Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The New Yorker

Quote of the Day

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Writers are usually embarrassed when other writers start to “sing”—their profession’s prestige is at stake and the blabbermouths are likely to have the whole wretched truth beat out of them, that they are an ignorant, hysterically egotistical, shamelessly toadying, envious lot who would do almost anything in the world—even write a novel—to avoid an honest day’s work or escape a human responsibility. Any writer tempted to open his trap in public lets the news out.

Dawn Powell, in The New Yorker

Written by nevalalee

December 3, 2018 at 7:30 am

The private eyes of culture

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Yesterday, in my post on the late magician Ricky Jay, I neglected to mention one of the most fascinating aspects of his long career. Toward the end of his classic profile in The New Yorker, Mark Singer drops an offhand reference to an intriguing project:

Most afternoons, Jay spends a couple of hours in his office, on Sunset Boulevard, in a building owned by Andrew Solt, a television producer…He decided now to drop by the office, where he had to attend to some business involving a new venture that he has begun with Michael Weber—a consulting company called Deceptive Practices, Ltd., and offering “Arcane Knowledge on a Need to Know Basis.” They are currently working on the new Mike Nichols film, Wolf, starring Jack Nicholson.

When the article was written, Deceptive Practices was just getting off the ground, but it went on to compile an enviable list of projects, including The Illusionist, The Prestige, and most famously Forrest Gump, for which Jay and Weber designed the wheelchair that hid Gary Sinise’s legs. It isn’t clear how lucrative the business ever was, but it made for great publicity, and best of all, it allowed Jay to monetize the service that he had offered for free to the likes of David Mamet—a source of “arcane knowledge,” much of it presumably gleaned from his vast reading in the field, that wasn’t available in any other way.

As I reflected on this, I was reminded of another provider of arcane knowledge who figures prominently in one of my favorite novels. In Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, the narrator, Casaubon, comes home to Milan after a long sojourn abroad feeling like a man without a country. He recalls:

I decided to invent a job for myself. I knew a lot of things, unconnected things, but I wanted to be able to connect them after a few hours at a library. I once thought it was necessary to have a theory, and that my problem was that I didn’t. But nowadays all you needed was information; everybody was greedy for information, especially if it was out of date. I dropped in at the university, to see if I could fit in somewhere. The lecture halls were quiet; the students glided along the corridors like ghosts, lending one another badly made bibliographies. I knew how to make a good bibliography.

In practice, Casaubon finds that he knows a lot of things—like the identities of such obscure figures as Lord Chandos and Anselm of Canterbury—that can’t be found easily in reference books, prompting a student to marvel at him: “In your day you knew everything.” This leads Casaubon to a sudden inspiration: “I had a trade after all. I would set up a cultural investigation agency, be a kind of private eye of learning. Instead of sticking my nose into all-night dives and cathouses, I would skulk around bookshops, libraries, corridors of university departments…I was lucky enough to find two rooms and a little kitchen in an old building in the suburbs…In a pair of bookcases I arranged the atlases, encyclopedias, catalogs I acquired bit by bit.”

This feels a little like the fond daydream of a scholar like Umberto Eco himself, who spent decades acquiring arcane knowledge—not all of it required by his academic work—before becoming a famous novelist. And I suspect that many graduate students, professors, and miscellaneous bibliophiles cherish the hope that the scraps of disconnected information that they’ve accumulated over time will turn out to be useful one day, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. (Casaubon is evidently named after the character from Middlemarch who labors for years over a book titled The Key to All Mythologies, which is already completely out of date.) To illustrate what he does for a living, Casaubon offers the example of a translator who calls him one day out of the blue, desperate to know the meaning of the word “Mutakallimūn.” Casaubon asks him for two days, and then he gets to work:

I go to the library, flip through some card catalogs, give the man in the reference office a cigarette, and pick up a clue. That evening I invite an instructor in Islamic studies out for a drink. I buy him a couple of beers and he drops his guard, gives me the lowdown for nothing. I call the client back. “All right, the Mutakallimūn were radical Moslem theologians at the time of Avicenna. They said the world was a sort of dust cloud of accidents that formed particular shapes only by an instantaneous and temporary act of the divine will. If God was distracted for even a moment, the universe would fall to pieces, into a meaningless anarchy of atoms. That enough for you? The job took me three days. Pay what you think is fair.”

Eco could have picked nearly anything to serve as a case study, of course, but the story that he choses serves as a metaphor for one of the central themes of the book. If the world of information is a “meaningless anarchy of atoms,” it takes the private eyes of culture to give it shape and meaning.

All the while, however, Eco is busy undermining the pretensions of his protagonists, who pay a terrible price for treating information so lightly. And it might not seem that such brokers of arcane knowledge are even necessary these days, now that an online search generates pages of results for the Mutakallimūn. Yet there’s still a place for this kind of scholarship, which might end up being the last form of brainwork not to be made obsolete by technology. As Ricky Jay knew, by specializing deeply in one particular field, you might be able to make yourself indispensable, especially in areas where the knowledge hasn’t been written down or digitized. (In the course of researching Astounding, I was repeatedly struck by how much of the story wasn’t available in any readily accessible form. It was buried in letters, manuscripts, and other primary sources, and while this happens to be the one area where I’ve actually done some of the legwork, I have a feeling that it’s equally true of every other topic imaginable.) As both Jay and Casaubon realized, it’s a role that rests on arcane knowledge of the kind that can only be acquired by reading the books that nobody else has bothered to read in a long time, even if it doesn’t pay off right away. Casaubon tells us: “In the beginning, I had to turn a deaf ear to my conscience and write theses for desperate students. It wasn’t hard; I just went and copied some from the previous decade. But then my friends in publishing began sending me manuscripts and foreign books to read—naturally, the least appealing and for little money.” But he perseveres, and the rule that he sets for himself might still be enough, if you’re lucky, to fuel an entire career:

Still, I was accumulating experience and information, and I never threw anything away…I had a strict rule, which I think secret services follow, too: No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections.

Written by nevalalee

November 27, 2018 at 8:41 am

Ghosts and diversions

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Over the weekend, after I heard that the magician Ricky Jay had died, I went back to revisit the great profile, “Secrets of the Magus,” that Mark Singer wrote over a quarter of a century ago for The New Yorker. Along with Daniel Zalewski’s classic piece on Werner Herzog, it’s one of the articles in that magazine that I’ve thought about and reread the most, but what caught my attention this time around was a tribute from David Mamet:

I’ll call Ricky on the phone. I’ll ask him—say, for something I’m writing—“A guy’s wandering through upstate New York in 1802 and he comes to a tavern and there’s some sort of mountebank. What would the mountebank be doing?” And Ricky goes to his library and then sends me an entire description of what the mountebank would be doing. Or I’ll tell him I’m having a Fourth of July party and I want to do some sort of disappearance in the middle of the woods. He says, “That’s the most bizarre request I’ve ever heard. You want to do a disappearing effect in the woods? There’s nothing like that in the literature. I mean, there’s this one 1760 pamphlet—Jokes, Tricks, Ghosts, and Diversions by Woodland, Stream and Campfire. But, other than that, I can’t think of a thing.” He’s unbelievably generous. Ricky’s one of the world’s great people. He’s my hero. I’ve never seen anybody better at what he does.

Coming from Mamet, this is high praise indeed, and it gets at most of the reasons why Ricky Jay was one of my heroes, too. Elsewhere in the article, Mamet says admiringly: “I regard Ricky as an example of the ‘superior man,’ according to the I Ching definition. He’s the paradigm of what a philosopher should be: someone who’s devoted his life to both the study and the practice of his chosen field.”

And what struck me on reading these lines again was how deeply Jay’s life and work were tied up in books. A bookseller quoted in Singer’s article estimates that Jay spent more of his disposable income on rare books than anyone else he knew, and his professional legacy might turn out to be even greater as a writer, archivist, and historian as it was for sleight of hand. (“Though Jay abhors the notion of buying books as investments, his own collection, while it is not for sale and is therefore technically priceless, more or less represents his net worth,” Singer writes. And I imagine that a lot of his fellow collectors are very curious about what will happen to his library now.) His most famous book as an author, Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women, includes a chapter on Arthur Lloyd, “The Human Card Index,” a vaudevillian renowned for his ability to produce anything printed on paper—a marriage license, ringside seats to a boxing match, menus, photos of royalty, membership cards for every club imaginable—from his pockets on demand. This feels now like a metaphor for the mystique of Jay himself, who fascinated me for many of the same reasons. Like most great magicians, he exuded an aura of arcane wisdom, but in his case, this impression appears to have been nothing less than the truth. Singer quotes the magician Michael Weber:

Magic is not about someone else sharing the newest secret. Magic is about working hard to discover a secret and making something out of it. You start with some small principle and you build a theatrical presentation out of it. You do something that’s technically artistic that creates a small drama. There are two ways you can expand your knowledge—through books and by gaining the confidence of fellow magicians who will explain these things. Ricky to a large degree gets his information from books—old books—and then when he performs for magicians they want to know, “Where did that come from?” And he’s appalled that they haven’t read this stuff.

As a result, Jay had the paradoxical image of a man who was immersed in the lore of magic while also keeping much of that world at arm’s length. “Clearly, Jay has been more interested in the craft of magic than in the practical exigencies of promoting himself as a performer,” Singer writes, and Jay was perfectly fine with that reputation. In Learned Pigs, Jay writes admiringly of the conjurer Max Malini:

Yet far more than Malini’s contemporaries, the famous conjurers Herrmann, Kellar, Thurston, and Houdini, Malini was the embodiment of what a magician should be—not a performer who requires a fully equipped stage, elaborate apparatus, elephants, or handcuffs to accomplish his mysteries, but one who can stand a few inches from you and with a borrowed coin, a lemon, a knife, a tumbler, or a pack of cards convince you he performs miracles.

This was obviously how Jay liked to see himself, as he says with equal affection of the magician Dai Vernon: “Making money was only a means of allowing him to sit in a hotel room and think about his art, about cups and balls and coins and cards.” Yet the reality must have been more complicated. You don’t become as famous or beloved as Ricky Jay without an inhuman degree of ambition, however carefully hidden, and he cultivated attention in ways that allowed him to maintain his air of remove. Apart from Vernon, his other essential mentor was Charlie Miller, who seems to have played the same role in the lives of other magicians that Joe Ancis, “the funniest man in New York City,” did for Lenny Bruce. Both were geniuses who hated to perform, so they practiced their art for a small handful of confidants and fellow obsessives. And the fact that Jay, by contrast, lived the kind of life that would lead him to be widely mourned by the public indicates that there was rather more to him than the reticent persona that he projected.

Jay did perform for paying audiences, of course, and Singer’s article closes with his preparations for a show, Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, that promises to relieve him from the “tenuous circumstances” that result from his devotion to art. (A decade later, my brother and I went to see his second Broadway production, On the Stem, which is still one of my favorite memories from a lifetime of theatergoing.) But he evidently had mixed feelings about the whole enterprise, which left him even more detached from the performers with whom he was frequently surrounded. As Weber notes: “Ricky won’t perform for magicians at magic shows, because they’re interested in things. They don’t get it. They won’t watch him and be inspired to make magic of their own. They’ll be inspired to do that trick that belongs to Ricky…There’s this large body of magic lumpen who really don’t understand Ricky’s legacy—his contribution to the art, his place in the art, his technical proficiency and creativity. They think he’s an élitist and a snob.” Or as the writer and mentalist T.A. Walters tells Singer:

Some magicians, once they learn how to do a trick without dropping the prop on their foot, go ahead and perform in public. Ricky will work on a routine a couple of years before even showing anyone. One of the things that I love about Ricky is his continued amazement at how little magicians seem to care about the art. Intellectually, Ricky seems to understand this, but emotionally he can’t accept it. He gets as upset about this problem today as he did twenty years ago.

If the remarkable life that he lived is any indication, Jay never did get over it. According to Singer, Jay once asked Dai Vernon how he dealt with the intellectual indifference of other magicians to their craft. Vernon responded: “I forced myself not to care.” And after his friend’s death, Jay said wryly: “Maybe that’s how he lived to be ninety-eight years old.”

The authoritarian personality

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Note: I’m taking a few days off for Thanksgiving. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 29, 2017.

In 1950, a group of four scholars working at UC Berkeley published a massive book titled The Authoritarian Personality. Three of its authors, including the philosopher and polymath Theodor W. Adorno, were Jewish, and the study was expressly designed to shed light on the rise of fascism and Nazism, which it conceived in large part as the manifestation of an abnormal personality syndrome magnified by mass communication. The work was immediately controversial, and some of the concerns that have been raised about its methodology—which emphasized individual pathology over social factors—appear to be legitimate. (One of its critics, the psychologist Thomas Pettigrew, conducted a study of American towns in the North and South that cast doubt on whether such traits as racism could truly be seen as mental illnesses: “You almost had to be mentally ill to be tolerant in the South. The authoritarian personality was a good explanation at the individual level, but not at the societal level.” The italics are mine.) Yet the book remains hugely compelling, and we seem to be living in a moment in which its ideas are moving back toward the center of the conversation, with attention from both ends of the political spectrum. Richard Spencer, of all people, wrote his master’s thesis on Adorno and Richard Wagner, while a bizarre conspiracy theory has emerged on the right that Adorno was the secret composer and lyricist for the Beatles. More reasonably, the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross wrote shortly after the last presidential election:

The combination of economic inequality and pop-cultural frivolity is precisely the scenario Adorno and others had in mind: mass distraction masking elite domination. Two years ago, in an essay on the persistence of the Frankfurt School, I wrote, “If Adorno were to look upon the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century, he might take grim satisfaction in seeing his fondest fears realized.” I spoke too soon. His moment of vindication is arriving now.

And when you leaf today through The Authoritarian Personality, which is available in its entirety online, you’re constantly rocked by flashes of recognition. In the chapter “Politics and Economics in the Interview Material,” before delving into the political beliefs expressed by the study’s participants, Adorno writes:

The evaluation of the political statements contained in our interview material has to be considered in relation to the widespread ignorance and confusion of our subjects in political matters, a phenomenon which might well surpass what even a skeptical observer should have anticipated. If people do not know what they are talking about, the concept of “opinion,” which is basic to any approach to ideology, loses its meaning.

Ignorance and confusion are bad enough, but they become particularly dangerous when combined with the social pressure to have an opinion about everything, which encourages people to fake their way through it. As Adorno observes: “Those who do not know but feel somehow obliged to have political opinions, because of some vague idea about the requirements of democracy, help themselves with scurrilous ways of thinking and sometimes with forthright bluff.” And he describes this bluffing and bluster in terms that should strike us as uncomfortably familiar:

The individual has to cope with problems which he actually does not understand, and he has to develop certain techniques of orientation, however crude and fallacious they may be, which help him to find his way through the dark…On the one hand, they provide the individual with a kind of knowledge, or with substitutes for knowledge, which makes it possible for him to take a stand where it is expected of him, whilst he is actually not equipped to do so. On the other hand, by themselves they alleviate psychologically the feeling of anxiety and uncertainty and provide the individual with the illusion of some kind of intellectual security, of something he can stick to even if he feels, underneath, the inadequacy of his opinions.

So what do we do when we’re expected to have opinions on subjects that we can’t be bothered to actually understand? Adorno argues that we tend to fall back on the complementary strategies of stereotyping and personification. Of the former, he writes:

Rigid dichotomies, such as that between “good and bad,” “we and the others,” “I and the world” date back to our earliest developmental phases…They point back to the “chaotic” nature of reality, and its clash with the omnipotence fantasies of earliest infancy. Our stereotypes are both tools and scars: the “bad man” is the stereotype par excellence…Modern mass communications, molded after industrial production, spread a whole system of stereotypes which, while still being fundamentally “ununderstandable” to the individual, allow him at any moment to appear as being up to date and “knowing all about it.” Thus, stereotyped thinking in political matters is almost inescapable.

Adorno was writing nearly seventy years ago, and the pressure to “know all about” politics—as well as the volume of stereotyped information being fed to consumers—has increased exponentially. But stereotypes, while initially satisfying, exist on the level of abstraction, which leads to the need for personalization as well:

[Personalization is] the tendency to describe objective social and economic processes, political programs, internal and external tensions in terms of some person identified with the case in question rather than taking the trouble to perform the impersonal intellectual operations required by the abstractness of the social processes themselves…To know something about a person helps one to seem “informed” without actually going into the matter: it is easier to talk about names than about issues, while at the same time the names are recognized identification marks for all current topics.

Adorno concludes that “spurious personalization is an ideal behavior pattern for the semi­-erudite, a device somewhere in the middle between complete ignorance and that kind of ‘knowledge’ which is being promoted by mass communication and industrialized culture.” This is a tendency, needless to say, that we find on both the left and the right, and it becomes particularly prevalent in periods of maximum confusion:

The opaqueness of the present political and economic situation for the average person provides an ideal opportunity for retrogression to the infantile level of stereotypy and personalization…Stereotypy helps to organize what appears to the ignorant as chaotic: the less he is able to enter into a really cognitive process, the more stubbornly he clings to certain patterns, belief in which saves him the trouble of really going into the matter.

This seems to describe our predicament uncannily well, and I could keep listing the parallels forever. (Adorno has an entire subchapter titled “No Pity for the Poor.”) Whatever else you might think of his methods, there’s no question that he captures our current situation with frightening clarity: “As less and less actually depends on individual spontaneity in our political and social organization, the more people are likely to cling to the idea that the man is everything and to seek a substitute for their own social impotence in the supposed omnipotence of great personalities.” Most prophetically of all, Adorno draws a distinction between genuine conservatives and “pseudoconservatives,” describing the former as “supporting not only capitalism in its liberal, individualistic form but also those tenets of traditional Americanism which are definitely antirepressive and sincerely democratic, as indicated by an unqualified rejection of antiminority prejudices.” And he adds chillingly: “The pseudoconservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”

Written by nevalalee

November 23, 2018 at 9:00 am

Amplifying the dream

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Note: I’m taking a few days off for Thanksgiving. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 23, 2017.

In the book Nobody Turn Me Around, Charles Euchner shares a story about Bayard Rustin, a neglected but pivotal figure in the civil rights movement who played a crucial role in the March on Washington in 1963:

Bayard Rustin had insisted on renting the best sound system money could buy. To ensure order at the march, Rustin insisted, people needed to hear the program clearly. He told engineers what he wanted. “Very simple,” he said, pointing at a map. “The Lincoln Memorial is here, the Washington Monument is there. I want one square mile where anyone can hear.” Most big events rented systems for $1,000 or $2,000, but Rustin wanted to spend ten times that. Other members of the march committee were skeptical about the need for a deluxe system. “We cannot maintain order where people cannot hear,” Rustin said. If the Mall was jammed with people baking in the sun, waiting in long lines for portable toilets, anything could happen. Rustin’s job was to control the crowd. “In my view it was a classic resolution of the problem of how can you keep a crowd from becoming something else,” he said. “Transform it into an audience.”

Ultimately, Rustin was able to convince the United Auto Workers and International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Unions to raise twenty thousand dollars for the sound system. (When he was informed that it ought to be possible to do it for less, he replied: “Not for what I want.”) The company American Amplifier and Television landed the contract, and after the system was sabotaged by persons unknown the night before the march, Walter Fauntroy, who was in charge of operations on the ground, called Attorney General Robert Kennedy with a warning: “We have a serious problem. We have a couple hundred thousand people coming. Do you want a fight here tomorrow after all we’ve done?”

The system was fixed just in time, and its importance on that day is hard to overstate. As Zeynep Tufekci writes in her recent book Twitter and Tear Gas: “Rustin knew that without a focused way to communicate with the massive crowd and to keep things orderly, much could go wrong…The sound system worked without a hitch during the day of the march, playing just the role Rustin had imagined: all the participants could hear exactly what was going on, hear instructions needed to keep things orderly, and feel connected to the whole march.” But its impact on our collective memory of the event may have been even more profound. In an article last year in The New Yorker, which is where I first encountered the story, Nathan Heller notes in a discussion of Tufekci’s work:

Before the march, Martin Luther King, Jr., had delivered variations on his “I Have a Dream” speech twice in public. He had given a longer version to a group of two thousand people in North Carolina. And he had presented a second variation, earlier in the summer, before a vast crowd of a hundred thousand at a march in Detroit. The reason we remember only the Washington, D.C., version, Tufekci argues, has to do with the strategic vision and attentive detail work of people like Rustin. Framed by the Lincoln Memorial, amplified by a fancy sound system, delivered before a thousand-person press bay with good camera sight lines, King’s performance came across as something more than what it had been in Detroit—it was the announcement of a shift in national mood, the fulcrum of a movement’s story line and power. It became, in other words, the rarest of protest performances: the kind through which American history can change.

Heller concludes that successful protest movements hinge on the existence of organized, flexible, practical structures with access to elites. After noting that the sound system was repaired, on Kennedy’s orders, by the Army Corps of Engineers, he observes: “You can’t get much cozier with the Man than that.”

There’s another side to the story, however, which neither Tufekci or Heller mention. In his memoir Behind the Dream, the activist Clarence B. Jones recalls:

The Justice Department and the police had worked hand in hand with the March Committee to design a public address system powerful enough to get the speakers’ voices across the Mall; what march coordinators wouldn’t learn until after the event had ended was that the government had built in a bypass to the system so that they could instantly take over control if they deemed it necessary…Ted [Brown] and Bayard [Rustin] told us that right after the march ended those officers approached them, eager to relieve their consciences and reveal the truth about the sound system. There was a kill switch and an administration official’s thumb had been on it the entire time.

The journalist Gary Younge—whose primary source seems to be Jones—expands on this claim in his book The Speech: “Fearing incitement from the podium, the Justice Department secretly inserted a cutoff switch into the sound system so they could turn off the speakers if an insurgent group hijacked the microphone. In such an eventuality, the plan was to play a recording to Mahalia Jackson singing ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’ in order to calm down the crowd.” In Pillar of Fire, Taylor Branch identifies the official in question as Jerry Bruno, President Kennedy’s “advance man,” who “positioned himself to cut the power to the public address system if rally speeches proved incendiary.” Regardless of the details, the existence of this cutoff switch speaks to the extent to which Rustin’s sound system was central to the question of who controlled the march and its message. And the people who sabotaged it understood this intuitively. (I should also mention the curious rumor that was shared by Dave Chapelle in a comedy special on Netflix: “I heard when Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said he had a dream, he was speaking into a PA system that Bill Cosby paid for.” It’s demonstrably untrue, but it also speaks to the place of the sound system in the stories that we tell about the march.)

But what strikes me the most is the sheer practicality of the ends that Rustin, Fauntroy, and the others on the ground were trying to achieve, as conveyed in their own words: “We cannot maintain order where people cannot hear.” “How can you keep a crowd from becoming something else?” “Do you want a fight here tomorrow after all we’ve done?” They weren’t worried about history, but about making it safely to the end of the day. Rustin had been thinking about this march for two decades, and he spent years actively planning for it, conscious that it presented massive organizational challenges that could only be addressed by careful preparation in advance. He had specifically envisioned that it would conclude at the Lincoln Memorial, with a crowd filling the National Mall, a huge space that imposed enormous logistical problems of its own. The primary purpose of the sound system was to allow a quarter of a million people to assemble and disperse in a peaceful fashion, and its properties were chosen with that end in mind. (As Euchner notes: “To get one square mile of clear sound, you need to spend upwards of twenty thousand dollars.”) A system of unusual power, expense, and complexity was the minimum required to ensure the orderly conclusion of an event on that scale. When the audacity to envision the National Mall as a backdrop was combined with the attention to detail to make it work, the result was an electrically charged platform that would amplify any message, figuratively and literally, which made it both powerful and potentially dangerous. Everyone understood this. The saboteurs did. So did the Justice Department. The march’s organizers were keenly aware of it, which was why potentially controversial speakers—including James Baldwin—were excluded from the program. In the end, it became a stage for King, and at least one lesson is clear. When you aim high, and then devote everything you can to the practical side, the result might be more than you could have dreamed.

Beyond the Whole Earth

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Earlier this week, The New Yorker published a remarkably insightful piece by the memoirist and critic Anna Wiener on Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. Brand, as I’ve noted here many times before, is one of my personal heroes, almost by default—I just wouldn’t be the person I am today without the books and ideas that he inspired me to discover. (The biography of Buckminster Fuller that I plan to spend the next three years writing is the result of a chain of events that started when I stumbled across a copy of the Catalog as a teenager in my local library.) And I’m far from alone. Wiener describes Brand as “a sort of human Venn diagram, celebrated for bridging the hippie counterculture and the nascent personal-computer industry,” and she observes that his work remains a touchstone to many young technologists, who admire “its irreverence toward institutions, its emphasis on autodidacticism, and its sunny view of computers as tools for personal liberation.” Even today, Wiener notes, startup founders reach out to Brand, “perhaps in search of a sense of continuity or simply out of curiosity about the industry’s origins,” which overlooks the real possibility that he might still have more meaningful insights than anybody else. Yet he also receives his share of criticism:

“The Whole Earth Catalog is well and truly obsolete and extinct,” [Brand] said. “There’s this sort of abiding interest in it, or what it was involved in, back in the day…There’s pieces being written on the East Coast about how I’m to blame for everything,” from sexism in the back-to-the-land communes to the monopolies of Google, Amazon, and Apple. “The people who are using my name as a source of good or ill things going on in cyberspace, most of them don’t know me at all.”

Wiener continues with a list of elements in the Catalog that allegedly haven’t aged well: “The pioneer rhetoric, the celebration of individualism, the disdain for government and social institutions, the elision of power structures, the hubris of youth.” She’s got a point. But when I look at that litany of qualities now, they seem less like an ideology than a survival strategy that emerged in an era with frightening similarities to our own. Brand’s vision of the world was shaped by the end of the Johnson administration and by the dawn of Nixon and Kissinger, and many Americans were perfectly right to be skeptical of institutions. His natural optimism obscured the extent to which his ideas were a reaction to the betrayals of Watergate and Vietnam, and when I look around at the world today, his insistence on the importance of individuals and small communities seems more prescient than ever. The ongoing demolition of the legacy of the progressive moment, which seems bound to continue on the judicial level no matter what happens elsewhere, only reveals how fragile it was all along. America’s withdrawal from its positions of leadership on climate change, human rights, and other issues has been so sudden and complete that I don’t think I’ll be able to take the notion of governmental reform seriously ever again. Progress imposed from the top down can always be canceled, rolled back, or reversed as soon as power changes hands. (Speaking of Roe v. Wade, Ruth Bader Ginsburg once observed: “Doctrinal limbs too swiftly shaped, experience teaches, may prove unstable.” She seems to have been right about Roe, even if it took half a century for its weaknesses to become clear, and much the same may hold true of everything that progressives have done through federal legislation.) And if the answer, as incomplete and unsatisfying as it might be, lies in greater engagement on the state and local level, the Catalog remains as useful a blueprint as any that we have.

