Posts Tagged 'clive james'

Schedule Bare Back.

With President-Elect Joe Biden qualifying his earlier call for a national mask mandate, it seems an appropriate time to revisit the last attempt to alter American sartorial customs by presidential order.

I’m speaking, of course, of 2007, when in response to a grave biological threat the president addressed a joint session of congress:

When the President took the rostrum, he waited until he got dead silence. Then slowly, calmly, he started taking off clothes. He stopped when he was bare to the waist. He then turned around, lifting his arms. At last he spoke.

“I did that,” he said, “so that you might see that your Chief Executive is not a prisoner of the enemy.” He paused.

“But how about you?

Despite the president’s challenge, the assembled senators and congresspeople remained seated, reluctant to sacrifice their dignity – until Senator Gottlieb, a survivor of the contagion, shakily rose and removed his shirt, exposing a back still raw with the “scarlet mark of the parasite”.

Pulling out a gun, the senator then ordered his colleagues to start stripping.

robert a. heinlein the puppet masters

Fortunately for the sanity of C-SPAN viewers, this disturbing scene unfolded not in our recent past, but in the fictional future of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters.

The brain-hijacking alien parasites of that 1951 novel are able to blend in perfectly among uninfected humans – as long as their hosts are fully dressed. With the citizenry stripped naked to the waist in accordance with the president’s order, it’s easy to spot the pulsating slug-like creatures latched to the spines of the infected.

But will the country comply with Schedule Bare Back?

In the uncontaminated areas people took off their shirts, willingly or reluctantly, looked around them and found no parasites. They watched their newscasts and wondered and waited for the government to tell them that the danger was over. But nothing happened, and both laymen and local officials began to doubt the necessity of running around in sunbathing costumes.

Other skeptics go further, fulminating that the supposed invasion is actually “a tyrannical Washington plot”. In the areas of the country already controlled by the slugs, TV stations pump out propaganda accusing the central government of having gone crazy. Meanwhile, back in the capital, those with direct experience of the danger are plotting geometric growth trajectories of the kind with which we have lately become all too familiar:

Assume a thousand slugs in that space ship, the one we believed to have landed near Kansas City; suppose that they could reproduce when given opportunity every twenty-four hours.

First day, one thousand slugs.

Second day, two thousand.

Third day, four thousand.

At the end of the first week, the eighth day, that is—a hundred and twenty-eight thousand slugs.

After two weeks, more than sixteen million slugs.

What’s worse, one of the fundamental assumptions behind Schedule Bare Back – that the slugs must attach themselves near the base of the skull in order to control their hosts’ brains – proves to be untrue. In fact, they can attach themselves to any bit of flesh, including all of it still hidden below people’s beltlines.

This discovery leads before long to the imposition of the even more exacting Schedule Sun Tan. [1]

***

In a book review from 1978, Clive James echoed the conventional critical line on Robert A. Heinlein, that he was a hairy-chested keyboard-basher “whose politics were largely indistinguishable from those of John Wayne”: [2]

His Starship Troopers and The Puppet Masters, quite apart from their unarguable virtues as adventure stories, have the additional quality of representing the authoritarian instinct in its purest form and thereby helping us to comprehend it. [3]

James died last year, before the emergence of Covid-19 and the unprecedented measures hastily implemented to contain it. Would he have characterized our past nine months of lockdowns, shutdowns, travel restrictions, masks, queues, and one-way shopping aisles as manifestations of the “authoritarian instinct”?

Perhaps they are. The question, as always, is whether unprecedented measures are justified by the circumstances, and how they are modified as circumstances change. (The income tax, as libertarians like to remind us, was introduced to Canada as a temporary measure during World War I.)

In The Puppet Masters, after the imposition of Schedule Sun Tan, people adjust with surprising swiftness to the abolition of the nudity taboo:

Ugly bodies weren’t any more noticeable than ugly taxicabs; the eye ignored them. And so it appeared to be with everybody; those on the streets seemed to have acquired utter indifference. Skin was skin and what of it?

the puppet masters robert heinlein don sibley illustrator

The introduction of Schedule Sun Tan. Illustration by Don Sibley in Galaxy Science Fiction, 1951. Scan by Rafeeq McGiveron.

Those with a preference for old notions of modesty soon learn to keep their objections to themselves. In 2020 the most zealous enforcers of mask-wearing have limited their reprisals to shaming the unmasked or, at worst, siccing the cops on them; in the more hysterical atmosphere of Heinlein’s novel, naked, heavily-armed vigilantes can be found loitering on street corners, scanning their surroundings for an inch of uncovered flesh, prepared to fire without warning on “any unexplained excrescence on a human body”.

Whatever “authoritarian instinct” might have motivated the author, the hero of The Puppet Masters is far from enthusiastic about such impingements on his liberty. As he and his team celebrate their discovery of a biological agent that they hope will kill the aliens without harming their human hosts, the hero allows himself to muse about returning to the good old pre-parasite social order. A colleague disillusions him:

“Mr. Nivens, as long as there exists a possibility that a slug is alive the polite man must be willing to bare his body on request—or risk getting shot. Not just this week and next, but twenty years from now, or a hundred. No, no!” he added, “I am not disparaging your plans—but you have been too busy to notice that they are strictly local and temporary. For example, have you made any plans for combing the Amazonian jungles, tree by tree?” …

“Are you trying to tell me it’s hopeless?” I demanded.

“Hopeless? Not at all. Have another drink. I’m trying to say that we are going to have to learn to live with this horror, the way we had to learn to live with the atom bomb.”

As we toast our arrival at a comparable stage in humanity’s war against Covid-19, our health authorities have taken to issuing similarly deflating pronouncements. The other day Timandra Harkness vented in UnHerd:

But I do remember very clearly that when I heard that Health Person solemnly say that, vaccine or no vaccine, we would still be wearing masks and social distancing and so on for the next 18 months, my response was not fit to print.

Even after the vulnerable have been immunized, even after herd immunity has been reached – indeed, as long as Covid-19 is circulating out there among bats, cats, and muskrats, building strength in preparation for another wave – the Health People will insist that we must keep up our defenses. We’re already wearing the masks, the Health People will say. We’ve already gotten in the habit of queuing and distancing. Easier to keep up habits we’ve already learned than give them up and have to learn them all over again.

It’s possible we won’t be free of the Health People’s nagging until the disease has been wiped from the face of the earth. Here are two of Timandra Harkness’ UnHerd colleagues arguing that Covid probably isn’t eradicable – but that we should make it our mission to attempt to eradicate it anyway:

Once the first wave of mass Covid vaccination begins, we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. We should do our very best to free ourselves of this virus forever.

As The Puppet Masters draws to a close, the heroes’ biological weapon has succeeded, but the victors aren’t content with the reconquest of the American heartland. Apart from whatever slugs might be out there clinging to the spines of forest creatures, there are who knows how many millions swarming on the slug homeworld, still intent, for all anyone knows, on enslaving the human race.

The last we hear from the hero, he is putting the final touches on his memoir before blasting off to take part in the counterinvasion. “Puppet masters—the free men are coming to kill you!” he declares. “Death and Destruction!

That must be one of the lines Clive James had in mind when he spoke of Heinlein’s “authoritarian instinct”. The Health People will probably want to dream up a less blood-chilling slogan for the next stage of their crusade.

M.

1. As I’ve already discussed at length, Heinlein – a nudist – wasn’t shy about shoehorning his personal and political obsessions into his stories.

Although The Puppet Masters is the only one of his books in which nudism is a major theme, in practically all his output from the late 1960s onward you’ll find at least one scene where the characters, as soon as they’re out of sight of the rubes, happily shuck their clothes.

