How does someone become crazy? I think there are at least three primary factors: one is genetics, another is congnitive dissonance and a third is trauma. Some people apparently inherit genes that predispose them to depression, bipolar disorder and possibly schizophrenia.

With schizophrenia, I recall reading long ago that there was a high correlation among victims whose mothers had had the flu during their first trimester. This makes some sense, as a virus can reach the fetus, while bacteria usually can’t. Just what the virus may have done to the developing brain I don’t know, and I’m not sure if anyone does, but that’s a fourth possible factor.

Cognitive dissonance is when someone is lying to you explicitly or implicitly, and you want to believe them, but your perception tells you otherwise. That can make people crazy. especially if it’s combined with trauma.

There are a lot of kinds of trauma. Divorce can be traumatic for adults and children both. For some, having been adopted can be traumatic, depending on the situation in the family, and how the family deals with the adoption. Then there are the various kinds of abuse: verbal, physical and sexual, all of which can have an impact. Bullying has been in the news a lot, and has been cited as the frequent cause of teenage suicide, particularly of teens who are different in some way. Those perceived to be gay can be especially at risk, but it also applies to those who are overweight, are the wrong color or religion, or maybe even just shy. Teenagers can be merciless, especially when they’re insecure themselves, and that doesn’t apply just to teenagers. Consider all the hate groups in this country. Why do people find it necessary to hate?

About 45 years ago I was given a book called Training for a Life of Growth. The author remarked that the predicament of a chameleon on plaid was mild compared to the conflicting influences young people are subjected to. Those influences have only proliferated since then, and you can see some of the effects in politics, among other things.

The Republican party in particular, though not alone, is increasingly based on beliefs instead of facts. No one in the party wants to give you a straight answer about abortion, inequality, race, or the climate, to name just a few issues. All of these touch a lot of people emotionally, so that they often can’t think rationally about them. And there are plenty of people willing to take advantage of other people’s irrationality.

To believe, for instance, that our use of petrochemicals for power and a lot of other products is a factor is global warming is threatening to a lot of people because its implication is that we need to change our lives in a radical way. People fear change, and understandably, since it can be catastrophic. But it’s more likely to be catastrophic the less we’re willing to face it and begin dealing with it. That approach applies to a lot more things than just climate.

So there are climate change deniers, just as there are Holocaust deniers. You could argue that these represent a form of insanity, even if they don’t match our stereotypes. Denial of reality can be a form of insanity, even if it doesn’t take the form of wild hallucinations, as in schizophrenia.

It follows that whole groups, and even societies, suffer from a sort of collective insanity, or delusion, if the term suits you better. Groups and societies ostracize anyone who believes things that go against collective beliefs, to one extent or another. In this country we’ve been relatively open to new and different ideas, but not always. Wilhelm Reich, the psychiatrist and scientist who was a colleague and student of Freud, had his scientific work declared fraudulent by scientists who rarely, if ever, tried replicating his experiments, his books were burned, and he was sent to prison, where he died. Were his discoveries valid? We still don’t know. Few, if any, are trying to replicate his research.

Immanuel Velikovsky was another psychiatrist and scientist whose published ideas ignited a firestorm among scientists. Among other things he thought that Venus had been ejected from Jupiter and become a comet, that it had several times passed near Earth, at one point causing the Biblical plagues of Egypt, and that Mars had also passed near Earth. Besides that he gave much evidence for the Great Flood recorded in the Bible and a lot of other places, which scientists had decided was a mere legend, since they believed that nothing to do with religion was reliable knowledge.

Velikovsky never received an unbiased hearing from scientists while alive, but at least some of his predictions proved true: Venus’s surface is very hot, it has a tail (though no longer visible), and Jupiter emits a large quantity of radio waves. What seems insane now may turn out to be quite true later.

