Friday, April 5, 2013

After us will follow...?

Bertolt Brecht's poem "On the Poor B.B." includes these lines:
We know we're only temporary and after us will follow
Nothing worth talking about.
And I wonder if this sentiment, kept in mind (in tension no doubt) with all the others which variously lead people to write sf, might not lead to really vital work.

I quote these lines from Hannah Arendt (in her translation?), in a footnote to her introduction to Illuminations, the collection of Walter Benjamin's essays which she edited. Arendt quotes Brecht in reference to the feeling shared by Benjamin and many of his contemporaries that "all traditions and cultures as well as all 'belonging' had become equally questionable." She discusses all this in terms of the pre-WWII German-Jewish intellectual milieu through which Benjamin moved, but the relevance is broader by far: it's not a problem of one particular moment in history that's done with; if anything, the problem is even worse for us now.

What wisdom the past may have offered to us is in many ways gone, unattainable, leaving in its place only pain and alienation--not only for the reasons people like Arendt and Benjamin (and in his different way Iyer) tend to discuss--as if those weren't enough!--but also because, as Adrienne Rich writes in the fifth of her "Twenty-one Love Poems,"

                            Once open the books, you have to face
The underside of everything you've loved--
The rack and pincers held in readiness, the gag
Even the best voices have had to mumble through,
The silence burying unwanted children--
Women, deviants, witnesses--in desert sand.
"There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism," writes Benjamin in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History."

As a reader of the modernists I am accustomed to thinking of the tradition as unavailable, the past as holding out a promise of wisdom and beauty which is ultimately unreachable, though the inevitably failed effort must always be made--because after all what else can we do?

As a reader of sf I am accustomed to thinking of the future as...the future! But the present is alone--in both directions.

To some extent much sf grasps the "we're only temporary" portion of Brecht's lines--in its various futures we ourselves are often remembered only mistily, if at all; a gulf separates us from the futures we read about. But in another sense sf frequently does not grasp this temporariness in all its implications--that is to say, the ways it leads into the next part of what Brecht tells us. After all, you might say that most sf is predicated on the assumption that what will follow after us is very much worth talking about!

And there are certain ways in which this assumption is not wrong. But in other ways, from the point of view of the temporary present the future--which, remember, must eventually become the temporary present and then in turn the lost past--is already much the same as the past: lost to us in irrelevance, silence, and bloodshed. More racks and pincers, more gags, more barbarism. Or worse: Arendt quotes Benjamin, from a letter of 1935:

Actually, I hardly feel constrained to try to make head or tail of this condition of the world. On this planet a great number of civilizations have perished in blood and horror. Naturally, one must wish for the planet that some day it will experience a civilization that has abandoned blood and horror; in fact, I am...inclined to assume that our planet is waiting for this. But it is terribly doubtful whether we can bring such a present to its hundred- or four-hundred-millionth birthday party. And if we don't, the planet will finally punish us, its unthoughtful well-wishers, by presenting us with the Last Judgment.
I sense in this implications for the practice of sf far beyond the obvious Brunnerian ecostastrophes that leap immediately to mind at that last sentence (not, by any means, to belittle ecotastrophe, in fiction or in reality).

A deep sense of the isolation of the current moment may seem inimical to all things sfnal, and maybe it is--but if so perhaps it is (or could be) inimical in much the same way that the absence of the traditions of the past is to a literature that could create Ulysses, or Orlando, or Doctor Faustus. Just as Joyce and Woolf and Mann both cannot and must reach to the past, perhaps sf writers both cannot and must reach to the future.* Perhaps this is what is at work in, say, Cordwainer Smith's bizarre fragments, his stories each a moment (often a silly, self-aggrandizing moment, but a moment nonetheless) lost in some mistily immense future--just the first example that leaps into my mind.

*And, I would say, the same relationship to the past is simultaneously necessary...

On a more "prosaic" level, any sf to be taken seriously must surely take into account what I've had Rich and Benjamin say to one another above. Any writer, indeed, must remember that the barbarism inherent in civilization is in a very direct sense what enables their own writing to exist--even if they are, as most of us are to one extent or another, also a victim of this barbarism. Specific to sf, if one wishes to depict some possible future civilization* one must remember that any civilization's other face is barbarism, that the desert sand may from time to time seem to be lifting off of the unwanted children, but that sand is shifting, and women, deviants, witnesses will always be in danger of being buried in silence. One must also try to understand why.

*And though I shudder at the notion that sf is or should be "predictive" and have my problems too with its being described as "extrapolative" (as I hope this essay helps in part to explain), it does, or should, deal in the possible--broadly speaking, and with much allowance for the impossible, rendered with aesthetic plausibility.

I do not say that a better future is impossible, cannot be depicted, but we cannot just say "half the people on the spaceship are women and there's never ever war" (or whatever) and be done with it. Nor do I say that every work of fiction must deal directly with the underbelly or the margins--but every work should be aware that they exist.

And every work should be aware of just what these things are, the past, the future, and the present, no matter where it locates itself among them. Though of course this location raises issues of its own: what does it mean to treat the future as "now"? And so on...

I fear that this is an essay only in the most strictly etymological sense--and a failed one, at that. I doubt if I've expressed even the jumbled thoughts I hope I have. I hardly know what I'm calling for, if anything. Reading over what I've written, I can see my words seeming to be a call for only utopias, or only dystopias, when really neither will do; or for a blanket defeatism; or for sf always to be simplistically "political" or pretend to be "apolitical" (which nothing, nothing is); or for some sort of ahistorical solipsism; or for greater "realism," so-called; or for sf to be "more like modernism." I want none of this. Perhaps I'm not even calling for anything different in the writing--only in the reading. I don't know. I want from all fiction an awareness of the situation we find ourselves in, and perhaps if we're lucky some kind of illumination on it. I want this from science fiction too; but I want it in the ways that only sf can offer it. What these ways are, I'm afraid I'm still not entirely certain; but sometimes, I think, I get them.

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