Ursula K. Le Guin’s Blog
42. Choosing a Cat
I have never chosen a cat before. I have been chosen by the cat, or by people who offered us a cat. Or a kitten was weeping up in a tree on Euclid Avenue and needed to be rescued and grew up into a fourteen-pound grey tiger tom who populated our neighborhood in Berkeley for blocks around with grey tiger kittens. Or pretty golden Mrs Tabby, probably after an affair with her handsome golden brother, presented us with several golden kittens, and we kept Laurel and Hardy. Or when Willie died, we asked Dr Morgan to let us know if anybody left a kitten at the veterinary door the way people do, and she said it wasn’t likely because it was long past kitten season, but next morning there was a six-month-old in a tuxedo on her doorstep, and she called us up, and so Zorro came home with us for thirteen years.
After Zorro died, last spring, there had to be the emptiness.
Finally it began to be time that the house had a soul again (some Frenchman said that the cat is the soul of the house, and we agree). But no cat had chosen us or been offered to us or appeared weeping in a tree. So I asked my daughter if she’d come to the Humane Society with me and help me choose a cat.
A middle-aged, sedate, homebody cat, suitable for owners in their eighties. Male, for no reason but that the cats I have loved most dearly were males. Black, I hoped, as I like black cats and had read that they are the least popular choice for adoption.
But I wasn’t particular about details. I was nervous about going. I dreaded it in fact.
How can you choose a cat? And what about the ones I couldn’t choose?
The Humane Society’s Portland office is an amazing place. It is immense, and I saw only the lobby and the cat wing — rooms and rooms and rooms of cats. There’s always somebody, staff and volunteers, at hand if you want them. Everything is organised with such simple efficiency that it all seems easygoing and friendly — low-stress. When you are one of the huge number of people coming daily to bring in or adopt animals, when you see the endless incoming and outgoing of animals and glimpse the tremendous, endless work involved in receiving and treating and keeping them, the achievement of that easy-going atmosphere seems almost incredible and totally admirable.
The human-animal interface is a very troubled one these days, and in one sense the Humane Society shows that trouble at its most acute. Yet in everything I saw there, I also saw the best of what human beings can do when they put their heart and mind to it.
Well, so, we found our way in to the cat wing, and looked about a bit, and it turned out that at the moment there were very few middle-aged cats for adoption. The ones that were there mostly came from one place, which I’d read about recently in the newspaper: a woman with ninety cats who was sure she loved them all and was looking after them and they were all fine and… you know the story, a sad one. The Humane Society had taken about sixty of them. The nice aide whom we began to follow around told us that they weren’t in as bad shape as most animals in those situations, and were fairly well socialised, but they weren’t in very good shape either, and would need special care for quite a while to come. That sounded a bit beyond me.
Aside from them, most of the cats there were kittens. Kittening was very late this year, she said. Just like tomatoing, I thought.
In one room of six or eight kittens, Caroline noticed an agitated nylon play-tube which seemed to contain at least two active animals, one black and one white. Eventually one small cat emerged, very black-and-white and pleased with himself. Our guide told us he was older than most of them — a year old. So we asked to see him. We went to the interview room and she came in with the little fellow in the tuxedo.
He seemed very small for a year old; seven pounds, she said. His tail stood straight up in the air, and he purred most amazingly, and talked a good deal in a rather high voice, and often fell over in a playful/appeasement position. He was clearly, and naturally, anxious. He clung a little to the aide, till she left us alone with him. He wasn’t really shy, didn’t mind being picked up and handled and petted, though he wouldn’t settle on a lap. His eyes were bright, his coat sleek and soft, the black tail stood straight up, and the black spot on his left hind leg was terminally cute.
The aide came back, and I said, “O.K.”
She and my daughter were both a little surprised. Maybe I was too.
“You don’t want to look at any others?” she asked.
No, I didn’t. Send him back, look at other cats, make a choice of one, maybe not him? I couldn’t. Fate or the Lord of the Animals or whatever had presented me with a cat, again. O.K.
His previous owner had conscientiously filled out the Humane Society questionnaire. Her answers were useful and heart-breaking. Reading between some of the lines, I learned that he lived his first year with his mother and one sibling in a household where there were children under three, children from three to nine, and children from nine through fourteen, but no men.
The reason why all three cats were given up for adoption was stark: “Could not afford to keep.”
He had been only four days at the Humane Society. They had neutered him right away and he was recovering fast; he was in excellent health, had been well fed, well treated, a sociable, friendly, playful, cheerful little pet. I do not like to think of the tears in that family.
He has been with us a month today. As his first owner warned, he is somewhat shy of men. But not very. And not afraid of children, though sensibly watchful. We lived thirteen years with shy, wary Zorro, who feared many things — including my daughter Caroline, because once she stayed in our house with two big, unruly dogs, and for ten years he never forgave her. But this fellow is not timid. In fact he is perhaps too fearless. He grew up as an inside-outside cat. Here, he won’t go outside till the weather gets warm. But then he must. I can only hope he knows what to be afraid of, out there.
Like many young cats, he goes wild as a buck once or twice a day, flying about the room about three feet off the ground, knocking things off and over, getting into all kinds of trouble. Shouts of disapproval are ineffective, little swats on the butt are slightly effective, and he understands, and remembers, what No! and a preventing hand in front of his nose means. But I found to my distress that sometimes a threateningly raised hand will cause him to cringe and crouch like a beaten dog. I don’t know what that comes from, but I can’t stand it. So shout and swat and No! is all I can do.
Vonda sent me a whole bucket full of Superballs, wonderful for solo soccer games and working off excess energy. He’s good at all varieties of String Game. When he wins at String-on-a-Stick, he walks off with the string and the stick and likes to carry the whole thing downstairs, clatter rattle bump. He is quite good at Paws Beneath the Door, but hasn’t yet got the point of Paws Between the Banisters — because there were no banisters in the house he grew up in. That was clear, the first few days, when he tried to navigate our stairs, a landform entirely new to him. The learning process was extremely funny, and dangerous to us ancients, who are unsteady enough on stairs without a confused cat suddenly appearing belly up on the next stair down or darting madly crossways right in front of your foot. But he mastered all that, and now races up and down far ahead of us, barely touching the stairs at all, as to the manor born.
They warned us at the Humane Society that there was a feline cold going around, probably from the rescued cats, and he probably had it; there’s nothing they can do about it, any more than a kindergarten can. So he brought it home, and was a very snuffly little body for two weeks. Not a totally bad start, since he wanted to cuddle and sleep a lot, and we could get to know one another quietly. I didn’t worry much about him, because he had no fever and never for a moment lost his appetite. He had to snort to breathe while he ate, but he ate, and ate… Kibbles. Oh! Kibbles! Oh, joy! Oh gourmet delight, oh tuna and sushi and chicken liver and caviar all in one! I guess kibbles is all he ever had to eat. So Kibbles is Food. And he loves Food. He just loves it. He certainly won’t bother us with his finicky, demanding tastes. But it may take strong willpower (ours) to prevent globularity in this cat. We will try.
He is pretty, but his only unusual beauty is his eyes, and you have to look closely to realise it. Right around the large dark pupil they are green, and around that, reddish-yellow. I had seen that magical change in a semiprecious stone: he has eyes of chrysoberyl. Wikipedia tells us that chrysoberyl or alexandrite is a trichroic gem. It shows emerald green, red, or orange yellow depending on the angle of the light.
While he had the cold and we were lying around together I tried out names. Alexander was too imperial, Chrysoberyl far too majestic. Pico was one that seemed to fit him, or Paco. But the one he kept looking around at when I said it was Pard. It started out as Gattopardo (the Leopard, Lampedusa’s Prince Fabrizio). That was too long for anybody his size, and got cut down to Pardo, and then turned into Pard, as in pardner.
Hey, Little Pard. I hope you choose to stay around a while.
A Photo of Pard by Elise Kroeber
43. Fear and Loathing in e-Land
Why is it that if you say you don’t enjoy using an e-reader, or that you aren’t going to get one till the technology is mature, you get reported as “loathing” it?
The little Time article itself is fairly accurate about what I’ve said about e-reading, but the title of the series, “Famous Writers Who Loathe E-Books,” reflects or caters to a silly idea: that not being interested in using a particular technology is the same as hating and despising it.
With us or against us! Cyberfreak or Luddite!
Five-year-olds who don’t enjoy green peas and aren’t interested in eating them are likely to announce (unless they’ve acquired some manners) that they HATE peas — Ugh! Yecchh! Bleaghh! The way people talk, you’d think that faced with e-technology we’re all five-year-olds. Either I just loooove my Kindle to death, or Ugh! Yecchh! Bleaghh!
Why is it that, when I accused Google of unethical behavior in digitalizing copyrighted books without permission, I was (and still am) repeatedly described as hating Google and an enemy of the Internet?
When I accuse our government of unethical behavior in keeping men against whom no charge has been preferred and who are given no chance to prove their innocence in a terrible prison in Guantánamo, there are indeed some Americans who would describe me as hating our government and being an enemy of the United States. But there are more who are capable of making the enormously important distinction between enmity towards an institution, and disapproval of some of its policies or acts.
These are the ones who actually believe in freedom of speech.
Evidently some people believe they’re defending the freedom of the Internet by opposing any criticism of anything done on the Internet (or anything Google does). They’re thinking the way the extreme right thinks: There are two sides. We are on the Good side. Our people are Good. Everything they do is Good. To criticize them is Evil! There must be no free speech about free speech! It’s dangerous!
In its defensiveness and immaturity, this is five-year-old thinking: If Daddy doesn’t like something I like to do, it means he doesn’t love me. If Mommy says I’m doing something wrong or stupid, it means she thinks I’m bad and stupid and she loathes and hates me and so I loathe and hate her too and I will now fall down screaming in the supermarket aisle and let the world know how mean she is.
Why are people so defensive about electronic technology? Do they really think the Luddite hordes are coming after them with burning torches? Why is mere discrimination taken as negative criticism? Love me, love my iPad? Oh, come on. Grow up!
6 February 2012
44. People I don’t want to hear any more about
20 February 2012
45. Google Goggles
One weird thing about being very old is never being sure whether it’s you or the other people who are weird. It’s pretty safe to assume that it’s you.
After all, people who walked along shouting at people who weren’t there used to be considered weird. But a few decades ago we dumped them all on the streets and thus made them average, though for a while you could consider them somewhat weird. By now, when somebody goes charging past on the sidewalk in Santa Cruz bellowing continuously at the top of his voice at a broker in Wichita, and you find that weird, you’re the weird one.
Where’s “here?” Where’s “there?” We and the people we talk to or “relate with” are increasingly neither here nor there.
Thus the great weird forward march of progress is soon to bring us “Heads Up Display Glasses” — Google Goggles. These devices will look like shades, but inside the lens on a tiny screen an inch from the goggle-wearer’s eye they will display indispensable information: where you the goggle-wearer are, maps of how to get there from here or here from there, where your friends are, how to contact them, your latitude, your altitude, your attitude — everything in the world, except the world.
Obviously, this technology can offer people whose sight is impaired an immense boon. Why don’t I trust us to limit it to that, maybe not even to use it for that?
The human desire to occasionally, temporarily, replace the actual world with some kind of improvement on it was nourished in its long infancy by the arts, and in its brief teens by movies and TV. Then ever-improving electronic technologies moved in and began to feed, maintain, and incite its appetite, which by now is insatiable. If we can shout on a phone or fill our ears with music instead of listening to the sounds or silence around us, we will. If we can text our Facebook Friends instead of seeing the faces around us, we will. If instead of looking around to find out where we are we can listen to a machine tell us where it thinks we are, we will; and if we can walk into a brick wall while the machine tells us it’s recalculating, we probably will.
