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Down to a Sunless Sea by Lin Carter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lin Carter was important to my early literary education, such as it was. Were it not for his books Tolkien: A Look Behind ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy I may have never found some of my favorite writers, such as Lord Dunsany, Mervyn Peake, Peter S. Beagle, and the great James Branch Cabell.

But Carter’s own fiction did not beckon my attention. The books of his I saw looked like hackwork, rehashes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett. And, what with their garish covers, I avoided them as if they were the Gor books by John Norman.

Well, as if to break a long habit, I bought two Gor novels, not long age. I took a dip its pages. Not exactly my cup of tea, and I did not get very far. Which does not mean I found anything objectionable. They seemed somewhat like throwback fiction, good Burroughsian fun. But of course their reputation is harshly negative, especially along “political correctness” lines. That is, as Jack Woodford might have said, there is no Communism in them, and (I hear tell) Norman does not believe today’s accepted feminist fictions, er, norms. I do not either, so I may return to Gor some day.

Not long after I put down Norman’s Tarnsman of Gor a few months ago, I bought a few Lin Carter fantasy/science fiction paperback on a whim. And I then read the one that seemed to have the most promising beginning, Down to a Sunless Sea, one of his last books, written, I gather, while he was dying of cancer.

The romantic-sexual interest in the book is not too far from what I have heard to be John Norman’s. The hero is masculine, and the two women are distinct and familiar feminine types, though both Martian. There is no political correctness in it, just as there is no Communism. But there is frank sexual talk, and acceptance of the Sapphic practice. Not very far from Woodford territory, after all, though the focus is on the hero, not the heroine — which is where it almost always was with Woodford (who claimed to have written the same book over and over).

This retro-sexuality does not bother me. It seems pitiful and weak to even bring it up. Masculine and feminine are archetypes, and reflect a lot of biological and historical reality. To object to it now is merely to accept current ideological fashion as Eternal Truth, which is of course bilge water.

Carter combines, as he states in his afterword, Brackettian fantasy with a Merrittesque descent into a Lost World. The first half or more of the short novel is adventure; the second half introduces our ragtag band of outlaws to a fantastic underworld civilization that is mainly shown to us in a slightly dramatized utopian format. The point being: the utopia is too good for these depraved, uncivilized Terran and Martian adventurers.

I cannot say that this seems in any way exceptionable — or very exceptional. Except — yes, there is an “except”: the writing, on the sentence level, is superior to popular No Style style writing of current popular fiction.

So, there is more than one way that Down to a Sunless Sea is throwback fiction. And more than one way that this is not at all a bad thing.

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The Loud Literary Lamas of New YorkThe Loud Literary Lamas of New York by Jack Woodford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bitter fun, Woodford at peak invective. The target? The book publishing industry at mid-century.

His main advice? Ignore publishers; self-publish.

Whether this advice be good or ill, the contempt and wit and contrarianism sparkle on every page.

If you are interested in writing, in literary culture, or, more generally, in American character, this book by an authentic American character is almost required reading.

Besides, the book is short.

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spoiler alert!

In the movie Black Panther, we are introduced to a superheroic country hidden in the snowy mountains of Africa — this is very much an H. Rider Haggard/Edgar Rice Burroughs sort of utopia. The country, called Wakanda, is technologically advanced and has been for eons, but has kept out of world affairs on the grounds that its treasure, a philosopher’s lode of a supermetal, if transported out of the region, would destabilize the world and ruin the country. So it is isolationist. Yet technocratic.

Now, much has been made of the movie’s racial politics, and it has been lauded — and prodded into the limelight — for its social justice-y elements. But what struck me about the movie was that the baseline mythos could best be described as “Wakandan exceptionalism” of an almost Trumpian sort. The antagonist of the film is a bitter, resentful African-American criminal bent on world revolution (with a special attention paid on killing “oppressors”). In fact, he talks like a “Black Panther” of days of yore (racial solidarity, revolution) and it is he who must be destroyed so the country can grow into its new role as world benefactor. So the moral arc of the story is from isolationist exceptionalism to globalist benefactor — essentially moving from Trumpism back to standard-brand 20th century American globalism, where foreign aid is parlayed as the prime diplomatic value, above revolution, militarism and trade — the latter not even getting any mention. The real-world “Black Panther” type must be put down so the mythic “Black Panther” may triumph.

There is nothing radical here. It is essentially a JFK “liberal” movie.

It also contains a quite a bit of tribalistic mysticism, and rituals of a primitive, ooga-booga type. Rather embarrassing. We are really not far from Hollywood Tarzan tropes here.

As a Marvel movie, it is of course expertly made, a technical marvel; and if, like me, you enjoy watching scantily clad bald black women kicking ass, you will find some thrills. Andy Serkis has a fun role as a mad Russian criminal mastermind.

I saw it in Astoria, Oregon, in a theater half-filled with white Americans … and no one else. (Astoria has a sizable Mexican population, but is otherwise lily-white.) I did not feel a whole lot of excitement coming from the audience — not like in the Iron Man and Captain America flicks — but no hatred, either. I have no idea how it fares elsewhere, but in this neck of the woods it does not appear to be a hit.

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N.B. The popular meme of Wakandan exceptionalism being “alt-right” is accurate, for the most part, insofar as the country is portrayed at the beginning of the movie. It is 4C6A88CB-B755-4E6B-815C-786D49F5BA10also not inaccurate to describe the country at the end of the movie, though the kingdom’s new “black man’s burden” policy would surely undermine the stalwart atavisms of its traditionalist nationalism. As with most comic-book world-building scenarios, it does not bear close examination — just as the amazon-warrior theme does not. And alt-right dreamers might note that American exceptionalism came from open borders and trade — not anything like Wakandan autarky. There is a disturbing cargo cult element to much current political fantasizing. The wealth redistributed by any real or fantasied State entity has to come from somewhere. In Black Panther, it came from outer space and lies in the ground in the form of a metal that the Wakandans mine.

I forget the name of the metal, but it is really just a McGuffin, as in the goofy, embarrassing “unobtainium” of the horrible science fiction film Atavism, I mean Avatar. I could look up the name of this fantasy material, but memory tells me that it starts with a “v,” so I just think of it as “virkkalanium.”

Philip K. Dick’s 1952 short story “Human Is” is clever. Not great. Just clever. (You can find it in the collection We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.) It is not unlike, say, a Fredric Brown story, but not as well written.* It does not present an elegiac mood, or aim for anything like the sublime. It is a rather cynical sf tale about marital discord and unhappiness. And betrayal.

But it was taken as the inspiration for Amazon Prime’s new series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, appearing as the third episode. And was it changed! Only the ending of the short story remained untampered with, quoting (adopting) about two lines verbatim.

Yes, friends, there are spoiler ahead. . . .

The short story’s basic premise — of a mean, cold bastard of a husband (Lester) going off to an alien planet, Rexor IV, and coming back changed, turned into a nice, easy-to-live with loving man — that is the same. But instead of a literalist, a scientific researcher, the show features a callous warrior (renamed Silas, played by Bryan Cranston), bent on exploiting and killing an alien race for the good of “Terra.”

The short story’s subplot about the wife’s brother and nephew, that is gone. And all the dreck of everyday life? Gone too. The change of scenery and alteration of tone from the original make the show different. Very. Instead of reading about an unloved wife whose uncharitable husband will not help an inlaw out, we see an unfulfilled and tyrannized wife — emotionally abused and domestically oppressed despite her elevation to a major official role in the futuristic sealed-off society.

Yes, in the TV show she has been turned into a professional — a government official, even. And instead of suffering neglect from the man who won’t serve as foster father, we see our heroine suffer from coldness, indifference, and even envy from her husband. Actually, he is much worse, because minatory. Yes, he threatens violence.

The show’s penultimate scene takes place in a court room, in a trial that spells the issues out very clearly, cleverly. The written story is nowhere nearly so thematically tight.

But the big change? The whole story has become politicized. The husband in the show is portrayed almost exactly as leftists see “right wingers” — eager to kill and exploit foreigners (aliens), and as being emotionally withdrawn and cruel. And since the woman is now a career woman, a leader, this makes her a feminist heroine rather than the pathetic character that Dick imagined. With the child gone, it is just the microsocial antagonism of a childless couple, not a family drama — and the show carefully evades any issue of parental feeling from her husband to his brother-in-law’s son. This excision allows our feminist heroine to be portrayed as romantically and sexually unfulfilled. The very model of a modern Ms. obsession.

Indeed, in the show, because of her husband’s lack of interest in intimacy, early on she seeks out some sad satisfaction in a far-flung-future orgy in the sterile city’s underground (yes, the teleplay writers made sure to hit every possible mythic beat). When her husband comes back transformed, changed into a cheerful, sympathetic, and very sensual sexual partner (we “get” to see Cranston’s full-rear view nude form in a lovemaking session), she defends him — chooses him — even though it has been proved that he is not her husband.

Who is he? Well, her husband’s body, possessed by an alien metamorph. Invasion of the body snatcher!

The alien is from Rexor IV — as in the original PKD story. But where in the original the husband had been a careless innocent, his soul stolen by surprise while on a solo vacation, in the show there is war, and he was the aggressor and he became a casualty. At the beginning of the show, our heroine had politically opposed her husband’s plan to kill Rexorians and steal their atmosphere (or something like that). At the end of the show, she lets the enemy, the Rexorian, not only into her society but also into her bed, ostensibly because her human husband had not been nice enough to her. Not appreciative enough.

And was a bad guy anyway.

All this is standard left-right archetypes and stock figures and bigotries. Let me spell it out:

  • The husband? The very cliché of a left winger’s idea of a conservative.
  • The wife? The leftist self-image of a feminist heroine, ill-treated by her conservative partner.
  • The Rexorian? An exploited alien (foreigner) just “fighting for its life” and perhaps justifiably attacking our military and Silas, the Cranston character.

It would be hard to imagine a clearer allegory to today’s conflict with the Muslim world. The feminist women betray conservative men because those evil conservatives are bent on defending their nation by exploiting and killing foreigners (Muslims/Rexorians); further, those feminists replace the murderous conservatives with the foreigners, going so far to bedding them . . . because the frustrated, unfulfilled feminist women will be more sexually fulfilled by the foreigners/aliens than by their fellow nationalists/Terrans.

Also present is the “right wing” fear that the enemy will infiltrate and pretend to be “one of us” but then betray us completely, taking our place — this “paranoid” fear is exactly mirrored in the television story. And, going another step even further, the right wing suspicion that the leftists will betray us, preferring the other to their own, and making cuckolds of the West’s men . . . that is very close, too — for the woman does betray Terra, and just because the alien treats her better as wife and lover.

So, the fantasies and fears of both rightists and leftists are played to. Both sides could view the story with a kind of . . . indecent? . . . pleasure. And, because the Amazon version is so artfully done, it turns out to be a beautiful, sublime story, too. Much more powerful than the original.

It is now a philosophical horror story, not just a clever little domestic drama with a cynical sci-fi surprise ending.

The wonder of it is how brazen it is, how timely. The perpetrators — I mean, writers and actors and producers — of the new drama surely know what they are up to. But why? Why do it this way? I assume that these are all left-leaning Hollywood types. The story, though with all the biases of your standard-brand Hollywood Left Coast cosmopolitan written deep into the story’s premise, and played out as the drama unfolds, in the end gives away much of the game to the right wingers. What could be worse than the Left shown as the betrayer and the enemy shown as capable of using elaborate deception? And all because the leftist woman demands love she is not getting at home.

First world problems leading to the conquest of that world by the Third.

She even goes as far as cuckolding the Right in the end. In a sort of Gertrude-and-Claudius way.

A cautionary tale — an apocalypse! — indeed.

Ah, the culture wars. All-too-human, is.

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* Dick’s science fiction short stories, at least the early ones, are not very artful on the sentence level — his realistic novels were far more carefully crafted. The short stories are also rather tawdry, as are many of the science fiction novels, filled with the dreck of everyday domestic conflict.

N.B. I wrote the above before reading anyone else’s criticism. And now, as I clean this up, I flit around the net and find appraisals that do not go very far. And not a few just show the insipid shallowness of modern feminism.

Dominique Swain as Lolita

Two decades ago, Jesse Walker launched into his auctorial career by beginning to write his first book, Rebels on the Air. In previous years, he had lived in the town I also resided in — Port Townsend, Washington — and we had seen many movies together. In 1997* he moved to Seattle, so we didn’t see each other all that often and didn’t have much chance to argue about the movies we saw. I remember his surprise at my favorite movie of that year, Gatacca, which now only marks the lucky 13th slot on his favorite movies list of that year:

    1. Oz
      Written by Tom Fontana
      Directed by Darnell Martin, Nick Gomez, Jean De Segonzac, Leslie Libman, Larry Williams, and Alan Taylor

      Power shifts constantly in a penitentiary’s ever-evolving social web. In a perfect climax, the whole network explodes, inverting, distorting, and dashing the prison’s hierarchies.

    2. The Apostle
      Written and directed by Robert Duvall

      A double rarity: a thoughtful movie about religion and a textured portrait of the South.

    3. The Sweet Hereafter
      Directed by Atom Egoyan
      Written by Egoyan, from a novel by Russell Banks

      Death rips a hole in a town. The viewer drifts both through the community and through time, as helpless as the grieving parents of the story.

    4. fast, cheap & out of control
      Directed by Errol Morris

      Studies in spontaneous order.

    5. Deconstructing Harry
      Written and directed by Woody Allen

      The last great Woody Allen movie is a sardonic, self-lacerating remake of Wild Strawberries.

    6. Jackie Brown
      Directed by Quentin Tarantino
      Written by Tarantino, from a novel by Elmore Leonard

      All the Tarantino trademarks are on display here: the idiosyncratic structure, the brilliantly selected soundtrack, the rich and funny dialogue. But there’s something deeper going on as well, a pulp fable about integration that refuses to preach or to give the audience a reassuring conclusion.

    7. The Ice Storm
      Directed by Ang Lee
      Written by James Schamus, from a novel by Rick Moody

      Before this movie, Christina Ricci had starred in a series of fluffy kid flicks, with only a quirky supporting role in the Addams Family films betraying more than a hint that she had something more in her. With this—released the same year as That Darn Cat!—she suddenly established herself as the indie queen of the late ’90s.

    8. Henry Fool
      Written and directed by Hal Hartley

      ‘OK, you got me outnumbered here four to one and you’re gonna kill me here tonight and not a soul in this dimly lit world is gonna notice I’m gone. But one of you, one of you, one of you is gonna have his eye torn out. Period. . . . One of you poor, underpaid jerks is gonna have an eye ripped out of its socket. I promise. It’s a small thing perhaps, all things considered, but I will succeed, because it’s the only thing I have left to do in this world. So why don’t you just take a good look at one another one last time, and think it over a few minutes more.’

    9. Sunday
      Directed by Jonathan Nossiter
      Written by Nossiter and James Lasdun, from a story by Lasdun

      ‘I guess I’m too old to play a human being.’

    10. Face/Off
      Directed by John Woo
      Written by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary

      This crazed sci-fi doppelgängerung is John Woo’s best American movie, and frankly I like it better than most of his Hong Kong output too.

    11. Grosse Pointe Blank (George Armitage)
    12. Ulee’s Gold (Victor Nuñez)
    13. Gattaca (Andrew Niccol)
    14. L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson)
    15. Public Housing (Frederick Wiseman)
    16. The Rainbow Man/John 3:16 (Sam Green)
    17. The Spanish Prisoner (David Mamet)
    18. The Eel (Shohei Imamura)
    19. Gummo (Harmony Korine)
    20. Absolute Power (Clint Eastwood)

    Now, remember, that is Jesse Walker’s list, not mine. Mine is a bit different.

    Long-form narrative fiction, either as broadcast on TV or as streamed online, in series and “mini-series” format, is different enough from one-night screened film that I usually do not include it in these “best-of” lists. Besides, I have never bothered to even give Oz a try. So my own ranking — and let us remember, these ranks are more for sport than expressions of a science — would obviously exclude Jesse’s first pick, and probably look something like this:

    1. Gattaca
      Written & directed by Andrew Niccol, starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law.

      Contrary to ‘the Pajama Guy,’ I do not regard this movie as exhibiting a ‘good idea poorly executed,’ but as a great idea brilliantly executed. Besides, it includes Gore Vidal in one of his best supporting performances. It is also science fiction as I like it best: about ideas and their impact on our lives, not on explosions somehow heard in space.

    2. fast, cheap & out of control
      Directed by Errol Morris

      This is a brilliantly conceived, edited, and scored documentary that explores four men with their peculiar (if entertainingly related) obsessions: animal topiary, wild animal-taming, the mole rat, and robotics. It is the latter subject that provides the title, for the roboticist imagined creating robots based on insect behavior and intelligence, not on human intelligence, and putting many robots onto the surface of an alien planet (such as Mars) and counting on redundancy. Sort of like treating information as life, and robots as sperm and not eggs. (The idea of this sort of robotic approach appears also, earlier, in Darrin Morgan’s great second contribution to The X-Files, The War of the Coprophages.) The Errol Morris film remains one of my favorite from this documentarian/visual essayist, and is probably the one that proceeds at the crispest pace: fast, very fast indeed. But not cheap. And not out of control.

