Last episode I spoke of Mina Loy and her pre-WWI adventure in Italy with the Futurists who would eventually become Italian Fascists. Loy utilized Modernist tactics in her own art and writing, but she was apparently wise enough to see the violence and totalitarianism in that Italian strain for what it was and extracted herself to less authoritarian circles. I’m unaware that Loy ever presented herself as a politically engaged artist, but the various Modernists she associated with after the end of her Italian adventure tended to the unaffiliated or left-wing side of Modernism.
Another woman, and American this time, had encounters with the early German Fascists, in the era between the two World Wars. Her name was Dorothy Thompson. Thompson is another example of fleeting fame: she had a substantial mid-century multimedia presence through her books, journalism, and work in broadcasting. One of her roles was as a “Foreign Correspondent,” something of an antique designation now, but one that required that individual to live overseas and to report wisely what was happening in that country’s culture and politics. In Germany she was savvy enough to cover the rising profile of a fringe politician, Adolf Hitler. In 1931 she was able to wrangle an interview with him. This is some of what she wrote:
“When I walked into Adolph Hitler’s salon in the Kaiserhof hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany….In something like fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not. It took just about that time to measure the startling insignificance of this man.”
Thompson was nobody’s fool. She wasn’t alone in underestimating the possible impact of Hitler, this “little man,” based on his personality flaws. The canny observer in her was able to figure that he might be able to achieve titular leadership of the German government as part of a coalition with other minority parties, as Hitler indeed did little more than a year later. When asked what his program would be, Hitler was forthcoming: “I will found an authority-state, from the lowest cell to the highest instance; everywhere there will be responsibility and authority above, discipline and obedience below.” Hitler was generally not a secretive, conspiratorial revolutionary. This was his electoral platform. In evaluating that statement, Thompson compounded her error. Thompson concluded:
“Imagine a would-be dictator setting out to persuade a sovereign people to vote away their rights?”
That wasn’t a prediction, that was a rhetorical question. She didn’t think it could happen.
She published her article that year, and many thought her view the informed opinion that it was. If TL;DNR existed in 1931 you would summarize: Hitler is a clown car short of a few clowns.
Thompson shortly realized she had been wrong. Less than three years after she had disparaged him in this widely read article, Hitler made Thompson the first foreign journalist formally expelled from his new Germany. Had she helped or hurt Hitler by underestimating him? It didn’t matter, she had belittled him. Soon enough the world would be at war due to this insubstantial and insignificant man, this laughingstock.
She had a dark-humored quote on the matter. “Some got sent to camps. I got sent to Paris.”
Thompson was married to another writer who was extraordinarily famous between the wars, Sinclair Lewis. In America, another politician was drawing a mixture of scoffing scorn and fear as he moved to run for President in 1936, Huey Long. It’s thought that Lewis availed himself of Thompson’s experience, as he began to furiously write a novel about how a Fascist could unexpectedly be elected as the U. S. President. For his novel’s title, Lewis created an unforgettable phrase: “It Can’t Happen Here.”
The novel’s main character is a journalist, one who clearly knows that the forces which rise throughout the novel are evil, while underestimating their danger, but like Thompson he is able to recognize his error and take action.
We are now living in a time when that phrase that Lewis used for his title may seem more present than memorable. The alternative voice of this project, Dave Moore, has changed Lewis’ tense and described—what—that 1935 novel, or something else? You decide if he changed the story.
Today we return to the early 20th Century Modernists with a piece using words by Mina Loy. Last episode we had a poet taking a political stand: Longfellow aligning himself with the movement to abolish slavery. Decades later, the Modernists joined political movements too.
One might suppose that since Modernism sought to overthrow the old cultural order and revolutionize artistic expression that many Modernists would be attracted to political radicalism—and to a large degree that’s so.
You might also assume that these artistic radicals would be leftists, aligned with the growing Socialist movements in England and the United States, or attracted after 1917 to the as then untested promise of the new Communist government in Russia. Or perhaps they’d make common cause with anarchism. Or maybe they’d create their own playlist mixing all of the above.
And yes, you can find that. Carl Sandburg in the U. S. Midwest, most of the Surrealists, bohemians in New York’s Greenwich Village, Herbert Read and some other British Modernists.
However, one can also find Modernists who aligned with the right wing in this era—and not only garden-variety Tories, or even those who allied themselves with the “respectable” racist strains of U. S. politics. Even in the years before WWI, the social theories that would coalesce into Fascism found adherents in the new literary avant garde. As to Americans, the most famous case is the indispensable Modernist poet, editor and promotor, Ezra Pound, eventually charged with treason at the end of WWII.
Modernists seemed something like stem cells as their artistic revolution kicked off—they could develop into followers of any kind of political radicalism. At a time when political engagement for artists was common, there must have been a feeling in the air that a side must be chosen if one was to be a thorough-going cultural Modernist.
So, much as the French Surrealists once sought to make Communism a dictate for membership in the Surrealist movement, the slightly earlier Italian Futurists eventually made Fascism a core value of their artistic circle.
It’s now we get to Mina Loy. No, not the delightful Hollywood actress—that’s Myrna Loy (Myrna Loy was the stage name for the woman born Myrna Williams, and it’s just possible that Loy could have been chosen to refer to Mina).
It’s 1905. Modernism is kicking off first in the visual art world, followed just behind by the poets. Loy, in her 20s, has already done the visual art thing in London and Paris, but her marriage is failing, and she’s just had an infant child die. To change her life, she moves to Italy. She befriends Futurist artist Carlo Carra, and if you follow along on your Futurist score-card she had love-affairs there with two principals of Italian Futurism: F. T. Marinetti and Giovanni Papini.
Let’s re-set our scene. Here’s a young woman in a foreign country going through life stress events. The art-world is shifting under everyone’s feet. As a movement that will eventually fancy itself outright as the cultural well-spring of Italian Fascism, the circle she’s fallen in with isn’t just about making it new, it’s militaristic, paternalistic, nationalistic, and it worships violence. That isn’t what jealous opponents say about Futurism, it’s what its own manifestos brag about.
As preparing actors say, all that would be part of the work to figure out what Mina Loy is experiencing. Here’s another bit of business you might grab onto: young, ambitious, male artists. I doubt some not-uncommon tropes have changed in that field.
Mina becomes a poet. A fierce poet. Artistically she uses some of the new ideas that the Futurists are thinking about. Her poetry moves between time and tenses, voices and outlooks, in machine gun bursts. Conventional expression and sentiment? Blow them up, run them over with a locomotive. Sixty years later Harlan Ellison would write “Love is just sex misspelled” and be thought provocative. Mina had already been there in the horse and buggy era. How can a woman keep her selfhood (or for that matter, how can any human being do so) in the minefield of desire and relationships? What is deep and inherent in motherhood that society will not express openly?
Though she used some of the artistic ideas of Futurism as effectively as any writer, Loy seemed to resist most of its political ideas and she satirized the pretentions of the “Flabergasts” while writing about her Italian time as being in the “Lion’s Jaws.” Leaving Italy, she next moved to New York, where she joined the Greenwich Village circle.
Today’s piece uses selections I took from a 34-poem sequence called “Songs to Johannes,” inspired by the relationship with Giovanni Papini (Johannes and Giovanni are variations of the same root name). Loy published these in 1914, near the end of her Italian time. Within the little-magazine world of Modernism she made an immediate impact. Eliot, Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Gertrude Stein said good things about her work. Legendary founder of Poetry magazine Harriet Monroe seems to have been scared by Loy’s frankness. Amy Lowell, poet and influential anthologist, was so put off she is supposed to have said that she would not publish in any magazine that printed Loy.
If the patriarchy may have lost the battle with Mina Loy, for a long time they seem to have won the peace. It was only in the last few years of the 20th Century that Loy’s poems of the first part of that century began to be looked at again. Now, Loy has become a key poetic Modernist for literary scholars tired of the usual sausage-fest, but that opens up the danger that work like “Songs to Johannes” may be introduced, academically, like this: “Loy in effect diagnoses an end to love poetry in the light of historical circumstance, anticipating that poststructuralist line of inquiry which urges a rereading of ‘lyric’ as a culturally responsive construct. Instead, her poetry constitutes a critique of the very demand that lyric expression be viewed apart from the social world.”
