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Robert A. Heinlein’s Crazy Years.

Before Stranger in a Strange Land made him a household name in the early sixties, Robert A. Heinlein was best known as the author of a string of juvenile sci-fi adventure titles – still worth reading – and a loose sequence of short stories taking place in a single timeline, now known as the Future History.

The chronology stretched from what was then the immediate future – the mid-20th century – out to the year 2210. Somewhere between World War II and the first man on the moon Heinlein prophetically placed the Crazy Years – “a gradual deterioration of mores, orientation and social institutions, terminating in mass psychoses in the sixth decade”.

In 1987’s To Sail Beyond the Sunset the heroine gazes back from the distant future on that era of mass psychoses:

So many casual killings in public streets and public parks and public transports that most lawful citizens avoided going out after dark…

Public school teachers and state university professors who taught that patriotism was an obsolete concept, that marriage was an obsolete concept, that sin was an obsolete concept, that politeness was an obsolete concept – that the United States itself was an obsolete concept…

Cocaine and heroin called “recreational drugs”, felony theft called “joyriding” … felonious assault by gangs called “muggings”, and the reaction to all these crimes was “boys will be boys”, so scold them and put them on probation but don’t ruin their lives by treating them as criminals…

Millions of women who found it more rewarding to have babies out of wedlock than it would be to get married or to go to work…

As disgusted as he was by hooligans, bums, and tenured anti-intellectuals, Heinlein actually cheered on most of the cultural changes that emerged from the sixties. He was an emphatic anti-racist, disdained organized religion, practiced nudism, and favoured open marriage. He foresaw and foreliked the reformation in sexual morals that progressives are now working to lock in: open homosexuality, gender fluidity, “sex work” as a respected career. Going by Heinlein’s prognostications, we shouldn’t expect the taboos against incest and polygamy to endure much longer.

But when I talk about Heinlein’s Crazy Years, I’m not talking about his politics or philosophy or sex practices, but the way those obsessions colonized and undermined his storytelling, starting in the late sixties – coincidentally or not, around the time the success of Stranger in a Strange Land meant he no longer had to tailor his writing to please anyone besides himself.

Heinlein had always specialized in seat-of-the-pants stories that careened his characters from one implausible scrape into another. This had led to a lot of efforts in the forties and fifties that would start out full speed, zip along at high efficiency, then suddenly break for the nearest exit as an arbitrary word limit drew near. In his best and most popular works he’d somewhat curbed this picaresque tendency – for example, he mentions (in an essay in Expanded Universe) that Stranger was one of the rare stories in which he’d “plotted every detail before writing it, and then stuck precisely to that plot.” And it shows! I’d guess Starship Troopers, Farnham’s Freehold, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress were also mapped out in advance. But sticking to maps had never really interested Heinlein – and it turned out, once he was liberated from commercial concerns, that even telling stories was only of secondary interest. What he really wanted to do was imagine his characters chilling in a future free-love Utopia, getting naked and bantering about sex.

The major flaw with late Heinlein, therefore, isn’t that his books became kind of aimless – they’d always been like that. The problem was that their already aimless plots were now broken up by lengthy scenes of characters bathing each other, trying on sexy clothes, and arranging who was to bed down with whom tonight. If that froth had been swiped away by an unforgiving editor, his final seven novels could have been every bit as good, on average, as his fifties and sixties classics. Heinlein never lost his knack for whiz-bang storytelling – he just grew bored with demonstrating it. Here are the first paragraphs of 1985’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls:

“We need you to kill a man.”

The stranger glanced nervously around us. I feel that a crowded restaurant is no place for such talk, as a high noise level gives only limited privacy.

I shook my head. “I’m not an assassin. Killing is more of a hobby with me. Have you had dinner?”

Two pages later, the stranger slumps over the table, murdered by an explosive dart fired from offstage. Intriguing! But another two pages on, Heinlein is already making excuses, as the narrator – disgraced ex-military, now a hack fiction writer – grouses to his girlfriend:

“The total stranger who gets himself killed while he’s trying to tell you something – a cliché, a tired cliché. If I plotted a story that way today, my guild would disown me.”

A bad sign. Heinlein is able to simulate enough interest in his age-worn scenario to animate a couple hundred pages of entertaining space-hopping, as the hero and his girl escape from an orbiting space habitat, crash-land on the moon, shoot their way out of a moon-buggy ambush, and so on. It’s fast-paced enough that you can overlook the protagonists sharing a bed with an underage moon-maiden who snuggles up to the hero and asks to be spanked. But then around page 250, with our heroes under fire in a Luna City hotel room, the girl shouts something into a communicator, a portal opens up in the bare rock wall – and we’re whisked away to Heinleinland, the story waved to the background, while our hero spends the last third of the novel submitting to the advances of gorgeous naked lady geniuses.

***

How did it come to that? Let’s skip back to 1970’s I Will Fear No Evil, set in the Crazy Years (though not in the Future History timeline). The well-off have retreated into walled compounds, going out for an unprotected stroll being a virtual invitation to murder. An immensely aged, ill-humoured billionaire tycoon, on the verge of death, hires a mad scientist to transplant his brain into a healthy young body. (Brain-dead bodies being a cheap commodity in this anarchic world.) Against all expectations, including his own, the operation is successful, and the billionaire wakes up in the body of…wait for it!…his gorgeous secretary.

We can predict that the sexist tycoon will resent being stuck in this voluptuous female body…erm, no, actually, he adapts to it pretty quickly. He’ll struggle comically to walk on high heels, apply makeup, pee sitting down…no, it turns out Eunice’s consciousness is somehow in there with him, giving him instructions on how be a lady. He’ll attempt to reconcile his attraction to girls with his body’s contradictory sexual urges…no, he starts hitting on dudes pretty much right out of the gate.

One more try: the tycoon will track down his secretary’s murderers, uncovering evidence that he himself gave the orders that…oops, forget it. Eunice’s bodyguards took care of the random muggers already. The tycoon shows her gratitude by having sex with them.

Okay, okay. My ideas are all pretty humdrum. But they at least offer the potential for drama, conflict, suspense. What happens instead in I Will Fear No Evil?

The billionaire eagerly screws everyone. The end.

I’m only slightly exaggerating. One source of drama is a lawsuit filed by the billionaire’s parasitic grandchildren, claiming that the supposed brain-swap is a hoax being perpetrated by the secretary. That’s promising – how does our heroine prove she’s really who she says she is? But this subplot takes place mostly in the background and is wrapped up by the two-thirds mark.

The billionaire goes to pay her condolences to Eunice’s bereaved husband, whose new live-in girlfriend resents the arrival of what she sees as her predecessor’s reanimated corpse. Drama! …But this lasts only a page or two, before the three meditate together to chase off the bad vibes. Then they all get naked.

Look, I’m a fan of E.M. Forster, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot. I can verify that you don’t need spaceship crashes, blaster duels, and telepathic aliens to supply drama. But in the absence of those things, you need something – for instance, characters with clashing personalities and objectives.

Heinlein’s biggest weakness as a writer is his odd lack of interest in interpersonal conflict. When the action lets up, his characters don’t really have anything to do except get naked.

***

Overgeneralizing recklessly, I’d say Heinlein had three and a half character types at his command. Their names, professions, and biographies change from book to book, but their beliefs and behaviours don’t: any non-plot-related exchange between Richard and Gwen, heroes of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, could be swapped into a Zebby-and-Deety scene in 1980’s The Number of the Beast and the reader would never notice.

(Am I being too hard on Heinlein? Philip Roth and P.G. Wodehouse got by with four or five characters. Kingsley Amis could draw on a multitudinous supporting cast but his narrators were all the same guy. “More characters” doesn’t equal “better”. If you like an author’s characters – find them interesting, I mean – you don’t much mind when they reappear under new names in a new book and a new predicament.)

The Omnicompetent Lunkhead is the basic-model Heinlein hero. He’s got a hands-on trade – engineering, soldiering, space-piloting – or, if still a teen, displays a precocious aptitude for one of the above. He can calculate the profit in a three-way business deal or the trajectory of a flight to Venus. When in danger of losing his temper, he’ll count backward from ten in an exotic foreign language.

Despite the OmniLunk’s evident near-genius IQ (which he would humbly disclaim), he’s weirdly clueless about history, politics, and philosophy. If another character (usually the Patriarch, see below) attempts to discuss one of these topics at the level of your average undergraduate lecture, the hero will reply “Huh?” or “You’ve lost me” or “I must be dense”.

The Genius Sexpot is the female version of the Heinlein hero. If the main character, she’ll have all the traits of the OmniLunk, plus fashion sense, maternal instinct, and an even greater distaste for abstract philosophy. If romantically paired with an OmniLunk, she’ll defer modestly to his masculine leadership, but in at least one skill – often math – she’ll surpass him.

