Archive for the ‘Book Review’ category

Prisons We Choose to Live Inside – A Book Review

January 1, 2014

Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, 1985, by Doris Lessing

The writer Doris Lessing died recently in November.  She was 94 — born just after the end of WWI, only 15 years or so after the Wright brothers made their first airplane flights.  She lived on into our days of computers, the Internet and smartphones.  Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007.  The Nobel committee described her as “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.”

She is perhaps best known for The Golden Notebook in 1962 which was embraced by the feminist movement, and which is said to chronicle the life of women in a fragmented society, as they struggle through emotional and intellectual chaos.  Interestingly, Lessing refused the feminist label.  She was to write, “Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women?”

My familiarity with her writing is not through that book or through some feminist lens, but by bumping up against her more esoteric and science fictional writings.

Back when I was reading William Irwin Thompson’s works, and listening to his talks while at Lindisfarne, he often cited Doris Lessing’s novels as examples of “planetary culture.”  (See notes at the end if you’re curious about what “planetary culture” might mean.)

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing

Lessing’s novel Briefing for a Descent Into Hell was her work that most influenced, and reinforced, Bill Thompson’s thinking.   In Bill’s book Passages About Earth, he writes: “Whatever failings the book has as a novel…, it is an incredible act of seership and clairvoyance.”

He goes on, “Lessing moves out of our conventional world view to see a different universe, a universe that is, in fact, the paradigm of the new science and the new world of our emerging planetary culture.”

Lessing herself has called the book “inner space fiction — for there is never anywhere to go but in.”  In brief, the story is about an educated man, a sensitive man, sensitive and perceptive perhaps of a wider universe than we are usually aware of, and his treatment by psychiatrists and the medical establishment with drugs and contradictory methods that reflect the narrow world of the conventional in society and science.  There is much more to it than that, of course, which the reader may determine to examine on their own.

I did read it, and to my recollection did not understand all that she meant to say.  But it made enough of an impression on me that in later years I went on to read several of  her Canopus in Argus series, which although deliberately set out as science fiction, were what she called a framework to “explore ideas and sociological possibilities.”  (She reminds me of Ursula Le Guin in this way.)

The first novel of that series, for instance, called Shikasta, has been summarized as: “A secret history of Earth from the perspective of the advanced Canopus civilisation that is thinking in eons rather than centuries. The history spans from the very beginning of life into our own future. The book ends with a metaphorical telling of the trial of Socrates.”

The Prisons We Choose

When I heard of her death, I realized I wanted to experience again the unadorned clear independence of her voice.  I came across this series of lectures, a collection of essays really, from 1985, called Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, only 76 pages long.  They form one series of what are called the Massey Lectures, which are in part sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), analogous to Britain’s BBC.  The Massey Lectures typically are a venue for various intellectuals and writers, such as Margaret Atwood, R.D. Laing and John Ralston Saul.  They were, and are, something like TED lectures before the Internet allowed that forum to be.

The first lecture is entitled “When in Future They Look Back On Us”, and sets the tone for the other four essays.

A lot of her focus is on the irrationality of what we humans choose to believe and to act on.  She tells stories of a farmer who slaughtered a prize bull for in effect, being a bull, or a tree  “executed” for being associated with a disgraced general.

“I think when people look back at our time, they will be amazed at one thing more than any other.  It is this – that we do know more about ourselves now than people did in the past.  But that very little of it has been put into effect.  There has been this great explosion of information about ourselves.  The information is the result of mankind’s still infant ability to look at itself objectively.  It concerns our behaviour patterns.”

She wants to strengthen her historical, objective eye, she says, so she has considered long and hard this matter of how we might seem to people who come after us.

She notes that the passionate and powerful convictions of one era can be completely overturned in the next.  Lessing gives the example from the Second World War, while the Soviet Union was deemed an ally against Hitler, how affectionately that country was regarded in popular opinion.  During the ensuing Cold War, of course that kind of feeling became completely un-American and considered treasonous.

Lessing, although born in what is now Iran, grew up in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in southern Africa.  She moved to London when she turned 30.

The Enjoyment of War

She returned much later to Zimbabwe after what was in effect a race war there “that was very much uglier and more savage than we were ever told.”  Lessing found that many, especially former combatants on both sides, appeared to be in stunned, almost blank states of shock.  She attributed this to the participants’ knowledge of what we as humans are capable of, and the difficulty of taking this in.

But for the purpose of her discussion, the more interesting fact was that many fighters on both sides, black and white, had thoroughly enjoyed the war. It enabled them to put qualities they valued to full use in the midst of extreme brutality.

“People who have lived through a war know that as it approaches, an at first, secret, unacknowledged elation begins, as if an almost inaudible drum is beating … an awful, illicit, violent excitement is abroad.   Then the elation becomes too strong to be ignored or overlooked: then everyone is possessed by it.”

I have even experienced this, or something like it, on the verge of a riot, although still far away from the strength of passions that give rise to war.

After wars of course, everything becomes sentimentalized, and no one really speaks truly of the physical and psychological damage caused both to the soldiers and civilians.  Perhaps a sign of the damage is how difficult it becomes to address it.  We are left with the subtle glorifications of war that go on constantly and culminate each year in such rituals as Veterans Day.

Lessing says: Beware talk of “blood” in public or political discourse — it is a sign of reason about to make its departure.

Lessing notes psychological experiments that were well known even at the time of these essays that show how easily people can fall into the traps that catch mobs.  She cites one experiment where a large number of people from a town adjoining a university were invited to a large open area by a team of psychologists.   The townspeople showed up, but the psychologists couldn’t be found.  Two camps formed as to what the situation was and what needed to be done.  Conflict arose, tempers flared.  Young men started pushing and shoving.

After this rather arrogant social experiment, one of the psychologists came forward.  As Lessing describes it, the psychologist said, “You, the crowd, have only been here for a couple of hours and already you are separated into two camps, with leaders, and each side sees itself as a repository of all good, and the other camp as at the best wrong-headed.  And you were on the point of fighting about absolutely non-existent differences.”  And there are similar experiments that come to my mind about how simply putting a colored armband on people easily leads to division, strife and suffering.

“You are Damned, We are Saved”

The entire point of her lectures, Lessing says, is that we should not be surprised by this behaviour and all the examples of similar mis-applied passion.  This should be expected.  But we should “build what we know from history and from the laws of society we already have into how we structure our institutions.”  Unfortunately she does not go into great detail into how this might be done.

She does rely on the minority who do not always join the herd, who are not afraid to be independent in thought and deed.  She recommends that we should be thinking of ways “to educate our children to strengthen this minority and not, as we mostly do now, to revere the pack.”

Lessing describes her own time as a young woman when she became for a while a devout communist, and the groups of which she was a part believed that because of communism, everyone in the world could soon be living in harmony, love, plenty and peace, forever.

“This was insane.  And yet we believed it.  And yet such groups continually spring into existence everywhere, have periods when such beliefs are their diet, while they hate and persecute and revile anybody who does not agree with them.  It is a process that goes on all the time….”

“Switching Off to See Dallas”

She points out that all of us to some extent are brainwashed by the society we live in.  “We are able to see this when we travel to another country, and are able to catch a glimpse of our own country with foreign eyes.”

Brainwashing goes on all the time, through three common processes.

The first is tension followed by relaxation, as in the example of the Good Cop and the Bad Cop alternating during an interrogation.

The second is repetition, saying the same thing over and over again.

The third is the use of slogans or catch phrases — the reduction of complex ideas to simple, easy repeatable, sets of words.

