Readings and Re-Readings, 2020
by Mark Rich
In pandemic isolation you might think you would do nothing but read book after book — if you have them piled in a clutter all about, as I do. The odd fact in an odd year for me has been that the combined horrors of the presidency and the dread of disease resulted in the opposite, to judge from the record of books I have read — the means by which I keep track of easily lost bibliographic information. This list had special value for me during the ten-year effort behind the book published this year, Toys in the Age of Wonder: Science Fiction, Society, and the Symbolism of Play.
According to this list, in July of 2019 I read seven books — a higher number than the list contains thus far for all of 2020.
Our Scottiedogs this year have read nothing at all. Perhaps I am feeling their influences. Hutton, the larger, exerts about thirty pounds of restful, soporific influence upon the reading lap. Callie, the smaller, a bit less.
No one has noticed the Covid effect, apparently, of its causing a shut-down in record-keeping. For some reason I stopped recording book titles in my book-list in February. In April, I stopped writing in my journal of many years — a hodgepodge of minor doings and thoughts that served a role in pulling myself out of self-imposed silence after my C.M. Kornbluth publication. Though it has importance for me, as an ongoing process it ceased. I have picked it up in an occasional way, recently. Even so, from the vantage point of a future day when I can look back on my past doings, this year will not so much contain gaps as be mostly a gap. Yet I was busy constantly in yard and garden, and in readings and thoughts — all fodder for journal-keeping.
Even given this Covid-year effect, though, I read very little, to gauge from book titles. Reading news and opinion absorbed hours in a way they had not, before. Too, concern about this winter's food supply, and about our income, made me diligent in the garden. And having finished Toys placed me in a situation requiring reassessment of where I stood, intellectually and personally. As a partial result, my reading time this year has often become study time.
The reading of two lengthy books interfered, too, with my reading of books. For I had to re-read most of C.M. Kornbluth to refresh myself after being long away, for an on-line interview. My entire July this year, shortly afterward, went first into proofing and then indexing Toys. Since I was indexing concepts and categories in addition to names of people, books, and manufacturers, this proved an ambitious, manual task. Then in October, my bedtime reading was, again, Toys in the Age of Wonder — because I never can simply read a book of my own until it sees print. (I learned this year that my prose in CMK was not so smoothly honed as I had thought. In Toys, I found a Department of Redundancy Department redundancy. I believe I did achieve the lucidity I strove for, in discussing concepts critical to my narrative — although in a few late-written sections, when I was struggling not to lengthen an already too-long book, I failed to make obvious some connections that were clear in my mind. One of these sections brings together various points concerning the nature of the wonder tale, which is a central focus in my book — more so than the late form of the wonder tale given in the title, science fiction.)
Reading more news and opinion led to pleasant discoveries. I spent more time online, and regained connections to a larger society than the one I have tended to move within, over this past decade. May I recommend a body of writing published on Facebook? Heather Cox Richardson offers an informed perspective on links and echoes between current events and U.S. history. I also have listened to a few of her afternoon webcasts, which I enjoy but lack much time for. Martha, by the way, found Richardson's seventeen-part history of the Republican Party absorbing — listening during her evening Scottie-grooming sessions when usually I was washing dishes in the kitchen and muttering poetry to myself.
Speaking of which, a few nights ago I happened to begin working on Percy Shelley's "London in 1819":
An old, mad, blind, despised and dying king —
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn, mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
How is that for comment upon our moment in U.S. history, two centuries after? The subsequent lines are just as timely, in their untimely way. I had not planned to learn this poem. Try saying the first line to yourself a few times, though. It has the catchiness to leaves a poetically catchable person caught.
Early in the year I read a few stories the memories of which seem to have been blurred by the pandemic year — one being Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, never read by me in high school or after, and possibly never to be read by me again. I had often wondered where the writerly affection for low demotic gained its foothold, and now suppose that Catcher was a mud puddle of the sort that, being stepped into, spread influence by means of the evident footprints going this way and that, away from it. And just about everyone stepped in this particular puddle. How many said after reading it, "That book just kills me!"
Another image that comes to mind may be more apt. Think of a lake that draws us to its edge to admire its water's clarity. Unknowingly, in walking away we take from the shore that part of it that becomes our footprints — that part of it which was settled, as far as the lake was concerned, but which is new and merely adventitious to us, and which becomes part of the imprint we leave upon the world.
To know what low demotic means you need only know what high demotic means. For Northrop Frye, high demotic is simply common speech or writing on its best behavior. Low demotic apparently commends itself to writers for its depiction or conveyance of one social type or another, but also, I suspect, for its perceived alliance with feeling, or emotive meaning: for as a style the colloquial voice suggests to the reader an emotional veracity which some writers seem to feel is to be achieved by no other means.
