Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Cyclopean Edifice of Words Appertaining to ye Eldritch Scribe H.P. Lovecaft

Anybody who's spoken to me for any length of time in the last seven years will have some idea of my fascination with Herman Melville. If I'm being honest with myself, I'll call it what it really is: a crush. A mancrush. A braincrush. A soulcrush. I've called Moby-Dick a religious experience. It is the third testament: beyond the Torah and beyond the Gospel sounds the Whale. I'll vociferate against any abridged version of the book, as the interminable descriptions of whales and the tools and methods of the 1840s fishery aren't only necessary, they comprise some of the best parts of the novel. I sit in awe of Melville's inspired profusion, his roving, veritably apophenic eye for parable and analogy, his ecstasy, the tenacity with which he put a lens to the unresolvable ambiguities of human life. I've read four of his novels, a decent-sized chunk of his poetry, and most of his short fiction. I have no desire to depart from this life before I've gone over his entire corpus. (Yesterday I happened into a used book and record store near South Street with a copy of White Jacket on the shelf. It shall be next on the list.)

But Melville isn't the author nearest to my heart. That distinction belongs to Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

From The Haunter of the Dark: And Other
Grotesque Visions,
illus. John Coulthart

More than anything else, it was matter of timing: Lovecraft was the author who made the greatest impression on me during my teenage years. (John Steinbeck is a rather distant runner-up.) Somewhere on the borderline of middle school and high schoool, when I was still heavily into Magic: the Gathering (ask me later how I feel about the return of the Eldrazi, by the way) I tried never to miss an issue of InQuest magazine—once Wizard's sister-publication, treating CCGs and tabletop RPGs. It was in the pages of InQuest I first read about Cthulhu, the Mi-Go, and their neurotic New England chronicler. Most of the issues in my collection carried ads for the latest expansion set for the Mythos CCG, and the occasional "how to" article about setting the tone of a tabletop RPG session referred to Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu RPG. But it was the magazine's whimsical humor pieces (often penned by editor Rick Swan) that most caught my attention. Once a year or so, InQuest conducted what might be called the print precursor to the ComicVine character battle thread, pitting famous sci-fi and fantasy characters against each other in single combat. I remember very few of them: Paul Altrides (Dune) vs. Luke Skywalker (Star Wars). The marine (DOOM) vs. a Predator (from Predator). King Arthur vs. Elric (of Michael Moorcock's novels). One of the matchups was Sauron (Lord of the Rings) vs. Lovecraft's Cthulhu. I can still paraphrase how that one went:

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Out of the Gutenberg Galaxy

Too busy screwing together Ikea (company motto: "you buy it, you break it") furniture to do any writing or much anything else today. Here are some excerpts from Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy, which I've had a hard time putting down lately.


Scribal culture could have neither authors nor publics such as were created by typography.

Although we have seen with Hajnal a good deal about the scribal making of books, the assumptions and attitudes of authors about books and readers has not been looked at. Since it was precisely these assumptions that were to undergo very great changes, it is necessary to specify them, however succinctly. For this purpose the work of E. P. Goldschmidt, Medieval Texts and Their First Appearance in Print, is indispensable. His study of the habits and procedures of authorship under manuscript conditions leads him to conclude (p. 116):
What I have tried to demonstrate is that the Middle Ages for various reasons and from various causes did not possess the concept of “authorship” in exactly the same significance as we have it now. Much of the prestige and glamour with which we moderns invest the term, and which makes us look upon an author who has succeeded in getting a book published as having progressed a stage nearer to becoming a great man, must be a recent accretion. The indifference of medieval scholars to the precise identity of the authors whose books they studied is undeniable. The writers themselves, on the other hand, did not always trouble to “quote” what they took from other books or to indicate where they took it from; they were diffident about signing even what was clearly their own in an unambiguous and unmistakable manner.
The invention of printing did away with many of the technical causes of anonymity, while at the same time the movement of the Renaissance created new ideas of literary fame and intellectual property.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

McLuhan, the new tribalism, & the equivalence of thought and action

Umberto Boccioni, La città che sale

I was first properly introduced to Marshall McLuhan in 2013. I already knew his name then—remembered a couple of lectures by a couple of American history and media studies instructors who informed the class that the medium was the message, and it was this cat McLuhan who said so. And we were told what this meant was that the medium by which content is delivered matters more than the content itself—but before any of us in the class could apprehend the full span of the theory's ramifications, we were already on the next topic, the Vast Wasteland, the Vietnam coverage, etc. (There was a lot of material to cover and we were on a schedule, after all.)

But in 2013 I was doing some research for a writing project and landed on McLuhan's 1969 interview with Playboy. I read it from start to finish, and then went outside and smoked many cigarettes.

It was nasty medicine, and I had a hard time digesting it. Given my situation—cobbling together a second novel, working at a Quaker library that was in the process of being dismantled, getting short story after short story rejected by literary magazines that nobody who isn't trying to get a short story published has ever heard of, and noticing that people only really paid attention to what I was writing when I was writing about video games they'd played—McLuhan's confident postmortem of literate culture and predictions of a electronically entangled global tribe seemed, on both accounts, supernaturally prescient and profoundly disturbing. I wanted to dismiss his views as the wet dreams of another smug tech millennarian, but it wouldn't make them any less right. I felt much the same way about McLuhan as I did his contemporary (and fellow Catholic) Andy Warhol—I hate Warhol's art, but can't declaim it as anything less than the pure and perfect artistic product of post-WW2 Western capitalism.

Later on, rereading the last portion of the interview and looking over some other McLuhan-related materials, I discovered that this man, the patron saint of Wired, was in fact a veritable Luddite. The very soothsayer of the digital revolution foresaw what was coming and proclaimed it to the world—though he loathed it. He wasn't a tech evangelist—he was more like a doomsday prophet. My grudging respect for McLuhan turned to admiration. Yes, as a tech skeptic, I found him at heart an unexpected ally—there was that. But here was an investigator, a seeker who wanted to understand the world, who, though the findings of his "probes" appalled him, refrained from letting personal sentiment and prejudice color his conclusions and guide his course. That kind of intellectual honesty requires great courage. (I am reminded somewhat of the theologian Nils Runeberg in Jorge Luis Borges' "Three Versions of Judas.")

While McLuhan was the person who coined the term "global village" to characterize of our new wired world, today we often load the phrase with idyllic or utopian connotations that McLuhan did not intend. Quite the contrary. During a 1977 interview on TV Ontario's The Education of Mike McManus (incidentally McLuhan's final television appearance), the host asks: "Way back in the early fifties, you predicted that the world was becoming a global village. We'd have global consciousness. And I'm wondering now, do you think it's happening?"