Friday, August 22, 2014

A Hero of Our Time

This novel is constructed in a manner we associate with Conrad -: narrators tell long stories within stories.  Unlike Conrad's typical practice, the narrations are not organized into a single nested, Russian doll.  Roughly the first half is a series of stories by a wise and likable non-com Russian officer told to a point-of-view character about the figure who turns out to be the hero of our time, Pechorin, a disillusioned St. Petersburg aristocrat.  The varying outlooks of the narrations within the narration provide us with more perspective and identification than is typical for Conrad.  They enrich the reader's emotional involvement in the book.  Although this novel is about a man who is desperately cold at heart, the reader comes away with a warm feeling,

Roughly the second half of the book consists of Pechorin's diaries, which fortuitously fall into the hands of the POV, after Pechorin, with his characteristic heartlessness, has snubbed his old friend the likable non-com.  Typically of Pechorin, he is arbitrary and mendacious with others, but focused and clear-minded about himself.  Lermontov came from his world, and this clear-eye self-criticism dramatizes Lermontov’s feeling about his own class.  Pechorin is described in the book and by critics, as Byronic, which means not so much that he was like Lord Byron, as he is like Lord Byron's alter ego Childe Herald (in the poem of the same name), who, like Pechorin, wanders through foreign lands drive by his disillusion with the pleasures of society, by cynicism, and by depression.  Like Childe Harold, this novel finds richness in nature and in people distant from fashionable society.

Like Tolstoy, Lermontov knew where the bodies were buried.  Recall what Karenin’s job was -: he was head of the committee on indigenous peoples.  Lermontov's novel is set in the Caucuses and is awash in the casual contempt of the Russian overlords for the Circassians, Ossetians, Chechens and the like, and their corresponding alienation and hostility from the Russians.  For example, in one story Pechorin casually abducts an Ossetian girl, keeps her as his mistress for a while, and then casts her aside.  For him, this is a kind of self-indulgent attempt to recapture caring, but it is to Lermontov's credit that we sympathize with him, as we sympathize with her hopeless predicament.

Despite the implied social criticism, part of the attractiveness of this novel is its picturesque setting.  Descriptions of the Caucuses are thrilling and ingratiating and the subjugated people are, despite all, interesting and picaresque.  In Martin Parker's translation, the prose is flexible, and supple, grand when it needs to be, folksy when it needs to be.

Pechorin and some of the figures involved with him, such as the likable non-com, are fully and warmly drawn.  Parts of the novel have plots.  The abduction and fate of the Cicassian girl, for example, is plotty.  So is a long tale about Circassians steeling horses that might have been taken from local folk epics.  But the source of engagement for novel as a whole is the build up of the reader's understanding and involvement with Pechorin, who despite his sense of his own emptiness, indeed partly because of it, is full of meaning for us.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Notes from the ICU

Recently, I had elective heart surgery.  Briefly, the background is this: I have a painfully arthritic right hip, which demands replacement.  Some years ago I had my left hip replaced highly successfully.  But in the intervening time, I had developed stenosis of a heart valve, which did not permit the hip operation until the partially dysfunctional valve (of which I had no symptoms) was replaced.  I did that about a month ago.  Don't panic as you read this, it is a much more common operation than it sounds, has a very high success rate, and I'm doing fine.

Anyway, following protocol I spent roughly the first 24 hours after the operation in the ICU of a prominent teaching hospital.  I was full of painkillers and other drugs so my sense of time and reality was distorted.  In fact, perhaps none of what I'm about to report occurred, but here are some memories that stuck with me.

I was lying in a hospital bed partitioned away from others partly by a curtain, which could be drawn and undrawn, and partly by glass.  What I could see best when it was light (sunlight or artificial light?) was a similar bed kitty corner from me in a similar compartment.  I remember staring woefully at the occupant.  She was a woman whom I would describe as a very frail 60-year-old.  She almost never stirred and remained slumped under a light grey blanket with her head fallen to one side and her eyes closed.  Of course, like me, she was hooked up to various tubes.  The most I remember seeing at that stage was occasional movement of her left foot.  A vigorous man of about her age visited some time(s?) carrying magazines, popular mechanics type magazines.  I thought I heard him described as her brother, or maybe I made that up because he looked like her, the same grizzled grey hair.  At times he would just sit beside her, at times talk to her, although she did not respond, and at times read to her from a magazine.  After one of the undetermined intervals I experienced in those hours, I heard loud and desperate lamentations.  They seemed to me the outcries of traditional keening.  There was commotion in the semi dark.  I sadly assumed she had died.  I heard some talk about something like, “He’s having convulsions.”  Then silence.

After a while I saw a robust man with very short hair wearing a red sweater go into the cubicle where the lamentation had subsided, which was now curtained off.  I think again I heard some one say he was the brother of the man whom had had convulsions.

