I Tell You This for the First Time Ever:
Things I Have Learned about Literature and the Arts
by Brantley Thompson Elkins
by Brantley Thompson Elkins
If we all had hearts like those which beat so lightly in the bosoms of the young and beautiful, what a heaven this earth would be! If, while our bodies grow old and withered, our hearts could but retain their early youth and freshness, of what avail would be our sorrows and sufferings!
That’s a passage from Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. It has nothing to do with the plot of the novel. It is part of a tale, told Canterbury style, by one of the passengers of a coach that has come to grief. But it resonates with me. I was already past 60 when I first read it, and turned 66 on Nov. 3, 2007. Yet I feel young at heart, because I have work I love and things I love – and my true love Velvet by my side to share them.
One of my loves is literature. It is a love that is mostly self-taught, because the way literature seems to be taught generally in schools and colleges is uninspiring to say the least. When I was in prep school, it seemed that fiction was supposed to be the handmaiden of sociology – I suppose this was a carryover from the doctrine of the naturalistic school of Emile Zola and Theodore Dreiser that was ancient literary history at the time. In one class, we had to memorize events from novels we never got around to reading. One we did was Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers, of which I remember nothing save that it bored me. Another was Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith, on which I wrote a rather superficial essay. We read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the Durbervilles, which I remember vaguely, and something by Joseph Conrad – I can’t remember just what. What I do remember was that Literature with a capital L was supposed to be about Society with a capital S and, in particular, that Society was at fault for whatever went wrong with the lives of the characters in stories and novels.
It wasn’t until I got out of college that I began reading any of the classics on my own. It started with Conrad’s Lord Jim, because that had just been made into a movie. But I went on to read his Victory, which had a peculiar resonance for me. I was an alienated young man at the time; youthful alienation was and still is one of the great clichés of our time. There must have been, must still be, millions of young men living that cliché. Axel Heyst, the protagonist of the novel, is the archetypical alienated man, who shuns human relationships and considers himself a realist (“There's nothing worth knowing but facts. Hard facts! Facts alone.”). He has become a recluse on some island in the East Indies, wallowing in self-pity, until Lena, a violinist with a touring orchestra, comes into his life when he spirits her away from the venal hotel keeper to whom the orchestra owner has sold her. He falls in love with her, but such is his alienation that he is afraid to admit it – until their refuge is invaded by thugs sent by the hotel keeper, and she takes a bullet to save him.
"No more," she muttered. "There will be no more! Oh, my beloved," she cried weakly, "I've saved you! Why don't you take me into your arms and carry me out of this lonely place?"
Heyst bent low over her, cursing his fastidious soul, which even at that moment kept the true cry of love from his lips in its infernal mistrust of all life. He dared not touch her and she had no longer the strength to throw her arms about his neck.
"Who else could have done this for you?" she whispered gloriously.
"No one in the world," he answered her in a murmur of unconcealed despair.
That “infernal mistrust of all life.” It was as if Conrad was speaking, not to his time, nor to Society, nor to the ages, but to me. I knew that I must at all costs overcome that defect in myself. I hardly knew where to begin, and yet I began. But that is another story. The story I want to tell here is how I came to appreciate the art of Conrad and other writers, and even science fiction – something I had grown up with and loved, but never been taught to appreciate as art.
Victory had touched a raw nerve of my own, but in other works Conrad touched the raw nerve of the world. In The Secret Agent, his mad Professor -- who goes around with a bomb strapped to his chest -- is a distillation of what makes a terrorist tick. Conrad had known of such men in his own time, and we have seen too many in our time. The surface details may differ, the causes may differ – revolutionary socialism then or radical Islam now – but the essence remains the same. Conrad catches that essence in a scene where the Professor is telling a comrade about another comrade’s utopian vision of “a world planned out like an immense and nice hospital, with gardens and flowers,” where the weak are tended by the strong:
"Conceive you this folly, Ossipon? The weak! The source of all evil on this earth!" he continued with his grim assurance. "I told him that I dreamt of a world like shambles, where the weak would be taken in hand for utter extermination."
"Do you understand, Ossipon? The source of all evil! They are our sinister masters–the weak, the flabby, the silly, the cowardly, the faint of heart, and the slavish of mind. They have power. They are the multitude. Theirs is the kingdom of the earth. Exterminate, exterminate! That is the only way of progress. It is! Follow me, Ossipon. First the great multitude of the weak must go, then the only relatively strong. You see? First the blind, then the deaf and the dumb, then the halt and the lame--and so on. Every taint, every vice, every prejudice, every convention must meet its doom."
The Secret Agent was made into a rather clumsy film about a decade ago, and I wouldn’t recommend it but for one thing: Robin Williams’ performance as the Professor. Williams was known only for comic roles at the time, but he had Conrad’s character dead-on in all his deadly arrogance, and the film ends on the same note of dread as the novel:
And the incorruptible Professor walked too, averting his eyes from the odious multitude of mankind. He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable--and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.
From this you might get the impression that Conrad was the apostle of doom and gloom; indeed, he is so widely regarded thus that some critics give the impression that the Conrad of “Heart of Darkness” (“The horror, the horror!”), elements of which found their way into Apocalypse Now, is the only authentic Conrad, and dismiss his sunnier novels like Chance. Critics, too, seem to forget his comic side, as witness “Typhoon,” where an incredibly dense captain commands a ship that, on its latest voyage, is sailing under the flag of Siam:
The first morning the new flag floated over the stern of the Nan-Shan Jukes stood looking at it bitterly from the bridge. He struggled with his feelings for a while, and then remarked, “Queer flag for a man to sail under, sir.”
“What's the matter with the flag?” inquired Captain MacWhirr. “Seems all right to me.” And he walked across to the end of the bridge to have a good look.
“Well, it looks queer to me,” burst out Jukes, greatly exasperated, and flung off the bridge.
Captain MacWhirr was amazed at these manners. After a while he stepped quietly into the chart-room, and opened his International Signal Code-book at the plate where the flags of all the nations are correctly figured in gaudy rows. He ran his finger over them, and when he came to Siam he contemplated with great attention the red field and the white elephant. Nothing could be more simple; but to make sure he brought the book out on the bridge for the purpose of comparing the coloured drawing with the real thing at the flagstaff astern. When next Jukes, who was carrying on the duty that day with a sort of suppressed fierceness, happened on the bridge, his commander observed:
“There's nothing amiss with that flag.”
“Isn’t there?” mumbled Jukes, falling on his knees before a deck-locker and jerking therefrom viciously a spare lead-line.
“No. I looked up the book. Length twice the breadth and the elephant exactly in the middle. I thought the people ashore would know how to make the local flag. Stands to reason. You were wrong, Jukes. . . .”
Charles Dickens was a writer I must have encountered in grade school. Everyone has encountered him by then, if only in film and TV versions of “A Christmas Carol.” That gives the impression that he was a very sentimental writer, and he was. But, as George Orwell pointed out in an essay, the most important thing about Dickens was that he was a “generously angry” 19th Century liberal. He was angry at every injustice, but he didn’t believe in revolution as the solution – see A Tale of Two Cities. He believed in people, and he believed that if people would only behave decently, we would have a decent world. That isn’t, as Orwell remarked, as naēve an idea as it sounds. Nicholas Nickleby isn’t naēve, and in a scene where he turns the tables on a wicked schoolmaster who has been tormenting one of his pupils, he’s anything but a wuss:
“You have disregarded all my quiet interference in the miserable lad’s behalf,” said Nicholas; “you have returned no answer to the letter in which I begged forgiveness for him, and offered to be responsible that he would remain quietly here. Don't blame me for this public interference. You have brought it upon yourself; not I.”
“Sit down, beggar!” screamed Squeers, almost beside himself with rage, and seizing Smike as he spoke.
“Wretch,” rejoined Nicholas, fiercely, “touch him at your peril! I will not stand by, and see it done. My blood is up, and I have the strength of ten such men as you. Look to yourself, for by Heaven I will not spare you, if you drive me on!”
“Stand back,” cried Squeers, brandishing his weapon.
“I have a long series of insults to avenge,” said Nicholas, flushed with passion; “and my indignation is aggravated by the dastardly cruelties practised on helpless infancy in this foul den. Have a care; for if you do raise the devil within me, the consequences shall fall heavily upon your own head!”