She gets her name from her tendency – absent in her male counterpart – to discuss her sex urges in ickily straightforward terms:

“[T]here is nothing that beats the tingling excitement of lying back, legs open and eyes closed and bare to the possibility of impregnation.”
–Maureen Johnson, To Sail Beyond the Sunset

The Heinleinian Patriarch is the OmniLunk aged up and given a more philosophical turn of mind. In other words, the author’s mouthpiece. Given half an opportunity, he’ll ramble for a chapter or more about the problems besetting humanity – or formerly besetting humanity, back in the dark ages of the twentieth century. (People in the far future remain deeply interested in twentieth century affairs.) The Patriarch has retired from the active life and now writes, or teaches, or maybe bosses some large organization that puts him in the company of much younger people. A bachelor by temperament (whether or not he participates in some kind of plural marriage), he appreciates female beauty but doesn’t chase girls – they’re drawn to his rumpled charisma and constantly offering to crawl into his lap. He may harbour outmoded inhibitions about, say, walking around pantsless, or having sex with his female relatives. He knows these inhibitions are silly – he’ll tell you why at chapter length – and they’re easily shed.

(There are, of course, a handful of major characters that don’t fit into one of the above buckets – for instance, the All-Powerful Naïfs who propel the plots of Heinlein’s two best books, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. But he tended to lose interest and kill off or sideline anyone who didn’t fit into one of the three categories above.)

The OmniLunk, the Sexpot, and the Patriarch will argue playfully. Sometimes they’ll even have genuine fights, which quickly end with one side or both apologizing for their bullheadedness. But they never really disagree about anything. If they don’t start out as gun-toting libertarian atheistic polyamorous nudist body odour fetishists, they take smoothly to the lifestyle when given the opportunity. Therefore all drama in Heinlein’s novels must arise from conflict with character type three-and-a-half:

The Booby is cowardly, conceited, irresponsible, and susceptible to gross mental deformations such as socialism, pacifism, race prejudice, and prudishness. Since the bulk of humans would be boobies in Heinlein’s eyes – I’m one; so, in all likelihood, are you – you’d expect this type to loom larger in his fiction. In fact, few of these feeble creatures are drawn with sufficient detail to qualify as “characters”. The brainless mass of boobies are there in the background, obstructing our heroes with their petty regulations, irrational taboos, and general unreason, but their representatives are rarely granted more than a line or two.

The trouble is that Heinlein can’t stand boobies. He finds them so exasperating that he’ll write them out of his stories as swiftly as he can. When a presumed ally or friend is revealed to be a secret booby, the reader perks up – maybe for once another character will stand up to our heroes, upset their assumptions, force them to defend their beliefs. The excitement never lasts. Boobies either get themselves quickly killed, or banished from the group, or are converted through firm yet compassionate discipline to non-boobyhood, at which point they cease to be interesting characters and fade into the scenery:

• In Stranger in a Strange Land, Jubal Harshaw’s salt-of-the-earth employee Duke objects to the customs of Harshaw’s Martian-born houseguest – specifically, ritual cannibalism. This earns him a chapter-long rebuke from Harshaw which cures Duke of his boobyism – and banishes him to the background.

• In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress an earth-born booby named Stuart LaJoie nearly gets himself killed by responding too handsily to a Lunar floozie’s advances. Our hero is luckily there to intervene, and to lecture the new arrival on Loonie sexual etiquette. Stuart starts out as an interesting character, but once he commits to the Lunar lifestyle he recedes into complacent blandness.

• In To Sail Beyond the Sunset Maureen’s youngest daughter shows her boobyhood not by hooking up with her older brother (she does that too, but Maureen approves) but by whining, lying, using drugs, and catching a venereal disease – by acting, in other words, like a real-life teenage girl. Her rebellion lasts only a few chapters before Maureen sends her packing to live with the ex-husband whose lax discipline ruined the child.

• In The Cat Who Walks Through Walls a homeless ragamuffin named Bill is hired by unknown enemies to lure our heroes into a trap. Seeing through his clumsy deceit, they take him into their custody – then, feeling sorry for him, decide to bring him along on their escape. Bill tags along willingly and mostly silently until, on arriving in Luna City, he pipes up to complain about being expected to pay an “air fee”:

“Nobody should have to pay for the breath of life! It’s a natural right and the government should supply it free.”

As the hero can’t let such idealistic ravings go unopposed, he reminds Bill that he has a full belly, and is partaking of Luna City’s expensive oxygen, and is alive at all, only because of the heroes’ charity. This leads to a fight between the hero and his girl, whom he accuses of coddling the booby. Girl and Bill storm off one way, our hero the other. That happens on page 190-91.

On page 196-97, the girl returns and apologizes:

“But you were right, dear. Bill’s attitude about paying for air reflects his wrong-headedness in general. … Bill has the socialist disease in its worst form; he thinks the world owes him a living. He told me sincerely – smugly! – that of course everyone was entitled to the best possible medical and hospital service – free of course, unlimited of course, and of course the government should pay for it. He couldn’t even understand the mathematical impossibility of what he was demanding. But it’s not just free air and free therapy, Bill honestly believes that anything he wants must be possible…and should be free.” She shivered. “I couldn’t shake his opinion on anything.”

The next time the booby appears, on page 208, he gets two brief lines, the last we’ll hear from him. On page 234 we learn he’s been secretly communicating with the bad guys. And on page 240 he’s among the gang of disguised assassins lurking outside the protagonists’ hotel room. The hero spots him and knocks him out – clear out of the story. Poor Bill! If he’d just kept his mouth shut about the stupid air fee, he too could’ve gone to naked lady heaven.

***

Let’s skip back again. The last entry in the Future History timeline, concerning the interstellar peregrinations of a cantankerous 213-year-old named Lazarus Long, was Methuseleh’s Children, originally published in 1941 and expanded to novella length in 1958.

In 1973 Heinlein picked up the adventures of Lazarus Long in a novel set two thousand-odd years later, Time Enough For Love. After lifetimes of intrepid roving, Lazarus has grown tired of the grind. Before he can kill himself he’s kidnapped by distant descendants living on a faraway planet – free-loving nudists, obviously – who insist that he record his life story for their archives. As he narrates his memoirs, and gets mixed up in the affairs of his extended family, his zest for life returns, and he accepts their offer to regenerate his body to youthful good health. Then, learning that they’ve mastered time travel, he decides to pop back to his own childhood in twentieth century Missouri where – obviously – he winds up having sex with his mother.

Time Enough For Love is quite readable, stands more or less on its own, and satisfactorily wraps up the saga of Lazarus Long. No-one – I assure you, absolutely no-one – has ever closed the book thinking, Gosh, I wonder what happens next to Lazarus, his crew of bare-ass time travellers, and their sassy sentient spaceship.

Therefore no-one was expecting The Number of the Beast, which came out seven years later, to reveal itself midway through as a stealth Time Enough For Love sequel. Beast starts out excitingly with four stock Heinlein characters – a widowed father, his adult daughter, and their respective love interests – narrowly escaping assassination by unknown enemies. The father has been working on a theory of six-dimensional spacetime, along with a practical method for hopping between parallel dimensions, the number of accessible dimensions being six to the power of six to the power of six, or:

6 to the power of 6 to the power of 6

Our heroes install the father’s gadget in their own sassy sentient spaceship and flee into the multiverse. Beast is heavy on clothes-doffing, open-mouthed kissing, and sexy dress-ups, but despite all that the first three hundred pages chug along pretty tolerably until our heroes materialize in what turns out to be the Land of Oz…and it becomes necessary, sadly, for me to describe to you the premise of what would come to be known as the World-As-Myth books. These are:

  • Time Enough For Love (1973, sequel to Methuselah’s Children, but can be read on its own)
  • The Number of the Beast (1980, sequel to the above)
  • The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985, sequel to the above, and to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress)
  • To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987, sequel to all the above)

Nothing about the World-As-Myth will be especially mindblowing to anyone who read those old DC comics where the Flash could vibrate into a parallel universe and interact with his creators, or for that matter the Merrie Melodies cartoon where Daffy is tormented by a sadistic animator. In short, all imaginary worlds are real; Heinlein and his books exist in the Number of the Beast reality; therefore Lazarus Long is a character known to our dimension-hopping quartet. By the time they run into Lazarus they’ve already blundered through Lilliput, Wonderland, the Lensmen universe of E.E. Smith, and, as mentioned, the Land of Oz, where Glinda the Good installed a pair of fully-equipped magical bathrooms in their spaceship. (No writer has ever lavished as much attention on bathrooms as Robert A. Heinlein.)

By the end of The Number of the Beast, the protagonists have all married into Lazarus Long’s extended family, and using time-travel and dimension-hopping have roped characters from a half-dozen other Heinlein works into their far-future pool party. The final chapter, concerning a pan-universal gathering of famous characters and their authors, most of them referred to by first names only, is so dense with in-jokes it seems like something meant to be read aloud for yuks at a sci-fi convention, not shared with a general audience. This is the low point of the Crazy Years.