Even where Heinlein eschewed overt nudist propaganda, his fictional futures were often characterized by a laid-back attitude towards the display of flesh. It’s always a bit jarring – deliberately, I’m sure – when the hero, whom you’ve been vaguely picturing dressed in trousers and jacket, or maybe a jumpsuit, makes some offhand comment like, “I was wearing tights myself (unpadded) and sometimes oil my upper body on social occasions.” (From The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.)

2. Clive James’ comment on Heinlein appears as an aside in a pan of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian satire 1985. I came across it in the essay collection From the Land of Shadows.

3. Heinlein fans are used to seeing Starship Troopers dismissed as an emanation of the fascist id. While that’s unfair, at least you can see where the book’s critics are coming from – it can be read as an apologia for imperialism, militarism, and (human) racial supremacism. It’s unusual to find it lumped together with The Puppet Masters, which apart from some passing swipes at communism isn’t even noticeably right-wing, let alone “authoritarian”.

(Coincidentally, those two are among the disappointingly small handful of Heinlein stories that have been turned into movies; here one of the screenwriters of the 1994 adaption of The Puppet Masters explains why it turned out such a botch.)

In his 1980 collection Expanded Universe Heinlein defended Starship Troopers against some of its lazier attackers. In that novel, the right to vote is granted only to those who have fulfilled two years of voluntary federal service; what really irked his liberal critics, Heinlein speculated, was

the dismaying idea that a voice in governing the state should be earned instead of being handed to anyone who is 18 years old and has a body temperature near 37°C.

He mulled a few other ideas for ensuring a “responsible electorate”, including:

[S]tep into the polling booth and find that the computer has generated a new quadratic equation just for you. Solve it, the computer unlocks the voting machine, you vote. But get a wrong answer and the voting machine fails to unlock, a loud bell sounds, a red light goes on over that booth—and you slink out, face red, you having just proved yourself too stupid and/or ignorant to take part in the decisions of the grownups. Better luck next election! No lower age limit in this system—smart 12-yr-old girls vote every election while some of their mothers—and fathers—decline to be humiliated twice.

I quoted the above passage before, in a footnote to my post on Nevil Shute’s “multiple voting” scheme.

Crossing over: Allan Bloom, Saul Bellow, and Christopher Hitchens.

Recently, over breakfast, my girlfriend and I chatted about some of the TV programs that she, having come to consciousness only in the mid-’90s, never had a chance to experience. She’s seen enough Cheers reruns to get the gist, but Family Ties, Night Court, and Newhart, among others, she knows only by reputation.

I told her how, in the final scene of the final episode of Newhart, it was revealed that the whole series had been dreamed by Bob Newhart’s character from his earlier The Bob Newhart Show. This reminded me of St. Elsewhere, and I summarized for her the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis: In outline, since all the events of St. Elsewhere were revealed in that show’s final episode to be the daydreams of a snowglobe-clutching autistic child named Tommy Westphall, and since characters from St. Elsewhere crossed over to a number of other TV shows, including Mash, Cheers, and Homicide: Life on the Street, implying that those shows took place in the same fictional reality, and since characters from those overcrossing shows in turn crossed over to a whole bunch of other shows, it can be argued that the events of all these other shows were also daydreamed by Tommy Westphall. The Tommy Westphall Universe turns out to encompass everything from Mission: Impossible to Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper.

Somehow this got me thinking of the connections among some of the books I’ve been reading lately. For instance, Christopher Hitchens in his memoir Hitch-22 crosses over with his old friend Martin Amis in his memoir Experience, providing complementary versions of the evening when Hitchens was introduced to Amis’s “literary father” Saul Bellow. [1]

christopher hitchens hitch 22

As Hitch tells it:

Martin offers a slightly oblique and esoteric account of a trip on which he took me in 1989, to visit Saul Bellow in Vermont. On our buddy-movie drive up there from Cape Cod – he’s almost word-perfect about this bit – he made it clear that I wasn’t to drag the conversation toward anything political, let alone left-wing, let alone anything to do with Israel. (“No sinister balls,” which was our colloquialism for a certain kind of too-easy leftism.) I knew I was being greatly honored by the invitation, not just because it was a huge distinction to meet Bellow but because, second only to an introduction to his father, it was the highest such gift that Martin could bestow. I needed no telling that I should seize the opportunity to do more listening than talking.

