Overweening Generalist

Monday, July 21, 2014

On Archives: Personal and Public; Powerful and Perilous

"One's file, you know, is never quite complete; a case is never really closed, even after a century, when all the participants are dead." - Graham Greene, The Third Man

I've just finished reading a piece about how Stanley Kubrick amassed a personal archive - now housed in a climate-controlled wing of the University of Arts London - but intrepid journalist Jon Ronson somehow managed to peruse the extremely well-labeled and organized boxes upon boxes when they were still at Childwick Green, where Kubrick had lived in a rambling house in which Ronson had to drive past at least three electric gates to get to.

"There are boxes everywhere - shelves of boxes in the stable block, rooms full of boxes in the main house. In the fields, where racehorses once stood and grazed, are half a dozen Portakabins, each packed with boxes. I notice that many of the boxes are sealed. Some have, in fact, remained unopened for decades." There are letters to and from Nabokov. There are fan letters from all over the world, filed by city of origin. There's an entire room devoted to Napoleon, with seemingly every book ever written about him, and 25,000 3x5 library cards filled with notes on Napoleon compiled by Kubrick and some assistants.

About the Napoleon note cards:

"How long did it take?" I ask.

"Years," says Tony. "The late sixties."

The Kubrick Napoleon film was never made. He ended up making A Clockwork Orange instead. (Napoleon will show up later, below, in the case of Giordano Bruno.)

It's a typically fine journalistic piece by Ronson, and it fed into my lifelong fascination with personal archives, and what they mean, or might mean, both to the collector and to others. To State power.
(see Lost At Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, pp.149-172, "Stanley Kubrick's Boxes")

Nowadays famous writers see bidding wars for their Nachlass, and it's made some writers ponder what their lives would be like once they sold their personal archives to an institution. Does it make you act "nicer" in all your emails? (The deal is: you get a sizeable sum, but must keep every scrap of writing from then on for the Institution.) What about love letters or writing that might hurt someone you love? How about what one might find embarrassing? If you opened a separate, secret email account, you are cheating the Institution and violating your agreement. You think to yourself, "Damn them! I have a life. And what sort of creep would want to go over my grocery lists?" Aye, but the Institution is backing you now; it's in their interests to play up how great you are...

Most of us who keep files about subjects we're interested in, or have built small personal libraries will not have to worry about this. Sometimes accidents happen. I remember when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's house in the hills of Los Angeles burnt down. He had built a famously large jazz record collection: all gone. He also lost priceless Korans, Asian and Middle Eastern rugs. A gentle giant of intellectual bend and perhaps the greatest NBA player ever, he always felt misunderstood and that fans loved him for helping the Lakers win games, but they thought he was a freak. The story of his house was all over the news, and for years afterwards strangers came up to him to give him rare jazz albums, which surprised him and altered his emotional assumptions about some "fans."

But Kareem's lost archives couldn't represent a threat to the State or other vested interests.

Some Countercultural Losses
I'd become aware of Terence McKenna's stupendously cool book collection. He seemed to be interested in everything that I was, but he knew more and could talk about what he knew in a way I could never dream. I thought how great it would be to meet him and be allowed to go through his library. But an accident happened at a Quizno's sandwich shop in Monterey, California, and all his rare books and personal notes were burned.

Aldous Huxley's incredible book collection, his letters, notes...all burned in the famous 1961 Bel-Air fire near Los Angeles. I've read various versions of this. Seared into memory: local TV news people were on the scene and found the Famous Man and asked him how he felt. Aldous said he felt "remarkably clean." I've yet to see if anyone had catalogued what was lost; I doubt if there was even a decent bibliography of what he'd had. Somewhat oddly, Huxley had published a piece in Vogue in 1947: "If My Library Burned Tonight." A passage: "To enter the shell of a well-loved room and to find it empty except for a thick carpet of ashes that were once one's favorite literature - the very thought of it is depressing."

