I just completed Professor Richard T. Stock’s online course about Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” and if you’re a fan of podcasts and literature, I highly recommend it. Professor Stock takes you through the book chapter by chapter, with a plot summary and analysis of each. It’s an enriching reading experience (and a great reread).
I won’t spoil the course, but I was surprised that Professor Stock does not read the story the way I do at all. To me, “The Trial” is an allegory for life. As Woody Allen quipped in “Love and Death,” all people are ultimately sentenced to death for crimes they never committed. Like Jospeh K., we are all subjects to a capital punishment heariing where the best we can hope is to push back the inevitable sentence. Or, as Allen put it:
“Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is that all men go eventually, but I go six o’clock tomorrow morning. I was supposed to go at five o’clock, but I have a smart lawyer. Got leniency.”
Joseph K.’s last thoughts are that he’s executed “like a dog.” This seems to be the condition of life. We are all sentenced for execution and the best we can hope, as Joseph K. is urged over and over, is to fight to prolong the trial, not to seek its end.
Taking a dip back into Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos, which I haven’t looked at in the internet era. It’s the tale of a stranded voyage to the Galapagos islands during a global financial crisis and a pandemic that sterilizes the rest of humanity. In isolation, the people on the trip spark an evolution of mankind towards better swimming, fish eating and smaller brains. It’s a million-year long return to Eden journey and a deconstruction of the idea that evolution blessed mankind with larger brains, as Vonnegut envisions a human race better off without so much emotional and intellectual volatility.
Along the way, Vonnegut introduces us to the Mandarax, a supercomputer invented by a genius that contains the sum of human skills and knowledge, accessible in a device that resembles a contemporary smart phone. Galapagos was published in 1985 and set in 1986. Funny that the name “Manadarax” was even taken up by a piece of Java code in 2000.
The ubiquity of smart phones with easy and constant access to Google’s search engine has wildly changed the way we communicate (tall tales told in bar can be fact-checked in real time) and has somewhat devalued an individual’s memory as you only need to know enough know what to look up, from mathematical formula to recipes to quotations from movies.
Summarizes one of Vonnegut’s castaways: “That wonderful Mandarax you’re scratching your ear with now: what is that but an excuse for a mean ego-maniac never to pay or even thank any human being with a knowledge of languages or mathematics or history or medicine or ikebana or anything?”
A lot of writers exporing the future caught on to the growth of computing power combined with miniaturization, but Vonnegut seems to have most presciently grasped its social significance, including the trivialization of an individual’s knowledge.
At least the Streissand Effect still works. I had never heard of the novelist Bruce Wagner before he took back his manuscript from Counterpoint Press over his editor telling him to excise the word “fat” from his story. Chris Beck at SpliceToday has the most complete account of the story where an author with a real following was asked to tone down his content to avoid offending people’s sensibilities.
Wagner uses the word fat to describe a character who calls herself Fat Joan and she is purposefully trying to bring her weight to 1,000 pounds in a bid for reality television celebrity. This is not the authorial voice labeling a character “fat” as an insult — it’s the voice of a character whose psychological fitness is more meant to be questioned by the reader than her physical fitness.
Though, what if, I wonder, the author had meant to question the girth of his own creation? It’s hard to imagine Shakespeare’s Falstaff or Sir Toby Belch without prodigious bellies. Or, in the case of Alfred Jarry, the lard of his Pere Ubu is absolutely meant as moral judgment as a tyrant king starves his people to feed his avarice — such things happen in real life, even in America today. We’re having an election about it.
It’s getting harder and harder for writers who haven’t established an audience to stand up to the demands of sensitive editors and even professional “sensitivity readers” trying to avoid “cancel culture” episodes. I see two big problems for authors with unique voices these days:
A non-trivial portion of young intellectuals, who might be counted on to buy books and support artistic expression, have taken a strict view of “freedom of speech” where only government can “censor” content and no artist can expect an unfettered right of expression on any publishing or even social media platform. They do not view the publisher’s demands for edits as inappropriate and would argue that Wagner’s ability to distribute his novel through his own website is all the free speech that a healthy culture needs. The ethos here is one were you can speak all you want but have no right to be heard. This is unhelpful for artists and thinkers without an established audience or platform and especially for artists who need to be paid for their work.
Related: publishers used to champion controversial work but are unwilling or unable to do so in a culture that will censure them for taking risks. It’s publishers, after all, who brought the ethos of sensitivity reading, not to mention sensitivity readers, into the industry.