To pick pup another thread -: Some time later, in complete darkness I heard the sound of crowded voices shouting and exclaiming.  The locus of sound moved into the cubicle to my left.  It was noisy and excited, seeming chaotic but with a sense of inner order.  I thought of movies I have seen of crews on sailing vessels raising sails.  Loudest of all was a violent banging.  I assumed it was defibrillator paddles and that some one had had a critical heart attack and the violent commotion was the response.  After a time, the commotion diminished, moved out of the space next to me and away to my right in the darkness.  A short time later (?)  I heard a voice speak outside my curtain.  How shall I describe this voice?  It as a man’s voice, baritone, arrogant, yet its arrogance was somehow warm.  It declared, “We won.”  I took that to mean the team had saved the patient.  Some time later (?), a sweet young thing, one of he lower-level members of the sharply hierarchical staff, passed by and drew my curtain shut.  I asked her, “ What happened?”  She replied brightly, “Nothing.”  At the time, I took her to mean, “This is the sort of thing we do all the time.”  But perhaps hours had passed, and nothing had recently happened.

When it was next light enough, and the curtains were open, I peered at the bed kitty corner from me expecting to find it empty or holding a new patient.  But the woman was still lying there, and I immediately sensed she was more animated.  Her arms and trunk sometimes stirred under the light blanket.  The man with the grizzled hair and the magazines was again with her.  Some times, he spoke to her and she quietly replied.  He again read to her from the popular mechanics magazines.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Missing: Remembering Charlie Horman

It seems that the commonsense answer to “What happened?” or “What is the truth?” about some event would be more easily discovered concerning yesterday or last year than thirty years ago, but ironically as we all know this is often not the case. In the criminal courts, a recent invention, DNA forensics, suddenly makes it far easier to know the truth of things that happened thirty years ago than it was at the time. The propensity of actors in an event to actively hide information is a reason that the truth takes a long time coming out. Mislaid documents or witnesses overlooked may suddenly be found. Again, cultural viewpoints shift, those in power change, the political climate alters; history itself as it unfolds constantly bears on how it is being written and interpreted, so if events in the past recede into the mists of memory by a natural process, they may also jump into focus or reappear just as well, sometimes quite fortuitously.

At the same time, often enough it becomes clear what a lie has been. A completely accurate picture of events may still escape us, but some official version of a human misadventure becomes threadbare as some emperor or other loses his or her clothes. Whatever the truth must have been exists now in a narrower range. One version of the story stands up against the test of time better than another. The story may just disappear all by itself, for lack of some inner force, or it may suddenly grow in interest, because of some hidden reserve of power, or relevance. The story has a life or a death of its own.

My Netflix queue suddenly one day recently produced the Costa-Gavras film Missing, about the disappearance of the Harvard student Charlie Horman during the Pinochet coup in Chile in 1973. When I had decided to join Netflix last winter, I had set up a long queue of all the films I could think of at that moment which I might want to see, so Missing came as a sort of surprise six months or so later. I had not seen since it first came out. By synchronicity that we experience constantly, a blog post came over my email about some of the latest U.S. documents related to those events which had just come to light via the Freedom of Information Act. The story had come alive for me again. I bought the book the movie was made from. Charlie Horman was a friend of mine at Harvard. At once I was re-immersed in a story I have more or less thought of continually over the years.

I say “more or less” because in the seventies and eighties I was dealing with my own aftermath and emotional scars, perhaps a form of the notorious PTSD, lingering from the civil rights movement down South. Absorbing one more killing or atrocity was only just possible without investing too much emotion in it, as these things were the order of the day back then. Later as I kept hearing about the case I became more upset about it and thought about it more. Still mean old difficult life had to be lived leaving not a whole lot of energy to ponder the endless wantonness of governments. It took the popular device Netflix, not newly invented either, to bring events back into sudden focus for me, via the movie. As soon as I saw again the great Costa-Gavras movie with Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, I ordered the book from which it was made, by Thomas Hauser. I had never read the book till last week.

Curious term “story,” equally applied to the realms of fact and fiction, apparently a form readily adapted to either realm, suggesting how those realms are not distinct but blend into one another (but that’s another story). The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice, the book’s original title, subsequently reissued as Missing, adopting the popular movie’s name, is written with all the tension and suspense of a noir detective novel, which in many senses it resembles, with a great many villains, some victims and no heroes. Thomas Hauser, the author, is a lawyer, and as he was a very young man when he wrote the book, the story is presented with lawyerly finesse, stone laid upon stone, but at the same time with outrage and passion. The calm deliberativeness of a prosecutor making his case remains the dominant motif, until one wonders if the most gifted noir writer could have produced a more grisly and disturbing tale. The author himself emerges as the only hero on this scene having set the story down soon after it happened, preserving it for us, so that I could suddenly access it now.