Individual behaviors can be caused by many things: some genetic, some environmental, some to do with personal histories and relationships. These behaviors can sometimes be disturbing, if not downright bizarre. To the extent they’re based on individual perceptions, they may turn out to be understandable, if not actually reasonable. Hindus and Buddhists talk about Maya as a sort of delusion we all suffer, which we might call collective insanity. They say it’s possible to learn to see reality as it is, though the lives of bacteria are too short for us to clearly perceive, as the lives of stars are too long. Still, within the constraints of our construction and field of activity, we can learn to see more clearly and sanely. This may or may not affect the people we see as clearly insane. Some are too damaged to be able to heal. But those of us only relatively insane have some choice in the matter. All we need is courage and commitment. And possibly some kind of guidance.




A couple of decades ago I worked with “developmentally disabled” people, which had become the politically correct way to refer to retarded people. Retarded was the term used when I was young, and one of my sisters was retarded to the point of never learning to walk, talk, feed herself or anything else. My mother taught a class of retarded children for a couple of years, so I got some exposure that way too.

The occasion for my working with retarded people was the closing down of the institutions in which they had previously been housed. At one time the fashion had been to institutionalize everyone, then it became to get them out of institutions. I’m not really sure just how well that worked, though some anecdotes suggest it may have been better for a lot of the people.

For example, there were never enough supervisors to prevent the strong from stealing food from the weak at mealtime, according to one story. In another story, one retarded woman told a woman she was working with that she would lie on her legs. That refers to the custom in the institution of people holding down a person so another could have sex with them. Probably something that happened pretty constantly. So-called normal people often like to look down on retarded people, but they’re very human. It’s just that they’re not equipped to hide the warts as well as others.

One woman I worked with wasn’t really retarded. Her father liked to mess around, and eventually left her mother with a lot of children. He became a fairly prominent politician in the state. The mother, if I remember correctly, had a nervous breakdown, and the children were shipped from one family to another until they ran out of families. D and her twin sister were then put in an institution for the retarded. When they reached 18 her sister left. D, meanwhile, had gotten raped, and had developed behavior problems, as ought not to be too surprising. She stayed.

In fact, she really hadn’t wanted to leave. She had settled into a routine in the institution that she was comfortable with, involving lots of coffee and cigarettes, and had no interest in taking on adult responsibilities. She knew she could get away with things because of her status, and couldn’t see any rewards coming from changing her behavior.

She hadn’t had any schooling, so there were lots of things she didn’t know about. One of the workers there told me that she asked about buildings they passed in a town, whether they’d been there when the Indians had lived in the area or not. The sort of question that wouldn’t even occur to a person who was really retarded. Really retarded people, in my somewhat limited experience, don’t have much intellectual curiosity. In other respects they’re not so different from other people, though.

As I mentioned above, the strong are always able to pick on the weak, as is usually true among “normal” people. They want to be liked too, some of them desperately. One man always wore a shirt with breast pockets, and one of those pockets was always absolutely stuffed with pens because the important people at the institution always had pens in those pockets. On the other hand, he got hit by a car when crossing the road, and I think broke his arm, or something similar. Pain medicine was prescribed, and when I visited him I had to encourage him to take it. He didn’t want to. I couldn’t always understand what he was saying, but he had a very nice demeanor.  There was a restaurant where a lot of the people used to go, and one day someone started picking on him. Other customers in the restaurant made the perpetrator stop, which pleasantly surprised me.

D was pretty often a handful. She was self-centered, and always wanted attention, but that’s not surprising, the way she came up. At one point she was moved into a house with another graduate from the same institution who might have been about ten years younger. Too bad they didn’t like each other. They both liked music, but not the same kind, and the other woman was louder and much more interested in the opposite sex.

I knew that D didn’t like the other person, so I used to take the other for rides after supper–until D got jealous. She thought I preferred the other woman’s company. It took her aback when I explained what I was trying to do.

I don’t know if anything I did was of much help to her. She was in her forties when I met her, and wasn’t about to change anything. She may have gotten as far as considering change, but I guess it was too scary for her. She just continued along the way she was going.

The last time I saw her I was no longer working with her, and she came to visit me one day. Her voice had gotten huskier from smoking, and I doubt that she’s still alive. She was one of the people that fall through cracks in the system and never manage a very happy life except in a very limited way.

The High City


I’ve read a number of Cecilia Holland’s novels, and in The High City I’m still marveling at what a good writer she is. She starts that novel with about 50 pages of description, which is unusual, but she brings it off.