The Google Goggles promise only GPS-type information, but what sort of pitiful Luddite is going to be content with that? Like us, our devices must multitask. They must do everything everything else does, only faster. If, instead of seeing where we’re going, we can read the latest Dow Jones figures an inch away with one eye and watch a ball game an inch away with the other eye, we will. The GPS can be programmed to warn us about the brick wall, or the kid on the tricycle, after all. They’re very reliable. Look how well they worked at CERN, proving that things can too go faster than light, nyah nyah for that old Luddite Einstein.
The crude, primitive glasses of the olden days improved vision. Google Goggles will replace vision. Who’ll want to see anything but the endless information, entertainment, and communication all there right before their eyes? Maybe some kind of nature nuts.
After all, if for some reason we want to see what the world looks like while we’re looking at something more interesting, we can be taking pictures with the hidden camera inside our goggles. We can photograph the people who stagger past us, tilting their heads strangely as they scroll and click, until they get hit by a taxi driver whose cloud was not managing the guidance system in full synchrony with realtime. Then we can put the pictures on our smart phone, or even on one of the little screens an inch away inside our goggles so we can look at them while the other screen tells us our longitude and the latest 5/4 Supreme Court decision (declaring that Super-PACs and fetuses are human and women are not).
It’s reassuring to think that wearing Google Goggles won’t interfere with walking or running or biking or driving, or anyhow hardly any more than cell phones and texting do. After the streets and highways have been more or less rendered impassable by carnage for a year or two, a few state legislatures will pass a bill to make it an offense to wear the goggles when driving in a nursery school zone or piloting a jet plane. Anything beyond that would infringe on our self-evident Constitutional right to access information, interface with our loved ones, and play games about killing people at all times in all places simultaneously.
To be sure, the article about the goggles in Slatest says that “the technology isn’t meant to be used all the time.” Ha, ha! Not used all the time? That’s pretty weird!
46. The Death of the Book
People love to talk about the death of whatever — the book, or history, or Nature, or God, or authentic Cajun cuisine. Eschatologically-minded people do, anyhow.
After I wrote that, I felt pleased with myself, but uneasy. I went and looked up eschatological. I knew it didn’t mean what scatological means, even though they sound exactly alike except eschatological has one more syllable, but I thought it had to do only with death. I didn’t realise it concerns not one thing but The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. If it included scatology too, it would be practically the whole ball of wax.
Anyhow, the eschatologists’ judgment is that the book is going to die and go to heaven or hell, leaving us to the mercy of Hollywood and our computer screens.
There certainly is something sick about the book industry, but it seems closely related to the sickness affecting every industry that, under pressure from a corporate owner, dumps product standards and long-range planning in favor of ‘predictable’ sales and short-term profits.
As for books themselves, the changes in book technology are cataclysmic. Yet it seems to me that rather than dying, “the book” is growing — taking on a second form and shape, the ebook.
This is a vast, unplanned change that’s as confusing, uncomfortable, and destructive as most unplanned changes. Certainly it’s putting huge strain on all the familiar channels of book publication and acquisition, from the publishers, distributors, book stores, and libraries, to the reader who’s afraid that the latest best seller, or perhaps all literature, will suddenly pass him by if he doesn’t rush out and buy an electronic device to read it on.
But that’s it, isn’t it? — that’s what books are about — reading?
Is reading obsolete, is the reader dead?
Dear reader: How are you doing? I am fairly obsolete, but by no means, at the moment, dead.
Dear reader: Are you reading at this moment? I am, because I’m writing this, and it’s very hard to write without reading, as you know if you ever tried it in the dark.
Dear reader: What are you reading on? I’m writing and reading on my computer, as I imagine you are. (At least, I hope you’re reading what I’m writing, and aren’t writing “What Tosh!” in the margin. Though I’ve always wanted to write “What Tosh!” in a margin ever since I read it years ago in the margin of a library book. It was such a good description of the book.)
Reading is undeniably one of the things people do on the computer. And also, on the various electronic devices that are capable of and may be looked upon as “for” telephoning, taking photographs, playing music and games, etc, people may spend a good while texting sweetiepie, or looking up recipes for authentic Cajun gumbo, or checking out the stock report — all of which involve reading. People use computers to play games or wander through picture galleries or watch movies, and to do computations and make spreadsheets and pie charts, and a few lucky ones get to draw pictures or compose music, and so on, but mostly, am I wrong? isn’t an awful lot of what people do with computers either word-processing (writing) or processing words (reading)?
How much of anything can you do in the e-world without reading? The use of any computer above the toddler-entertainment level is dependent on at least some literacy in the user. Operations can be learned mechanically, but still, the main element of a keyboard is letters, and icons take you only so far. Texting may have replaced all other forms of verbality for some people, but texting is just a primitive form of writing: you can’t do it unless you no u frm i, lol.
It looks to me as if people are in fact reading and writing more than they ever did. People who used to work and talk together now work each alone in a cubicle, writing and reading all day long on screen. Communication that used to be oral, face to face or on the telephone, is now written, emailed, and read.
None of that has much to do with book-reading, true; yet it’s hard for me to see how the death of the book is to result from the overwhelming prevalence of a technology that makes reading a more invaluable skill than it ever was.
Ah, say the eschatologists, but it’s competition from the wondrous, endless everything-else-you-can-do-on-your-iPad — competition is murdering the book!
Could be. Or it might just make readers more discriminating. A recent article in the NY Times (“Finding Your Book Interrupted … By the Tablet You Read It On” by Julie Bosman and Matt Richtel, March 4, 2012) quoted a woman in Los Angeles: “With so many distractions, my taste in books has really leveled up.... Recently, I gravitate to books that make me forget I have a world of entertainment at my fingertips. If the book’s not good enough to do that, I guess my time is better spent.” Her sentence ends oddly, but I think it means that she prefers reading an entertaining book to activating the world of entertainment with her fingertips. Why does she not consider books part of this world of entertainment? Maybe because the book, even when activated by her fingertips, entertains her without the moving, flickering, twitching, jumping, glittering, shouting, thumping, bellowing, screaming, blood-spattering, ear-splitting, etc, that we’ve been led to identify as entertainment. In any case, her point is clear: if a book’s not as entertaining — on some level, not necessarily the same level — as the jumping, thumping, bleeding, etc, then why read it? Either activate the etc, or find a better book. As she puts it, level up.
When we hear about the death of the book, it might be a good idea to ask what “the book” is. Are we talking about people ceasing to read books, or about what they read the books on — paper or a screen?
Reading on a screen is certainly different from reading a page. I don’t think we yet understand what the differences are. They may be considerable, but I doubt that they’re so great as to justify giving the two kinds of reading different names, or saying that an ebook isn’t a book at all.
If “the book” means only the book as physical object, its death, to some devotees of the Internet, may be a matter for rejoicing — hurray! we’re rid of another nasty heavy bodily Thing with a copyright on it! — But mostly it’s the occasion of lament and mourning. People to whom the pysicality of the book printed on paper is important, sometimes more important than the contents — those who value them for their binding, paper, and typography, buy fine editions, make collections — and the many who simply take pleasure in holding and handling the book they’re reading, are naturally distressed by the idea that the book on paper will be totally replaced by the immaterial text in a machine.
I can only suggest, don’t agonize — organize! No matter how the corporations bluster and bully and bury us in advertising, the consumer always has the option of resistance. We don’t get steamrollered by a new technology unless we lie down in front of the the steamroller.
The steamroller is certainly on the move. Some kinds of printed book are already being replaced by e-books. The mass market paperback edition is threatened by the low-cost e-book edition. Good news for those who like to read on a screen, bad news for those who don’t, or like to buy from Abebooks and A-libris or to pounce on 75-cent beat-up secondhand mysteries. But if the lovers of the material book are serious about valuing good binding and paper and design as essential to their reading pleasure, they will provide a visible, steady market for well-made hard-cover and paperback editions: which the book industry, if it has the sense of a sowbug, will meet. The question is whether the book industry does have the sense of a sowbug. Some of its behavior lately leads one to doubt. But let us hope. And there’s always the “small publisher,” the corporation-free independent, many of which are as canny as can be.
Other outcries about the death of the book have more to do with the direct competition with reading offered on the Internet. The book is being murdered by the etc at our fingertips.
Here “the book” usually refers to literature. At the moment, I thik the DIY manual, or the cookbook, the guide to this or that, are the kinds of book most often replaced by information on a screen. The Encyclopedia Britannica just died, a victim, as it were, of Google. I don’t think I’ll bury our Eleventh Edition just yet, though; the information in it, being a product of its time (a hundred years ago), can be valuably different from that furnished by the search engine, which is also a product of its time. The annual encyclopedias of films/directors/actors were killed a few years ago by information sites on the Net — very good sites, though not as much fun to get lost in as the book was. We keep our 2003 edition because being outselves ancient, we use it more efficiently than we do any site, and it’s still useful and entertaining even if dead — more than you can say of the corpse of almost anything but a book.
I’m not sure why anyone, no matter how much they like to think about the End Times, believes that the Iliad or Jane Eyre or the Bhagavad Gita is dead or about to die. They have far more competition than they used to, yes; people may see the movie and think they know what the book is; they can be displaced by the etc; but nothing can replace them. So long as people are taught to read (which may or may not happen in our underfunded schools), and particularly if they’re taught what there is to read, and how to read it intelligently (extensions of the basic skill now often omitted in our underfunded schools), some of them will prefer reading to activating the etc. They will read books (on paper or on a screen) as literature.
And they will try to ensure that the books continue to exist, because continuity is an essential aspect of literature and knowledge. Books occupy time in a different way than most art and entertainment. In longevity perhaps only sculpture in stone outdoes them.
And here the issue of electronic and print on paper has to re-enter the discussion. On the permanence of what is in books, much of the lasting transmission of human culture still relies. It’s possible that highest and most urgent value of the printed book may be its mere, solid, stolid permanence.
I’ll be talking now not about “the book” in America in 2012 so much as about how things are all over the world in the many places where electricity may be available only to the rich, or intermittent, or non-existent; and how things may be in fifty years or five centuries, if we continue to degrade and destroy our habitat at the present rate.
The ease of reproducing an ebook and sending it all over the place can certainly secure its permanence, so long as the machine to read it on can be made and turned on. I think it’s well to remember, though, that electric power is not to be counted on in quite the same way sunlight is.
Easy and infinite copiability also involves a certain risk. The text of the book on paper can’t be altered without separately and individually altering every copy in existence, and alteration leaves unmistakable traces. With e-texts that have been altered, deliberately or by corruption (pirated texts are often incredibly corrupt), if the author is dead, establishing an original, authentic, correct text may be impossible. And the more piracies, abridgments, mash-ups, etc are tolerated, the less people will understand that textual integrity matters.
People to whom texts matter, such as readers of poetry or scientific monographs, know that the integrity of the text is essential. Our non-literate ancestors knew it. The three-year-old being read to demands it. You must recite the words of the poem exactly as you learned them or it will lose its power. — Daddy! You read it wrong! It says “did not” not “didn’t!”
The physical book may last for centuries; even a cheap paperback on pulp paper takes decades to degrade into unreadability. Continuous changes of technology, upgrades, corporate takeovers, leave behind them a debris of texts unreadable on any available machine. And an e-text has to be periodically recopied to keep it from degrading. People who archive them are reluctant to say how often, because it varies a great deal; but as anyone with email files over a few years old knows, the progress into entropy can be rapid. A university librarian told me that, as things are now, they expect to recopy every electronic text the library owns, every eight to ten years, indefinitely.
If we decided to replace the content of our libraries entirely with electronic archives, at this stage of the technology, a worst-case scenario would have informational and literary texts being altered without our consent or knowledge, reproduced or destroyed without our permission, rendered unreadable by the technology that printed them, and, unless regularly recopied and redistributed, fated within a few years or decades to turn inexorably into garble or simply blink out of existence.
But that’s assuming the technology won’t improve and stabilize. In any case, why should we go into either/or mode? It’s seldom necessary and often destructive (look at Congress.)