The story begins with background on the life of Charles Horman, then on the life of the nation of Chile and the election of Allende, the only socialist administration to come to power constitutionally in Latin America via the ballot box; it then moves to the hysterical reaction to this in Washington, DC, including the CIA-backed assassination of the the Chilean Commander in Chief of the military, Rene Schneider, who was not pro-Allende, but rather pro-Chilean constitution, same difference in 1970, when the first coup attempt was stirring. Now the plot moves Charlie Horman and family to Santiago, on a lark, really, then Vina del Mar, where the Pinochet coup was being hatched with the help of the U.S. The plot thickens as Charlie has the bad luck to meet U.S. operatives in Vina who say too much to him. He is arrested, disappears, and his wife and father spend a fruitless month searching for him, obstructed at every turn by the U.S. embassy. Three questions emerge: Did the Chilean military execute Charlie? Did the U.S. government do all it could to cover this up? Did the Americans have foreknowledge he was to be executed? The story ends by posing the Ultimate Question, which you can surmise or read the book to find out.

As more and more documents have dribbled out about the case, especially during the Clinton administration, and ongoing today, with masses of material still classified in the name of national “security,” we understand with all the certainty witnesses at the time have conveyed that Charlie was murdered on the “kill order” of the top official in the Chilean secret police, reportedly with an American in the room when the order was given. Another main thing that seems indisputable, on the basis of mountains of evidence, is the support and connivance of the U.S. government in the overthrow of the Allende administration and the installation of dictator Pinochet. Charlie Horman, by all accounts, was a free-lance writer in the wrong place at the wrong time, who fortuitously learned too much. At the very least the American ambassador did nothing to protect him once he was arrested and awaiting his fate. And the Ambassador’s office actively obstructed his father’s search for the truth of what had happened to his son Charlie.

This story is an old one in which powerful groups, such as America, have “business interests” they would rather keep quiet. The individual is caught up in the story who has seen too much, who has had a clarity about events thrust on him or her, by happenstance, who becomes a risk and must be destroyed. Family and friends and objective reporters arrive to try to piece together events and they must be deflected and misled. The story takes on a life of its own, becomes several stories, one of which is the search for truth. This sort of story is almost guaranteed by its nature not to end easily.

At one point the author of the book, Thomas Hauser, sums up his case with a crescendo of understatement that what happened to Charlie “is intolerable.” With this I could not agree more as it expresses the unsatisfied gnawing feeling one is left with as the years have gone by. Charlie Horman was the kindest, gentlest, most creative and honorable student in my class at Harvard. Not all my classes were that great at Harvard, but one of the really good ones was a creative writing class given by Dr. Kiely, which is where I met Charlie. I remember Charlie Horman giving me criticism on a short story I had written, probably not a particularly good one, at least in its early version, and it is impossible that anyone could have been gentler, more tactful, more helpful, more desirous of giving good criticism without being officious about it. He was such a kind, well-balanced, good-hearted guy. It was so rare to meet such a self-possessed, truly kind and modest at the same time talented person among the insecure youngsters and undergraduates. Charlie is my fondest memory of Harvard, provider by his nature and exemplary character of one of my nicest moments at school.

The movie is pretty true to the story in the book, and to what other facts have come my way by one means or another. The character of Charlie himself, who is portrayed in the movie as a somewhat wise-ass, wild spirited kid though decent and sound, is not quite right in the movie. The book gives a clearer picture of the real Charlie. Charlie Horman was modest and self-effacing and easy going but passionate about writing and learning about things. I believe there was something gentle about him that made the executioners, whether Chilean or American, think they could get away with rubbing him out. (Thousands of gentle Chileans were shortly to meet the same fate.) How wrong they were. What actors in those events are still around must be amazed as the story keeps coming after them and searching them out. This is a story that is going to keep being told as new layers and chapters are added as time goes on and more evidence comes in, as it must over time. It is one more indelible black mark on the Kissinger-Nixon administration, if another one was needed. The shady American government operative Davis who gave Charlie and his wife a lift back to Santiago where Charlie was arrested, and who barged in and looked in so lasciviously on Charlie’s bereft wife in her bathtub, in the movie and the book, has had an extradition order issued for him now by the Chilean Supreme Court (so that he can testify about events), not that it will be enforced. The next generation of Allendes are in positions of power in Chile now.