Dr. Andrew Weil, involved with Dr. Timothy Leary at Harvard, lost a large collection of "books, records, papers and other items" in the flooding of his Arizona house in 2006.

Peter Dale Scott, UC Berkeley professor emeritus, poet and originator of the concept of "deep politics," which I take to be conspiracy research by people with PhDs or people who are intellectuals of some sort who question power, had all his books and notes and research burned in the famous 1991 Berkeley-Oakland Hills fire:

Now my best files from two decades
are ashes on a hillside.
-Minding The Darkness p.15

I can feel no loss
that my best political files
have all burned
if their message is too complex
even for close Harvard-educated
friends with PhDs
Minding, p.8

In 1990 Genesis P-Orridge was in Kathmandu when right wing xtians raided his house in England and stole two tons of his personal belongings, convinced he was one of Satan's great minions and out to harm children, etc. Of course Genesis is something of a magickian and musician, and very weird and very intelligent, but would never harm anyone. The police and the yellow British press had a field day with this supposed satanic cult leader. As Genesis told Richard Metzger:

And it was a Right Wing, Christian lawyer who accessed the illegal files. But they never printed an apology, they never gave me back my archive, and in that archive are many hours of Brion Gysin being interviewed, talking about his notebooks, showing things, paintings, drawings, explaining all kinds of incredible things. He's dead now. That's gone. There was a movie that Derek Jarman made when we brought William Burroughs to London. Derek filmed William all the time, went around with me and filmed everything. There was only one print of that movie and it's gone. There are Throbbing Gristle concerts that there were only one master of, gone. Just incredible stuff. All the photo albums of the children, growing up, gone. A stuffed dolphin toy, gone. The girls' Carebears videos, gone...I mean it's just incredible and it's still missing. The department of Scotland Yard was disbanded not long after, two of the detectives died within a year and now it's just impossible to find anyone who says they know anything about where everything is. Of course, we were never charged with anything, because we hadn't done anything. - see pp. 162-166 of Disinformation: The Interviews, R. Metzger. Genesis has a lot to say about personal archives.

Ed Sanders - poet-historian, disciple of Charles Olson and one of my favorite living archivists - famously did exhaustive research on the Manson murders, attending the trials, etc. He interviewed E.J. Gold, who was calling himself Morloch the Warlock in Los Angeles, August, 1970. A note from Sanders on E.J. Gold: "He speaks well, although too didactically. He is wonderful." Anyway, Gold told Sanders that some weirdos at a commune in Indio, California, where a 6 year old boy had burned down a house that "destroyed priceless unpublished Crowley manuscripts that the commune had ripped off from Israel Regardie, a well-known publisher, occultist, and Crowley scholar. He said that his group was recently robbed; among the magical addiddimenta ripped off was a polished copper mirror once belonging to Aleister Crowley." - p. 409, The Family

A word about this last: E.J. Gold was something of a prankster and may have taken Sanders for a ride here. Does anyone know more about this supposedly missing Crowleyania?

Take a gander: HERE's a Wiki for famous destroyed libraries, some done in the name of "cultural cleansing." As a pre-teen holed up in a library, I first read about deliberate burning of libraries in H.G. Wells's Outline of History, which I read all the way through three times before age 20. The case was the first one mentioned in the chart in the linked Wiki page:

While Alexander was overrunning Western Asia, China, under the last priest-emperors of the Chow Dynasty, was sinking into a state of great disorder. Each province clung to its separate nationality and traditions, and the Huns spread from province to province. The King of T'sin (who lived about eighty years before Alexander the Great), impressed by the mischief tradition was doing in the land, resolved to destroy the entire Chinese literature, and his son, Shi-Hwang-ti, the "first universal Emperor," made a strenuous attempt to seek out and destroy the existing classics. They vanished while he ruled, and he ruled without tradition, and welded China into a unity that endured for some centuries; but when he had passed, the hidden books crept in again. - p.182 of volume 1 in the 2-volume set.