He had scarcely spoken, when Squeers, in a violent outbreak of wrath, and with a cry like the howl of a wild beast, spat upon him, and struck him a blow across the face with his instrument of torture, which raised up a bar of livid flesh as it was inflicted. Smarting with the agony of the blow, and concentrating into that one moment all his feelings of rage, scorn, and indignation, Nicholas sprang upon him, wrested the weapon from his hand, and pinning him by the throat, beat the ruffian till he roared for mercy.
I’m not usually a cheerleader for violence in the arts, but this is a stand-up-and-cheer scene for me, as it may well be for any of you who have had close encounters with the really rotten people of the world. But behind Squeers in the novel is Nicholas’ uncle Ralph, who makes it his business to make life as miserable as he possibly can for his nephew. What Ralph doesn’t know is that Smike, the afflicted boy he had long ago consigned to Squeers’ tender mercies, is actually his own illegitimate son. He doesn’t learn of this until Smike has died, full of hatred for the man he has never known as a father. In a harrowing scene, Ralph curses the church bell as he prepares to hang himself:
“I know its meaning now,” he muttered, “and the restless nights, the dreams, and why I have quailed of late. All pointed to this. Oh! if men by selling their own souls could ride rampant for a term, for how short a term would I barter mine tonight!”
The sound of a deep bell came along the wind. One.
“Lie on!” cried the usurer, “with your iron tongue! Ring merrily for births that make expectants writhe, and marriages that are made in hell, and toll ruefully for the dead whose shoes are worn already! Call men to prayers who are godly because not found out, and ring chimes for the coming in of every year that brings this cursed world nearer to its end. No bell or book for me! Throw me on a dunghill, and let me rot there, to infect the air!”
With a wild look around, in which frenzy, hatred, and despair were horribly mingled, he shook his clenched hand at the sky above him, which was still dark and threatening, and closed the window.
The rain and hail pattered against the glass; the chimneys quaked and rocked; the crazy casement rattled with the wind, as though an impatient hand inside were striving to burst it open. But no hand was there, and it opened no more.
This isn’t the Dickens we know from “A Christmas Carol;” this is almost Shakespearian – powerful stuff, written with passion. I don’t have to tell any of you about Shakespeare, I trust, and I could go on forever about other classic writers – and classics I should have read by now but haven’t for lack of time. But one thing more here. There are two classic stories I first encountered in my teens; I forgot the titles and the authors soon afterwards, but I remembered the stories. Years later, I came across them again: one was Rudyard Kipling’s “Without Benefit of Clergy,” the other D.H. Lawrence’s “The Lovely Lady.” I highly recommend them, but at the time I first read them I could never have explained why.
Lester del Rey, science fiction writer and editor, was a long-time friend of mine – almost a surrogate father when I was badly in need of a father figure. My own father had been emotionally remote, and he and my mother were divorced when I was in college. I would doubtless have been a garden-variety alienated young man in any case, but my estrangement from my father certainly made things worse.
Out of college, I was just becoming involved in the science fiction fan community – something far more to my liking than the dominant community at college which, then as now, was interested only in beer and football (Well, sex, too, but I doubt that most of my housemates had much better luck at that than I did.). When people think of sf fans these days, they think of Trekkies – and perhaps of the Star Trek fan spoof on Saturday Night Live where William Shatner urged Trekkies to “move out of your parents’ basements and get a life.”
I had been reading sf since the age of ten. My parents had taken me to see Destination Moon, the first serious post-World War II sf movie, and I later followed now-forgotten shows like Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and Captain Video on TV. But after dinner, we’d gather in the living room to take turns reading aloud Robert A. Heinlein’s “juvenile” sf novels—which as anyone who has read them can attest, were actually quite mature fare, years ahead of the gritty mainstream teenage novels by S.E. Hinton and the like. I was soon reading on my own -- stories in Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy and Fantasy and Science Fiction magazines plus whatever books happened to be in our basement library. It was a pretty limited selection; I remember I had to order H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds at school through something called the Teen-Age Book Club. But at home I managed to find Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity and Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (More on Stapledon anon) and such classic short stories as James Blish’s “Surface Tension” and John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”
Here’s the thing about science fiction: you either love it or you don’t. I loved it, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, I loved it as literature. Perhaps this is no longer true of today’s fans, with all the changes in the market of late. But it was true then, and not only for me. One prep school roommate had spent time after lights out regaling me with his retellings of Edward E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman space opera epic and Clifford D. Simak’s Cosmic Engineers, which I had never seen, and which I didn’t get a chance to read myself until they came out in paperback years later, about the time I left college. Many years after that, I was at an sf convention where Clement himself gave a reading – not of one of his own works, but of Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” These were acts of love, more fundamental – to me, at least – than such fannish activities as masquerades and filksinging (New lyrics to old songs, viz. “On the first day of Marxmas my true love gave to me, a picture of Leon Trotsky.”).
I had met Heinlein once at the home of John W. Campbell, then editor of Astounding, when I was about 12, and Arthur C. Clarke had been a dinner guest at our home. My father took me to an sf convention in San Francisco when the family was on vacation; I think I was introduced to “Doc” Smith there. But I never attended any cons on my own until after college. Once I did, however, I was hooked: imagine meeting, even becoming friends, with people like Isaac Asimov! Beyond that, I was part of a true community of men and women who shared my love of sf. But it wasn’t entirely a bed of roses – I was soon caught up in an epic feud between traditional sf and the so-called “New Wave,” which I regarded as nothing but a pretentious attempt to ape the worst of the mainstream. I proclaimed a movement called the Second Foundation; it was a sham.
Lester, already a critic of the New Wave, suffered himself to be designated as the First Speaker of the mythical Second Foundation – Asimov fans will get the allusion. He was willing to take the same kind of heat I was taking, and had more experience at it – he was a terrific speaker and a skilled debater; I never once saw him lose an argument. But beyond that, he was my mentor. Perhaps he sensed that, like Conrad’s Axel Heyst, I was “tied up in knots.” Lester helped me untie them, in any case, and encouraged me to refine my arguments. One of my most precious possessions is an autographed copy of his first short story collection, …And Some Were Human, a 30th birthday present. But of even greater value, perhaps, is a book Lester referred me to: C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism.
Lewis was a devout Christian and, more than that, a Christian apologist. I have never been a Christian; I don’t believe in God or religion at all. I would never have believed that I had anything to learn from Lewis about literature, or anything else. But it turned out that An Experiment in Criticism, although it contained some religious allusions, took an entirely fresh look at literature. Lewis’ “experiment” was that of examining how books are actually read, and judging them by that standard, rather than judging readers on how they respond to books arbitrarily declared to be literature by critics. Most readers, he argued, don’t set much store by reading; they do it only to kill time, and without giving it much attention. Books never change their lives, and they never read anything twice. But for true readers….
… the first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before. But there is no sign of anything like this among the other sort of readers. When they have finished the story or the novel, nothing much, or nothing at all, seems to have happened to them.
… as a natural result of their different behaviour in reading, what they have read is constantly and prominently present to the mind of the few, but not to that of the many. The former mouth over their favorite lines and stanzas in solitude. Scenes and characters from books provide them with a sort of iconography by which they interpret or sum up their own experience. They talk to one another about books, often and at length. The latter seldom think or talk of their reading.
Lewis’ thesis was a revelation to me. I had been having literary experiences all along, and hadn’t known it! I had been reacting in the same manner to the recognized classics of literature and the unrecognized classics of science fiction. Perhaps this shouldn’t have been a surprise to me. SF might be regarded as mere popular fiction, but so were the novels of Dickens and even Fyodor Dostoyevsky in their time. This is not to say that most sf, or most popular fiction of any sort, is of lasting literary merit. There was another experiment once, I think by Wilson “Bob” Tucker, who examined both reviews and best-seller lists from the 1930s: most of the best-sellers of that time were books that had since been forgotten -- but so were most of those acclaimed by the critics. Theodore Sturgeon, one of the genre’s giants, was once asked how he could take science fiction seriously when ninety percent of it was crap. His response, “Ninety percent of everything is crap,” has come to be known as Sturgeon’s Law. But how to distinguish the wheat from the crap? Lewis goes out on a limb here:
If we find that a book is usually read in one way, still more if we never find that it is read in the other, we have a prima facie case for thinking it bad. If on the other hand we found even one reader to whom the cheap little book with its double columns and the lurid daub on its cover had been a lifelong delight, who had read and reread it, who would notice, and object, if a single word were changed, then, however little we could see in it ourselves and however it was despised by our friends and colleagues, we should not dare put it beyond the pale.