Maybe the e-reader and the electricity to run it will become available to everyone forever. That would be grand. But as things are or are likely to be, having books available in two different forms can only be a good thing, now and in the long run.
I do believe that, despite the temptations at our fingertips, there’s an obstinate, durable minority of people who, having learned to read, will go on reading books, however and wherever they can find them, on pages or screens. And because people who read books mostly want to share them, and feel however obscurely that sharing them is important, they’ll see to it that, however and wherever, the books are there for the next generation(s).
Human generations, that is — not technological generations. At the moment, the computer generation has shortened to about the life span of the gerbil, and might yet rival the fruitfly.
The life span of a book is more like that of the horse, or the human being, sometimes the oak, even the redwood. Which is why it seems a good idea, rather than mourning their death, to rejoice that books now have two ways of staying alive, getting passed on, enduring, instead of only one.
47. Primitive Copy-rites of Ancient Peoples
Vonda recently said something about hectograph and asked if I remembered it. I wrote back to her:
Oh do I remember hectograph. We had one when I was 12 or so. My brother Karl used it most; I think he put out literature on it when he was campaigning for office at Berkeley High. Karl had political ambitions. When he was nine he campaigned for City Manager of Berkeley. All he had to print up his literature on then was one of those letterpress sets where the letters are pink rubber, and you put them into little wooden slots with tweezers, and press it all on an inkpad, and then onto the paper, and it comes out rather pale and crooked, but PRINTED. His campaign slogan was The Man Who Can Do It. Good slogan, huh? He got three write-in votes. I was proud and impressed.
Anyhow, a hectograph is essentially a tray of very stiff jello and a kind of special ink that the message is written or typed in. The process is messy and slow, the ink has the gift of ubiquity, the jello has to be cleaned and recleaned and rerecleaned. The copies come out rather pallid and blurry, in a distinctive shade of purple.
It came in a neat little kit that all fit in a box not much bigger than the jello tray, which was probably 9×12. Easy to move, and to hide. Samizdat was often hectographed. There were jokes in Russia about all the people in Siberia with purple fingers. (My friend Jean worked in Saigon before the war, and there were jokes there, too, about people with purple fingers; but theirs were due to gentian violet which was a topical cure for a local sexually transmitted fungal itch.)
Talking about the hectograph reminded me of later efforts at home reproduction (of text). Some time in the seventies or eighties our friend Helen, who was working as a Kelly Girl (temp secretary) told us about home copiers, which were new, and knowing that I had a lot of copying, said we ought to get one, and told us which kind: a heat copier, I don’t remember the brand. It required a special sensitive paper. If you didn’t let it cook long enough, the copy was too anemic to read, and if you cooked it too long the paper turned a dark toasty brown, thus entirely concealing the text. But with a little care it worked, and it didn’t cost too much or take up much room, and I used it a lot, copying letters mostly, and music for my recorder.
What we didn’t know then was that the life of the copy was pretty short, I suppose because the paper remains somewhat light-sensitive. By now, the letters I filed are semi-legible. My lovely Scots and Welsh folksongs and the paper they’re on are gradually becoming exactly the same delicate brown color.
They look as if they’d been written in lemon juice, or milk, and let dry, and then held over a flame: Secret Writing. Did you do Secret Writing? It worked, but it wasn’t exactly easy to read, and the paper did tend to either toast slowly or burst into flame, thus destroying the Secret Message, possibly before you’d read it. But at least that kept the Secret.
48. Having my Cake
The inability to understand proverbs is a symptom of something — is it schizophrenia? Or paranoia? Anyhow, something very bad. When I heard that, many years ago, it worried me. Everything I ever heard about a symptom worries me. Do I have it? Yes! Yes, I do! Oh, God!
And I had proof of my paranoia (or schizophrenia). There was a very common proverb that I knew I’d never understood.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
My personal logic said: How can you eat a cake you don’t have?
And since I couldn’t argue with that, I silently stuck to it, which left me in a dilemma: either the saying didn’t make sense (so why did intelligent people say it?) or I was schizophrenic (or paranoid).
Years passed, during which now and then I puzzled over my problem with the proverb. And slowly, slowly it dawned on me that the word “have” has several meanings or shades of meaning, the principal one being “own” or “possess,” but one of the less common connotations is “hold onto,” “keep.”
You can’t keep your cake and eat it too.
I get it!
It’s a good proverb!
And I am not a paranoid schizophrenic!
But it seemed odd that I hadn’t arrived sooner at the “keep” meaning of “have.” I puzzled over that for a while too, and finally came up with this:
For one thing, it seems to me that the verbs are in the wrong order. You have to have your cake before you eat it, after all. I might have understood the saying if it was “You can’t eat your cake and have it too.”
And then, another kind of confusion, having to do with “have.” In the West Coast dialect of English I grew up with, “I had cake at the party” is how we said, “I ate cake at the party.” So “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” was trying to tell me that I couldn’t eat my cake and eat it too...
And hearing it that way as a kid, I thought “hunh?” but didn’t say anything, because there is no way, no possible way, a kid can ask about everything grownups say that the kid thinks “hunh?” about. So I just tried to figure it out. And once I got stuck with the illogic of the cake you have being the cake you can’t eat, the possibility never occurred to me that it was all about hoarding vs. gobbling, or the necessity of choice when there is no middle way.
I expect you’ve had quite enough cake by now. I’m sorry.
But see, this is the kind of thing I think about a lot.
Nouns (cake), verbs (have), words, and the uses and misuses of words, and the meanings of words, and how the words and their meanings change with time and with place, and the derivations of words from older words or other languages — words fascinate me the way box elder beetles fascinate my friend Pard.
Pard, at this point, is not allowed outside, so he has to hunt indoors. Indoors, we have, at this point, no mice. But we have beetles. Oh yes Lord, we have beetles. And if Pard hears, smells, or sees a beetle, that beetle instantly occupies his universe. He will stop at nothing, he will root in wastebaskets, overturn and destroy small fragile objects, push large heavy dictionaries aside, leap wildly in the air or up the wall, stare unmoving for ten minutes at the unattainable light fixture in which a beetle is visible as a tiny moving silhouette. . . And when he gets the beetle, and he always does, he knows that you can’t have your beetle and eat it too. So he eats it. Instantly.
I know, though I don’t really like knowing it, that not many people share this particular fascination or obsession. With words, I mean, not beetles. Though I want to point out that Charles Darwin was almost as deeply fascinated by beetles as Pard is, though with a somewhat different goal. Darwin even put one in his mouth once, in a doomed attempt to keep it by eating it. It didn’t work.* — Anyhow, many people enjoy reading about the meaning and history of picturesque words and phrases, but not many enjoy brooding for years over a shade of significance of the verb “to have” in a banal saying.
Even among writers, not all seem to share my enjoyment of pursuing a word or a usage through the dictionaries and the wastebaskets. If I start doing it aloud in public, some of them look at me with horror or compassion, or try to go quietly away. For that reason, I’m not even certain that it has anything to do with my being a writer.
But I think it does. Not with being a writer per se, but with my being a writer, my way of being a writer. When asked to talk about what I do, I’ve often compared writing with handicrafts – weaving, potmaking, woodworking. I see my fascination with the word as very like, say, the fascination with wood common to carvers, carpenters, cabinetmakers — people who find a fine piece of old chestnut with delight, and study it, and learn the grain of it, and handle it with sensuous pleasure, and consider what’s been done with chestnut and what you can do with it, loving the wood itself, the mere material, the stuff of their craft.
Yet when I compare my craft with theirs, I feel slightly presumptuous. Woodworkers, potters, weavers engage with real materials, and the beauty of their work is profoundly and splendidly bodily. Writing is so immaterial, so mental an activity! In its origin, it’s merely artful speech, and the spoken word is no more than breath.
To write or otherwise record the word is to embody it, make it durable; and calligraphy or typesetting are material crafts that achieve great beauty. I appreciate them. But in fact they have little more to do with what I do than weaving or potmaking or woodworking does. It’s grand to see one’s poem beautifully printed, but the important thing to the poet, or anyhow to this poet, is merely to see it printed, however, wherever — so that readers can read it. So it can go from mind to mind.
I work in my mind. What I do is done in my mind. And what my hands do with it in writing it down is not the same as what the hands of the weaver do with the yarn, or the potter’s hands with the clay, or the cabinetmaker’s with the wood. If what I do, what I make, is beautiful, it isn’t a physical beauty. It’s imaginary, it takes place in the mind — my mind, and my reader’s.
You could say that I hear voices and believe the voices are real (which would mean I was schizophrenic, but the proverb test proves I’m not — I do, I do understand it, Doctor!) And that then by writing what I hear, I induce or compel readers to believe the voices are real, too... That doesn’t describe it well, though. It doesn’t feel that way. I don’t really know what it is I’ve done all my life, this wordworking.
But I know that to me words are things, almost immaterial but actual and real things, and that I like them.
I like their most material aspect: the sound of them, heard in the mind or spoken by the voice.
And right along with that, inseparably, I like the dances of meaning words do with one another, the endless changes and complexites of their interrelationships in sentence or text, by which imaginary worlds are built and shared. Writing engages me in both these aspects of words, in an inexhaustible playing, which is my my life work.
Words are my matter — my stuff. Words are my skein of yarn, my lump of wet clay, my block of uncarved wood. Words are my magic, antiproverbial cake. I eat it, and I still have it.
*From Darwin’s Autobiography: “I will give proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! It ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.”
49. Reading, Seeing (i)
I don’t promise to keep this up regularly, but wanted to give it a try — talking a bit about some books I read and shows I see. Few of the books and none of the shows will be very new, and some may be very old.
I’ve got a few more chapters of Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal (2007) to read. I’m reading it slowly, and admiring it deeply.
Krugman persuasively shows that America from the Roosevelt administration through the Nixon years was a nation of remarkable economic equality, social enlightenment, and genuine two-party government, (which we all took for granted as the way America is), and that the Republican goal, from Reagan on, has been to reinstate extreme economic inequality, halt or undo social improvement, and refuse political compromise and co-operation, thus derailing the democratic process.
Krugman writes with grace and clarity, and is probably the only economist I’ve ever been able to understand.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, campaigning in 1936:
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.... We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.... [These forces] are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.
So the “old enemies” are with us again, but what Democrat now faces them with Roosevelt’s defiance? Only the Occupy movement has that courage.
And Dwight David Eisenhower, writing to his brother in 1952:
Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H.L.Hunt..., a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
What’s terrifying about this is how Eisenhower’s party in just a few decades has proved him wrong, wrong in everything he says except, possibly, the last word.
I wanted a novel to read at night in bed (when too dim-brained to follow an argument I still can follow a story) — so I went to my To Read shelf.
It’s low on novels just now. I tried the one Tove Jansson I hadn’t yet read, Fair Play. I wanted to like it but found it predictable, and written with a kind of smugness or self-admiration that put me off, so I gave up. This doesn’t weaken my admiration for the madly original Moomintroll books, or her beautiful novel True Deceiver (my review of it is on this site among the Book Reviews.)
So I started the one Kent Haruf I haven’t yet read, Where You Once Belonged. Am about halfway through now. Haruf is terrific. Very quietly great. (The critical/prize-awarding people have, predictably, paid him little attention — an ABA runner-up for Plainsong, which should have walked off with the Pulitzer.) The two early books are so solid and beautiful, and Plainsong fully comparable to the best of Willa Cather (to whom I’m sure he’s tired of being compared, but if you write about the Western Middle West, you can’t get away from Willa.) Here are his four books:
It’s time for another, please, Mr Haruf?
We finally had to get onto Netflix when our lovely video store down the street got killed by Netflix. I hate this. I HATE it. I HATE being controlled by corporations. I HATE CORPORATIONS.
So, last night we had Syriana. We gave up halfway through.
Probably we were just too tired and stupid for a fast-paced complex thriller. I found the cutting self-conscious to the point of self-parody — scene after scene a few seconds long, then cut — cut — cut again — Makes for fast pace, sure, but it’s too much like two hours of Tourette syndrome. And it intellectualizes the story. Shock without affect. Time only to figure out what’s happening where — never why, hardly even who. Allatime you’re figuring out. Well, I don’t watch movies to figure out. I don’t enjoy it. So, Syriana goes back.
Finished Krugman’s Conscience of a Liberal. It was written just before the housing market crash and the rise of Obama to the Presidency. Reactionary “movement Republicanism” has gone fast and far since then, belying much of Krugman’s hopes expressed in the last section. It is, however, a very good, very useful book, an aid to clear thinking.
A final quote from it (guess who said this, and when):
The strange alchemy of time has converted the Democrats into the truly conservative party in the country — the party dedicated to conserving all that is best and building solidly and safely on these foundations. The Republicans, by contrast, are behaving like the radical party — the party of the reckless and embittered, bent on dismantling institutions which have been built solidly into our social fabric.
The first election I could vote in was 1952. I don’t forgive Eisenhower for defeating my candidate. Though Ike was a moderate with no ideological program, yet I think with his election our long trip to the wilderness of reactionary thinking began. Adlai Stevenson, who knew what true conservatism is, lost. And now we live with the regressive fantasies of “the party of the reckless and embittered.”
16 April 2012
50. Chosen by a Cat
In the four months since I wrote about his arrival, Little Pard has grown up. He is now Not Large But Quite Solid Pard. He’s what they call a cobby cat, not a leggy one. When he sits upright, the view from the rear is pleasingly and symmetrically globular, a shining black sphere, plus head and tail. But he isn’t fat. Though not for want of trying. He still loves kibbles, oh kibbles, oh lovely kibbles! Crunch, crunch, crunch to the last crumb, then look up with instant, infinite pathos — I starve, I perish, I have not eaten for weeks.... He would love to be Pardo el Lardo. We are heartless. One half cup of food a day, the vet said, and we have obeyed her. One quarter cup of kibbles at seven, another at five. And, well, yes, there is a sixth-of-a-can of catfood with warm water on it for lunch, to make sure he gets plenty of water. But he often leaves that till five when the kibbles arrive, the One True Food. And then he cleans both bowls, and goes into the living room and maybe flies around a little bit, but mostly just sits and digests in bliss.
He is a vivid little creature. Youth is so dramatic! His tuxedo is utterly black and utterly white. He is utterly sweet and utterly nutty. Wild as a bronco, inert as a sloth. One moment he’s airborne, the next fast asleep. He is unpredictable, yet keeps strict routines — every morning he rushes over to greet Charles coming downstairs, falls over on the hall rug and waves his paws in posture of adoration. He still won’t sit on a lap, though. I don’t know if he ever will. He just doesn’t accept the lap hypothesis.
Getting waked up by twenty minutes of strong, steady purring is very nice, plus the nose that investigates the neck, the paw that pats the hair... the increasing intensity of purr, the commencement of pouncing.... By then it’s quite easy to get up. Then he rushes into the bathroom ahead of me and flies around, mostly about waist level, getting into things; and he plays with the water I run for him in the bathtub and then leaps out to make wet flower-paw-prints here and there, or if I dribble him water in the washbasin he closes the stopper, thus creating a water hole where savage panthers may crouch in wait for dikdiks and gazelles, or possibly beetles. Then we go downstairs — one flying, the other not.
Closing the drain is typical. He’s clever at opening cabinets, too, because he likes getting into things, anything that can be got into, cabinets, drawers, boxes, bags, sacks, a quilt in progress, a sleeve. He is ingenious, adventurous, and determined. We call him the good cat with bad paws. The paws get him into trouble and cause loud shouting and scoldings and seizures and removals, which the good cat endures with patient good humor — “What are they carrying on about? I didn’t knock that over. A paw did.”
There used to be a lot of small delicate things on shelves around the house. There aren’t, now.
Charles bought him a little red harness. He is incredibly patient about having it put on — we thought it would be Charles the Bloody-Handed for weeks, but no. He even purrs, somewhat plaintively, during the harnessing. Then the bungee leash is attached, and they go out and down the back steps into the garden for Pard’s Walk. It went quite well twice, then a man running by outside the fence slapping his feet down galumph galumph scared Pard, and he wanted to go back inside at once, and is only beginning to get unscared of all the weirdnesses out there.
I think when it stops raining and we can sit outdoors with him it will be OK. He needs open space to fly around in, that’s for sure. But then of course we fear he may get too bold in his enthusiasm and ignorance and wander into the wild backyards and thickets down the hill or chase a bird out into the street, and so get lost or meet the Enemy. The Enemy comes in so many forms to cats. They are small animals, predators yet very vulnerable, and Pard has neither street smarts nor wilderness wisdom. But he’s bright. He deserves what freedom we can give him. Once it stops raining.
Meanwhile, he usually spends a good part of the day with me in my study, sleeping on the printer, about a foot from my right elbow. He fixated on me to start with and still tends to follow me up and downstairs and keep nearby, though he’s gaining more independence, which is good -- if I wanted to be the center of the universe I’d have a dog. My guess is that for the first year of his life, in a small and crowded household, he was never alone; so he needs time to get used to solitude, as well as to silence, boredom, never getting pursued or squashed by a passionate baby, etc.
Not wanting to be the center of the universe doesn’t mean I don’t love having a cat nearby. It seems we got his name right: he’s a pardner, a true companion. I really like it when he sleeps at the top of my head on the pillow like a sort of fur nightcap. The only trouble with his sleeping on the printer is that it’s six inches from my Time Machine, which when it’s saving stuff makes a weird, tiny, humming-clicking noise exactly like beetles. Pard knows that there are beetles in that box. Nothing I can say will change his mind. There are beetles in that box, and one day he will get his his paw into it and get the beetles out and eat them.
30 April 2012
51. The Narrative Gift as a Moral Conundrum
(Reading, Seeing ii)
The narrative gift, is that what to call it? The story-teller’s knack, as developed in writing.
Story-telling is clearly a gift, a talent, a specific ability. Some people just don’t have it — they rush or drone, jumble the order of events, skip essentials, dwell on inessentials, and then muff the climax. Don’t we all have a relative who we pray won’t launch into a joke or a bit of family history because the history will bore us and the joke will bomb? But we may also have a relative who can take the stupidest, nothingest little event and make it into what copywriters call a gut-wrenchingly brilliant thriller and a laugh riot. Or, as Cousin Verne says, that Cousin Myra, she sure knows how to tell a story.
When Cousin Myra goes literary, you have a force to contend with.
But how important is that knack to writing fiction? How much of it, or what kind of it, is essential to excellence? And what is the connection of the narrative gift with literary quality?
I’m talking about story, not about plot. E.M.Forster had a low opinion of story. He said story is “The queen died and then the king died,” while plot is “The queen died and then the king died of grief.” To him, story is just “this happened and then this happened and then this happened,” a succession without connection; plot introduces connection or causality, therefore shape and form. Plot makes sense of story. I honor E.M. Forster, but I don’t believe this. Children often tell “this happened and then this happened,” and so do people naively recounting their dream or a movie, but in literature, story in Forster’s sense doesn’t exist. Not even the silliest “action” potboiler is a mere succession of unconnected events.
I have a high opinion of story. I see it as the essential trajectory of narrative: a coherent, onward movement, taking the reader from Here to There. Plot, to me, is variation or complication of the movement of story.
Story goes. Plot elaborates the going.
Plot hesitates, pauses, doubles back (Proust), forecasts, leaps, doubling or tripling simultaneous trajectories (Dickens), diagrams a geometry onto the story line (Hardy), makes the story Ariadne’s string leading through a labyrinth (mysteries), turns the story into a cobweb, a waltz, a vast symphonic structure in time (the novel in general)….
There are supposed to be only so many plots (three, five, ten) in all fiction. I don’t believe that, either. Plot is manifold, inexhaustibly ingenious, endless in connections and causalities and complications. But through all the twists and turns and red herrings and illusions of plot, the trajectory of story is there, going forward. If it isn’t going forward, the fiction founders.
I suppose plot without story is possible — perhaps one of those incredibly complex cerebral spy thrillers where you need a GPS to get through the book at all. And story without plot occurs occasionally in literary fiction (Woolf’s “The Mark on the Wall,” perhaps) — oftener in literary nonfiction. A biography, for instance, can’t really have a plot, unless the subject obligingly provided one by living it. But the great biographers make you feel that the story of the life they’ve told has an esthetic completeness equal to that of plotted fiction. Lesser biographers and memoirists often invent a plot to foist onto their factual story — they don’t trust it to work by itself, so they make it untrustworthy.
I believe a good story, plotted or plotless, rightly told, is satisfying as such and in itself. But here, with “rightly told,” is my conundrum or mystery. Inept writing lames or cripples good narrative only if it’s truly inept. An irresistibly readable story can be told in the most conventional, banal prose, if the writer has the gift.
I read a book last winter that does an absolutely smashing job of story-telling, a compulsive page-turner from page 1 on. The writing is competent at best, rising above banality only in some dialogue (the author’s ear for the local working-class dialect is pitch-perfect.) Several characters are vividly or sympathetically portrayed, but they’re all stereotypes. The plot has big holes in it, though only one of them really damages credibility. The story-line: an ambitious white girl in her early twenties persuades a group of black maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1964, to tell her their experiences with their white employers past and present, so that she can make a book of their stories and share them with the world by selling it to Harper and Row, and go to New York and be rich and famous. They do, and she does. And except for a couple of uppity mean white women getting some egg on their face nobody suffers for it.
All Archimedes wanted was a solid place to put the lever he was going to move the world with. Same with a story trajectory. You can’t throw a shotput far if you’re standing on a shaky two-inch-wide plank over a deep, dark river. You need a solid footing.
Or do you?
All this author had to stand on is a hokey, sentimental notion, and from it she threw this perfect pitch!
Seldom if ever have I seen the power of pure story over mind, emotion, and artistic integrity so clearly shown.
And I had to think about it, because a few months earlier, I’d read a book that brilliantly demonstrates a narrative gift in the service of clear thought, honest feeling, and passionate integrity. It tells an extremely complicated story extending over many decades and involving many people, from geneticists cloning cells in cloistered laboratories to families in the shack-houses of black farming communities. The story explains scientific concepts and arguments with great clarity while never for a moment losing its onward impetus. It handles the human beings it involves with human compassion and a steady, luminous ethical focus. The prose is of unobtrusive excellence. And if you can stop reading it you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. I couldn’t stop even when I got to the Notes — Even when I got to the Index. More! Go on! O please tell me more!
I see a huge difference in literary quality between these two hugely readable books, which certainly has to do with specific qualities of character — among them patience, honesty, risk-taking.
Kathryn Stockett, the white woman who wrote The Help, tells of a white girl persuading black women to tell her intimate details of the injustices and hardships of their lives as servants — a highly implausible undertaking in Mississippi in ’64. When the white employers begin to suspect this tattling, only an equally implausible plot-trick lets the black maids keep their jobs. Their sole motivation is knowing their stories will be printed; the mortal risk they would have run in bearing such witness, at that place in that year, is not seriously imagined, but merely exploited to create suspense. White-girl’s motivation is a kind of high-minded ambition. Her risks all become rewards — she loses malevolent friends and a bigoted boyfriend and leaves Mississippi behind for a brilliant big-city career. The author’s sympathy for the black women and knowledge of their everyday existence is evident, but, for me, it was made questionable by her assumption of a right to speak for people without earning that right, and killed dead by the wish-fulfilling improbability of her story.
Rebecca Skloot, the white woman who wrote The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, spent years researching a vastly complex web of scientific research, thefts, discoveries, mistakes, deceits, cover-ups, exploitations, and reparations, while at the same time trying, with incredible patience and good will, to gain the trust of the people most directly affected by the one human life with which all that research and profit-making began — the family of Henrietta Lacks. These were people who had good reason to feel that they would be endangered or betrayed if they trusted any white person. It took her literally years to win their confidence. Evidently she showed them that she deserved it by her patient willingness to listen and learn, her rigorous honesty, and her compassionate awareness of who and what was and is truly at risk.
“Of course her story is superior,” says Mr Gradgrind, “it’s nonfiction — it’s true. Fiction is mere hokum.”
But oh, Mr Gradgrind, so much nonfiction is awful hokum! How bad and mean my mommy was to me before I found happiness in buying a wonderful old castle in Nodonde and fixing it up as an exclusive gourmet b&b while bringing modern educational opportunities to the village children….
And contrarily, we can learn so much truth by reading novels, such as the novel in which you appear, Mr Gradgrind.
No, that’s not where the problem lies. The problem — my problem — is with the gift of story.
If one of the two books I’ve been talking about is slightly soiled fluff, while the other is solid gold, how come I couldn’t stop reading either of them?
14 May 2012
52. Some Recent Fantasies
When somebody asks me, “Who are your favorite sf and fantasy authors?” I duck and mumble. Any answer I can make will be incomplete, invidious, and insignificant. If it’s guidance they want, I’m no expert. I never was a true fan, reading only one genre. To me that would be like living in an immense forest and refusing to see any kind of tree but one — oaks, say. Oaks are great. But then you come to a grove of 300-foot, 1200-year-old redwoods, and you see nothing?
And usually I’m years out of date. At the moment, though, I happen to have been reading a fair amount of recent or forthcoming fantasy; and I feel that I’ve come into a promising young part of the forest. Mixed new growth, quite vigorous. Good to see growing.
There’s a problem, though. People who insist that fantasy is for children still insist on trying to cram all the young trees — oaks, redwoods, mallorns — into bonsai pots.
Since publishers are feeling terribly unsafe these days, and since YA is a big, solid market, and fantasy is a big, solid part of it, publishers feel safe publishing fantasy as YA. And so writers of fantasy may find they’re expected to have kid protagonists and discouraged from writing about adults. Harry whatshisname and the teenie werewolves and the young gladiators have locked the fantasy/YA combo tight, at least for now. Retro macho “epics” of war-and-violence with nominally adult protagonists may escape the YA label, as they reach teen-agers through tie-ins, games, movies.
It’s all marketing, of course, where it isn’t spinach.
Children have no corner on imagination, nor can you limit fantasy to the experience of adolescents. Kids are perfectly capable of reading about adults, and will do so, if the adults do anything interesting — as they do in science fiction, for instance. (Most kids find novels about adults in dysfunctional families with dreary sex lives in the suburbs uninteresting, and by God, they’re right; but that’s another topic.) Also, adults will of course read about kids, if the kids are doing anything interesting — You there, Huck? — The whole idea of YA as a literature apart is shortsighted and arbitrary. But it’s marketing, so it’s a sacred cow. Milk it, and question not.
Jo Walton wriggles almost wholly free of the grip of the sacred cow. I’m sorry, but those words just came to me, and I could not resist them — sometimes one gets these wonderful gifts of metaphor. — So, anyhow, in Among Others, Jo Walton writes in the voice of a 14-year-old girl; but that girl as an adult, doubling the author, is also implicitly present. This unsimplification, this grounding in lived time, enriches the book and frees it from any ‘age-group,’ as well as keeping it clear of the only-kids-understand-anything sentimentality of a Salinger.
Mo is a diary-writing bookworm. Her daily criticism of the authors she’s reading is spot-on 14-year-old-girl-in-1979, funny, acute, and impassioned. (I’m glad she liked early Le Guin. I believe she knew about the movie of Lathe of Heaven a year or so before it existed, but hey, this is a fantasy, innit?) Mo has suffered a lot of major damage by age 14, so her reading could be seen as ‘compensatory,’ or ‘escapist,’ but that would be a mistake. She was a reader before she was damaged. Books continue to offer her not an escape, but a reality. A good many of us know, often quite early in our life and throughout it, that as far as we’re able to, we’re going to live a good part of that life in books, maybe the best part, certainly a vital part. And here’s one of us, a shameless reader, a shameless science-fiction reader, rejoicing with all her heart in the wealth of her existence. An almost too gorgeous boyfriend appears, but, rightly, he isn’t really as convincing or interesting either to Mo or to us as what she’s reading.
Magic in Walton’s novel functions magically, yet can always be seen and explained as nothing unusual. Fairy? what fairy? that was a rabbit. The spell didn’t change reality, reality’s always just been the way the spell made it be…. This is a large, interesting idea, well worked out. Walton’s trying hard to do what I call moving the boundary: to redraw the border of Elfland, to alter, or make more permeable, the wall beween the possible and the impossible. I think she almost succeeds. I don’t think anyone can, in fact, succeed. But it’s a gallant and fascinating enterprise.
If the sf readers who dismiss fictional magic as soft-brained wish-fulfilment will look at what Walton’s doing at that boundary line, they’ll see a harder, more honest intelligence at work than in the kind of “hard” sf that uses the terminology of scientific theory or speculation magically.
In a dry, quiet way, the book is very funny. Mo’s three aunts, who are witches, are witches because they are respectable in a way only the English could imagine and perfect. If I ever again meet a thoroughly nice, refined lady of that sort, I’ll know why she makes me so miserable. She can’t help it. She’s a Britwitch.
Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander, which came out this spring is aimed at somewhat younger readers than Among Others, or at anybody who likes adventures following fast one upon another. Set in a conventionally self-contained imaginary place (a splendidly imagined city, not cyberpunk but an interesting variation) and with a fairly conventional orphan child-hero, it doesn’t push out toward any boundaries; but it is outstanding, in this increasingly crowded and imitative field, for the unlabored imaginative authority and completeness of its setting, and for the fine, vivid English it’s written in. It’s an endearing book. And there’s something else to it that I can’t put words to: a haunting quality, a sense of depth, of unspoken further implication, in the adventures and the characters, which is its real magic. I wish I could have read it when I was eleven.
Kij Johnson was a member of workshops I directed, or herded, whatever it is the ‘teacher’ does at a writing workshop — once at Clarion in Seattle and once at The Flight of the Mind on a bend of the McKenzie River. I called her Foxwoman, after the story she was then writing.
The story is in her new book, At the Mouth of the River of Bees. It’s just as good as I thought it was going to be, if not better. My memory in general is very poor, but it holds on firmly to certain intense physical experiences, real or imagined, so that I can always in my mind walk down a certain dusty driveway in California, or stand before the gates of Moria seeking how to open them. Ever since that workshop, I’ve always been able to revisit the fox’s earth under the house/the beautiful house under the house. It was amazing to be able to ‘really’ go back to it in “Fox Magic.”
One or two weak stories might have been left out, but the variety is tremendous, exhilarating. The book definitely won’t do that short-story-collection thing to you where all the stories run together into a sort of depressing porridge in your mind. “26 Monkeys” is as different from “Chenting” as “Names for Water” is from “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” and each one is differently excellent. Along with “Fox Magic,” my favorite may be that last one. It’s about an engineer. I like engineer stories, ever since I read “The Bridge-Builders” and others in Kipling’s The Day’s Work when I was ten. I like stories that take you quietly into a place and let you do difficult and interesting work with some of the people there. By the end of the story you know those people, and love them, and wish you could go on and build the next bridge with them.
PS. And between when I wrote this and when we posted it, both Among Others and The Man Who Bridged the Mist won the Nebula Award. Hey, Foxwoman! Way To Go!
53. A Modest Proposal: Vegempathy
It is time for humanity to ascend from our primitive condition as omnivores, carnivores, vegetarians, and vegans. We must take the inevitable next step to Oganism — the Way of the Aerovore — leading away from obesity, allergy, and cruelty towards blameless purity. Our motto must be, All we need is O.
Many people troubled by the suffering of animals — animals who would scarcely exist outside zoos, if we did not breed them for their meat, milk, and eggs — remain strangely indifferent to the endless, enormous ordeal of the vegetables we keep in captivity or capture wild. Consider, for one moment, what plants undergo at our hands. We breed them with ruthless selectivity, harass, torment, and poison them, crowd them into vast monocultures, caring for their wellbeing only as it affects our desires, raising many merely for their by-products such as seed, flower, or fruit. And we slaughter them without a thought of their suffering when “harvested,” uprooted, torn living from their earth or branch, slashed, chopped, mown, ripped to pieces — or when “cooked,” dropped to die in boiling water or oil or an oven — or, worst of all, eaten raw, stuffed into a human mouth and masticated by human teeth and swallowed, often while alive.
Do you think a bean is dead because you bought it at the store in a plastic bag? That a carrot is dead because it’s been in the refrigerator for a while? Have you ever planted a few of those beans in damp earth and waited a week or two, put the carrot top in a saucer of fresh water and waited a week or two?
The life in a plant may be less visible but far more intense and durable than the life in an animal. If you put an oyster in a saucer of fresh water and keep it for a week, the result will be quite different.
Why then, if it is immoral to subject an oyster to the degradation of becoming food, is it blameless, even virtuous, to do the same thing to a carrot or a piece of tofu?
“Because the carrot doesn’t suffer,” says the vegan. “Soybeans have no nervous system. They don’t feel pain. Plants have no feelings.”
That is exactly what many people said about animals for millennia, and what many still say about fish. As science has brought us — some of us — back to an awareness of our animality, we have been forced to acknowledge that all higher animals suffer pain and fear at least as intensely as we do. But, just as we once misused science to support the claim that animals are mindless machines, so now we misuse science to support the claim of knowing that non-animal living things — plants — have no feelings.
We know nothing of the sort.
Science has only just begun to investigate plant sensitivity and plant communication. The results are still meager, but positive, fascinating, and strange. The mechanisms and processes, being so very different from the senses and nervous systems of animals, are barely understood,. But so far what science has to say on the subject fails to justify the convenient belief that plants are insensate. We don’t know what the carrot feels.
In fact, we don’t know what the oyster feels. We don’t know the cow’s opinion on being milked, although we can hypothesize that if her udder was full she might feel relief. The assumptions we make about all other living creatures are mostly self-serving. And perhaps the most deeply entrenched of them is that plants are insensate, irrational, and dumb: thus “inferior to” animals, “here for our use.” This snap judgment allows even the most tender-hearted of us to disrespect plants, to kill vegetables without mercy, to congratulate ourselves on the purity of our conscience while in the very act of callously devouring a young kale stalk or a tender, delicate, curling, living, infant pea tendril.
I believe the only way to avoid such cruel hypocrisy and achieve true clarity of conscience is by becoming an Ogan.
It is a pity that the Ogan movement by its nature and principles is fated to be, in each individual case, rather short-lived. But surely the first martyrs of the cause will inspire multitudes to follow them in forswearing the grossly unnatural practice of supporting life by eating other living beings or their by-products. Ogans, ingesting only the unsullied purity of the O in the atmosphere and in H2O, will live in true amity with all animals and all vegetables, and will proudly preach their creed for as long as they possibly can. It could be for several weeks, sometimes.
4 June 2012
54. Le Guin’s Hypothesis
I keep telling myself that I’m done writing about Literature vs Genre, that that vampire is buried at the crossroads with a stake in its heart and garlic in its coffin. And then it pops up again, undead. Its latest revival is a cheery one in an entertaining article, “Easy Writers,” in the May 28 New Yorker by Arthur Krystal, who discusses the literature/genre divide and while seeming to make light of it does a pretty thorough job of perpetuating it.
He uses Chesterton’s phrase, “good bad books,” for genre novels, and calls reading them a “guilty pleasure” — a phrase that succeeds in being simultaneously self-deprecating, self-congratulatory, and collusive. When I speak of my guilty pleasure, I confess that I know I sin, but I know you sin too, nudge nudge, aren’t we sinners cute?
Mr Krystal gives a good brief discussion of 18th-century disapproval of all novel-reading as guilty pleasure, and is amusingly acute about the dire modernist invention of the “serious” or literary novel, which tossed out all other novels as genre — trivial.
But his only quoted example of the literary novel is Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. Now, I love that interminable four-decker and think it one of the great novels about war. But it was never well known in America, and I wonder how many people have even heard of it by now. If it exemplifies the literary novel, the literary novel is: obscure, unpopular, syntactically complex, ninety years old, and British.
So, then. Is literature the serious stuff you have to read in college, and after that you read for pleasure, which is guilty?
Mr Krystal doesn’t say this directly. But he says nothing about the non-guilty pleasure that both literary and genre novels can afford. And what he says about genre fiction all fits into the familiar modernist mishmash of Puritanism and reverse snobbery.
I don’t want to join the group still huddled together in a corner of a twentieth-century lunchroom smirking over a copy of Amazing Wonder Tales because it’s “bad,” and flipping off the stuffy teacher who wants us to read A Tale of Two Cities because it’s “good.” I don’t want to be there any more.
“Skilled genre writers,” Mr Krystal says, “know that a certain level of artificiality must prevail, lest the reasons we turn to their books evaporate. It’s plot we want and plenty of it.”
Who “we,” white man?
Plot is not the reason I turn to novels and is often the least interesting element to me in them. Story is what matters. Plot complicated and extends story; plot is indeed pure artifice. But Mr Krystal seems to say that only genre writers are aware that a certain level of artificiality must prevail in fiction. Does he mean that literary writers don’t use artifice? That they don’t know, just as as surely as genre writers, the absolute, imperative, marvelous artificiality of their art? That Virginia Woolf, so often demonstrably plotless, was artless?
And I question the idea that we “turn to” genre fiction as addicts turn to their needle or their bottle. Genre as Fixfic.
Anybody who reads a lot is, if you like, an addict. The people who put their initials on the fly-leaf of a library copy of a mystery so that they won’t keep checking the same book out over and over are story addicts. So is the ten-year-old with his nose in The Hobbit, oblivious to dinnertime or cataclysm. So is the old woman rereading War and Peace for the eighth time. So is the scholar who studies the Odyssey for forty years. The very quality of story is to hold, to fascinate. Ask the Wedding Guest to stop listening once the Ancient Mariner gets going. He can’t. He’s hooked. Sometimes you get hooked on mere plot, sometimes on mere familiarity and predictability, sometimes you get hooked on great stuff.
The trouble with the Litfic vs Genre idea is that what looks like a reasonable distinction of varieties of fiction always hides a value judgment: Lit superior, Genre inferior. Sticking in a middle category of Good Bad Books is no help. You might just as well make another one, Bad Good Books, which everybody could fill at their whim — mine would contain a whole lot of Booker Prize winners and, yes, definitely, The Death of Virgil — but it’s just a parlor game.
Some things have to happen before there can be more intelligent discussion of what literature is. And some of them are in fact happening, at last. It’s good to see that Mr Krystal can laugh at Edmund Wilson, if only at a safe distance. English departments have largely given up trying to defend their ivied or ivory towers by shooting down every space ship that approaches. Critics are ever more clearly aware that a lot of literature is happening outside the sacred groves of modernist realism. But still the opposition of literature and genre is maintained; and as long as it is, false categorical value judgment will cling to it, with the false dichotomy of virtuous pleasure and guilty pleasure.
To get out of this boring bind, I propose an hypothesis:
Literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.
The value judgment concealed in distinguishing one novel as literature and another as genre vanishes with the distinction.
Every readable novel can give true pleasure. Every novel read by choice is read because it gives true pleasure.
Literature consists of many genres, including mystery, science fiction, fantasy, naturalism, realism, magical realism, graphic, erotic, experimental, psychological, social, political, historical, bildungsroman, romance, western, army life, young adult, thriller, etc., etc…. and the proliferating cross-species and subgenres such as erotic Regency, noir police procedural, or historical thriller with zombies.
Some of these categories are descriptive, some are maintained largely as marketing devices. Some are old, some new, some ephemeral.
Genres exist, forms and types and kinds of fiction exist and need to be understood: but no genre is inherently, categorically superior or inferior.
This makes the Puritan snobbery of “higher” and “lower” pleasures irrelevant, and very hard to defend.
Of course every reader will prefer certain genres and be bored or repelled by others. But anybody who claims that one genre is categorically superior to all others must be ready and able to defend their prejudice. And that involves knowing what the “inferior” genres actually consist of, their nature and their forms of excellence. It involves reading them.
If we thought of all fictional genres as literature, we’d be done with the time-wasting, ill-natured diatribes and sneers against popular novelists who don’t write by the rules of realism, the banning of imaginative writing from MFA writing courses, the failure of so many English teachers to teach what people actually read, and the endless, silly apologising for actually reading it.
If critics and teachers gave up insisting that one kind of literature is the only one worth reading, it would free up a lot of time for them to think about the different things novels do and how they do it, and above all, to consider why certain individual books in every genre are, have been for centuries, and will continue to be more worth reading than most of the others.
Because there is the real mystery. Why is one book entertaining, another disappointing, another a revelation and a lasting joy? What is quality? What makes a good book good and a bad book bad?
Not its subject. Not its genre. What, then? That’s what good book-talk has always been about.
We won’t be allowed to knock down the Litfic/Fixfic walls, though, as long as the publishers and booksellers think their business depends on them — capitalizing on the guilty pleasure principle.
But then, how long will the publishers and booksellers last against the massive aggression of the enormous corporations that are now taking over every form of publication in absolute indifference to its content and quality so long as they can sell it as a commodity?
55. The Opening Night
9.40, Friday night, July 27, 2012. Cheap, hokey, trivial, cynical, pompous, patronising, pretentious, button-pushing, celebrity-worshiping, predictable beyond belief, degrading of every poet, musician, or artist associated with it, what a great show the Olympics opening night in London is! It’s still going on. Hours yet to go. I gave up at 9.15. I don’t know why I lasted past the shot of the corgis looking up adorably from the palace steps at the helicopter that was fakely bearing the fake Queen away so that she could fakely parachute down into the stadium, ooooh, wowwwwww, wheeee, and then (really) sit there glowering straight ahead and looking as if she had just drunk a quart of vinegar.
“Look, she’s smiling,” my husband said hopefully, when they sang God Bless the Queen, but I couldn’t see it. She just looked as if maybe her Tums were giving her a bit of relief for a moment, but she was still sour, bored, ungracious, and not about to hide it. Oh England, my England.
I guess I kept hoping there might be one more really amazing moment like the moment of the five rings descending: that was true real stage-magic as well as huge Super Special FX. But no. Just more hokum and more schmalz. And I began to think I might totally lose it if the chirpy announcers mentioned Danny Boyle one more time. Every two or three minutes we had to be told that he was responsible for this wonderful, dazzling extravaganza of British schlock. Maybe he wrote it all those mentions into his contract? For quite a while I thought they were saying Danny Boy, as in the song Oh Danny Boy, and wondered why. Perhaps I was confused because I think they did sing a bit of Oh Danny Boy at the very beginning. Maybe Danny Boyle put it in as a cute little subtle compliment to himself. I’m not sure though whether I did hear Oh Danny Boy at all, because there were so many little bits of songs. But of course they ended, inevitably, with the song “Jerusalem,” the words of which were written by William Blake, who in his direst visions of what might happen to his country never envisioned anything so monstrously silly as this.
I suppose eventually the poor athlete will come panting into the stadium with the Flame, and we’ll have some more whooptido and hokum. Maybe the Queen will be shot up to a hovering helicopter on a rocket in a fountain of fireworks, glowering all the way, and then we’ll get to see the corgis looking up adorably from the palace steps to greet her.
I leave it to the corgis. I’ve had enough. I’m going to go to bed and think about Thomas Hardy’s poem, “The Darkling Thrush.” The English do that kind of thing really, really well.
P.S. Saturday morning. It seems there was a huge unplanned, unsponsored, spontaneous celebration going on in Trafalgar Square at the same time – Londoners and people from all over the world who’ve come for the Olympics all gathering to wait for the clock to tell them the opening moment of the Games, singing, shouting, waving flags, climbing up on the big bronze lions, and having a ball. Reading about that, I finally felt the authentic Olympic thrill.
56. Libraries and Ebooks
It can be just as fast and easy to order an ebook from the library as to buy it online, and it costs nothing. Why would anyone buy an ebook from the publisher if the library has it for free?
So why would a publisher sell ebooks to libraries?
This is a legitimate, big problem, which affects authors just as much and as directly as it does libraries and publishers. It has no quick fix. To solve it will take a complete and painful rethinking and re-organisation of the whole publishing industry.
But many corporate publishers, without seeking a long-term strategy, consulting no interest or value but their own, have reacted with mere panic greed.
Some, exhibiting all the foresight, generosity, and public spirit of a Florida alligator, outright refuse to sell their ebooks to libraries. Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan are among them.
This policy can be summed up as: Libraries can go to hell.
Other publishers, perhaps hoping to keep some appearance of a certain degree of goodwill towards men, limit themselves to making it hard for the library to stock ebooks and inconvenient for you to get them from the library. They call it “inserting friction.” A kind of anti-Vaseline.
Currently various publishers are employing various forms of “friction:”
And the absurdest piece of meanness yet:
But, but, but — libraries have always offered their books for free. So, how come print publishers didn’t refuse to sell books to libraries? Why didn’t they didn’t “insert friction”?
Well, partly because many publishers had a sense of responsibility, or at least a degree of shame. But also because they were aware that library circulation is more likely to increase book sales than to cut into them.
Every time a library buys a book, the publisher is more likely to sell that author’s books. Library Journal conducted a survey in 2011 about the buying habits of library users; more than half reported that they’d bought books by an author whose book they’d read in the library. As Library Journal says, “The public library is an active partner with the publishing industry in building the book market, not to mention the burgeoning e-book market.” And, talking to the Christian Science Monitor, Molly Raphael, president of the American Library Association, reported “Some libraries have a ‘buy it now’ button for people who don’t want to wait [for an e-book from a library, or don’t want it to suddenly disappear from their reader]. We’re doing a lot, frankly, to drive people to buy.”
But damn the facts, full speed ahead! The part of the publishing industry controlled by corporations for immediate profit is determined to see public libraries as competitors — even if they lose profits by doing so.
For a long time most Americans agreed on the importance of the free public library to the well-being of the community and the country. A publisher then would hesitate to be seen deliberately making things hard for libraries. But reactionary ideology has weakened the idea of community; muddy thinking has convinced people that information on the Internet is free; and libraries are being conveniently misrepresented as mere outmoded warehouses for print books. Readers may assume that libraries don’t and won’t buy and circulate ebooks.
In fact, despite the expense of constantly changing technologies, the non-support of voters bleating anti-tax mantras, and the aggressive tactics of corporate publishers, the great public libraries have kept abreast with the electronic age, and they very much want to buy and circulate free ebooks.
Since corporations don’t consider human rights or needs, only corporate profits, they feel free to use tactics that infringe, ignore, or flout the rights of readers. They are in fact practicing commercial censorship. They are keeping books from us.
If the part libraries play in distributing ebooks gets “frictioned” into insignificance, it will be easier for the corporations to take further control of what ebooks you personally can obtain, how long a book will stay on your reader before you have to pay for it again, and whatever else they want to control. If they see profit in doing any of this, they’ll do it. If small publishers try to sell the books they don’t sell, the big corporations will eliminate the small publishers.
At this point, the U.S. Government shows very little promise of exerting any kind of intelligent control over predatory publishing corporations, and the Department of Justice even seems to be colluding with them.
Libraries are essential because they keep permanent collections — even of unpopular books, even of impermanent, seemingly valueless items — a samizdat from 1940, a newspaper from 1933. Ebooks, including self-published ebooks, would become part of permanent library collections, which could then join the worldwide network of electronic libraries.
The existence or disappearance of a library’s permanent collection isn’t a sexy issue. But it’s absolutely basic to access to information and to the continuity of human knowledge.
If ebooks largely replace printed books, and the public libraries are decimated or eliminated as a permanent resource open to everybody, we may be able to access books only through the corporations. It will not be easy to get a book the corporations have decided is unprofitable, outdated, unnecessary, or unpleasing; it may be very difficult to find out whether a text has been cut or tampered with; there may be no way to know that a book ever existed…. The importance of free, independent electronic libraries, such as Project Gutenberg, is inestimable.
We’d be wise to keep our information base as broad as possible, by supporting the existing public libraries in their heroic and amazingly successful effort to carry on their job in the electronic age.
The goal of the public library has been to give anyone who needs or wants it permanent, unlimited, free access to books. All books.
The goal of the public library in the electronic age is what it always was: to give permanent, unlimited, free access to books — print books, ebooks, all books — to everyone.
Is that worth supporting, or what?
Many thanks to Vailey Oehlke, Director of the Multnomah County Library, for fact-checking, facts, and references.
A useful link:
57. Where Have All the Liars Gone?
What’s happened to the word “lying,” anyhow? Nobody tells a lie any more.
“Deciding to ignore the facts,” “not fact-checking,” “stretching the truth,” “not telling the entire truth,” — in covering speeches by Romney, Ryan, and all the leading Republican spokesmen, the media have a hundred ways of saying that they lied without saying so.
Even Politifact, when proving an outright, deliberate falsification, doesn’t use the word “lie.” They call it “Pants on Fire.” Isn’t that cute, now.
Today, the day after the Republican convention, was the first time I’ve seen an editorial or op-ed piece use the word “lie.” Kind of a landmark? In describing Paul Ryan’s speech, Paul Krugman in fact used the phrase “the big lie,” with umistakable reference to Adolf Hitler’s favorite stratagem.
Calling lies by name won’t affect the Republicans. Some of them are so far out of touch with reality that they wouldn’t know a fact if it bit them, and the rest have desperately adopted disinformation and falsification as their road to election. The Republican politician and voter must “believe in belief” and then turn his mind off. The big lie is their policy, and it has become compulsory. It won’t change now.
But I wonder if calling lies lies might get through to Obama and his advisors and spokespeople? Stupidly, instead of revealing falsehood by steadfastly speaking truth, they’ve been imitating the enemy. Increasingly often their statements “ignore the facts,” “stretch the truth,” and all the rest of the euphemisms. Every time the Democrats lie, they lose that much advantage over their shape-shifting, blame-dodging opponents.
By ceasing to weasel, waffle, shove things under the carpet, exaggerate successes, and evade problems, Obama could show his genuine personal strength. If, without lecturing and shaking his finger at us, he would tell us only the truth as he knows it, we-the-people might rise to that challenge as we rose to the challenge he offered in his first campaign — with enthusiasm, with hope.
“Speak truth to power” is a popular slogan these days. In a democracy, what about the responsibility of power to speak truth?
I’m fascinated by this historical snippet from the New York Times’ “On This Day” feature:
“On October 5, 1947, in the first televised White House address, President Truman asked Americans to refrain from eating meat on Tuesdays and poultry on Thursdays to help stockpile grain for starving people in Europe.”
The first televised White House address — that’s interesting. Imagine a world in which a president speaks to the people on the radio, or can speak only to a physically present audience, like Lincoln at Gettysburg. How quaint, how primitive, how different from us, were those simple folk of olden days!
But that’s not what fascinates me in this item. What I’m working hard to imagine or remember is a country whose president asked his people not to eat beef on Tuesdays or chicken on Thursdays, because there were people starving in Europe. The Second World War had left the European economy as well as its cities pretty well in ruins, and this president thought Americans would a) see the connection between meat and grain, and b) be willing to forego a luxury element of their diet in order to give away a more essential food to hungry foreigners on another continent, some of whom we’d been killing, and some of whom had been killing us, two years earlier.
At the time, the request was laughed or sneered at by some and ignored by most. But still: Can you imagine any president, now, asking the American people to deprive themselves of meat once or twice a week in order to stockpile grain to ship to hungry foreigners on another continent, some of them no doubt terrorists?
Or asking us to refrain from meat now and then to provide more grain to programs and Food Banks for the 20,000,000 Americans living in “extreme poverty” (which means malnutrition and hunger) right now?
Or, actually, asking us to do without anything for any reason?
Something has changed.
Since our betrayed public schools can no longer teach much history or reading, people may find everyone and everything before about 25 years ago unimaginably remote and incomprehensibly different from themselves. They defend their discomfort by dismissing people before their time as simple, quaint, naïve, etc. But I know Americans 65 years ago were nothing of the sort; and still, that speech of Harry Truman’s tells me something has indeed changed. What is the difference?
Being very old, I remember a little about the Depression, and a lot about the Second World War and its aftermath, and some things about Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty,” and so on. This experience doesn’t allow me ever take prosperity for all as a fact — only an ideal. But the success of the New Deal and the socio-economic network set in place after 1945 allowed a lot of people to assume almost unthinkingly that The American Dream had come to pass and would go on forever. Only now is a whole generation maturing that didn’t grow up in the alluring stability of steady inflation, but has seen growth capitalism return to its origins, providing security for none but the strongest profiteers. In this respect, the experience of my grandchildren is and will be very different from that of their parents, or mine. I wish I could live to see what they’re going to do about it.
But this still doesn’t quite take me to whatever it is about that request of old Harry’s that intrigues me so, and that, when I think about it, makes me feel as if the America I’m living in is somebody else’s country.
An education that gave me a sense of the continuity of human life and thought keeps me from dividing time into Now (Us — the last few years) and Then (Them — history). A glimmer of the anthropological outlook keeps me from believing that life was ever simple for anybody, anywhere, at any time. All old people are nostalgic for certain things they knew that are gone, but I live in the past very little. So why am I feeling like an exile?
I have watched my country accept, mostly quite complacently, along with a lower living standard for more and more people, a lower moral standard. A moral standard based on advertising. That hard-minded man Saul Bellow wrote that democracy is propaganda. It gets harder to argue with him when, for instance, during a campaign, not only aspirants to the presidency but the president himself hides or misrepresents known facts, lies deliberately and repeatedly. And only the opposition objects.
Sure, politicians always lied, but Adolf Hitler was the first one who made it into a policy. American politicians didn’t use to lie as if they knew that nobody cared whether they lied or not, though Nixon and Reagan began testing those waters of moral indifference. Now we’re deep in them. What was appalling to me about Obama’s false figures and false promises in the first debate was that they were unnecessary. If he’d told the truth he would have supported his candidacy better, as well as putting Romney’s faked figures and evasive vagueness to shame. He would have given us a moral choice instead of a fudge-throwing match.
Can America go on living on spin and illusion, hot air and hogwash, and still be my country? I don’t know.
I guess it’s become improbable even to me that a president should ever have asked Americans not to eat chicken on Thursday. Maybe it is quaint, after all. “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Yeah, uh-huh. Oh boy! That one did some fancy lying too. Still, he talked to us as adults, citizens capable of asking difficult questions and deciding what to do about them — not as mere consumers capable of hearing only what we want to hear, incapable of judgment, indifferent to fact.
What if some president asked those of us who can afford to eat chicken not to eat chicken on Thursdays so the government could distribute more food to those 20,000,000 members of our community who live way under the poverty line? Come off it. Goodygoody stuff. Anyhow no president could get that past the corporations of which Congress is an almost wholly-owned subsidiary.
What if some president asked us (one did, once) to accept a 55 mph speed limit in order to save fuel, roads, and lives? Chorus of derisive laughter.
When did it become impossible for our government to ask its citizens to refrain from short-term gratification in order to serve a greater good? Was it around the time we first began hearing about how no red-blooded freedom-loving American should have to pay taxes?
I was certainly never in love with the mere idea of “doing without,” as Puritans are. But I admit I’m depressed by the idea that we can’t even be asked to consider doing without in order to give or leave enough for people who need it or will need it, including, possibly, ourselves. Is the red-blooded freedom-loving American so infantile that he has to be promised whatever he wants right now this moment? Or, to put it less fancifully: If citizens can’t be asked to refrain from steak on Tuesdays, how can industries and corporations be asked to refrain from the vast and immediate profits they make from destabilizing the climate and destroying the environment?
It appears that we’ve given up on the long range view. That we’ve decided not to think about consequences — about cause and effect. Maybe that’s why I feel that I live in exile. I used to live in a country that had a future.
If and when we finish degrading the environment till we run out of meat and the rest of the luxury foods, we’ll learn to do without them. People do. The president won’t even need to ask. But if and when we run out of things that are not a luxury, like water, will we be able to use less, to do without, to ration, to share?
I wish we were getting a little practice in such things. I wish our president would respect us enough to give us a chance to practice at least thinking about them.
I wish the ideals of respecting truth and sharing the goods hadn’t become so foreign to my country that my country begins to seem foreign to me.
8 October 2012
59. Catching up with Pard
Not that I ever will... But it’s getting on to a year since we went to the Humane Society and came home with seven pounds of cat. My two blogs about Pard made him some friends on the Net. For them, here is an early anniversary report.
His tuxedo is still impeccable, and his tail continues straight up in the air. But he is now The Ten-Pound Pard, though still on the half-cup a day total recommended by the vet. Friskies or Meow Mix in the morning, Trader Joe’s Chicken Kibbles in the evening. Pard’s idea of a varied, gourmet diet.
But alas, T–Joe changed brands. The new bag of chicken kibbles has lovely pictures of fruits and vegetables on the bag, and much talk about healthy diet, but the contents defy even the Greed of Pard. After gamely chewing at the hard little greeny-brown pellets, he gets discouraged and gives up, something I never thought I’d see him do. Cats are not vegans. They are predators, carnivores, needing about as much vegetable food as they’d get from what’s in a mouse’s stomach. Any effort to persuade a cat that kale and apples are food disrespects the nature of the animal in favor of human moral sensibilities, theories, or fads. Of course all commercial catfood is aimed at the buyer, not the consumer — Meow Mix is all cute little different colored fish, as if a cat gave a hoot in hell about the shapes and colors — but Pard and I both think Trader Joe has gone too far. Fruit catfood? Come on, T-Joe. Get real.
He still gets a little catfood soup daily to increase his water intake. And when his breakfast has vanished and he goes Please, sir, I want some more, he gets his Foody Ball. This is a cute trick: plastic, about 2" diameter, with a hole in which to insert a few kibbles or cat treats, and a kind of screw inside to impede their movement. You put the ball on the floor and the cat bats it around, and every now and then a Foody Fish falls out of the hole, just often enough to keep him interested. At least it keeps Pard interested. My daughter Elisabeth’s cats sit quietly gazing at her, waiting for her to shake the Foody Ball till a Foody Fish falls out of it. She is aware that this defeats the purpose of the Foody Ball, but she hasn’t been able to convince her cats of that. They just gaze at her, and wait. They know.
What matters to cats: 1. Food. 2. Sleep. — Pard sleeps on the bed at night, all night, usually forming a central nucleus or core around which I conform myself as required, it being a known fact that a cat sleeping on a bed causes a wrinkle in gravity that increases the weight of the cat by a factor of ten or more. Often he bounces and pounces for a while, but soon he curls up and sleeps. If disturbed, he purrs a little, recurls, and sleeps. He still sometimes gets up on my pillow, forming a sort of warm nightcap with paws, and sleeps. A paw may come to rest softly on my ear in a comfortable, companionable way. And he continues his custom of starting a good, loud purr just about the time I’m beginning to wake up. A very good way to begin a day.
In the daytime, he sleeps anywhere, so long as it’s near one of us. If I’m working at my computer, he’s often on top of the printer, about 18" to my right. This is very nice until he wakes up and is bored. There are certain areas on and above my desk where paws are strictly, permanently forbidden to go. The owner of the paws knows this perfectly well, but is never, ever going to leave authority unquestioned.
He is still the good cat with the bad paws.
The one time I ever left my computer open and unattended for five minutes, the paws deftly removed the Left-Bracket and Return keys. They can open almost every cabinet we have, and some heavy drawers. Pard feels strongly that what can opened should be opened and what can be gotten into should be gotten into. He practices at it every day. He’s quite reckless about it, and may yet get into real trouble, leaping and diving blindly into every opening in the world. The washing machine was not one of his successful ventures.
The paws are also terrific at bug-catching and cat-toy games, and carry him in mad lightspeed scurries up and down stairs and all over the house at all levels. When he is not asleep, he is utterly awake, and usually in motion. He is the most fully three-dimensional cat I have ever had. Well, no; Lorenzo Bean used to appear thirty feet up in the redwood, swaying sweetly on a tiny branch, while Pard had some difficulty in his single venture up the apple tree. But can he leap! His vertical dimension includes all surfaces of furniture and all tops of things, no matter how high the thing is or what else is on the top of it. We still have hardly a week without a shriek Get OFF THAT! PARD! — followed by a crash, and the scurry of departing paws.
He is an indoor cat by choice. When the weather got good last summer and we began living in the garden and on the second-story decks, we soon let Pard out of his little red halter, free to wander — because he didn’t wander. His garden exploration, even with Charles nearby, was rarely farther than ten feet from the bottom of the back stairs. He would go down, eat some particularly savage, saw-edged decorative grass from a clump of it near the stairs, sit a while looking warily at everything, then go back indoors and throw up the grass on the Afghan rug, where all our cats have always thrown up. He might come back out and birdwatch from the deck for a while, making that little k-k-k-k noise (which scientific observers tell us is not an expression of frustration, but a sound that interests birds). But he was always clearly relieved to go back inside when we did. Now it’s too cold to sit out, he seems perfectly content to be in. He watches a lot of Cat TV through various windows.
I can only think that since his first year of life was spent in a small house crowded with children, our big house with two ancients quietly doddering around in it appears quite enough world to him. And it’s good not to have to worry about the dangers cats face on a street like ours. Yet it’s kind of sad. With those paws, those alert, attentive eyes, that lightning response-time, he’d be a great hunter, if he hunted. But, though no vegan, he is a strict kibbler. And there are no wild kibbles in the garden.
He did bring in a bird once. He left it in the telephone hall, where all our cats always leave their birds. When I had almost stepped on it and shrieked and got over that, I studied the poor tiny body. It was not a new bird. It was distinctly a used bird. It had probably brained itself on a window, or one of the neighbor cats left it in our garden. Pard found it and did the right thing: bring it in and go away, leaving it for the Bandar-Log to dispose of. I did the right thing too.
He still doesn’t believe in laps or being held; only on the bed will he snuggle up close. He doesn’t head-butt our legs, and though he likes to be petted and jowl-scritched, his only affectionate advance is a curiously touching, questioning gaze at close quarters, maybe the slightest nose-kiss. Yet he’s close by us almost constantly. And he’s totally good about having his claws cut: he sits in the crook of Charles’s arm, endures the operation with one or two quiet moans, snarfs his cat-treat rewards, and trots off cheerfully, tail up, looking for something to get his paws into.
I said “believe in laps” facetiously. Actually, I think one of the great things about animals is that they don’t believe in anything. They don’t have to. They know. People like to say that their pet “thinks he’s people,” or “dogs believe their master is God,” and so on, but that’s just talk. An animal knows what it knows, and does not know what it does not know. Between their knowledge and their ignorance there is no vague area for the vast and trackless human jungle of theories, notions, imagination, and beliefs. Your dog knows who he is and who you are and what you are to him. He may well know it better than you do, because his knowledge is unclouded by ideas. And, if also unwarped by fear or bad training, animal knowledge is factual, solid. It doesn’t go as far as imagination goes, it only goes as far as the truth. You can be perfectly sure that your cat is never going to write a treatise on phlogiston, become a Nazi, or start a holy war.
Knowledge, of course, may be sent astray by incomplete or specious evidence. Last spring, Pard knew there were beetles in my Time Machine, because he could hear them. But he kept watching, patiently, with a mind not controlled by the wilfulness of theory or belief. And over time, as no beetles ever emerged from the Time Machine, and there was never a scent or sign of beetlitude except the occasional faint buzzing, he grew skeptical, as you might say; or better, he learned the truth – acquired the knowledge that there are no beetles in the Time Machine. And he stopped trying to get it open.
Then the other day he was suddenly back at it, poking and prying so earnestly that I got curious. I lifted the small, heavy, closely sealed machine up a little bit. A box-elder beetle ran out from underneath it. The paw flashed, the beetle was gone. (There are wild kibbles!)
Since then Pard has paid no more attention to the Time Machine.
Compared to the vast phantasmagoria of imagination and belief, the world of known facts, actuality, reality, may seem small and dull. But it is restful. It offers peace of mind. We can’t live there, but we can visit; and the animals, letting us visit it with them, let us see that it is, in fact, infinite, infinitely rich.
When one of us is about to go away, Pard knows it. He does not know for how long. He does know a suitcase means Longer, and seeing one, grows disturbed and agitated and flies about, causing disturbance and agitation. When Charles is gone, he knows it, accepts the fact, never goes up to Charles’s study. When we come back he knows the instant of it and is there at the front door: the small white-and-black face, the bright gold-and-green eyes. A cheerful scurrying about, a tail straight up in the air. A joyful welcome. Hello, little Pard!
60. Pard and the Poets
Six poets came to my house yesterday afternoon for the monthly meeting of our poetry group. There should have been eight of us in all, but alas Jeannette couldn’t come. She definitely should have been there, because her Ruby Roo is a very bad young cat, like Pard. All the poets own cats, or dogs, or horses, or kids, or grandkids, and they’re all experienced in youth and badness; but Ruby Roo takes the cake. So, anyhow, they all dumped their coats (it was rainy) on the windowseat, and we sat in a circle of chairs around the fireplace and had some tea, and then started to read and discuss our poems. (The assignment had been to write a somonka, which is two tankas, in two voices, a call and a response.) Pard had greeted everybody as they came in, a bit shyly but with some excitement and a strong desire to sniff their shoes thoroughly. By now, he was circling around the edges of the group, occasionally darting through it with his tail up in the air and recurved over his back. (Barbara observed “That cat has a handle.”) Once he climbed the back of my chair and patted my head a little, but mostly he did not demand attention. We were deep in a discussion of where the somonka under scrutiny didn’t quite work and how to fix it, when Molly said in a smothered voice “Excuse me but —” pointing to the heap of coats over on the windowseat. It was heaving strangely. It writhed. A coat sleeve began to twitch as if an unseen arm were entering it. Pard, who likes very much to get into things — boxes, cupboards, bags, garments — was trying coats on. As he got farther in, the sleeve humped up and wriggled wildly. Finally, deep inside the cuff, appeared a pink nose and one slightly desperate green-yellow eye. It was too tight for him to get on out of in that direction or to turn around and get back out of in the other. Caroline finally took pity on him and helped him extract himself — the rest of us were incapable of movement, collapsed in our chairs, paralysed with laughter. It was pretty loud. Pard departed at once from the scene of this uncouth simian behavior. He went upstairs to the attic and sat on Charles’s lap. Quiet, dignified male bonding. Then he helped Charles with his jigsaw puzzle, something he is fonder of doing than Charles is of his doing it. The poets, downstairs, recovered slowly, and went back to their somonkas.
3 December 2012
61. An Attempt to Think as a Free Thinker
With thousands of devout Muslims protesting the enforced Muslimization of their government in Egypt, and since thousands of sincere Christians refused Tea Party pressure to Christianize our government, I need to think about whether I am actually opposed to organised religion, as I’ve always thought I was, or only to the church meddling with the state — to religion claiming control over practical decisions and intellectual realms that, since the Enlightenment, have been taken out of its control.
Voltaire’s untranslatable and invaluable slogan, écrasez l’infâme! — stamp out the abomination! — didn’t refer to religion, as militant atheists would like it to. It referred to policies and activities of the Catholic Church. His passionate hatred of the Church’s interference with free thought didn’t keep him from being a deist, or from accepting the last rites of the church he was born in. L’infâme is not religion but the misuse of religion, religion made into control, degraded from power-to into power-over. L’infâme is the meddling priest and priesthood, the church that declares itself a holy supergovernment above political government, claiming mindless obedience from the individual consciences which are the essential element of a state evolving towards democracy and freedom.
The United States Constitution does not mention God. The only blessings it invokes are those of Liberty. This nation was not conceived “under God.” The men who wrote the Constitution generally acknowledged the value of religion in its own sphere as a powerful force in maintaining community and a guide to spiritual practice, sometimes to moral choice, but firmly maintained the distinction between the religious and the political domains and asserted its necessity in the First Amendment.
Efforts to blur that clarity by permitting or demanding intrusion of prayer and invocation of God into the doings of the government have grown a great deal in the last sixty years. The drive to make America a Christian state have been strengthened by right-wing identification with fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, seeing religion not as a freely chosen community of thought and practice but as unquestioning compliance with priestly teaching and command, sets up religion as the opponent of any community or government except that of its priesthood and the politicians who serve them.
There is no way such an all-or-nothing hierocratic rule can work with democracy. This is the tragedy of Israel, and may yet be that of Egypt.
A church that controls the army and police is enormously powerful. But any fundamentalist priesthood can bully and frighten even the reasonable majority of church members into accepting fanatical extremism, traditionally by keeping half the congregation, women, ignorant and disempowered; by threatening and carrying out punishment for disobedience and heresy; and by activating and harping on sectarian prejudices and hatred.
Unfortunately — and this is what is troubling my conscience now — they can also rely on the prejudices of members of different sects or other religions, and of the non-religious, to supply the scorn and contempt that binds any group into a community full of hatred and self-righteousness, ready to turn self-defense into blind aggression.
An ingroup depends on outsiders to maintain it. There’s no Us without Them, whether we declare them, or they declare us, to be the outsiders.
Israelis who support Netanyahu, the extreme wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the reactionary-religious American movement currently represented by the Tea Party, all act on the self-generated conviction that theirs is the only valid religion and that it must guide political action. But their fanaticism is also a product of liberal prejudice, which too often lumps all Jews together, or all Muslims together, or all Christians together. To identify the many peaceable believers with the few dangerous fanatics is to think as a militant — Us eternally against Them — and so deny any compromise, any hope of peaceful coexistence, let alone democratic collaboration.
It behooves free thinkers to refuse to let the aggressive misuse of religion prejudice our minds against any and all religion. The best answer to the people who want to force us into divisive sectarianism may still be the steadfast silence of the Constitution.
17 December 2012
For an editorial detailing the increasing religiosity of American political discourse, see “The God Glut,” by Frank Bruni, at the New York Times.
In this piece, Bruni doesn’t mention that practising Catholics form a majority of the Supreme Court, at least two of whom (Scalia and Thomas) are members of the highly secretive, extremely reactionary Catholic society Opus Dei (Sotomayor couldn’t be if she wanted to, since Opus Dei, “the work of God,” excludes women). To what extent are such justices influenced by the dogmatic policies of the Vatican? Should justices be expected to state the issues on which they consider their church a higher moral authority than the law and to recuse themselves from judging such issues? Is anyone asking that question? Religious bias in any judge in any court should be the subject of attention and protest. Voltaire, we need you. We need you in the media. Now.
17 December 2012
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