Archives for category: Literature

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.”

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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.

Reading today’s press and watching the news and news talk shows is very much like “going to church”: there is never any doubt about how to feel about anything said, for what we hear is never just the facts, the stories. Always there is a moral or attitude attached. The preachers take special pains always to communicate this clearly, for otherwise the flock shall stray.

img_5132What I’m saying is, the press’s function is almost identical to the Church’s in days of yore, and it is inhabited largely by the same kind of people, though surely not identical in substantive moral content.

Today’s Church worships the American State as understood by the two major denominations: the Center-Left — which has been compromised by having fallen under full sway of the ambitious and cultic Progressive Left — and the rebellious Protestant sects — I mean, the Center-Right — with Fox being the still-dominant force.

To understand this era’s politico-culture war think in terms of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, a bloody and inglorious affair, despite so much earnestness all around.

fingerpointingIt makes me yearn for the wall of separation between news and state. Though we do not have an Established News, we do very much have Establishment News, with newspeople circulating to and from the State in regular four-year cycles.

And that Establishment really, really hates the rising Dissenting Sects, who have taken Fox’s lukewarm Protestantism to Anabaptist extremes.

Historically, the Reformation led to the Enlightenment and modernity as we know it. One would hope that something of that nature is building up again, and that out of the current crisis of legitimacy and sectarian strife a new order will emerge.

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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.

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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?

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All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing and for the State to do something.

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I believe in only one thing: liberty; but I do not believe in liberty enough to want to force it upon anyone.

The problem, in re H. L. Mencken’s admission, above, is that to obtain freedom for yourself you must bar others from abridging it not only from self, but from some or even all others. Liberty cannot be advanced except by taking license away from others.

And forswearing it for self, as well.

This is a corollary to William Allen White’s great maxim:

Liberty is the only thing you cannot have unless you are willing to give it to others.

Or, to summarize, the words of J. H. Morse:

Liberty is no respecter of persons. Freedom with an exception clause is spelled L.I.C.E.N.S.E.


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IMG_4141If you have not read the work of James Branch Cabell, where would you start? I began with The Cream of the Jest: A Comedy of Evasion, when I was 17. I have no regrets. But I do not think there is any question about the ideal Cabell starter: The Music from Behind the Moon: An Epitome, from The Witch Woman (1948).*

But after that, what?

Well, it depends.

I have a go at a decision tree — hey, it branches! — to aid the curious reader:

The James Branch Cabell Oeuvre 

* The first printing of the story was as a large, stand-alone illustrated book published by the John Day Company in 1926. It is a lovely edition, but the final printing in The Witch Woman was the final revision of the story, and it is the best. Read that version.

CNN article

This is the modern world: teen male suicides spiked to almost 15 per 100,000 in 2015, but the headline and point of the article is to focus on teen female suicides, which have also risen . . . but to a mere 5.1 per.

This is the truth, men and boys: you are expendable. The general tenor of the culture expresses concern far more for girls than for boys, women more men, and in this case the difference of concern can be expressed as a mathematical ratio.

And let us not pretend that we are witnessing some sort of outlier, here. This sort of unequal concern, by sex, is visible in courts as well as headlines, in taxpayer-funded programs as well as colleges, in legislation as well as lifeboats.

Nevertheless, I suppose we can quibble to whom, precisely, we should impute this specific case of unequal interest:

  • to the female author of the piece,
  • to the editors of the site (it was picked up elsewhere, too, verbatim),
  • to their expectation of reader preference, or
  • to the readers themselves.

But experience allows me to make a generalization: this fits with the actual (rather than professed) aim of feminism, which is to promote women over men and girls over boys. Feminism has not been about sexual equality. It is a particularist, not a universalist ideology.

If this still astounds you, consider: doctrines of equality do not get named by merely one of the two things said to be equal.

Do not think, however, that I am especially incensed about this radical sexual inegalitarianism in favor of what used to be called “the fairer sex.” The preference is not new. It is biological, really, and boils down to the economy of scarce eggs and abundant sperm. I am subject to the bias myself.

But it does give us a cause for several distinct reactions:

  1. To doubt patriarchy theory;
  2. To conclude that feminism is a form of sexism; and
  3. To chortle.

Popular modern moral crusades (such as feminism) are risible, and their pretensions to lofty idealism cannot be believed by honest inquirers.

Young men: learn to laugh. Your enemies are many, but they are indeed ridiculous.

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CNN’s article was ably mocked this weekend by Sargon of Akkad, who noted that the gist of the piece (which he said drove him “nuts”) gives some cause to acknowledge the claims of Men’s Rights activists.

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Readers of The Figures of Earth: A Comedy of Appearances, have probably wondered, as I have for nearly four decades, about the lore surrounding the word “geas,” apparently meaning a binding pledge or promise, which appears in the book repeatedly.

IMG_3989The word suggests the chivalrous approach to life that James Branch Cabell contrasts with the poetic and gallant attitudes.

The word popped into my head again today, and upon this occasion of memory I looked it up using Google’s ngram viewer.

The most interesting use I found, preceding Cabell, is by William Sharp writing as Fiona Macleod in 1899. The book is The Dominion of Dreams, and the word can be found in the chapter titled “Honey of the Wild Bees.”

“Geas,” we discover, is singular; “geasan” is the plural. (In The Grimoire, from 1990, we are told the plural is “geasa.”)

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Look for the volume on Google Books. The Dominion of Dreams actually appears more than relevant to Cabell’s work — the title indicates that clearly enough — even disregarding this particular strange word’s meaning and etymology, there illumined.

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