***

Things got better. The eighties brought Friday and Job: A Comedy of Justice, both of them entertaining and mostly fully-clothed standalone stories (though Friday turns out to be linked, superfluously, to the 1949 novella Gulf). The hero of Job was something new – a rube from a parallel-universe Bible Belt America who believes in the literal truth of the Genesis story and sees no problem with killing witches…who finds himself bouncing unpredictably into a series of alternate Americas with radically different customs and manners. Job is like The Number of the Beast reconceived as a good idea. It’s kind of miraculous that Heinlein didn’t assimilate Job into the World-As-Mythoverse and wreck it.

After that, Heinlein made it through half of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls before being hit with the brainwave that the hero’s girlfriend should be Hazel Stone, the feisty grandma from the 1952 juvenile The Rolling Stones who was also the feisty kid in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, regenerated to her youthful hotness and sent back in time by Lazarus Long because…you know what, forget it. The first half is fun.

Heinlein’s final novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, trots out another endearingly hoary premise – naked woman wakes up in bed with a corpse, with no memory of how she got there – but the woman turns out to be Lazarus Long’s mother, the one he went back in time to have sex with, and the bulk of the book retells the incest-fantasy parts of Time Enough For Love from her perspective.

It turns out – who’da guessed? – his mother was a polyamorous nudist all along.

M.

 

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Breakfast of Champions: Unsanitary ideas.

As I’ve explained already, over the last few years I’ve been systematically making my way through the books I own that, for one reason or another, I’d never gotten around to reading. It’s taken longer than it might have because simultaneously, but less systematically, I’ve been revisiting some of the books I loved as a teenager, trying to decide whether they’re worth re-reading – or whether they were worth reading the first time around.

A few days ago I came to Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, which was among the first “grown-up” novels I ever read – if it is a grown-up novel – aged twelve or thereabouts. [1]

If you’ve read Vonnegut at all, you probably encountered him, like me, pretty young, when his idealism, irreverence, and offhand eschatology seemed deep, and the Duplo-brick clarity of his prose made him a welcome alternative to Camus or Dostoyevsky or whatever woolly tome your older sister was lugging around in her backpack. As you aged up a bit maybe you spotted a Vonnegut paperback poking out of the rear pocket of your little brother’s low-hanging jeans and thought, gosh, well, maybe I’m too grown-up for that now. And maybe you’ve at last reached the age where you can un-self-consciously revisit the pleasures of your youth, but you’re not sure you’re capable of hearing Vonnegut’s voice over the stirrings of half-buried adolescent angst.

Or maybe that’s just me. I’ve now re-read Vonnegut’s novels in chronological order from Player Piano through Breakfast of Champions­ – roughly the first half of his career, when his most famous stuff was done – and, to my surprise, a couple of them I had trouble even finishing. But I’m not sure whether my impatience is with Vonnegut’s writing, or with extraneous factors.

Here’s how Martin Amis, in a generally sympathetic appraisal of Vonnegut’s career through the early eighties, summarized his subject’s reputation in highbrow circles:

[H]is work has remarkably little currency among the card-carrying literati; his pacifistic, faux-naïf “philosophy” is regarded as hippyish and nugatory; he is the sort of writer, nowadays, whom Serious People are ashamed of ever having liked. Cute, coy, tricksy, mawkish – gee-whiz writing, comic-book stuff. [2]

Why, then, might adult-me be resistant to Vonnegut?

Hypothesis One: The Serious People are right, and he’s not very good.

Hypothesis Two: The Serious People are wrong, but I’ve internalized their disdain, via sources like Martin Amis, and whenever I start to get caught up in Vonnegut I’m distracted by a tiny, haughty “pff” from my subconscious.

That was as far as my hypothesizing had taken me, until the other day, when I got started on Breakfast of Champions – which, to summarize, is about a successful Midwestern auto dealer who, under the influence of severe mental illness and a satirical science-fiction novel he unluckily reads, decides that he’s the only person in the universe with free will, all others being soulless robots placed on earth to test him.

Breakfast of Champions is probably best-known for the juvenile doodles that litter its pages:

breakfast of champions doodles

Some of them serve as punchlines for jokes, but the rest have no apparent purpose except as large-scale punctuation marks, places for the eye to rest. (I’m sure the doodles were a big part of what made the novel so inviting to twelve-year-old me.) Vonnegut explains in the preface:

I am programmed at fifty to perform childishly – to insult “The Star-Spangled Banner”, to scrawl pictures of a Nazi flag and an asshole and a lot of other things with a felt-tipped pen….I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there – the assholes, the flags, the underpants. Yes, there is a picture in this book of underpants.

At several points, Vonnegut suggests that Breakfast of Champions is the record of some real-life spiritual crisis he has survived:

I was making myself hideously uncomfortable by not narrowing my attention to details of life which were immediately important, and by refusing to believe what my neighbors believed.

He writes an avatar of himself into his novel, lurking in the bar of a Holiday Inn where his characters have assembled, watching them through mirrored glasses (leaks – don’t ask):

“This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself behind my leaks.

“I know,” I said.

“You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,” I said.

“I know,” I said.

(In the Amis profile, Vonnegut discusses the “legacy” of his mother’s suicide:

“As a problem-solving device, it’s in the forefront of my mind all the time. It’s like walking along the edge of a cliff. I’m in the country and the pump stops. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll kill myself. The roof is leaking. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll blow my brains out.”)

In his previous novel, the fabulously successful Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut had outlined a philosophy of perfect resignation, as expressed by his alien Tralfamadorians, who could see all points in time simultaneously:

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

“You sound to me as though you don’t believe in free will,” said Billy Pilgrim.

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will’. I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

Kilgore Trout, co-hero of Breakfast of Champions, writer of the sci-fi novel that will tip the mentally-ill auto dealer into violence, has arrived at a Tralfamadorian perspective on the misery and banality of modern American life:

But his head no longer sheltered ideas of how things could be and should be on the planet, as opposed to how they really were. There was only one way for the Earth to be, he thought: the way it was.

…While the Vonnegut avatar, watching his creations go about their mundane business in the bar of the Holiday Inn, follows the same logic to its pitiless nadir:

I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide.

But by the end of the novel, the words of one of his characters have convinced the author that he’s wrong – that human life, all life, has value; while Kilgore Trout has learned from the auto dealer’s rampage that the ideas in his books, good or bad, have consequences in the real world. Trout becomes a crusader for mental health, “a fanatic on the importance of ideas as causes and cures for diseases”, is awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine, and dies a revered humanitarian.

Here’s the speech that jolts the Vonnegut avatar from his nihilistic despair. It’s delivered to the denizens of the Holiday Inn by a self-promoting abstract-expressionist painter in defense of his work The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a narrow day-glo orange stripe on a vast canvas of avocado green:

“It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal – the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us – in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.”

So the ego, soul, self-awareness, whatever you want to call it, of every human, along with every other living creature on down to the cockroach, may be sacred – according to this fictional character who his creator admits is pretty much a baloney artist. You’d have to be awfully deep in the cosmic weeds for this insight to count as optimistic, but if it really did the trick for Vonnegut, good for him.

That’s about as uplifting as Vonnegut’s oeuvre gets. But I’m at least as big a sourpuss, so that can’t be my complaint about him.

***

Vonnegut dedicated Breakfast of Champions to an old mentor in the ad copywriting business:

She was funny. She was liberating. She taught us to be impolite in conversation not only about sexual matters, but about American history and famous heroes, about the distribution of wealth, about school, about everything.

I now make my living by being impolite. I am clumsy at it. I keep trying to imitate the impoliteness which was so graceful in Phoebe Hurty.

Here are a few of the things Breakfast of Champions is impolite about:

  • 1492: “the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill [Native Americans].”
  • “The Star-Spangled Banner”: “pure balderdash.”
  • Thomas Jefferson: “a slave owner who was also one of the world’s greatest theoreticians on the subject of human liberty.”
  • West Point: “a military academy which turned young men into homicidal maniacs for use in war.”

I doubt if even in the early 1970s there was any penalty attached to being impolite about these subjects. The New York Times review quoted on the back cover of the paperback – “He wheels out all the complaints about America and makes them seem fresh, funny, outrageous, hateful, and lovable, all at the same time” – suggests not. By the time I encountered it a decade and a half later, it never occurred to my baby boomer father that his twelve-year-old son should be protected from a book filled with drawings of assholes and “wide-open beavers”, let alone from rude comments about American heroes and institutions.

As for 2017…well, here’s a screencap from a recent Google News search for “star-spangled banner”:

The Star-Spangled Banner actually is racist so here are some (Ebony.com) ... Americans like me are programmed to respect the national anthem (The Independent)

Here’s what came up for “christopher columbus”:

Woman arrested in vandalism of Christopher Columbus statue (Los Angeles Times) ... Another Christopher Columbus statue gets vandalized in NYC (New York Post)

Which leads me to:

Hypothesis Three: Whatever the Serious People may feel about his writing style, Vonnegut’s philosophy, politics, and humour are so mainstream nowadays that he has lost whatever ability he once had to surprise us.

