One of the most perverse aspects of American culture is the contradiction between our self-professed guiding ethos and what many of us actually do.  This is the country of the self-made, the independent thinker, the individualist.  We build elaborate mythologies extolling the virtues and victories of our heroes, who are all of a piece, wholly their own creatures, dependent on no one and nothing to be what they are.  Daniel Boone to Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, the self-sufficient American is our national role model.

Yet a look at our actual history shows that we as a people are surpassing great joiners.  We attach ourselves to collectives, to movements, to institutions, and borrow ideologies from them, speaking with a group voice and shunning those whose independence of thought causes them to criticize whatever party our fellows have joined that gives them a sense of worth.  We have been known as the most religious country on Earth, per capita, and any close look at the religious movements that have swept this country over more than two centuries shows a deep approval of support for such causes even at the expense (sometimes especially at the expense) of those who are genuinely independent in thought and action.  Americans often readily bury their freedom of conscience in support of all manner of mass social incarnations, be they labor unions, political parties, or churches.

For a nation founded on an idea of letting people be who they wish to be, America has a questionable track record, with periods of tolerance punctuated by spasms of intolerance, but always with an apparent acceptance of a preference for belonging that runs counter to our professed pride of independence.  This also runs counter to the related “virtue” we like to boast of being hard-nosed skeptics.  To be sure, many of us are, and most of us exercise a degree of skepticism at least in certain areas of our lives, but again we are inconsistent, especially, it seems, when it comes to religions.

Lawrence Wright’s new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollwood, & the Prison of Belief, delves into one of the most quintessentially American religions of the 20th Century.  Generated in the 1950s out of the imagination of one man, it has grown to international proportions, and along the way has been subject to as much if not more controversy than any other movement of comparable size, in some ways akin to Mormonism.  (In significant ways, Scientology and Mormonism share a great deal—both creations of single individuals who then went on to uproot a community of followers, creating an insular ideology that separated members from the wider world, based on cosmologies invented almost from whole cloth, establishing themselves in the minds of their adherents with such visceral force that no amount of fact seems capable of dislodging faith in the central tenets, fact in both instances far more easily produced and demonstrated than in most other religions.)

Going Clear

Many books have been written about Scientology, the majority by or about former members whose objectivity may be doubted.  This is not, on the inside, a religion that seems content to allow its membership the kind of options we expect from more mainstream faiths.  You may join the Baptists, stay awhile, and then, if it doesn’t suit, leave.  According to most accounts by ex-Scientologists, there is no apparent regard for such an option, and those who do leave are rarely left alone.  (By contrast, when a Mormon repudiates the faith, the opposite tends to happen—they are closed out and shunned.)

Wright has no axes to grind.  He is an investigative journalist telling a story.  He did exhaustive research, covered as much material as he could, found many people to talk to, both in and out of the church, and has produced what may be to date one of the most evenhanded treatments of the subject yet published.  The evolution of the movement, from the imagination of its founder, Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, is charted clearly, as is the growth of the church from the size of a club to a cult to a major religion boasting millions of members.   One of his guiding questions, however, has to do with volition:

If Scientology is based on a lie…what does it say about the many people who believe in its doctrine…?

Throughout the book, this question hovers in the background.  We see people from all walks of life encounter Scientology and then surrender themselves to it, sometimes for life, sometimes for a few years, for a myriad of reasons.  Wrights finds people who swear by the efficacy of the doctrines, who use it to be better people.  He seems to find just as many who have apparently few other options for self-discovery and actualization.  After long enough, it becomes difficult if not impossible to conceive of life outside the church.

The ones that cause the deepest stirrings of concern are those born into it, at least those born into it within the deepest circles, the Sea Org and administration.  They grow up never knowing enough, if anything, about the outside world to be able to function anywhere but within the church.

There are orders of renunciates the world over, retiring groups who close themselves off from the world at large.  Their existence calls into question criticism of Scientology for doing essentially the same thing.  However, as the story of the interior world Hubbard created unfolds, we see a disturbing absence of all the aspects of free will, free choice that we take for granted.  Yes, strictly speaking, these people joined on their own and stay by choice.

