Max Headroom is the “computer animated” TV host of the 1985 UK music video series The Max Headroom Show, the 1985 telemovie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future, and the 1979 science fiction series Max Headroom. Air quotes because he’s not computer animated, he’s actor Matt Frewer with bits of latex and foam stuck to his face. Computer animation cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per minute in 1985, and Victorian chimney-sweeper logic kicked in: “we could theoretically solve this problem with technology, but it’s cheaper to send an eight-year-old boy up the flue.” Some people bemoan that computers are stealing our jobs. Max Headroom is a reminder that we once stole theirs.
Max’s character is jarring and wrong, stuttering and repeating himself while reeling off corny Dangerfield-esque one-liners. The idea is that he’s a human consciousness digitized imperfectly – a broken half-a-human. You can’t be at ease while watching him, it’s like eating dinner off a plate with a huge crack in it, and this made him unforgettable. He is a vivid example of glitching and ugliness used for artistic effect (note the similar stuttering used in Paul Hardcastle’s “19”).
Max is a one-joke character, but the joke was heard all over the world. He’s widely parodied. There’s a Hello Kitty quality to Max Headroom: everyone recognizes the character, but nobody’s really sure where he comes from or where they first saw him. For many, Max Headroom just exists, floating freely in conceptual quintessence. Despite this, the character was created out of a very specific set of circumstances.
In 1981, video killed the radio star, and stations such as MTV needed hosts to talk between records and sell products. Unlike the radio hosts of the past (who were heard but not seen), video jockeys needed to look attractive. They couldn’t, for example, be a man “shaped like whatever container you pour him into” (in Patrice O’Neal’s immortal roast of chubby radio host Jim Norton).
While most stations wanted their hosts to be hip, the UK’s Channel 4 took a different path and made their host a weird, uncool goober. Max Headroom won’t ever become lame: he’s already maximally lame. He won’t lose dignity when he plugs a sponsored product: he never had any to begin with. Rock stars will want to talk to him: he’ll made even the most incompetent cokehead seem lucid.
Nonetheless, it’s not the music video show that made Max Headroom famous. I don’t know when it occurred to Channel 4 that the character would work for a character-driven drama. But the result was an interesting cyberpunk film that owes a lot to Blade Runner and Brazil, although made for far less money.
The plot takes place in England of the very near future, which could be described as “Margaret Thatcher, but more”. London is as black and filthy as the inside of a cancerous lung. Thugs lurk in the shadows, ready to kidnap you and sell your organs to body banks. Industry is ferocious, a machine ratcheted up to such a degree that nobody notices that its fuel has become human lives. There are televisions everywhere, blaring demented idiocy.
The plot involves domineering entertainment conglomerate Channel 23, who has a new advertising method called “Blipverts”. Traditional 30-second ads have the drawback of annoying viewers and causing them to change the channel. Blipverts allow for an ad to be compressed into a few seconds of high-intensity audiovisual stimulation. Ratings are through the roof. However, some people experience side effects: they explode.
There’s some hilarious boardroom scenes of Channel 23’s execs trying to defend Blipverts (we’re probably supposed to connect this to how tobacco companies behaved when their products were revealed as dangerous). Surely some percentage of the population can be expected to randomly explode, right? It’s not statistically significant. Anyway, if you explode after watching an ad, isn’t it your fault?
Channel 23’s star reporter Edison Carter, gets “too close to the truth”, and suffers a tragic motorcycle accident. However, he’s supposed to appear on air, and a clumsy, bungled attempt to digitize Carter’s brain results in an odd lifeform that immediately utters the words “Max Headroom”, because that was the final thing he saw. Writer George Stone has said that Max Headroom caused British firms to spend three million pounds relabeling the “Max Headroom” signs in public garages to “Maximum Height”, due to its association with the character.
The movie is not a high budget one. It’s portrayal of futuristic London as an industrial wasteland is a concession to a lack of money (in a fortunate stroke of luck, they were able to shoot in Beckton Gasworks, where Stanley Kubrick filmed certain scenes of Full Metal Jacket). But it nails the things that are cheap: acting, and tone. A grungy mood soon appears. And the camera-work has an aggressive, edge-pushing quality that’s as jarring as Max Headroom himself. For example, consider the terrifying way the villainous Channel 23 head Grossman is framed. Sharply underlit, and subtly distorted by bubbled lensing in a way that emphasises actor Nickolas Grace’s exotropia. He looks terrifying, an all-seeing one-man Panopticon.
Max Headroom doesn’t actually get to do a lot in the movie. The same holds true for the American TV series: the episodes explore some science fiction conceit (), and Max is just a framing device. But isn’t that what a VJ is supposed to do? Introduce stuff, and get out of the way?
It’s a bit poetic to make Max Headroom impotent and powerless, a talking head. People like Edison Carter and Theora got to have all the fun, running around and solving crimes. Max is frozen in place, transfixed like a glitching, jittery butterfly on a pin, telling idiotic jokes. Matt Frewer was wont to complain about how annoying his makeup and prosthetics were (“like being on the inside of a giant tennis ball”), but the character itself was just as restricted by its role as a video host, introducing the action without ever being a part of it. VJs are like eunuchs guarding the sultan’s harem – yes, they know all about the deed, but they’ll never do it for themselves. It’s no surprise that the career breeds dissatisfaction, and a search for something more.
The “mockbuster” is an fascinating entity: a low-budget imitation of a famous movie designed to fool you into purchasing it instead of the real thing. Major Hollywood films have print and advertising budgets in the hundreds of millions, and just like harmless moths copy the markings of venomous wasps, a fraud can exploit this publicity blitz without spending a cent in advertising itself. A rising tide lifts all boats, but it also lifts turds.
Mockbusters are frequently surrealist masterpieces without even meaning to be. They try so hard to be safe and generic and familiar that they always end up being creepy, amusing, freakish, and pathetic. It’s cinematic uncanny valley. You might say that mockbusters follow the rules so hard that they break them.
2002’s Max Magician and the Legend of the Rings is an archetypal mockbuster with a can’t-fail concept: Lord of the Rings was making money, Harry Potter was making money, so if you combined them in one movie, you’d make money squared. Money times money. Hopefully it worked, because the director clearly had crack debt times crack debt.
There were a few problems: no budget, no actors, no set designers, no producers, and the fact that nobody involved in the movie seems to know what they’re doing and some actually appear to be held on set at gunpoint. But otherwise, they were good to go.
The result is an experience that has to be seen to be believed: a disastrous collage of fantasy cliches sewn together with the brutality of a serial killer’s skin mask. A young amateur magician called Max Majeck finds a doorway to a fantasy world under attack by a guy in a shitty Halloween costume. He saves the day by slowly reading incantations out of a magic book, devastating spells such as “slowly levitate a few sticks of wood” and “cause several mice to appear on the villain’s shirt”. Watch out, Stephen Strange.
Everything is bungled with utter ineptness. The fantasy realm is clearly just the woods outside someone’s house. The movie introduces an old, wise mentor to provide plot exposition, forgets about him, introduces a second old, wise mentor, and then forgets about him. There’s a character called “Mr Tim”, and he refers to his wife as “Mrs Tim” because they couldn’t be bothered to come up with a woman’s name.