Old myths and tales of goodness and youth and innocence facing evil ogres and tyrants always have an appeal. The story Missing of Charlie Horman is a true one that also has that deeper truth of a recurring archetype. At the same time it is a true one about a real kid, a cool guy I knew at college. We always want innocence and youth’s goodness to come out on top in the end, and in real life sometimes they do over time, as the truth comes out. The old men, the evil, avaricious, callous, “realistic” enforcers are unmasked finally, and are overcome, if only after the fact as time wears them down. This dynamic is probably at work in the Charlie Horman story, and in a tiny way, as a pebble thrown into this current, I add this piece of reminiscence along with a recommendation of the book and movie. It is my considered faith that goodness and truth are the real powers in the universe and that they won’t be stopped, just held up a good deal. I often think of my friend Charlie Horman. He is more alive for me than ever.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Turn Off the Bubble Machine: E.M. Forster’s Virtual Reality, A Guest Blog by Malcolm McCollum

  I stole my title from a Stan Freberg routine in which he parodies the Lawrence Welk Show that used to be broadcast from the Aragon Ballroom on the Venice beach.  At the end of the show, Welk’s Bubble Machine, which produced the visible signs of his “champagne music,” goes berserk, producing such a Vesuvius of bubbles that the pier is elevated from its moorings and the Avalon is borne out into the dark Pacific, with Welk’s desperate Dakota twang fadingly crying, “Turn off-a da Bubble Machine!  Turn off-a da Bubble Machine.”
        But I have a different bubble machine in mind, as did E.M. Forster when, in 1909, he wrote his long tale, “The Machine Stops.”  This bubble machine creates bubbles, true enough, but they don’t float themselves out to sea.  Rather, they encase individuals from experience - experience of the natural world, of other individuals, of their own bodies and emotions; encase them within transparent walls of images and “ideas.”
        “The Machine Stops” envisions a world in which humans live far beneath the surface of the earth, each one sequestered in a hexagonal cell to which all necessities and approved pleasures are supplied by The Machine.  Food, air, light, water, music,
literature and human company of a sort are available to each cell’s resident at the touch of a button.  
        In one such cell we find Vashti, described as “a swaddled lump of flesh - a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus.”  Vashti receives a call
from her son, Kuno, whose cell is halfway around the world, on a device which allows her to both hear and see him, after a fashion.  Kuno asks her to visit , so that she may explain to him the harm in his desire to visit the surface of the earth.  Loath to leave her cell, Vashti responds that such a desire may hold no harm, but is “contrary to the spirit of the age.”  
        While children are separated from their mothers immediately after birth in Forster’s brave new world, some unacknowledged vestige of maternal love eventually impels
Vashti to undertake the journey to meet with Kuno.  She is transported to him within a series of sealed chambers, including an airship that inadvertently offers her repellent glimpses of the sky, the ocean, Greece and the Himalayas; to all of these, her immediate and automatic response is the same: “No ideas here.”
        Kuno reveals to her what he refused to communicate electronically: he has visited the surface of the earth without having first applied for an Egression Permit, and has, after his recapture by The Machine, been threatened with Homelessness.  This means that he will be ejected from the cell world and left on the surface of the earth, where he will perish immediately from the poison of unmodified air - or so Vashti believes, even though Kuno tells her that not only had he begun to acclimatize to the air on the surface, he had seen human creatures living there.  Repulsed and despairing, Vashti leaves her son to his fated Homelessness and returns to her cell.
        Some time later, Kuno, who has somehow been spared, again calls Vashti with a message that baffles, terrifies and enrages her: “The Machine stops,” Kuno says.
Vashti cuts her ties with the “man who was my son,” reckoning him irretrievably mad.
        But Kuno’s prediction comes to pass.  The music begins to fade and falter; the water turns ever fouler; the poetry machine emits gibberish.  Complaints from the cell-dwellers, directed to the Committee of The Mending Apparatus, multiply.  The communications apparatus breaks down, panic overtakes the cell-dwellers, and Kuno and Vashti are reunited somehow during the final chaos, which is ended when an airship crashes through the surface, exploding tier after tier of the underground world.
        This tale scarcely even meets the typical science fiction story’s minimal level of characterization - we see only two characters, Vashti and Kuno, and they are little more than types: Vashti, the conformist, Kuno, the questioning rebel.  But Forster had something else in mind than a simple, dystopian tale of the future; at the very beginning and the very end of the story, he describes it as “a meditation.”  His meditation concerns the relationships between humans and their tools - the benefits those tools provide and the costs they exact.
        The inhabitants of Forster’s subterranean paradise have available both necessities and pleasures at the touch of a button: “There were buttons and switches everywhere” in Vashti’s chamber - “buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing.  There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid.  There was the cold-bath button.  There was the button that produced literature.  And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends.  The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.”
        In her satisfaction, Vashti is not alone, not a member of some privileged class; in each cell throughout the entire system, the amenities are identical: “...thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over.”  In short, half of the Communist Manifesto’s great vision - to each according to his needs - has been completely realized.
        Thirty-seven years after Forster’s meditation, George Orwell was moved by an article in a popular magazine about “Pleasure Spots of the Future” to observe: “It is difficult not to feel that the unconscious aim in the most typical modern pleasure resorts is a return to the womb.  For there, too, one was never alone, one never saw daylight, the temperature was always regulated, one did not have to worry about work or food, and one’s thoughts, if any, were drowned by a continuous rhythmic throbbing.”  Forster was perhaps thinking of this connection to the womb as he imagined the appearance of the cell-dwellers: Vashti, that “swaddled lump of flesh...white as a fungus” is also to be thought of as “without teeth and hair."  In other words, these citizens whose every need is supplied by The Machine have essentially reverted to homunculi.