Not that she can’t do dialogue. Her dialogue is usually truncated, hinting at more than it overtly reveals, and primarily between males. Her protagonists and characters are usually male, though not always, which made me wonder about her.

Mary Renault, the novelist who wrote about ancient Greece, and sympathetically about the homosexual mileu of that time, turned out to be a lesbian, as I’d suspected (which didn’t stop me from particularly admiring her work, with some exceptions). Holland wrote mostly about men, often about men at war, and prominent female characters were relatively rare in her work. She wrote one science fiction novel quite a few years ago, in which a number of the characters were black, and my meditation teacher at the time (himself black) said she must have hung around black people a lot, since she portrayed them as starting fights intuitively (according to what they felt) rather than logically (according to overt behavior).

So I’m guessing she’s had a fairly adventurous life. I seem to have been wrong about her orientation, though, as the blurb on the book says she gave up writing for a long time to raise three daughters, before starting again. She doesn’t seem to have lost any of her abilities.

The protagonist in this novel is a Viking from Ireland, recently from Kiev (the story is set in the 10th century AD) who comes to Constantinople, where a number of his friends have been serving in the army. He’s shy of taking service there himself, and is something of an instinctive democrat. He doesn’t care to be submissive or obedient.

This has the potential to get him in trouble, and does. Near the beginning of the story he has disabled some catapaults, which enables the force for whom his friends fight to win a battle, and now he and his friends are being honored. He doesn’t like the way the Empress looks condescend-ingly at him and the others, and calls her a nasty name. Then he has to run.

Things quickly become more complicated. There’s a civil war going on between a man whose father had been emperor, and two brothers whose father had also been emperor. One brother, to whom the empress is married,  is content to live the high life and take care of the ritual side of being emperor. The other brother does the fighting. The empress is vastly ambitious, and dislikes the fighting emperor, who likes her no better. When her husband shows no ambition commensurate with hers, she runs off to the other “emperor”, who imprisons her, instead of welcoming her. The protagonist is sent to rescue her.

Despite his dislike of her behavior towards the Vikings and him, he has been attracted by her passion, and makes love with her after rescuing her. He’s startled to find her scheming to make him emperor, and feels she has broken the connection between the two of them.

The fighting emperor is Basil, possibly the greatest of the Byzantine emperors, or the last of the great emperors, or both. He’s had to fight for everything he has, which hasn’t made him an entirely likeable character. At one point he wonders if there’s any precedent for putting a woman’s eyes out, because of his dislike for the empress. There’s plenty of precedent for putting men’s eyes out: within the royal family parents sometimes did that to their children, and vice versa, while Basil would later be remembered for doing that to 15,000 Bulgars he had defeated, leaving each hundredth man with one eye so he could lead the others home. Constantinople is arguably the greatest city in the world at the time (with possible exceptions in India or China), but in its way may be more brutal than what it calls the “barbarians”.

Renaissance Italy might be parallel here: far ahead of the rest of Europe in arts and letters, but no more gentle than any of its neighbors. Civil-ization seems to mean more aggressive competition rather than less, with emphasis on “aggressive”. Maybe there’s something to be said for living in more “barbaric” circumstances, though it’s difficult to say how much. One scientist or historian thinks that humans have been gradually growing less violent, though you wouldn’t think so to look at recent history. But his thought is that we disapprove of certain kinds of violence more than we used to, like genocide in particular and murder in general. Maybe that’s what this novel shows.

Ike’s Bluff


There are advantages to having a president of the United States that has served in the military, as Ike’s Bluff, a book about Dwight Eisenhower’s two terms as US President, particularly in terms of foreign policy, points out. . One advantage was that he knew what combat did, though he never served in combat himself. It was quite ironic that a highly successful general hadn’t actually fought in either World War I or II, though available in both. In the First World War he had been deemed more valuable in training troops; in the Second his contribution was to manage the invasion of Europe–a very complex and difficult assignment.