And yet it’s true, as he reports, that by the end of dinner nobody could meet anyone else’s eye and his own foot had become lamed and tired by its under-the-table collisions with my shins.

We learn that Bellow had provoked Hitchens by calumniating his friend, the erudite Palestinian radical and literary critic Edward Said (who was later to fall out with Hitchens as they drifted to ever more irreconcilable positions on the morality of Western intervention in the Arab world, and violent Arab reactions thereto). Hitchens’s defense of his friend had inevitably veered into a lengthy diatribe – “a blue streak of sinister balls”, Amis says – about the misdeeds of Bellow’s beloved Israel. Afterward, Hitchens regretted embarrassing his friend, but:

[Amis] suffered more agony than he needed to, because Bellow as an old former Trotskyist and Chicago streetfighter was used to much warmer work and hardly took offense at all. He later sent me a warm letter about my introduction to a new edition of Augie March.

martin amis experience

Bellow makes several other appearances, besides that awkward dinner party, in Amis’s memoir. We hear for instance how Bellow nearly died of a rare neurological infection he picked up dining on a red snapper on a visit to the Caribbean, a story that appears in slightly fictionalized form in Bellow’s Ravelstein.

That novel is about the death of Bellow’s friend Allan Bloom, the professor, philosopher, and author of The Closing of the American Mind. As Amis says,

I know Bellow’s novel far, far better than I ever knew Bellow’s friend. Yet Ravelstein comes close to persuading me otherwise. This book is numinous. It constitutes an act of resuscitation, and in its pages Bloom lives.

saul bellow ravelstein

In the novel, Bloom-as-Ravelstein importunes the narrator, the Bellow stand-in, to write about him after his death.

“I’m laying this on you as an obligation. Do it in your after-supper-reminiscence manner, when you’ve had a few glasses of wine and you’re laid back and making remarks. I love listening when you are freewheeling about Edmund Wilson or John Berryman or Whittaker Chambers when you were hired at Time in the morning and fired by him before lunch.”

We learn in Hitch-22 that Hitchens, in real life, heard the Whittaker Chambers story from Bellow, on the evening of the awkwardness over Edward Said:

Offered a job as book critic for Time magazine as a young man, Bellow had been interviewed by Chambers and asked to give his opinion about William Wordsworth. Replying perhaps too quickly that Wordsworth had been a Romantic poet, he had been brusquely informed by Chambers that there was no place for him at the magazine. Bellow had often wondered, he told us, what he ought to have said. I suggested that he might have got the job if he’d replied that Wordsworth was a once-revolutionary poet who later became a conservative and was denounced by Browning and others as a turncoat. This seemed to Bellow to be probably right.

Speaking of the “after-supper-reminiscence manner”: both Ravelstein in Ravelstein and his model Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind refer to Plato’s Symposium, that famous gathering of Athenian intellects where Socrates, Alcibiades, and Aristophanes and their friends got drunk and declaimed on the nature of love. Taking a poke at modern critical theory, Bloom writes (paraphrasing Nietzche):

[A]fter the ministrations of modern scholarship the Symposium is so far away that it can no longer seduce us; its immediate charm has utterly vanished.

But for non-scholars, the Symposium will always be seductive because it shows us our heroes just as we want to imagine them – hanging out forever in a Valhalla of the intellect, joshing and quipping and making each other spray wine through their noses.

Which brings us to the Friday lunch. Hitch-22 devotes a few pages (and Experience a passing mention) to the boisterous weekly get-together that Hitchens and Amis shared through the 1970s and ’80s with Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Clive James, and illustrious others. Hitchens identifies James as the “chief whip” of the gatherings: “He needed an audience and damn well deserved one.”

clive james north face of soho

It’s James who gives us the vividest picture of the Friday lunch, in his memoir North Face of Soho, showing us how Amis could improvise a tall story, sustaining the massed laughter with “the economical stroke of the whip that did just enough to keep the top spinning”, while Hitchens’s specialty was the interjection of sarcastic asides:

[I]f someone was being straightforward, he could make them funny, and if someone was being funny, he could make them funnier.

