Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Homeland


I see that I haven't written here recently.  This is not my fault, since nothing much ever happens to me.   I am always amazed at the number of people who wish to be writers, since one supposes that most people are in pursuit of novelty and pleasure.  The writing life has little of either, alas. Each day is more or less the same, especially in Seattle, the long skein of indistinguishable cloudy days with about the same temperature for months on end, and each day is more or less a failure, since one never gets enough writing done, and the writing that does get done is never up to expectations.  This is my experience, but your mileage may vary.   There may be writers who do have fascinating lives.  Writers' memoirs attest to this (Graham Greene! Bruce Chatwin!  Jack Kerouac!) but I don't seem to be that kind of writer.  I envy chatty blogs full of event, but I can't do one like that. 

I often think that I should live in a place with a lively writers' community, like Brooklyn.  Unfortunately I was born in Brooklyn and devoted my early years to getting as far away from it as I could, and it still seems nuts to me to learn that Brooklyn is the pulsing heart of literary America.  There are actually a lot of writers living in the Pacific Northwest, but all of them seem to have come here so as not to ever have to meet another writer.  

I did finish chapter 11 of the historical novel I am writing, Charles Bridge.  I may be half done or one third or one quarter done.  I am writing without an outline so it is a little like that primitive computer game called Adventure, where the player explores, via ASCII text commands, a cave that seems without limit.  Or like that parable about the bird that once a century pecks a speck from the world's greatest mountain. I tell myself that I will finish at the end of this year, but I don't know.  I am doing about a chapter a month, which for the former me would be writer's block.  I tell myself that historical novels are just harder--you can't describe a guy taking a walk without reams of research--but maybe it is just brain plaque. 
I watched the first disk of season one of Homeland, because I am interested in popular views of Muslim terrorists, having written a novel on the subject, and because I heard it was "great television."  I am suspicious when I hear a show is great television--I suspect that the phrase is oxymoronic.  I actually watched a couple of episodes each of The Sopranos and The Wire, also great television, but I did not get hooked as so many millions clearly were.  The basic form of TV is the soap opera, and any great television soon succumbs to the influence of this esthetic DNA.  The addition of violence to the essential soap plotting is not, to me, a saving grace, and I feel badly when good actors spend their skills on a vehicle that cannot rise above sentimentality. 

The other thing about Homeland is that its motor is fear of terrorism, which is essentially specious.  I mean it would be hard to do a show about a crack team of lovely actors who protected us against other unlikely events.  (Meteorite Squad!  Coming this fall.) The idea of a mastermind terrorist that the protagonist must defeat is, of course, a familiar trope, extended from the equally silly master criminal found in nearly every thriller. In reality, almost all criminals are stupid and terrorists are largely incompetent assholes.  Terrorists only succeed against societies guarded by even more abysmal incompetents, as was the case with 9/11.   But clearly fear of terrorism is alive in America today, and it is interesting to compare this hysteria with the anti-communist hysteria of fifty-sixty years ago.  Well, history repeats itself, in the familiar Marxian formulation, the first time is tragedy, the second time as farce.

At one time, we should recall, the Soviet Union was pointing well over ten thousand nuclear-tipped missiles at us.  We all grew up, those of us of a certain age, with the quite realistic understanding that the world could end at any time,   This was real, but also unthinkable, so average people didn't give it much thought. We should give it some thought, now that we face a threat that is extremely thinkable, but barely real.  Certainly there are fanatics who would like to harm the United States and we should keep a prudent eye on them, but there are probably no terrorist masterminds at work, simply because having anything like a master-type mind virtually insures that you will realize that terrorism is futile.  Therefore the only people who actually do terror are futile sorts of people, as witness the sad sacks the FBI is always dragging into court.  

After I watched Homeland I thought of a peculiar piece of public sculpture at Magnuson Park here in Seattle.  It goes by the sappy name of FinArt, and it is supposed to represent the dorsal fins of a pod of whales.  It consists of a dozen or so gigantic black steel diving planes off of decommissioned nuclear ballistic missile submarines.  The planes are set vertically in clusters on a lawn.   It's important that they are actual war relics, that these things once guided a fleet of colossally expensive boats whose sole purpose was to participate, at need, in the destruction of human civilization.  

