Inside Outside: Two Views of Science Fiction

Histories and analyses of science fiction are often fragmentary. Like histories of rock’n’roll, there are just too many different facets to be meaningfully comprehensive. That is not to say there aren’t excellent works that manage to deal with essential elements of science fiction, only that inevitably something will be left out or overlooked or, now and then, misunderstood.

I recently read two books about the subject that represent the poles of such analyses—those done from the inside and those done from the outside—and between them a clarity emerges about the fundamental misunderstandings that abound about the nature of science fiction.

Brian W. Aldiss’s almost majestic Billion Year Spree was published in 1973, a good year to attempt an overview like this, which covers precursor works as well as traces the development of the specific qualities of the genre through the 19th Century and then treats the major corpus of what we have come to recognize as science fiction from the 20th Century. Aldiss is very smart, very savvy, and his wit is equal to his intelligence in putting things in perspective. It is in this book that the idea that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first genuine science fiction novel was presented. Most dedicated readers of science fiction may be acquainted with this proposition, which has gone viral within the field, but may not have read Aldiss’s arguments in support. They are worth the time.

The second book is very recent. Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds, which does not purport to be an overview like Aldiss’s work. Instead it is a very personal history with opinions and judgments. It covers Atwood’s association with science fiction and showcases her take on it as a genre. In some ways it resembles a memoir. On the question of what the first SF work was, Atwood is much less rigorous and far more concerned with SF as myth than Aldiss, so we find allusions to Gilgamesh and several other works along the way, which she does not specifically name as the primogenitor.

Which makes perfect sense by the end of the book because—and she pretends to nothing else—she doesn’t know. She doesn’t seem to know what science fiction is as practiced by those who work mainly within the field, nor does she seem to understand the nature of the particular pleasure of SF for the dedicated fan. And as I say, she never claims to.

This would normally not even be an issue but for the fact that Atwood has been committing science fiction for some time now. But it’s not her primary interest, as represented by a long and successful career writing and publishing what is generally regarded as mainstream literary fiction and commentary upon it. It’s not her sandbox, even though she is clearly attracted to it and likes to come over and play.

The different focus of her appreciation of science fiction highlights aspects of the longrunning and disputatious relationship between the so-called literary establishment and the declassé realms of genre fiction. Especially after having read Aldiss on science fiction, the bases of mutual incomprehension across the fictive divide becomes clearer.

Aldiss establishes his premises early:

No true understanding of science fiction is possible until its origin and development are understood. In this respect, almost everyone who has written on science fiction has been (I believe) in error—for reasons of aggrandisement or ignorance. To speak of science fiction as beginning with the plays of Aristophanes or some Mycenean fragment concerning a flight to the Sun on a goose’s back is to confuse the central function of the genre; to speak of it as beginning in a pulp magazine in 1926 is equally misleading.

In chapter one he then sets out his operating definition:

Science fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould.

Contrast this to Atwood’s opening stab at definitions:

Much depends on your nomenclatural allegiances, or else on your system of literary taxonomy…I realized that I couldn’t make a stand at the answer because I didn’t really grasp what the term science fiction means anymore. Is this term a corral with real fences or is it merely a shelving aid, there to help workers in bookstores place the book in a semi-accurate or at least lucrative way?
…sci fic includes, as a matter of course, spaceships and Mad Scientists, and Experiments Gone Awfully Wrong…

Then later, this:

In a public discussion with Ursula K. Le Guin in the fall of 2010…I found that what she means by “science fiction” is speculative fiction about things that really could happen, whereas things that really could not happen she classifies under “fantasy.”
…In short, what Le Guin means by “science fiction” is what I mean by “speculative fiction,” and what she means by “fantasy” would include some of what I mean by “science fiction.”

There are harbingers in this which emerge meaningfully later in the book.

My own definition of science fiction is less specific than Aldiss’s and far more rigorous than Atwood’s—science fiction is at heart epistemological fiction: it is concerned with how knowledge (and subsequently technology) forces change on humans. You might argue that any good spy novel would meet that criteria, and certainly many spy novels (and movies) contain large dollops of science fiction, but only as collateral concerns. The change in a spy novel is earnestly resisted and often successfully so—the status quo is all important. Science fiction usually starts with (the authorial) belief that any status quo is an illusion and goes from there. Again, any surrealist novel might meet that definition, but I said epistemological, which is the tell-tale, because we’re talking about knowledge and knowing and acting, which is a communal experience, across society. And so the Federation of Star Trek qualifies as an epistemological proposition while the Isle of Avalon does not. And of course the second important condition—force—is essential in this regard. If there is a classical myth at the heart of SF it is Pandora’s Box. Open that lid—which is an act of will—and then deal with the consequences of uncontrollable environmental change.