Yet I think that Wiener’s critique is largely on the mark. The trouble with Brand’s tools, as well as their power, is that they work equally well for everyone, regardless of the underlying motive, and when detached from their original context, they can easily be twisted into a kind of libertarianism that seems callously removed from the lives of the most vulnerable. (As Brand says to Wiener: “Whole Earth Catalog was very libertarian, but that’s because it was about people in their twenties, and everybody then was reading Robert Heinlein and asserting themselves and all that stuff.”) Some of Wiener’s most perceptive comments are directed against the Clock of the Long Now, a project that has fascinated and moved me ever since it was first announced. Wiener is less impressed: “When I first heard about the ten-thousand-year clock, as it is known, it struck me as embodying the contemporary crisis of masculinity.” She points out that the clock’s backers include such problematic figures as Peter Thiel, while the funding comes largely from Jeff Bezos, whose impact on the world has yet to receive a full accounting. And after concluding her interview with Brand, Wiener writes:

As I sat on the couch in my apartment, overheating in the late-afternoon sun, I felt a growing unease that this vision for the future, however soothing, was largely fantasy. For weeks, all I had been able to feel for the future was grief. I pictured woolly mammoths roaming the charred landscape of Northern California and future archeologists discovering the remains of the ten-thousand-year clock in a swamp of nuclear waste. While antagonism between millennials and boomers is a Freudian trope, Brand’s generation will leave behind a frightening, if unintentional, inheritance. My generation, and those after us, are staring down a ravaged environment, eviscerated institutions, and the increasing erosion of democracy. In this context, the long-term view is as seductive as the apolitical, inward turn of the communards from the nineteen-sixties. What a luxury it is to be released from politics––to picture it all panning out.

Her description of this attitude as a “luxury” seems about right, and there’s no question that the Whole Earth Catalog appealed to men and women who had the privilege of reinventing themselves in their twenties, which is a form of freedom that can evolve imperceptibly into complacency and selfishness. I’ve begun to uneasily suspect that the relationship might not just be temporal, but causal. Lamenting that the Catalog failed to save us from our current predicament, which is hard to deny, can feel a little like what David Crosby once said to Rolling Stone:

Somehow Sgt. Pepper’s did not stop the Vietnam War. Somehow it didn’t work. Somebody isn’t listening. I ain’t saying stop trying; I know we’re doing the right thing to live, full on. Get it on and do it good. But the inertia we’re up against, I think everybody’s kind of underestimated it. I would’ve thought Sgt. Pepper’s could’ve stopped the war just by putting too many good vibes in the air for anybody to have a war around.

When I wrote about this quote last year, I noted that a decisive percentage of voters who were old enough to buy Sgt. Pepper on its first release ended up voting for Donald Trump, just as some fans of the Whole Earth Catalog have built companies that have come to dominate our lives in unsettling ways. And I no longer think of this as an aberration, or even as a betrayal of the values expressed by the originals, but as an exposure of the flawed idea of freedom that they represented. (Even the metaphor of the catalog itself, which implies that we can pick and choose the knowledge that we need, seems troubling now.) Writing once of Fuller’s geodesic domes, which were a fixture in the Catalog, Brand ruefully confessed that they were elegant in theory, but in practice, they “were a massive, total failure…Domes leaked, always.” Brand’s vision, which grew out of Fuller’s, remains the most compelling way of life that I know. But it leaked, always.

Fire and Fury

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Brian De Palma’s horror movie The Fury, which celebrated its fortieth anniversary earlier this year. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about Pauline Kael’s review, which is one of the pieces included in her enormous collection For Keeps. I’ve read that book endlessly for two decades now, and as a result, The Fury is one of those films from the late seventies—like Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers—that endure in my memory mostly as a few paragraphs of Kael’s prose. In particular, I often find myself remembering these lines:

De Palma is the reverse side of the coin from Spielberg. Close Encounters gives us the comedy of hope. The Fury is the comedy of cruelly dashed hope. With Spielberg, what happens is so much better than you dared hope that you have to laugh; with De Palma, it’s so much worse than you feared that you have to laugh.

That sums up how I feel about a lot of things these days, when everything is consistently worse than I could have imagined, although laughter usually feels very far away. (Another line from Kael inadvertently points to the danger of identifying ourselves with our political heroes: “De Palma builds up our identification with the very characters who will be destroyed, or become destroyers, and some people identified so strongly with Carrie that they couldn’t laugh—they felt hurt and betrayed.”) And her description of one pivotal scene, which appears in her review of Dressed to Kill, gets closer than just about anything else to my memories of the last presidential election: “There’s nothing here to match the floating, poetic horror of the slowed-down sequence in which Amy Irving and Carrie Snodgress are running to freedom: it’s as if each of them and each of the other people on the street were in a different time frame, and Carrie Snodgress’s face is full of happiness just as she’s flung over the hood of a car.”