A more recent take is HERE.

In the Afterlife, I imagine Plato coming up to the Emperor, now known in the West as "Qin Shi Huang," and saying, "Jeez man! I thought maybe I had some extreme ideas about controlling thought in my Republic, but you? You didn't even blink an eye, did you?"

These book-burners and book-haters and knowledge deniers are my mortal enemies yet I know they will always be with us. One wonders what a Ted Cruz/Sarah Palin Administration has in store for us. Just a couple weeks ago: "Singapore Library Will Destroy LGBT-Friendly Kids' Books at Behest of Bigot".

"Who Firebombed London's Oldest Anarchist Book Shop?"
"City Settles Lawsuit Over the Destruction of the Occupy Wall Street Library"

And so it goes...

Brief Idiosyncratic History of Authority/The Fearful vs. Mind and Books
The story of the Nag Hammadi Library is, for my purposes, the Ur-story. The Gnostic texts were ruthlessly hunted down and burned; the Church wouldn't allow any deviations from its carefully-assembled God Story. But someone collected as many of those texts as she/he could find and buried them...until they were found in Egypt in 1945. I love reading my copy of The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by James M. Robinson. It's amazing how many xtians I've met who 1.) have not heard of the gnostic texts; 2.) heard of 'em but ain't never read a one of 'em and won't be lookin' out fer 'em; or 3.) haven't heard of the texts but assume I've been duped by Satan.

We jump to the 1500s, conveniently for moi. From John Higgs's book on Timothy Leary, I Have America Surrounded: John Dee's library:

Dr. Dee was one of the leading scholars of his day, and a man who played a leading role in the development of the science of navigation. He was also court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, and he used her horoscope to choose the day of her coronation in 1558. He possessed what was believed to be the largest library in Britain, until the local townsfolk, believing him to be an evil sorcerer, burned it down. He was also a spy for the Crown, and was sent on intelligence missions in various other European countries. It seems fitting, therefore, that he used to sign his documents with the code "007."

1600: The Venetian Inquisition confiscated the great Renaissance mystic, humanist, magician-scholar Giordano Bruno's works. He was ratted out as a heretic. The Vatican bureaucracy compiled a large processo arguing for a mass of evidence that Bruno was a dangerous heretic. There were eight heretical propositions taken from Bruno's works that he needed to recant in order to save his neck. One of them may have been his wild idea that there may be an infinity of other worlds in the universe. (We now know this is virtually true.) Bruno at first said he'd retract his wild statements, but then changed his mind, "obstinately maintaining that he had never written or said anything heretical and that the minsters of the Holy Office had wrongly interpreted his views. He was therefore sentenced as an impenitent heretic and handed over to the secular arm for punishment. He was burned alive on the Campo de' Fiori in Rome on February 17th, 1600." Bruno's works and the Inquistion's case against him were "lost forever, having formed part of a mass of archives which were transported to Paris by the order of Napoleon, where they were eventually sold as pulp to a cardboard factory." - both quoted passages from p.349 of Frances Yates's Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition

1786: Filippo Michele Buonarruti, a most interesting figure, possibly aligned with the Bavarian Illuminati, which had been recently forced underground. Some sources refer to him as the "first professional revoutionary." Florentine police raided his library and confiscated all of his Masonic and anticlerical books. (see Music of Pythagoras, Ferguson, p.287) In the same year, in the Bavarian town of Landshut, police raided Xavier Zwack's house and a "considerable number of books and papers were discovered, the latter containing more than two hundred letters that had passed between Weishaupt and the Areopagites, dealing with the most intimate affairs of the order, together with tables containing the secret symbols, calendar, and geographical terms belonging to the system, imprints of its insignia, a partial roster of its membership, the statutes, instruction for recruiters, the primary ceremony of initiation, etc." (see The Bavarian Illuminati In America: The New England Conspiracy Scare, 1798, Stauffer, pp.180-182; 211)

1917: The Unistat government seized five tons of written material by the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World/IWW) on September 5th. A Grand Jury indicted 161 IWW leaders "for conspiracy to hinder the draft, encourage desertion, and intimidate others in connection with labor disputes."

