaster. I knew I wanted to see it when all Scientologists were told it was off limits.” To the best of my knowledge, we don’t know precisely why the movie troubled the church, although it isn’t hard to guess. In dianetics, “restimulation” refers to the awakening of traumatic memories, often from past lives, and even the experience of seeing this film in a theater might have seemed like an unnecessary risk. In a lecture on the story of Xenu, L. Ron Hubbard explained the sad fate of the thetans, the disembodied souls who have clung for millions of years to unsuspecting humans:

[The thetans] were brought down, packed up, and put in front of projection machines, which were sound and color pictures. First [it] gave them the implant which you know as “clearing course.” And then a whole track implanted which you know as OT II. After this however, about the remainder of the thirty-six days, which is the bulk of them, is taken up with a 3D super colossal motion picture, which has to do with God, the Devil, space opera, etc.

And the uneasiness that Scientologists felt toward 2001 was only an extreme version of the ambivalence of many fans toward a movie that represented the most ambitious incursion that the genre had ever made into the wider culture.

As far as I can determine, we don’t know what Robert A. Heinlein thought of the film, although he presumably saw it—it was screened one night on the S.S. Statendam, the ocean liner on which he sailed on the ill-fated Voyage Beyond Apollo cruise in 1972. And Isaac Asimov had a few surprising brushes with the production itself. Arthur C. Clarke called him to discuss a plot point about the evolution of vegetarians into omnivores, and a year and a half later, Asimov came close to actually being in the movie:

Arthur Clarke was working with Stanley Kubrick to put out a motion picture called 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Kubrick, who was investing millions in what might have seemed a very dubious venture…was searching for ways to promote it properly. One way was to get a group of high-prestige individuals to make the movie respectable by having them submit to movie-camera interviews in which they would speak on such subjects as the possibility of extraterrestrial life. I was one of those approached, and I spent hours on May 18, 1966 doing the interview in one of the rooms in the Anatomy Department [at Boston University]…Afterward I heard that Carl Sagan had been approached and had refused to cooperate since no money was involved. It made me uneasily aware that I had given myself away for nothing and had exposed myself as valueless by the only measure Hollywood valued—money. But it was for Arthur Clarke, I told myself, and you can’t let a pal down.

Ultimately, the idea of the talking heads was dropped, and none of his footage made it into the finished film. Asimov later wrote approvingly of the movie’s “realistic portrayal of space travel” and called it a “classic,” but although he praised its special effects, he never seems to have said much about its merits as entertainment.

As far as John W. Campbell is concerned, I haven’t been able to find any opinions that he expressed on it in public—an unusual omission for an editor who was seldom reluctant to speak his mind about anything. In 1968, however, Analog took the unusual step of running what amounted to two reviews of the film, one by G. Harry Stine, the other by book critic P. Schuyler Miller. Stine, an author and rocket scientist who was close to both Campbell and Heinlein, hated the movie:

We thought that here, perhaps, would be a suitable sequel to the fabulous Destination Moon made twenty years ago…When the final title credits were flashed across the Cinerama screen after the New York premiere, I sat there with the feeling that I’d been had. It’s too bad that the film is billed as science fiction, because it isn’t. It is ninety percent “gee whiz” science gadgetry and ten percent fantasy nonsense…[Audiences] will believe that it is a solid look at the technology of the future. They will instead see a film that is the most cleverly made, subtly done attack on science and technology that has ever been made…It disintegrates into an unexplainable, nonscientific, anti-intellectual psychedelic nightmare.

Stein criticized the HAL subplot “because Kubrick and Clarke did not use or recall Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics,” and he lamented the film’s lack of characterization and conflict, adding without irony that these were qualities “rarely lacking in [the] pages” of Analog. A month later, in a combined review of the book and the movie, which he called “tantalizing,” Miller was slightly more kind to the latter: “Technically, it is certainly the most advanced science fiction film we have ever had…The film will be remembered; the book won’t.”

None of these criticisms are necessarily wrong, although I’d argue that the performances, which Miller called “wooden,” have held up better than anybody could have expected. But much of the response feels like an attempt by lifelong fans to grapple with a major effort by an outsider. Three decades earlier, Campbell had reacted in a similar way to a surprise move into science fiction by Kubrick’s most noteworthy precursor. In 1938, after the airing of the Mercury Theatre’s radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, Campbell wrote to his friend Robert Swisher: “So far as sponsoring that War of [the] Worlds thing—I’m damn glad we didn’t! The thing is going to cost CBS money, what with suits, etc., and we’re better off without it.”  In Astounding, he said that the ensuing panic demonstrated the need for “wider appreciation” of science fiction, in order to educate the public about what was and wasn’t real:

I have long been an exponent of the belief that, should interplanetary visitors actually arrive, no one could possibly convince the public of the fact. These stories wherein the fact is suddenly announced and widespread panic immediately ensues have always seemed to me highly improbable, simply because the average man did not seem ready to visualize and believe such a statement. Undoubtedly, Mr. Orson Welles felt the same way.

Campbell, who was just a few years older than Welles, seems to have quickly tired of being asked about The War of the Worlds, which he evidently saw as an encroachment on his turf. 2001 felt much the same to many fans. Fifty years later, it’s easier to see it as an indispensable part of the main line of hard science fiction—and perhaps even as its culmination. But it didn’t seem that way at the time.

The flicker effect

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In 1953, the neurologist and roboticist W. Grey Walter published an extraordinary book titled The Living Brain. Among his many other accomplishments, Walter was a pioneer in the use of the electroencephalograph to study the brain’s electrical activity, which was described here for the first time for a wide popular audience, although his book become more famous for the chapter “Revelation by Flicker.” It described how stroboscopic light could produce epileptic seizures and other neurological reactions, including one particularly memorable anecdote: “A man found that when he went to the cinema he would suddenly feel an irresistible impulse to strangle the person next to him.” And when Walter tested the equipment on his own team, he became aware of some unusual effects:

In the biological sciences it is a good principle to be your own rabbit, to experiment on yourself; in electroencephalography the practice is widespread, convenient, and harmless. Whenever a new instrument is to be tested or calibrated, normal subjects from among the laboratory staff are used as “signal generators”…When we started to use high-power electronic stroboscopes to generate flicker, with the aim of testing the hypothesis of resonant synchronization in epilepsy, we took a large number of records from one another while looking at the brilliant flashing light…The tests were entirely satisfactory and in fact gave us much information which will be discussed later, but as well as that we all noticed a peculiar effect. The effect was a vivid illusion of moving patterns whenever one closed one’s eyes and allowed the flicker to shine through the eyelids.

Walter characterized these patterns as “whirling spirals, whirlpools, explosions, Catherine wheels,” quoting an evocative passage from a memoir by Margiad Evans, a poet who suffered from epilepsy:

I lay there holding the green thumbless hand of the leaf while things clicked and machinery came to life, and commands to gasp, to open and shut my eyes, reached me from across the unseen room, as though by wireless. Lights like comets dangled before me, slow at first and then gaining a fury of speed and change, whirling color into color, angle into angle. They were all pure ultra unearthly colors, mental colors, not deep visual ones. There was no glow in them but only activity and revolution.

After investigating further, Walter concluded that the imagery wasn’t an optical illusion caused by the light, but a phenomenon that occurred within the eye or brain itself, and that it involved more than one sensory system. (Walter doesn’t mention this in particular, but after reading his description of “whirling spirals,” I was surprised that it hasn’t been more widely used to explain away the vision of the chariot—with its mysterious “wheel within a wheel”—of the prophet Ezekiel, who has been diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy.) And his work with strobe lights inspired a number of interested readers to try it out for themselves, although to rather different ends, in the fifties equivalent of neurohacking.

