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Philip Christman

Talking to Stateside on Michigan Public Radio, about the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, Volume Six

First, I must speak those dread words “I’m sorry for the lack of posting. I’m gonna get myself together in the next week or so, and I have big plans for this blog!” We all know that those words are almost always a death sentence, the last or next-to-last new post ever to appear on what soon becomes yet another Internet fossil, the social-media equivalent of a minor horror-movie character who says “I’m going to go get help!” [Skips merrily off.] [Sudden crunching noise.]

However, assuming those words aren’t actually cursed, I will do my best to make them true. The next book in the library that I thought I ought to blog about happens to be The Archaeology of Knowledge by Michel Foucault, and you can’t just toss that off (much as you may want to toss the book itself all sorts of places while you’re reading it).

Also, I have been very occupied with The Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, Volume Six: The Sky is On Fire, After All. This is the first issue of the Review that I’ve edited. It’s a product of the Prison Creative Arts Project, which my wife runs. Till now, it was edited entirely by student and community volunteers: high-achieving college kids, recently graduated PCAPpers, local writers, ex-prisoners returned home, local writers who are also ex-prisoners returned home, U of M staff with a literary bent, an experimental poet, a soccer enthusiast, a kindly chiropractor, and anyone else who wanted to pitch in. It’s still basically that, but I pretend I’m in charge. It makes me feel important.

Actually, the real glue this year was Leigh Sugar, my co-editor, who worked on the journal as a student and told me what the hell I was supposed to do at literally every step. She got paid nothing. (Neither did I, but she did more of the grunt work.) She combines the pleasant, nonthreatening, laid-back affect of a vegan restauranteur with razor-sharp organizational skills. She is a thoroughly good egg, and will make some nonprofit very happy very soon.

Leigh and I talked to Cynthia Canty from the Michigan Public Radio show Stateside last week. “I’m going to be on the radio. My mom will be thrilled,” I told Cynthia. The program will air on Wednesday, March 12, at 3PM and 10PM. It will appear on the show’s web page soon after that:

(I hope they include the part where I dis Louis Althusser.)

Also, for anybody who lives near Ann Arbor or Detroit, we’re doing two readings. I went to last year’s. They’re pretty moving, because we try to recruit family members or friends of our incarcerated writers to read those folks’ work. (By “we recruit” I, again, basically mean “Leigh recruits.”) They’re free and open to the public.

They take place:

Ann Arbor
Saturday, March 15th 3:30 pm
Location: Pendleton Room, University of Michigan Union

Saturday, April 5th  8 pm
Location: 1515 Broadway, Detroit, MI 48226

There’s a reason that Mr. Spock is among the best-known of all cult TV-show charactersI mean, besides his Vulcan Nerve Pinch on the sexual imagination of fan-fiction-writing housewives. He embodies our culture’s truly weird idea of what logic is: something cold, godlike, and alien, set apart from humanity, something that generates theories and goals and conclusions rather than testing them in light of presuppositions. Not only the game’s ref and rulebook, but also the only player.

Spock’s coldness, then, is the other half of what makes him a reassuring fantasy: he keeps getting infected by our human “illogic” and throws in his lot with us. Logic must be tempered by emotion, as embodied in that dear old pain in the ass Dr. McCoy. But this won’t wash. Logic doesn’t need to be humanized by emotion; it needs to be directed at the right moral and metaphysical ends. And we’re the ones who decide, with or without divine guidance, what those are: logic doesn’t generate them, because it doesn’t generate anything. It can no more give them to us than a chesspiece can tell us what the rules of chess are. Logic is no more “inhuman” than forks or belts.

The science fiction of the Cold War period is littered with what you might call Dark Spocks, creatures of this chimerical “pure logic” who turn against humanity because of our “impurity.” They are usually presented as part of a timeless and inevitable philosophical struggle: Logic Vs. Emotion, Purity Vs. Mess, or whatever, and this is a mystification whenever it happens, because what these characters really stand in for is recent political history. 

Soldiers of Reason is a study of the RAND Corporation, one of those institutions (the CIA is another) formed just after World War II to keep the old band together. In this case, it was Air Force generals who enjoyed the new importance that nuclear weapons seemed to confer on their branch of the service (since nukes are dropped from midair, ideally), and sought to continue using the kind of concentrated genius represented by the Manhattan Project to ensure both American dominance of the postwar world, and Air Force dominance of the military budget. (Abella’s book is beautifully summarized here, in prose far better than Abella’s. This is not a book you read for its sentences.) Many important ideas, some of them terrible, were dreamed up by the mathematicians, social scientists, physicists and other intellectuals on RAND’s payroll. Some of those ideas are “important” like vaccines; others are “important” like smallpox. For example, RAND gave us packet-switching, a method for distributing information through networks that was infinitely more flexible than circuit-switching and which helped make the internet possible. (The added flexibility was thought necessary in case of a Russian nuclear attack.) They also gave us  rational choice theories (“a helluva drug,” as dear old Tressie likes to call them) and, under the heading of “plan for every scenario,” some of the most lurid disaster porn ever written. All the major RAND ideas betray the kind of will to simplification that is the hallmark of the Dark Spocks: history, morality, tradition, loyalty, politics, etc. are irrational distractions from winning the game. John Williams,  who headed up the math department and designed the organization’s Santa Monica headquarters, apparently favored an American preemptive strike against the Soviet Union, followed by one-world government that would institute the “rule of reason” everywhere. There’s a Burroughsian place where the fantasies of the most thoroughgoing reductionists become indistinguishable from the wildest and most childish of sci-fi plots. Some of these people lived there. They were the real Dark Spocks, and they worked just down the road from the lot where “Star Trek” was filmed. I didn’t particularly enjoy visiting their world, but my time there was certainly clarifying. And it sharpened my gratitude (chiefly by sharpening my sense of surprise) that the world, despite the best efforts of these folks and their Soviet counterparts, existed long enough for me to be born into it. 

I have an embarrassingly large collection of books that purport to tell you how to do simple, everyday things. This is probably because I feel hopelessly flummoxed by life, and feel that my inability to remember whether it’s AM or PM red skies that you have to be worried about, or to sand a block of wood in such a way as to ensure victory in the Gratiot County Pinewood Derby of 1987, will one day bite me and those I love in the ass. My wife thinks my collection of these books, with titles like Staying SafeThe Big Book of Outdoor LoreWhen Technology FailsHow to Mow the Lawn, etc., is very funny, because of course these books are unreadable, and the thing about unreadable books is that nobody reads them, not even, most of the time, me. So whenever I buy one we have the following conversation:

Self: I’m so psyched about this copy of How to Not Get Killed by a Gang of Street Toughs!
Wife [reading dust jacket]: “From the author of How to Pet Strange Dogs.” I suppose, then, you actually intend to read this? Like, before the Second Coming?
Self: Of course!
Wife: Just like your copy of How to Mow the Lawn, then.
Self: …
Wife: And your copy of How to Keep Chickens.
Self: …
Wife: And your copy of Burning Off Fifteen Dollars For Shits and Giggles.
Self: It was only thirteen.
Wife: Except wait! That’s one you actually read! And you take its advice!

This from the woman who won’t let me take boxing lessons. What does she expect me to do if (hell, WHEN!) we’re attacked by a gang of street toughs?

The AG section is full of books like this. I was very excited to read them. Unfortunately, all the ones I’ve found so far were, judging by the prose style/usefulness level/sense of humor, written by slumming expatriate Tory journalists during the last days of Watergate. Just check out this sample from Peter Passell’s How to … (FSG, 1976):

How to Buy an Island
A good island must be accessible, if not for guests, for grocery and fuel deliveries. It should have a fresh-water source, sufficient soil to maintain vegetation, reasonable drainage, and safe swimming conditions. … Keep in mind, also, that buying an island doesn’t mean it will be yours forever. The US Marines are not likely to come to your rescue when the natives decide you are an imperialist running dog. Except, perhaps, if your cousin is Richard Helms.

Oh, Muffy! Not the Richard Helms jokes again! I think someone has had enough wine coolers for one yachting trip!

(Passell actually does provide an entry for how to charter a yacht. However, my doctor has advised me to avoid quoting any sources that might cause vertiginous testosterone drops.)

John Malone, author of Facts on File’s The How-To Book (1985), is less irritatingly patrician than Passell, who also offers advice on buying oriental rugs and choosing a white-collar prison. (!) But he’s just as useless. In a lightning storm, avoid metal objects and high ground, and try not to be the most sticky-uppy thing on the horizon. Hang up on an obscene phone caller quietly and report repeat offenders to the police. Pain in the chest and left shoulder may mean a heart attack, so don’t ignore that. I knew all of these things, and I am the least practical person I know. Back in the Day: 101 Things Everyone Used to Know How to Do, meanwhile, covers jousting, ballroom dancing, and poultices, in about the same level of detail you could get from watching people do these things in a bad B-movie on an eight-inch screen, in black and white, and basically functions to assure me that I’ve already done the most important task for keeping myself alive: not getting born during the damned middle ages in the first place.

I look to these books to serve as a sort of prosthetic phallus, to use Freudian terminology: a big external possession that reassures me I’m equipped for adult life. Actually reading them has given me something much more important: the realization that I’m probably as well-equipped as, God help us all, most people.

This is a book by the German-born novelist/translator Philipp Blom, telling the story behind the great eighteenth-century Encyclopedie of Denis Diderot et. al. It is frustratingly simplistic throughout in the way that it opposes champions of Enlightenment to the forces of darkness (priests, aristocrats, etc.). It has a handful of what seemed to me like inaccuracies (in one chapter, Blom gives a description of the ontological argument for God’s existence that left me wondering whether he or I had failed to pay attention during Philosophy 101). It’s not always beautifully written.