Do you recall Ursula Le Guin's objections concerning writers who insist, at least once or twice in a sentence, on using sexual intercourse in all its four-letter glory as verb, noun, or gerund-adjective to accent their prose? What was this but a reaction to low demotic's ascendancy?
I have been wondering these days about writing that emphasizes emotional expression in order to make a point that, too, is primarily emotional. For I have been thinking about the emotivist expressions which have, for instance, dominated Republican rallies in our time, in which expressed emotion validates the perceived "truth" within the listening audience — a perceived truth which is itself emotional.
Literary emotivism, if it does exist as a distinct form, would use language overtly intended to prompt emotional response; and this response would itself be the story's "meaning." It would in essence reinforce the stance that has placed our country into so perilous a situation. Why should this be? For this reason: emotivism exists in the absence of any objective ethics. In emotivism, moral judgements are effectively nonexistent, since morals are simply feelings. Statements being offered as moral statements, within an emotivist context, are simply exclamations, commands, or entreaties. May I commend a wonderful essay by Brand Blanshard, "Morality and Politics," to you? It appears in a 1966 paperback I happened to pick up at a flea market a few years back: Original Essays on Contemporary Moral Problems, edited by Richard T. De George. I probably encountered ethical writings as clearly presented as Blanshard's essay in my college days. Those, though, suffered from being dipped into a teenager's scattered mind — one overly busy with improvisatory piano and operetta-singing to properly study anything at all.
Blanshard chose to elucidate emotivism in 1966 because he viewed it as a danger. After four years of Forty-Five-ism can we disagree?
Does the above seem far away from the fictional fields that appeal most to Aqueduct readers? Not for me, for this reason: emotivism resulted from positivist thinking — which means that analytic thinkers created the mental structure by means of which, in our Age of the Masses, demagogues in positions which were intended to be positions of ethical leadership could simply replace moral judgement — smoothly and, from a positivist view, rationally — with unverifiable forms of expression: exclamations, commands, and entreaties, as well as curses, threats, and insults. That they rely heavily upon falsehoods shows their consistency. Verification has no necessary relation to truth.
Positivism to a great degree acts an antagonistic force in the tale told in Toys in the Age of Wonder. If my analysis in Toys is correct, moreover, when wonder-tale writers abandoned the anti-positivist stance found in Poe and Verne, they took an important step toward the form that would be called science fiction.
I am pointing not to a necessary connection between existing emotivist fiction and our present political turmoil. I would have to read much more low-demotic writing than I do in order to make this argument, and would rather not. I am instead expressing a worry. In writing Toys I was trying in part to understand the Modern Century, 1859 to 1957, in order to better see how we arrived at the Age of the Masses, which to my mind commenced with Sputnik, and which may end in the 2050s, the decade many observers are suggesting for environmental catastrophe and, we must suppose, civilization's collapse — barring the full return to our dying world of a rational humanism.
My worry, in any case, concerns the possibility that in our fiction we may sometimes contribute to a mindset that has made tyranny possible.
Please note that I am not worrying about emotions themselves. How vital feelings are has preoccupied thinkers about "the Good" since before Plato's time. Many readers become confused about what philosophers are saying who may use the word "pleasure" frequently — as G.E. Moore does, for instance. What comes to mind first to us is often something tainted with the sense of "empty pleasure," which is not these philosophers' intent. If you imagine the satisfaction deriving from meeting one's own human needs, or from achieving an inner self-realization, you will be nearer the intent.
It has quite interested me, in Emerson — whom I only began actively studying after finishing Toys — that rhetorically he often places the realization of human potential in opposition to "toys," used figuratively. One of two Emerson lines that I have to mind on this perspective is this: "population, interests, government, history: 'tis all toy figures in a toy house." Elsewhere he calls the great attractants in Forty-Five-ism — "houses, land, money, luxury, power, fame" — toys.
One novel I read does reveal feelings in relation to self-realization, or to one's return to one's own lost humanity. I thought I would never read this book. In a radio interview — this must have been long ago, since I am no kind of radio listener at all these days — Kazuo Ishiguro made so preposterously pompous a statement that I dismissed his work from my mind. He said, with a culturally-higher-than-thou modulation to his voice, "What I do that science fiction does not do is that I ask, 'What if?'"
A thrift-shop copy of Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day came into my hands, as it happens, and not his superior-to-science-fiction novel. Despite his pomposity, I felt curious enough about his writing to open it and even to persevere through the narrator's own pompous loftiness. I may mortify Northrop Frye's ghost by calling that narrator's voice "way-too-high demotic." It may be better to call it "high un-demotic." Persevering in the novel proved worthwhile, for me, however. Although I will let memory make the final decision, I feel an urge to shelve it somewhere near Patrick McGinley's Foggage or Brian Moore's The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn, both of which I read long ago but still treasure. This book wrenches the reader around, a bit. I would add that it seems not at all Japanese to me — not that I expected it to be another Botchan or any such thing. In any case, I took care of my dismissal of the novel beforehand. Now I can accept its authenticity as not a sham authenticity.