The Fury seems to have been largely forgotten by mainstream audiences, but references to it pop up in works ranging from Looper to Stranger Things, and I suspect that it might be due for a reappraisal. It’s about two teenagers, a boy and a girl, who have never met, but who share a psychic connection. As Kael notes, they’re “superior beings” who might have been prophets or healers in an earlier age, but now they’ve been targeted by our “corrupt government…which seeks to use them for espionage, as secret weapons.” Reading this now, I’m slightly reminded of our current administration’s unapologetic willingness to use vulnerable families and children as political pawns, but that isn’t really the point. What interests me more is how De Palma’s love of violent imagery undercuts the whole moral arc of the movie. I might call this a problem, except that it isn’t—it’s a recurrent feature of his work that resonated uneasily with viewers who were struggling to integrate the specter of institutionalized violence into their everyday lives. (In a later essay, Kael wrote of acquaintances who resisted such movies because of its association with the “guilty mess” of the recently concluded war: “There’s a righteousness in their tone when they say they don’t like violence; I get the feeling that I’m being told that my urging them to see The Fury means that I’ll be responsible if there’s another Vietnam.”) And it’s especially striking in this movie, which for much of its length is supposedly about an attempt to escape this cycle of vengeance. Of the two psychic teens, Robyn, played by Andrew Stevens, eventually succumbs to it, while Gillian, played by Amy Irving, fights it for as long as she can. As Kael explains: “Both Gillian and Robyn have the power to zap people with their minds. Gillian is trying to cling to her sanity—she doesn’t want to hurt anyone. And, knowing that her power is out of her conscious control, she’s terrified of her own secret rages.”

And it’s hard for me to read this passage now without connecting it to the ongoing discussion over women’s anger, in which the word “fury” occurs with surprising frequency. Here’s the journalist Rebecca Traister writing in the New York Times, in an essay adapted from her bestselling book Good and Mad:

Fury was a tool to be marshaled by men like Judge Kavanaugh and Senator Graham, in defense of their own claims to political, legal, public power. Fury was a weapon that had not been made available to the woman who had reason to question those claims…Most of the time, female anger is discouraged, repressed, ignored, swallowed. Or transformed into something more palatable, and less recognizable as fury—something like tears. When women are truly livid, they often weep…This political moment has provoked a period in which more and more women have been in no mood to dress their fury up as anything other than raw and burning rage.

Traister’s article was headlined: “Fury is a Political Weapon. And Women Need to Wield It.” And if you were so inclined, you could take The Fury as an extended metaphor for the issue that Casey Cep raises in her recent roundup of books on the subject in The New Yorker: “A major problem with anger is that some people are allowed to express it while others are not.” In the film, Gillian spends most of the movie resisting her violent urges, while her male psychic twin gives into them, and the climax—which is the only scene that most viewers remember—hinges on her embrace of the rage that Robyn passed to her at the moment of his death.

This brings us to Childress, the villain played by John Cassavetes, whose demise Kael hyperbolically describes as “the greatest finish for any villain ever.” A few paragraphs earlier, Kael writes of this scene:

This is where De Palma shows his evil grin, because we are implicated in this murderousness: we want it, just as we wanted to see the bitchy Chris get hers in Carrie. Cassavetes is an ideal villain (as he was in Rosemary’s Baby)—sullenly indifferent to anything but his own interests. He’s so right for Childress that one regrets that there wasn’t a real writer around to match his gloomy, viscous nastiness.

“Gloomy, viscous nastiness” might ring a bell today, and Childress’s death—Gillian literally blows him up with her mind—feels like the embodiment of our impulses for punishment, revenge, and retribution. It’s stunning how quickly the movie discards Gillian’s entire character arc for the sake of this moment, but what makes the ending truly memorable is what happens next, which is nothing. Childress explodes, and the film just ends, because it has nothing left to show us. That works well enough in a movie, but in real life, we have to face the problem of what Brittney Cooper, whose new book explicitly calls rage a superpower, sums up as “what kind of world we want to see, not just what kind of things we want to get rid of.” In her article in The New Yorker, Cep refers to the philosopher and classicist Martha Nussbaum’s treatment of the Furies themselves, who are transformed at the end of the Oresteia into the Eumenides, “beautiful creatures that serve justice rather than pursue cruelty.” It isn’t clear how this transformation takes place, and De Palma, typically, sidesteps it entirely. But if we can’t imagine anything beyond cathartic vengeance, we’re left with an ending closer to what Kael writes of Dressed to Kill: “The spell isn’t broken and [De Palma] doesn’t fully resolve our fear. He’s saying that even after the horror has been explained, it stays with you—the nightmare never ends.”

Written by nevalalee

October 30, 2018 at 9:24 am

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