1975: Michael Horowitz, keeper of Timothy Leary's archives, on the "Archival Catastrophe of 1975."
Once again, this blog spew has run overtime, and if I started in on the Leary case I'd go on for another 2000 words, so maybe another day.

Final Word for Archivists
Your work has consequences. After Ellsberg, the COINTELPRO findings, continued revelations about Hoover's FBI, Assange and Snowden, do we need more proof that there will always be certain elements of the State apparatus who see free thinkers as a threat? Your work is not "neutral." It cannot be: knowledge has a social origin with social uses. There is more than enough kowtowing for The State and monied interests. Howard Zinn, who shares my fascination with Karl Mannheim's book Ideology and Utopia - the grounding text in the sociology of knowledge - says that knowledge:

Comes out of a divided, embattled world, and is poured into such a world. It is not neutral either in origin or effect. It reflects the biases of a diverse social order, but with one important qualification: that those with the most power and wealth in society will dominate the field of knowledge, so that it serves their interests. The scholar may swear to his neutrality on the job, but whether he be physicist, historian, or archivist, his work will tend, in this theory, to maintain the existing social order by perpetuating its values, by justifying its wars, perpetuating its prejudices, contributing to its xenophobia, and apologizing for its class order. Thus Aristotle, behind that enormous body of philosophical wisdom, justifies slavery, and Plato, underneath that dazzling set of dialogues, justifies obedience to the state, and Machiavelli, respected as one of the great intellectual figures of history, urges our concentration on means rather than ends. -p. 520, The Zinn Reader, "Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest," originally a talk given in 1970.

So: you collectors of weird books, file-stuffer of articles on Those Things That Few Seem To Notice, those modern-day Thomas Paines out there, you who care about injustice of a thousand stripes: carry on! Your work matters and has consequences, as we have seen. It's possibly powerful. I have touched on perhaps 1/30th of the "archives in trouble" notes from my own archives/research/files. I'd like to read your notes on the subject, if'n ya got any.

Other Articles and Books Consulted
"My Life, Their Archive," by Tim Parks
"In the Sontag Archives"
"Timbuktu Libraries in Exile"
Buckminster Fuller: Anthology For a New Millenium: pp.319-325, "The R. Buckminster Fuller Archives"
Huxley In Hollywood, by David King Dunaway
Investigative Poetry, by Ed Sanders
Harvard Psychedelic Club, by Don Lattin
Wilhelm Reich In Hell, by Robert Anton Wilson
My Life In Garbology, by A.J. Weberman (too many JFK assassination researchers/archivists to mention here, but sources on Mae Brussell's files and a few others are mindblowing)
Wobblies!, ed. by Paul Buhl
-at minimum five books about Philip K. Dick: theories about the break-in of his house.
The New Inquisition, by Robert Anton Wilson: see pp.83-84, about Jacques Vallee's records of UFO sightings destroyed
The Cultural Cold War, by Frances Stonor Saunders
Birth of a Psychedelic Culture, ed by Bravo: Allen Ginsberg's files on the CIA, drug busts, and sexual persecution
-at minimum four sources on how James Jesus Angleton of the CIA got hold of Mary Pinchot Meyer's diary immediately after she was murdered
Double Fold, by Nicholson Baker, a secret history of microfilm lobbyists, "former" CIA agents, and warehouses where priceless archives were destroyed

Monday, July 7, 2014

Reading David Foster Wallace and Tom Robbins Concurrently: Utter Incommensurability For Me

As a temporary detour from one of my reading projects - the entire Tom Robbins oeuvre, chronologically - I went back and re-read a bunch of sections from David Foster Wallace's works, because  I'd recently had a conversation about DFW's suicide in 2008, and it occurred to me that Tom Robbins - as "passe" as some readers feel his work now ( I certainly do not feel he's passe), "knew" something about life that DFW didn't.