That was just part, though a large part, of the training he’d undergone to become president of the United States of America. Other parts of it had included playing poker and bridge, learning to control his temper (a lifetime struggle for him), and, after World War II, being charged with desegregating the Armed Forces. So he brought a lot of experience to the job. He wasn’t even sure he wanted it, until he found out how much people revered him. He had never aligned himself with a political party, so both parties were after him. It was the Republicans who finally got him, and they were lucky to have him. In my opinion he’s one of the few Republican presidents I think did much for the country after Lincoln, and even his legacy is debateable. What exactly did Eisenhower do? He presided over probably the one time the economy was working for a majority of Americans, and he kept us out of war.

That didn’t make him perfect, and I think anyone would be hard-pressed to name a president who was, but consider what we’ve had since. And not only did he keep us out of war, but this was at a period when the great temptation was to use atomic weapons. He was elected when the war in Korea had become deadlocked, after the Chinese had joined the North Koreans. Eisenhower caught a break there, because very shortly after he was inaugurated, Stalin died. That meant the Russians had more important things on their minds than the Korean peninsula, so Eisenhower could push both sides into signing a ceasefire, though Syngman Rhee, the South Korean leader didn’t want a divided Korea. He was persuaded, and that ended that.

The next thing was Vietnam, where the French thought Eisenhower had promised he’d support them. It may have sounded like that to them, but Eisenhower had no intention. He didn’t think the French tactic of building a fortress at Dien Bien Phu and allowing the Viet Minh under General Giap to atttack it made much sense. The French eventually lost and pulled out, Vietnam became divided, with the south becoming a client of the USA (since no country was allowed to turn Communist, or even look like they might be contemplating it), which would come back to haunt us after Eisenhower left office. Eisenhower was no fan of Communism, but he wasn’t a fanatic about it either. He allowed Senator McCarthy to bully as many people as he wanted until he picked on the Army. That’s when Eisenhower began resisting McCarthy through the use of what he called Executive Privilege, which would be heard from again in a couple of decades, in a rather different context. In this case, Eisenhower was preventing McCarthy from getting personal information about members of the Army, and without that he couldn’t bully effectively. The USA had just about gotten tired of McCarthy anyway, so Eisenhower’s timing was perfect.

This was as graphic an illustration of how Eisenhower operated as could be desired. He didn’t make a lot of emotional speeches. He didn’t bother fighting against McCarthy when it would have been a waste of energy. He almost always tried to be calm in his speeches. Behind the scenes he could yell and swear at a number of people, but he couldn’t allow himself to do that in public. When people asked him questions he didn’t want to answer he would often play dumb, mangling his sentences to confuse, and leaving hearers to assume what he’d meant, when he often hadn’t made up his mind what he wanted to do. His style with advisors was to ask what they felt about various questions, or even say things to set them off, so he’d know he was getting the total picture. He pointed out to President Kennedy, after the Bay of Pigs, that the way to get information was to have all the informants in the room at once, rather than seeing them separately. Eisenhower also had personal friends who weren’t politicians that he could use for sounding boards. Ultimately, his method was to put off making a decision until he was sure he was making the right one, and that was a very personal thing for him. His experience in the politics of being a soldier and running a very large campaign successfully had given him a wider experience than most people had, even if he wasn’t so familiar with national politics. His experience had also given him a strength that most people didn’t have, and a trust in his own judgement. On the negative side, the stress of keeping quiet publicly about issues that concerned him, made his health increasingly poor. He had a heart attack, a stroke, and bowel surgery while in office, and his health was probably permanently damaged during that time. He had originally thought he’d retire after one term, but realized there were still things he wanted to accomplish, so ran and was elected again.

Keeping the country out of war was something important to him. Although he hadn’t experienced combat, he’d seen battlefields not long after combat, he’d visited one of the German death camps, and he’d flown low over the path of the Russian army invading Germany all the way back into Russia, never seeing a building standing along that whole route. Though never in combat, he’d still seen war from the inside on a scale that few could match, as well as having to deal with out-sized and quarrelsome personalities in both the American and British armies, to say nothing of foreign politicians. When he decided to run for President he decided to never say exactly what he felt about nuclear weapons. He was the first president to have them in place and already having been used once. The author, Evan Thomas, thinks that Eisenhower intended never to use the bomb from the beginning, though he can’t exclude the possibility that Eisenhower might have used it in a sufficiently extreme emergency. But he managed to keep his maneuverability intact so that he never got into anything that extreme.

