David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: February 2003 (page 3 of 4)

Barks’s Successors

When I was a kid, and I mean a cheerful, oblivious 8-year-old who was gobbling down Donald Duck comics, I couldn’t tell the difference between Carl Barks’s artwork and the rash of those inferior artists who succeeded and co-existed with him. I knew that his writing was better, though Gold Key/Whitman’s endless reprinting of his painful “Riches, Riches Everywhere!” story occasionally put that into question. But out of a sheer lack of visual acuity, I couldn’t see why it was that his drawing was so much more skilled, so much more well-proportioned, so much more careful. There actually was one difference that allowed me to identify Barks, once I figured it out: Barks was the only artist to use pie-cut eyes for all of his characters. Quality of artwork? Mystery to me. I hear these days that Tony Strobl wasn’t such a bad artist compared to those who followed, but at the time I couldn’t even tell.

Then the wave of fans who’d been Barks fans came around, with Another Rainbow and Gladstone doing their best to reprint the choice stuff and find new work of a higher grade, instead of picking randomly and often rather badly. Daan Jippes, William Van Horn, and Don Rosa were the big names. They used pie-cut eyes. They were committed to recreating Barks’s particular vision of Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge, the nephews, and all the other incidental characters. Since by that point I’d exhausted the collected works of Barks, I gobbled down the new work, which seemed as good as Barks’s stuff. And I liked Rosa the most, because he seemed to buy into the greater mythology of it all; he was the most obsessed with past references, with dense storylines, with establishing new characters in the old continuum. The willingness to work with huge amounts of archival material as gospel and yet go no further (any sort of rewriting, much less “deconstruction”, was strictly verboten) may be summed up best by this Q&A of a Disney animator:

Q: Who’s your favorite Disney character?
A: Love Dewey, hate Huey.

Now I look back and I see it as a breed of fandom much like those in science fiction and mystery circles. Rosa got too caught up in writing sequels to old Barks stories and eventually got lost in his “Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck” project, which is so focused on cramming in offhand references from every Barks story ever written that the characters end up as bizarro-world versions of themselves, carrying out actions without a context. I didn’t care for it at the time and next to “The Son of the Sun” and “Cash Flow,” which are solid, entertaining yarns, “Life and Times” gets bogged down in hero worship and the self-imposed majesty of the project. It is not quite a story; it is closer to Harry Blamires’s Bloomsday Book.

Rosa is unapologetic. In The Comics Journal #183, he said:

Strangely enough people ask, “Aren’t you excited about creating your own characters?” And I say, “No, I want to use Barks’ characters!” That’s the thrill, not creating my own. It’s taking one of his characters and doing something else with it that I love. Because Barks used so many of them only once I can actually use these characters a second time!

I don’t think the basis of fandom is simply one of arrested adolescence; the scenes that you see on the internet, at conventions, and in specialist bookstores are a parallel culture to the more traditional literati, with completely different mores and notions of status. But the urge to so completely inhabit a world delineated by an idolized master creates a ghetto for such work pretty quickly. (Again, there are Joyce “scholars”, and there are Joyce “obsessives.”) There is a similar stigma that surrounds Gustav Janouch’s dubious Conversations with Kafka, which, nonetheless, contains quotes that “If Kafka hadn’t said, you really wish he had.”

I’m not going to pass judgment on Rosa’s approach, but I will say that for a while he succeeded. When I first read the early stories, they might as well have been new Barks stories as far as I was concerned. Maybe this speaks to a lack of discrimination in my prepubescent years; it doesn’t matter, since the new stories weren’t intended for an eye that would be first drawn to Rosa’s more crowded and worked-over art rather than the basics of plot and character. They were aimed at someone who would read them as though they were additions to the master’s oeuvre.

Lionel Trilling and Sigmund Freud

Wealth Bondage squares the circle on matters of authority and authenticity and in the third paragraph mentions Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity. The book is the height of Trilling’s concern with Freud, something that Leon Wieseltier mostly elided in The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent, the ostensibly definitive Trilling collection he edited. From Wieseltier’s selections, Trilling seems to think Freud a fellow critic; in Sincerity and Authenticity, he is a prophet. Speaking of Freud’s pessimism about resolving the dissonance of the psyche, he says:

Why did Freud bring his intellectual life to its climax with this dark doctrine? What was his motive in pressing upon us the ineluctability of the pain and frustration of human existence?

Freud, in insisting upon the essential immitigability of the human condition as determined by the nature of the mind, had the intention of sustaining the authenticity of human existence that formerly had been ratified by God. It was his purpose to keep all things from becoming ‘weightless’.

Like the Book of Job, it propounds and accepts the mystery and the naturalness of suffering…It is this authenticating imperative, irrational and beyond the reach of reason, that Freud wishes to preserve.