Like any watchable bad movie, it assails you with badness in every direction at once, so much that you can’t even focus. Take the elves. They have pig ears. And the pig ears don’t match their skin tone. And the queen of the elves is clearly played by the same actress who plays Max’s mom. And she has a strong Midwestern American accent.
The audio should be singled out, as it’s exceptionally bad. The music is laughably inappropriate, and clearly comes from a free stock library. Huge swathes of the dialog is ADR’d, suggesting that their original audio got spoiled somehow. They must have rewritten the dialog at this stage, too, because the lips rarely match the voices.
I do have to correct some misunderstandings the internet has about Max Magician. The first is the claim (featured on imdb) that “There are no rings.” No, there are definitely rings in this movie. Mr Tim’s book references magic rings. Dagda steals a green ring from Queen Belphobe.
The second is that it’s just a ripoff of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. That undersells the film’s ambition. It also rips off The Chronicles of Narnia (a talking mouse character + children travelling between worlds), The Neverending Story (an enchanted book), and Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (the goblins-bickering-in-the-closet scene at the end.)
It’s nevertheless good “make fun of bad movies” fodder. You would do well to go into Max Magician armed with a few basic facts about it’s production, such as the fact that the weapons are literally pool noodles. Or that the talking mouse Crimbil is actually portrayed by two different mice after the first got eaten by a snake. (You can notice this on-screen because the two mice don’t quite match in color: OG Crimbil is slightly gray, while Emergency Backup Crimbil is slightly brown. Can you identify which Crimbil appears in which scene? Make a drinking game out of it. )
Mockbusters are designed to be disposable. Strangely, this one picked up a second life after pop culture commentary Youtube channel Red Letter Media tried (and failed) to review it. Their video was corrupt and displayed 86 minutes of static. I think my video’s corrupt, too. It displays 86 minutes of shitty movie.
(Ironically, “mockbuster” is itself a linguistic mockbuster, riding on the fame of two prior words – mockery, and blockbuster – to achieve its affect.)
This is a book of nightmares. It can be read online, but should it? You might regret it. It’s up there with “Loving Your Beast” (a zoophile’s guide on how to have sex with your dog) as one of the most excruciating things on the internet.
Who do you love more than anyone else in the world? Think of that person. Now picture being chained to their bloated corpse- forever. What was once my beloved body is now a corpse. I can only describe the feeling it gives me as supernatural revulsion. It’s unthinkable. Flabby, misshapen, atrophied, etiolated. When my legs kick and jerk me around, they seem to me like something indescribably loathsome. Not warm and mammalian or even reptilian. It’s like a crab or a spider. Like the twitching and jerking leg pulled off of a spider. A thing with no soul. Cold and hideous, harrowing, ghoulish. A grotesque, obscene, and hideous thing. It horrifies me and tears at my sanity. Everything inside of me screams to get away from it. How would you feel chained to your beloved’s ghastly, distended corpse? Sometimes when I am around others I feel as if I am struggling not to flinch with tarantulas crawling on my neck in my efforts to hide from everyone the torture I’m enduring.
It began (and ended) with a thread on motorbike forum Adventure Rider. A user with the ominous handle of OZYMANDIAS announced his intent to ride from Seattle to Argentina on a Kawasaki KLR650, his last big hurrah before law school.
He crashed just outside Acapulco, and woke up in a Mexican hospital, unable to move his legs. OZYMANDIAS (real name: Clayton Schwartz) had rolled the dice in the cripple lottery and won T4 paraplegia, meaning his spine was broken below the fourth thoracic vertebrae. Put a finger on the back of your neck, and then walk it down about four inches. Then imagine not using anything below that point – not even the smallest muscle – for the rest of your life.
“I am two arms and a head, attached to two-thirds of a corpse.”
Two Arms and a Head is not a biography but a tortured shriek. It transcends merely uncomfortable and becomes the equivalent of having the contents of a clogged drain oozing down your optical nerves. It’s repulsive and existentially horrifying, like a nonfiction Metamorphosis where Gregor Samsa loses two legs instead of gaining four.
It is not an “inspirational” book…except insofar as it inspires one to never get on a motorcycle. Then it’s the War and Peace of inspirational books.
It’s a wildly successful piece of writing, however, because it accomplishes one of the main goals of the craft: taking an alien experience and making it seem familiar with words. There are things about disability that you’d never think about unless you were there, and Clayton communicates these in unsparing detail.
Losing your body from the armpits down? As bad as that sounds, the reality is worse: Clayton hadn’t lost his body, it’s still there, he just can’t use it. He’s attached to 150 pounds of ballast, a parasitic tumor that makes up 70% of his mass. He repeatedly fantasizes about sawing his useless lower half away. He envies bilateral amputees.
Clayton piles on stomach-turning detail as to how he goes to the bathroom (or shits himself), how he gets into a car (with difficulty), how he deals with with neuropathic pain (he waits for it to stop), etc. He’s a prisoner in his own body. Every activity he used to take for granted is now as mechanically complex as the erection of Stonehenge. Every activity he used to enjoy is now impossible except as a parody of its former self. Going to the beach? That now means sitting on the shore and watching others swim. Building a house? That now means giving advice and passing nails and screws while someone else does the work. Having sex? Denotationally possible, but connotationally not.
The world is designed for the abled. More than that, nature designed us to be abled. He makes a striking analogy: imagine Manhattan was cut in half with a huge saw, and the lower half thrown away. Obviously everyone in lower Manhattan is dead, but upper Manhattan would suffer greatly, too: the fallout from broken power lines, roads to nowhere, destroyed sewage and drainage networks, etc would be colossal. Half a body doesn’t equal half a body, it equals something less, because that half was designed to work as part of a whole.
Most authors from the “disability lit” genre (Nick Vujicic, Sean Stephenson, etc) produce cheerful “I’m disabled and taking life by the balls!” motivational fluff. They’re upbeat, optimistic, accepting of the hand they were dealt, taking each day as it comes, and brimming with peppy slogans. The only disability is a closed mind!
In light of that, it’s genuinely shocking to read a disabled person liken their body to “a living, shitting, pissing, jerking, twitching corpse”. The book’s precis is that disability is a fate worse than death, and that anyone trying to say that this kind of life is worth living is delusionally misguided. He doesn’t want to motivate, just educate. He spends a lot of time kicking disability rights advocates (metaphorically, I mean), who he sees as trying to force a lifestyle – a deathstyle – upon people in his condition, when the most kind thing is euthenasia.
Often there is nothing more unpopular than the truth. I will not make many friends with this book, but that is my lot in exposing many things people would prefer not to see or know about.
Another difference between this and other disability lit books is that Clayton doesn’t really try to be likeable.
I’m sorry to say that, but it’s true. Sometimes he’s insufferably pretentious. The book opens with a literal preamble that name-drops Bertrand Russell, Soren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Then we get an angsty rant about religion that sounds like it’s from an atheist teenager’s Typepad in 2007. “The fawning, sycophantic, unquestioning, swooning, pitiable way so many worship God is enough to make me puke.” A fair amount of the book comes off as one-up-manship over other, less disabled people. “Oh, you think you’re disabled? You have no idea!”
Yes, Clayton was more disabled than some. But less disabled than others. He had some reason to be thankful. He only broke his T4 vertebra. A little higher, and he would have lost his arms as well, then the book would simply be called “Head”, and it would either not exist or be about ten times shorter due to the difficulty of composing.