Governments, corporations, religious groups use these all the time.

“The point I am making is that information we have been given about ourselves, as individuals, as groups, as crowds, as mobs, is being used consciously and deliberately by experts, which almost every government in the world now employs to manipulate its subjects.”

This has become almost a common place observation, now, in our world.  It can be observed in every election.

And what, we might ask cynically, is a possible response to this?

“It means, and I hope that this won’t sound too wild, choosing to laugh…. The researchers of brain-washing and indoctrination discovered that people who knew how to laugh resisted best. … Fanatics don’t laugh at themselves…. Bigots can’t laugh.  True believers don’t laugh.  Tyrants and oppressors don’t laugh at themselves, and don’t tolerate laughter at themselves.”  I think of Putin here, for some reason.

“Group Minds”

Lessing observes: “It is the hardest thing in the world to maintain an individual dissident opinion, as a member of a group.”  There are many psychological experiments which show how easy it is to sway the individual when a group thinks differently but is incorrect.

As her own experiment (and as a good example of her rebellious and contrary spirit), Lessing wrote two books under the assumed name of Jane Somers.  The books were submitted to publishers and critics.  She says that she deliberately sent copies of the books to all the people who considered themselves experts on her work.  Not only were the novels not recognized as Doris Lessing’s works but they were described in the most patronizing ways.

In the end as she predicted, when the farce was revealed, the British reviewers who were fooled decried the novels as no good, while critics in other countries thought they were quite wonderful.  It ended up leaving her sad about her profession: “Does everything have to be so predictable?  Do people really have to be such sheep?”

She goes on to mention the famous Milgram psychological experiments where people comply with instructions to give increasing shocks to people who eventually start shrieking with (simulated) pain behind a curtain before they fall ominously silent.

“Can you imagine this being taught in school, imagine it being taught to children: ‘If you are in this or that type of situation, you will find yourself, if you are not careful, behaving like a brute and a savage if you are ordered to do it.  Watch out for these situations.”

She later goes on:

“Imagine us saying to children: ‘In the last fifty or so years, the human race has become aware of a great deal of information about its mechanisms; how it behaves, how it must behave under certain circumstances.  If this is to be useful, you must learn to contemplate these rules calmly, dispassionately, disinterestedly, without emotion.  It is information that will set people free from blind loyalties, obedience to slogans, rhetoric, leaders, group emotions.'”

She notes that it is hard to imagine any government or political party allowing an education that might help to free people from governmental and state rhetoric and persuasion.  On the other hand, there don’t appear to be any democratic movements either that make a point of educating their membership about what is well-known about crowd psychology, group psychology.

In the end, Lessing was hopeful that as was happening in some places during the eighties, some countries that were tyrannies and dictatorships were moving to democracy such as Spain, Brazil and Argentina.

There is much more nuance in her discussion than I am able to indicate here, but what struck me the most was that if we really cared about democracy, the environment (which Lessing doesn’t touch on at all), and an equitable economy, we would be teaching our children what is already known in quite factual ways about the human animal and how it behaves and how it is influenced.



The photo of Doris Lessing is from a site called

For a good overview of the ideas of William Irwin Thompson, an article by him called “It Has Already Begun” at the Context Institute website shows off in fairly concise form some of the insights and surprising turns of Bill’s “mind-jazz.”  It was written at about the same time as these lectures or essays of Doris Lessing.  To me now, it reveals two things: 1) the great optimism and breadth of Bill’s vision about “planetary culture”, and his hope for it despite ourselves and 2) how sometimes he would force events or trends he observed into a vision that he would have to twist around to accept those observables.  This article was written in the era of Reagan and before the Soviet Union succumbed.  His observations about Reagan, as one example, are pretty thin to me….  But “civilization as militarization” certainly rings true.

For more on Bill and his Lindisfarne Association see his site.  (For free recordings of talks from Lindisfarne, including Bill Thompson’s, see this site at the Shumacher Centre.)

For a little more on my experience of Lindisfarne, please see the posts “Of Warbikes and Wind Harps” and “The Art of Tony Stubbing.”

And as a side note, let me refer you to an article on The Twelve Virtues of Rationality, by Eliezer S. Yudkowsky.  My own …feeling… is that reason needs to be checked by gut feeling, and feeling checked by reason, but in this description of true rationality, I was struck by the twelfth virtue that comes before the other eleven.  Yudkowsky calls it the nameless virtue or the void:

“More than anything, you must think of carrying your map through to reflecting the territory.”



An Experiment With Time — An Appreciation

January 12, 2013

An Experiment With Time — by J.W. Dunne.  A & C Black Ltd., 1929, 2nd Edition.

Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.

                — T.S. Eliot

Eternity in love with the products of time…
               — William Blake

Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.
— Ray Cummings

Many years ago when I was 11, our family moved to a valley in northern British Columbia halfway between the interior town of Prince George and the city of Prince Rupert on the coast.  We moved into a log cabin that we had seen before only in photos, which measured perhaps 30 feet by 24 on the interior, with a rough plank floor.  It had been carefully built in the early 1900s, and still stands today.

Our first winter there in 1962-63 was one of much more snow, and colder below-zero degrees Fahrenheit temperatures, than we were used to in our former home in northwest Washington State.

We installed a big wood-burning cook stove, I remember, before the cold season began in earnest.  All our belongings in their boxes and cases and trunks were piled high in the middle of the cabin, including a very old Victrola wind-up phonograph cabinet.  It could play my dad’s Josh White and old foxtrot dance 78s with dull steel needles carefully inserted into the playing head.  My father, and much less so my mother, had a vision of us making our way as modern pioneers in a place that lacked electricity, telephones and most of the usual amenities.

I think it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.  My two younger brothers and I were given the treasures of space, the wild outdoors, productive chores, and real and imagined adventures in a landscape that seemed to receive us willingly.

My parents set up their bedroom at one end of the cabin.  That space also received shelving that extended along the entire end wall, up and down around the window cut-out there with its new double panels of translucent plastic sheeting, and for a short distance along the walls on either side.  It was a little tricky to build shelving on the half-rounds of the interior log shapes, but Dad managed it.

Books and more books

A lot of the pile in the center of cabin were boxes and boxes of books, and as they were placed on their shelving, the pile began to shrink a little and we had more room to move.

The books were mostly hardbacks, and it’s evident to me now that my parents put a lot of thought into what they brought with us.  There was an extensive amount of English literature that boys might like, with works by Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain, Stephen Crane and Ernest Thompson Seton.  We brought us with a set of My Book House, an educational series containing fables, fairy tales and adventures graded for different age levels.  My father made sure to bring a complete set of the famed 1911 version of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. There was much more, fiction and non-fiction, including pamphlets and booklets about such contemporary concerns as radiation and nuclear war.

A couple of years after that first winter, and indeed, after my father died of a stroke, I remember pulling down and opening for the first time J.W. Dunne’s An Experiment With Time.  It was obviously an older volume and I was idle and curious.

Before I describe more of its contents, which opened an enquiring 14-year-old’s mind to the possibility of wider vistas, let me give you some details about John William Dunne himself, a quite interesting figure.

JW Dunne and flying machines

Born in Ireland in 1875 of Anglo-Irish aristocrats, at the age of 13 he imagined a flying machine that needed no steering.  According to Wikipedia, he became very interested in the flight of the Zanortia seed which would have a bearing on his future career as an aeronautics designer during the very early days of flying.

