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Helen Vendler’s review of the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove, is quite a piece of work. (It’s been widely noted in the blogosphere, e.g. here, by I think the same Anderson seen commenting on likeminded blogs.)
Dove’s response is well worth reading. But not having been gored directly, the rest of us may wonder if Vendler hasn’t just missed the point. Do we expect of an anthology that it will supply a complete and final list of the “poems to remember?” That’s from the headline, but it does reflect Vendler’s thinking —
No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value?
How flatly she equates “lasting value” with being “worth reading”! For me, these are pretty different categories — especially for recent work, part of whose interest is precisely that its value is still to be settled. And the expectation that an anthology should be a Golden Treasury seems particularly inapt for American culture, which despite its manifold fallings-short is organized still around a recurrent dream of mobility and self-invention.
(PS. If there were any doubt of Vendler’s specific animus in this piece, consider that the sentence I’ve quoted is offered to support the proposition that “Multicultural inclusiveness prevails.”)
Salman Rushdie is running a series of #LiterarySmackdowns on Twitter, currently pitting Joan Didon against Susan Sontag, and Flannery O’Connor against Eudora Welty.1 I take it Didion and O’Connor are the obvious choices.
1This is a very Norman Mailer-ish conceit.
This is far from the usual remit of this blog, but that remit, indeed the blog in general, seem to be in abeyance, and I don’t have another outlet for such trivia.
Despite this atmosphere of youth and mirth, there were a small handful of things about which the editorial staff was deadly serious. Language, the rigor and talent to wield it, was tantamount.
But not, evidently, the rigor to look in a damn dictionary to check that words mean what you think. And indeed, Schnackenberg’s poetry, by the examples given, appears to measure up perfectly to such proud but fallible praise.
(Photo by Flickr user M.V. Jantzen used under Creative Commons license.)
In the 12/18/2009 NB column in the TLS, we find the following presumably real-live riff on “Humiliation”:
In 2003, Sebastian D. G. Knowles looked at himself in the mirror: he was the author of a study of James Joyce; he was Professor of English at Ohio State University (specializing in Joyce). He had attended dozens of Joyce conferences. But he had never read Finnegans Wake. “Worse, I had never even tried to”, Professor Knowles writes in the current James Joyce Quarterly. Guilt-ridden, he decided to confess his failing in a song to be sung at the after-dinner entertainment at a Joyce conference in Miami:
Read the rest of this entry »
In the comments to Eric’s post about underrated historical novels, I pointed out that there is a problem with talking about the “historical novel” as a self-evident genre. I did not, however, go into much detail as to why, because I covered the topic on my qualifying exams and the less said about that experience the better. But since Eric asked so nicely, I will oblige and show you why this discussion’s so painfully tangled.
Short version: Its knots all sport thorns.
Long pedantic version:
What’s your choice? Mine is Richard Powers, Gain. What a terrific book about American capitalism. And how often do you get to say that? (Go on, nominate JR.) Also full of neat wordplay and eminently readable. Plus, Powers has an excellent and timely sense of what it means to slide into the Best Healthcare System in the World™.
As all actual, practicing literary critics know, few sentences in critical works scream tendentiousness louder than:
What should be transparent to any literary critic is that . . .
Literary matters are only “transparent” when they’re not properly literary. If something is transparent, you don’t need a literary critic to ponder the depths it doesn’t have—any old idiot will suffice. And that’s exactly why Jack Cashill, author of the above and an idiot of long-standing, is just the man to prove that Bill Ayers wrote Obama’s autobiography, Dreams From My Father. For Cashill and his mysterious contributors (“[t]he media punishment that Joe the Plumber received” requires they remain anonymous), the case against Obama is a compelling one:
What Mr. Midwest noticed recently is that both Ayers in [A Kind and Just Parent] and Obama in [Dreams From My Father] make reference to the poet Carl Sandburg. In itself, this is not a grand revelation. Let us call it a C-level match. Obama and Ayers seem to have shared the same library in any case . . . Ayers and Obama, however, go beyond citing Sandburg. Each quotes the opening line of his poem “Chicago” . . . This I would call a B-level match. What raises it up a notch to an A-level match is the fact that both misquote “Chicago,” and they do so in exactly the same way.