I take it as read that there are other definitions of science fiction. This one is mine. It has the virtue of being completely independent of tropes—those spaceships and Mad Scientists of which Atwood speaks. Which brings something like Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi into the fold quite plausibly while leaving something like Allen Drury’s Throne of Saturn out.

Aldiss proceeds in chapter one to make his case for Frankenstein and he does so adroitly. For SF to be true to itself, a change must be apparent that can be prompted and shaped no other way than by the conceit of the Sfnal idea. Dr. Frankenstein has learned how to reanimate dead tissue. The change this causes in him is to be faced quite unmetaphorically with the responsibility of being a god.

What separates this effectively from a straightforward horror novel is the utter humanity of Victor Frankenstein and the absence of any hint of either the divine or the demonic. What unfolds is a human drama anyone would face under similar circumstances. Frankenstein is not “mad” but becomes so. The Creature is not supernatural, it’s a construct. The questions of soul and moral responsibility permeate the drama—unresolved and unresolvable. Frankenstein has made a change in the world and has to figure out how to deal with it. He fails, but it’s the wrestling with it that brings the book into the fold of science fiction, because the change is both external and personal and depicted as humanly possible.

The rest of the novel is a Gothic—namely, it partakes of the tropes that define the Gothic: lonely castles, empty landscapes, isolation, darkness, and a kind of vastness that seems ponderously empty (but may not be). In that respect, Aldiss is correct about SF being in the tradition of the Gothic. It deals with vastness, isolation, the alien as landscape—and moral conundrum.

Atwood seems to think it’s all about utopias, which is why she seems unable to locate a definable beginning to the genre. There is a palpable reluctance throughout her book to deal with the subject directly, in a way that addresses the particular history of the stories that comprise the principle body of what we call science fiction, as if by searching around the perimeter she might find the point where it can all be subsumed into the larger, primary literary history of the last couple of millennia.

Aldiss talks throughout Billion Year Spree about the writers who informed the genre ever since it split off into its own distinct digs in 1926 with the founding of Amazing Stories by Hugo Gernsback, who Atwood barely mentions in passing. In Aldiss we have complete discussion of Gernsback, of Edgar Rice Burroughs, of E.E. “Doc” Smith, Leigh Brackett, A.E. Van Vogt, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov—names which are oddly absent from the Atwood even though it is hardly possible to discuss SF meaningfully in their absence.

The writers they do cover, both of them, are Aldous Huxley, Jonathan Swift, George Orwell. Aldiss talks about them as what they are—literary writers who found useful tools in the SF toolbox, but who in most ways barely acknowledged the existence of the genre. (In Swift’s case, obviously so, since the genre did not exist in his day. But this itself is telling, since Swift is excluded by Aldiss as a precursor SF writer while Atwood sees him as primary.) Aldiss is remarking on how the same observations led to writers of quite different dispositions to do work recognizable to the main body of SF in its own day. To be sure, such writers are often used by the genre in a kind of reflexive self-defense, as if to say “See, serious writers do it, too!” But while Aldiss shows how these are basically one-offs, Atwood seems to think these writers represent the central goal of the genre—that all SF writers might be aspiring to the level of Huxley and Orwell. Perhaps in matters of craft and even art, but not necessarily in terms of theme or subject.

Atwood begins the biographical parts of her association with the genre in an understandable but curious place—in comics. (She also read H. Rider Haggard as a child, which left a distinct impression on her.) The trouble seems to be that she did not move from comics to the major magazines, and so what she shows is an attempt to make whole the literary connections between the superhero motifs of the 30s and 40s and classical myth. A valid and fruitful analysis, certainly, but it leaves one of the principle distinguishing features of the science fiction of the same period unaddressed—technology. Greek myths care not a fig for how Zeus generates his lightning bolts. They are super natural, beyond such understanding, as befits the divine. Science fiction is all over those bolts and how they are made—and, consequently why.

I would argue that while he did not create the first SF, Homer gave us the first SF character in Odysseus. In his own way, he was a technophile and a geek. He did not believe the gods were utterly inscrutable and unchallengeable and spent the length of the Odyssey figuring out how to beat them. He was a clever man, a man of reason, who clearly believed there was something to be understood about everything.

The mistake many literary critics make in their regard toward science fiction is in consistently assuming SF is all about its gadgets—i.e. its tropes—when it is really about the people who make them, understand them, use them, and all those who are changed by them.

Aldiss clearly understands this. He rarely argues for less science and tech, only for better human depictions. Because SF is about the world those tools are allowing us to make.