        With the exception of the deviant Kuno, the citizens not only do not miss contact with the natural world, they actively fear and loathe it.  When Kuno first requests that Vashti visit him in person, she demurs because,  “I dislike seeing the horrible brown earth, and the sea, and the stars when it is dark.”  After she is driven by residual mother-love to make the trip, her first sight of the airship she will take is even worse: “Yet as Vashti saw the vast flank of the ship, stained with exposure to the outer air, her horror of direct experience returned.”  To her, “All the old literature, with its praise of Nature...rang false as the prattle of a child.”  This attitude is also encouraged by the faceless committees in charge of The Machine.
        It is when Kuno first sees the constellation Orion from an airship that his curiosity about nature is fired, for he sees in this grouping of stars “’... that they were like a man.’”  Kuno, in other words, has begun to imagine that he as a human is somehow a part of nature.  Vashti responds to this notion, “’It does not strike me as a very good idea, but it is certainly original.’”  She senses that Kuno’s identification with nature is “contrary to the spirit of the age;”  in fact, she senses that it is profoundly subversive.  In a world devoted entirely to the satisfactions that can be mechanically provided, any interest in, identification with or contact with Nature threatens the system with potential discontent.
        Vashti’s abhorrence of direct experience operates as well in the sphere of human contact unmediated by the machine - that is, “direct experience” of other humans.  Yet Forster notes near the beginning, “She knew several thousand people; in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.”  Vashti can communicate with these people instantaneously and at will through the medium of what amounts to an interactive computer network.  Further, she can avail herself of the knowledge of all others, as well as that stored up from the past, and she can share her own ideas with everyone who chooses to hear them.  After she repels Kuno’s request to come see him, she delivers her lecture on Australian music, which is “well received.”
        So the other half of the Manifesto’s vision - from each according to his abilities - has also been realized.  Forster’s delicate qualifier regarding the improvement of human communication, “in certain directions,” indicates his attitude, but he lets Kuno phrase his criticism more directly: trying to explain his desire to speak with Vashti in person, Kuno says, “’I see something like you in this plate [the “screen” in which people appear to each other], but I do not see you.  I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you.’”  As the conversation continues, Vashti fancies that Kuno looks sad.  “She could not be sure, for the Machine did not transmit nuances of expression.  It only gave a general idea of people - an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes, Vashti thought.  The imponderable bloom, declared by a discredited philosophy to be the actual essence of intercourse, was rightly ignored by the Machine, just as the imponderable bloom of the grape was ignored by the manufacturers of artificial fruit.”
        And Vashti’s horror of direct experience of other humans is nearly over-powering.  The worst thing about airship travel for her is the need “to submit to glances from the other passengers,” and when the airship’s flight attendant touches her, she cries, “’How dare you!  You forget yourself!’”  Her distaste becomes clearer still when she reaches the end of her journey.  “And if Kuno himself, flesh of her flesh, stood close beside her at last, what profit was there in that?  She was too well-bred to shake him by the hand.”
        Finally, the instant availability of human communication has a paradoxical side- effect; the more quickly and easily people can communicate with each other, the more impatient they become with the slightest delay.  When Vashti takes Kuno’s call, her first words are, “’Be quick!...Be quick, Kuno; here I am in the dark wasting my time.”  
        In Forster’s imagined world, human communication has become nearly instantaneous and potentially universal; that portion of human communication which is received by sight and hearing is available to all, and all but the aberrant find it “good enough for all practical purposes.”  Speed and ease, however, bear costs: the loss of “nuance,” (in other words, of emotion) and a terrible fear of experiencing what other senses bring - fear of smell, of touch, of “the bloom” that defines the grape but is itself indefinable.  Meaning that it cannot be reduced to an “idea.”
        In his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander asks his readers to perform an experiment: “Please go look into a mirror.  As you gaze at yourself, try to get a sense of what is lost between the mirror image of you, and you.  You might ask someone to join you facing the mirror.  If so, you will surely feel that other person’s presence as you stand there.  But in the reflection, this feeling will be lost.  You will be left with only the image.... What is missing from the reflection is life, or essence.”
        But Vashti and her fellows seem to sense no loss in their condition.  They feel, instead, that they are in complete control of their lives.  When Kuno telephones Vashti, “The woman touched a switch and the music was silent.”  Music is simply a commodity at the command of individual whim.  When Vashti’s refusal to come see him irritates Kuno, “His image in the blue plate faded....He had isolated himself.”  
        What a male paradise; if a woman disputes your desires with illogical arguments, flip a switch and disappear!  Every man’s dream has finally been realized.  (This scene is reminiscent of the moment in Tim Burton’s great film Mars Attacks!  in which Joe Don Baker, secure for the moment in his trailer in the desert, watches his Marine son on television take up arms against the hostile Martians, only to be incinerated down to a still-charging skeleton.  Baker’s response is to frantically punch the remote, seeking a better outcome on another channel.)
