Monday, November 28, 2016

West Texas, the USSR, and Reprehensible Reading

This is the kind of post I write when I have things floating around the pelagic zone of my head but no single topic to focus on. I seem to be emerging from one of the phases of isolation I pass through whenever I've been overstimulated or taxed by too much interaction. Ugh.

I have been keeping busy with my Texas stories, my next novel, and a painting for The Worm Ouroboros, however. That's the key to being productive. When you're tempted to look the gorgon in the eye, just keep working. The stuff you bring to light at the end of the tunnel will be about as strange as what you'd expect a blind painter to produce, but there just might be a certain aureole of beauty about it as well. You can't tell while you're still in the pit. You just have to keep going and hold on to all the shards until you're competent to judge them.

Still, I think anyone who produces in isolation is apt to go at least a little bit insane, and not necessarily in a good way. I'm a great admirer of William Blake, as readers of my blog know, chiefly for his early poetry and his lifetime output of paintings and prints. I have to admit that I find most of his "prophetic" books unreadable, as I think most people do. But he wrote what he felt he had to write, in utter isolation, in the face of decades of neglect and incomprehension, and he's my hero for that.

Nevertheless, when I consider how much he warmed up to even the smallest token of appreciation for his work (as, in the evening of his life, he became the center of a circle of young artists), I wonder how much his outrageous, elliptical style owed to the scorn and amused indifference his works tended to arouse. Perhaps, if he'd found himself placed in slightly more congenial surroundings, or his education or personality had been slightly other than what they were, then his life's work wouldn't have forced down such eccentric channels, and he would be a Universal Man like Goethe or somebody instead of a kind of "cult classic" of English letters. Then again, maybe he wouldn't have done anything memorable at all.

I went to that West Texas con a few weeks ago and gave a slideshow talk about the Ballantine series. Four people attended my talk. Ouch. This owed partly to personnel changes just prior to the con. But the room also cleared out before I got up, so I think it's more that the topic and speaker were too off-the-wall for common interest. That's too bad (for them), because I really put together a spanking good slideshow (festival of wrap-around covers and all) and gave a brilliant talk. (I'm better at speaking in public than you might suppose, despite my almost total inability to navigate small talk; after all, I make my living giving lectures on abstruse topics to persons of varied backgrounds.) Anyway, it was kind of a bummer. I don't take it personally, though I did write down who left the room before my talk. (Just kidding.) The episode just underscores how very isolated I am out here. Without the Internet, I could never survive as a writer-artist guy.

There was a bit of a silver lining to the whole experience, however. A local seller of vintage comic books saw my talk on the schedule and donated a stack of Ballantine paperbacks to hand out as visual aids. He even let me keep the leftovers for proselytization purposes. We chatted a bit, and he told me that he's collected (and sold) the entire series twice over. Now that's impressive. So, by going to the con, I discovered that there's at least one other person (and probably only one other person) between San Antonio and El Paso interested in what I'm interested in.

In other news, my intellectual life seems to be coming up against Soviet Russia for some reason. It began with my decision to begin reading John le Carré, most famous for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I've enjoyed what I've read immensely. It calls to mind both Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, two of my favorite authors.

Then I acquired the first part of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago from the county library book shop for $0.25 and read it straight through. I'd read a couple of Solzhenitsyn's novels back in school, and had then perused the Archipelago, but without really delving into it. There's nothing I can say about it that won't sound trite, but it's a book that I think everyone should read at least once.

Last but not least in my encounters with the USSR, I recently attended a seminar by a now-nonagenarian friend of a friend of mine, a journalist who spent the bulk of his career (through the late 1970s, I think) as a war correspondent, covering such conflicts as Vietnam and visiting a total of 120 countries. Last fall when he was in town (our mutual friend brings him for a series of public talks every year at Veteran's Day), we all split a six pack of Spaten Optimator in a hotel lobby. His stories about intrigues and death on the Russian borders of Red China came immediately to mind when I read The Honourable Schoolboy, which centers on the community of foreign correspondents in 1970s Hong Kong.

But his entire life is almost unbelievably storied. He started out as a child actor, his parents being vaudeville performers in New York. He was a cast member in the original production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which went on to win a Pulitzer. During World War II, his family performed for troops around the country through the recently founded USO. He enlisted once he was old enough and fought in the Battle of Okinawa. After the war he went to college.