The question that springs to mind while reading Atwood’s examination is whether or not she ever read anything “of the canon,” so to speak—like Sturgeon or Herbert or Niven or Brin or Cherryh or even Butler—or if, having read it, she simply found it not worth discussing in the same breath as her token SF writer, Le Guin, and the others she selects to dissect, like Marge Piercy. Even in the case of Piercy, the work she chooses to examine is the one that can be read differently, Woman On The Edge Of Time, rather than the less ambiguous He, She, and It. In the closing paragraph of her examination on Piercy’s time travel-cum-woman-under-pressure novel, Atwood says:

Woman On The Edge Of Time is like a long inner dialogue in which Piercy answers her own questions about how a revised American society would work. The curious thing about serious utopias, as opposed to the satirical or entertainment variety, is that their authors never seem to write more than one of them; perhaps because they are products, finally, of the moral rather than the literary sense.

Even in praise, there seems to be a reservation about the work in question. Not literary, then, but a moral work. In this regard, Aldiss would seem to agree with her:

The great utopias have better claim to our attention, for utopianism or its opposite, dystopianism, is present in every vision of the future—there is little point in inventing a future state unless it provides a contrast with our present one. This is not to claim that the great utopias are science fiction. Their intentions are moral or political…
The idea of utopianists, like our town-planners, is to produce something that is orderly and functions well.

One of the chief drawbacks of utopias is this achievement of function. Basically, the whole point of them is to end history. They are “nowhere” because once attained there is theoretically no further need for people to change. In fact, they must not change, lest they destroy the perfection. As Aldiss goes on to say:

The trouble with utopias is that they are too orderly. They rule out the irrational in man, and the irrational is the great discovery of the last hundred years. They may be fantasy, but they reject fantasy as part of man—and this is a criticism that applies to most of the eighteenth-century literature…

Given this, one wonders what it is that Atwood is attempting in implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—treating SF as utopianism without a nod toward the thing at its core, namely the embrace of inexorable change. Because change is the driving fascination in science fiction and for it to have any valence in the imagination or utility in its constructs, it must present as something other than metaphor. Let me give you two quotes from a pair of SF writers, one of whom seems to be Atwood’s choice of exceptional ability:

Science fiction is a tool to help you think; and like anything that really helps you think, by definition is doesn’t do the thinking for you. It’s a tool to help you think about the present—a present that is always changing, a present in which change itself assures there is always a range of options for actions, actions presupposing different commitments, different beliefs, different efforts (of different qualities, different quantities) different conflicts, different processes, different joys. It doesn’t tell you what’s going to happen tomorrow. It presents alternative possible images of futures, and presents them in a way that allows you to question them as you read along in an interesting, moving, and exciting story.
Samuel R. Delany, The Necessity of Tomorrows

If science fiction has a major gift to offer literature, I think it is just this: the capacity to face an open universe. Physically open, psychically open. No doors shut.
What science, from physics to astronomy to history and psychology, has given us is the open universe: a cosmos that is not a simple, fixed hierarchy but an immensely complex process in time. All the doors stand open, from the prehuman past through the incredible present to the terrible and hopeful future. All connections are possible. All alternatives are thinkable. It is not a comfortable, reassuring place. It’s a very large house, a very drafty house. But it’s the house we live in…and science fiction seems to be the modern literary art which is capable of living in that huge and drafty house, and feeling at home there, and playing games up and down the stairs, from basement to attic.
Ursula K. Le Guin, Escape Routes

Taken together, these point to the disconnect with traditional literary forms, traditional literary expectations. Science fiction contains utopias, certainly (and dystopias, clearly) but it is not in the main about them. Nor is it about some desired escape from the present into an alternative world that may offer some kind of release for a mind at odds with itself, which seems to be the basis of so much neurotic fiction. The focus is on the wrong point here. It is about living in a changed milieu.

The problem with utopias was summed up concisely by Virginia Woolf “There are no Mrs. Brown’s in Utopia.” Like all superlatives, counterexamples can be found, but in the main this is a self-consistent criticism of the form which Atwood seems intent on using as her functional definition of science fiction. There is no room for ordinary people in Thomas More’s Utopia—if they are ordinary, they aren’t people, they’re memes. If they aren’t ordinary, Utopia doesn’t stand a chance of surviving.

And most ordinary people, when you get down to it, are not ordinary.

Which seems to be the major concern of most literary fiction—ordinary people. Which, by a tortuous logic of taxonomic reassessment, means, since Atwood seems to believe SF is principally utopian, that science fiction cannot deal with ordinary people and therefore, though she does not come right out and say this, cannot be considered relevant to mainstream literary concerns.

Welcome back to the ghetto.

In a blatantly dismissive review of Atwood’s own Oryx and Crake, Sven Birkerts asserted that SF can never be [true] literature because it “privileges premise over character.” In other words, the world at hand is more important than the people in it—which, of course, would make it utopian.

Henry James famously claimed “Landscape is character.” (Of course, he then criticized H.G. Wells for dealing more with “things” than characters—in other words, his landscapes.)