But first he joined a volunteer cavalry regiment which fought during the Second Boer War. In poor health, he returned to England, and began to test his tailless airplane designs, encouraged by family friend H.G. Wells.  He invented a stable tailless airfoil with swept-back v-shaped wings, following the design of that seed of his youth.  He produced both monoplane and biplane versions.  The pilot rode at the very front. The whole thing, in one of his later designs, was pushed by two propellors.

Eventually the airplanes became well-known and received a limited extent of commercial interest.  But it turns out that planes of great flying stability are not particularly maneuverable, especially for military purposes.  His designs were bought out and modified slightly.  One such became the first Canadian military aircraft.

Dunne was able to retire and live on the income from his various patents.  As an avid fly fisherman, he wrote a book on that subject.  He also wrote on politics, advocating in 1938 a body similar to NATO to replace the failed League of Nations.

He became interested in dreams and the nature of time after having several dreams about major disasters before they actually occurred.  He began studying his dreams in a systematic way, and began the speculations about the nature of time that comprise his book, first published in 1927, An Experiment With Time.

Science fiction and reality

So this is what I picked up and read from our bookshelves with some amazement as a teenager who constantly devoured science-fiction.  At that time Analog Science Fact & Fiction magazine was a favorite, and for a short period in the 1960s was published as a slick larger magazine size before reverting back to the smaller digest format.  During that time, it published many stories about telepathy, teleportation, precognition and occasionally time travel under the influential, and controversial, editorship of John W. Campbell.

The teenage version of myself was amazed and tickled that this old book sitting in our home for years actually took some aspects of what appealed to my wildest imagination, and considered it seriously.

Although the precognition in dreams idea is interesting and I wouldn’t reject the possibility, given all the anecdotal experiences — it has never happened to me.  (But then I remember dreams only rarely.)  Dunne’s theory of time intrigues me more.

Dreaming becomes an entry point to the study of the human perception of time, as Dunne speculated, because it is then that our usual sense of the unidirectional flow of time is able to loosen and broaden. Past events and future ones may be equally amenable to dream perception.

Basically his idea is that all moments in time are taking place all at once, if you can imagine taking an eternal point of view.

Infinite regression

He uses the idea of infinite regression to illustrate our limited perception of time’s nature. Time is a series that it is necessary to be out of in a second series in order to observe it, and in yet a third series or time in order to perceive that.  According to Dunne this leads to an infinite regression of a series of times that span forever, like looking at a reflection of ourselves holding a mirror infinitely into the distance.

Dunne went on to devise an elaborate mathematical theory to support his ideas, which he called Serialism.  He described his ideas in considerable more detail in another volume, The Serial Universe (1934).

Now I don’t know if all this is close to reality or not, but it at least opens the door to considering that the arrow of time may not be so simple after all.

How were Dunne’s theories received?

In science, the astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington wrote to Dunne agreeing with him about his idea of Serialism.  In 1981, the science journal New Scientist published a positive review of the book. Paul Davies, though, in his book About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution dismisses Dunne’s arguments, Wikipedia says, as “entertaining.”  In a 1998 letter to the New York Times, mathematician Marc Groz noted that physicist Stephen Hawking’s concept of “imaginary time” was predated by Dunne.

In literature and philosophy, Dunne had a greater impact, if anything.  However, both H.G. Wells and Jorge Luis Borges criticised Dunne for turning time into a spatial concept. Borges also said in an article on Dunne in his book Other Inquisitions 1937-1952 that:

“Dunne assures us that in death we shall learn how to handle eternity successfully. We shall recover all the moments of our lives and we shall combine them as we please.  God and our friends and Shakespeare will collaborate with us.

“With such a splendid thesis as that, any fallacy committed by the author becomes insignificant.”

J.B. Priestly and C.S. Lewis, and even Tolkien, used Dunne’s ideas in their work, and Dunne was also said to have influenced T.S. Eliot, as can be seen in Eliot’s quote above.

Time as music

Dunne asks us to think of our experiences as keys sounded upon a piano keyboard, and to consider that we experience time as the sequential playing out of a piece of music.  If we were to somehow loosen that sequential perspective we might find, as Dunne writes in one of his later books, Nothing Dies:

‘”The whole range of musical composition lies before you, and this with an instrument, the keyboard of which is a lifetime of human experience of – every description. Do not fear or shirk the experience. The more varied it is, the finer becomes your instrument, and the richer the possible effects. There are great notes to be produced. – There are sombre tones. And there are other players operating other instruments giving the possibility of orchestral effects – effects which must increase in complexity and magnificence as agreement is reached between more and more performers; until, I am now scientifically certain, the Hand of a Great Conductor will become manifest, and we shall discover we are taking part in a Symphony of All Creation. The magnitude of your own share does not matter; for the smaller it may be, the better you will hear the whole. But, to hear that symphony, while playing your own part therein, is absorption.”

Well, I’m not completely sure on that.

But I do like to think that the cabin of my boyhood, the best of the times around it, and the discovery of Dunne’s book are still out there in the grand symphony of it all.



Some further notes…..

First, the images from top down:

1) One of Dunne’s airplanes, with its swept back wing design modelled upon a flying seed.

2) A diagram to illustrate Dunne’s idea of regression, although the regression only goes a couple of steps….

I’ve found Dunne’s books, An Experiment With Time and The Serial Universe available online for view in pdf form.  Others of his later works, variations of the same subject, long out of print are being sold as ebooks for minimal price.

There are a couple of fascinating articles about early flight and Dunne’s role in it.  One is on a site dedicated to Lawrence Hargrave as the father of Australian aviation, called Flying Wings.  Another article also covers the History of the Flying Wing at the Century of Flight website.

There are a number of interesting sites on the nature of time in general. One I found, by the research physicist Manoj Thulasidas, is an excerpt about the perception of time from his self-published book The Unreal Universe.  Another is at the Stanford University page on The Experience and Perception of Time.

And finally, I want to leave you with an intriguing mystery (or a shared hallucination) that I came across looking up a few things on the web.

It’s called the Moberly-Jourdain Incident in France in 1901.  Two female academics described what they experienced as a “time slip” and later wrote a book anonymously about what they say happened, which according to Wikipedia, was subject to much ridicule.

You can read what our Mr. Dunne says on the subject since he wrote a note included in their book.

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Bruce Tegner and Self-Defence

November 16, 2012

“Self defence is Nature’s eldest law.”
— John Dryden

Bullying has become a hot topic of conversation in my part of the world in recent weeks.  Such a spike in interest and general pontification about its reality among young people is due to a recent suicide by a vulnerable teenage girl after she foolishly flashed her breasts on a social media site.

If it’s anything like when I was in school, so many years ago, being bullied is both a terrible experience and a pervasive fact.  People, especially immature kids, will take advantage of their larger physical size, higher status, or greater power of most any kind to wreak their will on the less fortunate, especially those whom they deem weak or undeserving of respect.

In the long time since my youth, or even five years ago, the sudden pervasiveness of social media, and the myriad avenues of communication they make available have provided more ways for the dedicated bully to make him or herself felt.

It seems to be part of being a social animal, unfortunately.  I remember seeing this, as a boy in northern BC where we had a lot of room, among the litter of dogs — perhaps six or seven — we once allowed to grow up together.  The puppies after a very few months had it in for one of their number.

He was just a little smaller, with perhaps more of a whiny disposition, and his siblings took to ganging up on him without provocation.  The poor thing couldn’t even eat without being set upon.  We tried to protect him and separate him from the worst of the rest’s attention.  But he liked to run with the pack, never mind the consequences.  We hoped the pack would grow out of this obsession towards the runt, but as the dogs grew, he got more savaged.  Eventually the others killed him.

