Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Fruits of Victory


The Framers of the U.S. Constitution had a justifiable fear of the concentration of power in their new republic, with results that we all learn in the fifth grade: separation of powers on the national government level,  an independent judiciary, a delegation of powers to semi-sovereign state governments, a Bill of Rights, and a Constitution that’s hard to change.   Thus it’s hard to gain total political control of the USA—hard, but not impossible.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot,  because the heated rhetoric of this political season suggests that we are at least potentially moving toward a situation so polarized, based on views of what’s good for the nation so divergent, that it’s worth taking a moment to consider what might happen if the extremes we’ve heard so much from recently actually took control of the nation.  We tend to be lulled by the existence of a stable center, a mass of voters who decide national elections, one reason why the extreme views of primary candidates typically get squishy in the general election campaign.   Still, it’s possible for a powerful minority to impose its views on the majority.  Slave owners did for a long time, and prohibitionists famously did in 1919.  You could also argue that civil rights was an imposed minority view in many areas of the country.

When I say total control I mean control of the White House, a two-thirds + majority in the House and the Senate, and control of thirty-eight states, both state-house and legislatures.  I haven’t done the math, but that can’t be much above five thousand people.  If you have that, you can change the Constitution and remake the country any way you like.  Five thousand people out of three hundred million is not an impossible burden.  Assuming we take extremists at their word, what might America look like after a total triumph for the Tea Party/religious right or the Occupy/social democratic left?

Right America
The right as currently conceived stands above all for two things: unleashing business and the imposition of a set of values in public life.  Liberty is the slogan, but in practical terms this means liberty restricted to the owners of capital and guns and those who share a set of values derived from the American brand of Protestant Christianity.  It’s long been pointed out that these two bases of the right are in conflict, but there is no reason why politics could not work these out.   At a minimum under such a regime we could expect to see:
  •  constitutional amendments prohibiting abortion and same-sex marriage
  •  the repeal of the 17th Amendment providing for direct popular election of senators and of the 16th Amendment authorizing income taxes
  •  a modification of the 14th Amendment eliminating automatic citizenship for people born of illegal immigrants
  •  modification of the 1st Amendment to allow school prayer and public support for religious schools and (perhaps) a statement that the US is a Christian nation; and further, perhaps, to control pornography and make it easier to sue for libel
  • clarification of the 2nd amendment, to make clear it applies to the individual right to own guns
  • clarification of the 5th Amendment to recognize all regulation as a taking that must be compensated
  • reduction of federal power to the status quo ante 1890: little power to regulate; no anti-trust laws; no social or health programs; privatization of federal property; self-regulation the rule for industry; the effective end of unions; a national sales tax to support a federal government that would consist mainly of the military, the courts, the police power, the prisons, the state department, and a few odds and ends
  • mass expulsion of illegal immigrants and restrictions on the franchise so as to make it more difficult for poor people to cast votes

What would America be like under such a regime?  Well, in a sense we’ve already seen what it was like, because the world of 100 years ago remains accessible via historical records.  We also have examples of contemporary nations where extreme individualism and feral capitalism have been given free rein.  We should expect, therefore, an increase in poverty, suffering from poverty, and crime.  We should expect a health system divided into three tiers—superb services for the well-off, mediocre, cost-rationed services for the majority, and charnel houses for the poor to die in.  We should expect to see even vaster differences between the life styles of the top ten per cent and the rest.  The national government being rendered impotent, we should expect to see the states become more significant and this means, if 1890 is the model, the complete dominance of corporations and their leaders over the business of the states.  Externalities will not be controlled, and we should expect to see an increase in product-based poisonings, industrial injury and industrial disasters.  Recovery from natural disasters would be increasingly the responsibility of private efforts and of charity.  Privatization will generally increase, as the business-controlled government sells off the profitable parts of the public investment and leaves the remainder to rot.

The upside of this would be an increase in the opportunity to become rich for those capable and lucky enough.  A substantial portion of the population would regard it a paradisiacal situation.  Desperate people with no safety net would be willing to work under any conditions and for any pay on offer.  Manufacturing, free of unions and environmental and occupational controls, might therefore revive, in the Chinese style.  It will be increasingly easy to find servants, and many more people will be able to afford them.  White person servitude will have a renaissance. Criminal justice/prisons will increase as a share of GDP and will be entirely privatized.  There is no reason why the greatly increased number of prisoners should not be rented out for the agricultural, industrial and service tasks that the expelled immigrants once did, and many will be happy to see black people slaving in the fields again in chains. 

In finance, we should expect to see the historic cycles of boom, bubble and bust continue and grow more violent, in the absence of financial regulation.  Monopolies will flourish, but so will competition from gray and black markets.  Again, some people will get very rich.   Looting of natural resources and pollution will increase, and the public fisc will serve even more as a piggy bank for the new oligarchy.

Education will be largely privatized and its function as a vetting system for the elite will be enhanced.  Outside the elite, schools will become even more like jails and will function essentially as holding pens for populations destined for actual prisons.  A small number of students will be rescued and made into elite stars to justify the neglect of the vast majority, who in any case are not needed for industry or agriculture anymore, except (see above) as prison labor.   It will be found, in general, more efficient to continue to export our manufacturing to, and import the required intelligentsia from, South and East Asia, rather than suffer the irritation of an educated population of Americans.   The resulting passive and ill-educated population will be kept docile by drugs and sports of ever-increasing violence, and encouraged to die early.

In public morals we should see a new era of hypocrisy. A sort of American ulema will drive deviance underground and out of sight.  Some of the recent advances in feminism and civil rights may be rolled back, perhaps not directly but as a result of the other changes mentioned.    The availability of porn will decrease, but the availability of prostitution will increase, and become cheaper.  Orphanages will come back as will the red-light districts.  Sodomy laws may be revived and gay people pushed back into the closet.  Contraception and sex education will be harder to get in many states and venereal diseases and illegal abortion will increase, so that the actual abortion rate may end up higher than it is now, as in, for example, Bolivia, which has very severe legal barriers to abortion.

In summary, we should expect the country to resemble a gigantic Guatemala, with a somewhat more populous overclass living an extremely pleasant life, quite insulated from the rest of the American people whose lives would resemble those of the so-called Third World even more than they do now.  But the society will probably be more exciting, violent, and colorful than the one of today, and many people will thrive in such an environment.

Left America
Here too, we have examples of what life is presently like in the country that America could become in the event of a total triumph of the left: that is, northern Europe, Canada or Australia. The Constitutional changes here would be less extensive but might include:
  •  a modification of the 1st Amendment to prohibit the use of the public airwaves for political advertising
  • A Constitutional commitment to full employment
  • A reinterpretation of the 2nd Amendment to clarify either that it really meant the militia and nothing else; or, that it meant the right to bear only the kind of arms available when the amendment was passed—black powder, single-shot weapons and swords
  •  a clarification that controls on the externalities of production are not takings; and a strengthening of the commerce clause to allow easier regulation
  •  the abolition of the electoral college; restrictions on state efforts to restrict the franchise

Beyond that we would see free single-payer universal health care and free education continued through university, plus serious vocational education programs, with an associated commitment to service on the part of  the young people thus aided.  Most doctors would be salaried, and working in non-profit comprehensive health centers.  Tax rates would return to Eisenhower-era levels.  The capital gains exemption would be severely restricted and inheritance taxes raised.  The government would take a somewhat larger percentage of GNP; incomes would gradually become more equal.  Regulation of the economy would be much stricter, in banking and finance, in safety, in the environment.  There would be massive infrastructure investments in schools, clean energy, rapid transit and high-speed rail.  Banking and finance would become dull again and not the destination of the brightest and most ambitious.

The  social status of teachers would be raised to levels observed in Scandinavia and Singapore.  They would be recruited from the top quintile rather than from the bottom one, as we do now.  The poorest students might be educated in the sort of environment available now only to the wealthiest, but, of course, the poorest would not be nearly so poor to begin with.

This sort of society would be safer, cleaner, healthier, more productive and better-educated than the one we have now, but it would also be far more regulated and offer less individual opportunity to grow rich.  Religion would have less influence on the public sphere—abortion would be not only legal but free, contraceptives would be supplied to high school students and sex education would begin in  middle school.  Abortion rates would fall, as, for example, they have in the Netherlands and Belgium.  Crime, especially violent domestic crime, would drop.  Guns would be far more controlled.

In summary, we should expect the country to resemble a gigantic Finland, with almost all people living a secure and pleasant life, with incomes tending toward equality, a great deal of leisure, and excellent public facilities, but with relatively restricted opportunities to make a killing and achieve vast wealth.  Social mobility may be decreased in both directions.  Growth as usually measured will slow.  There may be less radical innovation, but also less volatility: a peaceful if somewhat dull society.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

stocks & bonds?

The market was up the other day because retail sales were up.   Last week it was down because of Euro worries.   Note that "because."  I have to admit that I have never quite understood the whole idea of stock markets.  Why should they go up and down like that?  How does the "because" fit in?

I look at starling flocks in the sky: sometimes they're here, sometimes they're there, the mass darkens and fades in response to mysterious messages, and the people who buy and sell stocks must be like that too.  Everyone's going here.  Let's go here!   No, everyone's going there.   Let's go there!  And starlings do it without six-figure bonuses.

The way I always understood it, and I'm being purposively naive here, the point of the stock market is to bring people with money to spare together with people who need money to do useful, or at least profitable, stuff.  In this imaginary world the stock market as a whole would reflect the current business climate and the stock price of any firm would reflect what the market thought about its prospects.  If this were actually the case, we would expect stock markets to be rather like other markets--supermarkets, for example, which bring people with money to spare together with groceries--that is, calm and efficient places operated by clerks, with fairly stable prices.

Obviously, the stock market is not like that.  The stock indexes and individual stocks go up and down, not only daily, but micro-secondly, and we read in the commentaries on these movements that they were "caused" by fluctuations in data, news about employment, housing starts, deliberations on the Euro, or some such, always after the fact.  These must be  explanatory fictions, since the fate of an actual existing firm cannot (except in the special cases, as, say, when a drug company's new drug fails or when one firm purchases another) be tied to the fate of some transient variable.

The number of variables that could possibly affect the real fate of firms must be so large as to be incalculable, and therefore these fluctuations must be in the same class as the roll of dice or the flight of my starlings.  It has been pointed out many times, by distinguished economists, that success on Wall Street is a random walk, and that it's really impossible for any stock market management to consistently beat the indexes.   We would expect, therefore, that the handling of stocks, like the handling of tomatoes, would be a clerkly function, and paid accordingly.

This, to put it mildly, is not what we see.  Colossal amounts of money are made in finance, and I don't think anyone really understands where it comes from.   What is the ultimate source of this Amazon of riches?   I used to think I knew what made money happen.  There's value added, for example.  Dirt gets turned into food and fiber.  Capital helps in this process by funding machines that make it more efficient, the society gets wealthier and everyone prospers.   There's innovation.  Everyone agrees that innovation should be richly rewarded: an industry springs into being where none was before.  There are various kinds of services that save time, from retail to airlines, and time is money.  (There are numerous actual investors in all this, people who study companies and buy and hold chunks of them, in the old fashioned way, and most people would agree that this is part of capitalism, and that the people who were smart enough to back Apple and Intel should get their share.)  But how did it happen that what should have been a mere ancillary service, greasing the transfer of money from savers to businesses, developed instead into the hypertrophied organism we now observe in New York and other financial centers?  Where do the billions actually arise and how does it flow in such volumes into the pockets of these guys?  Is it theft?  Is it looting?  What's the source? One is baffled and not a little annoyed; because one has a sneaking suspicion that some of those bucks should have ended up in my pocket, and yours.

And it's not as if these individuals are being rewarded for taking risks with their own money, to which some premium might conceivably be attached.  Heaven forbid!  Basically, or so it seems to me, they're being rewarded for going to Vegas with other people's money and putting a chip on red.  As long as red comes up, they're financial geniuses, the toast of Wall Street.  When black appears, they give way to the next genius, who has discovered the virtues of black.  They leave the scene with their hundreds of millions, a just reward, we think, because not everyone can place a chip on red with such flair.

Also, if the market is, indeed, a random walk, then anyone who consistently makes money through financial manipulations in the market, year after year, must be not a genius, but a cheat.  He knows, because someone told him, that red will come up on the next turn.  Yet no matter how many financiers are indicted and jailed, the whole thing goes on and on, and, as we've seen, in infects the real economy too.  It always has and it always will, until it's stopped.

It'd be real interesting to see someone come up with a general solution to the problem of financialization, although I don't expect the current batch of politicians to do it.  It's an Easter Island-level problem for us.  We've always built giant statues, ever bigger one, and we always will, until the society collapses.

 I should say that I have a simple financial plan.   When I first started to make serious money from my writing and realized that it could not last and that I had to put some of it away, and not into a place in Tuscany, I asked the guy who did my taxes what I should do.  My ignorance of markets was complete; never bought a stock in my life, missed many opportunities for billionairehood, I guess, but there it is.  He said, "Vanguard index funds, 60 per cent stock and 40 per cent bonds, stick a fifth of your gross in there, forget about it and you'll be fine."   So I did and I am fine.  I never made a lot of money, but I never lost a lot of money either, even in the crashes, since I started this plan.   I have more than enough to support my fairly modest life-style, even if I never sell another sentence.   This is how ignorant I am of financial affairs.  

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sexual revolution

 I don’t know what made me think about J.  Maybe reading the Sunday newspaper and picking up the sexual undertones.  A good deal of the conflict in the modern world is between the cultures that have gone through the sexual revolution and those who have not, and that got me thinking about actually going through the sexual revolution, back in the day, and that lead to J.

This was on a scientific research vessel converted from a North Sea trawler, and J. was a sort of bosun.  He was the senior member of the crew and he made the machinery go.  He also made a lot of money playing chess.  The scientific party would be inveigled into a game with this simple sailor and they would get their asses handed to them; major money was sometimes bet.   In any case, a formidable man, heavy jowled, mustached, with a bad haircut of thick black hair, just going gray.  He spent a lot of time in the galley and we grad students would have conversations with him there, at slack times while we cruised to a new station.

So we arrive at a port in a tropical nation.  We have been at sea a while and working, actually fairly dull work, dropping and retrieving trawls, taking samples of the water, seining plankton and looking through microscopes to distinguish between two virtually indistinguishable crustaceans or whatever.  To me, boredom itself, to a taxonomist the most fascinating thing in the world.

That evening we went ashore to get a meal and explore the town, a sleepy, steamy little port, the sort of place that a film company would use as background for a bad movie about seedy remittance men and exotic beauties.    J. recommended a brothel.  We went to the brothel.  We returned to the vessel.  How was it, asks J.  Terrific, we say, great.  (It was not great.  It was far from great.  It was as far from great as the present space-time continuum allows.)   But we liked J. and wanted to show appreciation, and also to show we were real men and not nerdy science types.

Then we got under way again.  Then we had whore stories, a genre that had escaped my notice until then.   J. had fucked a very, very large number of whores, it appeared, and he had a good memory (chess!) and a vast store of anecdotes, often hilarious, often horrible.    According to J.,  the crown and apotheosis of  whoredom was Germany in 1945.  J. had served on tankers in the North Atlantic, been torpedoed twice, had spent days in open boats, the whole nine yards.  Now he was shipping peacefully the oil that kept the Occupation running and he had plenty of shore leave, plenty of money, and a twenty-three-year-old body.  He told us, wonder yet in his voice, that you could fuck anyone, anyone, for a pack of Luckies.  Everyone in the country was whoring:  you could fuck blondes who looked like princesses, who might have been princesses, for a carton and a chocolate bar.

They he asked us what the brothel had charged and we told him and then he told us we'd been ripped off and asked what we usually paid in the city where we were based.  Embarrassed looks; then one of the scientists said that we didn’t pay for sex.   Then we were all married?  No we were not.  Nor, as he then jokingly proposed, were we homosexuals.

And then as we tried to explain that we got laid because women also liked to get laid and if we liked each other we just did it, clouds started forming in his eyes, and we turned the conversation to safer ground: he was not a fellow you wanted angry at you.  Because he thought we were making fun of him.  He thought we were implying that Germany, 1945, without the cigarettes had become the permanent condition of people under thirty, which was impossible, unthinkable, because it would mean that women liked sex, in which case many of the assumptions on which he had based his existence were incorrect, for example, that no woman would have sex with a man unless she was paid off in some way.  Guys like that may be extinct in the US now;  or maybe not.  There is certainly a great deal of prostitution.  So many separate moral universes exist in any society and it is hardly surprising that the mores adopted by the chattering classes (as reflected in the Sunday papers) may not obtain in all of them.  I suppose that’s one of the reasons for novels.

Seattle Rain Festival

I’m happy to say that our terrible Indian Summer (a phrase, by the way, that Native Americans must resent) here in Seattle in finally over.  Throughout August and September and into October (!) the sky was a boring, featureless blue, the air was balmy, and people were saying, ‘If we wanted this crap we would’ve stayed in San Diego.”  Now, however, Seattle is back.  The sky has returned to its default color, varying from yogurt to dust bunny, and the background audio is once again the tip-tap of raindrops on foliage, every miniute of every day.  That means that the 2013 Seattle Rain Festival is about to kick off and are we pumped!  If you’ve never been to the SRF, you’ve got a treat coming—it’s like Burning Man except without the loud music and instead of naked girls morose Swedes dressed in layers.  So hurry on down!  It only lasts until July.   As a foretaste, here’s my report on last year's event.

As usual, the thrills begin at the festival center, five acres of glistening asphalt, which we enter under an arch announcing this year's theme: "Seattle: The City Phlegmatic."  We pass by Lars Eric Nilson's heroic bronze of the Norwegian carpenter, officially titled "Man Who Left His 3/8th Drill on the Truck," which symbolizes the limited horizons that mean so much to this city.  Beyond, we see through the showers what must be one of the supreme examples of the art of flat-roof concrete-block stucco architecture anywhere in the world, the famous Rectangle Building.  Let's go in!

In the center ring, we're just in time for the slime mold judging. Iridescent life forms writhe on their "logs" while their nervous owners make last minute primps.  The slime mold is not only the state bird of Washington--it's a local mascot as well.  Nearly everybody owns one or two, but these here are not your common basement lurkers.  No, these are true aristocrats of the myxomycete world, trained not to move or make a sound despite the most intense prodding.  Here come the judges--the throng holds its breath--and the blue ribbon goes to Mrs. Irma D.  Christiansen of Enumclaw for her fine gray-green Lycogala bitch, Ch. Rum-bum Altair Domino III.  Way to go, Irma!

Next, we head for the gallery area, where we take in the fascinating exhibit, A Century of Galoshes, and move on to The World of Rain, in which different kinds of raindrops are preserved in lucite. A continuous video show—Our Fogs--delights the eye, and we marvel at Old Mingo, at 29.7 pounds the largest raindrop ever recorded.  And it fell right here in Seattle, in 1957! To my mind, however, the most endearing feature here is the Kiddie Park, where children born after the beginning of the festival, and who have thus never seen the sun, are shown photos of the solar orb and allowed to stand for a few seconds under a sunlamp, just enough to raise a few blisters. What fun they have spraying one another with Solarcaine!   And other kids are poking fingers into this year’s special guest mascot, the Pillsbury Doughboy.  Nice tan, dude!

Of course, the climax of the festival is attained on Derby Day, when racing banana slugs from all over converge on the Dixie Lee Ray Memorial Track in Tukwila.  (For those not in the know, Tukwila, The Queen City of Apple Maggot Quarantine Area #7, is located some ten miles south of Seattle and is famous for having more motel rooms under $25 than all but seven other US cities.) We had intended to race our blue-spot mare "Penny" this year, but she bruised a slime gland on a bit of ornamental ironwork and went lame.  Nevertheless, it was a thrill to sit in the stands, chomping on the track's special gray weiners, chugging on a Rainier Beer, Seattle’s beloved Green Death, and watch the noble molluscs tear around the wooden oval.  The track this year was well-mucoused and quite fast.  The favorite, Degoutant, having been scratched (it failed a slime test) the palm went to a fleet two-year-old, Slubbergullion, who finished in the astonishing time of 8 hours, 20 minutes, 4 seconds, paying $14.50.As the crowd left the old wood-bowl for another year, sad but happy, sorry to see the old festival fade away but taking comfort in the fact that the next one starts in a mere sixty days.  Hope to see you there!.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

What's real

What a lot of fantasy there is in popular fiction!  We seem to have a taste for magic, although almost no one actually believes in magic.  We can see this very well in the Harry Potter books, which are entirely devoid of magic, their ostensible subject.  It's all special effects, like in the movies, devoid of the spiritual element that is an essential part of magical practice wherever it survives in the real world.  What we have instead of magic is a kind of magical materialism--you say the magic words and the thing is done, just like computer code.

This is all very well, and great entertainment, along with all the vampire and angel stuff that's so popular, not to mention the sword and sorcery tomes.  It's fantasy, it's fun.   But what I'm interested in is magic that's not fantasy and not fun, that's real as rocks.  Of course, the problem with this idea is that magic has been entirely cast out of the realm of the real by the operation of science.  Science makes a claim on the entirety of the real: if it can't be demonstrated according to the methods and assumptions of science it can't be classified as real.  This is why much is made of "exposing" charlatans.  Professional stage magicians like to do this--it's all a trick, and it's manifest that the stuff they do expose are tricks indeed.   But it's also obvious to me that actual magic, if it exists at all, would be perfectly invisible to the tools of science.  Science wouldn't even know it was happening.

To believe that you would have to accept that the reality science deals with is not the complete reality, that materialism, positivism, naturalism--all ways of insisting the opposite of this--are deficient descriptions: true as far as they go, but not exhaustive of the real.  Religious people, of course, do believe that there is a separate reality, and that it is able to touch them.  Materialism must therefore discount all these widely reported phenomenon,  and must regard the entire religious and spiritual history of mankind as benighted illusion, even insanity.  Someone has a religious experience?  It's some defect in their medial temporal lobe, and not only that, we can make people have such experiences by stimulating those neurons.  Therefore, the experiences are not real, just as the sun is not real because we can demonstrate nuclear fusion in a bomb.  A hundred people have a religious experience together and that is just mass hallucination, even though we don't know quite how that would work.  But it does stop up the hole in the approved reality.

One would think materialism is on firm ground, given its association with the power conferred by technology.  The iPhone works; therefore there are no spirits.  In our culture we are allowed to dismiss phenomena by calling them "mere subjectivity," but no one is allowed to say "mere objectivity."   The objective viewpoint, so-called, has an invincible seniority over the subjective view. This requires the assumption of an objective view, perfectly impersonal and hence likely to be true.  The mechanism of science, in which the views of a number of observers are compared to establish "reality"is said to account for any subjectivity that has crept into observation, except where those observations include things that can't happen, in which case they're still mere subjectivity.  Another unspoken assumption here is that human intellect is the ultimate court of reality.  If human intellect, as represented by Western science, cannot understand how a thing can be, then that thing cannot be.  The idea that there are intellects lounging in a different reality that are as much superior to us as we are superior to roundworms cannot be entertained.

What I like to do in fiction (getting around the barn to the actual subject here) is try to punch a very small hole in the fabric of objective materialism.  It has to be small.  Zombies in the streets or angelic wars or demons with yellow eyes are too easily dismissed as fantasy; which they are, of course.  If there are spiritual forces at work in the world then they are going to be totally cryptic, and this is also the conclusion of people who take such things seriously.  The corollary is that anyone who claims the manifestation of spirits is likely to be a fraud, or deluded.  On the other hand, there is no reason why a fraud should not have actual contact with a wider reality, and it makes an interesting plot.  I don't like to commit as author to any particular view of reality, although I use characters that report sensing beyond the conventional reality, and events that partake of this reality are always presented in a way that enables them to be explained conventionally: just like in real life.

My sense is that this can be far scarier than the zombies/vampires stuff.  I always mention Lord Dunsany in this context.  He was a horror writer back in the early 1900s and someone asked him what was the most horrible thing he could think of and he chose two.  One was going into an English garden on a lovely June day, and the roses start singing.  The other is waking up in the middle of the night to find someone in your room, and it's a clown.  The art then is in twisting reality just that little bit, just enough to deprive the reader of ontological security without allowing him to turn on the objectivity machine.   Hard to do, always worth it.

Friday, October 5, 2012


I had a little fender-bender a couple of weeks ago.  I was entered a tricky intersection when I heard a thump and my left-side mirror bent in on its hinge.  I made the turn I was planning and then pulled over, thinking that the other car would do the same and we could exchange cards, but no other car was doing this, and so I drove on, thinking I was side-swiped by a truck or van that didn't even notice the bump.  Later I found a tiny crack in the plastic wheel-well cover and decided to forget about the incident.

But this morning I got a call from an insurance claims adjuster.  The other party had put in a claim and he was trying to reconstruct the accident.  I told him I didn't recall enough about the accident to help him much, but he persisted.  I realized that he wanted me to construct a narrative not based on actual memory but on the legal requirement for some narrative on my part, in order to assess liability.  I told him I could not do that, and he informed me, more or less, that if I didn't have a narrative, the tale told by the other party would prevail.

Well, this is our legal system.  But as it happens I've done a good deal of research on memory, for my amnesia-themed novel, and it turns out that human memory remains one of the great mysteries.  Clearly we do have memory, in that we can tell what happened in the past, but how that memory is stored in the brain, or how reliable it is, remains obscure.  We do know that it's not at all analogous to a computer hard disk, with specific neurons or neuron groups storing specific episodes of life.  Certainly, the famous failures of observation and of eye-witness testimony are evidence of this lability and unreliability of memory retrieval.  In fact, as the adjuster pressed me, I found myself making up a story. This is, in fact, all we can do--make up a story, and whether it is an actual recounting of a past event is entirely indeterminate--it may be, it may not be.

This got me thinking about memoir.   Writers purport to render the past accurately, like a video does, but this does not seem to be a capacity that humans actually have.  I personally have no confidence at all in my memory.  I know I have 'memories' of things that did not in fact happen, and for that reason I would not ever attempt a memoir.  Published memoirs I regard as mainly novelistic, although they can, of course, be wonderful literary products.  Here is an example.  It is my first actual, retrievable memory, and it's interesting because it is linked to an historical event.

When I was a child, we lived on the top floor of a two-family home.  One entered from the street into a small hall, and then chose one of two keyed doors, one leading to the ground floor flat and the other to a stairway up to the upper flat, where we lived.  At the top of our stairs was a hall and a railed barrier separating the staircase from the hallway, and I used to like to play there.  In this scene I am playing with toy soldiers.   They are made of a kind of hard, grainy rubber, with a smooth brown-colored surfaces, or else crudely painted lead.  One of these toys is a strange one: it depicts a man sitting at a control board of some kind.  He has a headset on. Towering above him are three large hollow cones on a stanchion.  Before the invention of radar, such devices were used to detect the rumble of oncoming bombers.  It was  a very stupid toy, but it is burnt into my memory, and is vivid after over sixty years.

As I play, my mother and my young aunt, my father's sister, are in the apartment, separated from me by a doorway.  The downstairs doorbell rings.  My mother comes out of the apartment and goes downstairs.  It's a telegram.  She comes upstairs with it and goes into the apartment.  There comes a horrible shriek and the sound of wailing.  The telegram has just informed my aunt that her husband has been killed in action.

I am later informed that my uncle has died on Omaha Beach, on D-Day.  Omaha Beach and D-Day as phrases have thereafter particular resonance for me, and of course, they lock my memory into historical time--the second week in June, 1944.  Since everyone else involved is dead, I have no confirmation that it actually happened that way.  You would think that trauma would help establish the memory as true, but maybe not.  I spent a lot of time in that hallway.  My uncle really did die on D-Day.  The rest is narrative;  it makes a good story, but who knows?  The past is really gone, except as we assemble it to serve our present selves.


I'm reading Dostoyevski's The Demons, mainly to get some idea of how politics drove people nuts in the early 19th century.  It's always a little dangerous to read Fyodor when one is writing a book.  One is tempted to say, oh, why bother?  But actually, any comparison would be unfair, because no one can write a Dostoyevsky novel nowadays.  He's far too dense and multilayered, and just, well, better that anything in modern literature, and far, far better than anything in the kind of popular books I write.  One is tempted into trying for unmarketable psychological depth; but I believe I can resist.

Nicolas Freeling, the late, great writer of European policiers, had a take on this subject.   In his volume of essays, Criminal Conversations, Freeling asked a question about the ultimate purpose of genre writing, using genre painting as an analogy. He describes a visit to the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague, which has one of the world's great collections of 17th century Dutch genre paintings.  (Genre is a term of art criticism that is now applied to certain forms of popular writing.  It refers to interior scenes of ordinary life, as opposed to religious, mythological or historical themes.)  So he describes the line of wonderful genre paintings by the best artists in the field--De Hooch, Gerard and the rest--in which all the aspects of the life of those times are expertly rendered. The porcelain and pewter, the lace and brocade, the tiles, the colored glass, the food on the tables, the jolly ladies and gentlemen at leisure are all as they should be, vivid and charming.  And then, he says, you come to a painting that is not like that, that partakes not of the transitory genre world, but of, in a sense, eternity.  This is The Girl with the Pearl Earring, by Vermeer.  It's hard to precisely describe the difference, but I've been in that museum and I know what he's talking about.  Somehow, Vermeer has managed to capture mortality itself, to convey the beingness of his subject in a way that the other genre paintings do not for theirs.  And so Freeling says that as the existence of genre painting provides a backdrop against which the genius of Vermeer shines forth, so does the work of genre writers like him (and me) enable a truer appreciation of Dostoyevsky's grandeur.

It's the case that when genre writers gather and talk to one another, there's a certain spite in the air with regard to literary fiction.  You hear people say that genre writing is good writing, or can be good writing, or is better writing than some of the writing sold as literary fiction.  All this can be true, but it's also true that literary fiction has a higher and more important aim than genre, which is ultimately mere entertainment.  Literary fiction is about changing the life of the reader, or rather explaining their lives to them, giving them a different central narrative by which they can understand their existence.

I actually try to do this, to the extent allowed by the constraints of a genre novel, but basically the constraints block the effort from developing too far.  Meanwhile, being the backdrop to Dostoyevsky seems a reasonable purpose for my career as a writer.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Bedside reading--Simone

While I was ill last week I read an extremely strange book, with a strange history.  In 1943, it seems, the Free French government in London wanted a study of why the French nation collapsed so thoroughly in 1940, a collapse not entirely military, but also moral and, if the term is allowed, spiritual as well.  To perform this task some obscure bureaucrat obtained the services of a 33-year-old refugee lately arrived from New York.  She had volunteered for secret operations in France, but she was so obviously incompetent at any physical task that, I imagine, they fobbed her off on some third secretary, who gave her this assignment.

This was Simone Weil, and the report she wrote is the book called, in English, The Need for Roots.  Well, Simone.   How you feel about Simone depends on how you feel about religion in general and religious enthusiasm in particular.   If, for example, you think St. Francis of Assisi was a maniac who should have stuck with dad and made a killing in the rag trade, then you will have little sympathy with Simone: from this view, saints are nutters, end of story.

If, on the other hand you think that the world is deeply wounded and requires individuals to point this out by the example of their bodies rather than by preaching, then people like Simone Weil will be of interest.  Counter to the current notion that only stupid people are religious, Weil was accounted the most brilliant woman in France.  She was first in her class at the most selective and rigorous school in France (Simone de Beauvoir was second in the same class, which gives you an idea) and on the basis of her early work was expected to set the world of French philosophy alight.  Instead she took a menial job at a Renault factory, a typical Simone thing to do.  Like most saints, she was a terrific pain in the ass: too smart to ignore, too dangerous to heed, too brave to surrender.  Just like L. Cohen's Suzanne, you know that she's half crazy, but that's why you want to be there.

She loved the Greeks and hated the Romans, a somewhat ahistorical position, as the Greeks were not quite so wonderful, nor the Romans quite so bad as she portrays them, but her point is that what she considered the Roman aspects of life in her era seemed to totally dominate society and had to be resisted in just the spirit that the Christian martyrs did.  She was an adherent of no organized religion, which allowed her to be more religious than anyone else of her time, and so she is called the Apostle to the Atheists.  In this book, her critique of both communism and fascism is vivid and devastating, but she turns the same light on liberal capitalism, which shrivels as well.  Her demands that the world should be  changed are, of course, impossible demands, but making impossible demands is the business of the saints, and somehow the world is changed; sometimes, and slowly to be sure.

Her main point in the report was that obligations came before rights, and that it had been a mistake for the men who wrote the great liberal constitutions of France and the US to focus on rights. This does not mean in the usual way that rights come with responsibilities.  She's making a metaphysical point about the status of human beings and what they owe to one another.

She never wrote a great book.  Her oeuvre consists of scraps, letters, diary entries, articles, and this report, which was probably filed and forgotten as soon as received.  Certainly the Fourth Republic did not usher in a dispensation notably different from that of the Third, except that the fascism that was wildly popular among the French prior to the Liberation could no longer show a public face.  The Need For Roots is dated in some ways, as you would expect, but big chunks of it are applicable to any modern society, and, in the midst of the sterile politics we now enjoy, a fresh breeze from a source beyond the world.

A few months after she finished the report Simone Weil died, at thirty-three, of tuberculosis aggravated by inanition.  She had resolved not to consume more calories than were provided by the Germans to their slave laborers.

Monday, October 1, 2012


I was ill all last week, the grippe as we call it around here, the usual physical misery, but this time with an illumination for a booby prize. The first day I slept for almost twenty-four hours. The next day, the alarm on my iPhone awakened me at 7:30, as it does every morning, and of course I turned it off and returned to sleep, but a thought remained in my head. Why am I setting an alarm? The answer was mere habit: I have been getting up to an alarm on every working day since age ten. And just why am I still doing it? Because I'm a worker, and workers get up in the morning at a particular time. Those who do not are bums.

 But I'm a writer, and moreover a writer not on deadline, and moreover, a writer who typically screws around all morning and doesn't get down to actually tipi-tapping the keys until after lunch. So around Thursday, when I was feeling better, I cancelled the alarm permanently, and on Friday I arose naturally at about nine, screwed around somewhat less, and was as usual back at the machine by 1:30 and had a days work in hand by dinnertime. I felt a lot better too, and it only took me twenty years to figure this out. Not writing under deadline for a contract is, now that I understand it, quite different from the experience I've had as a writer so far. No one is waiting for this book. I can write it or not; if I do write it, it can take ten months to write or four years. I'm not particularly hurting for money at this stage in my career, so that's not a pressure either.

 But I am writing, if slowly. I used to crank out three or more twenty-some page chapters a month. Now I do one or two. It's a much more pleasant life, being a bum. I can see why millions choose it.    And I now understand why autobiographies of the writers of the past read the way they do.   The writer travels to a distant city and has adventures and makes friends and goes to parties and has romances: I always used to ask myself, when do they write?  Do they use an alarm clock?  Alarm clocks do not feature prominently in the biographies of the fiction-writing profession, especially not when the hero is swanning around Menton with a Polish countess. I guess I missed all that. But no matter!  As to why I'm writing, it's because I want to learn how it all turns out. I want to read a book that won't exist unless I write it. Seems like a lot of trouble, but there it is.