Birkerts and Atwood are on the same page, it seems, though Atwood is striving to come to terms with a form she clearly likes, even while misapprehending it. Perhaps had she found a stack of Astounding Stories instead of H. Rider Haggard and comics in the attic as a child she might have understood where the divergence happened and SF split off from two millennia of myth-driven fantasy. Novelty can overwhelm truth-seeking and a great deal of SF falls into the pit of self-involved gizmo geekery, but at those times when the work rises out of that pit to deal with the future and science and their immanence within the human soul it is unfair to not see its true worth. It’s like comparing Sherlock Holmes to the Hardy Boys and dismissing Holmes because he comes from the same stock.

It’s interesting that Atwood chooses Marge Piercy’s Woman On The Edge Of Time as her example, because Piercy worked a further subversion, perhaps unwittingly so, in the scenario she examines. Connie is regarded by everyone around her as insane. But she knows she isn’t, she’s dealing with a real situation, the future. But the world she lives in, the given world, her context, insists of denying the reality of that future and treating her involvement with it as symptom rather than legitimate experience. The parallel to the way in which the science fiction writer and his or her work is treated by those who see themselves as the keepers of context is remarkable. This is a metaphor which Atwood overlooks. The question of whether or not Piercy is writing what Atwood thinks she is or has understood the nature of the form she’s indulging is open.

The misunderstanding is simple but with complex consequences. Most genre fiction—mystery, western, war, spies, even romance—takes advantage of altered context to set mood or establish a range of possible action. Done well, these shifts target different thematic concerns and aim at specific moral (or telec) points. But in all but science fiction (and to a lesser extent the related genre of fantasy) the context would seem to be more attitudinal than material. Except in westerns, but we tend to treat the context of the western as “our” world insofar as it is historical and therefore, legitimately or not, we see it as familiar. The differences fade into background and the metaphor run out of our sight, almost as window dressing.

Science fiction dramatically reverses this relationship.

Which makes it a very uncomfortable place, especially for the writer who has spent his or her career writing from character rather than from landscape through character. Instead of seeing the world as a consequence of character, in science fiction the world is a character and must be dealt with concretely, as if to say “Here’s your new reality (context), now learn to live in it.”

It is precisely that discomfort that is the drug of choice for the reader of SF.

Attempts to corral it into a more familiar tradition run up against what must often seem like a perverse and intractable exoticism on the part of the writers.

Of the two books at hand, the Aldiss is the more taxonomically useful as well as æsthetically relevant. Aldiss, after all, is a science fiction writer. He has lived within the genre, knows it to its marrow, and, while critical of its excesses and irrelevancies, clearly loves it for itself, redheaded stepchild though it may be to others.

Which is not to say the Atwood is a failure. She is just as clearly fond of science fiction and has done considerable grappling with its conventions and conceits. But for her, it feels as if SF was an important love affair that last a summer or a year and then ended, leaving her with good memories and an impression of something missed, a road not taken. Nothing she regrets but it might have been nice for it to have lasted longer. She doesn’t know it the way Aldiss does, but she doesn’t fear it the way some of her colleagues have in the past and may still. So while her observations may seem coincidental, there’s worthy insight, if only of the tourist variety. Taken together, the two books give one a view of SF both from the inside and from the outside and the distinctions are telling.

Way back in my youth, when rock’n’roll had muscled its way into the serious attention of people who, not too many years earlier, once derided it as loud, obnoxious “kid’s stuff” I found an album by Andre Kostelanetz, who led an orchestra that specialized in symphonic renditions of popular music. He would take Sinatra or Como or Crosby or film themes or light jazz and turn them into quasi-classical pieces. This album was his take on the band Chicago. I remember listening to it bemused. It was interesting and it was “accurate” but it lacked some vitality that I at first couldn’t define. But then I realized that he had stripped everything out of it that said “rock’n’roll” and all that remained was the melody, the chord changes, and the form, but none of the guts. He’d taken music that could, in its original, get you churned up, excited, and agitated in a particular way and converted it into something palatable for the inspection of people who did not understand rock music but may have been curious about it. Unfortunately, he missed the point and the result was “interesting.”

I often feel that way about attempts at science fiction by people who do not understand it.

More importantly, however, is the dialogue between those who get it and those who don’t and in this respect Atwood has written a very useful book with considerable care and insight. It is, ultimately, less about science fiction than about her attempts to alchemically transform it into something familiar to her own early impressions of magical and dissociative fictive experiences. This is underscored by the Aldiss, which is about the heart and soul of science fiction. Reading them in tandem clarifies the ongoing misapprehensions and perhaps shows us how and why SF seems to be infecting much of today’s literary fiction. There must be a good reason why someone like Atwood now writes it, even if she doesn’t seem entirely to embrace it for itself.

 

Greatless Illusion

The third book I read recently which resonated thematically with the previous two is one I have come somewhat late to given my inclinations.  But a new paperback edition was recently released and I considered buying it.  I hesitated as I was uncertain whether anything new or substantively unique was contained therein to make it worth having on my shelf.  I have other books along similar lines and while I am fond of the author, it seemed unlikely this book would offer anything not already covered.

Christopher Hitchens was a journalist and essayist and became one of our best commentators on current events, politics, and related subjects.  Even when I disagreed with him I have always found his arguments cogent and insightful and never less than solidly grounded on available fact.

So when he published a book of his views on religion, it seemed a natural addition to my library, yet I missed it when it first came out.  Instead, I read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which I found useful and well-reasoned, but pretty much a sermon to one who needed no convincing.  Such books are useful for the examples they offer to underpin their arguments.

Such is the case with God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  Hitchens’ extensive travels and his experiences in the face of conflict between opposing groups, often ideologically-driven, promised a surfeit of example and he did not fail to provide amply.

The title is a challenge, a gauntlet thrown at the feet of those with whom Hitchens had sizeable bones to pick.  In the years since its initial publication it has acquired a reputation, developed a set of expectations, and has become something of a cause celebré sufficient for people to take sides without having read it.  I found myself approaching the book with a set of expectations of my own and, with mild surprise, had those expectations undermined.

Yes, the book is a statement about the nature of religion as an abusive ideology—regardless of denomination, sect, theological origin—and offers a full range of examples of how conflicts, both between people and peoples, are generally made worse (or, more often than not, occur because of) by religious infusions into the situation.  It is in many ways a depressing catalog of misuse, misinterpretation, misstatement, misunderstanding, and sometimes misanthropy born out of religious conviction.  Hitchens analyzes the sources of these problems, charts some of the history, and gives us modern day examples.

But he tempers much of this by drawing a distinction between individuals and ideologies.

He also opens with a statement that in his opinion we shall never be rid of it.  This is quite unlike people like Dawkins who actually seem to feel humankind can be educated out of any need of religion.  Hitchens understood human nature all too well to have any hope that this was possible.

He does allow that possibly religion allows some good people to be better, but he does not believe religion makes anyone not already so inclined good.

By the end of the book, there will likely be two reactions.  One, possibly the more common, will be to dismiss much of his argument as one-sided.  “He overlooks all the good that has been done.”  It is interesting to me that such special pleading only ever gets applied consistently when religion is at issue.  In so much else, one or two missteps and trust is gone, but not so in religion, wherein an arena is offered in which not only mistakes but serious abuse can occur time and time again and yet the driving doctrine never called into question.  The other reaction will be to embrace the serious critique on offer, even the condemnations, and pay no attention to the quite sincere attempt to examine human nature in the grip of what can only be described as a pathology.

Because while Hitchens was a self-proclaimed atheist, he does take pains to point out that he is not talking about any sort of actual god in this book, only the god at the heart of human-made religions.  For some this may be a distinction without a difference, but for the thoughtful reader it is a telling distinction.  That at the end of it all, Hitchens see all—all—manifestations of gods through the terms of their religions as artifices.  And he wonders then why people continue to inflict upon themselves and each other straitjackets of behavior and ideology that, pushed to one extreme or another, seem to always result in some sort of harm, not only for the people who do not believe a given trope but for the believers themselves.

We are, being story-obsessed, caught in the amber of our narratives.  Per Mr. Thompson’s analysis of myth, we are never free of those stories—even their evocation for the purposes of ridicule bring us fully within them and determine the ground upon which we move.  The intractable differences over unprovable and ultimately unsubstantiated assumptions of religious dictate, per the history chronicled around the life Roger Smith, have left us upon a field of direst struggle with our fellows whose lack of belief often is perceived as a direct threat to a salvation we are unwilling ourselves to examine and question as valid, resulting in abuse and death borne out of tortured constructs of love.  Christopher Hitchens put together a bestiary of precedent demonstrating that treating as real the often inarticulate longings to be “right” in the sight of a god we ourselves have invented, too often leads to heartache, madness, and butchery.

The sanest religionists, it would seem by this testament, are those with the lightest affiliation, the flimsiest of dedications to doctrine.  They are the ones who can step back when the call to massacre the infidel goes out.

All of which is ultimately problematic due simply to the inexplicable nature of religion’s appeal to so many.

But it is, to my mind, an insincere devoteé who will not, in order to fairly assess the thing itself, look at all that has been wrought in the name of a stated belief.  Insincere and ultimately dangerous, especially when what under any other circumstance is completely wrong can be justified by that which is supposed to redeem us.

Monstrous Partiality

In keeping with the previous review, we turn now to a more modern myth, specifically that of our nation’s founding.  More specifically, one component which has from time to time erupted into controversy and distorted the civil landscape by its insistence on truth and right.