    3. As Good as It Gets
      Directed by James L. Brooks, starring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt Greg Kinnear, and Cuba Gooding Jr.

      Look, I know this is a very popular film. But unlike the biggest film of the year, the execrable Titanic, this film is a portrait not only of interesting people trying to adapt to each other and learn how to improve, to become better people, it is a romance we have not quite seen before. Nicholson plays a deeply neurotic romance writer with a decided lack of ‘people skills.’ It is obvious that this character has used being nasty to others as a way to provide emotional security for himself. But we see him change in this film, and that makes the film worthwhile — and better than most films these days. Also, the film is quite funny. If occasionally a little hard for me to take (the comedy of embarrassment not being something I tend to enjoy much — I get embarrassed for others so easily).

    4. The Sweet Hereafter
      Written & directed by Atom Egoyan (from a novel by Russell Banks)

      An extremely sad tale of people trying to deal with a great community tragedy. Lovely, well worth watching.

    5. The Ice Storm
      Written by James Schamus, from a novel by Rick Moody; directed by Ang Lee. Starring Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Henry Czerny, Christina Ricci.,

      This is not entirely dissimilar from Atom Egoyan’s movie, above. At least, in memory it seems a sad film about tragedy, guilt, and empty lives. Since I remember more scenes from it than from The Sweet Hereafter, perhaps it should be placed above it in order. But remember: these rankings are not scientific, or even expressions of urgent personal opinion. They are indicators of admiration and love. And yes, I was deeply affected by this film.

    6. Jackie Brown
      Written & directed by Quentin Tarantino (from a novel by Elmore Leonard)

      I liked this film better the second viewing than the first, and better the third time than the second. If I see it once more, it may move closer to the top of this list.

    7. Henry Fool
      Written & directed by Hal Hartley, starring Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak, Parker Posey.

      My friend Eric Dixon loves this indy auteur, Hal Hartley. I am a tad iffy on the filmmaker, being a bit uncomfortable with a certain clumsiness in too many of his films. They are not quite polished. And yet, he has something going for him in this film — as in several other works — that bowled me over the first time I saw it. I have enjoyed Henry Fool’s sequels as well.

    8. Chasing Amy
      Written & directed by Kevin Smith, starring Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Ethan Suplee, Scott Mosier.

      This is such a step above the Clerks films that it bears marking. I know it is often denigrated as somehow . . . not respectable, and it does have Ben Affleck in a leading role, and the actor has delivered some dubious performances in his career. But the female lead is magnificent, and Jason Lee does a great job in a supporting role. The characters are quirky and original, and the milieu is refreshing. Further, the key scene to which the plot leads us is a corker. I remember my first time watching this film. As that scene approached, I saw the direction that it could go and I may have mumbled ‘surely Smith is not going there.’ But he did. He went there. All the way. And the scene is hilarious. The film seems a very realistic take on the rom-com, to me, even if that seemingly preposterous, comic, climactic Proposition is ‘unbelievable.’ I know: I go out on a limb here. I am unrepentant.

    9. The Spanish Prisoner
      Written & directed by David Mamet, starring Steve Martin, Ben Gazzara, Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon.

      A very clever take on con artistry, even better than House of Games from a decade previous.

    Now, I do not have a tenth on my list. Why? Because two of the most memorable movies of the year are messes. They are so egregious, each in its special way, that one could, with some plausibility, put them on a Worst Of the Year list.

    But any movie so expertly made as these two deserve special mention. I do not know how to place them. So I will let them stand as runners-up for the tenth-best of that year. Each is a cautionary tale, both in theme and in execution. So, let them sit here on the bottom of my list, to spark some thought:

    • Lolita
      Written by Stephen Schiff based on the great novel by Vladimir Nabokov, directed by Adrian Lyne, and starring Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Melanie Griffith and Frank Langella.

      Upon reading it, I judged the novel impossible to make into a movie. And yet it has been done twice. The first time was in the early 1960s by Stanley Kubrick, and the pedophilia theme was updated: the title inamorata was played as a teenage girl by a teenager, not the girl on the cusp at all . . . and an attractive one at that. It’s a good movie, maybe the best role for James Mason. Further, it gets at a crucial element of the book: it is a dark comedy. And yet the Kubrick effort is far enough away from the book that it seems almost further from the classic novel than that novel is from its precursors, the posthumously published The Enchanter (1986) and the identically titled short story from the early 20th century written by another author entirely. The 1997 movie premiered in Europe and then debuted in America in late 1998 — and the lag is understandable. It goes a different direction. In some ways it is much closer to the novel. The actress who plays Lolita, for example, seems less the teenybopper and more the “nymphet” — though Dominique Swain was about the same age as Miss Sue Lyon when the 1962 work was shot. The whole affair is much more . . . well, it was rated R in part for “aberrant sexual behavior.” The main sex scene between Humbert Humbert (played brilliantly by Jeremy Irons) and Lolita is unforgettable — so see it at your own risk. It is especially disturbing because most of the dark comedy is gone. It is merely dark. Indeed, it seems to play as a twisted romance of sorts. A tragedy, maybe. Which I understand the novel was, in a sense, but . . . the movie seems somehow very wrong, and less moral than the book. Oh, and we “get” to see Frank Langella in full-frontal nudity. Alrighty then. I have never read the unused Nabokov screenplay for the work, but I know how I would write the screenplay, and how to cinematically frame the first half as separate from the second half, which was a crucial structural element in the novel that is missing in both movies. But this 1997 work is brilliantly shot, acted, and . . . yes, unforgettable.