This is pretty odd stuff, but I do think it squares with Trilling’s worship of Matthew Arnold, and all the way back to Aristotle before him. Arnold exalted an elitist culture, and Trilling appears to pursue the same end through the route of psychodynamics: the rational and measured examination of the irrational structure of the mind, before which we stand in awe. Not coincidentally, literature comes out as the ideal way to do so. And after all, “So patrician an ethical posture cannot fail to outrage the egalitarian hedonism which is the educated middle class’s characteristic mode of moral judgment.” (Or, uncharitably speaking, “I have saved my job.”)

I’m not unsympathetic to the end result, but Trilling’s rescue of the Good and the Literary requires a peculiar God, one that holds out an endless problem to solve while offering little except the reward of further understanding. Thus, one who only holds an appeal for the most refined of intellects.

What does it offer for the rest of us? A return to an inherently “authentic” way of life, where we pay heed to the war in our heads by acknowledging it as our shared burden. Trilling’s position is that cultural alienation is indubitably bad and that only through a shared effort in the tradition of the pragmatists and mythmakers like Lewis Mumford is there hope. He would no doubt lack patience for Colin Wilson’s worship of the figure of the outsider if he deigned to mention Wilson at all. He seems to dismiss all forms of extreme and private individualism from Kierkegaard onwards.

The book, which was composed in 1970, concludes with an attack on the then-trendy but fading fast R. D. Laing and Norman O. Brown (and by way of them Thomas Szasz and Stanislaw Grof), and what Trilling views as their shared goal to escape through madness the tyranny of an inner self that demands to be mirrored in one’s actions, holding out as a reward the badge of “sincerity.” But Trilling’s route forward, through the apotheosis of the psychic struggle, differs mostly in number rather than approach: Trilling wants us to all go together. It’s hard to see how Trilling’s approach to Freud differs that much from the ancient bicameral brain described by Julian Jaynes, whose right half plays the role of a god to the “conscious” left half. Both paint our conscious minds as accepting the rulership of uncontrollable (but quite fascinating) internal forces. Ironically, Jaynes painted schizophrenia as the modern manifestation of a reversion to the proclaimed bicameral condition, which implies that the gospel of Freud may eventually lead down a very nasty road indeed.

The Jaynes/Trilling comparison is not precise, but the extremity of it should at least indicate a problem with Trilling, who at the end of the day is holding out a promise of meaning-in-struggle that is usually the domain of philosophers and demagogues. But I find it nearly unfathomable that Trilling reaches a reaffirmation of authenticity and breaks down the inner/outer self dissonance not by giving people more control but by taking it away.

[Postscript. A question I never got around to: what differs in Trilling’s American take on a Hegelian/Heideggerian do-as-we-say societal project? I’ve assumed he privileges literature, and that his affection for it over philosophy is self-perpetuating, but where does it originate?]

(The whole argument from which I quoted above is on pages 156-159, and is worth reading. I can’t excerpt it satisfactorily here.)

Feldman and Xenakis, Together at Last

A very entertaining conversation between the two, probably after having drunk too much coffee. Two main points of interest:

(1) They spend much of it talking past one another and seeming as incompatible as their respective music would suggest, Feldman with his “human” and “emotional” concerns and Xenakis with his “structural” and “architectural” ones.

(2) Xenakis is quite pithy about clearing out some of the baggage that muddies his creativity:

I prefer artistry instead of psycho-analysis because in psycho-analysis… In fact what you do is, you’re trusting on some traces of your memory, something different in your story, and when you think you have left that story, you’re building something different and it becomes your new past.

And this made me think of Stig Dagerman, who had more traces in his memory than most. (See link for details.)

Elias Canetti and Hermann Broch in Conversation

Hermann Broch to Elias Canetti in the 30’s, recollected by Canetti:

What you have done in your novel [Kant Catches Fire] and in The Wedding is to heighten fear. You rub people’s noses in their wickedness, as though to punish them for it. I know your underlying purpose is to make them repent. You make me think of a Lenten sermon. But you don’t threaten people with hell, you paint a picture of hell in this life. You don’t picture it objectively, so as to give people a clearer consciousness of it; you picture it in such a way as to make people feel they are in it and scare them out of their wits. Is it the writer’s function to bring more fear into the world? Is that a worthy intention? You believe in alarming people to the point of panic.

Canetti’s response, recollected by Canetti:

If I did, if I had really given up hope, I couldn’t bear to go on living. No I just think we know too little. I have the impression that you like to talk about modern psychology because it originated in your own back yard, so to speak, in a particular segment of Vienna society. It appeals to a certain local patriotism in you. Maybe you feel that you yourself might have invented it. Whatever it says, you find in yourself. You don’t have to look for it. This modern psychology strikes me as totally inadequate. It deals with the individual, and in that sphere it has undoubtedly made certain discoveries. But where the masses are concerned, it can’t do a thing, and that’s where knowledge would be most important, for all the new powers that are coming into existence today draw their strength from crowds, from the masses. Nearly all those who are out for political power know how to operate with the masses. But the men who see that such operations are leading straight to another world war don’t know how to influence the masses, how to stop them from being misled to the ruin of us all. The laws of mass behavior can be discovered. That is the most important task confronting us today, and so far nothing has been done toward the development of such a science.

It’s hard not to think that Canetti, writing forty years later, didn’t rewrite his insights to be more prophetic than they actually were; the bit about “another world war” seems awfully suspicious. Likewise, it seems likely that Canetti skewed Broch’s words so that Canetti’s response would seem more visionary and hopeful than what Broch had to offer. But the general positions are probably accurate: Broch as the individualist who is very lost about the state of the world and wishes he could go back to a less international, smaller time, and Canetti as the twentieth-century intellectual determined to address things on their own terms–or rather, what Canetti perceived as their own terms. He hadn’t read Max Weber or Emile Durkheim then, who were already dealing with exactly the issues Canetti claims aren’t being addressed, and as far as I know, Canetti never did read them. Canetti accuses Broch of parochialism in Broch’s attachment to Freud, but Canetti’s perimeters weren’t so different. He adhered to the implied tenets of the already decrepit Viennese literary scene, mostly an anti-establishment streak brought on through proximity to the destruction of Austria in the first World War. With Canetti it reached a nihilism to which he never fully admitted, but which marks itself in his work.

But first look at Broch. Here he sounds like the cautious elder, advising a sympathetic intellectualism that would open people to self-understanding. Canetti portrayed Broch as a weak, transparent man, but fitting an admirer of Freud, he adhered to an outlook on the world that prescribed clear values. Read The Sleepwalkers or The Unknown Quantity and his characters are archetypes: the scientist, the revolutionary, the party man, the artist. They behave in predictable ways, and the dilemmas they face clearly arise from their occupations.

This would seem fatalisic, but since Broch is pushing sociological points rather than a realistic story, it has the mythological status of Totem and Taboo more than the hopelessness of Theodore Dreiser or Mikhail Lermontov. The problem, and this is more of a necessary aspect of his work than a defect, is that his points all point backwards. Broch’s “weakness” is not any reticence to say bold things, but an inability to see any prospect of a golden age coming out of cultural and industrial modernism. In his last and best book, The Death of Virgil, he sets his titular artist up as a paragon of being, existing in ancient Rome but at the same time taking the material of his existence and casting it on his own plane of creativity. It is a clever way to turn away from the immediate , but it suggests that Broch never solved his problem. Virgil is on top of such a mountain of prestige, selflessly giving his works down to all beneath him, that Broch comes off (to use a vulgar example) as a proto-Harold Bloom figure, rhapsodizing about the days when the impact of state poets equalled their (supposed) breadth of understanding. This is why I called Broch a conservative.

Canetti wanted none of this. The disrespect of tradition and people of which Broch accuses him is real, and the urge to destruction persists from Auto-da-Fe, his novel of a bookish man and his plebeian housekeeper, who destroy each other, to Earwitness, a collection of heartless character studies. His description of “The Home-biter” is clinical:

The home-biter has an ingratiating manner and knows how to form new friendships. He is especially popular with ladies whose hands he kisses. Never getting too close for comfort, he bows, takes the hand like a precious object, and brings it the long way to his lips.

The entomologist’s detachment that Canetti displays distinguishes the book from similar efforts like Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator, but its consistent deployment across Canetti’s books makes his focus on the “masses” seem less like a psychological approach that would yield insights for the individual than a coldly utilitarian tactic. When Canetti did address the issues of the new “masses,” he did not take any steps to humanizing them. The tyrant at the end of Crowds and Power is as much a monster as any character he had conceived of. Sympathy is noticeably absent from the book, his major excursion into “sociology.” The book is strongest when describing the movements of the masses; it is weakest on attempting to give concrete evidence on how these assemblages form. Canetti resorts to folk legends and indigenous histories, but he lacks the ability to discriminate between, say, a matrimonial link, a blood link, and a legal link. It makes for a book unlike any other in sociology, but the problem you’re left with at the end is very different than the one Canetti wants to point out. Canetti tries to illuminate the movement of associative groups with an eye towards exerting more rational control over them. But the omission of the differentiation of individualistic motives makes the book feel like an erector set.