I was fortunate not to have been bullied too much in school.  Although bookish with glasses, I was of decent size and prone to fight back if excessively provoked.  But I tended to hang out with fellow outsiders, you could call them, who did receive more than a little attention from schoolyard bullies.

Perhaps because of this, I did take an interest in self-defense at an early age, and being bookish, of course I looked for writings on the subject.  I also took up wrestling in high-school and built my own boxing ring at home, where, after taking off my glasses, I could spar inexpertly with my neighbourhood friends and acquaintances. So it wasn’t purely a theoretical pursuit for me.

Before Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris

In the days before Bruce Lee and the more mainstream acceptance of martial arts, there were very few books available on karate or judo or on self-defense in general.

One of the few authors who did write such books in the dark ages before martial arts magazines was Bruce Tegner.

He is little remembered now — there is only a very short article at Wikipedia — but in his day during the 1960s and into the 1970s he authored as many as 25 books on judo, jujitsu, karate and even aikido and savate.

Interestingly both his parents were professional teachers of judo and jujitsu.  Bruce Tegner was born in 1929 and his parents apparently began his instruction at the tender age of two years old.

There is a video available here of Tegner and his mother demonstrating jujitsu, although he’s much older than two!  (The other mustached participant in the video may be his father.)

He became California state judo champion by the time he was twenty-one.  From 1952 to 1967 he operated his own school in Hollywood, California and had a number of actors among his students, including Ricky Nelson, James Coburn, and George Reeves.

He choreographed movie fight scenes, perhaps most famously the one between Frank Sinatra and Henry Silva in the Manchurian Candidate (you can see it here.)   Tegner has Silva using one of the common fighting stances from his writings.

He was also said to have taught military police and coached sport judo teams.  By the mid 70s he was teaching judo at several colleges including as an instructor for a criminology program, and continued to write books.  He died in 1985 of a heart attack at the age of 56.

You can read one of his early works, Judo For Fun, at the wonderful Sandow Plus website.

Tegner had a modernist attitude towards the martial arts.  He was more interested in effectiveness than tradition, and in keeping techniques simple enough to be employed by those who weren’t trained athletes.  He went out of his way to demystify the esoteric aura of the martial arts and to downplay any imagined superhuman abilities of black belt practitioners.

Between the popular nature of his books and his lack of awe about martial arts culture in general, he was largely ignored and forgotten by the martial arts community.

But for a teenager in northern British Columbia wondering how best to defend himself, if it came to that, acquiring Bruce Tegner’s Complete Book of Jukado Self-Defense in 1968 provided what seemed to me then, and still does looking at it now, a workable way to dealing with physically aggressive people.  “Jukado” was Tegner’s combined approach to martial arts with elements of Judo, Karate and Aikido.

Even now I retain some of his key concepts.  One is the ‘thoughtful guard’ as if thinking, one hand near the chin, the other in support at midriff, hand near the raised hand’s elbow.  This is particularly useful in ambiguous circumstances where an aggressive person may be shouting but not yet prepared to take a swing. The stance doesn’t show belligerence nor indicate a challenge.

Another concept that I still appreciate is the idea, especially if confronted by a baton or knife, of moving or even jumping to one ‘corner’ and delivering a serious kick to the knee.  This makes so much more sense to me than fumbling around with some ‘technique’ at closer quarters.

The other book of Tegner’s that I have is Stick-Fighting: Self-Defense which I found in a second-hand bookstore decades after the first one.  It covers use of the cane, the yawara hand-stick, umbrella and walking stick.  I must have got it in preparation for my elder years!

There is a place for books such as these on self-defense, but unless one practices some method in a regular way, and finds a way to bring it into your body, all of that information usually flees in difficult circumstances.

For those who may wish to investigate a more modern book on self-defense, I would heartily recommend Attack Proof, by John Perkins, Al Ridenhour, and Matt Kovsky.  This is a very thoughtful, insightful approach to self-defense with topics like “Guided Chaos Body and Mind Principles” and is endorsed by real world police and military types.

Many of the drills they recommend have similarities to the essence of what is also trained in aikido and tai chi.

And I was glad to find their recommendation, for instance, of what they call the Jack Benny Stance, which is the same as Tegner’s ‘thoughtful guard.’



Notes on photos from top down:

The first three are from an online obituary for Bruce Tegner.

And the last is Jack Benny of course, found of all places on a site called Gutterfighting….

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The Plague Year Trilogy — Book Review

January 29, 2012

Plague Year, 2007
Plague War, 2008
Plague Zone, 2009     by Jeff Carlson, Ace Books, New York

“If it happens that the human race doesn’t make it, then the fact that we were here once will not be altered, that once upon a time we peopled this astonishing blue planet, and wondered intelligently at everything about it and the other beings who lived here with us on it, and that we celebrated the beauty of it in music and art, architecture, literature, and dance, and that there were times when we approached something godlike in our abilities and aspirations. We emerged out of depthless mystery, and back into mystery we returned, and in the end the mystery is all there is.” 
— James Howard Kunstler

I don’t know if it’s the times, or the latter days of a life at 60, or just happenstance, but I’m reading a lot of apocalyptic science fiction these days.

As Susan Sontag understands about science fiction in the movies: “Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art.”  The same can be said for much of the genre in its written form, from A Canticle For Liebowitz on….

I’ve read, for instance, the first two volumes of John Birmingham’s curious trilogy (its first volume named Without Warning) about the disaster that befalls North America when a mysterious force field called the Wave wipes out 99% of the United States’ population.  If you can accept this mysterious premise for the books, which is never really explained, but just occurs, then you can go on to find of interest the well-told tale of global and local political, military and societal turmoil.  But in the end, the world of the novels began to falter for me as just too farfetched to take seriously.

I’ve also recently read Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy that began with Forty Signs of Rain. This is a writer I admire, the author of the remarkable Mars trilogy about the deliberate transformation of that planet into one usuable by humans.  In the more recent Forty Signs of Rain trilogy (which goes on with Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting), Robinson explores weather disasters precipitated by global warming here on Earth.

I found Fifty Degrees Below of particular interest, with its tale of the paradoxical cooling result of global warming, as the ice caps melt and change the beneficial warm ocean currents which in the Atlantic, for example, keep Britain from freezing to death.  If the moderating effect of the Gulf Stream shuts down from the sudden influx of colder water, that means constant blizzards and sub-zero temperatures in London and on the East coast of North America, especially if the currents find a new and altered equilibrium.

(In connection with this, you may find two recent scientific references of interest: Melting Glaciers May Affect Ocean Currents and Thermohaline Ocean Circulation .)

But returning to the subject of this post, recently I happened to pick up the novel Plague War.  This exemplifies the problem I have with trilogies or series of any kind.  I hate not beginning at the beginning, and so I tend to avoid them unless I know I’m able to read them all. But Plague War caught my interest so intensely, after mistaking it initially for a stand-alone volume, that half-way through I had to try to find the other two, which I did in a Vancouver used book store specializing in science fiction.

Plague Year

So I stopped dead in the middle of Plague War, and began again with Plague Year, the first book.

It’s about nanotechnology, and a series of catastrophes wrought by it.  And what is nanotechnology? It’s about manipulating matter at the molecular and atomic scale, even to the extent of creating machines that operate sub-microscopically.  Such machines could, for instance, travel along capillaries to enter and repair living cells, or assemble multitudes of nanoscopic parallel-processing computers which could create more of themselves, and other miniscule machines for purposes not easily achieved at a larger scale.