So both Ayers and Obama misquote the opening line of Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago,” substituting “hog butcher to the world” for “hog butcher for the world.” This mutual error would be significant (an “A-level match”) if Ayers and Obama were the only two people who ever made it, but according to Google Book Search—a secret search engine to which only I have access—the same mistake has been made by Nelson Algren, Alan Lomax, Andrei Codrescu, H.L. Mencken, Paul Krugman, Perry Miller, Donald Hall, Ed McBain, Saul Bellow, S.J. Perelman, Nathanaël West, Ezra Pound, Wright Morris, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, and the 1967 Illinois Commission on Automation and Technological Progress. (To name but a few.) According to Cashill, I have now proven that Dreams From My Father was written by many a dead man of American letters, a living mystery writer, a New York Times columnist and the 1967 Illinois Commission on Automation and Technological Progress. That bears repeating:
I have an “A-level match” that proves that Obama’s autobiography was written by a “study of the economic and social effects of automation and other technological changes on industry, commerce, agriculture, education, manpower, and society in Illinois” when Obama was only six years old. If that somehow fails to convey to the dubious merits of Cashill’s argument, perhaps this will:
Returning to the exotic, in his Indonesian backyard Obama discovered two “birds of paradise” running wild as well as chickens, ducks, and a “yellow dog with a baleful howl.” In [Ayers’] Fugitive Days, there is even more “howling” than there is in Dreams . . . In [A Kind and Just Parent], he talks specifically about a “yellow dog.” And he uses the word “baleful” to describe an “eye” in Fugitive Days. For the record, “baleful” means “threatening harm.” I had to look it up.
You did read that right. Cashill did cite as “A-level” evidence the fact that Ayers and Obama used a word he didn’t know, despite his being the Executive Editor of Kansas City’s premier business publication, Ingram’s Magazine; despite his having written for Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Weekly Standard; despite his having authored five books of non-fiction; and despite the word “baleful” having appeared in print 342 times in the past six months alone. Granted, all those appearances were in high-minded literary publications like Newsday (“[w]ith his baleful countenance, wild hair, sonorous baritone and sage pronouncements”) or leftist rags like The Washington Times (“warn them in baleful tones if they’ve forgotten, say, the Constitution”), so it would be unreasonable to expect Cashill to have been familiar with the word . . . or would be, were it not for the fact that it also appears 19 times in the pages of the American Thinker, the publication for which Cashill penned this tripe. (Seems he can begin his careful literary analysis of the other 848,000 potential ghost writers closer to home.)
This past week, the attacks on Sotomayor have turned from what she’s said to how she’s said it. Conservatives began by hammering away at the “weird, unidiomatic constructions and errors of punctuation and grammar [in] her infamous 2001 ‘Wise Latina’ speech.” Now, I advocate writing conference papers that “contain few expensive words and no Faulknerian feats of subordination” on the grounds that no human being—not even the academic ones—can parse grammatically complex arrangements of jargon on the fly, so I’m more attuned than most to the fact that what passes for grammatical in English as she is spoke doesn’t pass muster in English as she is wrote. You can imagine, then, why I chafed at Heather McDonald’s criticism of Sotomayor’s unscripted speeches for containing errors endemic to spoken language. Just because an unscripted speech is transcribed after the fact doesn’t make it written; or, as per my talk, just because it can be put to paper doesn’t mean it was meant to be read there.
Judging the quality of her prose from her speeches, as McDonald and fellow Bench Memos writer Ed Whelan did, is an intellectually dishonest exercise for the simple reason that nobody (outside of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) speaks in paragraphs. Not that this stops the other member of the Bench Memos team, Matthew J. Franck, from claiming Sotomayor “writes” sentences that were clearly spoken aloud; or that those sentences “begin with a thought and trail off without saying much of anything after all, or double back and contradict themselves,” i.e. that the transcription of her unscripted speech transcribed sentences that were clearly spoken aloud.
