Theodore Sturgeon

Standard

Theodore Sturgeon was a science fiction and fantasy writer who did his best work in the 1940s and 50s, but is still worth reading today. I don’t know much about his life, except that he was a brilliant writer. Although his first collection of short stories wasn’t very good–it shows a writer serving his apprenticeship by first writing artificial stories before learning to write something real that people might respond to deeply–his next two collections were amazing. He wrote a few novels too, also very good, but his best work was short stories or novelettes. I don’t know if that’s significant or not, but some artist prefer a smaller canvas.

Somewhere I read that he had a bad, abusive childhood, about which I know no details, but it does make his work more interesting because one of his frequent themes is that of the outsider longing to be accepted. He could get into the heads of a variety of people, and show why they did what they did, good or bad.

Science fiction and fantasy may have given him some advantages, but one disadvantage was that it probably didn’t pay as well as mainstream fiction at that period. And since his best work was about human beings, I doubt he needed a science fiction or fantasy framework. Maybe he just preferred that.

I think most writing, and maybe most art, is about morality or ethics in some way, and so was his. One such ethic, explicitly reflected on, was survival. That’s deeply ingrained in us, but there are different levels of it. The most important level is survival of the species, then of the group, and the individual only last. If the individusl survives at the expense of the group or species, that’s likely to be an evil.

Not that a majority is always right. Sturgeon wrote a short story showing homosexuality among both aliens and humans (the latter not literally enacted), and a number of people thought he was gay after he published it. Apparently not, from his own and others testimony: he was just compassionate.

Like anyone else, people who have been abused have some choice in their responses. They can allow the abuse to destroy their lives (which can be difficult to avoid), or they can transcend it. I don’t know what kind of abuse Sturgeon suffered (though some of his child characters are abused), and I don’t want to trivialize what a lot of people have suffered, but Sturgeon seems to have transcended whatever he did experience. He looked for love, and found it, as evidenced in his own writings and the recollections of others.

Interestingly, he seems often to have suffered from writer’s block, which may have something to do with the odd perspectives his stories take. For instance, a man diswcovers a voodoo doll that works, and finds a distinctly odd and sitastefall way to destroy it. Or an alien race whose individuals vomit up their digestive systems into the faces of attackers. There are others, but I won’t extend the list.

Probably his greatest novel (which is really three interrelated stories) is More Than Human, about a possible next step in human evolution: what might be called Homo Gestalt. It’s something like individual as family: different individuals have different functions, but are part of something different from a traditional family in ways not easy to define. The main difference is that all the individuals seem strange to the outside world, not least in having psychic powers.

The first component is an idiot–literally. But he has telepathic and hypnotic powers that help him survive and develop to the limited extent he can.

The second is a little girl, also somewhat telepathic, who has psychokinetic powers: she can move objects with the power of her mind. She takes up with twin black girls with speech impediments who can teleport (travel from place to place through mental powers).

The idiot lives for awhile with a farmer and his wife on an isolated farm, helping them, learning from them, and through that interaction reaching something approaching normal human functioning. The farmer’s wife gives birth to what looks like a mongoloid child, and dies. The mongoloid child turns out to be something analogous to a computer, though he never learns to care for himself. He never learns to talk either, so the only one who can interpret what he says is the psychokinetic girl.

With the addition of him, the parts are all assembled: the girls as hands and feed, the mongoloid computer, and the idiot as the head. With human contact he’s developed as far as he’s able, but he’s biologically incapable of very wide horizons. Some time before his accidental death the group takes in a boy, who subsequently replaces the idiot. The story goes on from there, but Sturgeon’s viewpoint is clearly shown in the characters he chooses to form this Homo Gestalt: all of them societal rejects for one reason or another. Most of us wouldn’t bother to look for talents in what seems to be such unpromising material. Sturgeon implicitly chides us for that.

There are analogies to such a group in nomal human life: families, tribes, cities, nations, corporations, musical groups, sprots teams and armies are some, but those are approximate, not equivalent. All are similar in terms of the whole being more than the sum of its parts (when the group works really well, which historically isn’t consistent), but not all are as intimate. Some experience something akin to telepathy in playing sports or music together, but this seems not to be an ability that’s reliable in any other circumstance. And human groups tend to have internal bickering or one person tyrannizing over the others. So does the one described. The group may be more than human, but not THAT much more.

If we take the American nation as an example, the framers of the US Constitution attempted to eliminate the possibility of tyranny (but not of bickering), and did a very respectable job of that, but human ingenuity still managed to find opportunities.

And there’s always the question of the individual versus society. Where does each individual’s rights end, and those of society begin? It’s impossible to see the answer to that as every being cut and dried. There’s always a balancing act. Sometimes individuals demand too much from society, sometimes the other way around. It’s useless to demand that the individual be selfless unelss he or she is willing to demand it of him or herself.

