Saturday, August 14, 2010

"People Need to Talk to Each Other": Memories of an Hour with Chandler Davis (Part One)

Following is an account of Chandler Davis’s 11 August talk at Talking Leaves . . . Books, reconstructed entirely from my memory. For that reason, probably about a third of it is inaccurate.

The talk was attended, at its peak, by a little over twenty people; some of the younger attendees left early, as a result of which the audience comprised not so much the Old Left as the Superannuated Left: median age was over seventy (My adviser, the ever-youthful David Schmid, was committed to attending; but he got a flat tire on the QEW and spent the evening stuck in Ontario. Comes of not having The Hulk as my adviser, I guess). Many of them were mathematicians Chandler had invited. I learned a lot about them that I had not been aware of during my years in Buffalo—I’d had a good sense of poet, mathematician, musician, and bibliophile Scott Williams’s accomplishments, for example, but had known little about Steve Schanuel and nothing except scurrilous anticommunist gossip about Bill Lawvere. Turns out Bill, according to Scott, is a mathematician of a much higher caliber than SUNY-Buffalo would ordinarily have been able to attract, except that he’d been redhunted out of jobs in the U.S. and Canada and needed work. Also he’s a longtime SF fan, who saw Campbell, Boucher, and Gold together on a 1952 panel about the future of SF. Indeed, one of the remarks that most interested Lawvere was my noting when introducing Chandler that he’d collaborated with Sturgeon.

The talk and discussion lasted about an hour. Loath to read his own prose or to present material that was already in the book, Davis spoke somewhat ex tempore for about twenty of those minutes, then gave an impassioned recitation of a couple of his poems and opened up the discussion. My sense is that he’s not terribly at ease in the monologue genre, whether in public talks or in private exchanges: his delivery was slow and tentative, except when he was recounting past conversations. It seems to me that he needs an interlocutor to energize him.

I’d characterize the themes of his talk as “Humility and Ethics.” Early in the talk, Davis spoke of the circumstances surrounding his work in support of José Luis Massera, which, as recounted in It Walks in Beauty, led to the creation of the American Mathematical Society’s Committee for Human Rights. And this project generated some interesting alliances. Evidently a colleague from the anti-Communist Left (“I can’t help remembering,” Chan interjected, “the cartoon from the Thirties that shows a policeman beating a group of demonstrators, one of whom protests, ‘But we’re anti-Communists!’ to which the cop says, ‘I don’t care what kind of Communists you are!’”) said to him, I expect you will be less stringent about these abuses when they occur on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and Davis replied, “Nations that claim to be practicing socialism should be held to a higher standard!” And that was an ambiguous response, of course; but it gave the colleague the impression that Chan had moved from an uncritical acceptance of the Communist line to a far more skeptical position; and he asked Chan, “Hm, when was your Kronstadt?” And Chandler said it was a 1951 interview he’d read between Jean-Paul Sartre and Edwin Moïse, oddly enough, since Sartre is often stereotyped as an uncritical supporter of Communism. By 1952, when he read the piece, Chan had already realized that the Soviet Union was a dismal tyranny; but only then was he able to reconcile that with the fact that he very much admired working with U.S. Communists toward shared social justice goals, often better than with other Lefties and activists. Sartre had said many positive things about Communists in that interview, and added, But you trust them less and less the closer you get to the [topic of the] Soviet Union.

In the 1970s, when Davis gained some public attention (including a tv appearance) for protesting the Vietnam War, a reporter asked him whether he was a Marxist-Leninist, and he thought the best response was Yes. He no longer believes that it was a good idea to offer that answer, or that it reflected his convictions: he takes Rosa Luxemburg's side against Lenin's. If asked by a supporter, say, of Castro, whether he thinks that a state aspiring to socialism should be able to defend itself, he would say yes; if asked then whether he thinks that the forces arrayed against such a state are committing grave injustices, he would say yes; but if asked subsequently whether that state consequently had the right to enforce ideological unity, he would say No: if we are going to achieve a just society, a worker-controlled system, socialism, characterize it how you will, people need to talk to each other. People need to be free to associate with whomever they see fit and to say whatever they see fit and have it heard. He would say to the radical uneasy with dissent, we have a lot in common; but a difference between us is that you think the world is simple; I think it’s complicated.

To be continued.