Without the support of publishers willing to push back against social prudery, Beck finds that: “Younger writers are more accepting of their prose being nannied by the guardians of faux civility, which doesn’t bode well for the future of the power of the written word.”
What’s little understood here is that freedom of speech isn’t something that can be captured entirely by the first ammendment, and it doesn’t end with government censorship. It’s an ethos, and one that we’re culturally abandoning, one lost novel at a time.
J.R.R. Tolkien cautioned against reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as simple allegory, as the mythos is meant to speak for itself. But taken as an epic cycle, it’s the story of an innocent Bilbo Baggins who takes a heroes journey and unearths a great lost power when he discovers the “one ring” forged by Sauron, the greatest, most powerful and corrupting evil in the world.
A generation later, Bilbo’s nephew Frodo Baggins, equally as innocent as his uncle, is asked to deliver the ring to the wise and immortal elves. But even they are potentially corrupted by its influence and so Frodo and his friends, including the deposed king of men, a representative from the elves, a representative from the dwarves and Frodo’s hometown friends undertake to destroy the ring by hurling it into the fires of Mordor. Along the way, they are stalked by a pitiful creature corrupted by the ring’s influence and all are twisted by a plant engulfing war that spares no one and allows for no neutral parties.
In the end (spoiler alert?), Frodo and his best friend Samwise succeed at their task, but at the painful loss of their innocence and childhoods. There are themes of heroic sacrifice and, yes, the notion of seemingly powerless people accomplishing great things against the forces of history.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have occupied significant space in western popular culture, from Leonard Nimoy singing The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins to two film trilogies by genius director Peter Jackson that redefined the Hollywood blockbuster. Nerds love it.
Nerds name their businesses after it.
The most prominent example is Palantir, a global surveillance and big data analysis company that took its name from the crystal orbs that wizards in the Tolkien universe use to see far away places. It’s a clever name for a company that, as The Intercept described, “Helped the NSA Spy on the World.”
But it’s also misnamed. Palantir, founded by libertarian techno-tyrant Peter Thiel, who once destroyed the media outlet Gawker because he didn’t like it, has built a company where the looking glass focuses on others but nobody can see into Palantir (well, except that now Palantir wants to sell stock so we can see that prying into the lives of everybody on Earth is still a money-losing proposition.)
In The Lord of the Rings, the wizard Gandalf is aghast to find that his colleague Saruman is utilizing a Palantir. In the books, this is not a one way device. When you look into one Palantir, somebody looking into another might be watching you. In The Lord of the Rings, the evil Sauron is on the other end.
Another evil company with a Lord of the Rings name is Anduril. In The Lord of the Rings it is the sword of Aragorn, forged from the remnants of the sword the heroic Isuldur used to chop the ring off of Sauron during the first world war. So, this is the weapon that, in the novels, defeats the worst evil the world has ever known and reminds us that there’s always hope and cause to fight.
Thje real-world Anduril, however, supplies drones to the U.S. Border Patrol for use stopping brave people fleeing political, social and economic oppression by making a hazardous trip across our militarized southern border. So, it is evil. Not only is it evil, it delights in its crapulence by boasting on its careers page:
“We won’t tell you that you’re making the world a better place with ad optimization and emoji filters. We believe the most socially impactful thing we can do is help people in life-and-death situations make better decisions.”
Ha, ha. Make the world a better place by utilizing drone chicanery against defenseless refugees. How heroic. Dorks.
I’ve never bee a huge fan of “man vs. nature” tales. Sure, I love The Old Man and the Sea, but that’s really existentialism at work, along the vein of Heart of Darkness. I haven’t delved into the James Fenimore Cooper or the Jack London. But I’ve add an odd little book by Edgar Allen Poe on my shelf since 2008 and finally opened it — the shuffle of the library being packed in one location and unpacked in another unearths all sorts of little surprises.
The Journal of Julius Rodman is five chapters of a fictionalized memoir of an expedition up the Rockies that Poe wrote for Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine as a serial. It’s an incomplete novel as Poe was fired from the magazine and dropped the project. There are no supernatural or macabre elements, but the romanticism is in high gear.
Upriver, Rodman and his companions find dead buffalo washing up on the banks. Soon, they discover the source — a herd of the beasts attempting to cross the river at the wrong point, reaching steep embankments where they cannot climb out, criss-crossing the deep, flowing waters and exhausting themselves against the current. The band of explorers can only watch as:
“They now struggled fearfully to scramble up the bank, and one or two of them had nearly succeeded , when, to our great distress (for we could not witness their noble efforts without commiseration) the whole mass of loose earth above caved in, and buried several of them in its fall, without leaving the cliff in better condition for ascent. Upon this, the rest of the herd commenced a lamentable kind of lowing or moaning — a sound containing more of a dismal sorrow and despair than anything which is possible to imagine — I shall never get it out of my head.”
I don’t recall Brett Easton Ellis’ first nonfiction book getting all that great a reception when it was released last year, but the Goodreads ratings come in at a strong 3.5 and there are themes in this book that the legacy media might be reluctant to support. White is about people self-censoring in the post-Empire age of American public life where we are all subject to sudden mass judgment and expulsion based on musings, wisecracks and opinions uttered on social media or in print. Ellis’ book is a fun lamentation of the death of Open Society and should be read as a warning, not dismissed as reactionary.
Though Ellis doesn’t say it outright, I think he’s understanding that the First Amendment, as a legal term, cannot encompass everything that’s demanded of a society that truly celebrates freedom of expression. If you tell somebody say, protesting a speech on their college campus or demanding that a publisher doesn’t release a book that they’re working against free speech they will argue back that they, too, have a right to criticize, to make demands and to shape the culture.
Of course, they do. But how they exercise that right matters. As the author of American Psycho, which has its original publishing contract canceled at the last minute after people who had not even read the book protested against what they assumed were its themes, Ellis knows full well that there’s a big difference between a civil society that says “Sure, publish it and then I’ll argue against it” and one that seeks to suppress creative work that might be challenging or, in contemporary parlance, “triggering.”
Ellis got a lot of attention for calling Millennials “Generation Wuss” and so the response to White was that the former literary brat packer had become an old man yelling at the kids. But he’s really trying to save the kids by bringing them back to a culture of aesthetic appreciation where, yes, you can watch and enjoy Roman Polanski film without concerning yourself with the director’s life, if you so choose.
From my vantage, the Millennials are not really to blame for the emergent anti-speech culture. They were children and toddlers or unborn when “political correctness” became prominent in the 1990s. Around that same time, we were slapping warning labels on popular music and people were threatening to outright censor sexual content on MTV and violent content in video games (after the Legend of Zelda massacres, of course, I kid).
There’s always been a tension between speech and society’s stability (just ask Socrates) but Ellis is refreshingly blunt about the mental illness of adults who allow themselves to be psychologically triggered and disrupted by other people’s opinions and aesthetics.
There’s a lot of art and opinion I don’t like in the world and some of it makes me mad and some of it makes me uncomfortable. Ellis, for example, loved horror movies in his youth while I’ve always hated them and scenes of even absurd horror violence can still worm into my mind and rob my sleep. But I don’t agitate against horror movies. I don’t demand that they aren’t distributed or made available to others, though I surely have every right to do so.
There’s ultimately a difference, and it’s deeper than a legal one, between saying “I don’t like something or somebody,” and saying, “Those things should not exist, those people should not be allowed employment in industries where I can see them.” It’s also funny and telling that our society is highly judgmental over who gets to be an actor, director or writer for a living but that we’re almost entirely unconcerned about who foams our cappuccino. Some of those baristas probably have hair curling opinions.
Ellis fans will also want to read White because there’s a lot of cool detail about the mindset that led to Less Than Zero and the creation of the Ellis-verse that includes all of his books. I was only a little disappointed that Glamorama isn’t mentioned at all.
Through March 21st, you can download John Scalzi’s Red Shirts from Tor, for free. It’s a great deal because, in my opinion, this 2013 science fiction comedy about those poor starship crew members who always die on away missions is worth actual money.
It’s a great way to kill some quarantine hours. Enjoy!
Wandering through the Tribeca Barnes & Noble today, I came upon something surprising in these repressed cultural times. The publishers of the maligned and protested American Dirt have stuck by their author, as has Oprah’s book club.
Not only that, but a store employee who likes the book is not afraid to say so.
Of course I’m not saying anybody should like this novel or buy it. But imagine letting readers decide, rather than giving into pressure from activists who are out for nothing more than to silence the people they dislike and the points of view they’re afraid to contend with.