But first, a question:  did you know that once upon a time, in Massachussetts, it was illegal to live alone?

There was a law requiring all men and women to abide with families—either their own or others—and that no one, man or woman, was permitted to build a house and inhabit it by themselves.

John M. Barry details this and much more about early America which, to my knowledge, never makes it into history classes, at least not in primary or secondary schools, in his excellent book  Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.

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Discussion of the Founding—and most particularly the Founding Fathers—centers upon the Revolutionary Era collection of savants who shaped what became the United States.  It is sometimes easy to forget that Europeans had been on these shores, attempting settlements, for almost two centuries by then.  It’s as if that period, encapsulated as it is in quaint myths of Puritans, Pocahontas, Squanto, John Smith, and Plymouth Rock, occupies a kind of nontime, a pre-political period of social innocence in which Individuals, whose personalities loom large yet isolated, like Greek Gods, prepared the landscape for our later emergence as a nation.  My own history classes I recall did little to connect the English Civil War to the Puritan settlements and even less to connect the major convulsions in English jurisprudence of that period to the the evolution of political ideas we tend to take for granted today.  In fact, it seems pains are taken to sever those very connections, as if to say that once here, on North American soil, what happened in Europe was inconsequential to our national mythos.

That illusion is shattered by Barry in this biography of not only one of the most overlooked and misunderstood Founders but of that entire morass of religious and political struggle which resulted in the beginnings of our modern understanding of the wall of separation between church and state.  More, he makes it viscerally real why  that wall not only came into being but had  to be.

If you learned about Roger Williams at all in high school, probably the extent of it was “Roger Williams was a Puritan who established the colony that became Rhode Island.  He contributed to the discussion over individual liberty.”  Or something like that.  While true, it grossly undervalues what Williams actually did and how important he was to everything that followed.

In a way, it’s understandable why this is the case.  Williams occupies a time in our history that is both chaotic and morally ambiguous.  We like to think differently of those who settled here than they actually were, and any deeper examination of that period threatens to open a fractal abyss of soul searching that might cast a shadow over the period we prefer to exalt.

But the seeds of Williams’ contribution were sown in the intellectual soil which to this day has produced a troubling crop of discontent between two different conceptions of what America is.

The Puritans (whom we often refer to as The Pilgrims) were religious malcontents who opposed the English church.  They had good reason to do so.  King James I (1566 – 1625) and then his son, Charles I (1600 – 1649), remade the Church of England into a political institution of unprecedented intrusive power, establishing it as the sole legitimate church in England and gradually driving out, delegitimizing, and anathematizing any and all deviant sects—including and often most especially the Puritans.  Loyalty oaths included mandatory attendance at Anglican services and the adoption of the Book of Common Prayer.  The reason this was such a big deal at the time was because England had become a Protestant nation under Queen Elizabeth I and everything James and Charles were doing smacked of Catholicism (or Romishness), which the majority of common folk had rejected, and not without cause.  The history of the religious whipsaw England endured in these years is a blood-soaked one.  How people prayed, whether or not they could read the Bible themselves, and their private affiliations to their religious conceptions became the stuff of vicious street politics and uglier national power plays.

So when we hear that the Pilgrims came to America in order to worship as they saw fit, we sympathize.  Naturally, we feel, everyone should be allowed to worship in their own way.  We have internalized the idea of private worship and the liberty of conscience—an idea that had no currency among the Puritans.

The Puritans were no more tolerant than the high church bishops enforcing Anglican conformity in England.  They thought—they believed—their view of christian worship was right and they had come to the New World to build their version of perfection.  A survey of the laws and practices of those early colonies gives us a picture of ideological gulags where deviation was treated as a dire threat, a disease, which sometimes required the amputation of the infected individual: banishment.

Hence the law forbidding anyone from living alone.  It was thought that in isolation, apart from people who could keep watch over you and each other, the mind’s natural proclivity to question would create nonconformity.

Conformity is sometimes a dirty word today.  We pursue it but we reserve the right to distance ourselves from what we perceive as intrusiveness in the name of conformity.  Among the Puritans, conformity was essential to bring closer the day of Jesus’ return.  Everyone had to be on the same page for that to occur.

(Which gave them a lot of work to do.  Not only did they have to establish absolute conformism among themselves, but they would at some point have to go back to England and overthrow the established—i.e. the King’s—order and convert their fellow Britons, and then invade the Continent and overthrow Catholicism, and all the while they had to go out into the wilderness of North America and convert all the Indians…but first things first, they needs must become One People within their own community—something they were finding increasingly difficult to do.)

