Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Little Bang Theory

This morning I was contemplating Ortega y Gasset's observation that a person who retains faith in the past has no fear of the future. My mind then turned to my resistance to studying history -- of any kind, political or otherwise -- in my school years. I then visualized history's all-encompassing ball of fact and supposition ... an expanding universe of true and misleading detail whose Little Bang must have come at the moment when the concept of "the past" sparked to life in the collective consciousness.

I can see the physical universe as having started in a similar way. A "universe" of some particular configuration existed -- a configuration that would seem the very essence of nothingness to us, who are products of the successor configuration. In that prior configuration, some event caused a statistically nearly impossible change at some speck-point in the vast field. Once that change, that Little Bang, occurred, it ramified. It did so because, almost impossibly, it offered a new pattern that caused transformation of the older configuration into itself. I find the notion expressed by the verb "to convince" attractive. The elementary particle of the new configuration "convinced" nearby particles of the old configuration to shift over; they then shifted over, and communicated likewise to their neighbors; and a wave of altered convictions moved through whatever it was that the old configuration might have been.

We tend to think in terms of an expanding ball of change -- an outward explosion. That is our configuration thinking for us.

This offers a notion of why change is possible. The thoughts above have made me think of Time in terms of particles. Imagine a "particle-moment" that exists within a field of particle moments. The character of a particle-moment is such that it decides it is "done" -- that its current state is "over" -- at which point it shares its decision with its neighbors. In a static configuration, across the entire field, all particle moments are "done" or "over" simultaneously. The "sharing of decision" would be go unfelt, since all particle-moments act in perfect agreement.

Should one particle-moment suffer a minuscule flaw in making its decision, however, it would fall slightly "behind" or "ahead" of this field of agreement. It would feel for the first time the sharing-of-decision directed its way by its nearby fellow particle-moments; or else its neighboring particle-moments would feel for the first time the influence of the solo particle-moment that was sharing its decision.

I suppose we might call the minuscule flaw in the particle-moment "consciousness," since the flaw would find expression in awareness of influence -- awareness of the "sharing," by itself or by its neighbors.

Change would subsequently become necessity, for the sharings-of-decisions and the influence of these sharings would rise into existence -- into awareness, if you wish -- out of the prior field of perfect agreement.

The Little Bang event of consciousness inflicts change as inevitability upon the field. The new configuration of change -- of disagreement and sharing and being convinced -- then moves "outward" from the first disagreement.

I rather like this altered version of my first thought: for rather than envisioning a new conviction spreading, this second thought envisions the spread, instead, of disagreement. Agreement cannot spread, at least perfectly: for once one particle-moment shares it decision with its neighbors, that completes its state of being; it then becomes aware of the sharing-of-decision from its neighbors. That first particle-moment's environment, its field, has changed -- which affects its next "decision" -- a decision now necessarily out of synch with its neighbors' decisions.

In both static and changing configurations, Movement is the constant. I can only visualize the static field as changing with a "timing" of perfect agreement. The particle-moments in unison would decide to be "over" -- creating the new state of being "done moments" or "over-with moments" -- which state they then would all in unison decide to be done with; creating a new "over-with" state of being ... and so on. Imagine a binary equivalent -- for instance a field of light switches in perfect agreement: off, on, off, on, etc. On the other hand, in the changing configuration -- the historical configuration -- movement would follow the same course, but without the universal "timing."

The disagreement between particle-moments would open the field to what we might call Progress: for the field's overall state of agreement would become worse and worse -- or its state of disagreement would become better and better.

In this scenario, once consciousness arises, change is not only possible but almost necessary -- "almost" because of that very nearly statistically impossible chance that all the field's particle-moments would arrive abruptly at the same decision in perfect agreement -- or perhaps perfect disagreement. Such an accident would reinstate the static configuration.

Why in the world did that bit of Ortega y Gasset send my mind in this direction? I was making espresso on the stove while dipping into my book of essays; and when I stood up from reading at the kitchen table to turn off the burner, or somesuch thing, I was thinking about that notion of "faith in the past" -- which I believe would require some degree of understanding the past; and one of my great regrets about my youth has to do with my inadequate learning of history, and inadequate understanding of history. As I stood at the stove it occurred to me that the attitude so easy to take on in youth, the attitude that the past is "dead and gone," creates a barrier to understanding not the past but the present. A much better phrase to adopt -- maybe this is a decision I hereby share, so that you will feel my decision's influence -- is this: "the past is dead but still going," or "the past is dead but doing." Each "moment" in the past influenced the next "moment," which then influenced the next, etc. The present "moment" is all of the past. We are where we were put by being where we were. The present moment will always have been.

I am speaking not of determinism but of the fact of the continuing presence of those things we think are "past."