Surely this is just a wild idea of science fiction, no?  On my book shelf I have the book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology written by the Father of Nanotechnology, Eric Drexler, back in 1986. Then the whole idea of assembling machines smaller than individual cells seemed farfetched in the extreme.

But today research into nanotechnology is burgeoning, with new materials and processes constantly being developed, as science approaches the accomplishment of some limited aspects of Drexler’s vision.  For instance, surgeons are predicting the coming usefulness of nanotechnology in their practice, engineering researchers have made a significant breakthrough in the use of nanotechnologies for the construction of a synthetic brain, and there is research into using nanoparticles for more effective delivery of chemotherapy to treat cancer.

And this brings us to the disaster that befalls North America and then the world in the first novel.  Microscopic machines designed to fight cancer instead go awry and begin to disassemble warm-blooded tissue to make more of themselves. Eventually the human body succumbs to the onslaught of the spore-like machines. They spread like a virus by way of bodily fluids and through the air.

The intriguing premise though is that either on purpose or as a design flaw, the nanovirus is limited by altitude, namely 10,000 feet.  All warm-blooded animals are killed below that elevation, while humanity retreats to high places.  Some of these islands in the sea of deadly nanotech are small and only a few souls find their way to them, while in some places, such as Colorado in the Rockies, there are enough high altitude facilities for civilization to struggle on.

In some ways, this is similar to Birmingham’s setup in his trilogy mentioned above, where geograpical limitation and action against humanity sets the world on its ear.  But in the case of Plague Year, the terrifying nature of what nanotechnology could mean both for good and ill provides a much more interesting, and plausible, context.

The intensity of Plague Year comes from a desperate struggle for survival of primarily two characters: Cam, a ski bum with full emergency medical training and a remarkable talent for survival, and later Ruth, a genius capable of manipulating and designing nanotech.  In the isolated heights where Cam and a small party of others find themselves, they struggle to survive by occasional short sallies below the nanotech line to scavenge supplies and by cannibalism of the weak and fallen.  The short rushes into nanotech territory result in rashes, blisters and scarring.  The cannibalism becomes a matter-of-fact necessity of avoiding starvation and death.

As a novel, this could descend into a ghoulish mess of no interest, but the author’s characterizations, pacing and the end of the world on the line pull it into a fascinating tale of people under ultimate stress.

Above in the International Space Station, Ruth is conducting nanotech experiments when the world falls apart almost overnight.  She and other astronauts battle to return to Colorado where they crash land a shuttle and barely survive.  Meanwhile there are news and rumours of weaponized nanotech, and even of an antidote to the deadly scourge of the lowlands.

The thing is, those who run what remains of the United States and its military intend to keep the antidote or vaccine nanotech solely for their own use, while they put the rest of the world into abject dependency.

With the lightning spread of the nanotech plague, the Chinese, Russian and Indian powers are fighting to seize and retain control of high plateaus and mountaintops in their parts of the earth, and the rest of the world descends into darkness as well.

Ruth and a few rogue officers conspire to take over the vaccine nano, which is highly experimental and not completely dependable.  By the end of the first novel, Cam and Ruth are on the run together, as what remains of the might of the US military circles to hunt them down, and as they desperately strive to spread the vaccine to others.

I admire the author’s skill in constantly keeping everything in the air — the politics, the intrigues, the conspiracies — while sending Cam and Ruth on their run to literally save the world.  There is much more to the story than I can or want to relate here, in hopes that you the reader will pick up and find the series as fascinating as I do.

The weaponization of nanotech

You know that something as effective as what nanotech may become in its full form will be begging to be turned into weapons to fulfill the aims of nation states.  Just as there is biowarfare and nuclear warfare, so will there be nanotech warfare, and it may turn out to be the worst of all.

Even now there are cautionary signs on the horizon…. nanotechnology is currently being developed to create “dangerous and destabilizing” refinements to nuclear weapons technology.  For example, the technology may be used to significantly reduce radioactive fallout, which according to one article, means it becomes more acceptable in its use.  The article points out that tiny nano-robots may turn out to be physically impossible or impractical at a tiny scale, but larger, but still very small, military machines may well be developed.  I’m sure there are dreamers in the Pentagon loving the idea of nano-drones….

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology warns that an eventual flexible, easy-to-use, preferably large-scale, molecular manufacturing system, quite likely by 2025, would lead to such dangerous miniaturizations as nanotech-built tiny antipersonnel weapons capable of seeking and injecting toxin into unprotected humans.

These potential problems are of sufficient concern for the US Government to devise a national strategy for ensuring that environmental, health and safety research needs are met in “this emerging technology.”

On to the second novel, Plague War

Plague War becomes more of a character study of Ruth and Cam in harrowing circumstances, struggling with their doubts and fears, while battling to survive in inhospitable terrain and to avoid infestations of insects. Insects such as ants have become a plague of their own after the demise of all warm-blooded animals, including birds, altered the normal constraints on their proliferation.

The two, who struggle with their friendship and what might be more, are not a normal couple — the tension between them also drives the story forward.

As they struggle to find recipients for the nano vaccine, the world of human warfare goes on around them.  The Americans are engaged in a civil war. The Russians drop a huge nuclear weapon on the Colorado capital of the United States, to create enough disarray to allow an invasion to the US’s relatively abundant higher ground.  The Chinese start to invade, having somehow got their hands on the same vaccine that Ruth and Cam are trying to spread which allows survival on the land below 10,000 feet.

Deadly variations on the nanotech continue to raise the stakes until Ruth (without giving away too much of the story) convinces, or extorts, the Chinese and US leaders into a cease-fire.

Whew!  Where can it go in the third and last installment after that?

Plague Zone

All is not well at the beginning of the third novel. The small community where Cam and Ruth live is slowly losing the battle with the environment as ant infestations overwhelm their greenhouses.  Then a new nano plague makes itself known, a nano machine in the brain that dilates wide the eyes and makes the sufferer behave like a demented zombie.  I know, the zombie thing…. it’s a little too trendy, but these aren’t your typical drooling braineaters.  There’s more going on.

The Chinese military, who still have a major presence in North America along with the Russians, have a devised a new nano strategy to conquer the allied American and Canadian forces: spread the mind nano everywhere while they inoculate themselves with the vaccine.  It affects time sense and memory and spreads immediately at the merest contact.

Cam and Ruth go back on the run to avoid the new plague and to try to figure out how to counteract it.  After all the deaths, including nuclear strikes, Ruth is one of the last people on earth capable of finding a way out.  She needs to find a place and samples so that she can unlock the nano’s secrets and find an antidote.

We observe the Chinese side of the war from the viewpoint of a Chinese colonel orchestrating the mind nano.  This dastardly fellow, for instance, strangles his closest female confidant, who trusts him completely, because he believes it’s his duty to do so for the good of the country since she knows too much.

In the end, Cam and Ruth must go back to the source of the original nano plague and its creator to find the key to unlock a new vaccine.  Ruth succumbs to the mind nano.  The fate of nations, what remains of them, hangs in the balance….

I’ve probably given too much away of the story for all three books, so I will leave it there.  I will say by the end, Cam and Ruth feel like old friends that one has been through the wars with, and it’s sad to leave them behind.

Why do I enjoy these so much?

As Jeff Carlson said in an interview, none of these books are the The Joy Luck Club. This is not subtly refined literature.

The books are visceral, even shocking.  In a way, they are like Harry Potter books for adults, with nano subbing in as the new magic. Evil is rampant and everyday, and sometimes part of us too, while at the same time we are capable of rising above it.