But Sturgeon sees real life as connection. That’s what his characters want, though not all can attain it. In writing about life he writes about love, and what it can achieve. The individual may love, and if so, he or she has hope. Without love there’s no hope.

George Will’s Post-election Views

Standard

George Will, in a column entitled Starting All Over Again, is optimistic about conservatives chances to capture America’s heart, as long as they change their minds about a few issues. He quotes Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, “A more affirmative, ‘better angels’ approach to voters is really less an aestheic than a practical one. With apologies for the banality, I submit that, as we ask Americans to join us on such a boldly different course, it would help if they like us, just a little bit.” I suggest it would also help if ordinary Americans thought Republicans were willing to share the sacrifices the course they suggest seems to entail.

But Will is refreshingly open-minded about issues that haven’t done Republicans any good. He says immigrating is really entrepeneurial, in that people do so to improve the lives of themselves and their families. He also suggests that Republicans need not endorse same-sex marriage, but they don’t need to despise those who favor them–especially young people. The drug war he characterizes as a classic example of the evils of big government.

I can’t disagree with much of the above, but I wonder how many conservatives will be able to change their minds to that extent. Such issues seem to be emotional ones for conservatives, part of who they are, at least for the older generation. Maybe younger conservatives don’t find these issues as nauseating as do their elders. `

Where I really disagree with Will is in his stereotyping of liberals as being “enthusiasts of big government”.  Conservatives have been no less enthusiastic about government spending when it comes to the military, which, I read tonight, comprises some 41% of all military spending in the world. He also mentions “the regulatory state’s metabolic urge to bully”. Regulatory agencies don’t have a patent on bullying: Republicans showed us in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio they considered the destruction of unions and the cutting back of the safety nets for the most vulnerable to be in their best interests. President Obama won those three states in his reelction campaign. When big corporations send jobs overseas and have no sympathy for those whose jobs were destroyed, it’s hard to imagine ordinary people liking the Republican viewpoint. Particularly when they’re being disparaged as being irresponsible.

As long as Republicans enjoy blaming the victims of their fiscal policies, it’s hard to see a place for them in a country that’s no longer primarily white. If they want to be a majority party, they need to find ways to appeal to people who aren’t white, aren’t Protestant, aren’t necessarily Christian or heterosexual. If they can’t understand that these people can be as good Americans as they, what business do they have aspiring to govern?

One of my friends at work told me he watched the election returns come in on Fox, and it was like magic. I observed that probably a lot of the people on camera were really upset with the way it went, and he agreed, saying especially Karl Rove. Rove didn’t want to believe it when Obama won Ohio, and from my friend’s description, it didn’t sound as if he was particularly polite about it.

This makes me wonder about the conservative mindset I’ve mentioned in at least one previous post. A lot of the people who claim to speak for conservatives seem to be very angry people, despite being often wealthy and powerful. Is it just a matter of anger attracting an audience? Is anger just a face they put on when they’re on the air? It doesn’t seem that way to me, and makes me wonder if conservatives perceive liberals as also being angry. After all, liberals have things to be angry about too. A sign I saw on Facebook said, “Why do we have to protest this shit AGAIN?”

My generation, growing up in the 1960s wanted to change the world, and we have, in a number of ways (I can’t claim to have had much to do with that). But we haven’t ended injustice of all kinds, let alone poverty or greed. No doubt some of us are hypocritical (no group has a patent on that either), but so are conservatives. When they try to suppress votes on the grounds of voter fraud (which no objective observer is able to detect to more than a minimal extent) they betray their knowledge that their positions are unpalatable to a lot of people and that they wish to impose their views on those people. That’s also why they talk about environmental groups “dictating” to them. They want to be the ones dictating.

And that’s the problem with politicizing the challenges the country faces to the point that it’s hard for anyone to look at a whole range of issues with any impartiality. Energy, climate change, racism and treatment of other minorities, to say nothing of foreign policy become so charged that it often seems that no one can stop to think long enough to actually do anything about them. The problems are difficult, and there are no easy answers, political or otherwise, so most prefer to mindlessly repeat slogans and do nothing. It may be getting clearer to people that we’re living in a new world, and that a lot of old behaviors simply won’t work anymore, but it’s still not very clear to a lot of the people whose positions protect them from the worst of the daily difficulties many Americans have.

Mr. Will is obviously not a poor man, and he doesn’t seem to indulge (except perhaps by implication) in the oversimplification that anyone can become rich. I’m not certain if he equates wealth with virtue, as some do, either. He seems more sophisticated than that.

Interestingly, Mr. Will view the Citizens United decision favorably and notes that “7 of the 10 highest-spending political entities supported Democrats and outspent the three supporting Republicans, according to the Wall Street Journal.” For me it’s heartening that Republicans weren’t able to out-spend Democrats (if true), as I had feared that Republicans would be able to buy the election. I’m grateful to have been wrong this time. Mr. Will thinks that over time the most plausible side will be favored, which, he says, conservatives know is theirs. I don’t find the conservative side more plausible, and considering their behavior in attempted voter suppression, I’m not so sure they do either. It’ll be interesting to see how all this works out.

Stephen Calt, Skip James, and the Blues

Standard

In the 1950s or 60s some whites became mystical about the musical form blues, finding it an unusual sort of sound, considering it a voice of all African-Americans, and so on. Stephen Calt was one of those people, and later collaborated on a biography of Charlie Patton, and wrote one himself about Skip James, whom he’d personally known. But by the time he came to write these books he had become disillusioned with the whole blues phenomenon. Why was this?

One reason that the whites listening to blues weren’t really listening, and were getting excited about music that wasn’t really that good. This may have been especially true of the white collectors who branched out from jazz, beginning in the 1940s to begin collecting blues records, and became more interested in the most obscure recordings rather than the most plentiful, never considering that the most obscure blues musicians might have been obscure because they weren’t very good.

At the same time, the two people Calt considered to be among the best, especially among early blues musicians, Patton and James, were obscure to most people. If they heard their music, they didn’t notice it was of higher quality than most.

Calt suggests that blues began from one particular song: Roll Jordan, by Charles Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, because of its rhythm pattern. Most recorded blues musicians used this pattern by rote, and few were able or willing to innovate. Patton and James were among those few. Patton with guitar playing of higher standard than the usual, and James unusually playing both piano and guitar well.

Calt punctures the idea of blues as mystical or the voice of a whole people. In the black community blues was considered devil’s music, and blues musicians really spoke only for themselves in their lyrics: they were generally mean and self-centered, very interested in sex, but not in romance. Most of those who got recorded weren’t some representative of a particular community, but professional musicians, using their recordings to advertise themselves and make more money performing. Skip James characterized blues musicians as a bucket full of crabs: if any one got close to climbing out of the bucket, others would pull him (or her) down. James epitomized this himself. He’d observe other musicians, trying to learn anything he thought he could use, but rarely tried to teach anyone anything.

Why were blues musicians this way? A majority came from broken homes and were alcoholics. Generally dysfunctional people. Patton was a successful musician for 25 years or so, and had a lot of women, as musicians often do, but treated them badly. James was from the following generation, and became a blues musician, Calt suggests, because that was practically a prerequisite for becoming a pimp. He made most of his money from pimping and bootlegging (though he also did his share of physical labor), so music was a professional sideline for him. But he never would have gotten as good as he did if it hadn’t meant something personal to him.

Calt questions why he waited so long to record. It had been suggested to him in 1927, a time when a lot of solo guitarists were being recorded because of the success of Blind Lemon Jefferson, but he wasn’t interested at that time. He said he’d been in the hospital, but he didn’t much like hospitals in later life. Whatever the reason, when he finally did record, in 1931, he was really ready and delivered some masterpieces.

Must Have Been the Devil, 22-20 Blues and I’m So Glad were three of them. Robert Johnson plagirized 22-20 Blues in his own 32-20 Blues, used the motif of Must Have Been the Devil for his own Hellhound on My Trail, and Cream much later covered I’m So Glad. In Calt’s opinion James couldn’t have developed further as a musician without going outside of blues. That’s not what happened, though.

First, James had picked a bad time to record. The country was in the depths of the Great Depression, so his records didn’t sell, and it may be just coincidence that any of them survived for collectors to discover. He made very little money from them, so there wasn’t much incentive to record again, even if anyone had wanted him to.

Second, he ran into his father, who had left his family when he was very young, and had become a successful minister, with a theological school in Texas. James tried to impress his father by playing blues (his father had once been a blues musician), but didn’t. He decided to go to Texas and attend his father’s school.

This was an odd decision, as James was most drawn to criminal enterprises, having little good to say about any other line of work. He considered gamblers to be “progressive”; few others would describe them that way. And he habitually carried a gun, and said everyone knew he was willing to use it.

So going to his father’s school might have been a way to comfortably ride out the depression, but it didn’t fit well with the rest of his life, and he doesn’t seem to have made  a U-turn at the time. He still played blues fairly often to pick up some money, but he also seems to have been impressed with Christian doctrine (though he never behaved in a particularly Christian way, even during that time), and he was intimidated by his father, though he made a point of being intimidated by almost no one else. In Calt’s opinion, this part of his life turned him away from blues because he became convinced being a blues musician would send him to hell, though he also characterized himself as “…one of the best men who ever walked.”

