Saturday, October 31, 2009

Rule of Law?

A headline in the most recent Christian Science Monitor (CSM, 11/1/09) suggested the following line of thought. The headline says “Afghan election chaos may boost rule of law.”

The strict meaning of that phrase is that the laws have universal applicability to all people under it, thus not just the ordinary people but also the wealthy, the powerful, and the ruler himself. The author’s premise is that American pressure to roll back a fraudulent election teaches Hamid Karzai that the laws of Afghanistan (they forbid ballot stuffing) apply to him as well. Nice try, CSM. The article attributes the nullification of the recent election to two internal election bodies and “the world’s elder statesmen.” I don’t really think that the media should serve the public baby food, and the use of phrasing like “elder statesmen” suggests something far removed from reality. When someone says “the world’s elder statesmen,” I picture Jimmy Carter and other revered but powerless individuals. This election was overturned because the U.S. government signaled to Karzai that it would not support him, either with troops or, more importantly, with money. Why? Public opinion would turn against the administration. The administration’s own precious rear was too close to the fire.

Karzai is in power because U.S. funds flow through his hands. These moneys next buy the services of the Afghanistani war lords beneath thick tables that hide the transactions fairly effectively from common view—certainly from the view presented by CSM and other media, which always speak of corruption as present only on the Afghan side. But the truth of the matter is that this corruption must be funded. There are only two sources of money in Afghanistan.

One of these is opium. The Taliban control the opium, but the money to buy it comes, in this order, from Europe, Russia, China, Africa, and the US and Canada—to name the top five markets. More than 20 percent of opium is consumed in North America. The source of this is the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC); I saw the story here. This means that the Taliban are supported by the drug trade of the rest of the world.

The other source of money is the U.S. taxpayer. This money supports the U.S. military effort, the half-cooked build-up of an Afghan national army and police (why is it still not effective?), and funds the war lords. It’s not as if U.S. paymasters were riding around in helicopters handing over bundles of dollars to war lords in ceremonies—but they might as well. The job, however, is left to Karzai & Company, meaning his family members and friends. The war lords keep the U.S. forward operations and convoys relatively safe. You can acquire more details about this subject here, one of the articles published by AntiWar.com. Ideological reflex may cause you either to embrace or to reject that message, but either reaction is also childish behavior. Just ponder the facts.

But here is the question I ask: What is wrong with the following CSM paragraph?

For years, the international community has ineffectually hectored Karzai for reforms such as sharing more power with parliament, electing governors rather than rotating around his cronies, and ending deals with warlords.
What this paragraph leaves unsaid is that one of the two sources of local power in Afghanistan is the war lord. The other is the Taliban. That famed Loya Jirga that formed the Afghan government was drawn from Afghanistan’s tribes. Those tribes are ruled by war lords. There is no third party in Afghanistan, no genuinely organized “we the people” that stands over against the Taliban and the war lords both. That third force is a figment of Western imagination. Real power in Afghanistan has always been tribal, and “war lord” is just the west’s denigrating label for “tribal leader.”

The paragraph also fails even to hint at other illuminating facts. One: After the Russians were defeated, a civil war began. In that civil war the Taliban fought, defeated, marginalized, and drove the war lords, their enemies, to the edges of Afghanistan, thus to regions bordering the former U.S.S.R. I recall staring at successive maps showing the war lords’ retreat. Two: When the U.S. arrived in Afghanistan hell-bent on defeating Al Qaida, aka Osama Bin Laden, aka son-in-law of Omar, the leading figure of the Taliban, the U.S. forces immediately armed, equipped, and fueled the war lords in order to deploy them, once again, against the Taliban. U.S. taxpayer dollars are still funding this faction.

My chief points here are that the media may present most of the facts, but the interpretation they supply does not match Afghanistan’s realities.  The various attempts to build the institutional framework of a republican style government are vain and symbolic gestures that lack a genuine grounding in on-the-ground reality. Republican style governments demand the presence of a strong, organized, and extensive middle class. There is no such class in Afghanistan. What Afghanistan does have is the early stages of a feudal order. These are dominated by dukes (another good word for war lord, derived as the word is from the Latin dux, which used to mean general or military leader; after the central power fell, these dukes became local sovereigns).

Another important point is that Karzai became president precisely because he was not one of the war lords. He was a well-connected operator from the yet-to-be-fully-developed merchant class on whom the dukes of Afghanistan could agree—and who was also acceptable to the invading kingdom (in local eyes) of America. There is no point in hectoring a hammer. You have to hector the hammer’s wielder.

Someone who introduces the notion of “rule of law” into this discussion is either naïve or is patronizing the reading public. We must teach history properly so that we can recognize recurring patterns on the ground. This sort of reportage reminds me of the soothing explanation a little child might receive when it inadvertently walks in on mom and dad as they are engaged in the marital act. “Don’t cry, honey! Mom and dad were just playing. We were wrestling…”

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Times, the Names…

In an e-mail comment on the last post, Michelle (la sage-femme and funny ghost-writer of Pontoon Pirates) had this to say among other things:

Just for fun : in Paris there are two streets like Die Grosse and Die Kleine Freiheit. They are rue de la Grande Truanderie and rue de la Petite Truanderie in the 1st arrondissement. They, like rue de la Brèche-aux-Loups in the 12th and rue de La Grange-aux-Belles in the 10th, have often made me wonder dreamily where those names came from... Much more inspirational than Main street, no? But Grand rue also exists in France, in Etueffont as a matter of fact.

Wonderful. A truanderie is a swindle. Next we have “the Breach of the Wolves,” thereafter the “Barn of the Beauties.” Now concerning the wolves, I wonder if the original name referred to a huge or an especially wide breach or opening, this because in French wolf is also used as a word of emphasis. In that language, like in English, you’re hungry as a wolf; but in France you can also be cold as a wolf.

Michelle also commented on the dissonance that sometimes appears between the cover and the content when the intention is to-draw-attention-for-profit. She comments on the three book covers I’ve trotted out in the last few days:

Those covers look great today, don’t they? Vintage 1970s sci-fi creativeness! I remember thinking, back then, that they were, how shall I put it, a bit loud for my taste and mostly not at ALL what I had imagined when hearing the books [read out loud]. Those brash, colorful covers were light-years away from Darnay genes. Strange, huh?

This reminds me of a true story told by Idries Shah regarding his forays into publishing Sufi materials to a western audience. Shah’s writings have been very successful, but not so in the beginning. His first books had very formal and scholarly covers; they were intended for a scholarly audience. Sales were nil. Shah then had the covers changed; now they were vivid, colorful, and showed intriguing, romantic images. Sales—still from the scholarly community, first targeted in mailings—suddenlyshot up. And then stayed up thereafter.

Does that suggest that I should to change the cover of Ghulf Genes (the novel)? A gyrating belly-dancer? A Conan-like muscle-bound half-naked hunk charging a monster?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Smell? You’re right enough about the smell, Bill, but I was talking about sell. Get it? Sell!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Genesis of a Title

In my experience the titles of literary works—and similarly the names of places—have a life of their own; they can subsist in my memory and come to represent something quite different than the author once intended, or, equally likely, continue to hold the essence while the details that supported it thin out and vanish.

To give an example, many years ago now I watched a play on public television—quite a long play and very cerebral, intellectual, but fascinating. It was called The Ascent of Mt. Fuji. I remembered the title, also a kind of mental snapshot of watching the play, but had forgotten all else until I went in search of the details this morning. The play was written by Chingiz Aitmatov, a Kyrgyzstani writer of the communist era. The play dealt with the suppression of dissent in the U.S.S.R. in his time, but I retained something quite different from it, the essence of any and all ascents from the restricted to the exalted. For details about Aitmatov, I suggest this site.

But let me get to the title of my first published novella, The Splendid Freedom. Having been raised in multiple languages—so much so that they are part of my bodily fiber, when the plot of that novel arose in my mind, the perfect title for it came to me instantly. Too bad it was in German: Die Grosse Freiheit. The words simply mean “the great freedom.” The reason why these words surfaced was because there had been a quite famous movie entitled Die Grosse Freiheit Nr. 7. It was a Nazi era film (1944); Hans Albers starred in it. But the Nazis themselves then banned it.

What about that Nr. 7? Well, the original of Die Grosse Freiheit is actually the name of a street in the Reeperbahn district of the city of Hamburg, an entertainment enclave. There is also Die Kleine Freiheit, the little one, in the same neighborhood. The movie dealt with a sailor’s love affair while on leave. Not that any of this was consciously in my mind. I was too little at the time of the film either to have seen it or, aged eight, to have any concept of its premise. But the phrase had a lot of visibility in later years, not least because it occurs in the refrain of German lyrics fashioned to the famous melody, La Paloma, which that movie introduced.

Herewith a rather free translation of the first two stanzas of the song as the Germans sang and presumably still sing it. To check the German original, those adequate might want to look here.

A wind blows from the south and draws me out to sea.
Don’t sorrow, child, although our parting smarts—but me,
I must on journeys go, afar abroad, away.
Your pain shall pass, reunion soon shall be our bliss.
Longing tugs me toward a blue horizon with
Waves beneath, the night and stars above. The hiss
Of this life’s wind is at my back, distance in sight.
Cry not, my child, your tears cannot arrest my flight.

La Paloma, olé
That which must be, must be
Only the longed-for hours of love
Remain behind on land, my dove.
The sea, the sea, she is the sailor’s bride
And by her side, sweet one, I must abide,
But when storms start to shriek their melody
The Splendid Freedom, in my heart, still holds a memory.

In any case, to round this out, as I was contemplating that title, I translated it then, as I did this morning here, rendering the lyrics, by replacing great, with but one syllable, with splendid, with two, which matches the rhythm of the German and, in effect (to use a musical analogy) raises the meaning by an octave.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Novella Online

The first story I ever published was entitled The Splendid Freedom. It ran in one of the 1974 issues of Galaxy magazine. Some time later (1980) it lent its name to a story collection of mine (shown to the left), which, in addition to that tale, also had two of my then most popular shorter pieces, The Eastcoast Confinement and Plutonium.

I have put up the text of Splendid Freedom on what I call my literary (or more humbly, my writing) site (Ghulf Records) accessible here. It is in PDF format. Some readers of this blog, suddenly seeing me revealed as an author of fiction, can now read one of my pieces and see for themselves what I sound like in another of my personae. In a way it pleases me that this novella, although now three decades old and counting, has not lost its meaning or relevance; nor am I tempted to make excuses for it. If you don’t have an Adobe Reader, send me e-mail and I’ll give it to you as an MS Word document. The e-mail address is accessible through my profile.

One additional comment. While the illustration of the story collection (shown) is actually drawn from the story, my own approach to science fiction—however artfully I deal with science and technology in these accounts—is never about whizz-bang. But then regular visitors here will already know that. Meanwhile I always insist that the science part of my sci-fi apes reality much better than many others’ efforts manage the job.

In Praise of Maps

On a visit to Leningrad some years ago I consulted a map to find out where I was, but I could not make it out. From where I stood, I could see several enormous churches, yet there was no trace of them on my map. When finally an interpreter came to help me, he said: “We don’t show churches on our maps.” Contradicting him, I pointed to one that was very clearly marked. “That is a museum,” he said, “not what we call a ‘living church.’ It is only the ‘living churches’ we don’t show.” [First paragraph of E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed]
It has been a while since I have praised maps and their makers, but maps came into focus the other day—and last night again in the highest context—so I thought I would sink another benchmark in this survey. The first reminder came when we were slightly disoriented in Roseville, MI. We discovered that we had maps of the State of Missouri, of the cities of Quebec in Canada, Traverse City in Michigan, and Lake George in New York quite handy, but to find the map of this area led to frantic clawing. At last, here it was—South-East Michigan! And what a relief it was!

The other polarity of today’s inspiration was a set of diagrams in my edition of the Divine Comedy. I was looking at them last night in my by now out-of-breath ascent of the peak of Paradise. The thought came then, falling asleep, that great works all have the quality of maps. In Dante, one is always keenly aware of his own quite serious intent on producing an accurate cosmic map—the depths, the earth, the heavens. For Henry Corbin, that obscure but admirable philosopher of the invisible, orientation is a constant concern. Schumacher quite consciously set out to make a philosophical map in the work cited above. And my own life-long interest in the cyclic historians is anchored in my determination to see the big picture before I worry about the small.

Obviously map-making is not a peculiarly modern urge, although the really great advances in earth-measurement are modern. I was fascinated a while back by the figure of Colin MacKenzie (1754-1821); I encountered him in a show on PBS. He turned heaven and earth upside down in his attempts to survey India, and I became aware of the difficulties of this kind of work. I have a fine book, The Measure of All Things, by Ken Adler. It documents the labors of Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre (1749-1822), Pierre-François-André Méchain (1744-1804), and Joseph-Jérôme Lalande (1732-1807) who, in the midst of the French Revolution, and working right through it, in effect finessing and ignoring it, working with both sides in the conflict, mapped and measured the meridian that runs from Dunkerque through Paris to Barcelona in efforts of establish the length of the meter, defined as one-ten-millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the equator. Such heroic work underlies all of our maps. We fold them any-which-way and toss them into drawers whereas, if we but knew the underlying labors, we would place them reverently high up on our shelves.

Back in Minnesota days I used to take Winnie (yellow Lab, a notable canine Ghulf) on his walk. We followed the tracks of Burlington Northern from the edges of suburban settlements into the wilds. One of my stops was a bridge across a creek. Winnie would run down the near-vertical drop off to forage along the shore and drink water. And down there, each time he descended, he passed a survey stone. As I became more knowledgeable about the art and science of earth measurement, that stone, initially just a grey thing with a mark, took on the character of a monument to a tribe of people too much neglected in the world’s history—while we make destroyers and powerful madmen famous.