                                                 David Foster Wallace

But this may be too facile: my diagnosis, after reading a couple of books of interviews with DFW and a terrific piece by Maria Bustillos, is that DFW may have been doomed from childhood: too much genius, too much self-consciousness and depression. In the last year of his life he tried to get off Nardil, which he'd been on since a suicide attempt, around 20 years before. Nothing else worked, he spiraled down, even with the resumption of Nardil and 12 rounds of electroconvulsive "therapy," and hung himself in Claremont, California, September 12, 2008.

In one interview he said he did LSD and "a fair amount of psilocybin in college," and smoked pot from age 15 or 16 until he got out of grad school. Why did he stop smoking pot? "I just, it wasn't shutting the system down anymore. It was just making the system, it was just making the system more unpleasant to be part of. My own system." (See Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, pp.137-139.) Wallace also had had a major alcohol problem, but "I was a sort of joyless drinker..." (op.cit, 142, and italics in original)

I cannot relate to the idea of smoking pot or drinking as a way to "shut down" my "system." I am nothing if not a joyful drinker. DFW is such a compelling figure to me that I will always know that there are people far smarter than me who are nonetheless haunted, and nothing from Big Pharma will allow them to feel unalloyed joy in simple things.

One of the many things I grapple with when I think of DFW is this feeling of the insistent, constantly surging intelligence coupled with what seems to me a horrifying level of self-doubt. I heartily refrain from armchair dipshit psychoanalysis here; in other words: I won't speculate further on the deepest levels of the source of DFW's misery.

Both DFW and Tom Robbins will be found in fat books that talk about "postmodern" American writers. Both used surrealist elements in their prose to engage their readers. Robbins was born 30 years before DFW, and perhaps many of you know about DFW's "puritan" backlash regarding Irony in our culture. (The seminal statement is probably his essay on TV, "E Unibus Plurum," collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.) Although I don't see TR as an ironically-minded writer, I do see him as a psychedelic writer. DFW too, oddly, for reasons touched on above.

DFW thought irony had become toxic to our culture, but while it had been an effective mode of rhetoric for authors from the 1960s in their attacks on post-WW2 assumptions about social relations, class, conformity, and "reality," by the early 1990s it was so pervasive that it was like the old fish-don't-know-they're-in-water thing: the educated young were so ironic and hip and miserable they couldn't even see that in their constant resorting to irony, they were crying out, in effect, "I'm trapped! Help me out! This is miserable!" (5 Second clip from The Simpsons for the win!)

I consider both DFW and Tom Robbins (TR) as novelists of ideas. TR imagined a character who was so well-defined as a mouthpiece for radical environmentalism and the dangers of rampant technology that the FBI questioned him in the Unabomber case before the G-Men caught up to Ted. DFW dreamed up a character that ran an academy for tennis-playing excellence, and he was a fascist. The character jumped off the page and ran around my house, in one ear, out the other.

TR put in with unalloyed Tibetan-tinged "crazy wisdom" long ago, even before he met Joseph Campbell and toured Mexico and Central America and later even more far-flung regions of the globe. He still celebrates July 26, 1963 - the day he first did LSD - as the most important day of his life, so much so that it actuated him to quit his job by "calling in well" and saying he was staying home, and that prior to that day he had been ill.

I am holding back on willy-nilly speculations about naivete, "belief" and especially, the albatross of Ego...

I'm not sure if DFW ever got out of the country, much less his own head. And yet: he seemed to believe some of his characters had come alive and spoken to him. I believe he had tremendous capacity for empathy. Certainly DFW's forays into psychedelics did not bring about any sort of psychic "breakthrough" that they had for TR, whose overall prose style seems to represent a form of mimesis of the mind on psychedelics.