So it was quite ironic that he became one of the rediscovered blues musicians in the early 1960’s, along with Mississippi John Hurt, Son House and others. This time became another source of Calt’s dis-illusionment: he saw the people who had discovered these musicians using them to make money, with little concern for the musicians’ welfare. Several of them recorded albums, few of which sold very well, and performed concerts. James got booked into coffeehouses, where he couldn’t make much money, and where few were interested in his music. The one time he played a college concert he did much better, but there were no further attempts to book his concerts in colleges.

But the other source of Calt’s disillusion was James himself. At the time Calt was most interested in learning to play guitar as well as James and finding out more about his music and about other musicians he was interested in whom James might have met. But James didn’t want to give guitar lessons, and he wasn’t interested in other musicians. He was interested in himself and his philosophy of life. That, he liked talking about, and though Calt might not have payed a lot of attention at the time, those conversations gave him plenty to think about later.

He found that James had been a violent man, always carrying a gun or knife, and ready to use them. He’d had sex with a lot of women, but had cared little for most of them, considering them willing to betray him, as he was willing to betray them. He rarely put anything personal into his lyrics, but in one song he said that if he went to Louisiana he’d get hanged for sure. This might have been just a random line, but he’d frequently told Calt he’d never visited Louisiana (though he’d traveled through most of the rest of the south) because of the racism there. On the other hand, he’d mentioned some landmark in Louisiana, indicating he HAD been there after all. Why was he at such pains to deny it?

Calt thought later that James was rarely willing to tell much about himself because he had things to hide. In one incident he’d begun telling Calt a story that he’d told before, and Calt reminded him of it. He said it was the only time he’d seen James seem at a loss, or even afraid, and suspected James was wondering what else he might have said that he’d forgotten.

James could rationalize his violence against people as self-defense, but Calt thought he’d committed crimes that he considered crimes: maybe armed robbery, for instance, and that enemies he frequently talked about might have really existed, since James had not been a nice person.

It’s curious just why Calt became so disillusioned, though. He had heard something in blues, something that interested him enough to lead him to analyze the music and research the musicians and their lives. Was whatever he’d heard in the music been imaginary?

We all want our heroes to be heroic, but many have feet of clay. Charlie Patton and Skip James were great musicians, but not great people. That tends to be true in any line of endeavor. Greatness in one area doesn’t often lead to overall greatness.

And musical sophistication isn’t the only measure of musical worth. Keith Richards described the musicians he listened to as the Rolling Stones were getting started, like Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reeed, as producing songs of only one or two chords, that might at first seem boring, but when they were over you wished they weren’t. That’s something different from musical sophistication in any ordinary sense. The musicians Calt turned away from inspired a lot of young English musicians in the 196os, and a number of them were musicians of a pretty high order. You or I might not be able to hear blues with their ears, but perhaps they could hear things most of us couldn’t–maybe even Stephen Calt.

It’s as if Calt’s later distaste for blues was really a distaste for the whole human condition. Blues musicians often lived a sordid lifestyle, but they also got hold of something in blues that was powerful. That they were tempted to misuse this power isn’t particularly surprising. It’s not like they were the only ones. Black ministers were notorious for having sex with women in their churches, and it’s not as if whites were particularly more virtuous, especially in that time and place.

Calt says James spoke out to him about the Jim Crow system, but he never left the south, as several of the other rediscovered musicians did. He didn’t object to the system when he had an in with the boss, as he often did in his moonshining career. He was a violent man, but discreet enough to direct his violence at blacks instead of whites. Otherwise he might well not have survived, since whites weren’t exactly shy about being violent against blacks. Not in Mississippi.

James liked to think himself a good man, but when he was dying he had little to be proud of. He’d never raised a family, he had few if any friends. He believed in Christian doctrine, but didn’t behave the way Christians are supposed to. The only thing he seemed to have to be proud of at death was his excellence as a musician, and that his version of I’m So Glad was better than Cream’s.

He told Calt that he had more to tell him, but he wasn’t sure if Calt could take it. Calt was at a loss, since James had already confessed a number of shocking things. He thought about the persona James projected, and what he’d learned about what was beneath the surface, and thought about some of the curious aspects of James’s history.

It came to him that James hadn’t wanted to record in 1927 because he didn’t want to advertise where he was, probably because he was doing things he knew to be criminal in the eyes of the law, and in his own eyes too. He was able to rationalize shooting at people (and probably killing at least some of them) as self-defense; these other offenses he couldn’t rationalize, so he may well have had the enemies he often talked about. So, Calt says, he wondered just who Skip James was, and how much he had refused to reveal. The last sentence of the book is, “I’m still wondering.”