Clowns in the Ruins

A reader with the electrifying name of Mr Sparks writes:

This is a rather strange article which I thought might interest or irritate you, I’m not sure which.

He seems to see sci-fi as a sort of terminally “them over there” sort   of thing, even though he sounds like he’s writing science fiction himself.  And his ruminations on 9/11 are decidedly tangled.

My comment: I confess at the outset that I cannot bring myself to read this article closely. If it is any comfort, I suspect the writer did not mean to have it read closely. It reads like loose ruminations. I will reciprocate by ruminating myself, making no attempt at a rigorous argument, merely listing my impressions.

At the risk of boring you — and the man is drearily boring — let me quote the opening and closing paragraphs of this rambling essay.

On a cold afternoon this winter I sat before a glass wall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, fielding questions about Jewish dystopian literature. Outside was New York Harbour and the audience seemed distracted by the passing boats. My fellow panellist was Joshua Cohen, author of Witz, a novel about the last Jew on earth. My novel The Flame Alphabet concerns a poisonous language spoken by children and is set in a world of failed science where Jewish mysticism might offer the only clue to the language toxicity. Cohen and I were asked, with some impatience, why the future in our novels was so dour. Why write about the future at all when the present was, you know, so interesting? Doesn’t the real trump the unreal? And maybe most importantly: what was this attraction to dark visions of the last days, a burgeoning literary genre that might as well be called “end times porn”?

For years I’ve been asked to justify mercilessly sad endings, stories lacking in redemption and narrative visions that strip characters of their humanity through grueling moral tests. Finally it is difficult to argue – no matter how true it feels – that pain and sorrow, in the literary sense, equal pleasure. Sometimes rhapsodic pleasure. But you know what they say about one man’s pleasure: you start to feel like a fetishist luring customers on the street to come inside and sample the delights of your whip.

The audience that day wasn’t satisfied by the observation that the phrase “happy novel” might be an oxymoron. What a lonely, underpopulated bookshelf would result that could house only happy novels. Neither did it help to intone that “the positive has already been given”. When you quote Kafka, even to a middle-aged Jewish crowd, people cry foul. Kafka was welcome to excuse his own bleakness, but we were not permitted to borrow his alibi.

Yet, in American fiction at least, the end times has graduated into de rigueur subject matter. Increasingly novelists cut their teeth on it and it’s starting to look like a rite of passage. Long a preoccupation of science fiction and horror writing, the apocalypse, as it looms closer, has become more intriguing to writers of literary fiction, more necessary to address. The last days no longer seem like a harmless fantasy. If this is a new development, it is worth considering why the end of the world is poised to join the suburbs and bad marriages as a distinctly American literary fascination.

From this coy smirk about sadomasochism to show his morally relativistic enlightenment, to the name-dropping of Kafka to show his intellectual credential, to his sneer about suburbs and marriages, we eventually descend into this writer’s ruminations on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) – but not to make any insightful comment about it. This is so that the peacock can display the proud tail of his anti-Westernism.

A larger, unanswerable question arises. Do Americans read this book [The Road] differently – say, as a great realist novel – because our nation’s ridi­culous lucky streak (a luck sustained through tremendous violence to others) was broken ten years ago and we got to sample, however briefly, feelings of deep vulnerability?

Nothing of the 9/11 attacks even remotely suggested an apocalypse but they certainly helped expose the troubling fiction of our immortality. Which might mean that fictions of our end times are now, through bad luck or comeuppance, however you wish to view it, among the truest and most realistic stories that we can tell.

To this day I still recall that one of the passengers on the highjacked airliner was a two year old girl flying for the first time to a vacation in Disneyland. The attack on Christendom by the Jihad on 9/11 was not just shocking in its magnitude, but appalling in its brutality and the deliberate dishonor and cowardice of attacking women and two year old children.

To look at this appalling disaster and to smirk that America is to blame, that the blessings showered on this nation were not our earned reward of hard faith and hard work but rather ridiculous luck, that the citizens of the most peaceful nation on earth are the violent aggressors, is a comment of which I can imagine, imaginative as I am, no comment more shallow.