Lewis was overstating the case here, for elsewhere he acknowledged that there were good-bad books – books that were good in some ways and bad in others, giving H. Rider Haggard’s She as an example. That is clearly an issue that goes beyond changing single words. There are even good-bad writers. Alexandre Dumas produced seemingly countless novels, most with the aid of a “writing factory” of paid but uncredited collaborators. No doubt 90% of these are quite forgettable, yet The Count of Monte Cristo, is an enduring classic – as worthy of inclusion in the canon as Shakespeare. But fault can be found even in recognized classics. Dorothy Sayers, in an odd book of literary theory called The Mind of the Maker, pointed out that it was implausible for Uriah Heep, the scheming villain of Dickens’ David Copperfield, to be found out and exposed by the otherwise ineffectual Wilkins Micawber. Yet Sayers didn’t mean to trash Dickens or his novel. As Frederik Pohl once remarked, “a classic is a work so good that we can forgive it its faults.”
But it was Lewis, again, who gave me what I still believe to be the best explanation of why we read literature, of what we get out of reading:
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them, our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.
Alan Bennett, author of The History Boys, offers a corollary to that, in a scene where Hector and Posmer are reading Hardy’s Drummer Hodge, and Posner remarks:
The best moments in reading are when you come across something -- a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things -- that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.
Literature – culture in general – is somehow both universal and personal. The books are there for everybody, but we each bring our own experience and tastes – and yes, even our allergies and prejudices – to our reading. I confess to being bored by the works of Trollope and Henry James – every time I have tried to read a James novel, I have started to nod off. Yet I know that there are many readers for whom James passes Lewis' test of great fiction, and I would be a fool to argue with them. Because I am who I am, I also know that I don’t necessarily key in on the same elements in works I admire as may others who admire the same works. In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, for example, there is one exchange between Rochester and Jane that jumps out at me:
“When I was as old as you, I was a feeling fellow enough, partial to the unfledged, unfostered, and unlucky; but Fortune has knocked me about since: she has even kneaded me with her knuckles, and now I flatter myself I am hard and tough as an India-rubber ball; pervious, though, through a chink or two still, and with one sentient point in the middle of the lump. Yes: does that leave hope for me?”
“Hope of what, sir?”
“Of my final re-transformation from India-rubber back to flesh?”
When I first encountered this passage, my reaction was: she knows my pain. That was back in my Axel Heyst days; you can see the parallel. So much for the notion that women can’t write about men. But I am sure that women readers, and other men readers, have had a different take on the same passage, or other passages on which they have keyed in on out of their own experience, out of their unique individuality.
It is hard to convey the sense of liberation that I experienced from An Experiment in Criticism; one parallel, which might not have been to Lewis’ liking, is from the 1500s, when religious reformers argued that each individual should read and interpret the Bible for himself, rather than blindly accepting the pronouncements of the priesthood. Literary critics – not ordinary reviewers, but the academics who write scholarly essays and books – are too often too much like a priesthood, their writings too much like fatwas, whether in praise or condemnation. Edmund Wilson, famously condemning J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (“Oo, Those Awful Orcs”), came off as if he thought he were a medieval knight, defending the Keep against an onslaught of barbarians. More recent theoreticians of the deconstructionist school may argue that literary texts don’t have any definite meaning – but, by God, they know what’s good and what’s bad.
Each generation of critics seems to find a new generation of writers to praise, with a new theory to account for why these writers are so great, and why previous generations of writers are of little or no account. They can be experts of the new school, and pretend that no other schools matter. Perhaps this is a defense mechanism; to pick out a few worthy writers and books and treat the rest, in Lewis’ words, “as so many lamp-posts for a dog,” is to evade the unfortunate truth that it is impossible to be expert on all literature. Honoré de Balzac alone is said to have written 90 novels; to not only read them all but to become familiar with them, to trace their allusions, their sources in Balzac’s life and the social and literary life of France generally, might well be the work of a lifetime. One could then become an uncontested authority on Balzac -- but on nothing else. The difficulty today is even greater: just check out the Fiction and Literature section at Borders or Barnes and Noble. Forget about recognized classics, forget about the obvious poplit of John Grisham or Danielle Steele, who do not aspire to literary immortality; look at the contemporary authors and books which, according to critical blurbs, may have a valid claim to literary status: a lifetime might well be too short to read them all even once.
However much or however little we read, however, Lewis leaves us free to make our own judgments. It seems easy to me to find examples of novelists who could write well in one book and poorly in another. Here, for one example, are the opening paragraphs of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons:
Major Amberson had “made a fortune” in 1873, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then. Magnificence, like the size of a fortune, is always comparative, as even Magnificent Lorenzo may now perceive, if he has happened to haunt New York in 1916; and the Ambersons were magnificent in their day and place. Their splendour lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city, but reached its topmost during the period when every prosperous family with children kept a Newfoundland dog.
In that town, in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet, and when there was a new purchase of sealskin, sick people were got to windows to see it go by. Trotters were out, in the winter afternoons, racing light sleighs on National Avenue and Tennessee Street; everybody recognized both the trotters and the drivers; and again knew them as well on summer evenings, when slim buggies whizzed by in renewals of the snow-time rivalry. For that matter, everybody knew everybody else's family horse-and-carriage, could identify such a silhouette half a mile down the street, and thereby was sure who was going to market, or to a reception, or coming home from office or store to noon dinner or evening supper.
Orson Welles knew what he was doing when he drew on parts of Tarkington’s prologue almost verbatim for the voice-over in an opening montage of scenes for his film version: the words fairly beg to be read aloud. But it is doubtful that Welles would have found any inspiration in the pompous opening paragraphs of The Turmoil, which is set in the same city or, at any rate, one quite like it:
There is a midland city in the heart of fair, open country, a dirty and wonderful city nesting dingily in the fog of its own smoke. The stranger must feel the dirt before he feels the wonder, for the dirt will be upon him instantly. It will be upon him and within him, since he must breathe it, and he may care for no further proof that wealth is here better loved than cleanliness; but whether he cares or not, the negligently tended streets incessantly press home the point, and so do the flecked and grimy citizens. At a breeze he must smother in the whirlpools of dust, and if he should decline at any time to inhale the smoke he has the meager alternative of suicide.
The smoke is like the bad breath of a giant panting for more and more riches. He gets them and pants the fiercer, smelling and swelling prodigiously. He has a voice, a hoarse voice, hot and rapacious trained to one tune: “Wealth! I will get Wealth! I will make Wealth! I will sell Wealth for more Wealth! My house shall be dirty, my garment shall be dirty, and I will foul my neighbor so that he cannot be clean--but I will get Wealth! There shall be no clean thing about me: my wife shall be dirty and my child shall be dirty, but I will get Wealth!” And yet it is not wealth that he is so greedy for: what the giant really wants is hasty riches. To get these he squanders wealth upon the four winds, for wealth is in the smoke.
Tarkington is long gone, and we know that he never achieved the stature of Dickens on Conrad – nor of such later critical favorites as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and, most recently, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Is this fair? Perhaps there is no fairness in literary history, any more than in social and political history. Classics have come to be regarded as works that are taught, that are part of the academic curriculum. Thomas J. Roberts, an old friend who recently retired after a teaching career at the University of Connecticut, recalled that in his youth George Eliot’s Silas Marner was the classic most forced upon students. But is a novel really a classic if it is never read outside the classroom, studied endlessly but never truly appreciated?
Dickens and Conrad and Hemingway and Joyce and Garcia Marquez are all read outside the classroom; that may be the truest indication of their merit. But what of contemporary authors who have not yet been judged by history, fairly or otherwise? I confess that my own reading is spotty; I am not familiar with such much-admired novelists as Donald Barthelme, Bernard Malamud and Thomas Pynchon (From what I’ve read about him, Pynchon seems intimidating, but that may or may not be relevant.). I have read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which I found intelligent and witty, entertaining in the best sense -- not at all what I might have expected from the learned commentaries that cling to it like barnacles.
Much of my contemporary reading – and I wish I had more time for it -- is of what might be called, unfairly for want of a better term, middlebrow authors. Joyce Carol Oates is a case in point. She is as prolific as Dickens, it seems, even if her novels aren’t serialized, and yet she is also an intellectual in the literary (but not political) tradition of Orwell, as I can tell from her essays in Where I’ve Been and Where I’m Going.
Oates’ novels cover a broad range, but my favorites tend to be her upstate New York stories like You Must Remember This, What I Lived For and We Were the Mulvaneys – that last got a boost a few years ago from Oprah Winfrey and made Oates, at least briefly, a literary celebrity. These are stories about ordinary people, but told with extraordinary passion. When Oates writes about the rich and famous, as in The Assassins (the Kennedy family) and Blonde (Marilyn Monroe), her novels don’t seem to me to ring true. Perhaps that is just a prejudice on my part. One thing for sure: she really knows how to hook the reader. Here’s the opening of What I Lived For:
God erupted in thunder and shattering glass.