***

I share, or rather sometimes I share, Kilgore Trout’s belief that bad ideas are a kind of sickness. For every essay I post on this blog there are four or five I discard, often after many long hours of work, because I worry that the arguments I’ve made are untrue, or, even if true, unhelpful.

Here’s a premise for an essay I’d hesitate to upload, for fear it might infect some innocent bystander: that writers should be held responsible when their ideas are misinterpreted by weak-minded readers who go on to commit destructive acts.

Here’s another idea I’d be reluctant to disseminate: that even a fuzzy, apparently harmless platitude like “be kind” can lead to disaster, as people may choose to interpret “be kind” in crazy and unsustainable ways; and that therefore writers should just shut their traps altogether.

I’m uncomfortable with another idea, yet it’s one that Kurt Vonnegut was unafraid to promulgate in many famous and profitable novels: that the heroes, institutions, and symbols our culture holds most sacred should be mercilessly razzed, noogied, and farted upon.

Vonnegut, who despite the reservations expressed in Breakfast of Champions was apparently much more cavalier with his ideas than I am, didn’t worry that this one might backfire terribly. He seemed to think that once those old symbols were thoroughly trampled down and covered with profane graffiti, our culture would somehow end up wiser, saner, and more peaceful. I believed it myself for many years – because I had been exposed to the idea, by Vonnegut, at a very young age, when my immunity was low.

Over the years I noticed that while we were ever more free to ever more viciously ridicule the same old symbols Vonnegut had taken aim at – the national anthem, the Founding Fathers, the Bible – a new set of symbols had arisen which, for some reason, were exempt from ridicule. Try farting on the rainbow flag, or Anne Frank, or the Prophet Muhammad, and see how far it gets you.

I’m torn between two ideas: that we should feel free to fart on every symbol, no matter whom it might offend; and that we should be respectful of symbols, because people’s feelings can be hurt when we fart on them, and agreeing not to deliberately hurt each other’s feelings is one of the ways we make living together bearable.

I definitely don’t like the idea that we should consult the latest list, which can be updated by any maniac at any time, specifying which symbols are currently to be farted on, and which ones are exempt. I think that’s a terrible way to run a culture.

I’m not sure how Kurt Vonnegut or Kilgore Trout would have felt about it. I suspect they would’ve thought it was hilarious, and pretty much what us boobs deserved.

***

Getting back to Hypothesis Three: I shouldn’t claim that Vonnegut has lost his power to surprise “us”. As far as I know, his books are still pretty popular. The fact that he aims mainly at safe targets is hardly likely to limit his potential audience. And there’ll always be his unchallenging prose style and funny pictures to draw new readers in.

So let me move on to:

Hypothesis Four: Whatever I may feel about his writing style, my own viewpoint was so shaped by Vonnegut from an early age, that I have lost the ability to be surprised by him.

But that’s not quite right either. This essay proves that Breakfast of Champions still gives me lots to think about, and might do so again, in ten or twenty years, when I get around to reading it again.

M.

1. I’d probably read some science-fiction already – H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein – and maybe Gulliver’s Travels and The Princess Bride, before arriving at Breakfast of Champions.

2. The Vonnegut profile is included in Amis’s 1986 collection The Moronic Inferno.

I previously found Catch-22 to be less great than I’d remembered and posted an unflattering picture of myself revisiting Catcher in the Rye.

Why read?

I’m coming up on a milestone. Sometime in the next few weeks I will have read every book I own.[1]

That might not seem impressive to those of you who assembled your libraries in the ordinary way – by buying books you were interested in reading, reading them, then sticking them on the shelf when you were done. Which is how I assembled most of my own collection.

But of the 750 or so volumes on my shelves, maybe a fifth were passed down to me by my father – most when I was a teenager and he purged his possessions in preparation for a big cross-country move, the rest upon his death five years ago. My “dad books”.

These weren’t books I wanted to read, exactly. They’re books I thought, at the time I received them, I ought someday to read. So I kept them around through numerous downsizings. Each time I moved, or each time my shelves got too crowded for new purchases to be squeezed in, I would dispose of some fraction of my collection – books I’d read once and doubted I’d ever want to read again, books I realized I would probably never read at all. But most of the dad books I retained, for a variety of reasons, sentimentality being one – the knowledge that these had been some of my father’s favourite (or at any rate longest-held) possessions:

  • His copy of East of Eden, its cover more tape than paper, which he plucked off some drugstore magazine rack a half century ago.
  • His copy of David Niven’s Hollywood memoir Bring On The Empty Horses which, when I finally got around to cracking it open, split in half like a year-old pita. (I inexpertly glued and taped the halves back together.)
  • His copy of Jean Bowie Shor’s travel adventure After You Marco Polo, an oft-repaired library discard with the title handwritten in black marker on the spine, so embarrassingly ugly that I Photoshopped and printed a new dustcover for it.

Through the years, I picked away at this unasked-for cache of old books. Some of them, against expectations, I wound up loving – I’ve come around to an equivocal admiration for my dad’s favourite author, John Steinbeck. Others did nothing for me, and after giving them a good-faith try I moved them with reluctance to my discard pile. But it was a project of decades. Taking priority were all the newly-bought books that I was actually excited to read.

A couple years ago I decided – as much for space-saving as cost-saving reasons – to scale back my book purchases until I’d read all the ones I already owned. And at last I began to make rapid progress through my dad books. Soon the unread were few enough that I could tag them all on the spine with coloured Post-It placemarkers. Now, scanning my shelves, I count just four remaining Post-Its.

I already know which one I’m saving for last: Robert A. Heinlein’s final novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, with its title borrowed from Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

***

What does it mean to have “read” a book? To select an example at random, from my desk I can see John Cheever’s Falconer, which I read seven or eight years ago. If you’d asked me shortly afterward, I could have supplied a sketchy summary of its plot, stammered for a minute or two about its “themes”, and maybe hazarded some half-formed speculations about its place in the canon of 20th century American literature.

Seven or eight years later, what do I remember about Falconer? Practically nothing.

Did I enjoy Falconer? I can’t remember. Apparently I found it interesting enough to keep around, with the idea I might want to crack it open again in another decade or two. Did I learn anything from it? Maybe it helped me form some hazy ideas about the American penal system, or about upper-middle-class attitudes toward homosexuality in the 1970s. Maybe I picked up a couple bits of trivia, or quirks of English usage, that helped me better understand books and news stories I’ve read subsequently.

Most likely, Falconer passed through me without leaving a trace. As will To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

If so, why read at all? Just to kill time? But if it was only time-killing, why did I bother to advance beyond Mad Magazine and Encyclopedia Brown? Why did I torment myself with Chaucer and Plutarch and Pynchon? Am I a happier or better person for it?

***

I recall in my early twenties being so taken with a certain line of William of Baskerville, the proto-scientist hero of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, that I quoted it to friends:

We are dwarfs, but dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of […] giants, and small though we are, we sometimes manage to see farther on the horizon than they.

I was chastened to learn, some years later, that this is a paraphrase of a comment by Isaac Newton so well-known that it appears on the British two-pound coin; and it’s only now, via Wikipedia, that I learn Newton was himself paraphrasing earlier thinkers.

Perhaps one advantage of being widely-read – if there is any – is that it enables you to recognize a wider range of references.

  • When Lord Peter Wimsey, prodding a slow-witted witness to recollect various details of a crime scene that he was unaware of having noticed, compares the witness to Socrates’s slave;
  • When Emma Bovary, basking in an uncharacteristic moment of maternal feeling, imagines herself as Sachette in Notre Dame de Paris;
  • When the unexpressed love of Tom Jones for Sophia Western is described as eating him alive from inside, “like the famous Spartan theft”;

…I understood what the author was getting at.

But this advantage only goes so far. First off, it’s quite possible to read and enjoy Whose Body?, or Madame Bovary, or Tom Jones, without picking up every allusion. What’s more, these days if an unfamiliar name or phrase leaves you puzzled, you can reach for the phone on your bedside table and resolve the mystery with a quick internet search.

(This is in fact what I had to do when I came across Flaubert’s reference to “Sachette” – an epithet which doesn’t appear in my translation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where Sister Gudule is instead referred to familiarly as “Sacky”.)

Midway through Tom Jones, Henry Fielding semi-facetiously apologizes for padding his novel with quotations (some translated, some not) from classical literature:

To fill up a work with these scraps may, indeed, be considered as a downright cheat on the learned world, who are by such means imposed upon to buy a second time in fragments and by retail what they have already in gross, if not in their memories, upon their shelves; and it is still more cruel upon the illiterate, who are drawn in to pay for what is of no manner of use to them.

He goes on to compare authors who sprinkle their stories with Latin and Greek to auctioneers who “confound and mix up their lots [so] that in order to purchase the commodity you want, you are obliged at the same time to purchase that which will do you no service.”