Maps of all kinds—and obscure figures working away to perfect them. They deserve a nod and the occasional recognition. Was lost, but now, with their assistance, I am found.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Kind of Numbness Sets In

Fellow-blogger Paul Rodriguez reminded me this morning in another context of the dim past of my life. This caused me then to pick up a family memoir which begins:
My second conscious memory is of the day when Hitler invaded Poland. It was evening; we were on a train; the day was Friday, September 1, 1939. I was three years old and had a stomach ache—the reason, I suppose, why I remember the event. I have the notion that we were travelling east to west. The impression must have arisen later when my mother…told me where we’d been and where we had been going. The details I’ve now forgotten but the direction remains.… The news of war came at one of the stops and spread like wildfire throughout the train. Children have a curious animal sense and pick up the adults’ emotions. The mood was a mixture of excitement and anxiety. I was lying in one of the compartments across two seats. A narrow corridor ran past the compartments. Grownups had left their places and crowded out there—excited talk. I remember darkness and lights. The lights flashed on and off, and on and off, as we pulled out of the settlement where the news had reached us. I remember the talk and the movement in the corridor, the beat of the train’s wheel on the rails, and the pain in my stomach…
Three days after that memory of mine, the German troops reached Lodz, in Poland where Brigitte, my future life’s companion, a girl of seven-and-a-half that year, lived with her parents, a German family settled in Poland. The war caught her too and, as she recalls it, she was confined to her room—while there, as everywhere, the adult world held its breath.

This morning’s paper brings news of yet another massive bombing in Iraq, 130 or more dead, trumping the 122 who died in August in Baghdad at another bombing of ministries. The New York Times brings a picture of a huge ravaged building and, in the foreground, a man with his head bent in a state of mental anguish. Throughout our lives, from the very beginning, as it were, this sort of thing has never relented, only the forms and the locations keep changing.

Brigitte and I and most members of our family have been very fortunate in escaping the direct, sharp, and dreadful pain of losing those we loved to collective violence. And there is a limit, probably imposed by our biology, to the vicarious suffering that we can actually experience. Those deaths—wherever they happen—are as much our pain as of those directly affected, but, alas, a kind of numbness sets in and, with it, a kind of guilt because the collective agony is behind a kind of veil…

Sunday, October 25, 2009

October Out-Back


Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Eagle, Lion, and the Owl

The production of grand, lasting symbols is a process mirrored in the creation of great art. In practice it is grubby craftsmanship, messy, arduous, often obsessively mechanical. From this labor arises the new, but the labor itself is inspired by something lofty, already or always present, high above. Today I return to the Eagle—which irked me a while back in one of Dante’s cantos. The focus today is the American Bald Eagle in the Great Seal of the United States of America.

I must confess that heraldry had already gripped me as a child. Its mesmerizing quality merely strengthened later when I encountered phrases like “argent a lion azure with two bends gules athwart,” etc., and if the words “griffon sable” or “chevron between three swords erect” were present, so much the better. My last foray into this subject came in the context of the seal of Budapest, my place of birth. I researched the Roman eagle a few days ago frustrated by dearth of explanations and decent images. Then yesterday Peony, she who is the guarding spirit of the Tang Dynasty, wondered out loud: Was there a link between Minerva and the Eagle? This is the sort of challenge I cannot resist.

It turns out that the Great Seal, quite like the Seal of Budapest, was the work of a committee, a contentious labor extending over a long period. In our own case here three committees labored to generate the seal. The last finally yielded to the decisive action of a single person, that of Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress. He introduced the eagle; it had not appeared in earlier designs. He specified that the bald eagle be used—that oddly-named bird which isn’t bald at all. Curiously, the motivating force behind this selection was exerted by the image of thirteen arrows held by the bird. But that image was probably suggested by a book of emblems supplied by Benjamin Franklin. It had the eagle, the arrows, and the olive branch. At that time the seal of the Dutch Republic also featured a bunch of arrows—the only European state with a representative form government. The Dutch seal, however, depicted a lion holding seven arrows, one for each subdivisions of the state. Neither Rome nor Minerva seemed to play a visible or obvious role in this labor of creation (or, perhaps, appropriation), although—as in all matters of art and spirit—they were there up in the sky. The source (as usually) is Wikipedia. The synthesis, as always, mine.

The eagle or the lion predominate as symbols of sovereignty, and the two combined produce the griffon. The owl belongs, as it were, to a higher order of reality and also to a more ancient dispensation, the ages of the Goddess.

Minerva, in Etruscan and later in Roman times, was the preeminent image of the Goddess and, being All to All, presided over all important things. She was the goddess of war, poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, crafts, and magic. She also invented music. The owl was her bird and hence Owl and Wisdom remain forever united.

Here I cannot resist pointing out that Brigid, the Celtic Tripple Goddess, was the Nordic manifestation of the southern Minerva. Her inclusive governance of all things worthy is indicated in this quote from Lady Augusta Gregory, quoted in turn by Wikipedia here: The goddess was, Lady Gregory wrote, “A woman of poetry, and poets worshipped her, for her sway was very great and very noble. And she was a woman of healing along with that, and a woman of smith’s work, and it was she first made the whistle for calling one to another through the night. And the one side of her face was ugly, but the other side was very comely. And the meaning of her name was Breo-saighit, a fiery arrow.” And she honors me by being my Muse and blesses me by being my wife.

* * *

In conclusion, in a whisper, as it were (thinking of a post here titled “Thirteen”), I would point out that the stars above the eagle, the arrows in its claw, the leaves of the olive branch, and the letters in E pluribus unum all number thirteen.
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Minerva photo credits: Marble Bas Relief of Minerva With Her Owl at the Library Of Congress John Adams Building (Washington, DC). Originally uploaded by takomabibelot

The Medium?

In this house most of our books are in the attic on sturdy shelves I bought at Home Depot. The grand wall-to-walls of our biggest house, St. Albans Hotel, we called it, are no more. Books in current use occupy various diasporas. A cluster lives in my basement “office,” another in my actual office; we have bedroom libraries, his and hers, with resident books that after long or short sojourns return home again. We have three diasporas on the main floor too, on shelves in Brigitte’s office and in the living room, and out in the sunroom are less organized aggregates more or less helter-skelter in stacks. As luck would have it—this situation keeps me slim—the book I want is rarely on the floor where I happen to be; so up I go two flights to fetch the book, forget to repatriate it, hence the next time I go down two flights, etc. In one of these passes, up in the attic, my eye fell on a volume that has achieved honorable retirement: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. This once very popular book by Marshall McLuhan, published in 1964, was the source of a phrase that has persisted: “The medium is the message.” I’d read the book, and here it was again. With it came that strange cloudy feeling in which the impression the book had left is there again as a kind of mood. This book was part of a prophetic upsurge in those times, prostate before the clay feet of technology, much as the counterculture dreamt of The Greening of America. Neither cult appealed to me, but I did perceive a certain bright originality in Marshall McLuhan.

The medium is the message? This phrase, alas, suffers from a deep flaw in the modern understanding of reality. It assumes that structures, objects, things communicate. Marshall McLuhan was, you might say, merely updating Emerson who said the same thing midway through the nineteenth century at a higher level of abstraction:

The horseman serves the horse,
The neat-herd serves the neat,
The merchant serves the purse,
The eater serves his meat;
‘Tis the day of the chattel,
Web to weave, and corn to grind,
Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind.
       [Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Ode Inscribed to William H. Channing”]

My attic experience lies about a month in the past, but it came back to me with a rush as I was reading the New York Times this morning. There was another cloud there, in my chest, another mood that wished to be rendered into concepts. And the concept hidden in the murk was, “It’s the intention that’s the message, and the medium be damned.”

Experience supports me. I well remember how, after we met in Germany, Brigitte and I used to watch television, German television—back when a single channel, which said good-night at midnight, did all the work. That kind of television sent quite a different message and, in effect, contradicted, by our own experience, what McLuhan claimed, namely that the content didn’t matter; it was the medium itself that spoke the volumes. On the contrary. The intention behind German television then reflected a noble intention. It intended to serve a public in a quite conscious way, and the content reflected that. The seasoned woodman knows his woods and the merest branch or rock or shade tells him of hidden things. So it is in other realms. The right nose can smell the intention behind every communication, however it may be packaged. And once you discern the intention, you already know how the content will be shaped.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Wolverine Lake, MI


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Balsamic Vinegar

Great works of art are distillates of memory
In which the essences of past experience,
Boiled down, fermented, pressed, enriched, and crisscross-linked
By hard-forged values will persist in simple
Narrative or smooth-formed stone or marching meter,
Resisting time’s relentless rub and scrape and as
On air, magically suspended, are carried
By a Persian carpet despite their ponderous weight.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rays of Sunlight - Five

Occasionally the New York Times brings good news. Four lines under “World Briefing” bring word that Seretse Khama Ian Khama was sworn in yesterday to serve a second term as President of Botswana. His party, the Botswana Democratic Party was returned to power in a landslide. I am sure that Mma Ramotswe celebrated the event, and we shout our day-late Cheers! Go, Botswana!

Data and Depth

Our times are known for information overload—a way of saying that we have abandoned good practices by which we control the flow of a life-giving substance. Rivers come to mind. They are the arteries of civilization. When they flood, trouble. Great tsunamis of information simply overwhelm. I was reminded of this twice yesterday. In the morning I read a post on Siris titled “Beginning to See”; it is a brief quote from Cardinal Newman which shows the problem of sensory overload. In the evening I clicked across the 2009 version of The Electric Company, a kind of travesty of educational television. I stayed around and watched it. The program’s evident premise is that sensory overload is beneficial.

Water channeled—life. Water run amuck—destruction.

When I was in the military, stationed in Baumholder, Germany, a training station that housed 10,000 American and perhaps 300 French soldiers, I had access to a tiny library, the only one on the post. It would greatly surprise me if that place had as many as 10,000 volumes. By happenstance the contents of that little library were exceptional. It had a stellar collection of intellectual and artistic works. This sort of thing happens. Original, adventurous, and unusual men and women are drawn into desolate barbaric places. Baumholder was such a place. And there, on their own, such people can shine. The small size of this facility and its depth of content coincided to create a little gem. Just a handful of us benefitted from its compact riches. The library had depth.

Depth is an achievement, the achievement of comprehensive grasp, the development of an enlightened intuition. It requires an effort to see the big picture and the small, the forest and the trees, the climate and the most minute biota, endeavoring the whole while to link them all in detail and in grand patterns that fall in complexly-integrated cascades from a meaningful summit. There is no Depth for Dummies; no sound-byte can capture it. Newman expended a good deal of effort on this subject and even produced a word for depth-perception, if you like, the illative sense. The word derives from deduction or inference in Latin, but I’ve always understood it as something that transcends reasoning. I’ve rendered it as intuition-plus. The word failed to get traction in philosophy precisely because, it seems to me, it does not lend itself to manipulation in verbal play. It transcends that level. Time plays a significant role in the achievement of depth because deep thought requires time and much experience. To quote another John with a similar name, John von Neumann supposedly said, “Young man, in mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them.”

Those who escaped The Electric Company, as I did—I was 35 when it first aired—at least had a leg up on the unfortunate youths of today, conditioned, as they are, unless draconian parents stand in the way, to stand in great bafflement before—

The multitude of things, which present themselves to the sight under a multiplicity of shapes and hues, pour in upon [them] from the external world all at once, and are at first nothing else but lines and colours, without mutual connection, dependence, or contrast, without order or principle, without drift or meaning. [John Henry Newman]

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Rays of Sunlight - Four

In this feature of Ghulf Genes I intend to lift into view admirable people, products, or events in a time of unrelenting gloom. The occasion of a little fall cleaning last Saturday suggested that I finally acknowledge three of my great favorites. In alphabetical order, today I name Ajax the powder, CLR the liquid, and Windex the spray. There is something deeply satisfying in using product you can rely on to do the job as you reach into the cupboard. Ajax and Windex go back into the past of my cleaning pre-history. CLR is a stand-by, but I hadn’t used it myself until I discovered, recently, that a very clean tub or sink can be made yet more gloriously white and, indeed, shiny if the last residues of invisible hard water have been dissolved by the liquid in the strange little grey bottle. The product removes calcium, lime, and rust.

To name names, Ajax is a product of Procter and Gamble, dating from 1958. Windex is three years older than I am, made and sold today by SC Johnson. CLR is the product of Jelmar, originally a sales organization that evolved, over time, into a maker of products, in this array the youngest of the lot. The fact that I must seek my cheer in the humble chores of cleaning house says something about the times, but to use an old wrestling expression, catch-as-catch-can.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Qualms about Culture

Has multi-culturalism gone underground? I think it has. But using a word like culture, I’m necessarily talking about a mysterious structure nobody can reduce to a science; hence I go by hunches and feelings. A laudable impulse to promote toleration lies behind that notion, but little in the way of reasoned reflection. Behind that idea is the understanding that culture is something like self-expression, akin to that peculiarly modern concept of Speech. Since any human action may be interpreted as speech in New-Speak, multi-culturalism translates in practice to free expression. What proponents of this kind of toleration overlook is that culture contains more than manners, dress, social behavior, customs, rituals, and language. Cultures more potently enforce relationships between people and carry values at their core.

Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always interpreted the idea of multi-culturalism as asserting that all cultures are equal; that amounts to saying that all value-systems are equal. There I demur. Cultures are certainly containers of good and bad habits. They transcend time in that the past is still actively present in them (as habit) and they also carry theories of the future. Ours, at present, still has a progressive character; a habitual mode of feeling in our culture is that the future will be an improvement over the past; some of our uneasiness at present comes from observing that this may not be true. Once we’ve digested that message, the culture will change again.