And quadriplegia would have made it far more difficult for him to enact the final part of the plan. I suppose I should spoil it. Clayton’s case is fairly famous, after all.
This is not a book, but a suicide note. There’s a Wile E Coyote moment when you realise intends to kill himself, where it doesn’t register as real, and then he plunges you off a cliff.
There are things in the final part of the book that I never thought I’d read. He describes the knife entering his stomach in as much detail as he can, which is a lot. Clayton was wrong in the end: his disability did give him something denied to a normal person: he was able to write lucidly about stabbing himself while doing it, without overwhelming or short-circuiting from pain. The book’s final pages are extremely disconcerting: he wavers between nihilism and cheerfulness, sanity and loopiness, and the book simultaneously ends and crashes to a stop.
It’s very rare to see a man’s mental stage fluctuate so nakedly on the page. It reminds me of Louis Wain, who was an artist who drew cats. In his early years, they were naturalistic portraits, and he made a good amount of money selling them as postcards But as schizophrenia took hold of his brain, the cats became twisted and terrifying: resembling owls, monsters, demons. In his final years, they were little more than abstract explosions of light.
…Or so the common story of Louis Wain goes (some art historians now dispute it). But it’s what I thought of as I watched Clayton die: his vocabulary shrinks (or bleeds out), he makes increasingly frequent grammar and punctuation errors, and he becomes preoccupied with the bottom parts of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. He feels hot. He’s sweating. He feels dizzy. And then…
It’s a grim story, but a true one. And most importantly, it’s one that’s going to happen again. Other people are caught in Clayton’s situation. What can and should be done about them? What are the limits of life we should tell people to accept?
If nothing else, it’s worth remembering Clayton, the man who tried to find a silver lining on a cloud that covered the entire sky.
“I’m going to go now, done writing. Goodbye everyone.”
In 1938 Orson Welles directed Citizen Kane, consistently cited as the greatest movie of all time. As Roger Ebert observed, not every critic agrees that Citizen Kane is the best, but the ones that don’t can’t agree on a film to replace it.
His subsequent career was a skyrocket, ie, it spent most of its trajectory going down. His later films were largely financial failures, and soon stopped having finances to fail with. 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons grossed $1 million on a $1.1 million budget. 1948’s Macbeth was made for $800,000: it never saw wide release.
Welles spent the latter part of his life as professional box office poison, self-financing his films through residuals and bit parts. He’d become (vide Scott Walker) a man everyone wanted to know and nobody wanted to write a check to. Critical reaction to his films was also cooling: you can read contemporary critics struggling with his work, clearly giving it shot after shot, not because the material deserved it but because it was directed by the auteur who, a long time ago, had made Citizen Kane.
Ebert’s review of Othello reads like a mechanic detailing a car: he explains its ins and outs and production hurdles and obscure details about the set design…and you still have no idea whether he likes it or not. Or rather, you do: when a critic reviews a Great Director(tm), silence means something.
Gregory: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”
In 1945, Welles was given a column at the Washington Post. For $350 a week he produced freewheeling, unfocused, unreadable scandal columns containing insular Hollywood gossip, some of which were potentially libelous (“the fascist salute was invented by the Hollywood film director C.B. DeMille”). The column lasted for one year, and became an early example of how the formula of famous person + massive platform simply cannot fail to fail to succeed.
Orson Welles finished his career the way he’d started it: by using his voice to sell things. In 1970, an advertising agency tapped him to record ads for various consumer goods, and in case he thought he still had dignity to lose, they made him audition for the part.
“An ad agency called and asked me to do a voice over. I said I would. Then they said would I please come in and audition. ‘Audition?’ I said. ‘Surely to God there’s someone in your little agency who knows what my voice sounds like?’ Well, they said they knew my voice but it was for the client. So I went in. I wanted the money, I was trying to finish Chimes at Midnight.”
The frozen pea ad is notorious. Even to this day, it has a cringeworthy aura to rival LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE and so on. Orson Welles gets annoyed and quibbles with his director about what he’s to say and how he’s to say it. The funniest part is that he has to take this seriously at all: the magisterial, stentorian voice that used to orate Shakespeare is reduced to selling frozen goods. For money. The peas aren’t the only thing on ice.
In the Youtube era these ads went viral yet again. “We Will Sell No Wine Before Its Time” has probably been viewed more times than any of Welles’ actual films, save Citizen Kane. Welles slurs incomprehensibly. I’m not sure how much wine they had left: he appears to have drunk their entire stock to dull the pain.
On one level, it’s upsetting to see Welles reduced to this, a prize race horse’s bones melted down to glue. And it’s also jolt to see what’s behind the curtain of the TV ad world. I don’t know, I guess on some level we still believe that Santa is real, that pro wrestling isn’t fake, and that the guys on TV mean what they say.
But these sad, sad tapes are happy, at the same time. Welles might have been washed up at the end of his life…but is that really a bad thing? At least being washed up means you used to be in the water, once upon a time. Most of us spend our lives standing on the shore.
At the risk of sounding like a dril tweet, you gotta respect Valerie Solanas. She 1) saw a problem and 2) did everything in her power to fix it.
Of all the feminist theorists scribbling about society’s war on women, Solanas was one of the few who really, truly meant it. She’s in a class with Elliot Rodger, Fred Phelps, and Pol Pot: true believers who make you feel as small as an insect because (agree or disagree) they shed blood for their beliefs as you’d never do for yours. Reading SCUM Manifesto is like “reading” the shattering wall of light from a plutonium bomb explosion at ground zero: it’s hard not be overwhelmed by the white-hot intensity of Solanas’s faith.
“To call a man an animal is to flatter him; he’s a machine, a walking dildo.”
The problem is men. The solution is no more men. The way Solanas sees it, Eve needs to take that stolen rib and plunge it back into Adam’s chest, sharp end first.
In SCUM Manifesto (which is not titled The SCUM Manifesto, the Scum Manifesto, or any of the internet’s misspellings) Valerie Solanas outlines the failings of male-governed society and proposes radical action. You may have heard that SCUM stands for “Society for Cutting Up Men”, but that’s wrong. Solanas doesn’t want to cut up men, precisely. She feels that men can be rationally convinced of their uselessness, at which point they’ll “go off to the nearest friendly suicide center where they will be quietly, quickly, and painlessly gassed to death.”
Is the book meant as satire? It could be read that way. The rest of Solanas’s life is a compelling argument that it isn’t.
Much of the book is clearly an inversion of Freudian psychoanalysis (it proposes that men suffer from “pussy envy”, and so on). But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Solanas is insincere: serious ideas are often formulated in the shadow of their opposites (Hegelian antithesis, etc.) I think it’s most likely that SCUM Manifesto contains extreme versions of Solanas’s true beliefs. As an academic and a one-time actress, she would have known of Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty” method: exaggeration; cranking up the volume; overloading the senses; shoving actors and audience alike past their comfort zone. SCUM Manifesto might be a Book of Cruelty, intended to shift the Overton window so that milder versions of SCUM would be politically viable. Or she may have been crazy. Or crazy like a fox. To be a chauvinist pig, she wasn’t a fox in any other sense.