When I taught literary journalism, I always included Mark Singer’s profile of Errol Morris on the syllabus because it works both as an introduction to New Yorker-style profiles and a meta-methodological essay on how to approach transcriptions critically and responsibly. Here’s Singer transcribing Florence Rasmussen’s speech in Morris’s Gates of Heaven (1978):
If I could only get out. Drive my car. I’d get another car. Ya . . . and my son, if he was only better to me. After I bought him that car. He’s got a nice car. I bought it myself just a short time ago. I don’t know. These kids—the more you do for them . . . He’ s my grandson, but I raised him from two years old . . . I don’t see him very often. And he just got the car. I didn’t pay for all of it. I gave him four hundred dollars.
Singer responds to her outpouring by noting that
[w]ith an arresting instinct for symmetry, Florence Rasmussen manages to contradict most of what she has to say. It seems that she knows certain things, but then, in the next moment, she trots out contrary information[:] I’d like to drive my car; but I might not even have a car any longer, might have to buy a new one. I bought my son—O.K., he’s not my son, he’s my grandson—a new car; well, I didn’t pay for the whole thing, I gave him four hundred dollars, but anyway I want my money back.
As viewers of The Fog of War (2003) know, this technique works as powerfully on former Secretaries of Defense as elderly Floridians, not because either is particularly muddleheaded, but because Morris takes advantage of the infelicitous glitches that accompany the spontaneous production of spoken language. McDonald, Whelan, and Franck seem not to understand how language works. They scoured “virtually all [Sotomayor’s unscripted] speeches on the Senate website” and discovered damning evidence that they were, in fact, unscripted speeches; then, they lambasted those transcripts of her unscripted speeches for failing to meet the standards demanded of the written word, which proved to them that Sotomayor is “a mediocrity as a writer.” Whelan even suggests she’s a hypocrite for “present[ing] herself as a stickler for good grammar” when her speeches contain constructions that would be ungainly, if not outright ungrammatical, on the page. How about we hoist Whelan by his own petard?
Well, it’s an unguarded moment where she says what folks on the left think which, their job is to use judicial robes to make sound policy and the law is largely a vessel for them to fill with their own preferences.
Sure, very much along the same lines, talking about what he calls the criterion but which selecting judges.
Well, how is that honoring people who put their lives at risk in public service and, look, at 9/11 we understood for a while what firefighters do.
Whelan clearly offends Franck’s standards: he “writes sentences that begin with a thought and trail off without saying much of anything after all.” The first sentence subordinates a clause about as clunkily as you can imagine; then you read the second sentence, observe that it doesn’t even include the subordinate clause it introduces, and marvel at the paucity of your imagination. I suppose that second sentence meets Franck’s standard on a technicality—the sentence defies the laws of grammar and stops before it has a chance to trail off without saying much of anything—but that third sentence turns on a dime “and, look,” informs us that we know “what firefighters do.” Does that count as “much of anything”?
They do eventually get around to criticizing Sotomayor’s prose on the basis of what she’s actually written: they find that while it’s not “ungrammatical,” it is “tedious and ‘impenetrable.'” That link leads to Stephanie Mencimer’s article in Mother Jones, in which she pings Sotomayor’s prose for “rarely hit[ting a] sort of breezy cadence [because she] devotes the bulk of her legal analysis to quotes from statutes, regulations, and other opinions ad nauseam[.]” How she’ll legislate from the bench when she’s busy citing dull precedent is as mysterious to me as, for example, how a prose-scold could write “quote” instead of “quotation” in the middle of a complaint or believe Diane Wood’s summary of Merchant of Venice signifies much of anything in the Age of Wikipedia.