One was John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction. After reading The Living Brain, he wrote—but evidently never sent—a long letter to Walter himself, and he also built a “panic generator” with a flickering fluorescent tube in his basement workshop. (The idea of using flickering lights to induce hypnotism was a familiar one in the genre, and it had appeared in stories including Campbell’s short novel The Elder Gods and in L. Sprague de Camp’s “The Exalted.”) When he tried the device on his family, his wife’s throat tightened up, his stepson felt asthmatic, and his daughter’s head hurt, but it bothered Campbell for just ten seconds. He was, he proudly noted, “immune.” Writing to his father, he said that he thought that it might have therapeutic value:

The only way a human being exposed to this device can continue to think coherently is by shifting his method of thinking. He either changes his method—his frequency—or is hopelessly scrambled in panic. The device, however, doesn’t tell him to think; it simply forces him to think in some new manner. The result is that the problems he’s been denying existed, the ideas he’s been refusing to consider—all of these will now come into sight, and he’ll be forced to at least consider them. The one sure and certain thing is that he can not continue to think in the terms he has been!

This insight inspired one of Campbell’s best editorials, “The Value of Panic,” as well as a premise that he gave to G. Harry Stine, who wrote under the pen name Lee Correy. The resulting story, “Design Flaw,” was about an experimental rocket plane plagued by a series of accidents that turn out to be caused by a flashing screen that provides landing data, which accidentally interferes with the pilot’s alpha rhythms.

A few years afterward, Walter’s work had an even more striking afterlife, and it serves as a reminder of the surprising overlap in those decades between science fiction and the counterculture. On September 14, 1960, William S. Burroughs wrote enigmatically to his friend Brion Gysin: “Also will see Grey Walter when he returns from vacation.” He followed up two weeks later: “I heard Grey Walter. Most interesting and will make a flicker date with him in Bristol.” Burroughs also wrote to Walter directly about “possible therapeutic applications in drug addiction” and “the effect of flicker on the creative process,” neatly tying together the two major threads of his career. His interest in the flicker effect emerged from the same impulse that led to his ongoing dalliance with Scientology, and he often mentioned the two in the same breath in his letters. And it led Gysin and his collaborator Ian Sommerville to build the Dream Machine, a rotating cylinder with flashing slits that was viewed with the eyes closed. In an interview, Burroughs vividly described its effects: “Elaborate geometric constructions of incredible intricacy build up from multidimensional mosaic into living fireballs like the mandalas of Eastern mysticism or resolve momentarily into apparently individual images and powerfully dramatic scenes like brightly colored dreams.” And he closed in terms that echoed Margiad Evans, who had spoken of “lights like comets”:

“Flicker” creates a dazzling multiplicity of images in constantly altering relationships which makes the “collages” and “assemblages” of so-called “modern” art appear utterly ineffectual and slow. Art history is no longer being created. Art history as the enumeration of individual images ended with the direct introduction of light as the principal agents in the creation of images which have become infinitely multiple, complex and all-pervading. The comet is Light.

Two against the gods

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On December 9, 1952, L. Ron Hubbard delivered a lecture in Philadelphia titled “What’s Wrong With This Universe: A Working Package for the Auditor.” It’s even harder than usual to figure what he’s trying to say here, but it appears to be a description of the experiences that an individual might have “between lives,” a transitional phase in which he’s vulnerable to implanted ideas and hypnotism that can influence his goals in his next incarnation. Hubbard described a typical incident:

There was a big building. He was curious, he was very curious, and he…he wanted to know what was in the big building. It was very fancy…He’d heard some mystery had taken place in there so he goes in to take a look. It’s wide open, it’s very easy to walk into, and what does he find? He finds this enormous stone hanging suspended in the middle of the room. This is an incident called the Emanator. By the way, and this thing is, by the way, the source of the Mohammedan lodestone that they have hanging down there that—when Mohammed decided to be a good small-town booster in Kansas, Middle East, or something of that sort. By the way, the only reason he mocked that thing up is the trade wasn’t good in his home town. That’s right. You read the life of Mohammed. And he’s got a black one and it’s sort of hung between the ceiling and the floor and, I don’t know, it—maybe it’s called a casbah or something. Anyway, that thing is a mockup of the Emanator. The Emanator is bright, not black.