While a recurring line in TR, "The world situation was dire, as usual" doesn't indicate a non-engagement with world politics, TR still seems one of the foremost exponents of change-yourself-first in order to change the world. I see his novels as literary LSD. The difficulty, the incommensurability of this is: I see DFW's novels (and much of his non-fiction) as psychedelic too. This may have to do with the sheer burst of information-per-page encountered in DFW, and let us recall Aldous Huxley's image of "normal consciousness" as a firehose with a crink in it, so water only comes out in dribs and drabs, while on psychedelics, the crink is undone and the brain is flooded by the hose, gushing full-on, overwhelming, consciousness-expanding.

Meanwhile, DFW thought something like Freud's Pleasure Principle was a threat to Unistat minds. TV and other media and "low art" were so effective and polished and easy - giving us a constant stream of comfortable, predictable shows that didn't challenge us but still felt really good that we've become divorced from "reality" and are setting ourselves up for fascism. He was saying this in the early 1990s. In the mid 1990s he predicted ever-better viewing situations, ever-better shows - by then he'd said the commercials were better than the shows, as far as sophistication of knowing the viewers' desires - and he predicted something like Netflix. In his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, there's a film that's so entertaining - called "Infinite Jest" - that people literally cannot stop watching it, and they become comatose, and figuratively lobotomized. And Quebecois terrorists want the film to use as a terror device, but I digress...

DFW could be hilarious. TR makes me laugh out loud, too. Their innate temperaments, or dispositions, or the happy and sad exigencies of their lives larded on top of those predispositions...makes me feel the personalities of the two seem quite far apart. I find I love both men's writing, and have an idealized picture of how each guy "really is" (or was) and that I like both personalities quite a lot. I don't expect to get to know TR, who is 82 this year; I never knew DFW. I know I cannot read DFW without knowing he was always in pain, and that he killed himself at age 46. Suicide haunts the background of every reading of DFW for me. This just makes me sad.

I may be pissing some DFW fans off here, but I assert that, while he considered himself a sort of avant-garde fiction writer (who wished to redeem avant-garde too-cool-fer-skool exercises with a sort of earnest and non-ironic spiritus) first, and a writer of non-fiction pieces second, he was a better non-fiction writer. And his fiction is marvelous. NB: while he was in grad school he was smoking pot, watching tons of TV, and doing psychedelics, all the while producing his first novel, The Broom of the System, and a Philosophy thesis that had to do with Wittgensteinian ideas titled "Richard Taylor's Fatalism and the Semantics of Physical Modality." What a freaky, wonderful, genius (MacArthur "Genius" Award 1997)! What a loss!

TR thought a good TV show would be "Queer Eye For the Fungi":

DFW thought the logical endpoint of our involvement with "reality" TV shows would be something called "Celebrity Autopsy," where we watch a coroner eviscerate an actual celebrity who died, while above his/her friends and family talk about the kind of person the celebrity really was.

I end this ramble - and let's face it: it's one - with a restatement: the goofy-wise joy behind TR is infectious and makes me love life. And academia pretends he's not serious. DFW did...all that (I did not mention he wrote a math book on Cantor's transfinite sets, which led to Godel...) In premature death, young academia acted like their own Kurt Cobain figure died, and maybe that's an apt analogy. But I do think the overall worldview and tone and sentences and ideas of TR deserve more nuanced reading in this, our year of the NSA 2014CE. But they won't. And so: why? Perhaps the serious Mind of our Academy considers a brilliant, "absurdly educated" (DFW's phrase) as one of their own; TR's offerings of ways Out still just seem silly, outre, irresponsible?

It could be that something in TR's overall project may be something like the "redemption" that DFW was looking for, for us. Or not. Or...sorta? (Maybe?)

Incommensurability. I'm not sure if DFW and TR would've liked each other. I like to daydream that they would hit it off.