The books are immensely skillful in what the author accomplishes: the sense of a complete world in dire straits not exactly like our own but very similar, and constant movement past great soul-searing obstacles that only these particular characters are capable of overcoming….

Those who study story, like myself, can find a lot to learn here.


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Subversive Fiction

November 26, 2011

“In a free society, citizens are entitled to know more about the government than it knows about them; in authoritarian regimes the reverse is true.”  — JR Finlay

“Armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence – those are the three pillars of Western prosperity. If war, waste, and moneylenders were abolished, you’d collapse. And while you people are overconsuming the rest of the world sinks more and more deeply into chronic disaster.” — Aldous Huxley, Island


The Fourth Realm Trilogy by John Twelve Hawks
The Traveller, 2005
The Dark River, 2007
The Golden City, 2009

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, 2008

At the beginning of the new millenium, I used to keep a file of notes and references that I called privately “the coming police state” folder.  In it I kept citations on various police and state abuses, and worrying political and social trends.  I was interested in it both as a citizen and because it might be a source of ideas for a novel along the lines of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Huxley’s Brave New World.

With the onset of the “War on Terrorism” — a war against an abstract noun — and the use of that justification to erode many privacy, constitutional and natural human rights, I gave up on that file.  Events overtook and overwhelmed it.

But I still believe JR Finlay’s observation above is true.  And that Huxley’s description of the West is true so far as it goes — his character from the novel Island (published in 1962) doesn’t point out that the three pillars have a finite period of strength due to their corrosive internal contradictions. Then there comes the destructive reaction wrought by the state and corporations, including mass surveillance, in aid of desperately propping up those pillars.  While the overconsumers themselves are sinking more deeply into chronic disaster.  (Yes, I am also likely an overconsumer.)

The Traveller

John Twelve Hawks is an enigmatic figure who wrote the Fourth Realm Trilogy in the guise of a modern fantasy about fighting back against a centuries old secret society called the Tabula who believe in the importance of control and stability, and who are advocates of a kind of extreme utilitarianism.  (Oddly enough, a different brand of utilitarianism is part of the vision of Huxley’s utopian Island).

This secret group is intent on creating “a society where all individuals become so accustomed to being watched and monitored that they act at all times as if they were being observed and are as such completely controllable” (Wikipedia).

“John Twelve Hawks” is a pseudonym of a man (we presume), who is said to only communicate remotely with his publisher and who apparently lives “off the grid.”  He is not a native Indian, and says he chose the name due to a real experience with the hunting birds.

In the first book, The Traveller, we are introduced to the themes that play out in the trilogy.  Although the story elements include other dimensions, a warrior elite and the Travellers — men and women of great decency and spirituality who add to the world a creative, uncontrollable spark abhorred by the Tabula — it is the specifics about the modern surveillance state, the “Vast Machine,” that truly intrigue.

The author says that all the sophisticated computer and camera capabilities he describes are either in existence or on the verge of actuality.  These include the proliferating use of closed circuit cameras with sophisticated automatic algorithms that identify faces, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) built into everything from phones to cars, the proposed development of so-called “safe” cities with complete wireless video surveillance, unmanned aerial drones for civilian observation, mobile phone tracking, tracking by radio frequency ID devices, unreviewable no-fly lists, comprehensive DNA records, roadside fingerprinting, automatic licence plate recognition systems, credit card information vulnerability, remote installation of programs on your computer by authorities to monitor activity, surveillance mining of websites, emails, and phone calls and the requisite, often automated, computer systems to keep track of all this information and to flag it for those with access.  If you get caught up in any of these databases or programs, you have no means to check or correct the information.  Even to know of or or question them may become illegal or eventually indicative of your terrorist or criminal tendencies.

In a recent article, Twelve Hawks wrote about video surveillance:

“Some of them are ‘smart’ cameras, linked to computer programs that watch our movements in case we act differently from the rest of the crowd: if we walk too slowly, if we linger outside certain buildings, if we stop to laugh or enjoy the view, our body is highlighted by a red line on a video monitor and a security guard has to decide whether he should call the police.”

More than any specific technological use of cameras and other surveillance technology, it is this mindset writ large that most troubles me.

All of this is open to abuse by the state and other entities.  As the saying goes, just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me….  And that other saying about power corrupts….

Going on with Twelve Hawks’ trilogy, the first volume ends with a cliffhanger, as the dedicated bodyguards who protect the almost extinct Travellers from the overwhelming power of the Tabula attempt to find a place of refuge.

In the second novel, The Dark River, the Tabula (also known as The Brethren) continue to manipulate people and events through the power of their vast computer information system.  A Cain and Abel storyline begun in the first book heightens with two opposed brothers, one on either side of the battle.  There is travel to a parallel world to further the hero’s survival and that of the forces of good.  The book has been described as “part The Matrix and part Kurosawa epic.”

The third and final novel, The Golden City, didn’t receive as much praise as its predecessors, as it leaves some of the action behind and becomes more discursive.  The ending (or lack of it) left many unsatisfied. Yet its description of the ascendancy of what Orwell called Big Brother gives one motivation to examine the fate of what many of us in the western democracies take for granted as our rights.

I’ll leave the trilogy with this quote from the last book:

“…We have no knowledge of how the information is being used or who is using it.  Criminals can duplicate our identities. Corporations can manipulate our spending behavior.  Governments can manufacture opinions and crush dissent. We are seen, but they are faceless.  We are asked to live in a transparent house, while the forces of power are concealed.”

This is probably why I always object to handing over my postal code and even e-mail information for the benefit of some retail outlet.  A small and petty rebellion, true.  I may now be on a list for anti-social tendencies because of it, I suppose.  (I’m only half-joking.)

Little Brother

Cory Doctorow is another author who is as interesting as what he writes.  He has become a well-known science fiction author, blogger and journalist who received his high school diploma from what has been described as an “anarchistic free school” in Toronto and attended four universities without getting a degree.  An opponent of Digital Rights Management (DRM), he has given away his books digitally while still publishing hard-copy versions.

His novel Little Brother is one of these.  The novel tells of several teenagers in San Francisco who after a terrorist attack on the city and its transit system defend themselves against the Department of Homeland Security’s onslaughts against the Bill of Rights. It was a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, the science-fiction equivalent of an Oscar.

In his Introduction to the novel, Doctorow writes:

“… kids were clearly being used as guinea pigs for a new kind of technological state that all of us were on our way to, a world where taking a picture was either piracy (in a movie theater or museum or even a Starbucks), or terrorism (in a public place), but where we could be photographed, tracked and logged hundreds of times a day by every tin-pot dictator, cop, bureaucrat and shopkeeper.  A world where any measure, including torture, could be justified by just waving your hands and shouting “Terrorism! 9/11! Terrorism!” until all dissent fell silent.

“We don’t have to go down that road.”

He also notes in an addendum, now that he makes his home in England:

“In early 2008, the head of Scotland Yard seriously proposed taking DNA from five-year-olds who display “offending traits” because they’ll probably grow up to be criminals.  The next week, the London police put up posters asking us all to turn in people who seem to be taking pictures of the ubiquitous CCTV spy-cameras because anyone who pays too much attention to the surveillance machine is probably a terrorist.”

In the novel, four teenagers are truant from school and playing an alternate reality game when the terrorist attack occurs, destroying the San Francisco Bay Bridge.  When the teens didn’t behave exactly as authorities expected, they are held by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as enemy combatants.