My interest in Canetti goes way back, and my attitude towards him has worsened as I’ve grown more mistrustful of those who would separate themselves from society in order to dissect it. Canetti is more skilled at it than any of Colin Wilson’s children, and the backwards-focused Broch may have been more scared than most by what Canetti represented, but damned if Broch’s accusation, even when tweaked by Canetti, doesn’t ring true. It’s melodramatic to see him as a anti-life force, as his young lover Iris Murdoch evidently did, but it probably took someone of Murdoch’s strength to reject his ethos as completely as she did, both personally and in her writing.

Would You Call Edsger Dijkstra “Popular”?

Paul Ford discusses the nameless obscurity of software designers, and some exceptions to the rule:

A few authors of software do not remain faceless, like Richard Stallman, who created the Emacs text editor and the GCC compiler, Donald Knuth, who created TeX, Larry Wall, the developer of Perl, or Guido von Rossum, the developer of Python. Most of these men (always men!) did their work below the interface, as designers of languages and systems, creators of tools that allow creation. To write a language, to abstract the computing process into a fundamental sequence of tokens which will be internalized and applied by others, is an individual act; thousands may add libraries, but Python is still Guido, Perl is still Larry, Emacs is RMS, and TeX is Knuth. The experts of abstraction who are able to catch into some zeitgeist do not lose their identities as their products become popular; their faces are not replaced by buttons. They exist in a textual realm of code, as authors of fundamental texts.

I would go further and argue that these exceptions have very little to do with the nature of what these people worked on and more to do with the cults of personality generated by the internet, and more specifically, the open-source movement. In its day, VisiCalc was a force majeure amongst software, in large part giving people a reason to buy the $3000 3.77 MHz IBM PC, and making its authors Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston minor demigods. The restrictions on size and function of software made it much easier for people to singlehandedly code revolutionary, or even just useful projects. He may not have changed the world, but Bert Kersey of Beagle Bros will remain a more meaningful name to me than any of the authors of the Top Ten Algorithms, if only for the cool PEEK and POKE chart for Applesoft Basic that he included in his packaging.

Even at that time, there was a split between the obsessive hobbyists like Kersey and even Bricklin and Frankston, and the DARPA-funded academic work that was used in constructing and running ARPANET. Jon Postel, nominal leader of the TCP/IP design effort, and the group he led have undoubtedly had more of a technical impact, but that hasn’t exactly translated into “popularity.” (To paraphrase an old saying, “Would you call God popular?”) Certainly at the time, Bricklin and Frankston had a much greater cultural impact, but they were playing a different game with different rules for fame. Standards efforts like TCP/IP, then and now, do not generate celebrities, but they do occasionally help to produce the zeitgeist, rather than just catch it. The same could be said for a research project like NCSA Mosaic, which had the biggest breakout since ARPANET.

Ford relates fame to the type of code at issue. Ford gives a fairly heterogeneous set of examples. Consider:

(1) Python is a clean object-oriented scripting language that takes some of the better ideas from some heavy-duty lower-level languages and puts them into a useful package.
(2) Perl is a huge mishmash of several earlier scripting languages (awk, sed, and assorted Unix shells). It may be, in the words of a professor, “the worst designed language ever,” but it’s very, very useful for text processing, among other things. Wall gave the people what they wanted, and who cares if the seams show?
(3) Emacs is a super-powerful text editor that contains its own implementation of LISP and can (and has) be extended to do just about anything. For Unix junkies, however, it has yet to fully supplant lean-and-mean text editor vi.
(4) TeX is a markup language that allows for detailed formatting of documents and can be compiled into Postscript, etc. It is the standard in academia for computer science papers.

Yet their authors do have a kind of celebrity, Stallman and Wall in particular. But their fame seems directly to the extent to which they are involved in the hobbyist side of the equation. Even Knuth sunk far more effort and time into supporting and promoting TeX than a computer science professor committed to an authoritative seven-volume history of computer algorithms could ever be expected to do. Likewise with Wall, who got out there and sold (metaphorically speaking) and supported Perl in a way that the authors of sed and awk never had. It makes them culturally significant, but they also run the risk of becoming more famous, less hermetic versions of the forgotten figures of Steven Levy’s Hackers, a weird, weird book that deserves an entry of its own for its uneasy combination of geek worship and technological revolution. These people have indeed wrestled the zeitgeist, but their code, for the most part, is not fundamental: it is ephemerally contemporary.

The situation puts authors of algorithms and low-level abstractions like assemblers in a bad spot, since they can’t really “sell” their work. The easiest way, it seems, is to work your name in somewhere. Academic decorum prevented Anthony Hoare from calling top-ten algorithm quicksort “Hoaresort,” but Linus Torvalds has most of his name in Linux, and though the kernel is a tiny percentage of the code, the OS will always be identified with him. It’s a funny sort of fame though, since all I know about the authors of the Lempel-Ziv-Welch (LZW) compression algorithm is that their names are Lempel, Ziv, and Welch.

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