That wasn’t easy, not only because foreign leaders, like Syngmann Rhee, Krushchev, and Mao could be intransigent, but because national politicians could too. Eisenhower kept trying to reduce the number of atomic weapons, on the way to disarming entirely, while others kept the number and forms of them going up, along with military expenditures. Eisenhower wasn’t technology-averse, and he wanted the armed forces to be suitably supplied, but at the same time no one knew better than him that the Pentagon wanted weapons and systems it didn’t need, and that those things came at the expense of others that benefited all citizens. He wasn’t always successful at keeping the number of weapons and spending down; they kept going up in spite of him, but he tried very hard.

One place where he was imperfect was the CIA. He liked the idea of having a secret force that would do things he wanted done without a lot of questions being asked, but he lost control of them eventually. Coups in Iran and Guatemala seem to have been undertaken with his general approval, which set a bad precendent. Both were democratically elected governments that were overturned partly because Americans in general were paranoid about Communism, but also because a lot of people in the government owned shares in the United Fruit Company, in the case of Guatemala. By the 1950s it was practically traditional for the military to intervene on behalf of United Fruit. General Smedley Butler, who joined the Marines in 1898, had served in (when he wasn’t in charge of) incursions in Haiti, Mexico, and Honduras at least, and later said he’d been a strikebreaker for United Fruit.

The CIA was the undoing of two things Eisenhower desperately wanted to achieve: detente with Russia, and disarmament. That was because Eisenhower needed intelligence about the Soviet Union, and Allen Dulles, head of the CIA and brother of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, wasn’t getting it for him. Dulles preferred using spies, but the Russians were effective at counter-intelligence, so Eisenhower turned to technology for his intellegence: the U2 spy plane. It was able to cruise at 70,000 feet, take amazingly clear pictures, and was supposed to be undetectable. It turned out the U2 wasn’t undetectable, but it flew high enough that the Soviets couldn’t shoot it down, and from it Eisenhower learned what he wanted to know: that contrary to the opinion of a lot of analysts the Soviets had neither a bomber nor a missile lead on the USA. Their country hadn’t yet had a chance to recover from the war, and it was where most of the European fighting had happened. The analysts may have believed what they were saying, but it was also convenient for them to believe it, because if it had been true (and for a long time Eisenhower simply didn’t know if it was true or not) it justified a lot of military spending, which was profitable for the defense industries and a lot of congressmen. Eisenhower didn’t want to overspend on the military, but without data he couldn’t know what was overspending and what wasn’t. The U2 got him that data, but he was always uneasy about it. He had to deny to the Russians that the USA were overflying the country, and he knew that eventually the Russians would manage to shoot the plane down. He was having a satellite built for the same purpose, but the project wasn’t going well. He wanted to stop the U2 flights, but authorized one final flight. That was the one that got shot down.

The plan had been that the pilot would suicide if shot down, but he was unable to. It was also supposed to be a civilian flying, but it wasn’t. This happened just when the US and Russia were to meet for summit talks about detente. Eisenhower had to admit what had been done, and Khrushchev denounced him. That ended detente for another 15 years. Eisenhower’s health had already gotten bad, he was nearly at the end of his second term, and he didn’t have a lot of energy left. He finished his term, but probably not as effectively as he could have, much less as he had wanted to.

He lived another eight years after his presidency. He’d had military and political leaders who had been eager to use nuclear weapons, but he’d managed to prevent that from happening. And the way he’d done it was by affirming that if necessary he would use the weapons, and massively. He was believed because of who he was and what he’d accomplished. That was something no one else had or could have, so that he’s probably responsible for taking the nuclear option off the table. Unfortunately, he didn’t manage to take the smaller war option off the table. When newly elected President Kennedy asked him if the USA should invade Vietnam or get some other country to do it, Eisenhower answered, “Neither.” Both Kennedy and Johnson thought they had to do it, while Eisenhower would have probably found another way around the problem. Either that, or he would have gone in with everything. He didn’t believe in using the military without being pretty sure he could win, and doing what he could to win.