Though by Fielding’s standards I would be lumped among the illiterates, I don’t mind paying a little extra for the classical padding. My paperback Tom Jones was bought (by my dad) at a secondhand store for 25¢ – I can tell because it’s written in black marker on the cover – so the cost per unwanted quotation seems reasonable. A bigger obstacle to modern enjoyment of Tom Jones is its labyrinthine 18th century syntax. Luckily, after slogging through Dryden’s translation of Plutarch, Fielding’s windiness barely ruffles my hair.

Which is great – at age 41 I can read for pleasure books that at 21 I would only have finished out of a sense of duty. But this doesn’t answer the question I posed at the top of this essay. The purpose of reading cannot be merely to expand the range of texts one is capable of reading.

***

Via Richard Carroll’s blog Everything Is Oll Korrect I recently encountered C.S. Lewis’s comment that “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” While Lewis (in his introduction to a translation of De Incarnatione by Saint Athanasius) was referring particularly to books of theology, his advice is applicable to readers of all faiths, or none:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

(He later adds, “To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”)

All contemporary writers [Lewis continues] share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H.G. Wells and Karl Barth.

A couple months back, Alan Jacobs posted on his blog a similar passage by the anthropologist Loren Eiseley, arguing that scientists should acquaint themselves with the history of scientific prejudice and closed-mindedness, because:

The man who learns how difficult it is to step outside the intellectual climate of his or any age has taken the first step on the road to emancipation, to world citizenship of a high order.

Lewis and Eiseley (and the bloggers approvingly quoting them) would seem to agree that by stepping outside the mainstream of present-day thought, by taking a longer, cooler perspective, we can, if not identify the unexamined assumptions that warp and maim our reasoning, at least recognize that those assumptions are probably present – in short, that by reading widely we can become humbler, more perceptive thinkers, and therefore better citizens and human beings.

I share this belief, but part of me fears it’s self-flattery. Those who’ve devoted a large part of their lives to reading – among whom I’ll include myself, though my activities in this vein have been laughably tiny beside Eiseley’s or Lewis’s – would like to believe their efforts have amounted to something.

***

In Bring On The Empty Horses, David Niven describes being enlisted, among other movie stars, to act as host during Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s 1959 goodwill visit to Hollywood. After dinner, the group visited a soundstage at 20th Century Fox where Shirley MacLaine was shooting a big dance number from Can-Can. Khrushchev watched silently as the dancers swirled their skirts and saucily exposed their frilly pantalettes. When filming was complete, the Premier was asked for his opinion of the proceedings. He replied – presumably through a translator, but I like to imagine him speaking with a thick Boris Badenov accent – “Deesgustink!”[2]

The story is amusing because, even by the standards of Hollywood under the Hays Code, Can-Can was hardly risqué. Khrushchev’s reaction must have seemed to Niven’s contemporaries as absurdly old-fashioned as someone in 2017 declaring himself shocked by Elvis Presley’s hip-shaking.

Now imagine the response of, say, a twenty-four year old op-ed writer at Salon to some other amusing David Niven anecdotes:

At a banquet to celebrate his impending wedding, a huge serving dish is placed in front of James Stewart. The lid is lifted to reveal “a midget dressed as a baby”.

Deesgustink!

Socialite Dorothy di Frasso, separated from her Italian nobleman husband, takes a series of handsome young American men on glamourous trips to Europe, inspiring one wit to remark, “The best way to cross the Atlantic is on the Countess di Frasso.”

Deesgustink!

Errol Flynn drops by one afternoon and invites Niven to come take a gander at “the best-looking girls in L.A.” Thinking they’re off to see some showgirls, Niven hops in the car and is surprised when Flynn pulls up across from Hollywood High School just as classes are letting out. Watching the teenagers spill onto the sidewalk, Flynn lauds the charms of the “jail bait…San Quentin quail” until a cop leans in the window and tells the aging perverts to take a hike.[3]

Deesgustink!

Here’s a good reason to proceed cautiously along Loren Eiseley’s “road to emancipation”. Thanks to my acquaintance with mid-20th century British writers like Nancy Mitford – I refer you to the discussion of the “Lecherous Lecturer” here – I can project myself into the forgiving humour with which David Niven would have regarded his friend Errol Flynn’s pedophilic effusions. Our fictive Salon editorialist would not see such forgiveness as broad-minded, but as deluded, dangerous – deesgustink.

“Perhaps from my emancipated perspective,” I say, “I see the question more clearly than you.”

“If you can defend such monstrous behaviour,” says my progressive critic, “the only thing you’ve emancipated yourself from is common decency.”

“I’m not defending it. I’m just saying…”

…What am I saying? Reading Mitford and Austen and Thackeray seems not to have made me any quicker-witted. Tongue-tied, I give up the argument. Abandoned by their last defender, the films of Errol Flynn are tossed onto the ash-heap beside the Cosby Show DVDs and the Greatest Hits of Rolf Harris. I comfort myself that in a hundred or a thousand years, a less censorious people will excavate the ash-heap and wonder at the 21st century Puritans who were so quick to disclaim everything their parents and grandparents had created; the Salon editorialist is confident that our cultural successors will applaud her moral firmness while treating her as-yet-undiscovered moral failings with more lenity. The issue won’t be settled until long after we’re both dead, and it won’t really be settled then, because the generation that comes after the ash-heap-excavators will drop napalm on the excavation site and blame their parents for unleashing the evil juju buried therein.

My own experience is that taking the long view, rather than spurring me to exhibitions of enlightened world citizenship, just makes me too depressed to go outside.

Why read? I genuinely have no idea.

M.

1. Let me clarify my opening statement. Sometime in the next couple weeks I will have “read” (in the minimal sense of having passed my eyes over every constituent word of) every novel and at least part of every anthology, omnibus, collection of stories, essays, poems, or plays, or non-fiction book I own.

Most of my books are novels, so the percentage of unread pages will be pretty small. Even counting my small shelf of reference books it should be under ten percent.

I’d wager I’ll get to most of the stories and essays eventually. But my shelves will always include a certain amount of dead weight. Will I ever read all 750-odd pages of the Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Milton? Probably not. One of these days I mean to take another crack at Paradise Lost and that’ll be it.

2. Niven’s book is not renowned for its perfect fealty to the facts. Here’s a more detailed account of Khrushchev’s 1959 Hollywood visit, and here’s a clip of the Premier having what looks to be a pretty good time watching the Can-Can dancers.

3. I should mention that in 1943 Errol Flynn was prosecuted for statutory rape – and acquitted. But he’s known to have had affairs with underage girls, including Beverly Aadland, who at age seventeen accompanied him on his fatal 1959 trip to Vancouver.

The Odyssey: Mostly non-odyssey.

It was with some embarrassment that last month, a few weeks shy of my forty-first birthday, I finally got around to reading the Odyssey. I feel a little better after finding in the New Yorker this account of how Daniel Mendelsohn’s father encountered the poem at the age of eighty-one, sitting in on a fifteen-week undergraduate seminar taught by his son.

I’m sure the elder Mr. Mendelsohn, having been educated in a more rigorous age, was better acquainted than I was with the storyline going in. I recall learning about Odysseus’s adventures as part of an overview of Greek mythology lasting two weeks or so in in ninth grade English. Of those two weeks we spent maybe a day discussing the highlights of Homer’s epic – the lotus-eaters, Polyphemus, Circe, the Underworld, the sirens, Scylla and Charybdis. Just enough to enable us to pick up the most common references pop culture might throw at us in later life.

I knew that, just as the Iliad consists of a fairly brief episode in the Trojan War, the Odyssey covers a few weeks at the end of the hero’s wanderings, with the most exciting incidents already behind him. But I didn’t realize how small a part of the big-O Odyssey – at most a third, maybe as little as 20% or so – is devoted to Odysseus’s little-O odyssey.

The poem consists of 24 books of generally equal length, most running between 400 and 500 lines. The titular hero doesn’t really appear in books 1-4, which concern the activities of his wife and son. Odysseus is introduced in book 5 and arrives home in Ithaca midway through book 13. Which means that the odyssey part of the Odyssey – that is, the part concerning Odysseus’s voyages – consists of just eight books, with most of the seafaring action compressed into books 9-12, where Odysseus recounts his misfortunes at the court of King Alcinous, the last stop on his homeward journey.

Post-seminar, Mendelsohn and his dad took an educational cruise around the Mediterranean, visiting the purported sites of the events Homer describes. During their stop on the island of Gozo, site (per local legend) of Odysseus’s imprisonment by the nymph Calypso, the claustrophobic son elected not to descend into Calypso’s cave:

“What are you talking about?” my father exclaimed when I told him. “You have to go! Seven-tenths of the Odyssey takes place there!”

“Seven-tenths?” I had no idea what he was talking about. “The epic is twenty-four books long–”

“Math, Dan! Math. Odysseus spends ten years getting home, right?”