        But at what cost does this mastery of life come?  The cost is pretty high, in Forster’s vision.  And the highest cost can be seen in Vashti’s complete loss of self-knowledge.  When Kuno appears on her “plate,” Vashti’s “white face wrinkle[s] into smiles,” and she is impelled to visit him in person by the thought that “there was something special about Kuno - indeed there had been something special about all her children - and, after all, she must brave the journey if he desired it.”  But when Kuno telephones her toward the end of the tale with the cryptic message, “’The Machine stops,’” she says to a friend, “’A man who was my son believes that the Machine is stopping.’”  When she must choose between the Machine and her son, her natural but perfectly unconscious maternal feelings are readily expendable.
        Because scarcely any self is left, a terrible emptiness is evinced by the need for constant and immediate mental stimulation.  After Kuno isolates himself, Vashti immediately turns off the isolation switch which has allowed her to talk to only one person, and “all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her.  The room was filled with the noise of bells, and speaking-tubes.  What was the new food like?...Had she had any ideas lately?  Might one tell her one’s own ideas?...To most of these questions she replied with irritation - a growing quality in that accelerated age.” Constant, instant, inescapable communication fills a void for these people, but because it does not truly fill the void, it becomes increasingly irritating, and the people become increasingly impatient with the current communication which is preventing the next communication from arriving.
        The Committee of the Machine senses that this void is becoming a problem - Kuno’s unauthorized visit to the earth’s surface alerts them to this danger - and so it undertakes to provide the citizens with a new religion, the worship of the Machine and its instructional manual, the Book of the Machine.
        “Those who had long worshipped silently,” Forster observes, “now began to talk.  They described the strange feeling of peace that came over them when they handled the Book of the Machine, the pleasure that it was to repeat certain numerals out of it, however little meaning those numerals conveyed to the outward ear, the ecstasy of touching a button, however unimportant, or of ringing an electric bell, however superfluously.  ‘The Machine,’ they exclaimed, ‘feeds us and clothes us and houses us; through it we speak to one another, through it we see one another, in it we have our being.  The Machine is the friend of ideas and the enemy of superstition: the Machine is omnipotent, eternal; blessed is the Machine.’”
        And so the “creation of man,”  the Machine which serves all human needs and desires that can be served by reason, becomes not servant but master:  “The word ‘religion’ was sedulously avoided, and in theory the Machine was still the creation and the implement of man.  But in practice all, save a few retrogrades, worshipped it as divine.”  However, in Forster’s imagination, the Machine proves a false god, for even reason has its limits.  As the Machine is failing, the Committee of the Mending Apparatus, besieged by complaints, must finally issue the mournful bulletin, “The Mending Apparatus is in need of repair.”  This marvelous admission may epitomize Forster’s skepticism toward the primacy of reason, but the costs to humanity he has noted along the way have done so far more completely.
        Forster saw with remarkable clarity that “science” and technology were erecting barriers between humans and the natural world, between humans and other humans, and between humans and their own experience of their humanity.  He saw that if people learned that they needed machines to communicate with other people, the machines would take on a life of their own.  He saw that people cut off from direct experience would become infinitely malleable, nearly identical and dead to all stimuli except those available to the intellect through the ears and eyes.
        “The Machine Stops” is short on characterization because it describes a world in which character - that is, individuality - has nearly vanished, replaced by “ideas.”  That is, by constructs of words entirely disconnected from direct experience of life, and which cannot be checked against direct experience of life because no one has any.
In this world, people are not only shielded from direct experience (and this is the benefit of technology), they are prevented from having it (and this is the cost).  People have created the Machine to mediate between them and Nature, them and each other, them and themselves; the Machine has thus become their master.
        I might be excused if this reminds me of the title of a textbook in use at my college: A World of Ideas .  The “ideas” in Forster’s story are pretty well summed up in a well-received lecture supporting the abolition of travel to the earth’s surface:  “Those who still wanted to know what the earth was like had after all only to listen to some gramophone, or to look into some cinematophote....’Beware of first-hand ideas....First-hand ideas do not really exist.  They are but the physical impressions produced by love and fear, and on this gross foundation who could erect a philosophy?  Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from the disturbing element - direct observation.”
        Here are the observations of two students quoted by Peter Sacks in his book Generation X Goes to College :  
        “Lectures are just one person talking, and it’s kind of just not really any tone.  Something that’s loud and flashes or something like that, it grabs your attention.  When somebody is just standing there just talking, it makes you want to fall asleep.... I think the media is out of control.  Technology is moving so fast.  We need to take a breath and stop for a while and give people time to catch up,” says Angie, apparently unaware of a self-contradiction that would have stupefied Walt Whitman.