The thing that I most remember him for, when I was just beginning to be aware of such things, was his speech about the military/industrial complex. He knew that complex very well, and understood that it was necessary, but also that it was greedy. The military always wanted more weapons and more weapon systems, whiled the industrialists wanted government contracts. Let them have thier own way too much, and the military budget would overwhelm the rest of it, which is more or less what’s happened now. That’s what I wish politicians would particularly remember about Eisenhower, and that they’d see through his eyes how important it is.

But making nuclear war unacceptable had been very largely Eisenhower’s doing, and he’d done it with a bluff.









My favorite high schoool teacher didn’t like Ernest Hemingway’s machismo. He influenced me in that way. I didn’t either. It may explain a few things to know that Hemingway’s mother dressed him as a girl until he was 4 or 5 years old, though that was less unusual then than now.

Hemingway said that he wrote about grace under pressure. That means he wrote about courage, as the definition of courage is doing whatever needs to be done despite fear. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to overcome it, and gracefully is how anyone would wish to do it. Looking at Hemingway’s history, I suspect that courage was something very personal to him, and his suicide suggests that eventually it failed him.

Fear seems to be an unavoidable part of life, especially if one is really living. It’s part of what helps us survive, since there are many things appropriate to fear. The law of gravity doesn’t care what your intentions are. If you step off a roof you will fall, so it’s wise to at least respect heights. But fear can, and often does, deform life. Jealousy is fear. Hatred is fear. Greed is fear. Anger is very often fear. You may believe you’ve conquered fear forever, but it’s doubtful that it’ll never return. I suspect it returned to Hemingway often.

At the same time that Hemingway was beginning to make a name for himself in Europe, George Gurdjieff set up his Institute for the Harmonic Development of Man outside of Paris. Katherine Mansfield, a famous writer at the time, had heard of him, and visited. She was suffering from terminal tuberculosis, and decided she wanted to stay there for what was left of her life. She knew, intellectually at least, that her life wouldn’t last much longer, though she probably hadn’t fully accepted that. Gurdjieff was a healer, among other things, and must have known that her tuberculosis was incurable. It’s also very possible he knew that if she stayed and died there he would be blamed. He allowed her to stay anyway.

She wasn’t able to take much physical part in the work going on, but was allowed to observe. She was given healthy food, and allowed to rest when she needed to. Writing to her husband she seems to have felt she had found something that had previously been missing in her life. She thought about how differently she would write if she were able to reoover, and called Gurdjieff “a man without quotation marks.” What did that expression mean to her?

According to Camille Paglia, writing in Sexual Personae, it has always been more problematic to be a real man than a real woman. Men generally have more to prove than women. Many women feel having a baby proves whatever they need to. Men’s lives may be more complicated in that respect. They may become aggressive or defensive because they feel they’re falling short in some respect. Men are expected to make lots of money, to have lots of women, to be responsible husbands, fathers and sons, to always be strong, and never weak…. That can be a lot to carry, and a lot of men may not feel able. They may not know just how they are failing, but may feel that they are, and find that nothing can make them feel secure.

At the time Katherine Mansfield came to his Institute, George Gurdjieff was trying to earn enough money to support it, by starting businesses and then selling them, or by investing in various enterprises. This at a time when he didn’t speak any European language, and had little time to learn. He did have students who could translate for him, though. Meanwhile, he was also trying to direct the activities at the institute and guide his students. So he would spend all day at the institute and all night in Paris, or vice versa, which eventually began to undermine his health. His health wasn’t extremely good to begin with. He had suffered three serious bullet wounds (he had been involved in various revolutionary activities), all three nearly fatal, and had contracted a number of serious diseases during his wide travels, some of which had become chronic, so that he was probably in fairly constant pain. He was no longer young, but had become wise with all he had learned during his travels, and many have testified that he was tremendously charismatic.