In the end, the case against Sotomayor basically amounts to this: on the one hand, her speeches betray all the ungrammatical tics common to spoken language, and if you treat those speeches as prose, you must conclude that she’s a poor writer; on the other, the prose of her legal opinions isn’t ungrammatical, but because it betrays the tedious tics common to lawyerly prose, you must conclude she’s a poor writer. You see where this is headed. If word leaked out that “Ed Whelan” was actually Sotomayor’s pseudonym, the Bench Memos team would argue that, because Whelanmayor did all that I documented above, you must conclude that s/he’s a poor writer. Were it then revealed that Whelanmayor did Diane Wood one better and actually wrote Merchant of Venice, the Bench Memos team would claim that, in light of the difficulty of Shakespelanmayor’s prose, the Western Canon requires immediate revision and you must conclude s/he’s a poor writer . . .
Is it absolutely necessary for the image gracing the cover of the most recent issue of the official mouthpiece of my professional organization to depict something that, when seen on my desk by a colleague from another department, compelled her to ask where a viper fish would even get a detachable penis to whack off against a shrimp-wielding toucan? Do other departments not laugh at us literary folk enough already?
Why does this same issue contain a write-up of a forum from the 2007 MLA convention? Did it really take two years and change to transform that panel into something print-worthy? So I take it the first sentence is supposed to read:
In contributions to this 2007 panel of the division on Comparative Studies in Romanticism and the Nineteenth Century, titled “Untiming the Nineteenth-Century: Temporality and Periodization,” periodization, a venerable mainstay of comparative literarature safeguarded by its apparent neutrality, is critically arraigned.
Lest you think I’m mocking the author of this sentence, Emily Apter, let me make this absolutely clear: Apter’s introduction is lively and interesting—historicists like myself tend to be interested in arguments about or against periodization even when we disagree with them—but how well is her intellectual project of two years previous served by appearing so belatedly? How well is her intellectual integrity represented by an error so basic only a typesetter could have made it? These are the standards against which necessarily inconsequential (because) online conversations should be judged?
Maybe I’m still in a foul mood, but I don’t think so.
On this day in history, two men—one of whom would say that the other’s life work represented “the utmost human degradation[:] an idiot’s vegetative existence”—were born. In 1885, the author of that statement, Marxist literary critic Georg Lukács, dewombed in Budapest. Often cited as the founder of Western (or philosophical) Marxism, Lukács can be considered the grandfather of the armchair academic activists who fought the radical fight from tenured positions at illustrious institutions. I only half-kid here: his claim in The Historical Novel (1937) that the role of the literary critic was to examine “the relation between ideology (in the sense of Weltanschauung) and artistic creation” (147) allowed otherwise sedentary scholars to label as revolutionary action an exegesis on Dickensian realism. Anyone whose work analyzed critical or socialist realism, i.e. literature which displayed “the contradictions within society and within the individual context of a dialectical unity,” could consider him or herself a soldier in the Great Class War Against Mystification. Like Susan Sontag, I find his definition of realism—socialist, critical or otherwise—unnecessarily reductive and his dismissiveness of non-realist works short-sighted (if not out-right anti-intellectual).
In 1906, the same year Lukács received his Ph.D., was born the man whose work depicted “an idiot’s vegetative existence.” That Samuel Beckett’s novels, plays and poetry trafficked in “human degradation” was reason enough for condemnation: unlike realists novels, which were capable of creating dialectical conversations between singular narratives and the social totality of history, modernist novels wallowed in the singularity of their narrators:
Lack of objectivity in the description of the outer world finds its complement in the reduction of reality to a nightmare. Beckett’s Molloy is perhaps the ne plus ultra of this development. (152)
If an author grounds that nightmare in “the Aristotelian concept of man as zoon politikon” (151); that is, if an author provides a reference against which the consequences of the actions of social animals can be judged: only then can reader or critic differentiate between the concrete potentialities (what happens) and the abstract potentialities (what the character thought could have happened). Authors who refuse to declare what happened—who mess in the pseudo-realization of abstract potentiality—create readers who will never know from dialectical. They will not be social animals critically examining the societal structuring of their lives through the power of realist narratives; they will be unwitting dupes forever mired in the pathological subjectivity of Molloy, forever sucking pebbles. Their lives, such that they are, will be spent in the Grand Hotel Abyss, which Lukács describes as
a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered. (qtd. 22)
Needless to say, I disagree.
I’ll close on an historical odditiy: not only was Lukács born on April 13th, so too was the French psychoanalyst and psychoanalytic theorist, Jacques Lacan. It’s as if the day conspired to give birth to the thought of Louis Althusser (which, as you can probably guess, is one part Lukácian, one part Lacanian and three cans of crazy).
This day in 1925 was publication day for The Great Gatsby, whose author F. Scott Fitzgerald—amazingly, hopefully, ridiculously, immediately—cabled Maxwell Perkins to ask if there were any news yet of how the book was going over. The news when it came was good, but not good enough for Fitzgerald, who mourned that of the happy reviewers “not one had the slightest idea what the book was about.”
And that appears still to be true. Whatever the book is about it obviously isn’t about how well America treats arriviste strivers. But is it about the myth of the classless society? Certainly, but not in the boring way that Dreiser’s books are about that.
I do like the suggestion that what’s most important in the book is
its realization of the fluidity of American lives, the perception being Tom Buchanan’s wistful drifting here and there, “wherever people played polo and were rich together,” in Wolfsheim’s sentimental longings for the old Metropole, in Nick Carroway’s wry feeling that Tom and Daisy were two old friends I scarcely knew at all,” in Gatsby’s whole career.
And, as that retrospective goes on to note, its peculiar voice—sometimes so staccato, sometimes so lyrical, only false when it’s trying to be funny (the sequence of the party guests with the fishy names).
I remember one intepretive note that I think interesting: three times (what I tell you three times is true) and at critical moments Fitzgerald/Carraway calls the reader’s attention to breast imagery: once to call attention to Jordan’s sexualized self-presentation:
I looked at Miss Baker wondering what it was she “got done.” I enjoyed looking at her. She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet.
—once to illustrate the brutal damage done Myrtle Wilson by the automobile—well, I was going to say “accident” but that’s not right, is it?
Michaelis and this man reached her first but when they had torn open her shirtwaist still damp with perspiration, they saw that her left breast was swinging loose like a flap and there was no need to listen for the heart beneath. The mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long.
—and once—as every schoolboy knows—to describe primeval unspoiled America.
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes–a fresh, green breast of the new world.
Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
On the other hand I am not a literary type, so what do I know?
(This beast began as the post I promised last week. Now that I’ve played hooky all my points about the uniqueness of Watchmen‘s narrative mode seem more salient in light of their absence from the film. So I decided to fold my review into the half-composed post. But for the record I still never get around to discussing my larger theory of Manhattan as readerly proxy.)
Some books teach you how to read them: Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, JR, and Infinite Jest spring first to mind. From a purely formal perspective Watchmen belongs in their company. It does to the conventions of comic narrative what Joyce did to realism, Pynchon did to pulp, Gaddis did to dialogue and Foster Wallace did to sentiment. All the techniques discussed in the following had been used in comics before—there is nothing new under the oxen of the sun—but never in the service of creating a new breed of reader. Consider the following sequence of panels from the funeral of the Comedian:
The first three panels transition moment-to-moment. Such transitions slow down the action by forcing the reader to observe actions divided into their constiuent parts. They typically depict a realization on the part of the character which the author wants the reader to linger over (for example) or a demonstration of how fast or powerful someone is. But the “action” that Moore slices into its constiuent parts consists of “listening while standing still.”