The actual content of the proceedings, as repeated by James and Hitchens, isn’t quite the stuff of a modern Symposium­. Hitchens gives a few examples of the wordplay and concedes that there were “long interludes of puerility”; James credits, or blames, the illustrator Mark Boxer for “discouraging the anecdote as form – he wanted the flash of wit. … Nobody was allowed to take his time …” It sounds like a riot, in the sense that it must have been obnoxious and nerve-jangling, each man contending to make the biggest smash. [2]

Speaking of that lunch, which Hitchens says has “become the potential stuff of a new ‘Bloomsbury’ legend” – the legend would gain momentum more quickly if it had a catchier name than “the Friday lunch”, which is what Clive James also calls it in his memoir. James reports that when he kickstarted the gathering, he liked to refer to it mock-conspiratorially as the “Modish London Literary World”, a dig at the Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis, who apparently believed such a conspiracy explained why his favoured authors kept getting bad reviews. Unfortunately the Modish brand never caught on. Before they all shuffle off to trade zingers with Aristophanes and Allan Bloom, can we agree on a name for this cohort of legendary British wits? (As with Bloomsbury, MacSpaunday, and the Algonquin Round Table, it’ll help future generations to keep them sorted.) In its heyday the group convened at the Bursa Kebab House; occasionally James calls it the Kebab House lunch. How about the Kebab House Group?

allan bloom the closing of the american mind

In The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom mentions a student who fretted to him, after reading the Symposium, that “it was impossible to imagine that magic Athenian atmosphere reproduced” in his own place and time. Bloom disputes this: “such experiences are always accessible”; his student “had brains, friends, and a country happily free enough to let them gather and speak as they will”. Most of us will never enjoy after-dinner discussions quite as stirring as the Symposium, or as riotous as the Kebab House lunches. But as Bloom consolingly reflects,

This student did not have Socrates, but he had Plato’s book about him, which might even be better.

M.

1. Amis says of Bellow, “I am not his son, of course. What I am is his ideal reader. I am not my father [Kingsley]’s ideal reader, however. His ideal reader, funnily enough, is Christopher Hitchens.”

James mentions in passing, in his essay collection Cultural Amnesia,

On the whole, writers find other writers hard to be enthusiastic about, even when the other writers are safely dead. It takes security in one’s talent on top of generosity of soul. … Martin Amis’s praise of Saul Bellow is especially valuable because the younger writer is continually faced, when reading the older one, with things he himself would like to have said.

2. Hitchens and James both note the absence of a restraining female presence at the Friday lunch: “It was a very competitive scene, though,” James writes, “and therefore very male.” This naturally brings to mind Hitchens’s famously shit-stirring Vanity Fair article on why women aren’t funny. His argument boils down to: because they don’t have to be.

M.

In previous entries I’ve discussed Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia and Martin Amis’s relationship with his father.

Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

People who write in the margins of books.

Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia carries the subtitle Notes In The Margin Of My Time. Scribbling in the margins is a metaphor that recurs throughout the book, and I’m not sure metaphor is the right word because it seems to be literally true that James has built these essays around passages he has marked, and comments he has pencilled into the margins, of his prodigious library over a half century of reading. [1]

clives james cultural amnesia

For instance, in his essay on Egon Friedell he writes:

I own three copies of the handsome, single-volume post-war edition put out by Beck. My intention was to use one of them as a workbench, and put into its endpapers the notes that have gone into this book. But I ended up defacing my beautiful Phaidon edition, perhaps guessing in advance that my graffiti would be labours of love.

I have just received a vivid lesson in the benefits of writing in the margins, as I spent most of an evening hunting through the 851 pages of Cultural Amnesia for a half-remembered line about (to paraphrase) a lengthy book made still longer by all the notes the reader inevitably finds himself making in the endpapers. I couldn’t find it.

I never write in books, and I detest those who do. In another essay – I won’t try and search for it – James attempts to extrapolate, from notes in the margins, the politics of the previous owner of a certain German-language book he has acquired secondhand. The only thing I’ve ever gleaned from a marginal note is that the previous owner was too lazy to reach for a bookmark. But perhaps James frequents used bookshops with a more erudite clientele.

If you must write in the margins, you might as well do all your note-taking there; once the text has been violated, no amount of gentlemanly self-restraint can restore it to innocence. The lowest form of book-defacer is the one who marks a single passage in a book, then stops; this mark can easily be missed by the future browser as he riffles the pages prior to purchasing.

evelyn waugh a handful of dust

I own two books like this. One is Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful Of Dust. In an otherwise virgin copy, some fool has used a pen to bracket this paragraph, in which a character passes the time with a game of solitaire – “patience”, as the Brits call it:

Mrs. Rattery sat intent over her game, moving little groups of cards adroitly backwards and forwards about the table like shuttles across a loom; under her fingers order grew out of chaos; she established sequence and precedence; the symbols before her became coherent, interrelated.

I assume the defacer was an English student; this passage is pregnant with symbolic possibilities, containing as it does the actual word “symbols”. But its significance to the larger story is obscure. Mrs. Rattery is a minor character, a bluff American aviatrix who wanders in at a vital juncture in the plot, then soon wanders out again. Her elaborate game of patience has no bearing on her relationship to the other characters; she’s not a schemer or an organizer. Nor is “order [growing] out of chaos” a theme of A Handful Of Dust – quite the opposite; like most of Waugh’s novels, it’s about the breakdown of the old social hierarchies. Perhaps my hypothetical English student intended to use Mrs. Rattery and her game of patience as a metaphor for Waugh-as-writer, although that would make for a rather generic essay; all writers, except the bad ones, establish “sequence and precedence”. [2]

graham greene the ministry of fear

I also have a copy of Graham Greene’s The Ministry Of Fear in which someone has singled out this observation:

A police photograph is like a passport photograph: the intelligence which casts a veil over the crude common shape is never recorded by the cheap lens. No one can deny the contours of the flesh, the shape of the nose and mouth, and yet we protest: This isn’t me…

The mark was made in pencil, so I might attempt to erase it, though I’m sure a shadow will remain. Oddly enough, half-erased marginal jottings play a part in the story of The Ministry Of Fear. The hero, who stumbles into a Nazi espionage plot, spends some time in an asylum run by a pacifist doctor. On a bookshelf the hero finds a book of Tolstoy’s, and notices some rubbed-out pencil marks beside the following sentiment:

Remembering all I have done, suffered, and seen, resulting from the enmity of nations, it is clear to me that the cause of it all lay in the gross fraud called patriotism and love of one’s country…

The “ignoble” attempt to erase his approving checkmarks is enough to make the doctor a suspect: “This was an opinion to be held openly if at all,” thinks the hero. I wonder if some future owner of my copy of The Ministry Of Fear will think I’ve ignobly repudiated my opinion on the inaccuracy of police photographs?

M.

1. This is an awkwardly constructed sentence which I’ve chosen not to rewrite. Let it serve as an inside joke for those who’ve enjoyed James’ riff on Edward Gibbon, where he excoriates that learned figure for sentences even more awkward than this one.

2. Update, February 8 2018: Gene D. Philips, in his 1975 critical study Evelyn Waugh’s Officers, Gentlemen, and Rogues: The Facts Behind His Fiction, highlights the Mrs. Rattery passage in his discussion of A Handful of Dust:

[The hero’s] yearning for order is reflected in his accepting Mrs. Rattery’s invitation to play cards, for “under her fingers order grew out of chaos…” etc.

As you can see, I would’ve made a poor student of literature.

Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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