        To which Frederick adds, “Higher education doesn’t work any more.  It doesn’t challenge.  We (students) think the media is more substantial than you the teacher.  We don’t value what teachers say and do.  We’re afraid of what you will say and do; it’s so personal.  With media it’s so impersonal.  We don’t want to be personal any more with anybody.  We don’t want to confront our emotions.  Machines are easier.  If we can get it from machines, we don’t have to get it from a person.  The media is passive, safer.  It doesn’t really affect us.”
        These remarks demonstrate how completely many of our children have been encased in their bubbles, and how completely their minds have come to resemble Vashti’s in their fear of others and of the self, in their febrile need for “something that’s loud and flashes or something like that.”
        Can we somehow turn these tools - the TV, the VCR, the LCD projector, the computer, the Internet - to our purposes as human beings?  I don’t think so.
        For one thing, they are meant to encase people so that those people can be supplied with pre-approved thoughts and values and needs, and they are meant to make sequential thought essentially impossible.  If only something that’s loud and flashes can get your attention, then your attention becomes merely a stultified blur, anxiously awaiting the next bang or flash.  For another, they are meant to encase people in the belief that they, themselves, are reality - “more substantial,” as Frederick says, than other humans, and far less threatening.
        Third, film, television and the Internet all place the highest possible premium on speed, in order to reduce those periods of stultified blur to the minimum.  “’Be quick, Kuno; here I am in the dark wasting my time,’” says Vashti.  “In a perfect world, everything would be different,” opines a recent Dodge commercial; in other words, in a perfect world change would be perpetual, erasing any vestigial impulse to reflect upon whether the new everything was in fact an improvement upon the supplanted everything.
        I recently received a glossy, jazzy, multi-color brochure from Adelphia, encouraging me to “Experience the breathtaking speed” of their Internet cable connection.   They feel sure I will wish to “feel the rush of video, sound, graphics, and tons of information screaming in and out of [my] computer.”  In my “more gratifying Internet” experience, they assure me, “Web pages appear in a flash, as fast as you can click on them.  Files that took minutes or even hours to download now arrive in mere seconds.  So let slowpokes stare at half-filled screens.  You’ve got better things to do!”
        Nowhere in the brochure is any suggestion of what those “better things” might be, or, indeed, any mention at all of the content of these Web pages and files.  The point is to keep those moments of time wasted in darkness at bay.
        In Slowness, Milan Kundera writes, “There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.  Consider this utterly commonplace situation: a man is walking down a street.  At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him.  Automatically, he slows down.  Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time. In existential mathematics, that experience takes the form of two basic equations: the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.”
        The intensity of forgetting is visible on a daily basis.  It can be seen in Angie’s and Frederick’s ability to contradict themselves in succeeding paragraphs without noticing that they’ve done so.  It leads to sentences like the one a student of mine wrote about William Bennett’s apology for the War on Drugs: “Bennett’s essay is filled with fallacies, which makes it very persuasive.”
        It may be, of course, that my student did not forget that he’d accused Bennett of mendacity before he praised him for his persuasiveness.  I find in many of my best students a profound acceptance of lying, illogic and gross appeals to emotion as the norms of communication.  This is scarcely cause for wonder, since they have been raised in a bombardment of advertising and promotion, dialects characterized by those very characteristics.
        For those reasons, I do not think we can make use of these technologies to teach our children to either care about writing well or thinking well.  I don’t think we can use them to teach our children anything except further dependence upon technology. It seems clear to me, as it did to Forster, that our worship of The Machine is rapidly reducing us to the condition of Vashti - that is, of fungi in human form.  
        Teaching Freshman Comp for thirty years provides a remarkable opportunity to view the contents of each successive year’s minds.  In my experience, this has resembled the opportunity to watch a photograph un -develop; the images have grown fainter and fainter, fewer and fewer, as the ideas have become increasingly “far removed from the disturbing element - direct observation.”
        If the claims of The Machine’s promoters are remotely true, then the generation of students we teach today, and have been teaching for at least five years, must be the brightest, best-informed, best educated students in the history of the known universe.  Their easy access to “information” has certainly been greater than any preceding generation’s.  Can it be that access to “information” is not necessarily the key to knowledge or to wisdom?  What is “information”?  
        I have spent the last 25 years living with a severe back injury I sustained moving one of those accursed hide-a-beds, and being generally stupid.  When my injury is about to get serious with me, it sends me signs through very circuitous routes.  For example, if I start experiencing the sensation of nausea, I know that one of my vertebrae between 12 and 17 is out of line.  It’s not that I ate something I shouldn’t have; it’s that I need to lie down on the floor and straighten out my sixteenth vertebra.  My occasional sensations of nausea are information; my knowledge of what to do about them is not information; it’s something else.  