As a journalist, he became an enemy of communism, and he counts among his greatest achievements his having been labeled a "very dangerous man" by the KGB. He was actually escorted out of Russia by the KGB, and subsequently refused reentry until after the fall of the USSR. (In later years he managed to get a glimpse of his old case file through a contact in Moscow.) He lost none of his energy with retirement, and used to appear on CNN's Crossfire among other things. He still travels to France, Russia, China, and elsewhere, giving talks at universities and meeting with State Department officials. Did I mention that he's 90? A gentleman of the old school, a hell of a speaker with a biting sense of humor, and a principled professional. Quite a person to have had a beer with.

Getting back to John le Carré and Solzhenitsyn, I've started to realize that it's not very good for me to read fantasy while I'm engaged in writing fantasy. Reading Lord Foul's Bane over the summer made me pretty cranky, but I would probably have gobbled it up if I were writing spy novels. That's how I've always been. I can't do my job well as a math professor if I don't paint at night, and my painting suffers if there's no math or logic going on. I think it's just that I'm very immature, and most productive when I feel like I'm getting away with something by working on a project that the little voice in my head says is the opposite of what I should be doing.

So I recently read Mickey Spillane's I, the Jury, another little item I picked up at the library bookstore. It was enjoyable enough, I suppose, but also quite moronic. It made me think of Raymond Chandler's soliloquy on lurid pulp stories and the apocalypse:
Their characters lived in a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction, and was learning how to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun.
I've always loved Robert Altman's incoherent noir apocalypse, Kiss Me Deadly, which skewers the Mike Hammer character, but I'm big enough to appreciate both satire and subject. So there are two more Spillane rocker-shockers in the hopper.

Speaking of reprehensible reading, I may venture into Gor in the not-so-distant future. I've never read (or been tempted to read) a single Gor novel, though it's been hinted that I work coded references to the series into my stories. People tell me that they start out okay, but get sicker and sicker as you go on. However, under a humorous post on the subject over at Black Gate last month, a commenter linked an interview with John Norman so straight-facedly bizarre that I kind of want to read a few now. After all, as authors, we have quite a bit in common, being otherwise-obscure academics who write pseudonymous sword-and-planet stories set in the counter-earth. Actually, given some of the things I've written about, it's not terribly surprising that someone would assume I'm a fan.

But I'm not, of course, and don't suppose I ever will be. It's kind of strange, though, that those who would normally speak out against censorship are perfectly okay with keeping people from reading stuff they think is really bad. And maybe the Gor books are really bad! But everyone who tries to ban something thinks that what they're banning is bad. Otherwise they wouldn't ban it. If you say you're against banning as a general principle, you have to be against the banning of any book, even "bad" ones; otherwise you're just a viewpoint advocate with a penchant for moral posturing.

You can argue, as a commenter at the Black Gate article does, that John Norman's excommunication from the mainstream publishing world isn't an example of censorship but of free-market capitalism. To be honest, that's what sounds most likely to me. But people like Michael Moorcock did advocate "strategies which marginalize" John Norman's output, and his output has in fact been marginalized. In my opinion, the specific action Moorcock suggested (placing the books on the top shelves to keep them out of the hands of young adults) is perfectly reasonable. But some books celebrated during Banned Books Week have faced far less opposition. So what's the difference?

I don't have much of an opinion either way. It's just something I've thought about.

Well, I guess that's about it for now. I may start a series of short reviews of my favorite films noir. I've got about a zillion titles on DVD that I like to watch and rewatch. It'll be a good thing to keep me posting on my blog while I devote the other parts of my brain to my ongoing writing projects and other things.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Vast Active Living Intelligence System

I've never been much of a science fiction reader. My attempts at writing it have been pretty unsuccessful, too, at least to my mind. Sometimes this embarrasses me. When a "real-life" acquaintance finds out I write, and they ask, "Oh! What sorts of things?" I stammer a bit, and say, "Oh, you know, sci-fi fantasy stuff." But that's not quite honest, is it? It's just that, if I come right out and say, I write fantasy, people don't seem to know what I'm talking about. Maybe it's just where I live. It sounds like I'm confessing to writing, you know, fantasies, as in the "fantasy suites" down at the Ramada Inn. But sci-fi they understand, and it gets the basic idea across.