But so, too, did the followers of Jim Jones or David Koresh.  A close look at Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church reveals a similar break from the standards of free association we associate with the exercise of rights.  Coercion takes many forms and the most effective are those that manage to convince people to place the chains on themselves.

And yet…and yet…

The doctrines created—invented—by Hubbard come straight out of science fiction.  Hubbard was a pulp writer in the 1930s, he wrote fantastic fiction (as in content not necessarily quality), he was a colleague of Heinlein, de Camp, others who established the idioms of what we know today as science fiction.  When you read the ideas that informed Hubbard’s central mythos for the church, it is straight out of science fiction, but of an earlier era where some of the constraints of science, even in passing,  did not pertain.  It is difficult to take any of it seriously.  Much of it flies in the face of physical fact (the universe is 14 billion years old, not 4 quadrillion) and defies the logic of evolution.  It combines elements of pop psychology with Antlantean mythology with flights of fancy that would be ridiculed today by savvy readers if the attempt were made to foist it onto them.  How can anyone swallow this stuff, we may ask, incredulous at the apparent gullibility of adherents.

But, then, the same could be said of the basic doctrines of any religion.  Joseph Smith was a con artist and his frauds were documented, yet people virtually worship him as the avatar of their theological universe.  Fact has little bearing on the need to join and believe exhibited by so many people.  Cordons sanitaire are drawn around the primary ideologies of any religion, exempting them from even the most mundane of critical analysis.

Few have been so closely guarded as those of Scientology.

What is striking, though, is the apparent ease with which such movements attract followers in a place where supposedly the defining cultural motifs all promote the idea of not being gulled, not being fooled, not be led unquestioningly.  Wright has no answers to such dilemmas.  What he has given us, however, is a clear-eyed look at method and process and, it may be hoped, a possible antitode to self-imposed slavery.

Detecting Sauvage

Savage DetectivesA couple of years ago I read Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives.  I still have the one for which he gained considerable fame posthumously, 2666, waiting for me to tackle.

I say “tackle” fully cognizant of its implications.  For a book like this, one should prepare.  Stockpile food and water, coffee (my god, yes, coffee!) and tell friends you’re going on a long trip and to maybe take care of your pets for you.  One should be prepared to leave one’s life by way of the page and cut what ties are possible, because it will be a journey.  This is not “light reading.”

November 2   I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists.  I accepted, of course.  There was no initiation ceremony.  It was better that way.

So it begins.  Might as well say he had been invited to join Life.  It’s rare that anyone is “cordially invited” to do so, although there are many opportunities along the course of our living to join at a more engaged level.  Too many people pass these opportunities by, either because they do not recognize them or because they do and would rather not.

November 3   I’m not really sure what visceral realism is. 

Of course not.  He goes on to say he’s only 17.  How many of us ever know so early what life is?  But Bolaño sets out to show us.

He never explains it.  He simply takes us through a long journey, immersing us in the viscera of other lives who are all desperately trying to be real.  None of these people know what they’re doing, what they’re after, what they hope to get out of whatever it is they’ve gotten into.  But they go, and that’s the entire point of the several hundred pages of what amounts to a hero’s quest for the internally tangible.

Most of them fail.

They try to find it in art, doing radical experimental poetry, through sex, having affairs that, while not exactly forbidden, are at least not likely to be fulfilling, through violence, through alcohol, through fleeing their country, through poverty and work and opportunistic spiritual muggings.  They are purposeful while lacking a purpose, at least beyond short term stand-ins for purpose.  They hurt, get hurt, love, suffer, burn out, and none of them end up where they began, although there seems to be a return.

One character is named Ulises and this is not capricious.  If anything, Savage Detectives is a recapitulation of The Odyssey.  Years of travel to find home.  But, like Odysseus, they come back, some of them, to find home has left as well.  You get the sense that one or two of them finally understand that home is something you carry with you, not a geographic location, but it’s hard to tell because the mysteries they strive to uncover and reveal mutate in the hard light of day.  Just about the time you see them find something and say “That’s it!  That’s the thing!” it’s gone, slipping away with serpentine grace and telec perversity.

