Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Big Chandler Davis Event, Part I

At about 6:30 p.m. on Thursday 21 October, I accompanied Natalie Ann Zemon Davis and Horace Chandler Davis down a dim winding stairway that seemed to be modeled on scenes from a Cocteau movie and into the basement meeting room of the Toronto Public Library's College Street branch. Tables lined two walls of the brightly-lit conference room, containing hot and cold beverages, baked goods, and tuna sandwiches, for the catering of which Chan had paid. The far wall was decorated with plaques bearing images of Chan's stories: some showed the stories' initial pages and others the covers of the magazines they'd been published in. And one, as a tribute to Chan's activism, depicted a psychedelic peace symbol. Toward the front left side of the room, Chan and Natalie's son, the jazz pianist Aaron Davis, played loud "science fictiony music" on an electric keyboard.

The event took the form of a panel discussion, with seven participants: me, Chan, activist/sf scholar Peter Fitting, who introduced science fiction courses at the University of Toronto; mathematician/lawyer Peter Rosenthal; psychoanalyst/activist Judith Deutsch, who heads Science for Peace; author/nifty person Emily Pohl-Weary, who assembled a biography of her grandmother, Judith Merril; and sociologist/activist Metta Spencer, of Peace Magazine. The audience ultimately swelled to fifty-three people: the communities of scholars, of activists, and of SF fans were all well-represented.

Moderator Fitting recalled the action at which he had met Chan forty years ago and introduced the panel, with a couple of characteristic malapropisms (Judy Deutsch became "Judi Dench"). Chan was the first speaker, addressing the question, "What does science fiction have to do with these other things in our life?" Our attempts to talk about the things around us, he remarked, is always and necessarily a little bit off the subject, because next year the world will be different. And we can't see the future: we can only look behind us, as Walter Benjamin and Joni Mitchell have pointed out. So science fiction is an escape from that condition. Whereas so much of his political writing is about being appalled. And it didn't occur to him to put his science fiction and his essays together: it took Josh Lukin to see that they fit and could make a coherent volume.

I spoke next about the development of the book. As the book was being put together, I explained, after I had selected the selections and written the intro, my conversations with the good people of Aqueduct generated more content. Timmi Duchamp asked me to offer context for the letter Chan'd written about campus violence to the NYRB in 1970, and, never one to waste a word when I can waste five hundred, I'd assembled a mini-essay on that topic for the middle of the book. Then Kath Wilham had opined that the book ended too abruptly and had requested an Afterword.

So one of the themes that I covered, that I sought to cover, that I tried to effect a facsimile of covering, was, what if a reader doesn't value the arguments in some of the fiction, or what if s/he disagrees with the premises, or what if s/he finds the fiction dated or musty? I began the Afterword with an epigraph from Borges, "I do not transcribe these words so that the reader may revere them." And one of my ways of addressing that question is to point out that great SF doesn't only derive its value from considering how things could be different but just from considering that things could be different, which is very important in these times. I recalled Adrienne Rich's
Antifeminism was central to the right-wing "family" strategy, but so was the defamation of every past social justice movement. I recall in England Thatcher's dictum "There Is No Alternative." Here too, particularly given our history of anti-communism and anti-socialism, the possibility of an alternative has been rubbed out and discredited.
Hence intelligent speculation that takes as its premise the fact that things could be different is in itself pretty radical.

And in the case of Chandler Davis's fiction, the perspective from which that difference is imagined is also radical. I think of Davis stories with elements that might trouble today's progressives, such as "Letter to Ellen," with its protagonist's enthusiasm about advances in eugenics, or "Hexamnion," with its neutral depiction of human experimentation. But even in stories such as these, it's notable that Davis is what a great Canadian sociologist would call a stigmaphile: the perspective is that of the experimental (or the eugenic) subject, which is a big contrast from the superhero stories you see in Bester novels and many Heinlein novels–rather than the movers and shapers of society, the central figures are the less empowered. But for further discussion of that era's science fiction, I should turn to the expert in mid-century science fiction and hand the microphone to Emily.

Emily disavowed my characterization of her as an expert and began praising my accomplishments: "Upon looking at this book, I saw that the person who'd put it together brought a lot of love and respect. And [waving the book] this is how we rewrite history. This is how we recover dissident voices . . . But I don't agree that the stories feel dated at all. The topics of gender roles and war and corporate power and all of those issues are still with us today: we didn't solve them at the end of the Fifties." Then, addressing Chan directly, "You're a role model for many people who are involved in these battles."

Judy Deutsch, who spoke next, met Chan six years ago. They both still go every week to the vigil in front of the Israeli consulate. And she sees there, and she sees in his writing and speeches, the theme of talking together. She's going to read some of Chan's words directly because "It's just awfully good writing: he has a tone . . . that I think is very wonderful." And she's seen him have conversations around academic freedom, what intellectuals are for, our work around the corporatization of the university, our work on climate change; and she's continually impressed by how he talks with people.

Deutsch was struck by Chan's remarks on "the case for the amateur dissenter" in his essay " . . . From an Exile" and how they resembled Edward Said's remarks on the "amateur intellectual" in Representations of the Intellectual: she finds that both perspectives "kind of go against the truisms that often block our addressing reality." And she was especially moved by his remarks on "how much we have to not be bitter about": she noted the passage in "Trying to Say Something True" where he speaks of being able to understand all sides: "In any case, even in 1960, I already felt both the vantage of the allrightnik comfy in the arms of the establishment and that of the pariah." To further emphasize the moral imagination which allows Chandler to inhabit different positions in and perspectives, and the emotional honesty with which he addresses that tactic, she concluded by reading excerpts from Chan's poem "Now I Face You" (which appears in the interview at the end of It Walks in Beauty) and the entirety of "Guided" (in The Shape of Content).

Peter Rosenthal reminisced about having, on a drive through the Midwest in 1959 with the woman whom he would later marry, having heard a fascinating discussion on the radio, which kept him from leaving the car for some time after he'd reached his destination, notwithstanding his desire to go inside with his girlfriend. "This guy was a mathematician, and I was a mathematician; this guy was interested in Left politics and I was interested in Left politics. And the things he was saying . . . " He again heard Davis's name in 1962 when in grad school at the University of Michigan, generally for people who were explaining why they hadn't stood up for the guy. In the mid-Sixties, he finally met his hero; and in 1967, he joined the faculty of the University of Toronto and became a colleague. Like Emily and the other Peter, he made a big issue of my own accomplishment (I don't know what it is with these people): "This book putting it all together is really remarkable."

No comments: