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The Repairer of Reputations by Robert W. Chambers
In Elder Sign
Charles
Nov 28, 2021
There's an interesting book called American Police Systems (link). It was written a little before 1920, or around the time of our story's setting: "This study, which I undertook at the invitation of the Bureau of Social Hygiene, as a companion volume to European Police Systems, was practically completed when the United States entered the war in 1917." "Bureau of Social Hygiene". Now that is a name that evokes dread! The book does a good job of highlighting how anti-authoritarian Americans used to be--to the extent that even police officers violently rejected the trappings of authority. I really like this paragraph about the rejection of police uniforms: "In nothing was the undisciplined attitude of the police more clearly shown than in their refusal to wear uniforms. Although by 1855 a beginning had been made by a few communities in the shape of regulation hats and caps, no city had at this time a completely uniformed force. "Un-American," "undemocratic," "militarism," "King's livery," "a badge of degradation and servitude," "an imitation of royalty " — ideas of this kind formed the basis of opposition to putting policemen in uniform. In New York the policemen were simply guards in citizen's clothes, armed with 33-inch clubs." That some of their rebukes used anti-monarchical language is very relevant. Compare this America of the 1800's, where uniforms were viewed with suspicion by many, to the world of our story where soldiers in 'braided jackets' and 'jaunty caps' roam the streets with lances. It wasn't until 1856 that policemen in New York adopted uniforms: "Even when the New York police finally adopted a uniform early in 1856, it was not standardized for the whole force. Each ward had its own uniform as it saw fit. The summer uniform in some wards consisted of white duck suits ; other wards adopted colors ; some wore straw hats and some felt. In Philadelphia in 1856 the attempt to make the police even wear badges outside their coats met with bitter opposition. Only after much persuasion did Mayor Conrad induce them to adopt regulation caps, and not until late in 1860 did they put on complete uniforms." The book also does a good job of showing us how "foreign races" (Italians, Poles, Irishmen, etc.) were seen as a threat to peace and order before the First World War: "Homogeneity simplifies the task of government. Long-established traditions of order and standards of public conduct, well-understood customs and practices which smooth the rough edges of personal contact, a definite racial temperament and a fixed set of group-habits by which conflicting interests are more readily comprehended and adjusted — in short, the social solidarity and cohesiveness which come only from a common language and a common heritage — all these factors, so interwoven in French and English community life, and so essential in facilitating the maintenance of law, are utterly unknown in many of the towns and cities of the United States. Our larger cities, indeed, are often divided by more or less well defined lines into nationalistic sections : Italians, Chinese, Poles, Russians, Czechs, Slavs, each with their own districts, where they settle in colony fashion. Here, frequently in comparative isolation, they speak their own language, read their own newspapers, maintain their own churches and their peculiar social life." These were not small groups, and the dread they evoked is palpable: "In America — to use only a few illustrations at random — New York's foreign-born population is 41%, Chicago and Boston 36% each, Cleveland and Providence 34% each, Detroit 33%. This contrast can be emphasized in another way. London has 14,000 Italians among her foreign-born; Paris has 26,000. New York has 340,000; Chicago has 45,000. London has 45,000 foreign-born Russians; Paris 18,000. New York has 485,000; Chicago 121,000. Where Paris has 7,000 Austro-Hungarians, New York has 267,000. Where London has 27,000 Poles. Chicago has 126,000. London's 42,000 foreign-born Germans must be contrasted with New York's 280,000 and with Chicago's 185,000. New York's Italian-born population is greater than the combined populations of Bologne and Venice. She has more German-born residents than has Bremen, Konigsberg, Aix la Chapelle, Posen, Kiel or Danzig. Only three cities of old Austria-Hungary — Vienna, Budapest and Prague — have a larger Austro-Hungarian population than New York, while in Chicago the foreign-born Austro-Hungarians outnumber the population of Brunn, Cracow or Gratz. In only five Russian cities — Petrograd, Moscow, Odessa, Warsaw and Kiev — can a Russian population be found greater than that of New York." These anxieties impelled the reformers, who sought to build a better world by confronting division in America...
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The Beast in the Cave
In Elder Sign
Charles
Dec 03, 2020
I read the story recently and listened to the podcast this morning. Here are some of my observations: Some of the best stories, or at least my favorite stories, have some sort of built-in ambiguity. Here I'm thinking of something like Total Recall where the fantastic events might or might not be implanted memories. It's important that you can enjoy these story on a surface level without even being aware of the interpretative juncture lurking underneath. It's amazing to see a young Lovecraft do something like this. I didn't even catch on to it at first. The creature could be an old man that has somehow stayed alive after becoming lost in the cave, or it could be a member of a new race, descendants of the cave-dwelling patients, evolved to exploit the new environment--here the peculiar eyes and hair of the man become signs of deeper physiological change. There's something going on with ideas of man's ancestry. At first, we might think that an escaped ape has gotten lost in the cave system. Later, we realize that this strange ape is in-fact a man! One way to think about this is that he had regressed to some former state under the influence of the caves--a sort of retrogression giving re-birth to the caveman of old. Evolution is commonly understood to be one-way. There's something unsettling about old forms re-emerging. As an aside, I'd like to mention that cavemen tales and weird fiction have a storied history that's worth thinking about. The first Robert E. Howard story ever published was a caveman story called Spear and Fang. He was only 19 when it came out in Weird Tales. I wonder where this story sits in the long history of 'mole people' stories. There have been quite a few of them, with older stories often taking place in old mining tunnels, and newer ones usually having city sewers as their nexus. I'm sure I encountered this concept on Saturday morning cartoons as a kid, which makes me think about how deeply this idea has seeped into the popular imagination, or maybe it was always there? A few of Lovecraft's other stories were invoked in the podcast. The one that jumps to my mind is The Rats in the Walls. There too we find the horrifying imagery man gone quadruped. There too we find underground tunnels full of mystery and disturbing discovery. There was talk in the podcast of the protagonist being almost Vulcan in his approach to the plight he finds himself in. The comparison that came to my mind was that of Marcus Aurelius. In one of his letters, Lovecraft says: "Roman dreams were no uncommon features of my youth—I used to follow the Divine Julius all over Gallia as a Tribunus Militum o’nights". I can imagine a teenage Lovecraft being fascinated by the Stoic Emperor--a figure of power and dignity--one who could have anything in the world, but chooses self-restraint. Combine this with the systematic thinking of the dispassionate scientist and you have a powerful mixture. We know from Lovecraft's later letters that he thought a philosophical mindset was the best way of grappling with the disturbing facts of the universe. What's interesting is how he brings rationality to a breaking point. We find this theme in many of his later stories too. Many of his protagonists are men of reason, but they keep finding themselves in situations which reason cannot comprehend, or perhaps more spookily, situations where reason comprehends all too well.
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Fifth head of Cerberus thoughts
In Gene Wolfe
Fifth head of Cerberus thoughts
In Gene Wolfe
Charles
Feb 22, 2020
I just finished reading the first of the three novellas last night, and have started listening to the podcasts covering the story. I enjoyed it very much, and find myself wanting to reread it again already, if only to luxuriate in the prose. The podcasts have also been great fun, and I now have many more things to look out for when I do decide to plunge back into the story. Daniel mentions the many-masted ships and their connections to Coleridge's poem with its becalmed waters. I wanted to add a thing or two to this. (Ignore my post if these things have been explored elsewhere. As I mentioned, I haven't listened to all the recorded discussions yet.) This is one of the descriptions we get in the story: And there, while David shot arrows at a goose stuffed with straw or played tennis, I often sat staring at the quiet, only slightly dirty water, or waiting for one of the white ships--great ships with bows as sharp as the scalpel bills of kingfishers and four, five, or even seven masts--which were, infrequently towed up from the harbor by ten or twelve spans of oxen. I begin by simply noting in passing the scalpel imagery which strikes me as significant given that our narrator comes to carry a scalpel wherever he goes, and really puts it to use later in the story. What I really wanted to focus on though is the kingfisher imagery. I find myself wondering about it. Are we dealing with another one of Wolfe's tightly-bound bundle of allusions? Our Late Antique friend Isidore of Seville describes the kingfisher bird in this way: The alcyon (i.e. "halcyon," in classical Latin, "king-fisher"), a sea bird, is named as if the word were ales oceana (ocean bird), because in winter it makes its nest and raises its young on still waters in the ocean. It is said that when they are brooding on its expansive surface, the sea grows calm with the winds silent in continuous tranquility for seven days, and nature herself cooperates in the rearing of their young. I can't help but detect certain resonances. There's the connection to calm waters which brings to mind the waters of both Sainte Croix and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with all of their implied stagnation. Next up is the rearing of children by the kingfisher. This brings to mind the two brothers in the story and their peculiar upbringings. There's also the idea of nature herself cooperating in the rearing which seemingly speaks to the role of nature in the making of a man-- a key theme in the story. There's even something seasonal going on in Isidore's kingfisher talk, though here things get more tenuous.
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Lost Hearts by M. R. James / Neoplatonism
In Elder Sign
Charles
Feb 16, 2020
He's been on a few podcasts before, so he may be open to the idea. The last thing he wrote directly related to what I've been talking about was an article called 'Platonic Tantra: Theurgists of Late Antiquity' which was published in 2017. (Does a two-year-old paper count as recent in academia?) It can be seen online here: https://www.academia.edu/37897872/Platonic_Tantra.pdf Here's the abstract: Scholarship on Iamblichean theurgy has changed profoundly in the last thirty years. No longer dismissed as a distortion of Greek philosophy, theurgy is now recognized by most scholars as a complement—even culmination—to the disciplines of rational reflection. Yet resistance to recognizing the full implications of living in a theurgic cosmos continues. Although the gods of theurgy penetrate the material realm and theurgists embodied these gods in ritual and aesthetic experience, we continue to imagine the goal of theurgy as escaping from matter and ascending to noetic fire. A residual and often unconscious dualism influences our thinking. Theurgists were athletes of divine fire, but the fire is here, on earth, and the gods are revealed, Iamblichus says, “by our physical eyes.” Iamblichean theurgy represents a radically non-dual orientation that incorporates the body into divine experience.  In this sense theurgy closely resembles the tantric non-dualism of South Asian yoga traditions. I explore the consequences of living in a non-dual cosmos and present Platonic theurgy as the Tantra of the West. The first half of the article goes over the role of theurgy in Neoplatonism and contrasts Plotinian and Iamblichean mystagogies. The second half points to parallels in Indian philosophy and religion. It's all very interesting.
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Lost Hearts by M. R. James / Neoplatonism
In Elder Sign
Charles
Feb 15, 2020
Plotinus was the first Neoplatonist to gain wider acceptance in the modern world. For some, Plotinus' aloofness towards traditional pagan religion made him tolerable. (He'd famously told his pupil Amelius "The gods ought to come to me, not I to them." when invited to visit some temples. His student Porphyry was likewise appreciated for his skepticism towards theurgy. This played well with agnostics and devout anti-pagans alike. Others were drawn by the mystical language. Here's a characteristic passage from Plotinus: "There is no poverty or lack of resource there, but all things filled and as it were boiling with life. There is as it were a flow of them from one spring ... as if there were some one quality having and preserving all qualities in itself, of sweetness with fragrance, and at once winelike quality and the powers of all tastes and the sights of colors and the things that touches know; and there stand the things that hearings hear, all tunes and every rhythm." There was a newfound academic interest in mysticism after WWII, and Plotinus was seen by some as an antecedent to the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages. The Christian connection motivated much of the renewed interest in Neoplatonism in the 60's and in the decades that followed. Neoplatonism was seen as a sort of missing link between the pagan world and the Medieval world. Neoplatonic beliefs lived on to shape Christian theology through figures like Augustine, and there was also the matter of Aristotle. Most of the surviving commentaries on Aristotle were written by late Platonists. Understanding the Medieval reception of Aristotle required an understanding of Neoplatonism. Plotinus was getting most of the attention though. It really wasn't until the late 90's, after Gregory Shaw published his great 'Theurgy and the Soul' that Iamblichus, and later Neoplatonists, gained wider recognition as serious philosophers. Before that, Plotinus and Porphyry were somewhat artificially kept apart from all the other Neoplatonists who were understood to be more concerned with theurgy, and so unworthy of serious attention. There's an old academic book review from 1997 that speaks to this division: "But there often still remains an inability properly to interpret the ancient distinction between those "Neoplatonists" who followed what was sometimes dubbed a "philosophical" path (Plotinus and Porphyry), and the followers and successors of Iamblichus who were said to be more "theological." The usual approach is to think of the Iamblicheans as retaining certain "philosophical" features from Plotinus while more generally exhibiting a decadent if not "Oriental" falling away into magic and superstition." These days, it's not uncommon to see theurgy described as something akin to Catholic sacramental theology. Shaw pointed the way here with statements like this: “This theurgical vision shaped the thinking of later Platonists such as Syrianus, Proclus, and Damascius, and its influence also extended beyond Platonic circles and may well be reflected in the sacramental theology of Christian thinkers. Indeed, the Church, with its ecclesiastical embodiment of the divine hierarchy, its initiations, and its belief in salvation through sacramental acts, may have fulfilled the theurgical program of Iamblichus in a manner that was never concretely realized by Platonists. In a sense that has yet to be examined, the Church may well have become the reliquary of the hieratic vision and practices of the later Platonists.” The figure of Dionysius is key here. Elsewhere Shaw notes that: "Augustine’s demonization of theurgy stands in stark contrast to Dionysius the Areopagite who spoke of theurgy as an integral part of the sacramental life of the church."
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Alien Stones
In Gene Wolfe
Charles
Feb 10, 2020
Another great story, and a few more stray thoughts. The empaths in this story don't really care about machines. We are told of Youngmeadow that "his empathy was all for people, not for things." The captain, on the other hand, does care about machines, and is able to gain some understanding of the aliens through their creations. The notion of man evolving through his machines is relevant here. We are connected to our creations on a very deep level. The empaths in this story reminded me of the now-ended Human Terrain System. Social scientists were sent to areas occupied by American soldiers where they would study local populations and communicate their findings to military commanders. The idea was to encourage cultural understanding, but some were not comfortable with the idea of academics facilitating the ends of the military. In Wolfe's story, Helen worries that her role is a treacherous one. ("Because by taking their side we help you. We give you someone who thinks like them and reacts to their needs. In a way we're traitors.") She helps her commanding officer understand the other, but to what end? The most infamous incident related to the Human Terrain System was the killing of anthropologist Paula Loyd. She'd been interviewing local villagers to get a better sense of their concerns when she was doused in fuel and set on fire. Her purpose was to understand the locals, but in asking her questions she was insulting those who resented women in positions of power. In the story, Youngmeadow breaks something to make contact with the aliens. That very contact was his undoing. His focus on the importance of direct personal contact for mutual understanding blinded him to some other very important elements of an alien culture.
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The Packerhaus Method
In Gene Wolfe
Charles
Jan 29, 2020
I didn't love this story upon my first reading, but the more I thought about it, the more I found myself liking it. A second reading and listening to the podcast helped deepen my appreciation. Some things completely escaped my notice, like the Swiss clock imagery, or the importance of breath, and I have the show to thank for pointing these things out to me. A few random thoughts: A slow horror filled her, and there was an agonizing tightness in her throat. She should be crying, she knew; but there was no moisture in her eyes. The true horror here is that her painful realization will recur again and again. A big part of the story is the false immortality offered by the Packerhaus method. There are hints throughout that the permanence it offers is ultimately fleeting. “That cat’s shedding,” said the new social worker. “In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cat shedding quite so much. The hair’s coming out of her in quite a remarkable way.” The cat losing its fur presages the Packerhaused humans eventually losing their hair, and that will probably only be the beginning. There's also these lines which hint at an eventual loss of muscle control. Muscles, you know, will still respond to an impulse after death. We used to do it with frogs’ legs and a galvanic cell when I was a little girl in school [...] The Colonel’s fluid preserves this attribute, you see—at least for a long time. These living memorials are actually dying memorials, though this isn't obvious yet. How much more horrifying will their looping existence become? The man forever trying to light his cigar reminded me of Tantalus in Hades. What strange hell is this, a smoker trying to smoke, but failing again and again without end? The Tolkien references are on point given the importance of death for Tolkien. A passage from The Silmarillion comes to mind where man's mortality is called a gift: But the sons of Men die indeed, and leave the world; wherefore they are called the Guests, or the Strangers. Death is their fate, the gift of Ilúvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy. And on the subject of Tolkien, Wolfe wrote a wonderful article called "The Best Introduction to the Mountains" where he reflects on his relationship with the author. It's quite touching, and it blows my mind that it was rejected. It's become a bit tricky to find on the Internet, but you can read it here: https://web.archive.org/web/20140725120535/http://www.thenightland.co.uk/MYWEB/wolfemountains.html
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Charles
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