I was entertaining a sheerly practical thought, there at the stove: that had I better appreciated the spreading-outward nature of historical events I might have embraced historical study more readily, earlier. If only that phrase about the past being "dead and done with" or "dead and gone" had not come my way -- shared with me by someone who had adopted that point of view!

My day, today, was to have been one of physical labors. We have a van full of Baraboo Sunday Market items to unpack, and a car full of items from yesterday's local auction -- as well as a yard of leaves I hoped to rake up for garden mulch. When I went outside before making breakfast to move some wooden pieces to shelter before the promised morning rains arrived, I felt my lower spine and muscles in ways I would rather not feel them, however. Wednesday at the auction -- nine hours of steadily standing on cement -- was doing in my lower back -- not the lifting of these lightweight wooden things.

Since my back was hurting I decided to start my day with some writing or editing -- and I went to the kitchen to make some self-indulgent espresso ... and read a bit, and considered ... then sat here with paper and pencil, where my thoughts suddenly took so abstract a turn ...

Cheers ...

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

By the Fly in the Web

At Timmi Duchamp's request last summer I wrote the essay that has reappeared, published, in my mailbox.

The good folks at Aqueduct have sent me the October issue of The Cascadia Subduction Zone. In its pages, Kiini Ibura Salaam rises to Timmi's request to write about being involved in various arts, with "Painting and Writing: My Yin and Yang," while I do likewise with "Line Improvisation: Notes by the Fly in the Web."

When I wrote my first short essay for Timmi last winter, I was responding to a last-minute, near-deadline request. I worked at the typewriter for the better part of a day, put the results through several revisions, and sent in my manuscript promptly. When much later I re-read that essay in published form, I reached the ending paragraphs thinking that the essay left off its narrative prematurely. It dropped its discussion too soon. I had hurried into the writing and then hurried out, though: so what else could I have expected? What was going missing, there at essay's end, however, I had no idea. The essay wanted to go somewhere farther -- somewhere it might have gone had I struggled at the task for a longer time.

With this second essay "Line Improvisation" I took the longer time, drafting the piece in pencil and allowing thoughts to arise at a more natural pace. While writing it I grew quickly aware of the fairly large scope my narrative was acquiring, however: so even while feeling more relaxed and expansive in my writing, I was pulling back, skipping over ideas and memories, and hurrying over parts of the story. While I had ample time, that ample time did end with a deadline; and in any case I feared I was making the piece too lengthy for CSZ, a slender magazine. Timmi fortunately expressed no worries about its 5,000-word length.

I sat with the Aqueduct magazine last night and read it cover to cover, absorbed in the present moment and not thinking back to those days of steady, slow writing back in July. So after the smooth flow of Salaam's essay my own essay surprised me -- with its hop-and-skip movements, and its occasional leaps between subjects ... between distant parts of a life. The lacunae between thoughts and sentences threatened to pull me, as reader, down into wordless emptinesses.

This morning I recall that when I sent the essay to Timmi I thought that my manuscript was akin to an outline of a larger narrative.

My two CSZ essays have strong memoir components -- as does the new, even longer essay I worked at in September-October.

I should say have labored at this new work, at least, when not scurrying around engaged in antiquing and Baraboo Sunday Market tasks. For CSZ? Probably not ...

Cheers ...

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Random Surfacing of Twain

A day ago, Saturday, we were at a rain-drenched auction here in the west of Wisconsin where we bought a little of this, a little of that. Near the end, when our small Saturn wagon was about full, I bought a large, cubical box of books, mostly children's.

This afternoon when looking through them I found one of those charming collections of sayings and quotations that Peter Pauper press used to do so well. This particular one appeared beneath the Hallmark imprint.

A Treasury of Mark Twain ... not a collection of stories; just short observations and asides.

In opening the small book this evening one quotation caught my eye:

"Few slanders can stand the wear of silence."

When I published C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary I did find myself attacked by one of Kornbluth's several erstwhile collaborators ... the only surviving one, naturally. This erstwhile collaborator of Kornbluth claimed not to know me, although he and I had kept in contact, on and off, since the middle 1990s.

Anyway ... I have been reading Twain short works for my bedtime reading, recently. So I opened this little gift book with pleasure. When I came across this saying, provenance unlisted, I smiled ... for I was thinking back upon my strategy in the face of public attack.

For when my name was spoken with derision in public, in a famous author's blog ...

I deemed my best option, for the time being, to be silence.

Cheers ...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

At the Sunday Market

In Baraboo a few days ago, at the Sunday Market, I was chatting with a young artist visiting from Chicago. Learning that he had enlisted before enrolling in the Art Institute, I expressed pleasure at learning one can survive the brainwashing involved in military service. That someone should want to be an artist seems to me a sure sign of survival. He understood what I was saying and uttered what must have been a survival mantra, along these lines: "Don't eat the eggs and don't drink the milk." I hope I have this correct in substance, at least, in thinking back over a busy trio of days. Drugs for inhibiting adrenaline production which are mixed in the milk and eggs, he said, helped in the process of crushing the individual being remade into a soldier.