There’s nothing wrong with that view, but I find Loy’s pre-WWI writing here a lot more immediate assuming one has some applicable life experience to bring to it. Her diction sometimes reminds me of Emily Dickinson, and like Dickinson figuring out what is ironic, and what is earnest, and what is both, can sometimes be a challenge. In performance, any of those three choices seem to work for most phrases here. The greatest error would be to make them all of the same tenor. Also, like Dickinson, Loy will move from speaking concise abstraction to vivid metaphor using very few words. The high minded and the sensual nitty-gritty are juxtaposed.
My appreciation for this sequence grew tremendously as I constructed this performance. There are strong images, richly ambiguous expressions, and yes, lines that one could deconstruct at thesis length. I didn’t even have room to include the phrase from “Songs to Johannes” that I’ve chosen to title today’s selection, but I can never look at a plump rococo cherub again without recalling it. But the real gift I got, the unique gift of art, is that I could experience some of Loy’s pre-WWI moments in the hot-house nexus of Fascism and Modernism. “Pig Cupid” would probably be more authentic if this was performed in a woman’s voice, but alas my voice is what I have available today.
A couple of episodes ago as I presented a performance using words by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I mentioned that his prestige has fallen greatly.
How far? His Wikipedia article shares some snark:
“Longfellow was minor and derivative in every way throughout his career…nothing more than a hack imitator of the English Romantics.”
“Who, except wretched schoolchildren, now reads Longfellow.”
And Lewis Mumford sums up his significance with a dagger by declaring that Longfellow could be completely removed from the history of literature without much effect.
Furthermore, while there’s no modern bon mot to extract from the Wiki, Longfellow’s didacticism, a huge defect if detected in modern poets, is noted. Even during his lifetime, that rankled the Transcendentalists, always looking for the more inexplicable sublime.
Akin to one our Parlando Project principles, Longfellow took the idea of “other people’s stories” to what are now considered ridiculous lengths. Instead of writing of intense internal experiences as Emily Dickinson did, or expanding the fleshy personal into a democratic universal as Whitman did, Longfellow wrote about many cultures and translated poetry from many languages. The term “cultural appropriation” didn’t exist as such then, but Longfellow could easily be charged with it. His best-known epic poem, Hiawatha, which has left its imprint all over my region’s place names, is an earnest and non-hateful mishmash of the mid-19th century’s limited knowledge of indigenous Americans mixed with some contemporary to the time German romanticism. Longfellow would be a cultural criminal if he hadn’t already been reduced to a laughingstock.
OK, so what. All of these charges are true, but here’s what they leave out. To say Longfellow was “an American poet” is like saying Elvis Presley was a rock’n’roll singer. He proved that could be a thing, that an “American poet,” could connect successfully with a wide audience. He imitated Europeans and English romantics. Yes. Who the hell else was there to imitate? He wasn’t as original as Dickinson or Whitman. Yes, and neither is most any other poet you could name, now or then. And Mumford’s dagger? Alas, that can be said of most writers, because literature is a vast swarm of similar literary genetic ideas, but if there wasn’t a Longfellow, someone else would have to establish the idea of a popular American poet. That alternate-history someone else might have been good or bad, but it likely would have lead to some difference, even if the difference would be some other writer to rebel against.
I too wish Longfellow had tempered his didacticism, even if that is a large part of what made it possible for him to succeed. Most Victorian poets suffered from this, and it’s part of what the Modernists sought to break free from. To the degree that we are now Post-Modern, we can reassess this. Can poetry stand for something and still be art? If that is difficult to do, should it still be attempted?
Today’s piece is an example of Longfellow taking an explicit stand, and one could also suppose the charge of cultural appropriation could be leveled here too. In 1842, as opposition to slavery started to gather force in the United States, Longfellow wrote a short collection of poems on the “issue”—yes, human slavery, for and against, it was a debate. Longfellow explicitly released this collection for publication and distribution in support of the anti-slavery cause.
“The Witnesses” is from that collection. In it I think Longfellow transcends propaganda for this noble cause and demonstrates his effectiveness as a poet. He audaciously takes the notorious Middle Passage of over-sea slave shipment as his subject here. Though those travails were not his personal experience, the obscene losses at sea in the shipment of chained-up human beings is portrayed. I chose to further highlight Longfellow’s concluding phrase to all this. “We are the witnesses!” he writes, as the still shackled skeletons speak in his poem—but of course, un-romantically, their remains cannot speak. The poet, the reader, the performer, the listener, are the real witnesses here.
A short note. Wouldn’t you know it, after spending a good part of this year exploring the early 20th Century Modernists, I now have been using 18th and 19th Century sources more this summer. One of my favorite blogs, My Year in 1918 recently noted how I was tackling those WWI-era writers with my musical pieces for her readers who might want to sample that.
Well, I’ll return to those literary Modernists soon. After all, one of my principles here is to try to mix things up, to not be predictable or to always rely on my established favorites. But even today, I think I’ve been tipping my hat to another key early 20th Century American Modernist. As I was writing and performing the music for “The Witnesses,” with its variations on folk-style melodies that twisted between strains and finished with a louder cadence that didn’t resolve the multiplicity, I asked myself “Where’d that come from?” Early this morning it occurred to me: the composer Charles Ives, who was working at almost the same time as those literary figures.
I’ve been unable to do as much as usual with this project for the past month for several reasons. One of those reasons was a trip to Massachusetts, which if this was a normal podcast would have already generated episodes of the travelogue sort. However, this project is about two palpable things, music and words (mostly poetry), that can’t handily be walked along, though you can tour their containers and neighborhoods. Perhaps that trip, in an indirect way, will generate episodes yet this summer.
I was finally able to visit Amherst and the house where Emily Dickinson lived nearly her entire life—and today’s piece uses words from one of Dickinson’s poems—but long-time listeners will know that Emily Dickinson is already a favorite source for words here.
No house, no state, not even any time or country can explain the genius of Emily Dickinson. For reasons of brevity, I’ll try to summarize by saying that she created and entirely new form of poetry, powerfully compressed, elusive and still approachable, and wholly without precedent. The things scholars can trace as influences can be found in her poetry, but no one else made Emily Dickinson poems out of that same stuff. And her poetry has largely not become obsolete. Over 150 years after it was written it still seems modern, maybe even more modern today than it seemed to the early 20th Century Modernists 100 years ago.
I’m attracted to shorter poems that unpack into larger things, and “Ample make this Bed” is that. It’s short even by Dickinson standards, eight lines, 34 words. If one pauses to puzzle at this meaning, the imagery of the grave is what comes to many reader’s mind. It can be read as a shorter companion to one of Dickinson’s most famous poems “Because I could not stop for Death,” but with a bed replacing the longer poem’s subterranean dwelling. However, besides its greater concision, “Ample make this Bed” is using another poetic form, one different from her longer poem. “Ample make this Bed” is an aubade.
An aubade is a poem where two lovers wish for the morning to never arrive. Since it is, in fact, arriving, they will deny it, wishing for their night together to remain forever. By using this traditional poetic trope, Dickinson has thrown a rich ambiguity into her 34 words. Although Christian religious belief has its variations, the traditional judgement day is the day of eternal salvation and the universe’s perfection. “Ample make this Bed” compares the morning of divine perfection to the morning that separates the lovers in an aubade.
Is this a statement that the sensuousness of human love can be judged greater than eternal salvation? Or is it a puritan statement that any such love will face its final end and judgement? Could it even be both, balanced on a knife’s edge?
Look too at two of those 34 words describing possibilities of this bed. Its Mattress, where the body rests, may be straight. The body has straightaway lifetime. The Pillow, where the mind inside the braincase rests, may be round, a line that doesn’t end.
Dickinson puts her poetic thumb on the scale with the most beautiful line in the poem: “Let no Sunrise’ yellow noise.” The poem has been puritan with its rhymes until this line, although elusive near-rhymes are present in the first stanza. Now it lets in richness, a rhyme internal to the line, before proceeding to the final perfect rhyme in the last line. Besides the line’s sound, the dawn of eternal judgement is— what?—so much noise. If Keats’ second inversion is so, then beauty is truth—and Dickinson may be indicating her thoughts on the matter.
I suspect no poet in the past couple of centuries has suffered a greater decline in esteem as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This is not due to some scandal in his biography, for as far as I can tell he lived an admirable life, but artistically he’s been indicted with a number of crimes and misdemeanors. Before I go over those, let me briefly summarize the heights from which Longfellow has fallen.
He was the first self-sustaining professional American poet, the first to reach a considerable level of national and international success. By the middle of the 19th Century he was roughly as famous as Tennyson and Dickens, known and generally admired by his contemporary poets, and avidly read by a broad non-academic readership. He sustained this fame for several decades, and further, past his death in 1882. His general readership survived into my grandfather’s generation, and then through my father’s, and to a degree, into mine. Somewhere in the middle of the 20th Century, this engine of fame and readership broke down, and by now they’ve torn up the tracks of the Longfellow Line, and ragged grass has grown over the railbed.
I grew up reading Longfellow as the next generations might read Dr. Suess or Sandra Boyton in childhood. As I reached the age of ridicule, I could revel in Bullwinkle the moose in his parody poetry corner reciting Longfellow poems that I knew. Now Longfellow is probably not well enough known to satirize.
So, what are Longfellow’s poetic crimes? Meter and rhyme and a certain amount of antique diction—though we are willing to somewhat forgive the English romantics of the generation before Longfellow those afflictions. Earnestness and popularity, two things that no ironic 20th Century Modernist would wish to be accused of—but Robert Frost survived the later, while being seen (mistakenly) as expressing the former. Longfellow’s contemporary, Walt Whitman, explicitly sought to commit those earnestness and popularity crimes—though, as the old dis goes, for many years, Whitman couldn’t get arrested for it.
But Longfellow’s capital offense, the crime his reputation has been executed for, is simplicity and conventionality of thought. If I had to be Longfellow’s defense lawyer on this charge, perhaps I’d be reduced to throwing his case on the mercy of the court. Longfellow’s writing is often expressly didactic, and impersonal sentimental themes abound. Over and over again, he counsels perseverance and its seeming opposite, acceptance of impermanence. A more metaphysical poet would show his work and do more with incident to earn his conclusions. A more modern poet would make sure to make his life’s painful particulars his main subject.
Ironically, Longfellow’s life story is full of such material. Today we often think of poetry as an extension of memoir, and that writers earn their license to express things from their life stories. Longfellow would have had that license.
Some forms of Modernism believe that the best way to deal with complex emotion or great pain is to put it in the silences, in the blank spaces. The Modernists believed this would be more effective, because they are signaling with the constrained and minimalist expression that the thoughtful audience needs to seek for what is not said.
20th Century Modernists decorated their foreground with images, not antique forms of literary expression, and the complex message is encrypted in those images as if by steganography. Could Longfellow be doing something similar in the blank spaces between the lines of his hypnotic verse?
Today’s piece uses words from a late Longfellow poem “Morituri Salutamus,” a Latin title taken from the famous gladiator phrase “Those who are about to die salute you.” The bulk of this poem, written for the occasion of his 50th college class reunion when Longfellow was 68, is taken up with matter that might appear in a commencement speech or the granting of an honorary diploma. Its purported mode is lightly elegiac, advice to the young is given; but as it proceeds, Longfellow breaks into a not over-worn thought. He prepares for the poem’s final stanza by cataloging some few swan-songsters in literary history: Simonides, Chaucer, Sophocles.
Then in that final stanza, with supple verse, Longfellow concisely implores his aging generation (and himself) to continue to labor to create, to create better. That’s not a complex thought. Does it need to be? Is it easier or tougher to do because it’s a simple thought?