You come back from your own journey, having stayed true to the quest, and feel…reworked.  You’ve been through living and followed the clues to answers that have only the suggestion of questions.  For some, it might feel like a cheat.  In that regard, Savage Detectives is kin to novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, The Sunlight Dialogues, and, yes, Ulysses.

But I suspect it really had more in common with Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.  Bolaño seems to have fractured the character of Larry in several pieces and sent them all on the same kind of quest, to find Meaning, only to have it all turn pointless on them.  Larry expresses the realization in himself that he had gone about it backwards when he admits that he thought Sophie would be his reward for having lived a good life.  (Sophie, sofia, wisdom, and in a way, Larry achieved it, but Bolaño has a darker view.)  It’s the living that’s the reward and we ignore that at our peril.

Of course, living can be a punishment as well, and it may be that you can’t have one without the other.

I still have 2666 there, waiting.  Daring me.  I have some vacation time coming…

Breakneck Mousetraps—Past and Future in Cloud Atlas

It begins in the past.  Not one past, but three, and then a kind of present.  Then a future.  Two futures, but the furthest is so much like the past as to be functionally the same, only reversed.  The great ship of the technologically advanced is the image fading in the center of this novel, as if the reader has risen to a height of inevitability that can do nothing now but sink back through the layers that cannot support it.  The hyperbolic arc of human trajectory achieves its limit, turns, and falls back to the point where the mirror reality of that insubstantial future rests.  We cannot stay in that future because it is built on anticipation and hope, contending with dread and cynicism, which rob it of any force of inevitability.  It looks real, substantial, has within its possibilities everything we know and everything we are and everything we can be and everything we should not be.

There were once places in the world (and maybe this is still the case) notated on maps as Obscured By Cloud.  Unknown. Protected areas, mostly, in the islands around New Guinea and New Zealand, valleys where the weather systems conspire to keep a permanent layer of cloud cover over them, and which, in somewhat belated attempts at responsible behavior, colonial governments placed off limits.  They are not mapped.

Much like the future, even though we have now more than a century of “futurism” behind us, attempts at forecasting, and not simply confined to science fiction.  We might be tempted from time to time to believe that the future is knowable, even set.  Perhaps we’re not wrong in that, but likely not in the way we might think. Divining the future is very like doing cartography on clouds.  The effort is substantive even while the results are necessarily transitory, because in doing so we learn something about the essence of “cloudness” and perhaps something of the predictability of form.

One of the secondary characters in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas explains it this way:

…The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct: in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.
* The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies + legitimacy to the imposition of will…Symmetry demands an actual + virtual future, too.  We imagine how next week, next year, or 2225 will shape up—a virtual future, constructed by wishes, prophecies + daydreams.

Which is what Mitchell has accomplished in this curious novel of nested narratives, linked by the most tenuous of threads, like the fraying tag-ends of clouds pulling apart.  The connections between the six distinct—and distinctive—fictions are circumstantial, coincidental, and, on some level, genetic, but unlike novels in which such connections coalesce into resolving tissue upon which the entire plot depends, none of these surface connections does much more than influence the atmosphere.  They are clouds contouring the background against which a bigger game is being played.

Cloud Atlas

There is a journal written by a notary on a long sea voyage, which is discovered by a musician who is composing a sextet that will be the crowning achievement of his short life, which is recorded and printed by obscure labels and found by a reporter working to uncover major corporate corruption, whose story informs a book proposal an unlikely specialty publishers reads while trying to free himself from bizarre circumstances, whose life becomes a film seen by a clone-cum-messiah in a corporate future, who is herself the source of a Buddhist-like liberation faith in a future witnessing a collapse of civilization back to the level found in the first narrative.

Another connection is a curious birthmark shared across time, a suggestion of reincarnation.  Mercantile concerns dominate the cultures throughout, the making of money a driving force in all but one. Servitude.