Hubbard would frequently suggest that other religions were misreadings of “implants” that the disembodied thetans received before attaching themselves to human hosts, which he casually extended here to the Ka’bah in Mecca. But this wasn’t the point of the lecture, and he quickly moved on.

This aside has received a fair amount of attention because it’s one of the few places where Hubbard explicitly mentions Islam. (His treatment of it isn’t much different from his views on Christianity, which he also saw as a distortion of an image implanted by Xenu: “The man on the cross—there was no Christ!”) Perhaps the most striking moment is the curious description of Muhammad as “a good small-town booster,” which certainly sounds like Hubbard—but he didn’t come up with it on his own. In fact, he took it almost verbatim from the book Twelve Against the Gods: The Story of Adventure by the South African journalist William Bolitho, which was published in 1929. Here’s the relevant section, from the chapter “Mahomet,” in full:

The start of Mahomet’s adventure, or in its more usual synonym, the basis of the Mahomedan religion, is this preoccupation of his with the fortunes of his native town. Squeamish pedantry may object to the triviality of the phrase which fits nevertheless with a precision no other can give: Mahomet was a “home-town booster,” and this conception will unlock the many obscurities of his life and his doctrine, with which the most subtle theological speculations and the most careful minutiae of history are incapable of coping with. The door by which he enters is this: “How can we attract the whole world, at least the whole of Arabia, yearly to the Ka’ba?” And the vision of One God, greatest common denominator of religion, is the solution, not the prime inspiration. In fact Mahomedanism is a religion, because Mecca’s problem, as a religious town, was religious. The rhapsodies, the epilepsies of the man while he is still struggling toward his invention, are the symptoms of a process which they sometimes assist and sometimes retard; if they were taken as analogous to the painful mental straining of a Rotarian enthusiast racking his brain for a world-beating slogan for the town of his heart it might be irreverent (we regretfully foreswore reverence at the beginning of these studies) but it would not be a joke; nor a mistake.

And we know that Hubbard read Twelve Against the Gods because he told us so himself, in a lecture that he had delivered just a few days earlier, on December 5, 1952:

There is never a great adventurer who did not end his career upon having discovered the sacred treasure of Peru. Bolitho, good old Bolitho, with his Twelve Against the Gods. It’s a wonderful thing to read—gorgeous! And the introduction of Twelve Against the Gods is one of the best pieces of work I know of, even related to a lot of things, and particularly to this subject.

It’s unclear when Hubbard first encountered it, although the occultist Jack Parsons read it aloud at meetings of the Agape Lodge during the period when the two of them were living together. Three decades later, Hubbard allegedly called it his favorite nonfiction book in response to a questionnaire from the Rocky Mountain News, although his answers were actually written up by his spokesman, who dug up the reference in his lectures. (One of the book’s other fans, interestingly, is Elon Musk, who mentioned it approvingly to a reporter last year, leading to a spike in the price of used copies online. I was lucky enough to find it for two dollars this summer at the Newberry Library Book Fair.) It might be a worthwhile exercise—and maybe I’ll do it one day—to read Bolitho’s book systematically to see where else it comes up in Hubbard’s teachings, particularly in the Philadelphia lectures. But we know for a fact that he read the chapter on Muhammad, a figure with whom he shares some superficial similarities. Hubbard’s early knowledge of Islam came primarily from The Book of a Thousand Nights and One Nights, translated by his hero Sir Richard Francis Burton, who wrote in a footnote:

Mohammed…claimed (and claimed justly) to be the “Seal” or head and end of all Prophets and Prophecy. For note that whether the Arab be held inspired or a mere impostor, no man making the same pretension has moved the world since him. Mr. J. Smith the Mormon (to mention one in a myriad) made a bold attempt and failed.

I don’t want to overemphasize these parallels, but it’s impossible for me to read Bolitho’s take on Muhammad without thinking of Hubbard. When he writes “Mahomedanism is a religion, because Mecca’s problem, as a religious town, was religious,” I’m reminded of the founding of Scientology, which was less the outcome of a coherent plan than a pragmatic solution to a specific set of problems that occurred right around the time that the Philadelphia lectures were delivered. Bolitho writes of a turning point in Muhammad’s career: “The lever of his position is now his own converts, his own past, the picked fanatics.” Hubbard was in exactly the same situation in Phoenix and Philadelphia. And many of the most resonant echoes were yet to come. What Bolitho writes of Muhammad just before the Hegira evokes Hubbard’s doomed dream of sailing the seas with his fleet: “The town-booster…has decided to liquidate, and distribute himself the bonus years of the effort of thinking and unpopularity had won for him; he signals the gods of adventure to stop and let him get down.” And these lines near the end of the chapter are chillingly prophetic:

But Mahomet the adventurer has been swallowed by his adventure, which is now openly independent of his personality…Out of the mass of incoherent writings, cursings, distichs, that he is still pouring out in his old age, half buried under the minutiae of new laws obviously inspired by the domestic bickerings of his harem, there is vaguely visible the plan to which the old man is arrived; the species of vast plunder gang, the Bandit State, in which he will brigade all the faithful, the gigantic enterprise or organized looting of the whole world to which he calls his race.

Hubbard was no Muhammad, but he probably believed that he was, and when he looked around him in the late fifties and early sixties, he would have found little evidence to the contrary. And it would be dangerous to underestimate how much he achieved. As Bolitho writes of such religious adventurers: “They have lived on this little earth like an island, and made up their night fires to scare away the noises of the interstellar dark.”

Handbook for morals

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Yesterday, the pop culture site Pajiba broke the strange story behind the novel Handbook for Mortals, which topped the New York Times bestseller list for Young Adult Fiction, despite not being available at most of the big chains or on Amazon. It soon became clear that somebody was gaming the system, calling stores, asking if they were among the retailers who reported sales data to the Times, and then placing bulk orders of the book. (Whoever did this was smart enough to keep all purchases below the threshold that would flag it as a corporate sale, which is usually around thirty copies.) But why bother doing this in the first place? An update on the site sheds some light on the subject:

Pajiba received details from two separate anonymous sources who got in touch, each claiming that author Lani Sarem herself admitted plans in multiple meetings with potential business partners and investors to push the book onto the New York Times bestseller list by fudging the numbers. Both sources also noted that the author and publisher’s primary concerns were to get a film deal, with the movie having been promised funding if it became a bestseller, hence a bulk-buying strategy with a focus on reaching the convention circuit.

In other words, the book, which has since been pulled from the Times list, didn’t have any value in itself, but as an obligatory stepping stone on the way to a movie deal—an important point that I’ll discuss later. For now, I’ll content myself with observing that the plan, if anything, succeeded too well. If the book had debuted a few notches further down, it might have raised eyebrows, but not to the extent that it did by clumsily clawing its way to the top. As Ace Rothstein notes wearily of a con artist in Casino: “If he wasn’t so fuckin’ greedy, he’d have been tougher to spot.”

The coverage on Pajiba is excellent, but it doesn’t mention the most famous precedent for this kind of self-defeating strategy. On April 15, 1990, the San Diego Union published an article by Mike McIntyre headlined “Hubbard Hot-Author Status Called Illusion,” which remains the best piece ever written on the tactics used by the Church of Scientology to get its founder on the bestseller lists. It begins:

In 1981, St. Martin’s Press was offered a sure thing. L. Ron Hubbard, the pulp writer turned religious leader, had written his first science-fiction novel in more than thirty years. If St. Martin’s published it, Hubbard aides promised the firm, subsidiary organizations of Hubbard’s Church of Scientology would buy at least fifteen thousand copies…”Five, six, seven people at a time would come in, with cash in hand, buying [Battlefield Earth],” said Dave Dutton, of Dutton’s Books, a group of four stores in the Los Angeles area. “They’d blindly ask for the book. They would buy two or three copies at a time with fifty-dollar bills. I had the suspicion that there was something not quite right about it.”