Here’s a short piece I wrote about the intimacy of sound. Part of the idea I used for this came from a remark Bobby McFerrin made about music: that we hear it because waves of sound touch a sensitive membrane inside our ear. How intimate is that!
Anatomically speaking, there is an accuracy there, but some would clarify, speaking strictly, that the brain is what gives us the sound we perceive, just as it does the seeing and so forth. Philosophers would also tell us that this distinction is important. They have made their case elsewhere, and I will not reiterate that here now.
There is a view that poetry too is about mental images. No doubt this is so. Language is full of strange ways of meaning to be understood. But all these exact pieces of information shouldn’t lead us to forget McFarrin’s point: when spoken, it’s still a sensual act. We hear poetry as information to some degree, but we hear it also as a musical sensation.
Our world is filled with information. We can sort it forever for meaning. But the feeling of our beloved’s voice on our ear is more than information or imagery. So is music. So is poetry.
Episodes may be farther apart this month, but I remind you that we have well over 200 audio pieces available in our archives for those looking for further listening.
July 4th is celebrated in the U. S. as Independence Day, the day that our congress signed a declaration of independence from the British Empire. I know from web stats that this project has an international audience. So, why celebrate a provincial event here?
Because the American Revolution was not simply a patriotic event. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that its initial battle was “the shot heard round the world.” What was so singular about it? It’s not merely as an anti-colonialist act—after all empires have had rebellious provinces forever, and empires always fall—but as an act that founded the premiere modern democratic republic. Overthrowing a colonial government, as the American patriots did, is not in itself a remarkable event. I don’t mean to denigrate the sacrifices, the risks, they took. I don’t mean to overlook the evils inherent in armed struggle. I won’t today seek to re-litigate the proximate issues of the Revolutionary War, with its details of commercial interests (including, yes, commercial interests in human properties) and debate the best tactics for redress of grievances. No, those are all important, but they are not what makes the American Revolution worth our unique attention today.
Americans did not replace a king with a president for life. They didn’t exchange one dictator for another. They were not, in the end, interested in only replacing a bad man with what seemed to be a good man, and job-done. They instead instituted an imperfect, constantly challenged and constantly changing structure based on human rights and rule by reason and popular consent. The struggles, the risks of the Revolutionary generation were indeed great, but they pale in contrast to the struggles and risks born by the successor generations who sought to maintain and improve those structures. So this is not a holiday honoring a person, a generation, or a concluding event, but instead marking a beginning.
Therefore, today’s piece was not written by an American, but by an Englishman who followed those revolutionary 18th Century events, but dealt with them on a spiritual plane, William Blake. The words come from his self-created 1793 book America, A Prophecy, which he wrote, lettered, illustrated, and printed himself. It’s not an account of the actual battles, and its characters are largely his own imaginary beings, but he never lets his visionary eye fall away from what he sees as the core struggle in the events. It’s spiritual—not in sense of its fantastic stage—but in the sense of its divining the essence of the battle: human beings being held back from their potential and dignity by corrupt structures.
In our worldly plane, the men who signed that declaration were all men, all white men, mostly men of property, and yes, we should remember that some of those men of property’s properties were indeed other men, women, and children. Blake explicitly understood that. In his prophecy, the essence that they are declaring for, the angelic forces that cry for freedom and dignity are for all nations, for all genders. If the American structure had to struggle for generations to refuse slavery and give full citizenship to women, Blake says that, in essence, and in the philosophy of their republican structures and statements, they have already declared those evils as tyranny, even if they don’t perceive that yet.
Ironically, it’s almost a reverse Faustian bargain. Instead of the devil tricking them to eternal slavery, freedom’s angels have them agreeing to dissolve their allegiance to a bad king—but the codicils they have signed declare for more than that! They’ve put their lives on the line to declare that humans have inalienable rights and that governments must work with the consent of the governed. How entirely can they understand what that entails? July 4th 1776 is a Thursday. Some are no doubt thinking of Friday; the men of foresight, to the possible course of the rest of the war; the wisest, perhaps, are thinking, of what, a generation ahead?