For a hack like Mark Millar the amount of dialogue squeezed into the slow zoom of those panels would stretch credulity. But Moore is no Millar. (How better to compel readers to pay attention to a face than four consecutive panels that zoom in on it?) Moore wants the reader to focus his attention on the expression Ozymandias wears and the pat content of the eulogy. The payoff of the latter is dialogue-driven and immediate; the former, however, pays off in a way only comics can. When the moment-to-moment transitions give way to the scene-to-scene transitions in the third and fourth panels the change in Ozymandias’s expression is as subtle as it is important:
Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem has drawn generally negative reviews (though the Facebook fan club has attracted 500-some members). My feelings about it are mixed — but reading the discussion at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ place here and here I felt torn, defensive, even protective. So many readers seem to be beating up on Alexander almost personally, rather than trying to read the poems well. (Adam Kirsch and Rudolph Delson address broader tendencies which they see or imagine in Alexander. Margaret Soltan attacks from the aesthetic right, and Ron Silliman indirectly from the left. Etc.) She hardly needs my defense (being not only a grownup but a lit professor), but I still want to try to draw out the virtues of the poem, to show it’s worth not scorning.
To begin with, I’ll acknowledge that the poem was written for the eye. The verse is syllabic, composed in lines of about 10 syllables each. (That’s the length of iambic pentameter, but she doesn’t use that effect.) The lines are grouped in tercets, with one lone line at the end. There are sentence breaks at the ends of many lines, and of most of the tercets. In other words, there’s a strong formal grid, achieved through means that were inaudible in her performance.
(And she uses the grid intricately: in
Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.
see how the four -ings are placed in the lines: near the beginning, at the end, near the end, and at the beginning.)
And the choice of words is timid, sometimes banal, starting right with the first line. There’s a certain amount of padding, as if to fill out lines — the doubling in “noise and bramble, thorn and din” is redundant. And the language is self-conscious, perhaps particularly in the way the text repeatedly proclaims itself a “praise song” rather than just praising.
But most importantly, the poem puts in view at once, in relation to one another, a number of serious thoughts on the occasion — on what it may mean, for many people, that for the first time a member of a minority group has taken our highest office. In crude and partial paraphrase:
- Our ancestors suffered
- which is a painful memory
- but they suffered and labored for something;
- Here we are at a great day
- Let us move forward with love
- so great that it will not efface that memory (“pre-empt grievance”) but encompass it.
As nearly everyone says, writing a poem for an inauguration, or any momentous official occasion, is a mug’s game — it’s almost impossible to do well. And surely everyone has a favorite exception. Mine is John Ashbery’s “Pyrography”, commissioned by the Department of the Interior for its bicentennial exhibition, “America 1976”. It’s a magnificently inclusive ramble, as sincerely kitschy as Rushmore (or at least North by Northwest).
Part of me, this week, wished the old surreal master (still writing at 81) had been given the chance instead. But I have to admit that Ashbery could never have done what Alexander did — to tell home truths in perspective.
Mark Helprin—author of my favorite novel when I was a naive fourteen—published another well-written, ur-conservative editorials in the Wall Street Journal today. You can (and will) disagree with the sentiment, but you must admit that the man can control his clauses:
The pity is that the war could have been successful and this equilibrium sustained had we struck immediately, preserving the link with September 11th; had we disciplined our objective to forcing upon regimes that nurture terrorism the choice of routing it out with their ruthless secret services or suffering the destruction of the means to power for which they live; had we husbanded our forces in the highly developed military areas of northern Saudi Arabia after deposing Saddam Hussein, where as a fleet in being they would suffer no casualties and remain at the ready to reach Baghdad, Damascus, or Riyadh in three days; and had we taken strong and effective measures for our domestic protection while striving to stay within constitutional limits and eloquently explaining the necessity—as has always been the case in war—for sometimes exceeding them.
The children on the Corner think otherwise. According to Peter Wehner, Helprin’s editorial is both wrong and chock-full of “very sloppy writing.” The above soundly refutes the sloppiness argument, but you should know better than to expect sound arguments from people who think “Charles Krauthammer [is] America’s best columnist and one of our finest geopolitical thinkers.” My favorite bits:
This is an example of very sloppy writing on the part of Helprin…
I gather that Helprin is lamenting the fact that we did not attack Iraq immediately after 9/11. But we could barely attack Afghanistan immediately after September 11, 2001, and Afghanistan required a strategic innovation that Halperin totally ignores…
Reading between the lines, his use of the word “eloquently” probably translates into “we need more speeches written by Mark Halperin.” It’s worth recalling, then, that Helprin’s most notable speechwriting achievement to date was penning Robert Dole’s 1996 acceptance speech, arguing that Dole would be our Bridge to the Past. The speech was a bust, and helped contribute to Dole’s loss to Bill Clinton…
Helprin is right that many Democrats have been feckless. But if everyone from George W. Bush to Democrats have been feckless—and surely Helprin would throw in every other global ally on that spectrum, too—then Halperin is saying everybody, but him, has got it wrong. This is akin to the man on the highway who is going the wrong way and talks to his wife on the phone about how many morons are going the wrong way.