To be precise, I can imagine no comment more perfectly displaying the craving for cheaply earned moral superiority or the unearned moral superiority which characterizes the shallow modern mind.  In the selfsame way the moderns want to be charitable with other people’s money, they want to be saintly by giving scandal, by backbiting, gossiping, pretending that their toleration of vice is a virtue, and pretending their hatred of virtue not a vice.

That is the simple key to explain all the confused and contradictory hurly-burly of the modern mind, its evasiveness, its hatred of the intellectually and morally upright combined with its envy of them, the false gaiety and witless witticisms of its fashionable trendsetters, its obsession with imaginary enemies and its ignorance of reality, its love of weasel-words, its grinding hatred of success. Above all, this key explains their ghastly shallowness, their obsession with surface features and deliberate blindness to any  remote consequences.

Gaze into the exposed darkness of a soul precisely two dimensional in depth, O readers, and stand aghast.

The message of this strange and confused article is that now that America has been attacked, perhaps the conservatives will stop writing about marriage and suburbia, and start writing Leftleaning political tracts, because Leftism is what is important in life, and all that is important in life.

If you cannot see the shallowness of which I speak, let me use an example. Suppose the writer here were a Coca-Cola salesman rather than selling Lefty nostrums. The ancient patriarch Job comes staggering out of his burning house, with the images of all his sons and daughters, burnt alive, still reflected in his eyes, their death screams echoing in his ears, and he gazes at his empty fields where all the herds and flocks representing his life’s work for decades has been obliterated. Even while he falls to his knees, Job breaks out in scabs and boils.

Let the day perish wherein I was born

The Coca Cola salesman smiles with sympathy, and offers that if only Job had drunk more Coke, this would not have happened. In fact, a refreshing cola drink is just the thing when you are having a bad day! Things go better with Coke! I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony….

Have a Coke, Job!

The article is strange because the writer of it cannot openly announce or openly admit what the article is about. 9/11 suddenly shocked the allegedly realistic and self-absorbed yet petty novelists, writing of allegedly real but actually self-absorbed and petty things, into the realization that there was some real world out there. Their self-absorption and pettiness was suddenly laid bare for the world to see.

And the writer here, more petty as self-absorbed than most, offers his nostrum, his soft drink advertisement (ah! if only we had more politics in literature!) goes through the motions of condemning the petty self-absorption of the literati.

He quips that mainstream novels dealing with disasters is “end-times porn” — a moniker which neatly combines contempt for religion with a condemnation of literature as appealing to the most low and loathsome of appetites. But then concludes that apocalyptic literature is the result of Americans suffering their well deserved punishment for — well, I am not sure what. Saving the Jews during World War Two? Saving civilization during the Cold War? Establishing peace on the high seas and policing the world for no reward except spit in our faces? Ushering in an age of wealth and prosperity the like of which history holds no peer?

No, the sin is the only sin petty envy recognizes. The writer is pleased with the mass deaths of 9/11 because the Americans were finally punished for our success.

What I am calling strangeness is the half-hesitating tone, the perfunctory almost absentmindedness of the condemnations of all the typical bugbears (American militarism, suburbia, marriage). I think this tone springs from the uneasiness that comes from accusing others of one’s own flaws.  He is the most petty condemning the petty. No wonder it rings hollow.

Even the dark and dismal stories the writer evidently loves are petty to the point of absurdity: children in a death camp in Poland telling ghost stories about haunted houses or werewolves yet they sit in the shadow of the smogs that roll upward forever from the ovens where their parents and cousins are being gassed and cremated by Nazis. What is the scariest ghost story in the world compared to that?

Science fiction has always (with the sole and sad exception of the pompous ‘New Wave’ fiction of Moorcock and his ilk) taken itself more lightly even though its subject matter was more profound. We tell lighter stories about heavier subjects, much like a fairy tale does. Because of that levity, men like Robert Heinlein can be man enough to admit that what we do is clowning. We entertain the crowd, like stage magicians, like clowns.