The sections I use from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy are spoken by an angelic character he calls Orc, who personifies the overturning of the old tyrannies. With the limits of our short-piece format I’ve tried to give some flavor of what Blake understood was being overturned by the American Revolution.
I’m not a fully-qualified Science/Speculative Fiction fan. I did read it when I ran into it as a young man. Dave Moore, whose voice, songs and keyboard playing you’ll hear from time to time here, read more of it. I’m not sure if Dave introduced me to Harlan Ellison’s work, but my memory is that he did loan me a copy of “Dangerous Visions” back in the Sixties. In that 1967 anthology, Ellison made the case that SF was the heir to a Modernist tradition of fiction using outrageous and unique situations—he was claiming SF could be more Kafka as L. Sprague de Camp.
It’s unlikely he was the only person thinking along those lines, but he certainly helped to popularize the idea at a time when an aging generation of SF writers, steeped in their pulp magazines and cents-per-word paychecks were in danger of losing touch with the younger post-WWII generation who were more likely to be college educated and experienced in some chemically enhanced inner-space traveling.
Ellison was an any-world-class curmudgeon. His non-fiction writing is full of enthusiasms and invective, with almost no middle ground. At times he reminds me of another late 20th Century artist/social critic: Frank Zappa. Both of them liked to remark that “The two most common elements in the Universe are hydrogen and stupidity.” Over the course of his career Ellison seemed to transform from a US-born angry young man punching mostly up to a more generalized misanthropy, where at appearances he would sometimes riff like an insult comic. He once called my late wife who he had just met at an event, “Cathy Carbohydrate.”
These two things worked together. SF had always had a darker side, and the border between it and the gothic strain of fantasy noir-ish mystery was crossed back and forth often. I believe a utopian, Transcendentalist wing of SF remains, but the terms SF and dystopia now seem to follow one another almost automatically.
Is this the artists’ fault or ours? A large question that.
Thursday night I read that Harlan Ellison had died. Friday I was booked to play with Dave. Friday morning, as I slept, I dreamed that Dave was showing me a binder full of typed manuscripts of stories he had written. As he flipped the pages I read parts of the stories. In style, they were the sort of thing a teenager just starting out would have written, so in the dream’s timeline they would have been written in the Sixties. In the dream, Dave, after learning of Ellison’s death, was telling me that Harlan Ellison had looked over these stories, and that Ellison didn’t like them very much, though he thought the last one had some promise. There was a short, encouraging note from Ellison scrawled in the margin on a page in the story. As I glanced up toward the middle of the page, I saw some dialog in which a character in the story was saying something. The character in this non-existent dream-story was named Octavia Butler.
Now I remind you: this is a dream. Dave never had Ellison critique any early stories he wrote. In the dream, these stories existed, in the waking world they don’t. But here’s the funny thing. I told you at the start that I’m not a fully-qualified SF fan. If you had mentioned Octavia Butler to me on Friday, the only impression I would have was that she was a writer. I wouldn’t have been able to name any of her work or have been able to place her in a genre. In the dream, I just thought it odd that Dave was using a writer’s name as a character in a story that the dream had had him writing 50 years ago. I was about to ask him why, when I woke up.
I biked off for breakfast and hurriedly came back to write “The Apotheosis of Harlan Ellison.” Looking for info I might use in my song, I searched on Octavia Butler from my dream. In the Sixties Butler was a young, unsure author, fearing that she was “ugly and stupid, clumsy, and socially hopeless." While she was still in school, Harlan Ellison, this man with a reputation as a scouring critic, had told her she had promise and should go to the Clarion Conference and present her work there, a suggestion that lead to her first publication in 1971.
Nothing there I could use in the song as it turns out, but strangely this was also nothing I knew when I had dreamed that dream early in the morning.
That afternoon, Dave and I recorded “The Apotheosis of Harlan Ellison.” In the waking world, Dave had not heard yet that Ellison had died.