God was deafening, out of the winter sky heavy with storm clouds above Lake Erie.
God was six bursts staccato bursts of fire, and glass flying like crazy laughter, and the skidding of a car’s tires as a car accelerated rapidly going eastward on Schuyler.
God struck so swiftly, and without warning. No mercy. In the lightly falling powdery-glinting snow of Christmas Eve.
That is how Timothy Patrick Corcoran is assassinated while hanging a wreath on the front door of his house. But the story is about his son Jerome “Corky” Corcoran, just a child at the time, whose peculiar sense of honor (akin to that of Dmitri Karamazov) causes him to refuse to lie about having seen and known the killers. Corky grows up to become a wheeler-dealer real estate mogul and city councilman -- a mover-and-shaker in Union City (read Buffalo). He’s crude and he’s lewd – not the kind of guy you’d expect to identify with. Yet Corky Corcoran grows on you; as J. Williams put it at Amazon.com: “You give in, not because he deserves your love, but because you want to give it to him. Only Oates could pull it off.”
Oates takes us through a few days in Corky’s life, when he faces a series of personal and political crises – including his tangled love life, a racially-charged police shooting and the apparent suicide of a young woman who had accused a fellow councilman of rape. Among other things, he finally learns why his father was murdered – something that was hushed up when he was a child – and thwarts a killing by his own stepdaughter at the cost of ending up in the hospital with a bullet wound. Some reviewers interpreted the entire novel as a story of “moral ruin,” but it actually ends on a note of redemption that is common in Oates’ novels, but always atypical in its expression. Earlier in What I Lived For, Corky has blown off a constituent who pestered him with some cockamamie plan for a Union City Mausoleum of the Dead. The same constituent, whose very name he can’t remember, approaches him again at the end, but this time:
Hell, come on in, I’m Corky Corcoran. I’m your man.
In Middle Age, the center of the story is Adam Berendt, an eccentric sculptor with a mysterious past. He has touched the lives of a number of people in his community in a number of ways, and the novel explores the complex set of relationships among them – one an aspiring artist herself, who finally finds her muse but not in the way she intended. Only Berendt himself is already dead when the story begins, having given his own life to save a drowning child at a Fourth of July party, as we learn at the outset:
Is this fair? You leave your house in Salthill-on-Hudson on the muggy afternoon of July Fourth for a cookout (an invitation you didn’t want to accept, but somehow accepted) and return days later in a cheesy-looking funeral urn: bone chunks and chips and coarse gritty powder to be dumped out, scattered, and raked in the crumbly soil of your own garden.
Fertilizer for weeds.
I think it’s fair to say nobody else writes like that. That’s what I love about Oates. But she has gotten a fair hearing from reviewers, and even from Oprah. That isn’t the case with other writers I consider worthy. Ralph Peters, for example.
Peters first came to notice with a couple of technothrillers, Red Army and The War in 2020. Technothrillers were a belated literary response to the Cold War and the threat of World War III. When the Soviet Union collapsed, they lost most of their reason for being. Even Tom Clancy has retired from the field. A retired soldier, Peters is best known today as a conservative columnist and author of non-fiction books about the challenges to America in the age of terrorism. As a commentator, I sometimes find him right on the mark – and sometimes right off it. He is eight novels into a series of Civil War novels under the pseudonym Owen Parry, none of which I have read. But I have read his post-Cold War thrillers published under his own name – Flames of Heaven, The Perfect Soldier, The Devil’s Garden, Twilight of Heroes and Traitor. The last was a dud, and may have ended his career in that milieu, but the rest are extraordinary.
With their world-weary protagonists, they have much in common with the thrillers of Robert L. Duncan (Temple Dogs, The Queen’s Messenger), unfairly forgotten since his death (to my mind, at least), save that Duncan was of the Left and Peters is of the Right. In The Perfect Soldier, the hero, Christopher Ritter, is an embittered officer who has seen the moral chaos of post-Soviet Asia and whose own life is in chaos – his wife has committed suicide. The convoluted plot involves, among other things, a buried secret that the Soviets held American prisoners long after the Korean War. That secret stays buried, but in the course of the story, Ritter becomes involved with Charlee Whyte, a liberal heroine.
That’s right, a liberal heroine. We’re used to seeing caricatures of liberals by right-wing authors and caricatures of conservatives by left-wing authors, but Peters pays homage to the incredible bravery of Charlee, whom we first see on a humanitarian mission for the Defense Department in the Balkans. Against all odds, she believes that good men and women must resist evil “for the moral sake of resistance;” for if they “gave up the habit of resistance, the little warlords bulked into great dictators, and the horrid atrocities metastasized across borders as contagiously as a pop hit or a dance craze.” When she catches the stench that she knows must come from a killing field, she defies her handler and invites the media to follow her to the site, even as a local soldier turns his gun on her.
The world took on a silence as big as the sky. She could hear her footsteps on the grass between the ruts, on the autumn-hardened earth. On the leaves that died so gorgeously, at their appointed time.
She heard the action slap back and come forward again on a rifle. But she didn’t look back.
I should have taken more time to look at the world, she thought. It’s so beautiful, really.
The smell of human death was so strong it brought her insides to a boil. Her stomach yearned to empty itself. Any way it could.
It was an indescribable smell. Yet, once you had smelled it, you could never forget it.
Will I smell that way? she wondered.
Her handler begs her to stop: “These people are serious.” But she is more serious. The threatened shot never comes.
She had won. She was sure of it.
Ahead of her, just where the trees broke, a blackened forearm reached up out of the earth.
When I first read The Perfect Soldier, I was in awe of how Peters could capture such horror and nobility in the same scene. You won’t find him discussed in English Lit classes, or academic journals or even on Oprah, but he’s a damn good writer. There’s a lesson to be learned from this, and I want you to learn it and learn it well:
Art, like gold, is where you find it.
Planets. Seven of them. Armed and powered as only a planet can be armed and powered; with fixed-mount weapons incapable of mounting upon a lesser mobile base, with fixed-mount intakes and generators which only planetary resources could excite or feed.
That’s a passage from Second Stage Lensman, one of segments of Edward E. Smith’s epic that I heard retold by night in prep school. I present it as an actual test case, the equivalent of that “cheap little book” that C.S. Lewis used as a hypothetical test case. Smith’s space operas were the stuff of pulp science fiction of the 1930s, before the Campbell revolution at Astounding that ushered in what was christened Modern Science Fiction – the work of Heinlein and Asimov and other now legendary names. As it happens, the Lensman novels were serialized in Astounding, and thus appeared along side the sf of the new generation. Because Smith took a break to work at an ammunition plant during World War II, the final serial didn’t appear until two years after the war. By that time, some of the comments in letters to the editor were less than kind: Smith and his kind of writing had seemingly become relics.
Smith was an easy target for writers and critics of the new sf generation. Cyril M. Kornbluth, perhaps best remembered today for his collaborations with Frederik Pohl in satirical novels like The Space Merchants, delivered a truly vicious critique, inspired by the then-fashionable Freudian school of criticism, that characterized Smith as not only an execrable writer but a loathsome man – a pathetic case of arrested development at the infantile level. In his introductions to Old Earth Books trade paperback reprints of the series in the 1990s, contemporary sf critic John Clute took a condescending approach, treating Smith as sort of a guilty pleasure, while reminding readers (in the intro to Gray Lensman) that his supposed world of the future is but “a spinster’s bedroom, a mantra of denials limned through a sleight-of-hand of side-of-mouth descriptive passages designed precisely not to describe the penis swamp of the world to come.”
Yet the very fact that the Lensman saga was being reprinted more than half a century after the last serial version ran seems to belie Clute’s cynicism. Indeed, the series had taken on new life during the 1960s when mass-market paperback editions became available (The original hardcovers were from Fantasy Press, one of several low-budget small-run specialty publishers founded by fans because mainstream publishing houses wouldn’t touch science fiction with a ten-foot pole.). And the testimonials quoted in the Old Earth Books edition include contemporary sf editor David G. Hartwell (“His stories struck the sense of wonder like lightning.”), Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski (“one of the true milestones in science fiction literature”) and even contemporary sf novelist Nicola Griffith (“I’ve been reading and re-reading Children of the Lens for decades. This book has everything.”).
To give the briefest possible summary of the series, it is centered on a colossal war of Good against Evil: the Galactic Patrol versus an evil criminal empire called Boskone. Only a few know that lenses – at once foolproof IDs and telepathic communication devices worn by the cream of the Patrol – come from a benevolent world called Arisia that has nurtured the forces of Good against Eddore, the malevolent world behind Boskone. Each episode in the saga raises the conflict to a higher level, until the final showdown with Eddore, which can be led only by a new race of supermen, the product of a millennial selective breeding program by the Arisians.
Smith’s epic seems quaint in many ways today. There is plenty of super-science, death rays and force fields galore – but nary a hint of our computer revolution (There is a battle management computer, but relies on plug-in boards that have to be operated by the multi-tentacled Rigellians). Kimball Kinnison, hero of the series, is – unknown to him – part of the climax to the Arisians’ breeding program. But the romantic scenes with his (and their) intended Clarissa MacDougall are embarrassingly cutesy. As for the style – characterized by Thomas J. Roberts as employing “the finest adjectives in the known universe” – well, let’s just say it takes some getting used to, and usually works best in the battle scenes:
Space itself seemed a rainbow gone mad, for there were being exerted there forces of a magnitude to stagger the imagination, forces to be yielded only by the atomic might from which they sprang; forces whose neutralization set up visible strains in the very fabric of the ether itself.
And yet, there are moments when Smith can be poignant. Smith’s Galactic Patrol is made up, not only of humans but a number of alien species – some of which would have been the stuff of xenophobic nightmares in earlier sf. Smith wasn’t the first to portray aliens sympathetically; he got the idea from Stanley G. Weinbaum, a writer with a short life and a profound influence. But Smith did more than anyone else to popularize the idea. In Gray Lensman, Kinnison has infiltrated one of the Boskonian strongholds, only to be captured and subjected to fiendish tortures. Fellow Lensman Worsel of Velantia, who looks something like a dragon with eye stalks, comes to the rescue; but Kinnison is in such terrible pain that he may not survive:
Why not allow me, friend, to relieve you of all consciousness until help arrives?” the Velantian asked, pityingly,
“Can you do it without killing me?”
“If you so allow, yes. If you offer any resistance, I do not believe that any mind in the universe could.”
“I won’t resist. Come in,” and Kinnison’s suffering ended.
But kindly Worsel could do nothing about the fantastically atrocious growth which was turning the earthman’s legs and arms into monstrosities out of nightmare.
He could only wait – wait for the skilled assistance which he knew must be so long in coming.
There is a phenomenon called an epiphany, characterized in Wikipedia as “a realization or comprehension of the essence or meaning of something or someone. An inspired understanding arising from connecting with profound insight, awareness, or enlightened truth.” Perhaps it is going too far to call that moment of human-alien friendship and trust an epiphany. But it is a moment that has lived on in the minds of generations of readers. Is the Lensman series literature, after all? By C.S. Lewis’ test, it would be hard to put beyond the pale.
But perhaps it is a matter of myth, the one exception Lewis made to his test of literary merit, a myth being of such import that a reader will have it on nearly any terms. Lewis was thinking of Greek mythology, of course, that having once been the common currency of Western literature. I was exposed in childhood to classical mythology, after a fashion, but never developed much taste for it. I did take, however, to the modern mythology of science fiction, beginning with Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and The City and the Stars. I read both of those in the 1950s without having even seen their inspiration, a curious book from 1937 called Star Maker by a curious writer named Olaf Stapledon.
I say the book is curious because Star Maker is not a novel, any more than a previous book by the same author called Last and First Men. That volume had imagined the evolution of mankind over the next two billion years, through seventeen species that succeed homo sapiens – most of which contemporary men wouldn’t even recognize as human. Star Maker is even more ambitious, chronicling the history of the entire universe and the struggles of its myriad species to attain enlightenment. I say that Stapledon was curious because he was at once a utopian socialist and mystic who prized the individual spirit. In his cosmic epic there are worlds that achieve utopia by his own standards, and yet still go wrong, succumbing to religious mania that impels them to force their own vision on other worlds – and destroy those who choose not to accept it:
In time there grew up several great rival empires of the mad worlds, each claiming to be charged with some sort of divine mission for the unifying and awakening of the whole galaxy. Between the ideologies of these empires there was little to choose, yet each was opposed to the others with religious fervour. Germinating in regions far apart, these empires easily mastered any sub-utopian worlds that lay within reach. Thus they spread from one planetary system to another, till at last empire made contact with empire.
Then followed wars such as had never before occurred in our galaxy. Fleets of worlds, natural and artificial, manoeuvred among the stars to outwit one another, and destroyed one another with long-range jets of sub-atomic energy. As the tides of battle swept hither and thither through space, whole planetary systems were annihilated. Many a world-spirit found a sudden end. Many a lowly race that had no part in the strife was slaughtered in the celestial warfare that raged around it.
Stapledon is little known to general readers, and totally unknown to Star Wars fans or X-Box addicts who play interstellar war games like Halo. But his influence, parallel to E.E. Smith’s, has echoed through science fiction for generations, right down to the present day with Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space epic. I shall give but one example – I could give many – from Clifford D. Simak’s Way Station.
The protagonist, Enoch Wallace, a Civil War veteran, has been granted immortality by a galactic community of worlds, much like that eventually achieved in Star Maker, after the wars of the Mad Worlds, in order to man a way station on its transit network – a traveler is beamed to his station, then beamed out on the next leg of his journey. Wallace works alone, in secret, for Earth is considered a savage planet, unworthy of membership in the community. And yet he has a chance to make friends among dozens of other species, to talk with them about anything and everything. One night, during a conversation with a being from Vega XXI called a Hazer:
Suddenly, in mid-sentence, he had stopped his talking, and had slumped quietly forward. Enoch, startled, reached for him, but before he could lay a hand upon him, the old alien had slid slowly to the floor. The golden haze had faded from his body and slowly flickered out and the body lay there, angular and bony and obscene, a terribly alien thing there upon the floor, a thing that was at once pitiful and monstrous. More monstrous, it seemed to Enoch, than anything in alien form he had ever seen before.
In life it had been a wondrous creature, but now, in death, it was an old bag of hideous bones with a scaly parchment stretched to hold the bones together. It was the golden haze, Enoch told himself, gulping, in something near to horror, that had made the Hazer seem so wondrous and so beautiful, so vital, so alive and quick, so filled with dignity. The golden haze was the life of them and when the haze was gone, they became mere repulsive horrors that one gagged to look upon.
Enoch types in a message to Galactic Central, reporting the death, and is advised that the Vegan “must remain upon the planet of its death, its body to be disposed of according to the local customs obtaining on that planet. For that was the Vegan law, and, likewise, a point of honor.” So Enoch gathers boards and makes a coffin, digs a new grave next to his own father’s:
Finally it was finished, with the grave completed and the casket in the grave and the lantern flickering, the kerosene almost gone, and the chimney blacked from the angle at which the lantern had been canted. Back at the station, Enoch hunted up a sheet in which to wrap the body. He put a Bible in his pocket and picked up the shrouded Vegan and, in the first faint light that preceded dawn, marched down to the apple orchard. He put the Vegan in the coffin and nailed shut the lid, then climbed from the grave.
Standing on the edge of it, he took the Bible from his pocket and found the place he wanted. He read aloud, scarcely needing to strain his eyes in the dim light to follow the text, for it was from a chapter that he had read many times:
In my Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you...
That scene is burned into my brain. It never fails to bring tears to my eyes. And if it isn’t literature, I don’t know what is.
You might wonder why I don’t mention Ray Bradbury. The reason is, everyone knows already that he’s a great writer. I’m trying to put the case that there are other genre writers whose works are just as worthy of recognition. Bradbury agrees; he wrote the introduction to The Best of Henry Kuttner, a sadly neglected sf writer. That collection was reprinted this year as The Last Mimzy, to tie in with a movie of that title based on one of Kuttner’s best stories, “Mimsy Were the Borogoves.” If you can find it, grab it. Kuttner is nothing like Simak, and that’s another important thing to learn: there is more than one kind of good sf. There is more than one good kind of everything.
Blade Runner is the best science fiction movie ever made. I saw the so-called Final Cut recently, and it still mesmerized me. But then it mesmerized me when it first came out, with the voiceovers and the tacked-on ending that were later cut out. What makes the movie so good is that director Ridley Scott thought like a science fiction writer. He doesn’t just tell the story; he creates the entire world in which the story takes place.
Of course, the film is based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick has become a cult figure since his death, and some of the cultists are offended by the liberties taken with his works by moviemakers. In the case of Blade Runner, I can only say that it is not really Dick’s story or Dick’s imagined future, but that it is just as good in its own way. Movies adaptations are nearly always inferior to the books they are based on, but there are exceptions. I think, for example, that Michael Mann’s version of The Last of the Mohicans was better than James Fennimore Cooper’s; if that raises eyebrows, so be it.
Science fiction was poorly served on the screen when I was a child; most genre films were about giant ants and the like – a theme duly parodied in Night of the Lepus, with its giant bunny rabbits. Even in 1977, the year Star Wars was released, 20th Century Fox had higher hopes for Damnation Alley – a terrible version of a good novel by Roger Zelazny – because it had giant cockroaches in it (Scene I wanted to see: the hero sending them to a motel!). It wasn’t watching sf movies or shows that made me a movie or TV buff.
There are movies I watched as a child that still stick in my memory today: An Outcast of the Islands and The Rocking Horse Winner, for example. I learned only later that they were based on stories by Conrad and Lawrence, and I knew nothing of the directors – the former was the legendary Carol Reed, the latter the lesser known Anthony Pelissier – let alone about auteur theory. But then, neither do most people who watch movies. Is there an equivalent to Lewis’ literary and the non-literary here? Some film critics, the equivalent of what Lewis called the Vigilants among literary critics, disdain everything but cult favorites: say, Ingmar Bergman. But most appreciate Alfred Hitchcock. As for moviegoers, they may enjoy really good movies – but also the latest schlock horror flicks. It’s hard to sort out.
One thing I’ve noticed in myself and among friends is that our favorites include both the well-known and the nearly unknown. David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, for example, and James Clavell’s The Last Valley. Some close friends of mine share a love for the latter, and Velvet became one of them – enough so to post a review here. One of my best friends has introduced me to odd, little-known films that I would never seen otherwise: The Beast, for example, about a Russian tank crew in Afghanistan; and The Whole Wide World, a biopic about pulp writer (creator of Conan the barbarian) Robert E. Howard. I too have other odd films I admire, from The Trap, about a fur trapper and the woman sold to him as a wife in frontier British Columbia, to The Pledge, Sean Penn’s thematically faithful adaptation of the Friedrich Dürrenmatt novel. But even the closest personal relationships are not a guarantee of shared tastes: Velvet can’t fathom what I see in the Marx brothers, Twin Peaks, The X-Files or even the Spider-man movies. There may be a lesson here, but I’m not sure what it is. I have a notion about it, which I’ll get to at the end.
What I know for certain is that some movies affect me very deeply. I am always moved to tears by the communion scene in Robert Benton’s Places in the Heart. We see reunited here the living and the dead, the hopelessly estranged, decent people and those who have been cruel to them when they might have been kind. This has nothing to do with religion; the body and blood of Christ mean nothing to me, but that scene means everything to me. “If only we could all be reconciled” is the closest I can get to explaining it. Another scene that always moves me deeply comes at the end of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, an epic revenge story in which the nameless Charles Bronson character is after a gunman named Frank (Henry Fonda) who works for a railroad boss. Claudia Cardinale plays Jill, who has married the owner of a strategic piece of land the railroad boss wants, and arrived there only to find that her husband and his children have been brutally murdered by Frank. By the end of the movie, Frank and his employer are both dead, having gotten their just desserts, and the man-with-no-name has left. Only Jill remains, and in that final scene she brings water to the men laying the tracks. That’s all. I think she represents the true spirit of civilization – that’s my best guess at any rate.
Although film is a visual medium, I pay a lot of attention to dialogue, and remember favorite passages even as in books. When the-man-with-no name steps off the train in the first scene of Once Upon a Time in the West, he is met by three of Frank’s henchmen:
No-name: Bring Frank?
Henchman: Frank sent us.
No-name: You bring a horse for me?
Henchman (glancing at the gang’s three mounts): Looks like we’re shy one horse.
No-name: You brought two too many.
You may not have seen it, but I think you can guess where that leads.
One of my favorite scenes from the TV series 24 has to do with George Mason, head of the CTU during the second season. This was the story about the hunt for a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles, but the story behind the story is one of cowardice and redemption. Mason has ordered all the agents to stay in place, and tell no one of the nuclear threat in order to avoid mass panic. Yet he assigns himself to go out of town on the investigation of a seemingly unrelated matter – and ends up getting a fatal dose of plutonium.
Mason has maybe a day to live, and knows it. In the end, after the bomb is found, he dies nobly – replacing Jack Bower as the pilot of a plane to carry the device into the desert, where it can explode fairly harmlessly. But a lot happens in between, as Mason looks back on his life and its meaning – if any. He had wanted to be a teacher, he tells an agent in the scene that particularly moves me, but it paid better to work for the military, where he ended up being miserable and making everybody else miserable. His advice to the young agent:
Don’t let your life just happen to you. Find something you enjoy, and do it. Everything else is all just background noise.
Now I’m not going to argue that 24 is great art. Great art is great all the way through, or at least (as Fred Pohl would have it) nearly all the way through, and it’s easy to find all sorts of faults with the TV series. Yet there are flashes of brilliance there, and in other examples of popular entertainment. Art, again, is where you find it.
One of my formative experiences, which I don’t even remember, is being taken to see Walt Disney’s Fantasia when I was two years old. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the movie is a series of animated fantasies set to classical music.
Fantasia was my introduction to Igor Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring (originally a ballet about a pagan ritual) was adapted to the story of the evolution of life on Earth, from the first one-celled organisms to the dinosaurs and their passing. Some years ago, I saw the Joffrey Ballet’s recreation of the original 1913 Ballet Russes choreography on PBS. It was brilliant, and it finally got those dinosaurs out of my head. But by then, I was a long-time lover of music.
For the most part I’m a classical music fan, but I can enjoy most popular music when I happen to hear it (as on the car radio when I’m taking a long trip). The main exceptions are heavy metal (which gives me a headache) and so-called Christian pop (which strikes me as phony, as artificial as socialist realism in Soviet days). When I first saw The Sting, I went on a ragtime kick and collected the works of not only Scott Joplin and other early ragtime composers, but their successors in stride piano like James P. Johnson (whose “Eccentricity” and “Carolina Shout” I particularly recommend). What I like about ragtime and stride piano is that they are light without being tacky (I loathe Barry Manilow, who strikes me as tacky in the extreme.). And yet I have an allergy to classic jazz; I just can’t get into it.
My classical music tastes, while eclectic, are often off-center. The three Bs (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms)? Certainly! Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Ravel? Of course! But one of my very favorites is the Brazilian Heitor Villa Lobos, and I have a bias towards other 20th Century composers who blended classical and national-folk themes to produce music with a hybrid vigor: George Gershwin, Manuel de Falla, Zoltan Kodaly, Carlos Chavez, Francis Poulenc, Silvestre Revueltas, Kurt Weill (Did you know he composed the music for an oratorio about the Lindbergh flight?). I spent years trying to track down the concert music I was sure that film composer Nino Rota must have written, based on the quality of his scores for Federico Fellini, even after some Italians I met at a party assured me there wasn’t any. I finally found it, and it was as good as I’d hoped. Rota’s classical music seems to be coming into favor now – I’ve heard it played on WQXR and there are more CDs.
Another obsession of mine of is Angelo Badalamenti, the film composer best known for his work with David Lynch, especially the music for Twin Peaks, but he has also worked with others on films as varied as The City of Lost Children, The Beach, Holy Smoke and Secretary. Born to a family that loved both opera and jazz, he was classically trained, but his music is a peculiar blend of, by turns, classical, jazz, pop and techno influences. Hybrid vigor again. There’s nothing else quite like it.
My love of music relates to my love of one of my favorite sf stories, Cordwainer Smith’s “No, No, Not Rogov.” “Smith,” whose real name was Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, was perhaps the strangest science fiction writer of all time. He grew up in China, where his father was an advisor to Sun Yat Sen, and later pursued a career as a military advisor, authority on psychological warfare and foreign policy wonk. Most of his stories are set in a distant mythological future, after the Ancient Wars that destroy our own civilization; but that future is glimpsed only briefly in the prologue to “No, No, Not Rogov:”
That golden shape on the golden steps shook and fluttered like a bird gone mad–like a bird imbued with an intellect and a soul, and, nevertheless, driven mad by ecstasies and terrors beyond human understanding–ecstasies drawn momentarily down into reality by the consummation of superlative art. A thousand worlds watched.
Had the ancient calendar continued this would have been A.D. 13,582. After defeat, after disappointment, after ruin and reconstruction, mankind had leapt among the stars.
Out of meeting inhuman art, out of confronting non-human dances, mankind had made a superb esthetic effort and had leapt upon the stage of all the worlds.
The golden steps reeled before the eyes. Some eyes had retinas. Some had crystalline cones. Yet all eyes were fixed upon the golden shape which interpreted The Glory and Affirmation of Man in the Inter-World Dance Festival of what might have been A.D. 13,582.
Once again mankind was winning the contest. Music and dance were hypnotic beyond the limits of systems, compelling, shocking to human and inhuman eyes. The dance was a triumph of shock–the shock of dynamic beauty.
The golden shape on the golden steps executed shimmering intricacies of meaning. The body was gold and still human. The body was a woman, but more than a woman. On the golden steps, in the golden light, she trembled and fluttered like a bird gone mad.
Only the story isn’t about that dancer, but rather a Soviet scientist of the Cold War period, Nikolai Rogov, charged with developing an electronic device to eavesdrop on the rest of the world – the White House, the Pentagon, whatever – for intelligence purposes. When he tests the device, however, he is mentally transported instead to that Inter-World Dance Festival – and is overwhelmed by the experience:
The rhythms meant nothing and everything to him. This was Russia, this was Communism. This was his life–indeed it was his soul acted out before his very eyes.
In a trance-like state afterwards, all Rogov can do is mutter things like “… that golden shape, the golden stairs, the music, take me back to the music, I want to be with the music, I really am the music …”
When I listen to the music I love, I too feel as if I am the music. Antonio Damasio, the behavioral neurologist, has something to say that relates to this in Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain:
There is an intimate and telling three-way connection between certain kinds of music, feelings of either great sorrow or great joy, and the body sensations we describe as “chills” or “shivers” or “thrills.” For curious reasons, certain musical instruments, particularly the human voice, and certain musical compositions, evoke emotive states that include a host of skin responses such as making the hair stand on end, producing shudders, and blanching the skin. Perhaps nothing is more illustrative for our purposes than evidence from a study conducted by Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre. They wanted to study neural correlates of pleasurable states caused by listening to music capable of evoking chills and shivers down the spine. The investigators found those correlates in the somatosensing regions of the insula and anterior cingulate, which were significantly engaged by musically thrilling pieces. Moreover, the investigators correlated the intensity of the activation with the reported thrill value of the pieces. They demonstrated that the activations were related to the thrilling pieces (which individual participants handpicked) and not to the mere presence of music.
Note that the music in the Blood-Zatorre study had to be handpicked; just any music wouldn’t do. I’ve had this kind of experience since I was about ten years old – especially my hair standing on end and a warm flush. It’s something I have rarely talked about, yet it seems surprising to me that there has been so little research on a phenomenon so fundamental to human nature – and even to the very sense of personal identity.
Just last year, Velvet and I spent an afternoon at Tanglewood for a live concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was a lovely day, and the performance was outstanding: Joshua Bell was the soloist for Sibelius’ Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, which I’d never heard before but is now one of my favorites; and the program was rounded out by Mahler’s First Symphony, already a favorite of mine. It was thrilling to see Bell perform in his very physical style, but beyond the music itself the atmosphere – thousands of people gathered in peace and harmony to share a common love -- was an epiphany for us: at the very same moment, my wife and I had the same thought: This is what civilization is all about.
The universal and the personal again. We knew none of those other people; perhaps if we had, we wouldn’t have liked some of them. But for those few hours we were united, like the fantasy congregation in the communion scene of Places in the Heart. Music carries associations that are both universal and personal. There is clear intent in programmatic works: operas and ballets, and even in symphonies with titles like Eroica or Pathétique. Yet we also each bring our own associations.
One day when I was just five, at my grandparents’ home in California, I was listening to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite on the radio. As the “Coffee” movement came on, I happened to be looking out the window, across the highway, where there was an oilfield: not a new one, with derricks, but a producing field where what my grandfather called “grasshoppers” were pumping away; ever since then, I have associated that movement with that image. Many years later, I happened to be listening to Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto while reading Lester del Rey’s “Nerves,” an sf novella about an accident at a nuclear plant originally published before there were any nuclear plants. I soon not only associated the music with the story, and even specific passages with specific scenes. That was ironic, because Lester was allergic to Shostakovich, and couldn’t stand anything by him.
A couple of years ago, I invented an association. Out of thin air, it came to me that the final suite of Bedrich Smetana’s Ma Vlast (My Country) cycle, Blanik, could represent the Velorian Protectors. There was even a passage I thought could serve as an anthem for the Protectors, “Ye Who Are the Warriors of Skietra” (the original context of the suite was the Hussites of Bohemia, who marched to battle singing the hymn, “Ye Who Are the Warriors of God.”). I ran the idea by Shadar. He was not impressed. In the meantime, I had been putting mp3 links to scenes in several of my Aurora Universe stories. Judging from the paucity of downloads, most of my readers weren’t impressed. It was a failed experiment. But it was a token of how seriously I was taking my writing.
I hardly ever read comics when I was a kid. It may have been circumstance: we lived in a suburban neighborhood a mile or two distant from the nearest store where I could have bought comics, and my parents would never have bought them for me. The only paper we usually read was The New York Times, which didn’t have any comics. So when I did read any comics, it was usually at a friend’s house or the dentist’s office.
I remember a few Superman and Batmans, some Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck. Oh, and Classics Illustrated, which was available at school and was my fave. One Captain Marvel at the dentist’s was told in the second-person present tense (“Imagine that you are Captain Marvel...”). That may, eons later, have helped inspire my “You, and Each of You.” But comics were a very small part of my reading. If I’d ever come across the notion that the superhero comics represented a modern mythology, I’d have thought it was a stupid idea – if I’d had any understanding of what mythology was about in the first place.
I watched the old Superman TV series with George Reeves, but that was the only thing of its kind on the air and, anyway, I have fonder memories of Tom Corbett, The Cisco Kid and the Ernie Kovacs morning show. Years and years after that, I watched Wonder Woman on TV, with a lustful eye for Lynda Carter. That may have set me on the slippery slope that led to the Aurora Universe, but I can’t say for sure. What I can say is that I was impressed by the Tim Burton versions of Batman, which I thought had a raw power to them that I had never experienced in the comics. I was aware of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, although I never read it. I knew this sort of thing was being taken seriously.
It was the same for me with the first two Spider-Man movies (I missed the third); I thought they too had a raw power lacking in the comics (The New York Post was putting out free reprints of the origin episodes of the comic, so I could tell.). I really did feel for Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.” But why? Why take such a preposterous story seriously? What could be sillier than a teenage geek being bitten by a mutant spider and developing super powers? I had once even made up a gag about an alternate universe in which Parker was bitten by a trap door spider and took to popping out of manholes instead of swinging from buildings. And the villains…
I’d heard about Doctor Octopus long before from a comics fan friend, and there he was in the second Spider-Man movie. It’s hard to imagine anything more absurd than a scientist transforming himself into a monster with octopus-like mechanical arms. And yet, absurd as he is, Doctor Ock has a mythic resonance. His fate is a variation of the Frankenstein story, save that instead of creating a monster outside himself he creates a monster of himself. In the end, he struggles against his fate: “I will not die a monster.” I felt a real poignancy in his story, silly as that may seem to those allergic to this sort of thing, just as I did in Parker’s story of how becoming a superhero has brought him a world of trouble.
Yet compared to the Aurora Universe, the world of Spider-Man may seem as realistic as a Sinclair Lewis novel. We all know how the AU began, as a sexual fantasy fetishizing superheroines of DC Comics. It gradually created its own superheroines and the world from which they came. Shadar, the artist formerly known as Sharon Best, developed a history and rationale for homo sapiens supremis that has been updated several times, but the original premise is still there: powerful and invulnerable superwomen who just love sex, including sex with ordinary guys from Earth. Tarot Barnes and, from a woman’s point of view, Evelyn York, have both defended the superheroine fantasy. “Men want them, women want to be them,” Velvet has summed it up, and without her knowing it, Christina Larson of Washington Monthly had said the same thing; but the way we express that…
Psychologist John Money originated the concept of lovemaps, defined as a “template in the mind and in the brain depicting the idealized lover and the idealized program of sexual and erotic activity projected in imagery or actually engaged in with that lover.” What he’d make of the Velorian fantasy, I have no idea; he might think it was only silly, or something for disturbed minds, worthy of Kraft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis. Here we have women who enjoy being showered with bullets, bathe in molten lava, and even fly through the sun. My comics fan friend has advised me that if Comics Journal ever took notice of our erotic superheroine fantasies, it would be only to ridicule them. Yet Ed Howdershelt, in the introduction to his own variation on superheroine fiction, the In Service to a Goddess series, makes the concept seem sober and enlightened:
You are about to meet a few very special women.