I have spoken too long here about seemingly little, but must succumb to an urge to speak of something littler: Facebook. How ironic, to be reading historian Richardson regularly there — where, apparently, thousands of others do the same. Thousands, including some of my own "Facebook friends," hit the "like," "love," or other such button. I have used such buttons in my Facebook interactions. I know that this public shorthand reveals a route to our hearts, for the convenience of advertisers — or "business and industry," those foes to humanism in Verne's conflicted universe. All the same, I keep reading on Facebook, often looking for news that others have encountered elsewhere; and in haste I do hit "like" or whatever else. Facebook is, after all, about faces. Expressions. Being this way, it offers no button for "I think this is true," "I had not thought of that," "Thank you for the perspective," or simply "I have read this." I do sometimes use "like" in this last sense. I think "Kilroy was here" would make a fine additional button, for readers who like to be counted, but anonymously.
Readers on Facebook enter a house whose foundation was set by philosopher David Hume. In this house our judgments are never rational but always likings and dislikings. As we have witnessed, this offers a prime environment for creatures such as Forty-Five who have no need for moral responses from their Face-viewers. They have no need since, as emotivists, they cannot make moral judgements. The values they offer to their viewers are purely emotional ones, presented in a calculated way to advance the fortunes of corporations or individuals — or corporations masquerading as individuals — and not to advance the greatest good. (I was pleased to note the other day Das Spiegel's naming Forty-Five "The Loser of the Year" for his having ignored the greatest good.)
So I ask this. One person sends a heart emoticon to Heather Cox Richardson when she gives a reasoned analysis of the political situation of the day. Is this any different from another person's sending the same emoticon in response to a hatemonger's diatribe? Do not both reinforce a house built upon a foundation of air, in the same way? Some people do post comments, to be sure; but how many readers look first — if they read those comments at all — at the tally of emoticons?
Does an identity between these two responses matter? I suspect that both acts, as I said, support a medium which encourages the hollowing-out of ethical response. If this be true, this matters extremely. Think of the type of voter whose existence has sparked commentary lately: the type that disagrees with Forty-Five on central issues but votes for Forty-Five all the same because Forty-Five "makes them feel good."
The image comes to me of the three piggies. With such a house as this that I mention above, the Big Bad Wolf need only huff and puff. The Big Bad Wolf — here is where his intelligence lies — has shown that he knows that this is all he needs to do.
And what has worked before will work again.
Besides the essay collection that includes Blanshard, I have been spending time still with Emerson and am working my way into G.E. Moore's Ethics and through — this is quite a different beast — Swift's Gulliver, which I apparently only read in abbreviated or excerpted form before this. Writer Anna Tambour tells me this book is a constant mental companion for her. It should have been for me, especially in these last ten years when I allowed a fragmentary acquaintance to serve. I am also reading a book by a cousin of Ralph Waldo: Joseph Emerson's Lectures and Sermons, of 1897. Though he admired his famous relative, this Emerson — well versed in Greek literature, lofty but without pretension, and inspiring in the way a good Classicist can be — proves to be a different sort of stimulating company.
One book I found marvelous and eye-opening in a fairly no-nonsense and even-toned way. It pestered me to be read it so many times that I finally did: Iris Origo's War in Val d'Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-4 — an account of times in and around a large estate during Mussolini's rule and in the time when the Nazis took control. Origo's obvious competency and intelligence, her compassion for those under her care and guidance, and her fine grasp of the larger situation all emerge clearly. Her leading a body of children away from a situation rapidly becoming too dangerous, seeking safety across the countryside, brings tears to my eyes even in memory.
As in prior years I continue my J.S. Bach program. At the present moment — I am putting these final words down on Dec. 13 — I am halfway through this year's twelfth reading of the Preludes and Fugues, Books One and Two. Feeling fairly comfortable with these forty-eight compositions as I do, I keep thinking I should expand my readings. Yet gaining ever-increasing familiarity with these continually impressive works satisfies me for now, given time restraints. After Dec. 24th, in the year's remaining days I will each evening revisit Book One Prelude and Fugues Twenty-Three and Twenty-Four — which I recommend as lovely pieces for the Yuletide and for New Year's Eve, when I will be pondering whether to change this reading habit with the calendar.
Happy readings to all in a difficult season of change!
Mark Rich has had two collections of short fiction published — Edge of Our Lives (RedJack) and Across the Sky (Fairwood) — as well as chapbooks from presses including Gothic and Small Beer. He is also the author of a major biographical and critical study, C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary, published by McFarland and, most recently, of Toys in the Age of Wonder: Science Fiction, Society and the Symbolism of Play. With partner-in-life Martha Borchardt and two Scotties-in-life he lives in Cashton, Wisconsin, and gardens, shovels snow, still reads Bach daily, and remains faithfully behind in his book revisions.