    • Boogie Nights
      Written & directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds.

      This movie stars Marky Mark in his first screen role as Dirk Diggler, a well-endowed lad who makes it big in the porn biz as it turned from a film industry into a video industry. It is funny in the first half and then goes dark in the second. It thus has a structure that the Lolita films should have had. But it becomes unduly chaotic as it grinds home the apparent message, and more than a bit hard to watch. Indeed, my “review” of Boogie Nights, delivered to my friends at the time, was short and sweet: like Dirk Diggler’s dick, it is way too long.

    twv

    * Or maybe in late 1996, I cannot remember. He had worked with me under the presiding mad genius of R.W. Bradford, at Liberty magazine. But my copies of the first few issues of 1997 seem to be missing, so I cannot check the even the season of his exit from Liberty’s masthead.

I pity the young.

They’ve been programmed to believe that because some men do bad things, we all do bad things, and that when some of those bad things are sexual abuse of women, that makes us all “misogynists.” And “trash.” But listen:

  • You are not trash for wanting sexual relations with women.
  • You are not trash for being forward about it.
  • You may be, however, if you are disgusting about it. (“Trashy,” at least.)
  • You definitely are if you use force to get what you desire.

The crimes of a few (or even the many) does not imbue you with guilt, ineluctably.

IMG_2026Yes, these thoughts are brought to you by a specific essay that has been brought to my attention: “How, If You’re a Man, To Deal with the Fact that You’re Trash,” by Damon Young.

I pity Young himself.

But I am not going to critique his dreadful confession of intellectual cravenness. I will let you read it and judge for yourself.

I am on a rant here.

The problem of the present age is that the only form of chivalry left is what has been subsumed by feminism, which is chivalry metamorphosed and corrupted.

And the only form of modesty with current cultural cachet appears to be the hyper-faux-puritanism of major media scolds.

img_2320Why does the puritanical mindset so quickly lead to witch (and warlock) hunts?

I pity the young. They have not been taught the skills to recognize b.s. when they encounter it. They do not seem to realize that most messages they receive are not simple but complex, and one need not accept or reject anything wholesale. Pick at the ideas, men. Prescind one notion from another. Discover principles. Take ideas apart, see what the consequences may be, and then slowly start putting them back together.

If you’d do that, then you would see that much of what is dominating Twitter and cable news is trash talk cruelty and bigotry. It is that way not because important issues are being raised, but because important stuff is being wed to triviality.

IMG_2080And let’s get real: if people would consider marriage as the primary outlet for sexual passion, a lot of this would change. A lot of this is the de facto sexual freedom we have, and the unprepared reactions to it by men (and women) of ambition.

I pity the young. They are caught in the rush of history and it is not slowing down even as it reaches the ocean of oblivion.

twv

Brain

Cabell, The High Place illustration, Pape

The literature of contracts with the Devil — “selling one’s soul”; making a “Faustian bargain” — is vast. The Wikipedia article on the subject does not mention, however, a seed element to this literature: dealings with Faërie. The fey folk also made dangerous dealings with common folk, old legends relate, and their stories are many if not varied.

This came to mind last night as I watched one of the later episodes of the first season of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, a terrific fantasy series to be found on Netflix. Mr. Strange inadvertently makes a deal — is tricked into a binding contract — with a powerful fairy, the Gentleman, played magnificently by Marc Warren. And he loses his wife in the bargain.

In many of these stories, one is often bound to a contract in terms very much like duress or with minimal knowledge, often of the transaction itself.

It strikes me that this oeuvre presents a major theme in not only literature but also anthropology and history. The theme resonates because of the fear of contract itself, the fear of contractual relations as distinct from familiar and tribal relations.

Now, the power of contract is in its stickiness. We are bound to the contracts we make not merely by convention, but by our very own performances. Because we consent, we have little standing to object to the enforcement of a contract’s term, no matter how opprobrious it may come to seem.

And long-term contracts — terms with a time element, in which events can go very wrong and thus be very risky — are especially dangerous. So it is no wonder that the literature of dealings with dread powers has flourished.

But isn’t it more than that? This is my bleg: Is there literary or other criticism that treats these stories as expressions of a general fear of market order, of the open society itself?

I am not aware of this kind of analysis.

Yet it makes sense. Traditional society is not dominated by exchange contracts. Or insurance contracts. Family, clan, tribe, and village all depend on looser arrangements of gift exchange, straightforward coöperation, and command hierarchies . . . with honor codes as a means of social control. These come naturally to our species. As Herbert Spencer and F. A. Hayek both argued, our primeval evolution best adapted us to these older forms of social coördination.

But we seem to be alone in the animal kingdom in making bargains of a more cognitively complicated sort, trades of differing items and services. Sure, monkeys groom one another — you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. But our reciprocal services can get elaborate and conceptually more difficult the more we opt for explicit trades — I scratch your back, you give me firewood.

And these sorts of trades can quickly take on a life of their own. They unsettle normal patterned social behavior. They seem “anti-social” from the perspective of straightforward coöperation, where we all pull together to achieve a common goal. In exchange, we work separately-but-discretely-together to obtain distinct, even divergent goals.

It is no wonder that trading, like thieving and combat, was mostly reserved for dealing with others, outside of the in-group. Trades along a time dimension — especially loans with interest — are often prohibited for in-groups: Jews, Christians and Muslims have all had to deal with these ancient prohibitions. And, on the North American continent prior to the arrival of European settlers and conquistadors, trade was mainly a lively inter-tribal affair, one of four characteristic inter-tribal dealings, the others being combat, exogamy, and gambling. Indeed, when you realize how closely associated these activities are associated, in our minds, with each other and with activities to folks one often has reasons to distrust, the common catallactophobia makes perfect sense.

Making the dealings with Darker Powers an elegant way to express and handle such fears.

As well as warn a person to Be Careful when making deals.

If you have any knowledge of the critical literature on these kinds of stories as they relate to the fear of a society of contract, please advise.

twv

N.B. The illustration at top is by Frank C. Papé, for James Branch Cabell’s classic tale of dangerous dealings, The High Place (1923; subtitled A Comedy of Disenchantment and published in 1928 in the definitive Storisende edition).

FLUENCY CONFLUENCE BOOK ONE

Is not the “No Style” style, in which most fiction is written, these days, what has been left us after the “keep it simple” demands of editors, publishers, and the influence of writers such as Hemingway, Orwell, and Camus?

And does that not leave us with works of fiction that read like film treatments more than literary endeavors?

Maybe the answer to the second question is a No, but sometimes I wonder whether it be better answered with a Yes. Hence my query.

Before 1950, the No Style style (hereinafter “NSs”) was not prevalent, even with popular fiction. F. Marion Crawford, for instance, had a “literary style” that attempted some subtlety in the prose, on a sentence by sentence basis (first novel, 1882; last, 1910). Jack Woodford, the “sex novelist” whose modus was never to mention a body part of an, um, intimate nature, sported sentences and paragraphs that can run circles around most of today’s bestselling authors (heyday, ’30s and ’40s). Even the initial run of the Hardy Boys (1927-1947) could boast more individuality in the literary presentation than nine tenths of what we get today.

Still, the NSs makes for easy and fun reading. As in the science fiction novel I opened up today (see cover, above).

Indeed, you can see the contrast in sf, where even today you are more likely to come across interesting writing qua writing than in most other genres.

Philip K. Dick wrote in the NSs, but Jack Vance certainly did not. Robert Heinlein wrote in the NSs, except in the prose failure (but story success) of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Alfred Bester was definitely not an NSs practitioner; A.E. van Vogt should have wished he had been. Terry Bisson writes beautifully, but close to NSs; Gene Wolfe is as close to a great literary artist the genre has produced, and writes far from the all-too-standard NSs pop fiction prejudice — and is not very popular because of it. I’ve read a lot of NSs authors. But my favorites tend to be those who did not and do not write quite that simply:

  • Ray Bradbury
  • Thomas M. Disch
  • Michael Moorcock
  • Harlan Ellison
  • Brian Aldiss
  • George Alec Effinger
  • Lucius Shepherd
  • J. G. Ballard

Any thoughts?

twv

McInnes on Hannity with feminist

Gavin McInnes makes some good points in his recent video on a certain type of “journalist” he does not like, a group of censorious, moralistic women he calls the Spinster Police:

But he insists that these women writers are not good at their job. An odd charge. For it is quite obvious that the female journalists he is talking about are doing precisely what they are hired to do: give half-assed and half-assessed arguments mixed with invective, calumny and virtue signaling — all in the cause of “social justice” and “feminism” and a bunch of allied isms.

I would say that they are doing a fine job as demagogues, as harridans, as scolds. They may even win, and reap the whirlwind as ultimate reward. Cultists sometimes do.

Now, McInnes often repeats a claim that women would be happier, on the whole, were they to do what they are evolutionary designed to be best at, something that men cannot do: give birth to and nurture human life. Wasting time on once-predominantly male occupations does not make them happy, he says, it makes them frustrated.

And kind of pathetic.

This is no doubt true for many such women. The Cat Lady phenomenon is a little hard to take. And all the mantras of “independence,” the repeated rationales. Methinks the ladies do protest too much.

But from this it does not follow that women who forswear family life for dubious careers are bad at their careers. Many are fantastic writers, lawyers, doctors, what-have-you. But still unsatisfied. Why? For the simple reason that careers qua careers are not as satisfying as women have been told, have been telling themselves.

Feminism gained much impetus from envy. Or at least plain covetousness. Some women coveted the positions of successful, alpha males. And out of this covetousness feminism grew. In the cause of equal rights and responsibilities, this was fine, so far as it goes, but covetousness, once upgraded from vice to virtue, becomes all-consuming.

And the trouble with desiring what somebody else has is the tendency to forget what one already has, or has the best chance of obtaining. It is not much different than other vices, especially miserliness. The miser so obsesses about money that he forgets what money is for: spending now and saving to spend in the future. It is not about hoarding. Similarly, covetousness over-values what others have and under-values what the covetous have. And in the case of feminist women, what became under-valued is motherhood itself, the biological function and social institution necessary for the continuation of the species.

If you choose against your nature, prepare for the consequences. They can be vast.

In the case of many women, what careers get them is often a stunted or negligible family life: often no marriage, and either no children, one child only, or (the worst) de facto fatherless children.

Now, having only one or two children is part of a major pattern that comes with wealth acquisition: the substitution of quantity of children for quality of children. (See Theodore Schultz’s 1981 opus, Investing in People.) And, because of the small size of families, each child becomes super-important to the mothers, and that is quite a bond, one that I wish not to challenge at all — well, other than to note how big the cultural change is when most children come from small homes: risk averse parenting (because of the increased marginal utility of each child) leads to sheltered, over-protected children which in turn engenders spoiled, whiny, demanding, insufferable adults.

But back to our career women, especially those who are single and childless. They may be very good at what they do. But that does not mean that they have chosen wisely. Even if they are extremely competent, it can still be the case that it makes more sense to invest their lives in motherhood. Motherhood is natural, and one would have to cultivate an Epicurean or an existentialist anti-naturalism to make that pay off. More importantly, however, may be comparative advantage.

Say a woman has found a suitable mate with whom to procreate and establish a family. Even if the woman is better at her market-based job than be her husband, her comparative advantage may still be motherhood. What one should do is not always a maximization of a particular goal, but a situation- and opportunity-dependent satisficing.

No man can bear a child; most women can. Though men can indeed nurture children, women do tend to have a developed-by-evolution skillset to do that much better. Which means that time spent away from making a home and producing future humans, with all the joys and sorrows that entails, is apt to appear (ceteris paribus) much more enticing than doing the career thing.

Besides, as Dr. Jordan Peterson insists, most people do not have careers. They have jobs. Real careers are demanding and all-absorbing. Not univocally good life choices. Not without tremendous costs. If one can be fulfilled outside the market environment, why preclude it?

So, my point against Gavin McInnes is not that he is wrong about the advantages that women can find by embracing motherhood, or his oft-expressed arguments about how very different the fatherhood role is. It is just that the case for more women choosing motherhood and family life over careerism does not rest on the idea that they tend to suck at careers. It is, instead, that they have such a comparative advantage for family work that even in many cases where they are extremely competent — even genius — at their jobs, opting for family life often makes more sense.

The cream of the jest, though, resides in the cases Gavin focuses on: of extremely attractive women in media jobs. He mocks a professional woman who scorned the family option of motherhood but nevertheless got a facelift. Wives rarely get facelifts for husbands, unless very rich. They get facelifts to land a husband, or — and this is key — keep them in the job market longer.

You see, in media, as in the performing arts, it really helps to look great.

It is amazing, to me, to see so many good looking musicians. Does good looks naturally skew with musical talent? Writing talent? News commentary? Lawyering? That has not been my street-level, workplace-level experience. But it is so at the higher levels. Why? Because people like to look at good-looking people, and so, when the public is involved, or many clients are involved, good looks aids and even trumps talent.

Which brings us not to sexism but to lookism.

Looks, for women, has long been the chief lire for sexual attraction. But instead of honing their looks to obtain the coöperation of one man, for mating, career women hone their looks to obtain repeat business from a long string of customers, clients, and fans. This means they are nudged to pay more attention to their looks than they likely would under family life. Farding up for one man, invested primarily early in the relationship, swapped for farding up late in life for a huge audience? A daring exchange.

What a woman who swaps marriage for career finds out is what many men have long known: whoring is at the core of capitalism. The woman who marries and has children does is whore herself but once. In a career, she does what workingmen do: whore herself out every day.

Quite an inglorious end to the coveting of “what men have.”

And it is interesting to see what has really happened here: women have coveted only the top positions in society. They rarely covet the dangerous jobs, the messy jobs. There is, as is now common to notice, no cry for women’s workplace parity with men in logging, fishing, trash removal, etc. And the demands for the more glamorous of dangerous jobs, like policing and firefighting, have led to the erosion of standards in those callings. Women tend not to be as strong and hardy as men, so becoming cops and firefighters is harder for them, unless the bars for entrance are often lowered, to the public’s endangerment.

The problem with high-profile women scorning family life and marriage and even men, and scorning child-bearing, is not that it does not work for some of these women. After all, we want people of both sexes to choose what best suits them. The real problem is that it sets up a class system. The really attractive career women succeed in front of our eyes; they constantly defend their cause, ballyhooing their life choices — and this is not, for reasons unknown to me, usually interpreted as elaborate self-justification. And by doing this they provide a horrible example . . . for less attractive women, less career-oriented women. These less-blessed women go on to adopt values that channel them into unprofitable lifestyles wherein they become stuck in bad jobs while under-producing the one good that might make them happier: children. The reward is minimal, the opportunity cost tremendous.

And the now-common feminist scorn for men, the belief they are unimportant for women, sends too many mothers and their children into the Dependent Caste, perpetually stuck on state aid, trapped.

So, it is time for feminists to find it within themselves to praise motherhood. Further,

  • hating on men as fathers is not doing women in general any good;
  • the substitution of the welfare state for fathers has been a bad deal;
  • the valorization of that most unnatural of activities, market labor, above the more natural economy of family life, was doomed from the start to frustrate women.

And the great irony of this shift? Women forever courting the dreaded “male gaze” — but instead of to please one man, they fard up to please the masses of men.

Some swap.

twv

 

Dr Seuss WWII cartoon

Racism is and always will be a problem.

But it is not a simple problem. Some people who fight against racism are so fixated on race that they become racist through the back door. Anti-racism sees itself as the Id of the atavistic ism, but, nevertheless, Racism transforms into the Shadow of anti-racism.

Every day, it seems, I can find in my Facebook feed some outrageous bit of racist anti-racism from my friends or my friends’ friends and spouses. I have to bite my tongue, stay my typing hands. But there is more than enough of the racist anti-racism (and anti-racist anti-racism) in the major media that I can focus on the controversies there, rather than confront the absurdities among people I must get along with, but who would, were I to speak my mind, be offended at my analysis of their opinions.

First, courtesy of Townhall, the sad spectacle of “College Professor: Believing in Hard Work is White Ideology.”

Now, I know a lot of folks of darker hue (the “p.o.c.” as some say — a designation I find absurd) who work harder than me, and hold to the doctrine of hard work more resolutely than I do. And I am very white.* Not only does my most recent photo show it (see below), but 23 and Me testifies with DNA analysis. Further, based on the work and leisure habits of the white people in my valley (retirees, unemployed, barely employed, self-employed), I would say that the evidence of the “white ideology” at play in “white lives” is a little weak.

So, on an observational basis, the charge of “white ideology” seems an unjustified stereotype. We whiteys should object! Oh, we white people have so much to complain about, including the imputation of an ethic that we honor, today, mostly in the breach.

But, back to the Townhall column: “Pennsylvania State University-Brandywine professor Angela Putman recently asserted in an academic paper that the notion ‘if I work hard, I can be successful’ is merely a product of white ideology,” Timothy Mead informs us.

Angela Putman conducted a study to critique and examine “ideologies within college students’ discourse that are foundational to whiteness.” Her resulting conclusion published on Thursday was that “meritocracy”, or the belief that people should rise based on the fruits of their own labor, is a “white ideology.” In her mind, this “white ideology” is unfortunately widely accepted in academia.

But, Professor Putman argues that professors can change this “ideology” by teaching students “how racism and whiteness function in various contexts, the powerful influence of systems and institutions, and the pervasiveness of whiteness ideologies within the United States.”

Putman believes that it is somehow a bad thing to teach students personal responsibility. Emphasizing a collectivist mindset, Putman puts forth the idea that Americans are falsely “socialized to believe that we got to where we are . . . because of our own individual efforts.”

This “ideology” she says, perpetuates whiteness and racism throughout society. Once students learn more about “white ideology,” they will hopefully “resist perpetuating and reifying whiteness through their own discourse and interactions,” and challenge systemic “manifestations of racism and whiteness.”

This farrago of ill-thought-out concepts and arguments is a hornet’s nest of contradictions, of course. It might be important to show just how the author engages in a sort of performative contradiction, how she undermines her own thesis.

I will not provide the necessary vivisection, but will readily advance this thesis: the truth is probably more complicated than either the ideology she targets or the ideology she pushes. No one succeeds just by “hard work.” For one thing, it is not the difficulty that makes work valuable, and thus worthy of recompense. The difficulty of making arm-pit hair sculptures is no doubt tedious, but no one (I hope) wants such art any more than they want smegma-based cuisine.

But there is a point to pushing a “hard work” ethic: it encourages people to not give up, and thus makes them more likely to succeed.

And perhaps this ethic was one reason why prosperity emerged so impressively in the West, and not elsewhere.

By attacking the ethic as racist, the professor hobbles her students. And encourages laziness, entitlement, thievery. All bad things.

I wonder if the professor would dismiss my value judgment as itself racist.

Which would lead to further judgment by me. Of a very negative sort.

AngelaPutnamAlso, notice that this woman is white. Her thesis could be interpreted as an expression not merely of white guilt, but of that most dreaded of all things, “white supremacist.”

She does not believe that whites should be successful. But she does believe that whites are successful because of their characteristically “white” ideology and its most obvious consequence: hard work. She obviously believes that p.o.c. are not capable of taking to the ideology, and thus not really very capable. She has a very race-centric view of human potential. She is not a culturalist, though she no doubt pretends to be against biological determinism. But by identifying an ideology that has (obviously) led to success (or at least aided in the process) as attached to a race she accepts the notion (hardly believable, if you ask me) that the value system is not contingent to biological humanity but an efflorescence of one sub-group, she unwittingly demonstrates that she thinks whites are better than p.o.c. and that the only way to make for racial equality is to sabotage a natural advantage of white people.

I have to say, I am astounded at how racist this is.

But racism is something we have come to expect of the intersectionalist left. Did you know that Dr. Seuss was racist? Well, that has been argued, too:

Now, this is a “demented” charge, says Tucker Carlson. But as the Democrat he interviewed asserts, Seuss did draw some pretty strange and crude anti-Japanese stuff during World War II, and they are “stereotypical.” Note how Tucker responds: during wartime one should expect that kind of thing. His foil insists, strongly, no.

Now, I have seen at least one Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel World War II toon. I am not aware of any black people caricatures, but I have seen some Warner Brothers cartoons from the period that are pretty . . . bracing in their use of old-fashioned “black” stereotypes. But I side with Carlson, here, and note a feature of the cartoon at the top of this page: Hitler is also caricatured. For some reason no one complains that Geisel caricatured white people, and that he was racist against whites because he drew Hitler in a funny way.

Now, the way he caricatured the German, we are told, is appreciably different from the way he caricatured the Japanese:

Dr. Seuss drew many cartoons that, to today’s eyes, are breathtakingly racist. Check out the cartoon above. It shows an arrogant-looking Hitler next to a pig-nosed, slanted-eye caricature of a Japanese guy. The picture isn’t really a likeness of either of the men responsible for the Japanese war effort — Emperor Hirohito and General Tojo. Instead, it’s just an ugly representation of a people.

OK. Maybe. Though considering the way Hitler thought about the Japanese, a haughty Hitler is apt. But the racism could be evident. And it is certain that Seuss repented:

In 1953, Geisel visited Japan where he met and talked with its people and witnessed the horrific aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. He soon started to rethink his anti-Japanese vehemence. So he issued an apology in the only way that Dr. Seuss could.

He wrote a children’s book.

Be that as it may, not accepting a Dr. Seuss book from the First Lady (as was the case, recently, of a smug, moralistic librarian) is idiotic, of course. Even if, at one time, the “liberal” Dr. Seuss was a bit racist early on.

Having race on the brain is deranging a lot of people. But maybe it is just a bunch of people seeing how far they can push white guilt. I think what really shocks the left these days is more and more whites are saying: no more.

And that’s considered racism.

Well, if liking Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose or The Lorax or Horton Hears a Who makes us racist, what will happen is this: white Americans will accept the charge and dismiss the accusers of some sort of reverse racism, despise them for their idiotic malignity, and vote in any direction that does not include such nonsense.

So, during wartime, Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel was a bit racist. Get over it, people. Carlson’s final charge is apt: the racism-mongers are moralistic scolds.

And this carries on a theme I have been writing variations on for decades: the left has become conservative. Everything I despised about conservatism as a child is on the left, today, and much worse.

If you are incensed that Dr. Seuss was racist before he became anti-racist, and dismiss him as a hack in part for that reason, there is not merely something wrong with you. There is probably something wrong with the people around you, the people you admire.

And that explains a lot about the current epoch.

twv

* Offered in evidence of my whiteness:

Photo on 9-30-17 at 5.13 PM