Me, I like the prose laid on thick, as in Conrad or Melville. That's probably obvious to readers of my books. But you don't find many gothic edifices or thickets of purple prose in the science fiction field. Descriptions are terse and often rather vague. Everything is done by suggestion. My eye just glides right over it. I'm not particularly intrigued by fictional advances in science or technology, either. Maybe I spent too many years studying spin geometry and quantum field theory.

Leaving aside romancers of the cosmic future like Herbert and Wolfe, whom I personally consider to write a species of fantasy rather than science fiction, what I find when I look at the authors I most enjoy (A. E. van Vogt, Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick) is a preoccupation with philosophy, religion, and psychology.

What brings on this little soliloquy is the fact that I've just read (or listened to, at any rate) Philip K. Dick's VALIS yet another time. I find myself reading Dick whenever I go through a particularly severe bout of depression and isolation. His books tend to be about people who are depressed and isolated, of course, but I find them strangely consoling for that very reason. He's a humane writer with a sympathy that never becomes sentimental.

Though possibly his most idiosyncratic work, VALIS is one that I've returned to again and again. It's Dick's hilarious yet deeply sad semi-autobiographical account of one seriously fucked-up (as Dick would put it) person's (or is it persons'?) slightly brain-fried search for God (or whatever) in paranoid post-Nixon 1970s California. Unlike a lot of Dick's fiction, drugs play only a peripheral role. Religious experience has taken their place. I remember my mother once telling me that, to her, it seemed like the Jesus People of the seventies had merely traded one drug for another (that is, dionysian ecstasy). Maybe that sums up Dick's experience.

The milieu described in a number of Dick's drugs-and-religion books bears a disturbing resemblance to a certain phase of my own life, when I spent all my time with card-carrying prophets, traveling evangelists, drug addicts, professional bead-necklace-making drifters, hippies living in station wagons, cell group leaders, paranoid schizophrenics, Hare Krishnas, recovering vampires, and undercover missionaries. I was scared out of my mind, autistic without knowing it, and, for a while, on the verge of homelessness and utter ruin. But that was my world, and the only thing I could do was try to find meaning in it. My general situation was, like Horselover Fat's, fucked up. Actually, it was just after I'd divorced myself from that world that I first started reading Philip K. Dick, starting with And Now Wait for Last Year. What I'm trying to say is, Dick's whacked-out religious novels hit close to home.

You might call VALIS an exploration of lowercase-g gnosticism, that is, salvation through special knowledge (or "information," as Dick puts it). The Exegesis runs all through it, with frequent citations from the New Testament and the pre-Socratic philosophers. What's strange is that it seems to call into question the very concept of saving knowledge, reaffirming John of the Cross's path of negation. A message is only as reliable as the messenger. Sensory impressions, interior locutions, and emotional experiences can always be questioned. Maybe they come from a divine source, or maybe someone's just playing with microwave transmissions. Maybe you're speaking to an incarnation of the pleroma, or maybe it's just a little girl rigged with wires and speakers. Looking in from the outside of Dick's universe, it seems to me that a god whose communication of himself takes place solely on the plane of "information" will always turn out to be a resident of some star system or other, that is, a being more powerful but commensurate with human beings.

It strikes me as ironic that Fat's friend David, a Catholic (and, apparently, a stand-in for Tim Powers), always tries to bring C. S. Lewis into his theodicy. Lewis was himself a gnostic, in that his descriptions of faith, in both his fiction and his apologetic works, amount to a kind of secret knowledge. The heaven described in The Last Battle is a thoroughly gnostic heaven; both Dick and Lewis routinely cite Plato. I wonder how much Lewis Dick had actually read, if any. The David character resists, but ultimately accepts the import of Fat's revelations and the significance of the Eric Lampton film. But then it all just fizzles out, gets explained away (if one can call it that) as the operation of mundane technology and delusion...

I think I'll read The Divine Invasion sometime soon. No doubt I'll have more to say then.

Some other posts on Dick-related material that you might enjoy: