Archive for September, 2014

Sex/Dream Metaphors – Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J.G. Ballard, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (Fourth Estate 2014)

DNAncientNeanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, Svante Pääbo (Basic Books 2014)

The Cult of CthulhuH.P. Lovecraft: The Classic Horror Stories, edited by Roger Luckhurst (Oxford University Press 2013)

Rauc’ and RoleMortality, Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Books 2012)

#BooksThatShouldNotBe — Tip-top Transgressive Texts…

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Extreme Metaphors Interviews with J.G. BallardExtreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J.G. Ballard, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (Fourth Estate 2014)

This book reminded me of one of Ballard’s most remarkable stories:

People were now clambering all over the giant, whose reclining arms provided a double stairway. From the palms they walked along the forearms to the elbow and then crawled over the distended belly of the biceps to the flat promenade of the pectoral muscles which covered the upper half of the smooth hairless chest. From here they climbed up on to the face, hand over hand along the lips and nose, or forayed down the abdomen to meet others who had straddled the ankles and were patrolling the twin columns of the thighs. (“The Drowned Giant”, 1964)

There are lots of interviewers in this book clambering over the gigantic person and work of J.G. Ballard. But Ballard is alive, not drowned, so he responds to the clambering feet and clutching hands. He laughs and wriggles. He offers a commentary on his own body, explaining his own scars and birthmarks, demonstrating his own reflexes and justifying the use he’s made of his muscles. By the time you finish the interviews, you’ll understand the giant better.

And you may have had some surprises on the way. Ballard liked Margaret Thatcher and didn’t like drugs:

This story [“The Voices of Time” (1960)] also came without drugs, and that, I believe, confirms what I’ve just said, that the human imagination is [capable of anything], it doesn’t have to fall back on artificial stimulants, on chemicals, to release something that the brain can do even on its own. A fertile imagination is better than any drug. (“1982: Werner Fuchs & Joachim Körber. An Interview with J.G. Ballard”, pg. 145 – translated from German)

He didn’t practise what some thought he preached:

People used to come out to this little suburban house [Ballard’s home in Shepperton] expecting a miasma of drug addiction and perversion of every conceivable kind. Instead they found this easy-going man playing with his golden retriever and bringing up a family of happy young children. (“1995: Will Self. Conversations: J.G. Ballard”, pg. 315)

The giant was gentle, you see: he wrote a lot about violence, but didn’t believe in practising it or promoting it. Which becomes a bit of a shame in the interview by Will Self. How good would it have been if Ballard had lifted his gigantic fist and turned Self into a splot on the floor? Very. Alas, it didn’t happen.

And I must admit that the Self interview has some of the most interesting replies in it. But Self’s presence is a reminder that Ballard appeals greatly to the Guardianista community, which is not a good thing. Most of the interviewers here are Guardianistas or some overseas equivalent and they often pursue a Guardianista agenda. Fortunately, Ballard doesn’t say “in terms of” very often, but it would have been interesting to have questions about more things than are in the Guardian’s philosophy. Ballard shared that philosophy in some ways:

Of course men, on account of their greater physical strength, were the dominant figures in most social activities: commerce, industry, agriculture, transportation. Those activities no longer require a man’s great physical strength. A woman can just as easily fly a 747 across the Atlantic. A very small part of industry requires brute muscle. A woman computer programmer can control a machine tool that cuts out a car door. A large number of traditional male strengths, in both senses of the term, are no longer needed. The male sex is a rust bowl. (“1995: Will Self”, pg. 312)

There is much more to the difference between men and women than physical strength. It’s easier for a woman to use a gun than to fly a 747, but almost all gun-crime is committed by men. There are genetic, neural and psychological reasons for that. But men differ too, within races and between them, which is something else that Ballard and his interviewers don’t acknowledge. I’m puzzled by this, because Ballard saw big differences between races in his childhood: English, Chinese and Japanese. He later wrote about them extensively. Did he think they were simply due to upbringing and culture, that the human race was one-and-indivisible?

H.P. Lovecraft didn’t and Lovecraft is a regrettable absence from this feast of analysis, prophecy and metaphor – just as William S. Burroughs is, for me, a regrettable presence. It would have been good if the former had replaced the latter, with Ballard discussing and praising Lovecraft instead of Burroughs. After all, H.P.L., like J.G.B., drew on dreams, not drugs. But I assume Ballard never read Lovecraft and perhaps never even heard of him. That’s a shame, because Lovecraft might have fertilized Ballard’s work with even stranger and stronger ideas. And might have made him use mathematics more.