What’s often overlooked about this book is Solanas’s utopian visions of the future. SCUM Manifesto is basically a misclassified science fiction novel: Solanas foresees a world containing ATMs, electronic ballots, automation, UBI, luxury communism, the end of death itself, and…Tiktok?
“[FOOTNOTE: It will be electronically possible for [a male in the future] to tune into any specific female he wants to and follow in detail her every movement. The females will kindly, obligingly consent to this, as it won’t hurt them in the slightest and it is a marvelously kind and humane way to treat their unfortunate, handicapped fellow beings.]”
That’s no way to talk about Belle Delphine’s subs! Solanas stresses that we (meaning her 1970s readers) would be enjoying all these things already if it wasn’t for men ruining everything. It reminds me of those dubious graphs on atheist message boards, where humanity’s rising progress gets bodyslammed from the top rope by the CHRISTIAN DARK AGES. We’d be colonizing the galaxy by now, if Constantine I hadn’t gotten baptised. Although we are, when you think about it. A one-planet-sized portion of the galaxy.
SCUM Manifesto can also be read as comedy. I’m not joking: Solanas is hilarious. Her prose is a mixture of histrionic sincerity, phrasing as odd as an Achewood comic, and 1960s “groovy, man” lingo that’s impossible to imitate and impossible not to laugh at. Why didn’t anyone tell me it was this funny?
“SCUM is too impatient to wait for the de-brainwashing of millions of assholes. Why should the swinging females continue to plod dismally along with the dull male ones? Why should the fates of the groovy and the creepy be intertwined?”
“The sick, irrational men, those who attempt to defend themselves against their disgustingness, when they see SCUM barrelling down on them, will cling in terror to Big Mama with her Big Bouncy Boobies, but Boobies won’t protect them against SCUM; Big Mama will be clinging to Big Daddy, who will be in the corner shitting in his forceful, dynamic pants.”
Surely Solanas wasn’t totally serious. Surely nobody could write “forceful, dynamic pants” and actually mean it.
Or could she? That’s the fascinating thing about the SCUM Manifesto: it’s as forceful as an anvil to the face…and nobody’s sure what it means. To anti-feminists, it’s a stick to beat feminists with. To feminists, it’s variously a reactionary horror from the 60s; a brilliant satire like A Modest Proposal; or a work to be approached with sympathy and compassion, containing the howl of a woman pushed to the edge and then far, far, over it.
It’s a radical document. It’s a foundational text of Second-Wave Feminism. Some want to burn it, others want to teach it. Few works mean so many things to so many people.
Sadly (to some people), Solanas’s legacy is one of failure and unfulfilled dreams. SCUM Manifesto will soon be fifty years old: its promised utopia has yet to arrive: men still exist, the fates of the groovy and the creepy are still intertwined, etc. Solanas’s faith could move mountains, but the mountains all moved back again.
SCUM Manifesto might never have achieved notoriety at all if had hadn’t come wrapped around a metaphoric and literal bullet – but that’s another testament to Solanas’s willingness to lay it on the line, because her will was all she had. It’s a final irony that her name will go down in history so indelibly linked to that of a man that she might as well have married him.
“Paul, a folk-influenced singer-songwriter with ear-length black hair, forms a writing partnership with another man. They are wildly successful in the early 1970s, although sometimes controversial due to their socially transgressive lyrics. Paul’s ego and micromanaging ways drive a rift between the two, causing a breakup. The guitarist is arrested. However, they reconcile before death.”
(The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Peter Paul & Mary, KISS)
“A female singer with black hair and acute symbols in her name is born on a cold island in the 1960s. She achieves modest fame as part of a band and greater worldwide success as a solo act. She is noted for overdubbing lots of vocal tracks, often not in English. A psychotic stalker from a Latin country falls in love with her. Events culminate in a suicide attempt.”
(Björk, Enya, Sinead O’Connor, nearly Beyoncé)
“A punk-influenced band with ties to New York features a blonde female bassist and a dark-haired male singer-songwriter. Their relationship fails, and the band splits acrimoniously.”
(White Zombie, the Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, the Smashing Pumpkins)
“A biracial guitar player in a platinum-selling heavy metal band from California is involved in a fatal automobile accident. Nobody involved was wearing a seatbelt. The respective bands have all released a self-titled album, as well as an album cover that’s all-black except for the image of an animal.”
(Metallica, Motley Crue, Deftones)
“A UK rock frontman named after a disciple of Jesus forgets to delete his internet search history. Legal problems ensue.”
(Pete Townshend, Ian Watkins, Gary Glitter, nearly Massive Attack, partially Jimmy Savile)
“A songwriter/producer is renowned for his innovative use of sound. His records thunder with Wagnerian pomposity, and could be likened to a solid wall. The producer is a troubled man, however, and is haunted by demons. As the years pass he is blown like a paper bag into paranoia, mania, and eventually murder.”
(Phil Spector, Joe Meek, Varg Vikernes)
[minor cheats: Art Garfunkel didn’t write songs until the 1990s, Peter Paul & Mary had their final #1 hit three months before 1970, a guitarist in KISS was arrested but he was not the same one that the rest applies to, I don’t think D’Arcy Wretzky and Billy Corgan dated, Vince Neil and Chi Cheng played guitar but not in their respective bands, Chi Cheng died years after his accident, it’s a stretch to call Varg Vikernes a producer dot dot dot or a songwriter el oh el]
This featurette opens Monty Python’s 1983 film The Meaning of Life, and is my favourite part of the film. Hail Terry Gilliam.
It’s a parody of a pirate movie, filled with swordfights and swashbuckling and people yelling “‘ard to starboard!”. But as with Brazil, it’s actually a kind of fear teabag, steeped in subtle flavors of alarm, disquiet, and anxiety, releasing those flavours upon repeat viewing. You can’t separate The Crimson Permanent Assurance from the year 1983, or the changes happening in the world at the time.
Incredibly, people once trusted banks. Almost, almost. The local bank was like the local butcher: probably holding a finger on the scale, but at least you thought you understood him. He was part of your community. He was yours.
In the 80s, that started to change: the globe shrank, trade deals and computerized systems enabled companies to spread their tentacles across continents and oceans, and suddenly your bank was no longer part of your community. It was a shadowy, alien thing from somewhere else. Maybe the outer dark.
Finance has always had aquatic metaphors. Cash flow. Liquid assets. Trickle down. Mutual pools. Skimmed profits. As the financial sector exploded in size and complexity, the metaphors became more pointed. Loan sharks. Corporate raiders. Headhunters. Buccaneers.
The idea that finance firms had become something akin to pirates is a compelling one. Amoral entities afloat a sea of cash, with no masters, no Gods, no loyalty but to the firm, flying the flag of civilized commerce only when it suited them. Scuppering enemies with leveraged takeovers. Burying treasure in offshore tax havens. Terry Gilliam’s idea was to make the whole thing literal.
The featurette opens with a bunch of elderly accountants slaving at their desks, while young men with American accents boss them around. (This reflects another British anxiety from the period: that venerable and supposedly honest British institutions would be swallowed by faceless American corporations). When one man gets fired, the rest mutiny, throwing their American overseers “overboard”. They then turn to a life of crime, sailing their building through London as if it were a ship, plundering and pillaging.