They’re women of strength, brains, and beauty who are charged with the protection of entire worlds and are subjects far more interesting (to me) than unicorns, dragons, or other “safe” fantasy creatures.
A number of people (all women, so far) have emailed that they thought I must be a lesbian writing under a man's penname. This is not so, but...
Since most lesbians seem to know about pleasing women, I consider such comments to be compliments. Thanks!
These ladies aren't super-powered Barbies. They possess dynamic libidos that are both a source of power and a weakness, which means that if you're underage or easily offended by moderately graphic depictions of sexual activity, you probably shouldn't be reading this stuff.
I was a feminist before the first bra was burned in the sixties. (Yeah, that old...)
I don’t like Cinderellas and Snow Whites, so the women in my stories are dynamic and powerful, intelligent and resourceful.
Ed’s superheroine fiction doesn’t rely on fetish stuff – and he gets paid for it, which isn’t the case for any of the rest of us except for a couple of stories by Lisa Binkley and myself. In ISTAG 4, to be sure, two of his superheroines are in deep space breaking up an asteroid headed for Earth, but that isn’t what the story is about. Like Lisa, he has turned superheroine fiction into something at least approaching literature. And even if fetish elements may still be an essential ingredient in free Aurora Universe fiction by myself and Shadar and others, they are no longer the whole thing.
The most popular item at The Bright Empire right now is Homecoming – Part I has been downloaded more than 4,000 times in the last 52 weeks. By contrast, The Mission – which is loaded with fetish delights (mostly from my collaborator Rob) – has languished: the latest installment has drawn a paltry 245 downloads – far, far behind my own recent favorites like “Tanzrobian Nights” (1,676) and such established classics (If you can call them that!) as “Companions” (1,138 in the past year), “Terms of Enhancement” (1,093) and “Throne of the Gods” (861).
What I’ve tried to do in my best AU fiction, what Velvet has also tried to do, is blend superheroine fiction with science fiction: hybrid vigor. It’s still fantasy, of course; call it “science fantasy” if you will. In particular, one of my goals is to blend the mythologies of comic books and sf. Shadar created the basic Velorian mythology, a variation of DC Comics’ Kryptonian mythology. But from the beginning, I was fascinated with the Old Galactics who created the wormholes, and the alien worlds like Tetra in S.T. Mac’s That Which One Begins (Phil, the spider-like Tetrite, is one of the most charming aliens I’ve ever encountered; his signature line, “Invalid information is never welcome,” is a literary gem.).
From Cordwainer Smith, and other sf writers like Larry Niven, I have absorbed the idea of a cycle of stories set against a common history. The seeded worlds and their cultures – Reigel 5, Kelsor 7, Novo Recife, Nova Iberia, Andros – have become as important to me as Velor itself, in themselves and also in the challenges they present for the Velorians. A scene that I am especially proud of is one I contributed to Part II of Homecoming, in which Kalla tells Ju’lette of the terrible choices she had to make during the reign of the mad Patriarch Kyros. And I am sure that Velvet is just as proud of her portrayal of Ju’lette as a woman who just happens to a superwoman, trying to find the meaning of her life in her odyssey as a Companion and in her travels with the Scalantrans – whom Velvet was the first to give a science fictional reality.
Powerful as they are, Velorians often face situations in which power alone is of little or no avail. That is the case with Theel’dara in “Throne of the Gods,” and, of course, with Nova’yul in Lisa’s “Questlings” and “Exiles” – would to Skietra that she’d finish that series! In Tarot Barnes’ classic-in-the-making Aurora’s Tale, Aurora is a Virago – more powerful than a Protector – charged with protecting Betah Stromberg, but distracted by the threat of a Tset’lar, the overwhelming might of the Arion invasion, and, in this scene, her conflicted feelings about the Porturegans as the native commanders prepare for a risky battle they hope will produce a propaganda victory:
Aurora cast her eyes down. There would be enough ‘unnecessary casualties’ today without adding another to the pyre. Reflexively her fingers scratched shallow groves in the rock at the thought. Every death in the war had been unnecessary; she was a Virago, more than that she was the Virago, the first Velorian ever to have been born without need of enhancement. She was stronger, faster and better trained than any other Protector, how could any world she was protecting suffer such appalling defeat?
The obvious answer, a seditious part of her suggested, was that it was her Protectorates’ fault. Aurora and her predecessors had been warning the Porturegans about the Arions for centuries; they had no excuse to have allowed their weapons to stagnate for so long.
Her instincts and training killed the idea almost instantly, but their imprint remained, glowing like a burning filament nonetheless. The Porturegans had had two hundred years to prepare and they’d ignored the danger. Now they were paying for that mistake.
‘Paying unnecessarily; the blood being spilt should be mine.’ Aurora concluded. Regardless of what should have been done it was her duty to take the situation and make it better. Her protectorates shouldn’t have to play anything more than a peripheral role.
Tarot writes about war with utter conviction and believability, although he has never been to a war. But then, neither had Stephen Crane, when he wrote The Red Badge of Courage. So much for the cliché, endlessly repeated in writing guides and classes, that you should “write what you know.” Velorians may be a fantasy, but so are wizards and demons and ghosts and vampires, all of which can be found in literature. Fantasy figures with fantasy powers aren’t necessarily an easy way out: in The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf can’t simply chant a spell, wave his staff and put down Sauron. So it is with the Aurora Universe.
Why should anyone write stories set in the Aurora Universe? Why should I? Simply because I have found it a challenge – and an opportunity – to tell stories unlike any other stories, stories only I could write. In a sense, that is an evasion, because I was originally attracted by the sexual fantasy, as were most if not all the other writers here. That has become a part of my own iconography, or part of my lovemap, if you will. Yet the sexual fantasy is only part of a greater whole, and the whole of my regard for the AU part of an even greater whole.
Consider philosophy as a map of reality, a map that is supposed to explain everything from the nature of the universe to ethical behavior. Suppose I show you several maps of the same area – a geographic map, a road map and a political map (There could be more) – and ask you which is the “true” map. Silly question; they’re all true in their own ways, and that is precisely my point. There are universal maps, valid for everyone, and personal maps that are just as valid for ourselves as individuals. Critics often talk about “truth” in art as if it were the same for everyone; I would say, rather, that art can be a means of discovering that within ourselves to which we must be true. Strange as it may seem, the Aurora Universe has become part of that, part of my inner map.
To the best of my knowledge, psychologists have never looked into this phenomenon, the inner maps we create from things we love, that somehow express our very essence. Cultural critics often seem intent to psychologizing us only in negative terms; Lewis cites the sort who condemned the unliterary “as if the reading of ‘popular’ fiction involved moral turpitude.” Walter Kendrick sneered at the romance novel audience as “so dull and timid that even when it dreams, it can only conceive what it’s dreamt before.” Harper’s ran two diatribes against science fiction, and by implication sf readers, within a two-year span: Arnold Klein’s “Destination: Void” and Luc Sante’s “The Temple of Boredom” – and their targets were not the likes of “Doc” Smith, but rather Frank Herbert and Ursula K. LeGuin. No doubt there are countless other examples of snotty critics writing off entire genres and their presumably benighted fans. It would be interesting to see what wiser heads might make of our inner maps.
So concludes my apologia. But I will end this essay with another passage from “No, No, Not Rogov,” the epilogue, which explains what art means, not to the receiver but to the creator. Even very minor artists like myself have felt it.
On the golden steps in the golden light, a golden shape danced a dream beyond the limits of all imagination, danced and drew the music to herself until a sigh of yearning, yearning which became a hope and a torment, went through the hearts of living things on a thousand worlds.
Edges of the golden scene faded raggedly and unevenly into black. The gold dimmed down to a pale gold-silver sheen and then to silver, last of all to white. The dancer who had been golden was now a forlorn white pink figure standing, quiet and fatigued, on the immense white steps. The applause of a thousand worlds roared in upon her.
She looked blindly at them. The dance had overwhelmed her, too. Their applause could mean nothing. The dance was an end in itself. She would have to live, somehow, until she danced again.