However would he know what that feels like?
On this day in 1920, Frank Herbert Jr. was born. Herbert devoted six years to “researching” what would become the most popular science fiction novel of all time. I’ve always wondered what counts as “research” when writing a novel. I can understand the need for writers of hard science fiction to familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of a particular field, but for someone like Herbert, wouldn’t “world-building” more accurately describe his efforts? I say this because Herbert describes a world in which the mysticism and magic have replaced science and technology.
This time I am lifting from Adam Robert‘s excellent History of Science Fiction, in which he claims “one of the book’s greatest strengths is its detailed and plausible rendering of the political context” (236). What Herbert spent six years “researching,” then, was the complex political environs of the interplanetary empire he’d invented because Dune‘s reputation as an environmental novel is undeserved. The overgrown extremophiles who inhabit Arrakis are humans from Earth, but somehow survive on a planet with no viable means to create or sustain an atmosphere. As Roberts writes:
We may wonder, for instance, how Dune’s atmosphere is oxygenated in the absence of planetary vegetation. In later books Herbert suggests that the sandworms fart oxygen, which hardly address the problem.
Indeed, without an atmospheric density in the neighborhood of 1.2 kg/m³ it wouldn’t matter what element those sandworms farted—it would’ve drifted up and away. And where did all that sand come from anyway? The most efficient means of producing sand is wave action, but even if Herbert wanted to be inefficient, a little research would’ve taught him that sand requires big rocks and weathering processes. The geological history of a planet consisting entirely of sand is—will you let me get my geology geek on, please? The opportunities to do so are few and very far between. Fine then. I’ll be mysterious.*
I don’t mean to diminish Herbert’s accomplishments in Dune. So long as he was alive, the series educated science types about the nuances and niceties of medieval politics. (The process, if not the history.) That said, I always found Herbert’s forecast of future history more than a little pessimistic. Like the Terminator and Battlestar Galactica franchises, the Dune sextet pivots on a war between man and formerly enslaved machine, the result of which was a return to a pre-computational society. The mentats are bred—“Fancy meeting you here, dissertation. Please GO AWAY.”—they are bred to be mathematical savants, and spice mystically allows for interstellar travel sans star-charts. So, no computers needed. However, Herbert’s novels seem to argue that a rejection of the modern technology entails a rejection of modern political systems—as if dispensing with the convenience of a calculator is the first sign of feudalism’s revival.
Besides the obvious problem with this—somehow those Athenians managed to be quasi-democratic before the Age of Apple—and despite Herbert’s obvious critique of hierarchy and messianic thought, I can’t help but think the novels engender a nostalgia for certainty in their readers. We might not know how spice works, but Our Dear God-Emperor surely does. (Despite having personally and purposely evolved into a human-sandworm hybrid—about which plot-point my dissertation rears its head like Giant Putin over unsuspecting Alaska. So I’ll stop now lest I invite insanity in, slap it on the back, and offer it a brew—which is, yes, how a body feels about a dissertation recently completed. I hear tell this subsides in time, but so far I’ve felt none of it.)
*By which I don’t mean anything like “I sat here trying to think what would have to happen for such a planet to come about—including, but not limited to, a cessation of mountain-building after a period of intense weathering by something other than water, since water poisons the marvelous beasts who produce the spice melange and whose evolution would’ve spanned untold eons.” I don’t mean anything like that. I know the answer, I’m simply not in the mood to share.