I nodded.

“And he spends seven years with Calypso, right?”

I nodded again.

“So, in theory, seven-tenths of the Odyssey actually takes place there! You can’t miss it!”

According to the unabridged Oxford Dictionary at my local library, the word “odyssey” in the figurative sense of “a long series of wanderings to and fro; a long adventurous journey” dates back only to the late 19th century in our language. The French “odyssée” goes back another hundred years, with a usage recorded in 1798.

Did the Greeks ever use “odyssey” to mean a long voyage? Not as far as I can tell (based on an hour of clumsily searching the Perseus Digital Library database). But my Oxford Companion to Classical Literature mentions that Odysseus’s tale in books 9-12 “became proverbial among later Greeks for a long story”. That seems to be how it’s used in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates introduces the lengthy fable of Er, which closes book 10, with the comment “Mind you, I’m not going to tell you an Alcinous’s tale…”

So it’s possible to imagine a world where “odyssey” came to mean “a long-winded story”. But I think any reader who came to the Odyssey without preconceptions, if asked to summarize what it was about, would say not “a voyage” but “a homecoming”.

***

A summary of the non-odyssey parts of the Odyssey:

Books 1-4. On Olympus, the gods are feeling sorry for Odysseus, stranded far from his wife and son. They decide that while Poseidon is away doing god-business on the far side of the world – Poseidon being the one who holds a particular grudge against the hero – they’ll take the opportunity to help Odysseus get home.

Although it’s unclear how this is at all relevant to the objective, Athena flies down to Ithaca and convinces Odysseus’s grown son Telemachus to go on a journey for news of his missing father. Telemachus sails to the Greek mainland to visit Nestor, Menelaus, and Helen, who reveal what they’ve been up to since the events of the Iliad. Meanwhile the suitors – the young rowdies who, believing Odysseus to be dead, have taken up residence in his palace to compete for the attentions of his wife, Penelope – devise a plot to intercept and murder Telemachus on his way home from the mainland.

Book 5. Back to Olympus. Athena frets that not only is Odysseus still stranded, now Telemachus’s life is in danger too. Zeus reminds her that they’re gods and they already know how this story is going to play out. But to get his daughter off his back he sends Hermes down to earth to order the nymph Calypso, who’s been holding Odysseus captive in her desert island sex cave, to let him go. Which Hermes does. Calypso grudgingly assents, and strolls out to give Odysseus the news.

Here we finally meet our hero, sitting on a rock, staring moodily out to sea. Calypso tells him he’s free to go and directs him to a grove of trees suitable for raft-building. Odysseus builds his raft and pushes off, but by bad luck Poseidon, happening that moment to return from his business trip, notices his impertinent escape and summons a storm to smash the raft. However, a passing sea-nymph takes a shine to the drowning hero and helps him get to shore.

Books 6-8. The daughter of the king of Phaeacia finds Odysseus naked on the beach. Attracted to the stranger – whose natural sex appeal Athena has magically enhanced – the princess gives him clothes and brings him home to her parents. King Alcinous takes in the unlucky traveller, tactfully declines to press him for his identity, and promises to help him on his way. At a festival thrown in his honour, the stranger out-discus-throws a local loudmouth, proving his superior quality. Afterward, during the feast, Alcinous notices his guest weeping into his cloak while his minstrel sings a song about the legendary Odysseus’s exploits in the Trojan War. The king stops the music and asks his guest outright – who are you?

Books 9-12. Odysseus announces himself and tells the tale of his wanderings – cyclops, sirens, and all the rest – concluding with the death of his crew and his arrival on Calypso’s island.

These four books contain practically everything the average person thinks of as “the Odyssey”.

Book 13. Alcinous arranges a ship to take Odysseus back to Ithaca. It arrives without incident, and Odysseus is deposited – in his sleep! – on his native shore, along with all the pricey gifts the Phaeacian nobles bestowed on their famous visitor. The ship heads back to Phaeacia. Poseidon wants to punish the kingdom for assisting Odysseus, but Zeus haggles him down to merely turning the ship and its crew to stone.

Odysseus wakes up on an unfamiliar beach and, prickly after years of mistreatment by the gods, assumes he’s been robbed and marooned on yet another desert island. Athena shows up and tells him he’s home on Ithaca, but he can’t return to his palace because the suitors might kill him. She disguises him as an old beggar and directs him to the hut belonging to his trusty swineherd.

Books 14-16. Odysseus is taken in by the swineherd, but once again elects not to reveal his true identity. He spins an elaborate fake story about how he’s definitely not Odysseus but he did run into Odysseus and knows he’s still alive. The swineherd assumes the old beggar is pulling his leg.

Athena visits Telemachus, who’s been dallying in Menelaus’s palace this whole time, and tells him to head home. Arriving safely at Ithaca, Telemachus stops by the hut to see what’s been going on since he left. He doesn’t recognize his father in his old beggar disguise, but Athena drops the enchantment temporarily and Odysseus reveals himself to his amazed son. They make plans to murder the suitors.

Books 17-21. Odysseus installs himself as a beggar in his own hall, where the suitors mock and abuse him. Penelope is kind to him, but he makes no attempt to confide in her, instead spinning another elaborate deception about how, no, he’s positively not Odysseus, although now that she mentions it people have told him they look alike, and by the way he happens to know Odysseus is alive and headed home at this very moment.

Penelope gives directions for her guest to be bathed by an old slavewoman who, by chance, recognizes her master by a scar on his thigh. The old woman turns to shout the good news but Odysseus roughly warns her to put a sock in it before she blows his whole operation. The old woman agrees to keep quiet, and to rat out any servant girls who’ve been consorting with the suitors.

Penelope, resigning herself to marrying one of these jerks, brings out her husband’s old bow and challenges the suitors to an archery contest with herself as prize – but not one of the soft-living suitors can so much as string the bow. The old beggar proposes to take a crack at the challenge himself. The suitors make nervous wisecracks but Penelope is willing to indulge him. Telemachus tells her to pipe down, he’s the man of the house and he’ll decide who gets to take part in the contest to marry her. His mother trots obediently off to her chambers, where Athena puts her to sleep until the massacre is over. Telemachus orders that the bow be given to the beggar.

Odysseus strings the bow and, to the amazement of all, nails the trick shot. Bow in hand, he turns to confront the suitors.

Books 22-24. With the backing of Telemachus, the swineherd, and one other trusty servant – and with Athena providing magical protection – Odysseus butchers everyone. The slavegirls that have been fingered as untrustworthy are forced to haul out the corpses and mop up the gore before being killed by Telemachus. Penelope and Odysseus are tearfully reunited.

Down in the Underworld, Achilles and Agamemnon are swapping tales about their Trojan War days. Seeing a crowd of healthy young souls come shuffling in, Agamemnon asks the newcomers what happened, was there a shipwreck or something? The suitors moan about how badly they were treated first by Penelope, who kept them dangling for years, and then by Odysseus, who was entirely uncool about them crashing at his place while he was away. Remembering his own less-than-warm welcome home, Agamemnon says Odysseus is lucky to have such a faithful wife.

Back in Ithaca, Odysseus goes to see his aged father, where for no reason at all – he just can’t help himself! – he launches into yet another lie about being Odysseus’s friend visiting from overseas. He feels guilty and drops the lie quickly enough though.

Odysseus and his father, son, and allies fend off an attack by the suitors’ aggrieved relatives, before Athena appears to put a stop to the fighting. Abruptly, The End.

M.

The medical men of Middlemarch.

There must be two dozen books on my shelves that I’ve never read, but recently, after coming across a couple references to how dauntingly unreadable Middlemarch is, I decided to verify my hazy impression that I’d found it absorbing from the start.

Maybe “absorbing” is the wrong word. Victorian novels demand sifting, extracting, unpacking. Many sentences need to be double-read: once through to sort out how the clauses relate to each other and again to determine how they relate to the story. You’d think I’d find it tedious. I’m not enchanted with complexity for its own sake. My eyelids tend to droop when I read poetry, for instance, even stuff I know I should admire, like Shakespeare. George Eliot begins each chapter with an epigraph, usually poetical; I skim them. But the story is interesting enough that I don’t mind unravelling the prose when it gets knotty. Clive James once disparaged another literary pretzel-twister, Edward Gibbon, for “the kind of stylistic difficulty which leads its admirers to admire themselves, for submitting to the punishment.” Perhaps liking Middlemarch is a kind of masochism.

The other day, awaiting the inevitable callback from my garage to upsell me from a routine oil-and-lube to major repairs, I found myself wondering why mechanics can’t operate the way Mr. Lydgate does in Middlemarch. I know that sounds unbearably pretentious but it’s what I was thinking.