He and his friend, another artist, had already commented on how much my voice reminded them of an Art Institute teacher -- "He even laughs like him," she said to him -- which made me ask about that teacher's area of expertise; so when the topic of brainwashing came up I felt free to speak of my own area of special interest in science fiction; and I asked if the 1950s interested him. Since the decade did, I spoke of a novel that tells of a soldier's emergence from brainwashing, presented as science fiction adventure. The novel is Gunner Cade.

"This is so weird," the young man said. "You're the second person in five days to tell me I should read that novel."

I must have felt as startled as he by the coincidence. Since he had not learned the book's author, I wrote it out: Cyril Judd (Cyril Kornbluth and Judith Merril).

I mentioned that I had, only a few days before, happened to open Gunner Cade again, and had been struck by its opening paragraph: for in depicting the machinery behind Cade's morning waking it suggests so well the world-machine that wholly encompasses his life, and sets for him his horizons:

"Far below the sleeping loft, in ancient cellars of reinforced concrete, a relay closed in perfect silent automaton adjustment; up through the Chapter House, the tiny noises multiplied and increased. The soft whir of machinery in the walls; the gurgle of condensing fluid in conditioners; the thumping of cookers, where giant ladles stirred the breakfast mash; the beat of pistons pumping water to the top."

"Now I really have to read that novel," he said after I described the paragraph.

This morning the thought comes to me that Cyril might have produced a work of stunning intensity had he tackled this novel solo. Even so he outlined and presented it to Judy as a project to work on together to earn some fairly quick cash for the household. He may have felt, consciously or unconsciously, unready to confront his military experience in full. Some direct memories emerged in one of his first solo novels, The Naked Storm, written around the same time -- but only as fragments. Memories of the whole life-changing experience surged too powerfully within him, as of yet, for him to reduce it to dimensions he could grasp, to express them more fully as an artist.

This morning, too, a memory strikes me -- of a small item the young man found in our booth. He reacted to it with enthusiasm. A small, wooden three-piece box, the old thing once served, I believe, as a match-safe. The young man conceived of a different use related to his art-making.

It strikes me only now that the match safe was shaped much like a standing-upright bullet.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Diaz, Zelazny, Kornbluth

A few days before I learned that Junot Diaz was to receive a MacArthur fellowship I happened to be reading his recent New Yorker story, and because of it was thinking of writing an essay about encounters with the fictional structure called the confessional.

A story will sometimes leave the reader unaware of its confessional nature until the end. That, in part, gives the ending its effectiveness: for it offers unexpected relief from what is now understood to be the downward gyre of the protagonist's life. It offers not resolution to a problem but the beginning of an answer.

I remember in the 1980s watching a Disco movie in a TV rerun, to gain a glimpse into the hoopla that raged through lives far glitzier than mine: Saturday Night Fever, I suspect. I remember being struck, at the end, by its confessional structure -- making a pop-culture movie, nakedly commercial in its intent and design, a matter for lingering contemplation -- at least for my erratic and eclectic organ of retrospection.

While that insight had strange immediacy, it took me longer to see it other places where it existed -- such as in Roger Zelazny's Jack of Shadows, the novel of his to which I have returned most often over the decades. That delay in recognition may have come about because of having read it several times before learning much about fictional structure.

Several aspects of "The Cheater's Guide to Love" ring chimes. Although its women characters seem ciphers, often described by the narrator in stereotypical lingo, they perform the Woman of Insight role. That they do so offstage lessens that role to some degree, perhaps. A certain amount of offstage machinations by the Woman Who Knows, however, may be necessary in such stories.

For now I am opting for a blog entry -- the essay may never come about, after all -- because of a different chime being rung. It occurs to me that Gravy Planet's ending gives a confessional arc to the whole. Cyril Kornbluth had already employed structures similar to the confessional; and his shorter story "The Marching Morons," which seems to contain the germ of the novel, might be read as a modified confessional in which the ending note of nascent hope is, instead, a note of nascent understanding without hope.

These thoughts comes as a surprise because the edited-down version of Gravy Planet, published as The Space Merchants, reads more simply as a romance, ending as it does at a point of romantic happiness. I do need to re-read both novels to confirm these impressions. If true, an irony arises in that the female lead in Gravy Planet endures reduction to a stereotypical cipher in The Space Merchants -- so hardly a worthy figure for romance.

As I have noted elsewhere, I have been unable to determine when or if Cyril learned that Space Merchants was significantly shortened and altered from Gravy Planet.

Cheers ...