Tuesday, August 19, 2014

reading Russ: "The Wise Man" (1955) and "Martyr" (1957)

reading Russ table of contents

The young Joanna Russ, it seems, felt Wagnerian certainties to be a force she needed to counter; and the second of her three Cornell Writer stories, "The Wise Man" (November 1955, later appearing in revised form in the October 1970 Cimarron Review, never collected or anthologized) begins much in the way that "Innocence" did before it — with some playful fiction-calling-attention-to-itself surrounding an invocation of the name Siegfried:

All characters are purely coincidental, and to prove it, her name was not Sigrid or Ingrid or even Siegfried, but very simply Jennifer (abominable, lacy name!) — Jennifer Valerian in Chicago, but that was not her real last name.
(I am quoting from the significantly cleaned-up Cimarron version.)

That "Innocence" was science fiction where "The Wise Man" is not is in part signaled, I think, by the fact that in the earlier story the character's name was not Siegfried but could remain "something like that," while here the non-Siegfried in question must have her name, or at least her first name, reduced to an abominable, lacy mundanity. Indeed both "The Wise Man" and the last of the early stories, "Martyr" (in the April 1957 Cornell Writer and, as far as I can tell, never reprinted in any form, anywhere) are much more what I expected from the teenage, Cornell-going Russ than was the surprising "Innocence": awkward attempts at entirely ordinary stories that earn the tendentious term some in sf circles use, "mundane fiction." Despite the unusual opening of "The Wise Man" (and the story settles down considerably as soon as that unsettled sentence has passed), these stories are pretty much exactly what you'd expect of a young white Jewish American woman writer in the latter half of the 1950s, beginning to chafe against most of those adjectives, the noun, and the time, but as yet knowing no alternative and so throwing herself into a received understanding of all of them.

"The Wise Man" is, in most technical terms, the "better" of the two stories, but for me is marginally the less interesting; it attempts to be a witty tale of a masculine-leaning "college girl" from a working-class ethnic-white background in frustrating but mutual love with an un-self-consciously effeminate college boy ("I keep telling him You have an Oedipus complex and he keeps saying So what" — rather startling and not particularly believable in 1955) but, though there are flashes of Russ's later wit and many precursors to the particular tics and techniques she would use to great effect later on (the parenthetical commentary in the opening sentence, the unpunctuated dialogue-in-dialogue of the sentence I just quoted), the story mostly succumbs to a kind of undifferentiated quirkiness, and at any rate is so firmly beholden to a form (the standardized American short story form, already well-established, about to be endorsed, promoted, and ossified by the CIA through the academic creative writing programs it would soon begin fostering) in which any given work can only distinguish itself by technical virtuosity — the skill with which the form is filled in — that this story, written by a woman who has not yet developed anything approaching viruosity, is ultimately forgettable even in its own terms.*

* "Innocence," though better-written by my lights, is also far from virtuosic, but both in its science-fictionality and in its own specific terms it does not need to be.

Perhaps a feminist scholar with a focus on this particular time, place, and milieu would be interested in the story. Certainly, a biographer looking for evidence of the young Russ's psychosexual development or sociopolitical awareness levels or whatever would find many passages ripe for underlining, but ultimately they reveal nothing Russ doesn't tell us herself in any number of essays (and in much of the later fiction). One point of minor interest for me is that, given the timing of the story's second appearance in 1970, it seems likely that Russ would have been doing the necessary revisions (substantial but not transformative) for that publication very shortly before beginning work on "When It Changed" and The Female Man; with this in mind, it is tempting to wonder if she came across her by then fifteen-year-old sentence, "She had often thought how pleasant the world would be if it consisted entirely of her and men," and felt the need to...revise it. But this is merely a curiosity. Even if we could say with certainty that yes, this is one of the roots of Whileaway,* I don't think it has much power to shed any light on the works set there that they don't already shed on themselves.

*And it could only be one of many, especially given the prevalence of women-only societies imagined in men's sf. Russ's own "Amor Vincit Foeminam: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction" is the classic survey of such stories.

"Martyr" would no doubt possess similar mild scholarly or biographical interest to the right researcher. Its attempt to portray a woman stifled is palpably important to its writer, but as with "The Wise Man" it, and its main character, end up lapsing more into mere quirkiness. Part of the problem, I think, is that Russ has yet to figure out just what is being stifled. Of course this is itself a symptom of the problem she's trying to get at, but where "Innocence" and the soon-to-come "Nor Custom Stale" (not to mention much of her life's work!) would address themselves directly to these kinds of foundational difficulties (How is one to understand a problem from inside of it? How can one portray what was never allowed to exist? What am I doing, writing?), "Martyr" just as much as "The Wise Man" is so devoted to the merely-given form of the American short story as Russ found it in the 1950s that all she can do is try to "straightforwardly portray" even though she has no way of knowing what to portray.

But that she seems to come close to understanding these problems is what makes "Martyr" ever so slightly the more interesting of the two to me. Throughout the story, the viewpoint character Judith (another of Russ's many J-named woman protagonists) thinks about "the novel she was going to write," which sounds like a kind of Gothic, Gormenghastian kind of thing (he said, never having read Gormenghast), about "beautiful people" who "lived in a house on a marsh, lived there eternally and could never come out of that prison," people who, variously, have visions, live in the tower, have "eyes that could catch on fire" and suffer beautifully in their sexy-sensitive-youth sweaters, and so forth. "They were all trying to get out and they never would," we're told, in a line that would be far too on-the-nose, too much an amateurish attempt at self-awareness — in this story of a woman trapped by marriage, by academic "friends" and community, by being a woman in a world belonging to men — were it not for the fact that Judith does not know how to write her novel.

Did Russ realize this yet? Judith's unwritten novel, about a group of people trapped in a shared situation but each suffering individually, mirrors her own (naïve) sense of herself as individually different, individually stifled, underneath it all individually superior (particularly superior to other women, at whom she frequently lashes out in her mind) — a sense common to many women in many times who have understood that they live in a society that seeks to rob them of their life but who have been denied the resources and perspective to see that they are not the only one so dispossessed — sort of the women's counterpart to the Angry Young Man.

Is Judith's inability to write at all a sign of what's been suppressed in her, or is her inability to write that novel a sign that what has been suppressed is beginning to come to light? Or is it both? Is not-writing the antithesis of writing, or are they more closely linked than that? Is the absence of writing in itself a kind of writing (or vice versa)? In Russ herself we can see the act, even the fact of writing to be inextricable from these questions (even when, much later, she will come quite firmly to answer some of them), which indeed will contour the remarkable story of stasis and entropy that is soon to come. "Martyr" is ultimately not a particularly good story, nor a particularly interesting one. But that such questions can even be asked of it is, perhaps, a sign that the writer of "Nor Custom Stale" — the writer we know as Joanna Russ — is about to come into being.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Atavism, degeneration: one reason (among many) to read Lovecraft

For Lovecraft the present (for him, a period of approximately 200 years even during which there is notable decay and which ends decisively precisely at the moment he writes [he also makes some exceptions for classical Greek and Roman civilization]) is livable, acceptable — except that if you look even slightly under the surface the unbearable past is still horribly there, and the unbearable future is already horribly prefigured.

The past and the future are one for him, and they are horrible — time runs from chaos (particularly in the original Greek sense of the word) to chaos (the end state of the entropy thermodynamics alerts us to).

"Nyarlathotep . . . the crawling chaos . . . I am the last . . . I will tell the audient void . . ." The story named for that being begins with an utterance of its name, the word's pronounceable unpronounceability and recognizable unrecognizability (along with the fractured ellipses) a signal reminiscent of the grammatical oddities following the letter beth, ב, at the start of Genesis or the not-quite-reconcilable longtemps that Proust begins with*: a signal of a rift between the world (or what we think of as the world) and the word, that with this word we have left the world of appearances and have entered — something else. (Characteristically, the story's narration proper, the human "I", begins in the next paragraph with uncertain recollection: "I do not recall distinctly when it began..." Uncertainty, horror, dissolution: like his notion of the universe, Lovecraft's stories very often begin and end with these, and have much of them in the middle as well.)

*The observations about the openings of À la recherche and the Bible, and the connection between them, I owe — as I do so much — to Gabriel Josipovici, this time in The Book of God. (At any rate, full disclosure, I certainly am not capable of reading either of them in the original. The significance of beth's appearance as the very first letter of Genesis, according to Josipovici's account of some Talmudic interpretations, is that it is closed on all sides except that which faces the text that follows, marking the separation and distinction of the Bible from everything else.)

In encountering Lovecraft it at first seems peculiar, even laughable, that he has an equal terror of anything too new (subways) or too old (ancient temples). The immediate response is to think, this weirdo doesn't realize these are different things, and both innocuous. Bearing in mind what I've said so far, I think the more appropriate response is: we may not, but he realizes: these are the same thing, and both pose a fundamental threat.

He is famous, often ridiculed, for his tics, certain words that he repeats over and over like a kind of incantation against disintegration (his own? that of his work? of what he took to be the world?), some for more obvious reasons than others: "nameless", "squamous", "non-Euclidean"... I find it significant that among these, with equal weight given to both and both appearing often in what amounts to a single breath, are:



Any discussion of Lovecraft must come to his racism at some point; and here I will throw myself into it, reminding the reader and myself as I do that in what follows I am addressing only one aspect of the encounter with his work. If a terrible metaphor will help, what I've written thus far (what cries out for expansion) is for me the trunk of the Lovecraft tree, and the racism is just one (very large) branch — or root — or both.

