Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Prague & Me

So the question is why I'm writing a historical novel set in Prague.  A long story.  Here's the core dump, me and Prague

 --First contact I'm about eight or nine, I come across a book, can't recall what book, but it has in it the story of the Golem of Prague.  Fascinated!  A 16th century rabbi made a giant out of clay and put an inscription in its mouth and it came to life.  It could do all kinds of convenient labor, could protect the Jews of Prague, then went out of control so the rabbi, Judah Lowe, the Maharal, had to remove the holy inscription and reduce it to clay again.  Oh, yes, it couldn't speak because only God has the power to convey speech.  The Maharal leaves it in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Prague.  I associated this with Boris Karloff's Frankenstein in the movie, a figure that filled me at eight not with horror but with sadness, the lonely monster who just wanted to talk to the little girl and got into such trouble, peasants with pitchforks and torches.  Some identification there, obviously.  I recall that I heard the name of the city as rhyming with "vague."

--The word defenestration, a big word just right for a ten year old junior pedant, the Defenestration of Prague, I saw the phrase somewhere, looked it up, added it to my Aspergers storehouse along with the names of the visible stars and the species names of early hominids.  This was all encyclopedia work, of course, the opposite of googling, because after you read the thing you looked up you read the next article in alphabetical order and learn something you never would have come across.  Like the Pragmatic Sanction (the next entry after Prague in my World Book Encyclopedia.)  Now we're into the history of Austria, of the Austrian Empire, a place that no longer existed, a fairy-tale kingdom like the yet to be devised Middle Earth  but real, a congeries of nations, tribes, ruled by an ancient man with funny whiskers, an empire that had caused the First World War and the destruction of a civilization.  I read, I accumulated facts, I began an intense and inexplicable interest in this lost empire, about which one rarely heard, most of it now behind the Iron Curtain, another of my secret stores of useless information.

--Now I'm a freshman in college and a guy sets me up with a blind date.  (A date:  you call the girl on the phone and propose an outing to some actuality, a movie, a show, a musical venue.  You travel to the girl's house, take her to said event, then home again.)  This was a long time ago.  I invited this unknown person to a party.   At college parties one then wore coats and ties and if girls, cocktail dresses, but this was not that kind of party.  At this party we would wear army surplus and jeans and
t-shirts and drink beer and unbelievably horrid wine from straw-covered bottles and listen to jazz records, and perhaps sometime during the evening fourteen people would crowd into the bathroom and share a single joint.  So when the girl asked me how she should dress I said, "You know, sort of bohemian," which was the only word I had to describe an event outside the mores of the standard culture of the late Eisenhower era.  On the night of, therefore, I show up at this girl's place, which turns out to be a tenement in the Bronx, and am shown in by her aged granny, who gives me the fish eye because I am wearing a black turtleneck and jeans and an Army field jacket and a black watch-cap, and in a few minutes out comes the girl and she is wearing the Bohemian national costume--embroidered blouse and dirndl waistcoat, voluminous skirt over numerous petticoats, white stockings, and the lacy head-dress, with colored ribbons.  Oddly enough, this was not the most embarrassing incident of that year, or even of that evening, but I did extract from the debacle the understanding that capital B Bohemia was a real place rather than a sort of fairy-tale kingdom, as well as a fresh understanding of the outer limits of shame.

--Kafka, speaking of the outer limits of shame and making art from a sense of helplessness and degradation.  Kafka came from Prague.  The Castle is an actual castle, Hradcany, that looms over the city. Gregor Samsa turned into a giant cockroach in a particular house.  Read Kafka as a teenager and something happens to your brain.  The Golem comes alive again and takes up residence.  No matter how much Enlightenment I absorbed later (and it was a lot) the idea of magic never quite departed.  Humanism and Enlightenment came to Prague as it did everywhere in Europe, but it got uniquely warped there.  They had an Emperor, Rudolf II, who was a magician and an employer of magicians, alchemists, astrologers.  Dr. Dee worked for him, as did Tycho Brahe.   The Europeans knew something was strange about Prague. In the 19th century they encumbered it with legends, Magic Prague.  When surrealism came to Prague in the early 20th century, it put its feet up, sighed, and said, "Home at last."

--Czech animation and puppets--I spent a lot of time in art house and museum screening rooms watching this stuff in the 50s and 60s. Surreal.  It's not the faintly silly Freudian stuff made popular by Dali, but the product of a nation for whom plain reality had been awful for a very long time, and it's about resistance, a message from a people who had their religion destroyed, and their leaders murdered, and their institutions suppressed, and their language forbidden for centuries, and yet here they still are, blowing cryptic raspberries at their oppressors.  And Prague is the stone symbol of this, one of the few cities in Central  Europe that's perfectly intact architecturally, never razed, never fought over, never bombed: gothic, renaissance, baroque, art nouveau all jumbled together like jewels strewn out on a table.

--The mystery and attraction was enhanced during my youth by the isolation of Prague behind the Iron Curtain.  When the crack-up came (and it was no surprise that the Czech revolution was lead by writers and artists) I went for a visit.  I won't say I was disappointed, but it's the case that nothing physical can compete with a prior psychological reality, as anyone who has experienced Romance can attest.  Prague in the summer of 1990 was a gorgeous, slightly dilapidated Central European city full of people who seemed run down and a little dazed at what they had accomplished.  There were unemployed secret policemen trying to hustle bribes from the tourists and the town was full of bargain-hunting Germans.  As with anywhere else on earth its true essence was secret and since it was Prague these secrets were deeper than in most other places, and if I had another lifetime to burn it would have been interesting to explore them all.   But a week was all I had.

I forgot where the idea for this book came from, although I knew instantly that it would be set in Prague.  There's the idea of a failed revolution.   We all lived through a failed and rather fatuous revolution in the sixties (incidentally, as Tony Judt pointed out, essentially ignoring an actual revolution taking place in the Soviet sphere) so that was part of it, and also the sense that something missed happening in 1848 that then turned to the worst poison in the whole history of the the West.  And the sense of the lost world of aristocracy, which Americans pine for and hate at the same time, seeing in the aristocratic style a relief from the corrosive status anxiety of their lives, and so I wanted to write a sort of defense of that cast of mind, and I wanted to write about a revolutionary era and the maddening choices such eras present to their denizens, perhaps in memory of the dead sixties as well.  I had, from who knows where, an image of the Charles Bridge in Prague by moonlight, and a boy, a little baron, about to commit suicide because of Romance, this when the idea of Romance was still bright and new, and how he was saved by a distinctly un-romantic courtesan, and what happened to him  after this signal event, and on the other side of the story what had brought him to the bridge in the first place.

I really hope I can complete this novel, which seems to be stalled at around 200 pages, just because I'd like to read it myself.

Update:   it seems to be rolling again.   I am too hard on myself.  A fiction in which one has to research every single detail described is going to take longer to write than a contemporary work in which you have all those details more or less in your head.  I am on chapter 11, of something like 25 planned.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

New Year

My resolution each year is to write every day but Sunday and for the past God knows how many years I have kept it pretty much but not this year because I picked up the flu sometime after Christmas and I have not felt much like existing, never mind writing.  So this is the first writing of the year.  I went to the doctor the other day to see if I were in any danger because you hear all these stories, guy thinks he has flu but really has rare syndrome that fills lungs with taffy-like substance, but it turns out it was just the usual crud.

But it also turns out to be enough to sap every bit of energy, and the book just sits there, the pixies have not come in during the night and written it for me, although I leave bowls of milk out. I guess I have not added anything to it in a month or so, very unusual for me, so perhaps I am changing or it's that I am tired, 24 novels in 26 years is a lot of writing, and a month or so off is not going to earn me the name of poseur.  (And isn't it strange that the first thing a stranger will say after you announce you are a novelist is, have you been published?  Maybe surgeons get this too, and cops.  Ever do an operation?  Ever arrest someone?  It's a funny business, the novel, even the commercial novel.)

Unless this is the start of the slow slide into desuetude and silence.  We will have to see about that.  People write to me and say things like I've read all your novels three times already when are you going to publish another one? The answer is August of this year, a novel called THE RETURN.  It's a pure thriller about a couple of Vietnam war buddies who go on a road trip to Mexico and get involved  in a drug gang war there, or at least that's the outer layer, but as with a lot of the stuff I write the fairly conventional plot is just the vehicle for other stuff.  And also I was contracted to write a thriller and it is a thriller, with gunfights, car chases, romances and explosions, not to mention the other stuff, which you get for free when you buy the thriller..

The book that's on the machine now is not a thriller, but a historical novel about events that happened in Prague over 150 years ago.  It has an odd origin story that will have to wait for the next post.    

But now I can say I wrote something in 2013.   (And by the way, how can it be 2013?  It is unfair for to anyone who grew up read science-fiction in the late 50s and 60s for 2013 to be like this. ). This is enough, I guess.  I am sick and irritable and I actually yelled at the dog today who was doing nothing but lying down across a doorway while I was carrying dirty dishes, which he always does because once upon a glorious day I tripped over him while doing so, thus spilling slop on the floor, which he got to lick up.  He is ever hopeful of it happening again, as I am of writing this novel.  Happy New Year.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Question

Tom Robbins has a scene in one of his novels in which a character speculates on what the most important question is.   Camus says that the most important question is should you kill yourself or not and according to Einstein the most important question is, does time have a stop?  But the character then says, "... but I say that the most important question is, what can make love stay?  If you answer me that, I'll tell you if time has a stop and whether you should kill yourself or not."

Or something to that effect, and I am too lazy to find the quote, and in any case I don't think those are the most important questions (and I doubt Robbins does, for that matter)  The most important question seems to me to be: is this the only world?  In other words, is the world described by science in terms of the interactions of forces and particles, what we call the material world, a complete description of reality,  or is there a wider plenum of which what we are pleased to call objective reality or 'the universe' is but a portion, rather on the analogy of the visible spectrum of light.  Until late in the 19th century, for example, all we knew of the electromagnetic spectrum was visible light.  We used electricity, but the relation of electromagnetism to visible light, that the two were part of a greater whole, was then unknown.  Such EM phenomena as X-radiation, the various types of radioactivity, radio waves, and microwaves were entirely unknown.  These forms of energy, although undeniably real, and vital to our existence, were outside our ability to observe and control. The experience of science for a long time has been that there are real phenomena that we cannot sense without special instrumentation.

Despite this history, however, it remains the unquestioned assumption of people who hold the scientific world view that the universe described by science at any particular time is complete, and that nothing lies beyond it that is not ultimately discoverable by scientific instrumentation of the sort we now use.  There may be other universes, some modern theories hold, but we don't project that they would have different laws or constituents.  This view, historically known as positivism, firmly rejects the idea that there is anything else that can be called real in the sense that science has revealed the real.  Thus, the entire experience of the vast majority of humans who have ever lived and who, in fact live today, attesting to a much wider version of reality, including the universe of spirit, of the dead, of dreams, of angels and demons and so on, is rejected as fantasy, as superstition, as, (to use the current term) woo-woo.

Unfortunately for this view, woo-woo seems to be striking back, not from outside but from within the corpus of science itself.  It is a long time now since actual scientists have taken seriously the mechanistic and deterministic world-view that scientific popularizers seem still to think constitutes science.  It is now nearly a century since JBS Haldane wrote "...the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it's queerer than we can suppose," and since then the queerness has been piling up.  The usual suspects:

--the the two aspects of the universe in which we have the most experimental confidence--quantum mechanics and relativity--don't seem to belong in the same universe together.  That is, when the equations that describe each are fitted together they produce nonsense

--that efforts to produce a Grand Unified Theory that includes both theories have produced a swarm of theories that cannot be experimentally tested 

--that all of physics seems to deal with only fifteen per cent of the mass-energy in the universe, the rest being dark matter/energy, at present almost entirely opaque to our instruments

--that the genome turns out not to be a simplifying code that explains how organisms develop, analogous to the software in a computer, but a kind of organ that organisms use to create themselves using something called top-down control, that no one pretends to understand

--that while there is a great deal of electrical activity in the brain, this activity does not seem to be connected in an obvious way with the more interesting functions of the brain, like consciousness and memory, nor are there any generally accepted theories of how consciousness or memory works

--the origin and distribution of species cannot be entirely explained by neo-Darwinism, as it has taken place far too rapidly given what we know of the rate of tiny mutations required by the theory of natural selection; nor do we have a good theory of how the 'big jump' evolution required by the fossil record could work

These and other scientific crises are discussed at length in John Horgan's excellent book, The End of Science, and those interested in this would be well-advised to consult it.  In brief, however, Horgan's point is that we know enough about the universe to know that there will be no more big breakthroughs.  There will be technology advances, perhaps, but these will be trivial compared to those that have gone before.  We will not fly to the stars or live indefinite youthful lives.

Of course, betting against the march of science has never been a good bet.  A previous incarnation of Horgan, writing in 1895, might have come to the same conclusion: physics was at an end, merely a matter of adding decimal places; in biology, while evolution was widely accepted, the mechanism of inheritance was unknown and life still seemed a mystery;  in chemistry, while the laws governing chemical composition were known, no one knew how they worked, and many scientists regarded atoms as a calculating metaphor without real existence; in astronomy, the universe was fixed, had always existed as it appeared, time was a constant; in geology, the continents were of more or less fixed shape and the earth was between 20 and 40 million years old.  My point was that no one can tell when breakthroughs will come and from where--that's why they call them breakthroughs.  In that year, Roentgen discovered X-radiation and the rest is etc.

So perhaps Horgan is wrong and future science breaks open nature in a colossal and entirely unexpected way, yielding unprecedented power over it--this version established once and for all as the only world there is--and all the fantasies of hard sic-fi come true, including star travel, practical immortality, matter transmission, body customization, the works.  We all march toward the atheist heaven of the Singularity, end of story.

But if he's right and if this wonderful childlike faith in scientific progress is not to be, what then?  Well, the dominant society of the planet would lose its prime ontological anchorage.  It would be a collapse similar to the collapse of the Christian world-view before the forces unleashed by the rise of Renaissance humanism and the Enlightenment.  If science cannot explain the world perfectly, what can?  There will still be technological advances and some science will still actively fill in some important gaps, but in general we can look to a more stable culture, approaching a steady-state economy, perhaps something like ancient China; providing the moral blow does not unhinge us so that we use our technology against ourselves and destroy civilization entirely in any of the ways now open to us.

What would be most interesting, I think, coming round again to the point of all this, is to answer the Question, which is to imagine that the schism created over the past four centuries by science in the relationship of humans to the world we inhabit can somehow be healed, that the objective view can surrender its absolute dominance over the subjective view.  What if, for example, we consider that mind or consciousness is not just a convenient exudate of a brain attaining a certain complexity, but rather a basic component of a more broadly conceived universe, with a status equal to that of mass-energy or time.  This was Jung's view, of course, and he tried, within the limits of his era, to establish a research project that took the psyche seriously as an object of study.  With indifferent success, it should be added, although what success means here would have to be redefined.   The same goes for all the other efforts to heal the break.   It's in the nature of our current world-view that we can't quite conceive of what such a different world-view would be like or feel like, any more than a medieval philosopher or a pre-contact shaman could grasp our familiar scientific world-view.  But I can just imagine a culture in which the primary way we interact with nature is  a little like science, a little like art, a little like magic and a little like athletics: woo-woo indeed.