So what did he have that impressed Katherine Mansfield so much? He had interesting theories, but many people have those. He had traveled widely, but many have done that too. He explained it in terms of having a soul. Most religions assume that everyone has a soul. Gurdjieff said that humans have the potential to MAKE a soul, which, like everything else in the universe, is material, though of such a fine material that western science so far hasn’t noticed it. Doing this required a transformation that was complex, and the way to this transformation was what he taught. Perhaps it would be appropriate to say that he had experienced a great deal, and deeply. Life is out there, he said, not in here. He wanted to learn, and made great efforts to do so.

Katherine Mansfield didn’t survive long. She came to the institute in autumn, and died shortly after a Christmas celebration of a hemorrhage. Gurdjieff did get blamed by some for her death. He struggled on with his institute, and seemed to have gotten it on a secure footing after a trip to the USA where he lectured and his students gave demonstrations of ancient sacred dances. Many people contributed to his institute, and he was able to pay all his debts after returning to France.

But then he suffered a very serious auto accident, running into a tree on his way back from Paris. Doctors doubted he would live, but he eventually recovered just in time to find his wife and mother both had cancer. Both died within a year or two. The institute never recovered financially, and Gurdjieff spent much of his remaining life writing about his view of life and then teaching students whom he hoped would be able to correctly interpret what he had written.

Hemingway, in the meanwhile, had become a great success. A number of years ago I watched a drama (probably on PBS) in which all the characters were Hemingway. There were at least three: one was the young Hemingway, humble and without any particular accomplishment. One was the older Hemingway, just returned from a plane crash in Africa, an older and seemingly defeated man. One was the Hemingway in the middle, who had achieved success, and wasn’t particularly gracious about it. He was not portrayed as a very nice man.

I read a number of Hemingway’s novels when I was younger. The only one I liked very much was To Have and Have Not. Two or three years ago I reread The Sun Also Rises at the suggestion of an online friend. The only part I liked was when the Jewish guy beats everyone up, including the narrator, though the relationship the narrator has with one of the women in the novel is interesting. She’s not a particularly attractive character, sleeping with many of the men around her, and not seeming to care much about their feelings. She doesn’t sleep with the narrator, though, or if she does, he doesn’t tell us. Was the narrator Hemingway, or made up? He supposedly has some kind of wound from the recent war, and the implication is that it has made him impotent. Did Hemingway feel that way? Or is the character a fabrication for some other reason?

I read The Old Man and the Sea from Hemingway’s later novels, and remember almost nothing about it. I started reading Across the River and Into the Trees, but gave up on it. The main character, who wants to call every woman he speaks to daughter seemed pretty pathetic to me.

William S. Burroughs thought that writers have to choose between their lives and their work, and that most choose their work. He said that when they choose their lives, their work suffers, and he thought that’s what Hemingway had done.

Hemingway became an idol for many people, but despite his success, I think he was a sad man. His suicide seems to confirm that idea. Outwardly he seemed to embody manliness, but the inner reality seems to have been different. Just what his life was missing is debatable, but it seems to have been missing something.

Great North Road


Space Opera is a subgenre of science fiction involving catastrophe (often an alien race threatening all mankind, but not always) which takes place on a big canvas. Peter F. Hamilton is the best practitioner of this form right now, and Great North Road is possibly his best work yet.

I first read him in Pandora Planet and Judas Unchained. That was a story about very aggressive intelligent plants (which didn’t object to pollution) which threatened humanity. That seems kind of hard to believe, but Hamilton made it believable. The weakness in that one was that a lot of the mystery was resolved in the first volume, which made the second volume too long and ultimately rather dissatisfying.

Great North Road avoids that problem by not resolving all the myusteries until near the end. Hamilton is using a big canvas, but there’s an awful lot of detail here too. The problem at the beginning is the similarity of a murder to a mass killing of 20 years previous. The woman convicted of the earlier killings insists they were performed by an alien, but investigators find evidence of involvement by criminal elements in the British city of Newcastle. But there’s enough evidence of an alien responsibility to mount a huge expedition onto a huge planet of Sirius which humans have settled only a small part of. The investigation there and the one on earth continue in parallel and eventually converge.

In his wide portrait Hamilton includes a lot. Government inertia and corruption as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the free market system. The planet where the investigation takes place is where the bioil, which powers interstellar civilization is largely produced. In the real world you don’t expect a personification of nature to remonstrate with humans and allow them the chance to change their ways, but that’s what happens here.