Some of the teens are released after being forced to sign a statement that they were held voluntarily.  The main hero discovers that his computer has been bugged by DHS.  He doesn’t dare dismantle the bug for fear of being arrested, so he takes an Xbox and uses a heavily encrypted version of Linux to create an online network undetectable by DHS.

Aftewards he discovers that the DHS is slowly turning the city into a police state, and detaining people arbitrarily.  He gains other young recruits and they set up an underground resistance movement opposing DHS actions.

They develop new uses of existing technology to defeat DHS monitoring and throw the authorities into an uproar.

Our hero is eventually caught after he meets and gives information to an investigative reporter friend, and is imprisoned and tortured by the DHS until he is rescued by the California Highway State Patrol after the governor of California acts on his reporter friend’s news article.

Publishers Weekly in a review said the novel was “filled with sharp dialogue and detailed descriptions of how to counteract gait-recognition cameras, RFID’s (radio frequency ID tags), wireless Internet tracers and other surveillance devices. This work makes its admittedly didactic point within a tautly crafted fictional framework.”

Fellow author Scott Westerfeld put it well:

“A rousing tale of techno-geek rebellion, as necessary and dangerous as file sharing, free speech, and bottled water on a plane.”

The novel has gone on to a stage adaptation.  Fans have translated it into other languages.  Doctorow has just sold the sequel to publishers while at the same time making the audiobook version of Little Brothers freely available.

In the end, this post really hasn’t been a book review of these novels, but more about the recognition that the tradition of Orwell and Huxley lives on, and that current events make that tradition even more important.



Additional Notes:

Related to John Twelve Hawks

For an interesting, if unused, forum, check out Resurrection Auto Parts: Serving Travellers Everywhere…. click anywhere on the site.

Twelve Hawks shares a website where he occasionally writes, called We Speak for Freedom.

He also has a site related to the trilogy at Random House Books.

Related to Cory Doctorow

Doctorow’s site is at Craphound.Com….

If you want to read, for instance, an interesting article on amateur use of “dronecams” to chronicle the Occupy movement better than your typical news organization, see this on Boing Boing where Doctorow is a co-editor.

For more free e-books by Doctorow, go here.

Real world surveillance

How the surveillance industry markets spyware to governments….

Millions of smartphones’ keypresses monitored….

In the Guardian….

At the Ministry of Tofu….

The RCMP with egg on their face

On the Voice of America website….

On the Bloomberg website….

For more information

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Write Like Hemingway — A Book Review

March 30, 2011

Write Like Hemingway: Writing Lessons You Can Learn From the Master
— R. Andrew Wilson. Adams Media, 2009

I’ve always had a hankering to write more like somebody else rather than how I usually write.

And not to be too sardonic, I have admired Ernest Hemingway’s writing style, the relatively little I know of it; I’ve especially appreciated the inspiration of his “one true sentence” to get started with a piece of writing (see Currents of the River).

There are things to learn from this book, and also aspects of it that annoyed me greatly.

The author is an academic who has written about other American writers such as Melville and Henry James. In his preface he says:

“The idea of this book is to learn what we can about writing from Ernest Hemingway, the man who did more than any other American author to change the face of the English written word. He also changed the way we use literature to see the world that we inhabit.”

He counsels the reader to have Hemingway’s Complete Short Stories at hand.  I decided I needed to read at least a little more of Hemingway’s writing before I started so I went out, purchased and read The Snows of Kilimanjaro And Other Stories, which has many but not all of his best known stories.

hemingway picI read some of  Hemingway when I was in university but that was about it for formal study. It was interesting to read the short story collection, with quite a few of its stories brand new to me. The main impression I came away with, despite all the style, was one of how dismal the world looks through Hemingway’s eyes.

The dismal human condition

Now I realize that the human condition often is dismal, but Hemingway seemed to have an affinity for that mood. Coupled with the casual brutality, both physical and emotional, that he captures so well, I was left aware of his artistry while thinking that this is a drinker’s view of the world.

(Susan Beegle in an article on Hemingway says he was “a thinly controlled alcoholic throughout much of his life.”)

This is also indicated I think by Hemingway’s overbearing and sentimental affectation of having everyone call him “Papa.” The author Wilson compounds this annoyance by referring to him constantly as Papa. He’s not my damn father….

Now that I’ve gotten that peeve out of the way, what are the main features of Hemingway’s writing that we might want to emulate?

Hemingway started his writing career as a newspaperman. And he took that terse “just the facts” approach and deepened it enough to eventually earn the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Wilson begins his examination of Hemingway’s style by summarizing its main points, a few of which are:

— write objectively, describing details of the world, not emotions
— emphasize nouns
— choose active verbs, not passive
— use common vocabulary
— depend upon dialogue to draw characters
— use repetition to remind readers what they’ve read

It’s a stony style of writing. There’s not a lot of hoopla in it.

There is a lot of the standard “how to write” advice in this book, which if you read enough of them becomes trite and banal. “Show don’t tell,” “write about what you know,” and the rest of it. But with his description of the Iceberg Theory as Hemingway applied it, the book starts to better live up to its name.

Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory

The Iceberg Theory is about understatement and the art of what to leave out. Wilson summarizes it in four principles:

1. Write about what you know but don’t write all that you know.
2. Grace comes from understatement.
3. Create feelings from the fewest possible details
4. Forget the flamboyant

Each scene in a story, Wilson notes, should suggest more tension than it states.

HEMINGWAY CASTROWilson also emphasizes the fabled short, declarative nature of Hemingway’s writing. But it misrepresents Hemingway’s style, I think, to focus too much on short sentences.  Reading the short story collection, I was surprised to find how meandering his sentences could be.  For instance:

“I took the young Irish setter for a little walk up the road and along a frozen creek, but it was difficult to stand or walk on the glassy surface and the red dog slipped and slithered and I fell twice, hard, once dropping my gun and having it slide away over the ice.” (From the story A Day’s Wait.) Or,

“The three with medals were like hunting-hawks; and I was not a hawk, although I might seem a hawk to those who had never hunted; they, the three, knew better and so we drifted apart.” (From the story In Another Country.)

But it’s true, if all his sentences were short, knobby, declarative ones, his writing would lack the variety and nuance it actually contains.

On a side note, it is striking how he uses the word “and” to link moments together.

What about Hemingway’s techniques for characterization?

He tended to model his fictional people, Wilson says, after people he knew, although Hemingway insisted their final form was entirely imaginative. In the end they were probably composites of at least several different people.

Hemingway focused a lot on the difference between flat and round characters. A round character cannot be summed up in one sentence. He or she has a lot of the “iceberg” about them. Round characters also tend to be dynamic. They can change over time because of what happens to them and what they do themselves.

Effective dialogue

Hemingway’s skill with dialogue is ultimately mysterious in how he is able to convey so much about his characters through just what they say, and don’t. Again, his dialogue suggests more than it reveals. Wilson says:

“With Hemingway, dialogue often appears with less ink on the page than the white space around it. Its nakedness suggests both character and scene.”

Effective dialogue cuts out the inessential. Or as sage advice from some forgotten writing book put it: Dialogue is what characters do to each other.

In some ways, the commonness of some of the writerly advice in this book just attests to the influence Hemingway’s style has come to have. The advice to keep your dialogue tags to ‘She said, “… ‘ instead of ‘She said snidely, “…’ or ‘She said fulsomely,”…” is one such. If Hemingway felt the need to elaborate on the tone of what was stated, he would add a short description of what the character was doing.

One interesting aspect of Hemingway’s dialogue is his occasional use of dialogue that switches order. Usually readers expect different lines and especially paragraphs to change the attribution of who is saying what. Sometimes he would give two consecutive separate lines spoken by the same character to change the rhythm and maybe, keep the reader alert.

Wilson counsels that, like Hemingway, one good way to begin a story is to identify a character in conflict with another person, against nature, against society, or against him or herself.

And Wilson says that Hemingway adapted a pattern of story structure common to Renaissance drama, the five-act play. Wilson quotes Gustav Freytag’s study of this structure which consists of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and revelation/catastrophe.

Exposition orients the reader in the world of the story and establishes basics such as the setting and conflict.

Rising action should “heighten character conflict sprung from the activating incident.”

The climax, as Wilson describes it, is the cauldron of dramatic pressure, when events reach their peak of tension.

Falling action “emphasizes the forces that a character has turned against, building suspense about the charcter’s fate and the wisdom of the turning point.”

Either resolution, or in the case of tragedy, catastrophe settles all the dramatic tensions.

There is more to this book on Hemingway’s writing than I have outlined here of course. Whether you really like Hemingway’s writing or not, there is enough here on the craft and art of writing to make Wilson’s book worth your while.

Hemingway with cat


Where the images came from, from top down:




Additional notes:

Hemingway, of course, committed suicide in 1961 at the age of almost 62. He didn’t leave a note, but all the biographers comment he was drinking heavily, as he had most of his life. His body was giving out and he was prone to depression and paranoia. There is some evidence of genetic predisposition to suicide in his family.

One has to imagine his amusement, or probably a dour lack of it, at the International Imitation Hemingway Competition, held each year in Century City, California. It has resulted in two anthologies: The Best of Bad Hemingway, Volumes 1 and II.

Hemingway did observe this about parodies: “The step up from writing parodies is writing on the wall above the urinal.”

I Like A Good Ancient Mystery: The Voynich Manuscript

February 7, 2010

And lo, it was a lot of time later.

I am working on the painting project of the last post, and may show my progress next time. But for now my mind has gone hounding off, jumping deadfalls, ditches and along old creekbeds, loping hard through distant wooded glens, all in pursuit of the intriguing mystery of the Voynich Manuscript.

(I have exhibited some fascination with ancient memorabilia in other posts such as on the Antikythera Mechanism…)

I had heard of the manuscript in passing before, but never paid it too much attention until recently when an entry on APOD (Astronomy Photo of the Day) highlighted the document. The mysterious factors of the Voynich Manuscript are:

— the unknown language it is written in
— the unknown author who wrote it
— the meaning of the many illustrations of unidentifiable plants, stars, and nude maidens consorting with oddly shaped plumbing that accompany the script.
— why the over 240 page document was written

Its known or probable history in brief:

— probably written in the 15th Century
— purchased by book collector Wilfrid Voynich from a Jesuit college in Italy in 1912
— another rare book collector in New York later bought it for $24,500 and after being unable to recoup his investment donated it to Yale University where it now resides in the Beinecke Rare Book Library.
— when Voynich got the book, it had a letter in it stating that Emperor Rudolf II of the Holy Roman Empire had purchased the book for a princely sum probably around 1600. (Emperor Rudolf, by the way, was a known eccentric who in some quarters is also given credit for helping to seed the scientific revolution.)

1006105And even with all the modern methods and computers available to them, no codebreaker or linguist has ever been able to figure out what the manuscripts says, or even what language it might be in. Authorship has been variously attributed to that Franciscan friar and early forefather of science and alchemy Roger Bacon or to an Italian renaissance architect named Antonio Averlino, as well as to others including hoaxers.

Given its mysteriousness and long history, now confirmed, all manner of theories, speculations and strange facts abound, especially on the Internet. For instance, even most of the constellations shown in the star diagrams are unknown. It makes for an entertaining session to track down as much information as one can find on it.

First stop should be the actual manuscript itself, which can be inspected on the Beinecke Rare Book website. (Another very clear set of images can be found here.)

The next stop might well be the APOD forum discussing the manuscript, which has a lot of well-informed, scientific, and yes, even far-out, speculation on the topic.

One fellow there for instance links a glass falling off a table in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, alchemical marriages, and more, to the Voynich Manuscript.

1006194From alchemical and astrological derivations to hoax accusations to speculation that it might be a diary of psychedelic plant experiences, the ideas are many.

One writer claims: “This volume is written in the original language of the first visitors who arrived and colonized earth.”

On the forum there is mention of Edith Sherwood’s theory that this book might be an early work by Leonardo Da Vinci, and she seems to make quite a good case for it. She finds for instance some evidence of mirror writing, which Leonardo was known for.

Sherwood thinks there is evidence that many of the words are Italian anagrams of plant names of the time, anagrams being a strategy used occasionally to hide controversial ideas, and she goes on to show translations of some of the words using this idea.

But then, a Polish fellow named Zbigniew Banasik claims to have discovered that the manuscript is actually written in the Manchu language, with an original alphabet.

Not to be outdone, Jim Comegys has written a book showing that the manuscript was a medical text written in the language of the Aztecs.

1006213A Dr. Leo Levitov claimed that the document was a liturgical manual for ritual euthanasia for the Cathar religion of the Middle Ages.

You can pursue these, and many other theories, helpfully collated by Nick Pelling on his Cipher Mysteries blog. Elmer Vogt, as well, on his blog Thoughts About the Voynich Manuscript, lists his personal top ten theories.

One major response to the manuscript has been the skeptical one of seeing it as an elaborate hoax.

In 2003, computer scientist Gordon Rugg maintained that a sixteenth-century hoaxer created the gibberish text using an encryption tool known as a Cardan Grille. He argues that the book was created by a sixteenth-century Englishman in order to fool a gullible Emperor Rudolph II.

However, many still don’t find Rugg’s hypothesis convincing and see construction of the actual Voynich text as far too elaborate for this to make sense.

Others have done statistical analysis of the script characters. In 2007, physicist Andreas Schinner came to the conclusion that the text must be gibberish, with perhaps a small core of meaningful information. And yet… the mystery endures.

So what do I make of this enigmatic document? I have had an interest in matters alchemical, and from the relatively little I know, I lean towards the Voynich being primarily an alchemical text. In particular, the naked women, including at least one hermaphroditic image and the vessels similar to alchemical alembics leads me to this conclusion.

488px-ArcimboldovertemnusEmperor Rudolph, he of the reputed dwarf collection and army of giants, and the first recorded owner of the manuscript, collected alchemical books of all descriptions. He was hot in pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone and apparently had his own private alchemical laboratory. Alchemy, as I’ve noted elsewhere, was not just, or even primarily, about converting base metal into gold, but was in its highest form a complex spiritual pursuit that used the metaphor, and the reality, of the laboratory to work on oneself to attain the Great Work. Such a document as the Voynich, with its botanical, pharmaceutical, astronomical and probably symbolic aspects could certainly be part of that tradition.

There may well have been more than one author of the manuscript, as the linguist Prescott Currier presented in a privately circulated document in 1976. His conclusion seemed to be, after statistical analysis, not that the text is necessarily gibberish, but that its meaning, sadly, is irrecoverable.

But that it is has come down to us and occasioned so much intriguing speculation is itself a worthwhile legacy.

[For a recent updated post on the Voynich Manuscript, see Whatever Happened with the Voynich Manuscript?]



Notes on images:

The manuscript photos are from Beinecke Library scans.

The painting is that of Emperor Rudolph II by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, depicting him as Vertumnus, the Roman god of the seasons.