Michael Denneny, a senior editor at St. Martin’s, confirmed the arrangement, saying that Author Services—the affiliate of the church devoted to Hubbard’s literary work—promised to purchase between fifteen and twenty thousand copies, but ultimately went even further: “The Author Services people were very rambunctious. They wanted to make it a New York Times best seller. They were obsessed by that.” And in another article from the Los Angeles Times, a former sales manager for the church’s Bridge Publications revealed: “My orders for the week were to find the New York Times’ reporting stores anywhere in the east so they could send people into the stores to buy [Hubbard’s] books.”

If this sounds a lot like Handbook for Mortals, it wouldn’t be the first time that the church’s tactics have been imitated by others. After Hubbard’s death in 1986, the same bulk-buying techniques were applied to all ten volumes of the Mission Earth “dekalogy,” with the added goal of securing a Hugo Award nomination—which turned out to be substantially easier. The writer Charles Platt had become annoyed by a loophole in the nominating process, in which anyone could nominate a book who paid a small fee to become a supporting member of the World Science Fiction Convention. Platt wasn’t a Scientologist, but he wrote to the church suggesting that they exploit this technicality, hoping that it would draw attention to the problem. A few years later, the Church of Scientology apparently took his advice, buying memberships to vote in droves for Black Genesis, the second volume in the series. As the fan Paul Kincaid noted:

At least fifty percent of the nominations for Black Genesis came from people taking out supporting membership with their nominations. A large number of these came from people in Britain whom I’ve never heard of in any sort of fannish context, either before or since the convention. A lot of the nominations from people in Britain came on photocopied ballots with [Scientologist] Robert Springall’s name written on the bottom. It is within the rules to photocopy ballots and circulate them, providing that the person who has done the photocopying puts his or her name on the bottom…I didn’t make any record of this, but my impression was that a large number of people who took out supporting memberships to nominate Hubbard’s book didn’t actually vote in the final ballot.

In the end, Black Genesis came in dead last, behind “No Award,” but the structural weakness in the Hugos remained. Two decades later, the groups known collectively as the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies took advantage of it in similar fashion, encouraging followers to purchase supporting memberships and vote for their recommended slates. And the outcome was much the same.

It’s striking, of course, that methods pioneered by Scientology have been appropriated by other parties, either for personal gain or to make a political point. But it isn’t surprising. What the author of Handbook for Mortals, the Church of Scientology, and the Puppies all have in common is a shared disregard for the act of reading. Their actions can only be justified if bestsellerdom or an award nomination is taken as a means to an end, rather than as a reflection of success among actual readers. Sarem wanted a movie deal, the Puppies wanted to cause trouble, and the Scientologists wanted “to establish an identity for Hubbard other than as the founder of a controversial religious movement…to recruit new members into the Church of Scientology.” And the real irony here is that Hubbard himself wouldn’t have approved. The Union article notes of his novel’s publication history:

Harvey Haber, a former Scientologist who served as Hubbard’s literary aide, was dispatched to New York to sell the manuscript [of Battlefield Earth]. Hubbard demanded that the book be represented by a major literary agency and placed with one of the ten largest publishers. The church and Bridge Publications were to play no role. “He wanted to prove to everyone and all that he still had it,” Haber said. “That he was the best in the world.”

But fifty-eight New York literary agencies thought otherwise, Haber said. “Not one of them would touch it.” In Haber’s opinion, “The book was a piece of shit.” Church officials didn’t dare tell Hubbard his book was unmarketable, said Haber. “You would’ve been handed your head.” Thus, he said, was hatched the plan to offer guaranteed sales in return for publication.

Hubbard never learned that the church was buying his books in bulk, and he might have been furious if he had found out. Instead, he died believing that he had reached the bestseller list on his own merits. Whatever his other flaws, he genuinely wanted to be read. And this might be one of the few cases on record in which his integrity was greater than that of his followers.

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