It’s a great bit of absurdist comedy, and Gilliam has fun turning accountants into pirates. They wield “cutlasses” made from the blades of office fans, fire “cannons” that are actually spring-loaded desk drawers, etc. There’s little Pythonesque wordplay, and almost every joke is a visual one. It’s almost like watching a comedy sketch made for deaf people; although they’d miss out on the bombastic score.
There’s the usual artsy film touches. The Crimson Permanent Assurance building is almost comically antiquated, even older than the men inside it, but the buildings they plunder are sleek and modern, webs of glass and steel spun by giant spiders (emphasising a theme of old vs new). The opening shot of downtrodden accountants hunched over rows of desks is matched with a parallel shot of the same men pulling oars in a Roman slave galley. The amount of money spent on tiny details must have been staggering. You know list of subsidiaries on the corporate boardroom of the Very Big Corporation Of America? Those are actual names.
The film ends with the narrator cheerfully describing how The Crimson Permanent Assurance took on the world with their business acumen…and we see bleak shots of the building sailing across a desolate skyline, having destroyed everything. Then it falls off the edge of the world, and the rest of the movie begins.
The Pythons each brought something special to their troupe. Cleese and Jones had their characters, Idle had his music, Palin had his writing, Chapman had his dramatic acting skills. But the visions? The dreams? Those, in large part, came care of Mr Gilliam, and here’s proof, sailing across the main.
This is the autobiography of pioneering aviatrix Hanna Reitsch, who set over forty world records between the 1930s and 1950s: first female flight captain; first woman to fly a helicopter; world distance record in a helicopter; winner of the 1938 German national gliding competition; first woman to pilot a military jet aircraft; first et cetera.
Hanna is famous for what she did, and famous for why she did it. From the words German and military and 1938 you’ve probably realised that she was flying for the Luftwaffe in World War II.
“Her flying skill, desire for publicity, and photogenic qualities made her a star of Nazi propaganda. Physically she was petite in stature, very slender with blonde hair, blue eyes and a ‘ready smile’. She appeared in Nazi propaganda throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s.” – Wikipedia
We all have a cross to bear. In Hanna’s case it was an actual cross, made of iron.
März 1941: Adolf Hitler verleiht Flugkapitän Hanna Reitsch das Eiserne Kreuz [2. Klasse]
Mitte: Hermann GöringIn this book, Hanna comes off as apolitical (although all Nazis were apolitical after the war, weren’t they?), and other than some generic, learned-by-rote boilerplate (“I had been brought up to be a patriot”), she offers no commentary on the politics of the time or her own relationship to it. Hanna was only interested in the Nazi party because they allowed her to fly their pioneering warplanes, and much of the book is long, poetry-like meditations on the euphoria of flying.
Now I am shivering, all over, in every tissue of my body, and my bare hands turn blue as, nearly ten thousand feet above the earth, in my summer frock, I sit, basking in rain, hail and snow, my streaming hair tossed like seaweed in a storm.
Flying can be addictive: and the thrill must have been even greater for the men and women who were the first. Hanna flew in the years before the thermals were choked with traffic. She flew virgin airlines instead of Virgin Airlines, and saw parts of the earth from angles and altitudes that nobody else ever had.
When flying a plane, certain things have to be done in a certain order. Auxiliary fuel pump off. Flight controls checked. Instruments and radios checked. Altimeter set. Hanna writes like she’s preparing for flight. While a modern writer would probably try to hook the reader with a dramatic mis-en-scene about a near-fatal crash or something, Hanna tells the story more or less in chronological order: her childhood in Silesia, her dreams of being a flying missionary doctor in Africa, her early experiences flying an unpowered glider, her work as a stuntwoman and flight instructor, her arrest in Lisbon as a suspected spy, and her years of military service.
The book doesn’t have a lot of dates. I often found myself asking “what year is it?” and not getting an answer. It’s clear that Hanna’s obsession with flight made her a veteran at an extremely young age. Midway through the book, a man called Wolfram Hirth hires her as an instructor for his school. I assumed she was in her twenties or thirties, then she casually drops a mention that she needed her parents’ permission to skip another year of school.
While teaching Hirth’s students, she learned an important lesson herself: when in the air, it’s extremely easy to die.
Before this last pupil took off for his test, I went with him carefully, point by point, through every aspect of his flight. He had done well in his “A” and “B” Tests and, seeming now perfectly at ease and sure of himself, would, I had no doubt, pass this last one quite easily.
He took off in his glider normally and then, for a whole two and a half minutes, flew exactly as the book, without a fault. Now he had only to fly one turn, circle wide and land. He tumed — rather steep but quite well — and then, — plunged in one straight swift dive to earth.
I had never heard before what sound a plane makes when it crashes and at first I could not move. Then I ran down the hillside towards the wreckage, knowing, as I ran, that my pupil was already dead.
It fell to me to break the news to his mother, who lived in a nearby village.
I will never forget how I walked to her cottage through the fields, alone, how the poor, old woman saw me coming and called to me before I could speak:
“Ach, Fräuleinchen — ich weiss schon . Mein Sohn! Mein Sohn ist nicht mehr”
How did the mother know her son was dead? Because he’d had a dream that morning of his controls failing and told her. There’s a superstitious, mystical quality to some of these early pilots, as though they don’t fully trust their rational faculties. I suspect that most of them have abnormal psychologies.
Hanna herself would have many encounters with death. She describes being trapped inside a storm, performing a stunt in San Paolo that would have killed dozens if it failed (which it nearly did), and most seriously, a crash in the legendary rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet in 1942.
Nobody built planes like the late-era Reich. Nobody should have built planes like the late-era Reich. With the Eastern Front collapsing, Hitler invested wildly in all sorts of unpromising projects, hoping for a magical technological ticket out of Germany’s inevitable defeat.
The results were a series of ghastly Wagnerian nightmares that look like they’re from a comic book and have names that sound like death metal bands. Planes like the Gotha Go 229 (a jet-powered “flying wing” stealth bomber) and the Bachem Ba 349 Natter (a vertical take-off interceptor that famously had no landing gear, with the pilot expected to either eject mid-flight or commit suicide by ramming an enemy plane) were twenty years ahead of their time technically and six hundred years behind ethically.
But the greatest, or worst, of the Nazi experimental warplanes was the Me 163. A lightning-fast “interceptor”, it was little more than a rocket with a human being attached, shooting up to 30,000 feet within ninety seconds on a 4,500 HP backwash of hypergolic combustants. With its regular test pilot Heini Dittmar was hospitalized due to a broken spine, Hanna was chosen to take his place riding the tiger.
To fly the rocket plane, Me 163, was to live through a fantasy of Münchhausen. One took off with a roar and a sheet of flame, then shot steeply upwards to find oneself the next moment in the heart of the empyrean.
To sit in the machine when it was anchored to the ground and be surrounded suddenly with that hellish, flame-spewing din, was an experience unreal enough. Through the window of the cabin, I could see the ground crew start back with wide-open mouths and hands over their ears, while, for my part, it was all I could do to hold on as the machine rocked under a ceaseless succession of explosions. I felt as if I were in the grip of some savage power ascended from the Nether Pit. It seemed incredible than Man could control it.