But Lovecraft wouldn’t have needed to fertilize Ballard with humour, because it was already there. The giant was ticklish. The world made him laugh and so did his own work. There’s a lot of fun in Extreme Metaphors:

Crash a corrupting book? I’ll take my younger self’s word for it. (“1984: Thomas Frick. The Art of Fiction”, pg. 185)

There’s also a detailed index and a clever cover: a crashed, overturned car, a mysterious solar/sanguinary glow and some blue inviting sky. If I wish that Lovecraft had fertilized Ballard, I also wish that Ballard could have fertilized Lovecraft with gusto, joie de vivre and optimism:

I would say we were moving towards an era where the brain with its tremendous sensory, aesthetic and emotional possibilities will be switched on, totally instead of partially, for the very first time. The enormous, detailed, meticulously chosen reruns [of everyday life] that I have been talking about will give one a new awareness of the wonder and mystery of life, an awareness that most of us, for biologically important reasons, have been trained to exclude. […] After a million years or so, those screens are about to be removed, and once they have gone, then, for the first time, men will really know what it is to be alive. (“1979: Christopher Evans: The Space Age Is Over”, pg. 131)

If you’re interested in the giant, you can clamber all over him here.

Elsewhere other-posted:

Vermilion Glands – review of The Inner Man: The Life of J.G. Ballard (W&N 2011)

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Neanderthal Man by Svante PaaboNeanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, Svante Pääbo (Basic Books 2014)

An excellent guide to science in all its aspects, from theory and practice to sociology and politics, describing how scientists think, work, live, love and sometimes cheat. It’s a book about bones, but it made me think about stars. In the nineteenth century, Auguste Comte set an absolute limit on the ambitions of astronomy:

On the subject of stars, all investigations which are not ultimately reducible to simple visual observations are … necessarily denied to us. While we can conceive of the possibility of determining their shapes, their sizes, and their motions, we shall never be able by any means to study their chemical composition or their mineralogical structure … Our knowledge concerning their gaseous envelopes is necessarily limited to their existence, size … and refractive power, we shall not at all be able to determine their chemical composition or even their density… I regard any notion concerning the true mean temperature of the various stars as forever denied to us. — Comte quote

Comte seemed completely right, but was in fact completely wrong. Fraunhofer had already discovered his lines by then and one day astronomers would be using “spectroscopic fingerprints” to “determine the mineralogy of asteroids, the composition of stars, the gravity of white dwarfs, the motions of galaxies, the dynamics of accreting black holes, and more – all from the comfort of a telescope control room” (30-Second Astronomy, ed. François Fressin, 2013).

Comte could have easily have said something similar about palaeontology, but perhaps it seemed too obvious. How much would scientists ever discover from ancient bones? They could weigh them, measure them, compare and contrast them, even analyse their chemical composition, but what would bones ever tell us about the flesh that had once sat on them, about the behaviour of vanished bodies? Very little, it once seemed.

A lot, it turned out, because of something called DNA. This book is about one of the most interesting projects in scientific history: the quest to reconstruct the genome of those long-extinct humans called Neanderthals. Except they’re not entirely extinct, as Svante Pääbo discovered: their genes live on in some modern humans, because we interbred with Neanderthals when we left Africa. Some of us also interbred with a group called the Denisovans, as Pääbo describes too. And there are other groups of archaic interbreeders to be uncovered, inside and outside Africa. Groups of human have separated, evolved differences, and then come together again, but not consistently and completely.

This has big implications for human bio-diversity, or HBD: races are different not just because they’ve evolved to be, but because they’ve interbred to be. Pääbo doesn’t discuss those implications, but there’s no propaganda here about “One Race – the Human Race”. The journey he and his team have begun is going to end in storm and lightning, because Neanderthal genes are doing more than stick around for the ride. They must have physiological and psychological effects, separating those who possess them from those who don’t. Ditto for the Denisovans and others.

So the search isn’t over and this book will have sequels. I look forward to reading them, because Pääbo writes well and engagingly in what isn’t his mother-tongue. Born in Sweden, he’s now “director of Department of Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany”. For an evolutionary anthropologist, he’s very famous: “In 2009, Time named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World”. He describes how he got there, the compromises he had to make and the toes he tried – and sometimes failed – to avoid treading on. But it’s mostly a story of obsession and ingenuity: Pääbo was obsessed with reconstructing a Neanderthal genome and had to be highly ingenious to do so. Luck and hunches were important too:

Most labs discard side fractions as by-products. Fortunately we had saved all of ours from our previous experiments. For years I had insisted on doing so, just in case something came along that would make them useful. This was easily one of my least popular ideas and caused many freezers to be filled with frozen side fractions that no one thought would ever be used. But thankfully in this case the crazy idea of the professor had been adhered to by the group. So now Tomi could simply heat the side fractions from earlier preparations from the Vindija bones and retrieve additional, relatively copious amounts of Neanderthal DNA without having to do any more extractions. (ch. 13, “The Devil in the Details”, pg. 145)

Pääbo is writing a popular account, so there isn’t a lot of technical detail, but there’s more than enough to be impressive. Genetics isn’t stamp-collecting: it requires serious intellect and nowadays serious computer-power and programming too. Pääbo couldn’t do all of that on his own: modern science is a collaborative endeavour. He directs a team and this book describes their ingenuity and idiosyncrasies. But in a way they’re a burial party. Science is now measuring mankind for its coffin. The more we know about ourselves, the more we will be able to surpass ourselves. This book about an obsessive human is also an early obituary for the human race.

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Classic Horror Stories by H.P. LovecraftH.P. Lovecraft: The Classic Horror Stories, edited by Roger Luckhurst (Oxford University Press 2013)

Lovecraft has come a long way. From the margins to the mountebanks, you might say, because he’s getting serious interest from American and British academics nowadays. In France, he got it a long time ago:

In the late 1960s, the French academic Maurice Lévy wrote a thesis on Lovecraft as a serious fantasiste, continuing the French love of all things tinged with Poe. In turn, the radical philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari used Lovecraft as a touchstone for notions of unstable being and becoming-other in their revolutionary manifesto, A Thousand Plateaus (1980). (“Introduction”, pg. xiii)

I didn’t realize it was as bad as that. Then again, I already knew that the Trotskyist gasbag China Miéville had been influenced by Lovecraft and had intensively interrogated issues around Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia. Roger Luckhurst interrogates them too. After all, they’re a glaring flaw in an important and highly influential writer. How could HPL have been so egregiously wrong and in such an offensive way?

Well, perhaps he wasn’t wrong and perhaps he wouldn’t have written so imaginatively and powerfully without his crime-think. The psychologist Hans Eysenck suggested that psychoticism — which is distinct from psychosis – was essential to genius. But was HPL a genius? In his way, I think he was. It wasn’t a purely literary way and perhaps HPL is bigger than literature. He wasn’t a genius like Dickens or Kipling, because you don’t read Lovecraft for literary skill, psychological subtlety and clever characterization. No, you read him for sweep and scale, grandeur and grotesqueness, darkness and density. You should also read him for humour:

In February the McGregor boys from Meadow Hill were out shooting woodchucks, and not far from the Gardner place bagged a very peculiar specimen. The proportions of its body seemed slightly altered in a queer way impossible to describe, while its face had taken on an expression which no one ever saw in a woodchuck before. (“The Colour out of Space”, 1927)

Like J.G. Ballard, Lovecraft is often misread as lacking humour. In fact, like Ballard, he’s often very funny. This book is a joke he would have appreciated: there’s something blackly humorous about his posthumous elevation to hard covers and high-quality paper under the auspices of the Oxford University Press. His work is now getting more care than his body did: as Luckhurst notes in the introduction, HPL died of stomach cancer at 47 as “an unknown and unsuccessful pulp writer” (pg. xii). Is he better in a pulp paperback, with battered covers, yellowing paper and no notes? Yes, I think he is, but he’s best of all when he’s both paperback and hardback. I don’t like literary studies in their modern form, but Roger Luckhurst doesn’t slather HPL in jargon or suffocate the stories with notes.

So the notes aren’t intrusive, but they are instructive – for example, about HPL’s modesty and self-doubt. Did he really think “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936) “displayed evidence of a ‘lack of general ability’ and a mind corrupted by ‘too much reading of pulp fiction’” (“Explanatory Notes”, pg. 470)? Then he was a giant who mistook himself for a pygmy. But that’s better than the reverse. Most of his greatness is collected here, from “The Call of Cthulhu” to “The Shadow Out of Time”, though I would have dropped “The Horror at Red Hook” and included “The Music of Erich Zann”. I would also like to drop China Miéville and include J.G. Ballard, but unfortunately HPL didn’t influence Ballard. I wish he had. Mutual influence would have been even better.

Nietzsche did influence Lovecraft and Lovecraft’s work can be read as, in part, an attempt to confront the death of God. Spirit departs the world; science invades. Where are wonder and horror to be found now? In “The Call of Cthulhu” or “At the Mountains of Madness”, stories that draw on astronomy, geology and biology to awe us with space, time and organic possibility. And Lovecraft, unlike Nietzsche or Ballard, recognized the importance of mathematics. That’s most evident here in “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (1933), which mixes trans-Euclidean geometry with ancient superstition. But maths isn’t the only influence on this story: so is M.P. Shiel’s novel The House of Sounds (1896). I didn’t know about that and I’m glad to have learnt it. That’s good scholarship, introducing readers to older authors and deeper influences. It still doesn’t feel right to read Lovecraft on clean white paper in a heavy book, but it’s good that he’s come up in the world. Let him bask in the sun before the Übermensch arrives.