They certainly don't summon up anything as peaceful as a whale pod to me, but rather the claws or teeth of a immense demon that rose up from Hell and just barely broke into the world of life.  It wanted to eat us all, but somehow we were able to stop it.  It always makes me a bit giddy when I walk among the black teeth thinking about what went on during the Cold War, how all those people served in those ships for such a long time, led by ordinary fallible people, and how at the same time Russians were in the same sort of vessels, and that these guys were from a deeply corrupt and damaged society, and yet not one of these tens of thousands of people ever made an error bad enough to launch Armageddon.  

I guess this is why I can't get worried about Islamic terrorists or North Korea or Iran.  We really have faced down the worst conceivable terror, defeated the most dreadful demon imaginable.  As John Le CarrĂ© said when the Cold War ended, "We have achieved the impossible and are now baffled by the merely difficult."   So, first tragedy, then farce.  It would be sad indeed if we had to roll through another repeat of tragedy again, by failing to fix the clearly fixable problems we now face.   These do not, unfortunately, fit into the typical dramatic usages of great television.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

New Yorker


The other day, while reading the latest issue of The New Yorker, it struck me that i have been reading the NYer for over fifty years.  Fifty years!  It is a cliche to say that the NYer is not as good as it once was, and I suppose they were saying that from about the third issue. But fifty years does give one a little perspective; and it is so.

At one time, the people who ran the NYer were frankly insane.  Aside from the castles of Ludwig, the Mad King of Bavaria, the NYer of Ross and Shawn was the greatest edifice ever erected by nutters. It was an magazine of insane excellence. It made a good deal of money for its proprietor, but that was not its purpose.  Its purpose was to be its crazy self, by a long chalk the best magazine in existence, maybe of all time.  As such, it literally changed the world.   For just a few of many many examples, it published John Hersey's Hiroshima, which gave Americans their first look at what nuclear weapons do to the people they are used on; Rachel Carson's  Silent Spring, that launched the environmental movement; and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which helped change the nature of journalism itself.  Beside which it published the best fiction that any magazine has ever published and essentially invented the modern captioned cartoon.

Now it's become a higher People, a celebrity magazine, with a rind, like Camembert, of the good old stuff--a short story, a couple of poems, cartoons, and a piece of reportage that means something.  But the core of the magazine is puff, asking us to admire the latest world-beater.  I often find myself skipping half the book, not being much interested in those kinds of people.  There are a couple of reasons for this shriveling.  First, it's because the conglomerate that owns it thinks the most important thing in the world is maximizing return on investment rather than producing a magazine of insane excellence.   This is a reasonable business decision, because (the second thing) the world is no longer interested in a magazine of insane excellence.  Magazine articles can't change the world like they used to anymore.  The audience for that kind of journalism is dying, just as the audience for, say, verse dramas or Latin epics died, and this is why no one writes them anymore.  The old NYer flourished in an era when opinion was formed almost entirely by print media, an era that is nearly extinct.

Well, things change.  I don't miss Latin epics and the current generation probably doesn't think it needs a magazine like the old NYer.  We are told that people are getting smarter, and perhaps they are.  Certainly there are more educated people around, and navigating the world is more complex than it was when I first started reading the magazine. In which case I do wonder why it seems to me that everything is dumber than it once was.  This could be an artifact of aging.  I seem to recall my college professors sighing at the barbarity of their students.  

Perhaps, in a way I don't quite grasp, the Internet and social media have taken over the steering role once occupied by print media.  Maybe, instead of a writer researching a subject exhaustively, and being challenged about the article's accuracy by people insanely devoted to excellence in reportage, and publishing such pieces for educated people to mull over, and as a result generating political action, we can do it all automatically by liking something on Facebook or writing Wiki articles.  I certainly hope so.  Still, it's always sad to see the death of a world.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Objects of Worship

A couple of posts ago I proposed that everyone worships something. 