The Me 163 could attain speeds of up to 1,130 km/h, which meant that “the smallest error of judgement might mean the loss of the machine and [Hanna’s] own death”. Even correct judgement was no guarantee. Her test flight immediately suffered a crippling technical issue – the exposed undercarriage got jammed – and she couldn’t contact the towing plane to abort the test. She successfully flew the plane for a while, but as she attempted to land, the Me 163 stalled due to the protracted undercarriage, and she lost control and tumbled to the ground at over 240 kp/h.
We plunged, striking the earth, then, rending and Cracking, the machine somersaulted over — lurched — and sagged to a stop. The first thing I realised was that I was not hanging in my harness and therefore the machine was right-side up. Quite automatically, my right hand opened the cabin roof— it was intact. Cautiously, I ran my hand down my left arm and hand, then slowly along my sides, chest and legs. To my thankful amazement, nothing was missing and all seemed in working order.
She was wrong: her skull was shattered in six places, her upper jaw was displaced, and her nose was nearly torn away. “Each time I breathed, bubbles of air and blood formed along its edge.” With consciousness fading, Hanna found a pencil and pad and wrote a message explaining why the crash had occurred. She also tied a handerchief around her head so that the her rescue party wouldn’t see her face. It would be a long time before she would fly again.
Her dramatic crash made her a celebrity within the Nazi party, and it was here that she had her most intimate encounters with the inner machinery of the state. Some of it’s funny, like this sitcom-worthy encounter with Hermann Göring.
[Göring] planted his bulk squarely in front of me, his hands resting on his hips.
“What! Is this supposed to be our famous ‘Flugkapitän’? Where’s the rest of her? How can this little person manage to fly at all?”
I did not like the reference to my size. I made a sweep with my hand roughly corresponding to his girth.
“Do you have to look like that to fly?”
In the middle of my sentence, it suddenly struck me with hot embarrassment that, in the circumstances, my gesture might be considered out of place. I tried to halt it in mid-air, but too late — everyone, including Göring, had seen it and there was a great burst of laughter, in which Göring joined.
But mostly these conversations are unsettling, the way it’s unsettling to read a conversation involving a well-programmed chatbot that knows how to say the right things but is clearly non-human. History remembers most of the NSDP’s upper echelon as high-IQ sociopaths, men skilled at reforging reality using words – words that they didn’t truly mean at all.
As Hanna wines and dines with the inner circle of the Party, I was interested to learn about the rifts dividing Nazi Germany – particularly, the conflict between the “Gott Mit Uns” Protestantianism of the Prussian and Weimar eras, and the odd blend of pagan, atheistic, and social Darwinist thought of Heinrich Himmler.
In our family, we had always avoided mentioning the name of Himmler : my mother saw in him the adversary of Christianity and he could therefore have nothing in common with us.
Hanna eventually meets Himmler, and challenges him both on his anti-Christian beliefs and rumors she’s heard about his social policies. This is one of the few times Hanna expresses a political opinion.
We then turned to another problem, about which my feelings were strong, his attitude to women and marriage. I reproached him for looking at the matter from a purely racial and biological stand-point, considering woman only as a bearer of children and through his directives to the SS, about which, admittedly, I had only heard rumours, tending to undermine morality and destroy the sanctity of marriage.
These are probably references to Lebensborn, an SS-initiated breeding program that sought to improve Germany’s racial purity through abduction, insemination, and selective abortion.
Himmler replied to my charges factually and at considerable length. He assured me that he shared my views entirely. His policy had been misrepresented and misinterpreted, either unintentionally or from deliberate malice. It was very important, he said, that these tendentious rumours should not get about, particularly at the present time.
The real problem, Himmler explains, are people who spread rumors. He ends the conversation by thanking Hanna for her outspokenness (which is hard not to read as “you’re toeing the line, so don’t step across it”), and asking her to report all subsequent rumors to him.
But the elite Nazis aren’t just manipulative, they’re also delusional. At a second meeting with Göring (not long after her crash), Hanna is shocked to learn that he believes the Messerschmitt Me 163 to be ready for mass production. She argues with him at length – the plane is a dangerous toy, more likely to kill its pilot than an enemy – but he refuses to allow reality to disturb his illusions. German might and German industry will prevail. A German failure ontologically doesn’t exist. Certain people remained in this state of mind until Berlin crashed down around them.
To be blunt, I was soon asking the “naive or liar” question about Hanna herself. In 1944, she receives an a document by a friend in Stockholm, alleging something (we’re not told what, but can guess) about “gas chambers” in Germany. She queries Himmler about this:
I telephoned Himmler, obtaining permission to visit him at his headquarters in the field. Arrived there, I placed the booklet before him.
“What do you say to this, Reichsführer?”
Himmler picked it up and flicked over the pages. Then, without change of expression, he looked up, eyeing me quietly:
“And you believe this, Frau Hanna?”
“No, of course not.”
Was Hanna telling the truth here? She knew about Lebensborn. Did she not know about the Holocaust? It seems hard to believe. She was an important figure in the Vergeltungswaffe rocket program, which relied on slave labor in camps such as Auschwitz. For her have no idea whatsoever by 1944 is…interesting.
Whatever the case, 1944 is very late in the game. Soon everyone would know.
With the end fast approaching, Hanna became increasingly land-bound, serving in an advisory role to Luftwaffe forces on retreat from Stalingrad. She was a brilliant flyer but had zero skills as a soldier, to the point where she asks a German soldier to help her distinguish German shellbursts from Russian ones. There’s a pervasive grimness to this part of the book. Cities are falling. Critical resource centers and railhubs are being lost. The Russians are pushing west with overwhelming force. Every possible factor is working against the Reich.
There was only one way Germany could have achieved victory: a technological miracle. This was the last hope, that at the eleventh hour some brave scientist would shatter an atom in an interesting way, invent anti-gravity propulsion, or summon Himmler’s Norse gods down from Valhalla to do battle against the Asiatic hordes. This was what Germany needed to win – a Wunder-wuffe, or miracle weapon.
Spoiler: the miracle never occurred. Germany was defeated, and although World War II ended with a mighty science-conjured explosion, it didn’t flash to Germany’s benefit.
Hanna Reitsch was one of the final people to see Adolf Hitler alive. After a harrowing late-night flight into Berlin through heavy Russian flak (the entire city was under siege, and nobody knew if there was even an intact runway left for a landing), she arrived at the Reich Chancellery along with fighter ace Robert Ritter von Greim and then descended to the Fuhrerbunker.
Greim reported on our journey, Hitler listening calmly and attentively. When he had finished, Hitler seized both Greim’s hands and then, turning to me: “Brave woman! So there is still some loyalty and courage left in the world !”
But Hitler didn’t need more loyalty and courage from his followers. It was their loyalty and courage that had brought him to this point. It’s no credit to fight an insane war, nor obey insane orders, and Hanna’s mild questioning of Göring’s miracle planes was a thousand time more useful to the war effort than the blind obedience Hitler demanded from his followers.
He was an utter madman by that point, reality blasted from his brain and leaving only the shifting sand of hope and memory. He was Fuhrer of a nation that existed largely inside his own imagination. He “rewards” Greim by appointing him chief of the German air force…but Germany no longer had an air force to command!
But his life’s final decision was eminently sane: and agreeable to both his supporters and enemies alike.
On our second day in the Bunker, 27th April, I was summoned to Hitler’s study. His face was now even paler, and had become flaccid and putty-coloured, like that of a dotard. He gave me two phials of poison so that, as he said, Greim and I should have at all times “freedom of choice.” Then he said that if the hope of the relief of Berlin by General Wenk was not realized, he and Eva Braun had freely decided that they would depart out of this life.
Hanna ended up not using the phial of poison. She escaped the Fuhrerbunker, and survived well into the 1970s. Her death is a source of mystery and speculation – did she commit suicide using the phial in the end? I’m not so sure. She spent some time in American detention, and they certainly would have taken any means of suicide away from her.
The older ones had been through the First World War, you could tell it from their faces and their scars. After doing their duty for years in the trenches, they had returned home to be insulted and spat upon and have the shoulder-straps torn by hooligans from their uniforms. It was no wonder that their experiences had made them very embittered. “. . . Just as if it was us who had been the trouble-makers,” they said, almost in self defence, “—as if it was a positive pleasure to stop a Lewis gun bullet. . .”
This reminds me of the (possibly exaggerated) stories of Vietnam veterens getting spat on at LAX. It’s a damned sight easier to support the troops when they’re victorious troops. Soldiers from a lost war are often regarded with pity and even suspicion, like broken toys.
This was to be German’s legacy in World War II. Defeat, ruin, national shame, division, and a rebuilding enabled by the erasure of the past. It’s understandable, if only in hindsight, why Hanna cared so much about flying. There wasn’t damned thing worth having on the ground.
The title of the book seems uncannily appropriate. Hanna’s realm was the sky: one that lasted longer than a thousand years.
And now there is silence, everywhere. Earth and sky seem wrapped in sleep. My glider-bird slumbers, too, gleaming softly against the stars. Beautiful bird, that out-flew the four winds, braved the tempest, shot heavenward, searching out the sky, — soaring higher, as I am soon to learn, than any glider-plane has ever flown before.
Here’s a riddle:
“As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
Every wife had seven sacks,
Every sack had seven cats,
Every cat had seven kitts.
Kitts, cats, sacks, wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?”
This riddle simultaneously tests the reader’s memory, multiplication, reading comprehension, and lateral thinking skills. It’s as old as the hills (which isn’t saying much since many hills were formed yesterday) and there are several apparently correct ways to solve it. And your idea of the correct answer tends to change the longer you think about it.
The classic answer is “one”. If the narrator met the others on the road, then they must have been going in the other direction, away from St Ives.
But wait: what if the narrator is on horseback, and the others are on foot? Then he could have easily overtaken them on the road.
And wait a little more: the wording is crafty. The man has seven wives; we’re not told that they’re on the road with him. Maybe they’re at home, fanning themselves in a couch while exclaiming “lack a day!” or whatever women in the 18th century did. Same for sacks, cats, and kitts. “With” is a preposition that can either mean “accompanied by” or “characterised by”, and its usage here is unclear.
And all the narrator knows is that these people are on the road to St Ives. They needn’t be going there: maybe they’ll stop halfway, have a picnic, and then go back home. I don’t think there’s anything worth seeing at St Ives.
Even as a straightforward multiplication problem, the riddle is confusing. Is the answer 2,802 (the geometric series of wives, sacks, cats, kitts, plus the narrator and the husband?). But surely the 49 sacks don’t add to the count – their only purpose is to store the cats and kitts – so the answer is 2,753. Except line six explicitly tells us to count the kitts, cats, sacks, and wives…but doesn’t say to include the narrator or the husband. So maybe it’s 2,800.
To summarise, the correct answer is 1, 9, 2802, 2753, 2800, 69, 420, 666, 1234567890, and many others besides, your choice of which depends on grammatical and syntactical ambiguities. Being able to calculate correctly is no use against such quicksand.
In IT, you hear the mocking analogy “steel door in a cardboard wall”. It describes a security system that tries to defend the indefensible. Here, mathematics is like a steel-framed bridge spanning two cliffs made of chalk. You can use a calculator to add up numbers. You can create a futuristic quantum D-wave supercomputer with no purpose except to add up numbers. It won’t help.
There’s no way to know how many people were going to St Ives, because the answer rests not on mathematics but on the English language.
Caricatures – and minimalistic art – are compelling arguments for the existence of magic. Start with a blank page, add a line, add another line, add a third line, and a bird explodes into life, convulsing the page with movement.
You may have seen Scott McCloud’s explanation of how comics work: they’re a subtractive art that works by stripping away details and forcing the viewer’s mind to fill the empty holes. Art is a heavy stone, and either the artist or the audience can carry it. For realistic art, the artist has done all the heavy lifting. David Ligare’s Naxos (Thrown Drapery) requires little reconstructive work for the audience: everything he wanted to say is there on canvas. But for a caricature, the “real” picture exists in the viewer’s mind: and the drawing is a series of keys and ciphers recalling it to memory.
That makes the magic even cooler, though. Because you performed the trick of making the bird looked real. Your mind contained the blaze: all the artist did was light a match. It also implies the possibility of failure: a person who has never seen a bird would never know what it looks like based on a three line sketch. A caricature is worth a thousand words…but you have to write the thousand words yourself.
This also explains how (successful) caricatures are frequently so different to each other. They rely on cached images in the viewer’s brain, and two people might have different caches. As an example: Ben Garrison is a political cartoonist who supports Donald Trump. He has often been noted for his flattering depictions of Trump’s physique.
I would call this a caricature of Trump. Garrison has identified certain qualities (Trump’s height and powerful build) and created an image his audience will instantly recognise.
Anti-Trump cartoonists draw him differently: a grossly obese pile of half-melted wax perpetually throwing a tantrum (art by Damien Glez, reproduced here for educational purposes):
Again, an unrealistic pastiche of traits, but you can easily recognize the figure being depicted. People are made of different, sometimes contradictory elements (Trump is tall and muscular but also somehow fat and shapeless) and a cartoonist can choose which traits to emphasise or ignore.
(I’ve noticed a lot of people laughing at Garrison’s depictions of Trump, but nobody laughing at Glez’s. Maybe this is for tribal reasons, but some of us also seem uncomfortable with cartoons that improve reality instead of mocking and defacing it).
But caricatures have a dark side. They are unreliable. They can reify lies or misconceptions. A cartoon short man wearing a bicorn hat will instantly be identified as “Napoleon” even though the real Napoleon wasn’t short. And even if Trump starts cycling steroids and pumping weights to become the muscular ubermensch of Ben Garrison’s nocturnal dreams, left-wing cartoonists will still draw him as a fat manbaby.
* * *
It seems to me that history is a caricature. And the longer the given period of history, the more extreme the caricatures become.
Nobody’s ever written a complete biography of a person. It would be unreadable. Nobody wants to hear about the shit Arthur Schopenhauer took on Monday 21 May 1810, at 3:31pm. Nobody even knows these things to begin with.
Biographers – even honest ones – curate what they need from their subject, slicing out sections with the care of a florist taking a graft from a plant. Their choice is driven by the same factors as Garrison and Glez’s – personal taste, propaganda, and (overwhelmingly) availability bias. Biographers can’t write about what they don’t know about. We portrayed dinosaurs as huge lizards for decades, not because of malicious conspiracy, but because the feathers didn’t survive fossilization.
According to some people, biographical flexibility is a feature, not a bug. Some of history’s most famous and heavily emulated heroes – Jesus Christ, Siddh?rtha Gautama, – have an element of interpretability. They’re like blank canvasses. Or half-drawn birds. Their words are open to translation, their private thoughts unknown and inscrutable. Traditionalists, radicals, kings, and paupers all see themselves reflected in these figures. People love them for the same reason they love getting a blank tile in the game of Scrabble – you can make it say whatever you want.
Some of pop culture’s thorniest debates (what would Martin Luther King Jr have really thought about black people rioting in 2020?) touch on this anxiety. How is it that one man is being split into two or three or more by his biographers? Which is the real one? Is this not an insult to his memory? Does he even have a memory to be insulted? Does he even exist except as a puppet to be manipulated by his followers?
According to the Church of Scientology, founder L Ron Hubbard is “much-decorated war hero who commanded a corvette and during hostilities was crippled and wounded”. Other biographies regard him a different way. Competing caricatures. I think the internet’s current conception of him as a worthless con artist misleading as well: he could also be a brilliant author. There’s a battle happening between caricatures, with the real L Ron Hubbard (if he can even be reconstructed) gradually getting trampled.
History contains wars. History also is a war. WWII ended almost eighty years ago now, but the iconomachy of competing images – Winston Churchill, saint or sinner? – continues.
* * *
H. P. Lovecraft was a New England fantasist whose big idea was to de-emphasise the human experience. The earth isn’t the center of the universe, and the human mind isn’t the center of all possible mind-spaces. This seems obvious now, but wasn’t in the 1920s. In the average science fiction (or scientifiction) story from this period, aliens from distant worlds are portrayed as people. There’s always the scene where the bug-eyed monster lusts after our women: human males like attractive girls, so aliens will as well.
But in Lovecraft’s work, the cosmos has no pivot, core, or central reference point. Aliens aren’t failed humans. Humans aren’t failed aliens. Us and the Other are orthogonal to each other, beyond comparison. We occupy a certain niche, and in another niche, another sentient lifeform might exist. We would each regard the other as being unthinkable, horrific, and perhaps not even alive.
Lovecraft was shy and afraid of disease. He was also a bigot, even by the standards of his day. This may have been informed by his philosophy: if humanity exists in a tiny margin of sense and order, any attempts to leave that niche will probably corrupt everything (he married a Jewish woman, of course). If he’d lived a century later, he’d be one of those “online thought leaders” with ten thousand Youtube videos who never showers or leaves the house.
For years, Lovecraft’s status within the fantasy and horror community was such that the World Fantasy Award was commemorated by a bust in his image. Eventually, Lovecraft’s racism cast a shadow over his work, and the bust became controversial.
Anyway, a statuette of this racist man’s head is in my home. A statuette of this racist man’s head is one of my greatest honors as a writer. A statuette of this racist man’s head sits beside my Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and my Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award (an award given to the best speculative fiction by a person of color). I’m conflicted.
This is 2011 WFA winner Nnedi Okorafor’s summation of HP Lovecraft: a racist man. Nothing else about him matters. She alludes to his skill as a writer only once, and it’s only as an adjective to racist.
I think there should be some discourse about what it means to honor a talented racist.
But are people honoring the talent, or honoring the racism? It’s fully accurate to state that Lovecraft was bigoted against blacks. What is, perhaps, inaccurate, is that this needs to be the dominant memory of his legacy, ahead of his literary talent or influence. Her blog post is restrained, the comments section less so.
These old ways are dying i say throw the little fucker’s malignant image into the dust bin of history. Good riddence to bad rubbish.
Yes, Lovecraft’s racism was part of his character and I don’t want people to stop discussing that. But there’s the opposite extreme of viewing historical figures solely as cultural footballs. Team Racism does not win if Lovecraft’s face is on the WFA prize. A statue dedicated to HP Lovecraft is not a statue dedicated to racism. It remains a statue of HP Lovecraft: who was a complex and troubled person irreducible to politicized buzzwords.
* * *
In 1484, a man called Christopher Columbus resolved to sail westward from Spain to the Indies across the Atlantic Ocean. But there was a problem: it was impossible.
Obviously, America is in the way. But even in theory, sailing to the Indies wouldn’t work. According Eratosthenes the world is 40,000km around, and Japan’s coast is approximately 20,000 kilometers from the Canary Islands. A 15th century ship couldn’t have made that kind of journey.
But Columbus had salesmanship, so he shopped around for smaller estimates of the Earth’s size. He finally settled on an estimate of 29,000km. He furthermore insisted that the landmass of Eurasia took up about six sevenths of the earth’s circumference, leaving only one seventh of the circumference covered in the Atlantic. As a result, he calculated a voyage that was many thousands of kilometers shorter than it actually would have been. The Spanish monarchs were dumb enough to finance it.
Deception, math errors, stupidity…but it led to the great success of the century, perhaps the millennia. The colonization of the new world.
For years, the caricature of Columbus as a brave explorer dominated. But as with Lovecraft, other caricatures have since come to replace it. It appears that Columbus vastly mismanaged his early New World colony. Allegations of tyranny and brutality soon grew to the point where he was arrested and imprisoned upon his return to Spain from the third voyage. “He was a man of his time” isn’t much of an excuse. He wasn’t a man of his time. The other men of his time put him behind bars.
Columbus Day is now a holiday celebrated in the United States. It has also become politically controversial, as the unpleasant connotations of Columbus’s name grow larger in the public’s mind.
For some people, Columbus means “brave explorer”. For others, it’s “tyrant”. A day with Columbus’s name is either symbolic of the first or the second – it can have no other connotations. And as with Garrison and Glez’s radically different visions of Trump, neither side is really correct or incorrect. The concept of Columbus somehow instantiates both ideas, although not among the same people at the same time.
I assume one of the two narratives will finally crush the other some day. Probably the politically correct one. Columbus, Ohio will have to change it’s name, or exist as a flagrant reminder of colonialist brutality. The 2355 people surnamed “Columbus” in the United States will probably seem as socially ridiculous as the handful of people still surnamed “Hitler”. It should be impossible for one person to insist that their distorted reality is the true one, but in practice it happens all the time. Even Ben Garrison would probably start drawing Trump has morbidly obese if he had a gun held to his head.
Trump, who is eminently still alive, largely exists as a word-cloud associative symbolism matrix (tall + fat + weird hair + orange skin + (…)). Political cartoonists grab whatever keywords they need to describe him, and as the years condemn, they’ll soon grab fewer and easier words. Trump will simplify. Flatten. He’ll lose dimension. He’ll break free from reality, the words absorbing his essence.
The problem with history is that it keeps getting longer, which means everyone inside it gets smaller, and simpler.
Earlier, I said that Napoleon wasn’t short, and he wasn’t. But the day might come when he’s historically short: when so many new events and faces are crowding the books that he’s crushed away to almost nothing. In ten thousand years, his final protean nub of biography will be something like “SHORT. FUNNY HAT.”
In the Hindi language there is a word called ???, Jhootha, which literally means “food partially eaten by someone”. All of history is Jhootha, masticated stickily in someone’s mouth and then spat in a chewed-up lump into your mind. There’s bite marks all over your conception of Donald Trump. Saliva is dripping from your mental cache of HP Lovecraft and Christopher Columbus. Jhootha has a second meaning, by the way: Liar.