        It is knowledge derived directly from physical experience combined with the teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais, whose book Awareness Through Movement taught me how to become my own back specialist.  One of the things he taught me was that “symptoms” don’t necessarily manifest themselves where they originate.  Another was that using motion as a sort of imaginative x-ray, I could trace pain or discomfort to its source, if I was willing to take the time and expend the energy that imagination required.
        Learning to imagine (see in your head) your own body resembles learning to ask the kinds of questions required by anything that can be called reading or anything that can be called writing.  Such learning means close attention to detail, retention of a number of apparently unrelated details in mind over time, and seeking relationships among those details that make them mean something.  These activities require time and patience.  There’s no way around it.
        I could have consulted a back specialist or a chiropractor when I first injured my back, and perhaps spared myself the three months during which I could only get around on all fours or the two years during which I was one wrong move away from that condition.  I could have, except that I couldn’t afford to, my financial position being, as the sportscasters say, day-to-day.
        I’m grateful I invested my time in reading Feldenkrais and teaching myself what his words meant.  Had I gone to a doctor, I would still be in thrall to the medical profession, obliged to fork over large sums whenever my back got feeling poorly.  Equally likely, I’d be a permanent cripple, sections of my spine fused by some helpful surgeon.  As it is, my back is more reliable and strong than it was when I was 20, because I pay attention to its messages and know what they mean when I get them.
        What conclusions do I wish to assert from this tedious personal history?  
        That we always face a basic choice between relying on our own human powers (which we have let atrophy as we have fallen ever deeper into idolizing our tools) and relying on The Machine, otherwise known as Cutting Edge Technology or “Science.”
        That Cutting Edge Technology costs a great deal of money (which would better be applied to supporting human teachers and students), while developing our human powers costs only time - the time it takes to develop, study and refine individual perception, knowledge, memory, imagination, concentration.
        That the money spent on Cutting Edge Technology represents gigantic amounts of time spent by innumerable numbers of people.  We mortgage our future time to the demands of Bill Gates.  Perhaps only as we approach the end of it do we realize that time is our only actual currency.
        The benefits of Cutting Edge Technology as tools for teaching or learning or living are self-canceling.  If we and our children are pouring down cup after cup of legal speed to enable us to work longer hours so that we can afford to buy the latest version of “something that’s loud or flashes,” we will find that we don’t have time to make any thoughtful use of that loud, flashing something.
        Not being able to afford the latest Scientific Breakthrough might be the best break available to the human race.
        Our children have grown up in a world of electronic images and sounds that have supplanted direct experience and terribly stunted their powers of perception of the other and of themselves.  They have been most effectively instructed to believe that the Present is the only reality, and so they have no collective and precious little personal past.  (I’ve never been able to forget the answer one student gave to the question a Newsweek reporter asked in 1983:  “What do you know about John F. Kennedy?”  “He’s dead,” the student replied; “What’s to know?”)
        These children do not need further instruction in the art of passive viewing.  They do not need to be told that education means picking up the capsulized “messages” spoon-fed them by some inordinately expensive substitute for an overhead projector or a book; they don’t, for that matter, need an overhead projector.  They do not need to be encouraged to believe that knowledge, understanding, or wisdom reside in packages instantly available at the touch of a button.
        But these are the messages we give them, every time we fail to protest the purchase of the latest software “upgrade” (in which the Talking Paper Clip appears for the first time in three dimensions, yet more sublimely certain it knows what you want to do better than you do) and the latest hardware “upgrade” the software mandates. These are the messages we give them when we replace direct contact with “media” in our classrooms and our homes.
        I pay enough attention to job announcements to have noticed that technological savvy has become almost mandatory for those seeking work as teachers.  While I despise this development, I recognize that no young teacher can afford to appear to reside anywhere but on the Cutting Edge.  So I address this, finally, to my fellow Old Teachers:  can we afford to let this worship of The Machine continue unquestioned?
        I can’t; don’t know about the rest of you.  I can say that students need teachers, not entertaining electronic images.  I can say that the purpose of humanity is the development of each individual to that person’s greatest capacities, and that that development can only happen if the individual spends a lot of time paying attention to his or her immediate, sensory world.  I can say that learning to see and hear and smell and feel the world, and then think about what those senses bring in, is a demanding life’s work, and doesn’t leave time to worry about how to wire up the camcorder to the electric fan so that the wind can become visible.  I can turn off the Bubble Machine.

Malcolm McCollum
1419 North Royer
Colorado Springs  
CO               80907