That is, every human has some focus of ultimate value for which everything else can be sacrificed, and which constitutes the core of being. Adherents of revealed religions maintain that the only legitimate object of worship is God--why the Bible names this as the first commandment. But there are any number of things that one can worship if this does not suit.

People worship success, they worship fame, or country, or family, or the beloved, and so on. If you can't think of something like this, then you worship yourself. If you maintain that you don't worship anything, that the very idea of worship is repellent, then you also worship yourself. This includes, There is no escape. You only get one pick. This also seems to be a constant of the human condition. As we observe, people sacrifice self to family, family to self, nation to family, nation to beloved or family or success, success to family, family to success, and so on. In fact, this process is the subject matter of nearly all fiction. 

What drives a fictional narrative? Conflict, and this choice of worship is the primary conflict. Most Western people worship themselves nowadays, whether they acknowledge it or not. It is just the kind of culture we have. Other cultures differ, which is why we often have trouble understanding them. For example, we are currently in conflict with cultures in which God and family are more common objects of worship than the self. For some decades before that we were in conflict with a culture that worshipped History.  This culture thought it right to sacrifice anything at all to the glorious future of communism, but it lost out to our culture, the culture of liberty and freedom. 

Liberty and freedom are different ways of describing a culture where one can worship anything one likes. In practice, however, it's mostly the self that gets worshipped. Cultures where things other than the self are worshipped tend to be more heroic than our own. By definition, a hero is someone who worships something other than the self. We honor our heroes, but at the same time we think that people too willing to sacrifice themselves are crazy. A culture devoted to self worship tends to be peaceful, prosperous, commercial, and rich in quasi-religious objects that the self can attach itself to. Sports teams and celebrities, for example, fill this need. The self is a paltry object in the end and we have a need for power and glory in what we worship: the Yankees or the Crimson Tide will do fine. But these are only quasi-religious because no fan is actually ever called upon to die for the Crimson Tide, and sacrifice consists of only some afternoons and paraphernalia. Self worshipping cultures tend to destroy themselves by excesses of selfishness, of freedom, to use the conventional term, and we seem well on our way to that. But self worship is relatively safe, and we desire safety above all things in self-worshipping cultures. 

What is more valuable than the individual and individual freedom? In former years worshipping objects other than the self (WOOTTS) was more popular, but that got the world into a lot of trouble, because it is possible to worship an evil thing. Wars are caused almost exclusively by WOOTTS--religion, nation, the past, the future, but cultures in which WOOTTS is general seem to produce more vivid lives than we do. Saints and heroes abound, as do demons, and because we can't bear the demons (Hitler! Stalin!) we have resigned ourselves to a duller world lit only by sports, success and celebrity. It would be interesting to imagine a different sort of world, one that allowed actual religion without quite so many demons.

The Galley



I am old enough to recall actual galleys, which were long narrow strips of paper printed with  narrow columns of type so that they sort of resembled the slave-rowed ships of yore.  The stack was held together at the top by a huge metal clip, and one had plenty of space on the margins to put in corrections.  Despite the improvements in electronic transmission of texts, it seems that writers have to have at least two separate exposures to hard copy, neither of which is a galley.  There seems to be something about hard copy that concentrates the mind and enables you to find flaws that you missed in dozens of readings on the glowing screen.

I just sent back the final galleys for THE RETURN, the new thriller due out in August.   It was an odd experience because it seemed like a book written by someone else.   Not a bad book, in my opinion, whoever wrote it.   It's about Mexico, a nation from which, despite its many tragedies, our nation could learn a lot.  It's probably a good thing for us that in future so many of us will be Mexican-Americans.  Anyway, the book is about two old Vietnam war buddies who go on a trip to Mexico.   One of them is a book editor who receives a bad diagnosis and wants to revisit the place where he met his Mexican wife, lately deceased.  The other friend is an ex-special forces type presently employed as a gun-runner and general bad character.  They get involved with the cartels and thereon hangs the tale.   It's a pure thriller--explosions, car chases, bullets flying, a kidnapping, all that good stuff, in the midst of which I do my usual sneaking in of deeper meaning.

The editing of this book has been a trip, by the way.  My original editor got fired in the midst of my contract, and as regular readers here will recall, I blew a year on a non-thriller that did not make the cut.  I therefore blasted THE RETURN out in record time, but still it was an orphan at the publishers.  The editor who picked it up, who I had never met, and who never tried to make personal contact with me, clearly did not like the book.  Even though the engine of the plot was based on something that happened in Vietnam forty years ago, he excised all the flashbacks that told this story, a huge job and fruitless, since I had to go through the manuscript and undo eighty per cent of his changes.  Then I got the copy edit back.   The copy editor seemed extremely concerned with the timeline and about what year the book took place in, and spent hours and hours putting in extensive marginal comments on this subject.  I tried not to be rude, but only partially succeeded.

The galleys were remarkably clean,  however.   I caught the usual repetitions and echoes, corrected some small infelicities and typos and sent it back feeling better about the thing than I had previously.  The cover design is a sort of gang graffiti affair, which I didn't like at first, but now think is kind of crazy and striking and may make it fly off the shelves, especially for the guns n violence crowd.   One can only hope.


Monday, February 4, 2013

Spiritual



I'm spiritual but not religious.  

How often we hear this, but what does it mean? I suppose that at root the speaker is acknowledgeing a belief that the plenum--everything that is, reality itself--is not entirely the world described by science.  Or it may be mere fashion not to identify as an absolute materialist.  But to at least assume sincerity here, people who claim to be spiritual but not religious must believe that a world of spirit exists, however defined, and further, that it's a good thing to participate in that world.  Perhaps they believe that it’s a source of energy, amoral, like electricity, into which they can tap, for personal advantage.   Fair enough, but why not go the whole way and join a religion?  Usually the answer is because they reject the dogma, or the rules of behavior, or even the political stances assumed by various organized religions.  Why cannot one have the advantages of contact with the world of spirit without all this extraneous, not to say embarrassing, stuff?  

To ask this, however, is to assume that the people who have thought deeply about this subject through all the ages have been mistaken.  Something about the spiritual life seems to call for rules, procedures, rituals and dogmas.  This is because the spiritual life implies a goal: this goal is variously described as transcendence, enlightenment, or heaven, but let’s not descend into religious controversy and agree that these are all more or less the same thing.  Indeed, when we examine those people judged to have got there while still in the flesh, we observe that saints across all religions seem to be quite similar—Sufis, bodhisattvas, Christian contemplatives, shamans, and so on.   They seem at once not of this world, but very much engaged with it.  Yet saints are also not generic.  They tend to be strong characters, very much themselves.  Many of them are also hilarious.  So if spiritual life has a goal it must be that.   Not everyone can be rich or powerful, but, in principle, anyone can become a saint.

Now, virtually all organized religion (and some that are not quite so organized, Buddhism, for example) agree that actually doing this is difficult and that it's good to have help, hence gurus, hence holy scriptures, hence organized religion.    Beyond that, there is the sense that trying it without help is dangerous.    The reason for this is a bit of a stretch for most modern people, but religious tradition holds, almost universally, that the spiritual world, like the material one, is inhabited by intelligences, and that these have moral valences.  This tradition informs us that if you spend time in the spiritual realms, eventually you will have Company, and that theres is no guarantee that such entities will have your best interests in mind.  The opposite is often the case.

This idea tends to run counter to the ordinary belief that since the world of pure materialism is felt to be unsatisfactory for various reasons, an opening to the spirit must be “good.”   But, as C. S. Lewis often observed, the Devil is a spirit. If you wander long enough in the spiritual realms you will encounter malign enitities.   These entities typically present either with your own voice or, if you have religious tendencies, with the voice of God.  Religions vary, of course, but all of them are to a large extent exorcistic in intent. All regard spiritual pride (which is the major consequence of what we may as well call demonic influence) as the strongest impairment to the spiritual life; saints across all religions are universally depicted as humble.     This is why religons have rules and rituals and why they insist of some form of communal association, which may act as a kind of antibody to such influences.  Despite this, all religions are subject to demonic invasion, and it is is clear from their history that for long periods they have been largely controlled by evil.   Still, religions do survive and not merely by inertia.  Religions can certainly perish—these days Zeus and Mithra are not widely revered—and it is reasonable to assume that the ones that have survived possess a self-corrective faculty.  It is easy to do evil in the name of religion, but it is hard to do only evil for substantial periods.   The good pushes back. That's what religion is for: a mighty fortress is our God, as they used to say.  Otherwise we could all be individually spiritual and it would work just fine.

There is, of course, a position that holds that religion is bad per se, but this position typically also holds that religion has no content at all, that the spiritual world is an illusion, and that reality consists entirely of the particles and their forces.  We assume that the spiritual but not religious would reject this stance, by definition.   So all in all it might be better to be a devout materialist than spiritual but not religious.  You just have to be really careful not to worship stuff at all.  But this is impossible in practice.  Everyone has an object of worship, the non-negotiable, inarguable highest value for which everything else can be sacrificed.   For most people this is the Self, the most convenient object of worship.  It's always present and it can talk back, unlike God.  Others choose Truth, or Reason, or The People, or Progress, or the Family, or the Beloved.   And since such worshippers reject the very idea that demonic forces exist, the demonic forces have no trouble taking over such objects of worship.  The result of this process is known as the World.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Recovering



I seem to be recovered from the recent crud, with only some residual brain damage, or maybe this is just the next phase of the disease.  It is far harder for me to write than it was a few months ago.  The ideas appear in my mind, the characters and the dialog, but I can’t seem to get them out on the screen with anything close to my former velocity.  In fact, I seem to going at about half speed. I’ve been working on the present book since May, 2012, and I have only somewhat over 200 pages done.  I tell myself that a historical novel is vastly harder to write than a contemporary thriller and so there are many stoppages when one has to discover some odd fact before one can proceed.  Or it is mere debility?  (But I shy from believing that, as I am uniquely immune from the effects of aging.)   Meanwhile, I know the world is avidly awaiting a vast, baggy historical novel about central Europe, so I am hurrying as fast as I can.

I also see that I am doing this blog all wrong compared to other blogs I come across.  It’s supposed to be daily stuff, short bits, but I don’t seem to be able to do that.  It bores me terribly.   Fiction writers’ lives, I think, are just not that interesting; the work might be interesting—every writer hopes so—but the life is dull, every day more or less the same, assessed in terms of words spilled out on the page, and how do you know whether they’re any good?     Yet so many people seem to want to be writers.   It’s a mystery to me.  So this seems to be a miscellany of random thoughts, the kind of stuff that goes into a notebook and gets dragged into a novel if appropriate, but here tarted up into small essays.

Georg Christof Lichtenberg (1742-1799) a writer I admire (and here I am one with Goethe, Voltaire, Kant, Nietsche and Wittgenstein) used to analogize a writer’s notes to the way that merchants arranged their accounts.  First they wrote down everything bought and sold in their “Waste-Books” in no particular order.  Then they ordered and arranged their daily accounts into a “Journal,” and at intervals entered the amounts at double-entry in their “Ledgers.”   In analogy, the Waste-Book is the daily note-taking that most writers do.  I use a paper notebook and also sometimes Apple’s Note feature on the iPhone and iPad, in which I can at least read what I’ve written—a great advance.  The Ledger, I suppose, is the finished publication, and this blog is the Journal.   Lichtenberg never managed to write a book;  his reputation rests on the contents of his Waste-books, a remarkable collection of observations and aphorisms.  

Like:
            Her petticoat had very wide red and blue stripes and looked as if it were made of theater curtain.   I’d have paid a lot for a front-row center seat, but the curtain was never raised.
           
            Nothing pleases Apollo better than the slaughtering of a frivolous irresponsible reviewer on his altar.

            To make astute people believe that one is what one is not is actually harder than to actually become what one wants to appear.


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