Cultures are particularly different in defining male-female relationships. The western culture still carries residual strains of the Roman view that the male head of the family is a law onto himself. The same sort of barbaric view colors Hindu culture too; widows once were ritually burned when their “owner” passed on. The biological destinies of humans are, to be sure, a kind of natural imperative. The child-bearing female and the needs of the child have produced the division of labor between males and females. These are blurred in our super-rich modern civilization. And, over time (if power really tends to corrupt, as we routinely repeat) the male, dealing with the dangerous outside world, began to exert dominance inward as well as out. That’s a bad habit. The culture crystallized and made it legitimate. Why? Males, who shape the Outer, liked it that way. The Muslim culture, despite the Prophet’s mostly token attempts at reform, reflects the cultural modes of the Arabs of the time of the founding—which was not that different from the Western way. Hence, there too, the males dominate in ways we find outrageous; female genital mutilation in Africa is an extreme example. It takes enormous efforts to imagine a culture in which female dominance was an accepted habit, yet we have some, to be sure almost eroded, traces suggesting that once it was so.

But to return to my initial thought: multi-culturalism has gone underground, or so it seems to me, as soon as external conflict, thus the 9/11 attack, reminded us that cultures carry value systems. And once we’ve become sharply aware of that, the promotion of this kind of thing becomes difficult to maintain consistently. We are forced to think about details, the values that cultures carry, not merely outward and peripheral matters like dress. And even regarding dress, there is the Muslim veil and, worse yet, the full-bodied burqa with slits or holes in the head-piece where the woman can modestly to peer out. (I am making horrid faces at my screen.) You cannot draw arbitrary lines anywhere. Cultures are eco-systems on another plain above the physical but impress their patterns even on dress. And these methods of enforcing “modesty in dress” (hijab) have a lot to say about male dominance and the structure of values that underlies it. As for our own aggressively projected public sexuality—that too proclaims a kind of value system that, if we reflect upon it rationally, is no better. Indeed, as feminists have rightly pointed out, it too promotes a false relationships between men and women.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Diwali - The Festival of Lights

We wish all of our friends in India and elsewhere a happy and a bright Diwali!

Diwali is the Festival of Lights—its outer form. The deeper meaning is to remind us of the inner light within. Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs all celebrate the festival although, in each case, a different historical or mythological event is the basis of a common celebration.

In the Sanskrit the word means “a row of lamps.” In Dravidian the word used is Deepavali. The festival is celebrated over a five day period, and in Hindu practice each day is the celebration of a different event or holy manifestation.

The holiday is based on the lunar calendar, hence Diwali begins on a different days each year; it always falls into the same month, however, the month in the Hindu calendar that corresponds to a four week period beginning mid-September and ending mid-October.  In extent, and certainly from a commercial perspective, Diwali  is equivalent to our Christmas. Preparations (decorations, big sales, the planning of major fireworks, etc.) were already under way in August of this year.
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Picture credit goes to Wikipedia here.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Empire Now and Then

In Canto XVIII of Dante’s Paradiso, we enter a high heaven, that of Jupiter, where warrior saints have their space of manifestation. And up there, in a sphere already bright and silvery (the sixth of seven heavens) bright lights—but these lights are alive, they are the warrior saints—conjoin to print out a command in Latin, in the sky as it were, which means “Love justice, ye that judge the earth.” The final word of this command ends in the word TERRAM, and that word of course ends in M. Now as the canto develops, the lights begin to transform the final M of the command into the image of the Roman Eagle—a symbol that somewhat resembles the letter if the bird’s wings are lowered; you need but add a neck and head and elaborate the descending lines into wings and tail.

In Dante’s day the Roman Empire was dead, dead, dead—and I mean like the dodo. And its nostalgic revival, in the form of the Holy Roman Empire, just would not, would not hold together. But we are at a point (early fourteenth century) when the Renaissance is dawning. The world was turning its face toward the sensory; a great nostalgia for the glory that was Rome possessed our poet. He elaborates this feeling throughout the Divine Comedy, and he also elaborated it in less poetic form in his book on monarchy. Therefore this symbol of military power, might, and conquest is made to appear in a very high heaven. And nothing happens in those heavens without the absolute sanction of God. Therefore this eagle, and emphatically the Roman eagle, is a symbol of God.

The passionate and thick entwinement between this and a projected transcendental world is a characteristic aspect of Dante’s work—and greatly amusing to discover how very thickly populated with Italians are hell, purgatory, and paradise. Amusing to discover how keenly the noble, high, and long-since departed concern themselves with what we would now call the sordid, grimy politics of a corrupt era—or perhaps Dante’s visit gave them a welcome respite from the tedium of perpetual divine contemplation?

In any case, that damned Eagle startled me—not that I hadn’t gotten a bit uneasy in the pursuit of Paradise already. My view of Empire is much darker than Dante’s. I’m not taking my cue about Rome from Virgil, who wrote as Empire was just beginning and had barely any track record as yet. I see the whole bloodstained brutal history of Empire and live in a time that trends in the same direction once again. And of course, quite like Dante, I make the foolish mistake of looking backward with nostalgia to medieval and earlier times, entirely overlooking fact, seeing only those things that appeal. Recognizing this sort of habitual perception as a mere climate of emotions, waking up in the morning as I did, sobered and irritated, makes me sympathetic to a gnostic view served straight in a shot-glass.
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Image from the the Chauvin family linage site.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mma Ramotswe Now on Disk

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is now on disk. We’ve just finished watching the first of two episodes on Disc 1. I rushed here because, believe it or not, my post on Mma Ramotswe is the most viewed on Ghulf Genes: evidently I have been of service to the world concerning the explanation of her title, “Mma.” All told seven episodes have been made.  If the other six are as good as the first we just saw, all fans of this great series, based on the novels of Alexander McCall Smith, will be pleased. What is amazing about the implementation is that we felt as if we’d already seen it—which is to the credit both of the author and of the director/producer. No false notes. Jill Scott plays Mma Precious Ramotswe, Anika Noni Rose is cast as Mma Grace Makutsi, the stellar secretary, and Lucian Msamati plays Rra JLB Matekoni, the garage owner. Bravo!

Covers of Two Early Novels

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Answer?

I do not know the language of Pashtuns
Nor can I hum Afghanistani tunes
I’m also insufficient in Urdu
With towel-heads I don’t know who is who
Have never ever opened a Koran
The Arab tongue is stranger than FORTRAN
I live in forts behind high wire rolls
And venture forth from there pursuing goals—
The nation-building, military kind—
While satellites guard my exposed behind.
But Taliban are growing stronger still
They’re there and peer at me from every hill.
The answer to this little prob might be:
Send forty thou more of the likes of me.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Let Me Show You A Picture

…they showed people from various social strata some images of menacing faces. People whose parents had low social status exhibited more activation in the amygdala (the busy little part of the brain involved in fear and emotion) than people from high-status families. [David Brooks in a column on neuroscience in the New York Times October 13, 2009]
I find this sort of report delicious, especially when I discover exactly the conclusion I anticipate even as the factual build-up is still under way. Here are two conclusions that Brooks draws from several studies very much like the one outlined above:

  • Eventually their work [the neuroscientists’] could give us a clearer picture of what we mean by fuzzy words like ‘culture.’ It could also fill a hole in our understanding of ourselves.
  • The work demonstrates that we are awash in social signals, and any social science that treats individuals as discrete decision-making creatures is nonsense. But it also suggests that even though most of our reactions are fast and automatic, we still have free will and control.
I love it. The last citation is particular crisp and crunchy. The pressure of producing two weekly columns for the New York Times must be enormous and leave no time for rereading the text for logical consistency. Does the last quote mean that people are in fact not decision-making creatures or merely that they appear to be automata for the neuroscientist? If we are automata, how can be “still” have free will and control? Does the activation of the amygdala control what we do? Are we absolutely prostrate before the phenomena of fear and emotion? Are fear and emotion two discrete entities? Or is fear one of the emotions?

But let me now show you a picture. It is a motion picture of a man taking a dog on a walk through a wooded suburban neighborhood. It’s late fall, a gorgeous day. Suddenly the dog dashes forward, yipping like mad, going straight for a wooden fence you can’t see through, jerking the leash, almost choking herself, and acting as if she would chew her way right through those dense pine planks. It is Katie, the clan’s beagle. [Yes, Katie. I’m trying my best to promote you in these blogs. The other day I elevated you to the status of the Muse, today to the even higher status of a neuroscientist.] Katie had smelled a rabbit.

Now, of course, Katie could not chew through the fence because the man restrained her, made soothing, if totally ineffective calming sounds, and pulled the dog gradually away from the all-consuming object of passion that had gripped the animal.

Man and dog, in this picture, as seen from the Olympian distance of the neuroscientists—let’s say a woman three houses away looking out of a three-storey mansion’s highest window—are one system, to use an appropriately sophisticated modern word: let us call it a man-dog-system, or (all-right, all-right, already) a dog-man-system. Until that leash breaks, they’re certainly connected. Really deep analysis might actually detect that the system consists of two entities, not one, and that in this particular case one of the entities is on a higher level than the other and quite capable, with some effort, to be sure, in restraining the other.

If neuroscientists were required to study men taking beagles on a walk in a neighborhood thick with rabbits (my maximum sighting on a walk one fall was 19 rabbits in an hour)—and if they had undergraduate degrees in the classics, including the old staples of Plato, Aristotle, etc., etc., they could get on with their work on a higher level perhaps. But it might be that picking out pictures of menacing faces is as irresistible for them as rabbits are for Katie—as is wondering how the proles will react when they flash these on a screen.

You Wondered What She Looked Like?


Katie a-rush

And below, the Lord of Rabbits in Grosse Pointe, MI














Katie photo courtesy of Patio Boat.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Blaming the Victim

It brought me wry amusement to discover the following stanza in Dante’s Paradiso last night. It comes from Canto XVII in which Dante encounters one of his forebears, Cacciaguida, who predicts Dante future for him. Dante, of course, wrote these lines after he already knew that future, having lived it. He was banished from Florence and condemned to death in one of the endless and often violent political conflicts of his day. Cacciaguida is the voice behind the lines, and, commenting on Dante's fate, he says:

The injured side will bear the common blame
As ever; but the day of reckoning,
By truth appointed, shall the truth proclaim.

Two different translations (the above is Dorothy Sayers’) are these: Charles Eliot Norton: “The blame will follow the injured party, in outcry, as is wont; but the vengeance will be testimony to the truth which dispenses it.” The Carlyle-Okey-Wicksteed translation: “The blame shall cleave unto the injured side in fame, as is the wont; but vengeance shall bear witness to the truth which doth dispense it.”

Now considering the fact that Dante began to write the Divine Comedy in 1308 and probably wrote these lines toward the end of his life (he died in 1321)—and given the phrasing of the leading sentiment (“as ever,” “as is the wont”)—we must conclude that blaming the victim, known as old news in the fourteenth century, is certainly a well-entrenched habit of humanity. What is our contribution to this stellar side of human behavior? We've managed to shorten the phrasing down to three words in English. As I remember from studying linguistics a good ways back, as languages persist, they grow ever more brisk, succinct. Long words get chopped, and long concepts too. Thou shalt blame the victim must surely belong among the first five commandments of Satan’s ten.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Characters Take on Life

The real lord of the universe is Habit.
Lotti Krüger Ptievich Ghulf

It is a peculiar experience to read something you’ve written multiple years ago, having forgotten a great deal of the environment depicted, and then encountering one of your big characters saying something witty, and then thinking, Gosh, Lotti had a sharp tongue. The quote is from the second volume of the Ghulf series, a novel entitled In Search of Anna Magna... Coming soon to a store near you...

Microbiology for Dummies

No, this post is not really about microbiology; panic is not therefore indicated. It is about the great illusion that we can teach complex arts to Dummies by giving them cute little icons and buttons to hit. I capitalize the word because it is a status symbol. All this began with Apple’s Macintosh, and the people at Microsoft must have gone white with anxiety, not because the point-and-click is so advanced but because it opens Atlantics and Pacifics of marketing opportunity. The times (O tempora indeed) lend credence to the illusion because vast layers of persuasion swirl through the ether trying to condition people to believe that the word Free in an ad actually means “No money changes hands yet you walk away with something of real value,” and that the word Hurry in an ad really means that, “If you miss the sale it won’t ever return.” Nothing is free and the sale will come back, just give it a fortnight—if you know what that word means.

What occasions the heat? When I acquired my current computer I bought Microsoft Word 2007 and retired its predecessor. The software is part of the Office 2007 package. I had been using this package for a year and had absorbed the body blows to habit the changes in this package brought with it—no doubt to suck up to Dummies. The old menu system has been improved by making it visual—as if the word “Picture” on a menu is beyond the comprehension of Dummies unless accompanied by a graphic, in a frame, showing two mounds with a sun suspended above them—as if the word “Equation” were incomprehensible by itself but, if prefaced by the Greek Pi, π, fog lifts and everything is crystal clear. The new Word also features binoculars. What does that icon mean? It means “Editing.” Hearing that word my first thought isn’t “Editing.” I’m usually much closer to the screen; for highly mobile Dummies, however, binoculars may be necessary. To accommodate this barrage of pictures, the menus now form a horizontal band; they are divided into unequal corrals. But—surprise—if pictures are too much for you, if you’re still just aspiring to Dummyhood, tiny little arrows in boxes, pointing as it were in the direction of Gehenna, let you get to the old-fashioned menu displays too, but only after you have feasted your eyes on a table laden with delicious images waited upon by discrete little words in dim, small type.

Microsoft Word is an excellent tool. Far be it from me to denigrate the complex and powerful typesetting engine that this software has gradually become. But to use the powers of this engine in any kind of serious task, thus editing real manuscripts (in effect doing the typesetting yourself), you have to have a depth of knowledge no cute changes in menus can accomplish. In the old MS Word I had become very proficient in forcing Word to do my will. The other day, using the new software for typesetting on a long manuscript for the first time, I discovered that I had to master the package all over again, meaning that I had to discover where all of my old tools have been secreted away, covered over, and blocked from view by those oh-so-informative icons.

Complex, difficult tasks cannot be made easy. I can use MS Word as a typesetting tool because I know a great deal about the craft. Thus I know what wrenches, saws, and pliers to deploy. But why is it necessary, at every upward movement in the spiral of computer technology, to make it seem that this environment is just a snap for Dummies because a picture communicates and words are strange objects from the Stone Age, meaning 1965. Meanwhile, it takes ever more time to reach the tools at the technical level. I must engage in twice the clicking I had to do before, even now that I know where the goods are hidden. These products try their utmost to hide technical detail lest Dummies become confused, frustrated, and drift away into the realm of the handheld device, cute things you can practically text on with your tongue.

Ranting to my captive audience, Brigitte, on the difficulties of discovering how to make running heads behave properly in a big job that I had just finished, I carried on in the manner above and said: The good Lord save us if doctors or microbiologists in the future start reading Microbiology for Dummies—and nothing else.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A Translation

Hardware Store

In a provincial hardware store
Men go to pick out nuts and bolts.
Their hair is grey, their hair is red
Or parted or yet disarranged.

The large store’s air has a blue hue.
Into its ferrous odor there
Young females permit to escape
Their corporeal perfumes.

Enough to touch the bars, reticulated grids
Sold there in a virginal state
To feel the weight of the world ineluctable.

The store thus sails toward eternity
And sells to satiation
Big lustrous nails.

Jean Follain, The Use of Time, 1941

In my present, preoccupied state of mind—proofing and editing novels—this blog is not getting the attention it should. Therefore I present a poem that, a while, back I translated from the French. The occasion for doing so does not wish to come back to me. Needless to say, it is better in French, but I think I've managed to catch a little of the flavor of the original. For some reason translating poetry gives me a big kick.

Baseball

A posting on sports is a great rarity on this blog—this one is the first I think. The reason for this is because any kind of active involvement on our part (speaking narrowly for Brigitte and me) only arises when either the Detroit Tigers or the Minnesota Twins are in some significant manner prominently featured, thus in the post-season. Well, this year, both teams were front and center in a hard-fought tie-breaker for the American League Central Division title, and the two of us were up well past our bedtime as the Twins, in the bottom of the twelfth, at last, settled the game at 6 to 5 in their own favor.

This was an odd experience for us. We used to be fervent Twins fans when we lived in Minneapolis and have become Tiger fans here in recent years as the team has taken on a genuine character under General Manager Dave Dombrowski and Coach Jim Leyland. The usual emotional registers don’t work properly when, during a tense and hard-fought, indeed a very exciting, game the victory of either team is pleasing, one for sentimental reasons and the other because it is “our” team. In truth we were a little sad that Detroit got shouldered out. When you don’t closely follow a team—and we no longer follow the Twins—the players become strangers, especially for very occasional fans like us. Our own here, however, are like members of the family, and when Granderson or Inge or Ordonez or Polanco are up—or perform some feat in the in- or out-field, it feels to us, at our age, as if we’re watching our own children play.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Adequacy

Two people in my family, Monique and I, are quite fond of a slender volume by E.F. Schumacher titled A Guide for the Perplexed. I’ve had occasion to refer to Schumacher a while back here, in the context of health care. Schumacher is best known in economic development circles, for his book Small is Beautiful, which appeared in 1973, and for concepts like appropriate technology. A Guide for the Perplexed is, in a sense, the documentation of his conversion to Catholicism. In the process of working his way to a religious understanding, he produced this little book in which certain medieval ideas are explained in modern terms. One of the concepts Monique and I like is Schumacher’s rendition of adequacy. The concept simply means that your understanding must measure up to that which you are trying to understand, expressed in Schmacher’s quote of Aquinas (without citing work or place): “Knowledge comes about insofar as the object known is within the knower.” He traces the origin of this insight—although, no doubt, it goes back into the mists—to Plotinus: “Knowing demands the organ fitted to the object.”

In a way this concept, adequacy, is self-evident. It belongs among those things that, once you hear about them, you immediately accept if you’ve observed the truth they represent. And then, ultimately, turning one of these concepts this way and that, you realize its profundity.

This floated back into my mind the other day again—my mind being on publishing books and how that process works. Then it struck me that a work—a novel say—must encounter someone in the publisher’s organization “adequate” to grasp what has been submitted, adequate to see its value. If an author matures while editors get younger and younger—if the big houses become ever more corporate, if fashions start to dominate, if werewolf stories compete directly with more serious works—it is possible to lose your market. The world of publishing has changed in significant ways since I began to write. The process has been bureaucratized. It wouldn’t surprise me if now “reading” is being outsourced to free-lance readers so that the publisher no longer has to pay health benefits to a sizeable editorial staff, never mind one senior enough to travel on the same trajectories some of their authors have described.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Science Fiction - Looking Back

Like virtually all people with my kind of gift, I was writing from childhood onward, entirely conscious both of the pleasure of this activity and the feeling that it was something I was meant to do: a calling, in other words. Later, when time came to carry this activity into the public square and I looked around, to be sure from a pretty shaded and obscure position in a vast jungle, the ant looking up into the canopies, the only visible markets for short fiction that I saw were romance, crime, and science fiction magazines—or general circulation periodicals that carried the occasional story in a genre. There was the New Yorker, to be sure. The Saturday Evening Post still published a little fiction. I also discovered other publications of either a modernistic or academic sort that published fiction of a peculiar flavor. Indeed I thought that the fiction in the New Yorker would also be described by that adjective: it had a certain audience and, in a way, it excluded large groupings of humanity by its very mannerisms and its sophistication. Yes, occasionally, I heard an authentic voice there too. I read what I saw about me or came my way by accident (but what others consider accident I sometimes see in quite another light).

Science fiction pleased me most because, oddly, it was the most general, the most inclusive. Under this narrow label, I discovered, lived all kinds of writers. The designation was often coupled with the word fantasy. There was—and I note that there still is—a magazine called Fantasy & Science Fiction. The stories ranged from hard to soft to transcendental. In a way it was a genre where you could say that “Everything goes,” and, indeed, everything went. Here, for instance—and this is a genuine random sample—is the first paragraph on a page of F&SF that I opened just now, at random, the magazine itself plucked, also at random, from a stack on the top of a tall bookcase in my attic. It happens to be a poem by R.A. Lafferty:
The handsome stranger cast his eye
On Shirley-girl and gave a sigh.
“Oh talk a while,” he said, “with I.”
She liked his noble knobby dome.
They dinnered at the Hippodrome.
She fell for him, she brought him home.
“Oh, mother see this guy of mine,”
She said. “He’s from a noble line.
His I.Q. soars to 9-9-9.”
And so on. An amusing poem with a cultural message, it turns out. Try to find that sort of thing back in those days, in the Saturday Evening Post. Long story short, I began to write short fiction and sent it to sci-fi magazines. Total failure. Then I went off to serve in the military, got married, had children. But I was still just a kid. The writing continued, but always in private. Then Brigitte said one day: “Stop writing those tomes and write something short. Try to get it published.” I was off on a trip the following morning, a very early start, like out of bed a 5 a.m., Boston bound. I started a story on the airplane, “A Splendid Freedom,” it was called. I wrote throughout the flight, throughout the flight home again, and I finished this novella later that week, at home, working at the ping pong table in the basement. I had no desk in the house. I sent this story to Galaxy magazine. I frankly expected exactly the same result I’d already experienced in high school and college—the rejection slip. Instead I got a letter of acceptance; and the editor, Jim Baen, added an invitation. He wondered if I’d written anything else—he said he’d like to see it if so. Lordy, lord, lord. Letter in hand I shyly approached Brigitte and said. “Well, dear, I think that was a pretty good suggestion…”

For the would be author—the kind for whom literature is a universe rather than a ladder into an enclave, a cosmos rather than a billboard, an atmosphere in which to breathe, a dimension in which to thrive—throughout the twentieth century, perhaps continuing to this day, science fiction, a genre entirely misnamed, a genre that outgrew its origins rapidly—with a hard-core of grumblers at its center who wished it would still be hard-core science fiction—was the homeland of the free.

One of the pleasing oddities of reality is that the really vital element refuses to be contained and suffocated by convention that, with equal ferocity, attempts always to fossilize around it. Real literature broke away from its encrustations somewhere along the line and made a new home for itself, indeed glorying in its tawdry reputation and laughing at the dour faces looking down from the proud tower of the past, the faces that dismissed it and did not deign to call it literature.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Ghulf Genes - the Novel

It gives me pleasure to announce that the novel (it long predates this blog) is finally available to the public in printed form. I’ve had occasion to mention that work in a post I wrote here intended to explain the name of this blog (“The Name of the Rose”). There I recite the troubles I had finding a publisher—and this despite the fact that I’d sold four novels, a short story collection, fourteen novellas or short stories, and an article on science fiction all to conventional, commercial publishers. I finished Ghulf Genes in the summer of 2001 and began to market it right into the 9/11 mess. Ghulf Genes has a positive view of aspects of Islamic culture and a somewhat dark view of the American Empire. Alas. The novel is also long. My time wasn’t right. But the book is good—indeed better than anything else I’ve ever done except, perhaps, the two other novels that, together with Ghulf Genes, form a trilogy. I call that three-some Symphony in Ghulf Major. The other two novels, which I will also publish in the same manner in the coming weeks, are called In Search of Anna Magna and Anna’s Song. Do not be alarmed. The photo shows the front and back of the same book. It’s a single volume of 531 pages.

Now for the particulars. The official publisher of these is or will be Editorial Code and Data, Inc., a company in the reference publishing business that I started in 1989. The producer and currently only distributor is Lulu Enterprises, Inc., a company that might be described, wrongly, as a vanity press. They produce a huge number of books, albums,videos, and CDs (musical and otherwise)—for individuals and corporations—and may represent a new phenomenon in publishing. The author gets nothing up front except (and this I value most of all at my age) the satisfaction of knowing that the work is out there. I haven’t had to pay a dime to get this book to those of you who might be interested. To be sure I’m quite expert in electronic modes of preparing manuscripts for printing. I’ve typeset many, many much more complex books filled with statistics and graphics in my time. I expended labor, not money. But if I wish Ghulf Genes to become available through book stores and Amazon, I’ll have to fork over $75 for what Lulu calls global distribution. And I’ll gladly spend that money.

I will soon display the book and access to it permanently on the front page of this blog. For now, the access point is here. The price is $29.24. As you might expect, I’ll have more postings on this subject for those of you interested in “breaking through,” as it were. The mechanics of this project I’ll feature on LaMarotte, where that subject rightly belongs.

With this I’ve done my bit for Ghulf Genes, the novel, and the rest does not weigh on my mind.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Welcome October

The temperature was 41º F (5º C) this morning as I stumbled out of bed around seven; the furnace had come on spontaneously for the first time this fall, I could see my breath as I got the papers in this morning. (This being Thursday even the local paper had delivered a pile of ads wrapped in news of the Tigers nearing the pennant, Saturn dying—the car brand I mean, not the planet—and of the State of Michigan beginning the process of unraveling because the legislature can’t pass a budget). At the same time the sun is shining brilliantly, the grass is still green, fall and summer colors are mixing. Yes, this is the way I like to cross datelines—with clear and unambiguous markers laid down. I like it when Mother Nature deigns to respect our calendar and behaves as she’s expected to.

The New York Times editors chose the following quote for this year’s October 1st: “Can you any longer read Henry James or George Eliot? Do you have the patience?” The Times was quoting Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development in a front-page story about “hybrid” books, those able to mix words, sounds, videos, and images. To answer the professor: “Some can, Maryanne!” I’m sure I’m not speaking for myself alone. I read (past tense) such classic books—and books enormously more obscure—while working full time and commuting an hour both ways. One son-in-law—whose daily e-mail load is light when it is under 50 messages, and whose real work begins after all the meetings, thus around 4 p.m.—squeezes time for just such reading between work for money and work for the public: he is also mayor of his town. He also plays old boy rugby. So yes, you can, Maryanne—if you want to. But, in any case, welcome also to cultural October.

And It’s Not Just Eliot and James

I can’t resist adding the following, taken from the Detroit News, also datelined October 1. This quote comes from the paper’s Auto section.

Now the owner’s manual—the often forgotten paperbound bible stowed in your globe box—is on the way out. Once an elaborate art form in print—described by some as the least-read annual best-seller—it is the latest to go digital in the electronic age.
David Phillips, “Owner’s manuals on verge of extinction”
This article caught Brigitte’s eye after reading my first post for this day, and she flagged it for me to digest. Digest it I did. What it says to me is roughly the following:

It costs much, much less to inventory symbolic creations on an electronic surface than it costs to put it on paper, to bind the pages firmly together, and then to get the object to its intended user on wheels. Much developmental and marketing effort is now flowing into persuading the public to “consume” such things in electronic format. To create a portable equivalent to the book, we have Kindle, Bebook, Plastic Logic, and others. And to entice an i-podded new audience to use such devices, the industry is trying to add sweeteners (image, motion, and music)—which are also much cheaper to deliver as electromagnetic vibrations through the air or over wire.

What’s really going on here is not due to a loss of time because, somehow, we’re that much more busy. I would bet that today exactly the same proportion of humanity reads the likes of Eliot and James as did in Eliot’s and James’ time in the nineteenth century. Back in the 1950s, when I was first reading such people, I was part of a tiny minority. Back in the nineteenth century? When these two authors labored, ditto. The masses have never read Eliot and James, nor shall the masses of the future read the likes of Eliot and James.

People in the past lived in physically less developed environments and had to devote extra time to chores of ordinary living. We live in crowded times (the population has soared everywhere), and we therefore waste time commuting and struggling with communications overload. Same old, same old—time’s always precious, then as now. What is really underway at present is a transition between modes of delivering symbolic products to ultimate consumers. I am myself directly engaged in trying to adapt to this—as I’ll detail in future postings. And so are the auto makers, alas.

All of us, trying to reach our audience, have the same problem.