Into this environment came Roger Williams and his family.  Williams was a Puritan.  But he also had a background as apprentice to one of the most formidable jurists in English history, Sir Edward Coke, the man who ultimately curtailed the power of the king and established the primacy of Parliament.  Coke was no Puritan—it’s a question if he was anything in terms of religious affiliation beyond a christian—but he was one of the sharpest minds and most consistent political theorists of his day.  He brought WIlliams into the fray where the boy saw first-hand how power actually worked.  He saw kings be petty, injustices imposed out of avarice, vice, and vengeance in the name of nobly-stated principles.  And, most importantly, he saw how the church was corrupted by direct involvement in state matters.

This is a crucial point of difference between Williams and later thinkers on this issue.  Williams was a devout christian.  What he objected to was the way politics poisoned the purity that was possible in religious observance.  He wanted a wall of separation in order to keep the state out of the church, not the other way around.  But eventually he came to see that the two, mingled for any reason, were ultimately destructive to each other.

Williams was an up-and-coming mover among the Puritans, but the situation for him and many others became untenable and he decamped to America in 1631, where he was warmly received by the governor of Massachussetts, John Winthrop.  In fact, he was eagerly expected by the whole established Puritan community—his reputation was that great—and was immediately offered a post.

Which he turned down.

Already he was thinking hard about what he had witnessed and learned and soon enough he came into conflict with the Puritan regime over matters of personal conscience.

What he codified eloquently was his observation that the worst abuses of religiously-informed politics (or politically motivated religion) was the inability of people to be objective.  A “monstrous partiality” inevitably emerged to distort reason in the name of sectarian partisanship and that this was destructive to communities, to conscience, to liberty.

For their part, the Puritans heard this as a trumpet call to anarchy.

The Massachussetts Puritans came very close to killing Williams.  He was forced to flee his home in the midst of a snowstorm while he was still recovering from a serious illness.  He was succored by the Indian friends he had made, primarily because he was one of the very few Europeans who had bothered to learn their language.  They gave him land, which eventually became Providence Plantation, and he attracted the misfits from all over.  Naturally, Massachussetts saw this as a danger to their entire program.  If there was a place where nonconformity could flourish, what then became of their City on the Hill and the advent toward which they most fervently worked?

The next several years saw Williams travel back and forth across the Atlantic to secure the charter for his colony.  He knew Cromwell and the others and wrote his most famous book, The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience,
in 1644 right before returning to America to shepherd his new colony.  In this book for the first time is clearly stated the argument for a firm wall of separation.  It is the cornerstone upon which the later generation of Founders built and which today rests the history of religious freedom we take as a natural right.

But the struggle was anything but civil and the abuses to which Williams responded in his call for a “Liberty of conscience” are not the general picture we have of the quaint Pilgrims.

Barry sets this history out in vivid prose, extensively sourced research, and grounds the story in terms we can easily understand as applicable to our current dilemma.  One may wonder why Williams is not more widely known, why his contributions are obscured in the shadow of what came later.  Rhode Island was the first colony with a constitution that did not mention god and it was established for over fifty years before a church was built in Providence.

Williams himself was not a tolerant man.  He loathed Baptists and positively hated Quakers.  But he valued his principles more.  Perhaps he saw in his own intolerance the very reason for adoption of what then was not merely radical but revolutionary.

Light Fallen

I’ve read three books in tandem which are connected by subtle yet strong filaments.  Choosing which one to begin with has been a bit vexatious, but in the end I’ve decided to do them in order of reading.

The first is an older book, handed me by a friend who thought I would find it very much worth my while.  I did, not, possibly, for the reasons he may have thought I would.  But it grounds a topic in which we’ve been engaged in occasionally vigorous debate for some time and adds a layer to it which I had not expected.

William Irwin Thompson’s  The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light  is about myth.  It is also about history.  It is also about grinding axes and challenging paradigms.  The subtitle declares: Mythology, Sexuality & the Origins of Culture.  This is a lot to cover in a mere 270-some pages, but Mr. Thompson tackles his subject with vigor and wrestles it almost into submission.

His thesis is twofold.  The first, that Myth is not something dead and in the past, but a living thing, an aggregate form of vital memes, if you will, which recover any lost force by their simple evocation, even as satire or to be dismissed.  Paying attention to myth, even as a laboratory study, brings it into play and informs our daily lives.

Which means that myth does not have a period.  It is ever-present, timeless, and most subtle in its influence.

His other thesis, which goes hand in hand with this, is that culture as we know it is derived entirely from the tension within us concerning sex.  Not sex as biology, although that is inextricably part of it, but sex as identifier and motivator. That the argument we’ve been having since, apparently, desire took on mythic power within us over what sex means, how it should be engaged, where it takes us has determined the shapes of our various cultural institutions, pursuits, and explications.

It all went somehow terribly wrong, however, when sex was conjoined with religious tropism and homo sapiens sapiens shifted from a goddess-centered basis to a god-centered one and elevated the male above the female.  The result has been the segregation of the female, the isolation of the feminine, and the restriction of intracultural movement based on the necessity to maintain what amounts to a master-slave paradigm in male-female relationships.

Throughout all this “fallen” power play, ancient myths concerning origins and the latent meanings of mutual apprehensions between men and women (and misapprehensions) have continued to inform the dialogue, often twisted into contortions barely recognizable one generation to the next but still in force.

There is much here to consider.  Thompson suggests the rise of the great monotheisms is a direct result of a kind of cultural lobotomy in which the Father-God figure must be made to account for All, subjugating if not eliminating the female force necessary for even simple continuation.  The necessity of women to propagate the species, in this view, is accommodated with reluctance and they are, as they have been, shoved into cramped confines and designated foul and evil and unclean in their turn, even as they are still desired.  The desire transforms the real into the ideal and takes on the aspects of a former goddess worship still latent in mythic tropes.

Certainly there is obvious force to this view.

The book is marred by two problems.  I mentioned the grinding of axes. Time was published originally in 1981 and, mostly in the first third, but sprinkled throughout, is an unmasked loathing of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology.  He takes especial aim at E.O. Wilson for promulgating certain reductive explanations for prehistoric cultural evolution based wholly on biological determinants.  Thompson’s prejudice is clear that he wants even early homo sapiens to be special in its cultural manifestations and he derides attempts at exclusively materialist explanations.  The fact that E.O,. Wilson himself has moved away from these earlier “purely” biological considerations one hopes would result in an updating.

But interestingly, part of Thompson’s rejection of such early modeling comes from an apparent belief in Race Memory.  Not, as I might find plausible, race memory as deeply-entrenched memes, but apparently as some undiscovered aspect of our genome.  He never quite comes out claims that such race memory is encoded in our DNA, but he leaves little room for alternative views.

Hence, he asserts, the genuine power of myth, since it is carried not only culturally, but quasi-biologically, as race memory.  Which we ignore at our peril.

He does not once mention Joseph Campbell, whose work on the power of myth I think goes farther than most in explicating how myth informs our lives, how myth is essentially meaning encoded in ideas carried in the fabric of civilization.  He does, however, credit Marija Gimbutas, whose work on goddess cultures extending back before the rise of Sumer and the constellation of civilizations commonly recognized as the “birth” of civilization was attacked by serious allegations of fraud in order to undermine her legitimacy and negate her thesis that early civilizations were certainly more gender equal if not outright female dominated.  (Just a comment on the so-called “birth” of civilization: it has been long remarked that ancient Sumeria appeared to “come out of nowhere”, a full-blown culture with art and some form of science.  But clearly common sense would tell us that such a “birth” had to be preceded by a long pregnancy, one which must have contained all the components of what emerged.  The “coming out of nowhere” trope, which sounds impressive on its face, would seem to be cultural equivalent of the virgin birth myth that has informed so many civilizations and myth cycles since…)

My complaint, if there is any, is that he undervalues the work of geneticists, biologists, and sociometricians, seeking apparently to find a causation that cannot be reduced to a series of pragmatic choices taken in a dramatically changing ecosystem or evolutionary responses to local conditions.  Fair enough, and as far as it goes, I agree.  Imagination, wherever and whenever it sprang into being, fits badly into the kind of steady-state hypothesizing of the harder sciences when it comes to how human society has evolved.  But to dismiss them as irrelevant in the face of an unverifiable and untestable proposition like Race Memory is to indulge in much the same kind of reductionist polemic that has handed us the autocratic theologies of “recorded history.”

Once Thompson moves out of the speculative field of, say, 8,000 B.C.E. and older and into the period wherein we have records, his attack on cherished paradigms acquires heft and momentum and the charm of the outsider.  (His mention, however, of Erich von Daniken threatens to undo the quite solid examination of the nature of “ancient” civilizations.)  It is easy enough to see, if we choose to step out of our own prejudices, how the march of civilization has been one of privileging male concerns and desires over the female and diminishing any attempt at egalitarianism in the name of power acquisition.  The justification of the powerful is and probably has always been that they are powerful, and therefore it is “natural” that they command.  Alternative scenarios suffer derision or oxygen deprivation until a civilization is old enough that the initial thrill and charm of conquest and dominance fades and more abstruse concerns acquire potency.

But the value of The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light  may be in its relentless evocation of institutional religion as a negation of the spiritual, as if to say that since we gave up any kind of natural and sane attitude toward sexuality and ignored the latent meaning in our mythologies we have been engaged in an ongoing and evermore destructive program to capture god in a bottle and settle once and for all what it is we are and should be.  When one looks around at the religious contention today, it is difficult if not impossible to say it is not all about men being in charge and women being property.  Here and there, from time to time, we hear a faint voice of reason crying out that this is a truly stupid thing to kill each other over.