On the surface, the novellas comprising the total work, except for these superficial connections, seem as disparate and unique as the styles in which they are written.  The journal, written with the stiff formality of a somewhat pretentious educated young man of the 1840s; letters written by a refugee from the Lost Generation to his best friend; a detective story told in third person; a manic tell-all written by an aging publisher with the possibility of a movie in mind; an interrogation session, question and answer; and a first-person oral tale by a semi-literate inhabitant of a future past the collapse of global technical civilization.  Mitchell displays enviable skill in each idiom, moving smoothly not just between periods but among the voices of both the times and the genres in which his narrative(s) unfold.  (A cloud is always a cloud, regardless its particular shape.)

What links them that they should appear as a unified work, as a novel?

Mitchell, in each and every one of them, is writing about slavery and emancipation, and the costs of both.

Certainly the manifestations are unique to each period, but the essence is there throughout, in some more blatantly than in others, but with rigorous consistency.  Freedom, he shows us, means different things to different people, but bondage is the same regardless.

The result of Mitchell’s considerable craft and intelligence is a largely thematic work that doesn’t read like one.  Except for a few passages scattered throughout in which circumspection melds with introspection, the stories of these various actors scattered across time are their own, not the theme’s.  To do otherwise might perhaps suggest the inevitability (and perhaps desirability) of the very bondage under examination. If not approval, at least acceptance.  It would have been easy enough to lose control of his material and produce exactly that validation by writing about his disapproval too obviously.  Instead, we find a work in which the judgment is rendered through the lives depicted and not through the author’s too-pointed explications.

Consequently, we have another rarity—a successful work on a profound theme that is actually fun to read.

Mitchell’s pasts are vibrantly-realized, just as the futures are both exotic and familiar at once.  As his “theorist” continues, however, in the passage on actual and virtual pasts and presents:

One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each “shell” (the present) encased inside a nest of “shells” (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past.  The doll of “now” likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future.

As has always been the case, fiction is about the present—distorted through the lens of past or future in order to make a particular case about Now.  (Nowhere is this distortion more obvious and sometimes poorly-used than in science fiction, but only because of the inherent exoticism of the seemingly unknowable.  Mitchell admirably escapes this pitfall.)

Which suggests that in a world wherein actual slavery has been and is being abolished but virtual slavery is on the rise, it is worth trying to distinguish between virtual emancipation and actual emancipation—which is the struggle each one of the people in Cloud Atlas engages.  As he carries his theme into the future, he inverts our gaze and shows us that no matter how elusive and indefinite our terms, virtual slavery, if unrecognized, will become actual slavery.  In between, we must define what constitutes emancipation and choose between the virtual and the actual.

But the shapes change.  Much like clouds in competing fronts.

It is perhaps no accident that the title appears within the novel in relation to only one thing, a piece of music.  Music by its nature is infinitely malleable, even while it remains ostensibly the same.  Mitchell gives us our map in Zedelghem, Belgium.  If we required any further evidence of his thematic telos, here it is.  The Cloud Atlas Sextet is composed in a place where, historically, one of the largest complexes of concentration camps was built, and which today remains a largely military area.  The ironies implicit multiply under scrutiny.

All of which unfolds and is watched over by the silent judges of history, the dead.  In the beginning piece, an alcove is discovered by the narrator of Adam Ewing’s Journal on the island upon which he has been awaiting the repair of the ship he is to take home.  Within this alcove, the discovery of which nearly kills him, he finds carved faces along the wall, obscured from above.  A collection of memorial carvings, icons, the faces of past denizens of this island.  He tells no one, other than those who might read his journal, fearing its destruction (because memory is one of the things conquerors most seek to obliterate).  In the far future, where the world is returning to this pre-20th Century condition, the faces are once more present, gathered in a cave where their caretakers go to pray and be in the presence (the Present) of a past (virtual) they no longer remember (actual).  The icons of the dead frame the time passing and give us our final connective thread.

History as vapor made momentarily stable, visible.