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Mortality by Christopher HitchensMortality, Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Books 2012; paperback 2013)

Christopher Hitchens died as he lived: writing badly. And raising a lot of questions. Why did intelligent people, some of whom write much better than he did, heap so much praise on him? “Characteristic of his elegant wit,” said the Times of this final brief book. The Irish Times called its author “unremittingly elegant, a master of elegant prose”. Elegant? Elephantine is more like it. As a sample of Hitchens’ execrable style, try this:

…kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system (part I, pg. 7)

Why did “bag of poison” become “venom sack”? Why not simply say “bag of poison” and then “the bag”? Because Hitch followed the adolescent – and irritating – rule of varying words for the sake of it or out of a mistaken fear of boring the reader. Fowler called that rule “elegant variation”. He was being ironic. Which is ironic, because Hitch was supposed to be a master of irony.

He wasn’t. He was a master of pomposity and plodding platitude. For me, he was the Tony Blair of journalism: an untalented and unoriginal man who enjoyed success far beyond his merits. True, there is some good writing here, but Hitchens wasn’t responsible for any of it. Nor was Graydon Carter, an editor of Hitch’s who wrote the introduction. No, the only good writing appears in the afterword by Hitch’s wife Carol Blue:

By the time I saw him standing at the stage entrance of the 92nd Street Y that evening, he and I – and we alone – knew that he might have cancer. We embraced in a shadow that only we saw and chose to defy. We were euphoric. He lifted me up and we laughed. (Afterword, pg. 96)

Carol Blue knows how to play the instrument of English. Her late husband didn’t. She can conjure reality. He couldn’t. But she increases the puzzle of Hitchens’s bad writing not just by doing what he didn’t and couldn’t. Hitch liked Waugh and Wodehouse, but refused to follow their literary example and write well. He also failed to learn anything from three more very good writers, as Blue reveals here:

Slightly down the page he wrote what he wanted me to bring from our guesthouse in Houston:

Nietzsche, Mencken and Chesterton books. (Afterword, pg. 100)

How could Hitchens read those three and still write so badly? Elsewhere Blue offers a glimpse into something that helps explain it: the smugness and self-satisfaction of Hitch’s life and world:

At home at one of the raucous, joyous, impromptu eight-hour dinners we often found ourselves hosting, where the table was so crammed with ambassadors, hacks, political dissidents and children that elbows were colliding and it was hard to find a space to put down a glass of wine, my husband would rise to give a toast that could go on for a stirring, spellbinding, hysterically funny twenty minutes of poetry and limerick reciting, a call to arms for a cause, and jokes. “How good it is to be us,” he would say in his perfect voice. (Afterword, pp. 94-5)

That “perfect voice” is part of the key to Hitchens’ success, I think. Americans appear to be suckers for a Brit with a posh accent and lots of self-confidence. Moving to the US was the best thing Hitch ever did for his career, because he could play the role of patrician intellectual and polemicist much better over there.

And once there, as he described in Hitch-22, he made friends with other pseuds and windbags, like the late Susan Sontag, also hugely self-confident, also hugely over-rated. She is also an example of how Hitch’s Jewishness was a factor in his success, I think. His maternal ancestry was much more evident in him than in his conservative brother Peter, a better writer and thinker who has fully rejected his youthful Trotskyism, not transmuted it into neo-conservatism as Hitch did. But Peter is pricklier and much less good as schmoozing than Hitch was. He hasn’t attached himself to a powerful clique and propagandized for it, so he wouldn’t have departed on a wave of eulogy and affection if he’d died instead.

I don’t think Hitch deserved the eulogy. The affection is another matter: that’s personal, not public. There was obloquy from some too, but although I disliked and disagreed with him I didn’t like the way he died. It’s wrong to want someone to have a painful and unpleasant death because you disagree with them. I don’t believe in free will and I don’t think that consciousness is responsible for our choices. It’s only consciousness that suffers, not the part of us that chooses.

Hitch bore his own suffering bravely and without abandoning his principles: “If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does” (pg. 91). That’s not funny or original, but he did at least try. He tried to write well about dying too, but he didn’t succeed. I found that a relief, because cancer is an unpleasant and frightening thing. That’s a final unintended irony of a literary life that will, I predict, look smaller and more misguided with the years.

Previously pre-posted (please peruse):

Cigarettes and Al-Qaeda – a review of Hitch-22: A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens (2010)

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