Ultimately, despite the clear view of human weaknesses and their consequences, this is an optimisitc book, and it will really draw you in.

Cordwainer Smith


Cordwainer Smith was one of a number of science fiction writers doing some of his best work in the 1960s, just when I was buying and subscribing to science fiction magazines. Some of his stories were set in more or less present time, but most were in the far future, many after the end of a sort of utopia, when the directors of mankind decided to give back some of the old languages and other differences to make life more interesting and stressful.

This period is partially characterized by the existence of underpeople made from animal stock. These are essentially slaves, and have their own illegal and underground lives. Many of the practice the Old Strong Religion, and one of them is a God-like being with a son name Yeekasuous (not sure if that’s the correct spelling). So Christianity or something very like it is the underground religion. Just what Mr. Smith ( real name, Paul Linebarger) believed I don’t know, but I’m inclined to think that Christians generally behaved better when they didn’t have political power, as here. Whether that’s Smith’s belief, I don’t know.

Smith, or Linebarger, had an interesting background. He seems at one time to have been obsessed with science fiction to the point that he belived himself to be a space alien, or something, and had to undergo psychiatric treatment. He was also involved with the military, and is said to have participated in the Korean War, in which he devised a slogan which sounded like something patritotic, but actually meant something like, I surrender. I think he also was a member of the Trilateral Commission, or one of the other secretive organizations that some people like to construct conspiracy theories about. Detail I don’t know, but he seems to have been a very interesting man.

He was also well-known for having unusual titles for his stories (he only wrote one full-length novel): Think Blue, Count Two; The Game of Rat and Dragon; The Ballad of Lost C’mell; Scanners Live in Vain; Alpha Ralpha Boulevard; The Dead Lady of Clown Town. The last is a retelling of the story of Joan of Arc. The Joan of this particular story is called D’Joan, because she’s made from a dog, and is protesting the treatment of the underpeople. Like the original Joan, she gets burned at the stake.

One of the planets in this future universe is Old North Australia, where gigantic sheep produce a product called stroon. Stroon confers immortality on people, so Old North Australia (or Norstrilia) is the target of many bad people, and has evolved some truly nasty defenses. The planet also imposes extremely high tariffs on off-world imports, so that no one can go crazy buying things, and life remains simple and undecadent. All the owners of ranches are rich, and maybe their employees too, but they don’t live in a sterotypically wealthy way, unless they elect to go off-planet. Then they may have some difficulty returning.

Smith’s one novel-length story is entitled Norstrilia, and tells the story of an heir to ranch who is unlikely to inherit because his telepathic abilities are undependable. He has some, but sometimes they entirely fade away, while at other times they’re so strong that he’s the equivalent of an amplifier turned too high. Somewhere cached on his property he discovers a war computer which he activates, and which embarks on a course of economic warfare, which results in him buying Old Earth–outright. Now he’s too important to be put to sleep, and he goes on a trip to Old Earth, where he finds out some of the secret things going on there, and visits the Store of Heart’s Desires, where he’s able to buy equipment that supplies him with telepathic abilities, so he can inherit his ranch.

That’s a quest story. Another is about another heir who stands in line to inherit political leadership of a planet before a coup disinherits him. He travels to various places to request funding to help him retake the planet, but in the end decideds that politics doesn’t interest him, and confines himself to trying to make sure the people now running his planet don’t damage the people or society.

What was Smith trying to say in these stories? For one thing that while utopia may be possible, it’s gives no real reason to live. That only comes through conflict. Interestingly, though, there’s very little armed conflict in Smith’s stories. Most of the conflict is interpersonal. Sometimes it has simply to do with circumstances, and how to deal with them wisely. Sometimes with love, and the things it will inspire people to do. Religion seems to be an issue, but one that is only referred to, rather than explained in detail. The politics of equality are also referred to, but rarely are they gone into in detail, and then only with reference to individuals. His stories aren’t beauty for its own sake, though they’re frequently beautiful, but there are messages in them that I haven’t entirely figured out yet. You might find it interesting to look for yourself.