Most readers remember Middlemarch for the thwarted romance of widowed Dorothea Casaubon and the passionate but aimless Will Ladislaw. Mr. Lydgate is the hero of what a screenwriter would call the “B-plot”; to quote the rear cover copy on my Signet Classic paperback, Lydgate is “an ambitious young doctor who is betrayed by his wife’s egoism and his own inner weakness.” The rather haughty surgeon-apothecary, newly arrived in Middlemarch, offends local custom by acting on the principle that a doctor should “simply prescribe, without dispensing drugs or taking percentage from druggists.” He explains that,

it must lower the character of practitioners and be a constant injury to the public if their only mode of getting paid for their work was by their making out long bills for drafts, boluses, and mixtures.

This explanation gets rather muddled in third-hand transmission to a competitor:

The next day Mr. Gambit was told that Lydgate went about saying physic was of no use.

“Indeed!” said he, lifting his eyebrows with cautious surprise. (He was a stout, husky man with a large ring on his fourth finger.) “How will he cure his patients, then?”

“That is what I say,” returned Mrs. Mawmsey, who habitually gave weight to her speech by loading her pronouns. “Does he suppose that people will pay him only to come and sit with them and go away again?”

This business about Lydgate and his rivalry with the town’s other “practitioners” is one of those subtle questions of class and custom that gets lost on the modern reader. On first reading Middlemarch I failed to notice that Lydgate is referred to as “Mr.”, never as “Dr.” The latter honorific is reserved to those, like the town physicians, Dr. Minchin and Dr. Sprague, who have “been to either of the English universities and enjoyed the absence of anatomical and bedside study there”. In other words they have been more expensively though not more comprehensively educated. Mr. Lydgate, by contrast, after his apprenticeship to a country apothecary, has studied at Edinburgh, Paris, and London, there picking up numerous progressive and unsettling ideas.

Middlemarch is set just before and after the accession of William IV in 1830, a time of much reformist ferment. A decade and a half earlier, Parliament had made a stab at straightening out the chaotic system of medical accreditation which then prevailed in the United Kingdom. As S.W.F. Holloway explained in the July 1966 issue of the journal Medical History (“The Apothecaries’ Act, 1815: A Reinterpretation: Part II“) , the new system effectively defined nearly all medical practitioners as apothecaries, and regulated them as such. Traditionally apothecaries had filled a role roughly analogous to pharmacists today, but the lines between the different classes of medical practitioners had become blurred. As Holloway quotes a contemporary source:

In London, and some of our other great towns, there are physicians and surgeons who do not compound or vend medicines; but in the country this distinction of the three branches of the profession does not exist. Except in a few of our largest towns, every man who practises medicine at all, likewise deals in drugs, and must do so … If he were not to supply [patients] with medicines, there is nobody else from whom they could procure them. The consequence is … that over all England the medical practitioners are also apothecaries, within the meaning of this act.

Physicians were an exalted class who could afford to forgo the unseemly necessity of seeking licensure as apothecaries, which required a five-year apprenticeship as an apothecary. Men of substance who could afford a degree from Oxford or Cambridge, physicians attended the sickbeds of the titled and propertied; the customary fee for a consultation was one guinea. All other medical men, known inclusively as general practitioners, were traditionally forbidden to charge an attendance fee. Their sole source of income was the “drafts, boluses, and mixtures” they peddled. As Holloway explains:

This system led not only to [the general practitioner] being considered a tradesman in an age when trade was regarded as a debased occupation: it also exposed him to the accusation of over-charging and over-prescribing. The apothecary, it was said in 1703, “makes the deluded Patient pay very extravagant Fees by the intolerable Prices he puts on all the cheap Medicines, and by passing upon him very many more Doses than the Disease requires or the Constitution can bear”.

(You can see why my mind ran to Lydgate as I sat awaiting the call from my mechanic, to pass upon me a Dose my Constitution could not bear.)

By charging for doctoring and not for drugs, Lydgate is offensive not only to the physicians on whose exclusive prerogative he is trespassing, but to his fellow general practitioners Mr. Wrench and Mr. Toller, to whom he appears to be trying to overreach his station:

“I say the most ungentlemanly trick a man can be guilty of is to come among the members of his profession with innovations which are a libel on their time-honoured procedure. That is my opinion, and I am ready to maintain it against anyone who contradicts me.”

“My dear fellow,” said Mr. Toller, striking in pacifically and looking at Mr. Wrench, “the physicians have their toes trodden on more than we have. If you come to dignity it is a question for Minchin and Sprague.”

“Does medical jurisprudence provide nothing against these infringements?” said Mr. Hackbutt with a disinterested desire to offer his lights. “How does the law stand, eh, Hawley?”

“Nothing to be done there,” said Mr. Hawley. “I looked into it for Sprague. You’d only break your nose against a damned judge’s decision.”

What decision is this? Holloway again:

The first step came in 1829 when Chief Justice Best, in Towne v. Gresley, held that an apothecary might charge for his attendance, provided he made no charge for the medicines furnished. But in the following year Lord Tenterden ruled that an apothecary might recover for reasonable attendance as well as for medicines.

Per this judgement, there’s nothing stopping Mr. Lydgate from charging a consulting fee and also pushing lucrative potions on his patients. But he refrains as a matter of principle.

Perhaps an idealistic thinker of the Lydgate type will one day reform the automotive repair industry so that garages are no longer incentivized, as apothecaries once were, to over-prescribe service. A consulting mechanic would examine our car and determine which fluids really needed flushing, which gaskets really needed replacing, then write out a prescription which we’d take to a practicing mechanic up the road, who’d actually carry out the repairs. I’m sure the first such practitioner would arouse much resentment and resistance among his fellow tradespeople. It would make good drama for a novel. Not the main story, probably. A B-plot.

M.

The old, illogical morality: The Kindly Ones and Darkness at Noon.

Note: This is the third in a cache of old abandoned blog posts I recently recovered from a rarely-used laptop. The “project” I allude to below is the novel I’m currently wrapping up, about which more soon.

In preparation for a project I’m thinking of attempting, I’ve been doing some research on life behind the Iron Curtain. To this end I was recently reading Anne McElvoy’s The Saddled Cow: East Germany’s Life and Legacy, in which she interviews Wolfgang Leonhard, a “former comrade” of longtime East German ruler Erich Honecker. Leonhard recalls of the leader-to-be:

He had the main characteristic I would consider essential for success as a young functionary: absolutely average intelligence. In a communist party on the Stalinist model, you have to have a good memory and an ability to absorb reams of resolutions and turn them into directives, so you need a certain basic intelligence. You can’t be plain dumb, as was required under the Nazis, because the ideology is much more complicated. But you can’t be too intelligent, because people of above-average intellect have a tendency to challenge the arcana, to spot its flaws, which makes them disobedient.

Did the Nazis require their members to be “plain dumb”? To some degree we must defer to the old comrade’s experience. As a youth in the Third Reich, Leonhard must have met many Nazis, and maybe they were on the whole dumber than his Communist acquaintances – although one doubts his impartiality. Certainly Nazism and its Fascist sister-governments had their share of intelligent sympathizers, from Martin Heidegger to Robert Brasillach to Ezra Pound; and I suspect if those governments had remained on the scene longer, they would eventually have accumulated a body of Western intellectual fellow-travellers like those that forgave and justified all Communism’s “mistakes” and “excesses”. But it’s hard to say.

Leonhard’s comment brought to mind a scene in The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell’s disturbing novel of World War II. Our narrator and “hero”, the intelligent and cultured SS officer Dr. Maximilian Aue, as punishment for having displeased his superior, is transferred to Stalingrad just as the Germans are losing control of that city to the Soviet counterattack. There, amid the rubble and sickness and squalor, he interviews a captured enemy politruk – a Communist Party member assigned to a Soviet army unit to build morale and ensure obedience to the party line. Their conversation runs for several pages and makes a useful crib sheet on the differences and similarities between the two totalitarianisms. Here’s how the politruk sums it up:

“[O]ur ideologies have this basic thing in common, which is that they are both essentially deterministic; racial determinism for you, economic determinism for us, but determinism all the same. We both believe that man doesn’t freely choose his fate, but that it is imposed on him by nature or history. And we both draw the conclusion that objective enemies exist, that certain categories of human beings can and must legitimately be eliminated not for what they’ve done or even thought, but for what they are. In that, we differ only in the definition of the categories: for you, the Jews, the Gypsies, the Poles, and even, I believe, the mentally ill; for us, the Kulaks, the bourgeois, the Party deviationists. At bottom, it’s the same thing; we both reject the homo economicus of the capitalists, the egotistical, individualistic man trapped in his illusion of freedom, in favor of a homo faber: Not a self-made man but a made man, you might say in English, or a man yet to be made, since communist man must still be constructed, educated, just like your perfect National Socialist. And this man-to-be-made justifies the pitiless liquidation of everything that is uneducable, and thus justifies the NKVD and the Gestapo, gardeners of the social body, who tear out the weeds and force the good plants to follow their stakes.”