He sees the presence of non-white (and inappropriately "ethnic" white) people in "his" society as a sign — literally a sign, not the thing itself in its full reality — of the irruption into the superficially livable present of both the ancient (atavism: the primitive) and what is to come (degeneration: what he would designate "decadence", what I would designate, with different significances and in the recognition that it is not arriving but accelerating, already having arrived, "modernity"). He is of course wrong, morally and factually, but his is a wrongness deeply rooted in "Western civilization" and its self-conception, and like many deeply held terribly wrong beliefs it is a recognizable distortion of the truth: in that modernity has built itself on the destruction/exploitation (two aspects of the same thing) of the foundation that non-"Western" people laid before modernity rolled over them (the past); and could not continue to stand without the constant rebuilding of that foundation through labor squeezed out of these same people through continual, well- or poorly-hidden violence (the ongoing present, for Lovecraft in my scheme "the future").

To put it mildly, I can certainly understand why any given person of color might not want to read Lovecraft; why go out of your way to expose yourself to more vicious racism? (I can equally understand why other people of color would want to read him.) But when white people refuse to read him specifically for this reason (I would not want to elide the fact that there are other reasons not to want to read him, though I likely would object to them all!) it often strikes me as a form of the liberal insistence that there is no problem (anymore), or that there will be no problem (soon), or that there would be no problem (if everyone would just ignore it), or that sure, there is a problem, but it lies anywhere-but-in-me. Part of what Lovecraft does is to lay bare — precisely by hurling himself into them! — the mystifications of liberal modernity. The racism is in us, and we are in the racism.

If this were all he did, to read him would be nothing more than to wallow in guilt (that ineffectual pleasure). But this is not all he does. Another part of what he does (emphasizing that he does much more still; remember the tree — I am staying on this same branch/root) is to remind us, to throw his very life and body into the understanding that the-way-things-are is not, emphatically not, permanent, that it is only a temporary and quite probably illusory state of being that has overtaken the past and will be overtaken in its turn by the future. The seeming stability of this way of life is merely the most superficial of disguises. I would call it modern and capitalist ideology covering for the profound instability of these systems; Lovecraft, no doubt, would not. We would both agree, though, that what it hides, what tearing it away might reveal, is as of now nameless, and indescribable.

(So as not to close with seeming to read hope into Lovecraft, I wish to clarify that this is not exactly what I'm trying to do. There is no hope in Lovecraft unless it is that sometimes our dreams may be pleasant. I suppose I am simply trying to say: the radical and the reactionary are not always as mutually exclusive as we'd like to think; and Lovecraft's insistence that modernity's appearance of inevitability, permanence, and stability is nothing but a lie is, despite and even as part of his most horrifying and hateful beliefs, again I say it is a radical movement.)

(A hypersimplified version of what I'm saying might be: for those of us who are not its direct victims and who are indeed in many ways its direct beneficiaries, haughtily to refuse to read what we find ideologically incorrect for this reason and this reason only is not a path even to purity of mind, let alone to righteousness of action.)

Friday, August 1, 2014

Different things do different things

Ted Gioia wrote a characteristically nincompoopish piece on Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics for The Millions, in which he makes some sweeping claims — based on his usual unexamined premises, misapprehensions, and philistinism — about that work as some kind of a "science fiction masterpiece" that is not recognized as such because, he insists, "almost no science fiction fan has read it, or even heard about it" on the one hand, and on the other the supposed snobbery of literary-types keeps them from recognizing it as being "in the sci-fi genre." This prompted a (characteristically) cranky comment from me. Since it will probably remain buried there and I think it's an important issue, I reproduce it here (where it will also remain buried):
1. Science fiction people talk endlessly about how Calvino “is” science fiction. To say that “sci-fi readers” haven’t read him is absurd, unless you specify what group of “sci-fi readers” you mean.

2. Unless you define what you mean by the term, to say this or that work “is” science fiction (even more so, to say that it is “in the sci-fi genre”!) is equally absurd. Though parallels can be drawn, and certain aspects of his writing will appeal to the same people to whom science fiction appeals, there is no reason to aggressively claim Calvino, and every other writer of whom the same can be said, for science fiction. To do so is to erase the very different things Calvino (and others) are doing. Even in your own extremely superficial description of Cosmicomics, let alone in the book itself, it’s clear that the reason Calvino doesn’t “show up anywhere near Heinlein and Asimov on a bookshelf” is not that he “is deemed” (by who exactly?) “too respectable” (science fiction has not been disreputable for decades now, and it’s time its more aggrieved partisans realized that), but rather that he is doing something entirely different.

That such basic, aggressively incurious pieces that refuse to ask even the most beginner-level questions of themselves continue to get published is a mystery, and a shame.