So we have been writing stories about the end of the world since the days of Mary Shelly and her plague and HG Wells and his Morlocks. The first Buck Rogers story (published in 1924) was called ARMAGEDDON 2419, and dealt with the downfall of the West to the airships of Asia. In the seminal novel LAST AND FIRST MEN by Olaf Stapledon the whole human race is brought to its downfall no less than eighteen times.

The smoke of the Twin Towers comes as less of a shock to conservatives as it does to utopians because we expect war and rumors of war to last until the Second Coming of the Lord, that is, all human history.

The utopians, deceived by a gross misunderstanding of Darwinism, seem to think Darwin promised them societies would get better and better, growing from primitive savagery to barbaric empires, to Catholic feudalism, to Lutheran parliaments, to Revolutionary democracy and Capitalism, and then to Chancellor Hitler and modern-scientifically managed Soviet Totalitarianism, Eugenic control of the population to breed the superman, and abortion of all unsightly Negro babies.  And after that the Federation of Star Trek when all war and suffering will be abolished, death itself conquered by human medicine, and Caesar will wipe all tears away.

Certain problems haunt this delirious vision. The first of which is that if the totalitarian dictatorship of perfect freedom envisioned by the visionaries ever came to pass, the first people divine Caesar would kill would be the visionaries. Plato praised Sparta in his vision of the Republic, but the Nocturnal Council of Sparta would have killed all philosophers more quickly than the unruly democracy of Athens. The second is that it is impossible logically. The third is that it is silly to the point of stupid. But the final and greatest objection is that Darwin promises endless competition between organisms, a war of nature bloody in tooth and nail, without peace and without cease, saying only that whatever survives is that which best fits the environment.

Well, killers best fit warlike environments, and traitors best fit treasonous environments, and the fat and lazy and blindly ignorant couch-potatoes and college-professors produced by the luxury and sloth of a successful civilization are fitted for no environment but the protected hothouse where such delicate orchids bloom, and no cold winds blow.

According to Darwinian reasoning, the persons best suited for Darwinian reproduction are Catholic Crusaders, since they neither abort nor contracept, and since their Inquisitions and Holy Wars will wipe out all rivals without mercy. And if he is at the same time Uncatholic enough to be a racist, he will wipe out bloodline with whom he has the fewest genes in common. Not one Utopian has been led by his allegedly Darwinian logic to embrace the morality dictated by the selfish bloodline.

So when the disaster happens, they are taken by surprise, and their pride is shocked.

Science fiction has been dealing with disaster and Ragnarok since the dawn of the genre. Dystopian novels have always outsold utopian, as can be noted when we compare the sales of NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR by Orwell and BRAVE NEW WORLD by Huxley, whose tropes have passed into common parlance, with obscurities like LOOKING BACKWARD by Bellamy, or Huxley’s own unread and unreadable ISLAND.

By the fraction of a hair, we SF geeks are a less pompous genre than the mainstream — I exclude Moorcock’s New Wave, of course, which was intolerably “relevant” ergo pompous — and no clown in his right mind would ever even imagine that his clowning and pantomime had anything significant to say to an audience watching the tallest towers in the world burn on the afternoon when peace ended and an endless war began.

And yet it is one of those ironies of life that all Science Fiction readers to hold the present concerns of the present day lightly looking (as we do) to imaginary futures, and that all Christian gentlemen who hold the things of this world lightly, looking (as we do) to a hope of heaven beyond the walls of the world, and who admit we are clowns and admit we are amused by clowning, it is we who can say sober things concerning the dark days that gather about us; whereas the self-important self-absorbed snobs and self-righteous pharisees, concerned with nothing more than the fashions of the hour and the appetites of pride, attempt to speak great things and deep, and they sound as absurd as clowns.

It is almost as if whosoever will save his pride shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his pride, the same shall save it.