This politruk, like Aue, has been sent to the front after falling out of favour with his superiors. He bears a passing resemblance to Rubashov, the main character in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a high-ranking commissar and veteran of the Revolution who is imprisoned on trumped-up charges and tried as a “Party deviationist”. In his diary Rubashov writes:

We [Communists] have learnt history more thoroughly than the others. We differ from all others in our logical consistency. We know that virtue does not matter to history, and that crimes remain unpunished; but that every error has its consequences and venges itself unto the seventh generation. Therefore we concentrated all our efforts on preventing error and destroying the very seeds of it. Never in history has so much power over the future of humanity been concentrated in so few hands as in our case. Each wrong idea we follow is a crime committed against future generations. Therefore we have to punish wrong ideas as others punish crimes: with death.

History put me where I stood; I have exhausted the credit which she accorded me; if I was right I have nothing to repent of, if wrong, I will pay.

Following this logic, Rubashov convinces himself of the historical necessity of his own annihilation. He willingly confesses to the absurd charges against him and abases himself at his show trial.

Just as Darkness at Noon illustrates the thought processes by which an intelligent man can arrive at the conclusion that his own life must be sacrificed to the vaunted triumph of the Classless Society, The Kindly Ones shows how an intelligent man can convince himself of the necessity of exterminating whole ethnicities deemed inconvenient to the security of the state. At one point Dr. Aue accepts an invitation to dinner at Adolf Eichmann’s apartment and finds himself instructing his host on the finer points of their shared ideology – specifically, how it can be reconciled with Kant’s categorical imperative. (At his 1961 trial in Israel, Eichmann would arouse indignation by proclaiming, as Hannah Arendt recounts in Eichmann in Jerusalem,

that he had lived his whole life according to Kant’s moral precepts, and especially according to a Kantian definition of duty.

Arendt expresses surprise that Eichmann, questioned by a judge on this point, is able to supply “an approximately correct definition of the categorical imperative”.)

At his dinner party, Eichmann listens eagerly as his educated guest explains how Kant’s philosophy of individual will can be reconciled with the Führerprinzip, the principle that in the Third Reich “the Führer’s words have the force of law”:

“You have to live out your National Socialism by living your own will as if it were the Führer’s … Whoever only obeys orders like an automaton, without examining them critically to penetrate their inner necessity, does not work closer to the Führer; most of the time, he distances himself from him. … All law must rest on a foundation. Historically, this has always been a fiction or an abstraction – God, the King, or the People. Our great advance has been to base the legal concept of the Nation on something concrete and inalienable: the Volk, whose collective will is expressed by the Führer who represents it. When you say Frei sein ist Knecht sein [To be free is to be a vassal], you have to understand that the foremost vassal of all is precisely the Führer, since he is nothing but pure service. We are not serving the Führer as such, but as the representative of the Volk, we serve the Volk and must serve it as the Führer serves it, with total abnegation. That’s why, confronted with painful tasks, we have to bow down, master our feelings, and carry them out with firmness.”

It’s possible that the mental convolutions necessary to overcoming the evident contradictions of Communism and National Socialism make those ideologies more appealing to intelligent people; it is precisely their affront to common sense that make them attractive to those, like Rubashov and Dr. Aue, who justly perceive themselves as uncommon. No particular genius is necessary to observe that mass murder is wrong. It takes a nimble mind to argue that the grand march of history dictates the necessity of submitting to this distasteful duty.

Rubashov, on the eve of his execution, begins to doubt the result to which his reasoning has led him:

For forty years he had lived strictly in accordance with the vows of his order, the Party. He had held to the rules of logical calculation. He had burnt the remains of the old, illogical morality from his consciousness with the acid of reason. … And where had it landed him? Premises of unimpeachable truth had led to a result which was completely absurd … Perhaps it was not suitable for a man to think every thought to its logical conclusion.

Perhaps not, but how are we to know when to abandon logic except by logically analyzing the problem? Some like to imagine there’s an invisible thread wound around our hearts that will, if we let it, guide us back to the light when logic leads us astray. Call this thread God, or conscience, or common humanity. But the history of the last century demonstrates that the thread, if it exists, is easy to sever, and that far from feeling lost without it, we gloat over our freedom.

M.

Bertrand Russell and the conquest of narrowness.

I’ve been reading Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness, which discusses eight common causes of unhappiness and why we so often succumb to them, and six sources of happiness and how we can attain them. As a person prone to most of the types of unhappiness he explores, I’m finding it a useful and thought-provoking little book.

It was written in 1930, and is therefore a bit dated in its examination of the outward or socially-imposed causes of unhappiness. For instance, I doubt too many men or women nowadays are afflicted with the particular sexual hang-ups Russell identifies as major sources of human misery; we’ve evolved a brand-new set of sexual dysfunctions to be immiserated by. Another cause of unhappiness that has changed somewhat since Russell’s day is what he calls fear of public opinion. Essentially, and commonsensically, he argues that the cure for this fear is to seek out a social milieu where you feel comfortable expressing yourself freely, and in your dealings with hostile outsiders to cultivate a cheerful indifference to their opprobrium. He explains how moderate non-conformity with society’s expectations can improve our collective happiness:

[A] society composed of men and women who do not bow too much to the conventions is a far more interesting society than one in which all behave alike. Where each person’s character is developed individually, differences of type are preserved, and it is worth while to meet new people, because they are not mere replicas of those whom one has met already.

As Russell describes it, the most common threat to individuality comes from small-town prudes and ignoramuses enforcing their prejudices on the young:

A person born, let us say, in some small country town finds himself from early youth surrounded by hostility to everything that is necessary for mental excellence.

Fortunately, he says, big cities provide concentrations of enlightened folk among whom oppressed country youngsters can feel at home, while even in more rural areas, swift modern transportation allows them to range further in their search for sympathetic souls:

The idea that one should know one’s immediate neighbors has died out in large centers of population, but still lingers in small towns and in the country. It has become a foolish idea, since there is no need to be dependent upon immediate neighbors for society. More and more it becomes possible to choose our companions on account of congeniality rather than on account of mere propinquity. Happiness is promoted by associations of persons with similar tastes and similar opinions. Social intercourse may be expected to develop more and more along these lines, and it may be hoped that by these means the loneliness that now afflicts so many unconventional people will be gradually diminished almost to vanishing point. This will undoubtedly increase their happiness … for it is essential to happiness that our way of living should spring from our own deep impulses and not from the accidental tastes and desires of those who happen to be our neighbors, or even our relations.

Prophetically, he concedes that escaping their narrow-minded neighbours won’t always protect freethinkers from the scorn of the majority:

[T]here is a new kind of fear, namely, the fear of what newspapers may say. This is quite as terrifying as anything connected with medieval witch hunts. When the newspaper chooses to make a scapegoat of some perhaps quite harmless person, the results may be very terrible. Fortunately, as yet this is a fate which most people escape through their obscurity; but as publicity gets more and more perfect in its methods, there will be an increasing danger in this novel form of social persecution.

What Russell would have made of social media, one can only guess. He predicts vaguely that libel laws may someday have to be extended to forbid any commentary “that makes life intolerable for innocent individuals”, though he is happy to leave it to the jurists of the future to define what is intolerable and who is innocent. He concludes:

The only ultimate cure for this evil is, however, an increase of toleration on the part of the public. The best way to increase toleration is to multiply the number of individuals who enjoy real happiness and do not therefore find their chief pleasure in the infliction of pain upon their fellow men.

My sense is that while the modern ease of forming “associations of persons with similar tastes and similar opinions” may have increased happiness by allowing isolated people to escape their loneliness, it has done very little to increase toleration. In fact, while we’re undoubtedly more “tolerant” in the modern sense – tolerant of ethnic minorities and sexual experimenters of various types – we’re as likely as ever to anathematize and despise those whose opinions are slightly different from ours. Why make uneasy friendships with our neighbours when we can make easy friendships with people whose beliefs we already know we share? – and if there’s any doubt, we can check their Twitter feed to confirm their beliefs as the correct ones. The modern tendency is to segregate ourselves into ever more exclusive castes based on education and political alignment, so there’s little risk of being forced into an awkward conversation with someone whose ideas might make us uncomfortable. I believe this point has been discussed at book length already by Bill Bishop and Charles Murray, so I won’t belabor it here.

Russell’s comments about the supposed narrowness of small-town life reminded me of a 1905 essay by G.K. Chesterton (reprinted in the 1958 Penguin collection of his Essays and Poems) called “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family”:

It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the willfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises.

Unlike Chesterton, Bertrand Russell can only imagine the compromises of right-thinkers oppressed by wrong-thinkers: the young person whose parents “believe the doctrine of evolution to be wicked”, for example, or the aspiring actor stifled by the convention that a career on the stage is “socially inferior”. If Chesterton’s “solitary and sensitive individual” has to flee to the big city to escape the influence of clods like these, what’s the downside? Russell doesn’t consider the possibility that the young person might leave behind his narrow provincial background only to take up with a new, even narrower pack of clods.

M.