Does that sound as though I didn’t enjoy the book? Because I did, thoroughly. It added a lot to my understanding of eighteenth-century Europe (what it will add to your understanding I could hardly guess), and it is full of the kind of important-people-gossip that makes “Downton Abbey” such a guilty pleasure for me. (Or did, till they arrested Bates. I mean, come the fuck on. I can only be obviously manipulated for so long with no payoff before it stops being fun and I totally withdraw my emotions. That’s why my first college relationships flopped.)

To start with. The reason Denis Diderot never really wrote his great philosophical masterwork (something to compare with Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary or Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality) is because he got arrested early in his career. After three months in a dungeon, he signed a document promising never to attack the church or aristocracy again, on pain of life imprisonment. All his life he has this stupid contract hanging over his head. Would you produce your best work in those circumstances?

Another thing I learned: Do you remember that paranoid drama queen that you were probably friends with somewhere between age 17 and age 19, who at first was the warmest, most interesting, spontaneous, wonderful person you’ve ever met and six weeks later has written you off completely because the color of your socks proves that you’re a hypocritical sellout who’s “totally against him”? Yeah, that was pretty much Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He and Diderot were as close as brothers for years, but as Rousseau came to see society as the source of nearly all human corruption, he started seeing corrupt and hypocritical motivations behind the actions of all the players on Team Enlightenment, including Diderot. Meanwhile, he treated his mistress and his patroness like shit, tried to hook up with his patroness’s sister-in-law while living “the simple life” on his patroness’s estate (and allowing his mistress’s octogenarian mother to work herself to death keeping house for him), and scolded everyone else for being a hypocrite. It all really illustrates the truth of Arnold Toynbee’s dictum: “More than any other of the men to whom we owe our modern concept of freedom, Jean-Jacques Rousseau needed to be punched in the nuts.” OK, maybe I said that.

Blom’s book is full of these sorts of fascinating stories. I almost never look at the several pages of portraits that are invariably bound into the middle of a nonfiction book like this; I pored over them here, because I had gotten personally invested in these people and wanted to know what they looked like.

Rousseau, of course, wore a stupid hat.

Baron D’Holbach, that notorious freethinker, looks like a used-car salesman in a wig.

Here is Diderot’s close friend, Baron Friedrich Melchior von Grimm, one of the few Germans whom French people thought spoke French correctly. As a young man, he almost died for love, thereby possibly inspiring Goethe to create Werther, and definitely inspiring a lot of French women to sleep with him.

Below we see Diderot’s co-editor, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, who was pretty high-maintenance and stuck Diderot with most of the job, and finally quit after like the fifteenth time the Catholic Church tried to have them all killed. What a wuss. I absolutely love this picture; he looks exactly like that guy that played Kirk’s estranged son in Star Trek II.

Klingon bastards killed my son!

Finally, here’s Chevalier Louis Jaucourt. More than any other person, he is responsible for the success of the Encyclopedie. A Hugueunot (French Calvinist), he wrote nearly 18,000 entries, paid for much of the research out of his own deep pockets, and covered all the really boring topics. He was a saint. Nobody liked him.

Albert Einstein on pacificism, nuclear disarmament, one-world government, intellectual honesty, and the Old One. (I love it when he calls God that. It makes it sound like Einstein believed in Cthulu.)

Also, holy shit:

From the latest results of the theory of relativity it is probable that our three-dimensional space is also approximately spherical, that is, that the laws of disposition of rigid bodies in it are not given by Euclidean geometry, but approximately by spherical geometry, if only we consider parts of space which are sufficiently extended. Now this is the place where the reader’s imagination boggles. [This is the last thing in the essay that I can wholeheartedly understand and agree with.] “Nobody can imagine this thing,” he cries indignantly. “It can be said, but cannot be thought. I can imagine a spherical surface well enough, but nothing analogous to it in three dimensions.”

We must try to surmount this barrier in the mind, and the patient reader will see that it is by no means a particularly difficult task. [Just mock me, why don't  you?] For this purpose we will first give our attention once more to the geometry of two-dimensional spherical surfaces. In the adjoining figure let K be the spherical surface, touched at S by a plane, E, which, for facility of presentation, is shown in the drawing as a bounded surface. Let L be a disc on the spherical surface. Now let us imagine that at point N of the spherical surface, diametrically opposite to S, there is a luminous point, throwing a shadow L’ of the disc L upon the plane E. Every point on the sphere has its shadow on the plane. If the disc on the sphere K is moved, its shadow L’ on the plane E also moves. When the disc L is at S, it almost exactly coincides with its shadow. If it moves on the spherical surface away from S upwards, the disc shadow L’ on the plane also moves away from S on the plane outwards, growing bigger and bigger. As the disc L approaches the luminous point N, the shadow moves off to infinity, and becomes infinitely great…

The representation given above of spherical geometry on the plane is important for us, because it readily allows itself to be transferred to the three-dimensional case. [Oh, indeed, readily.]

After having gained a vivid mental image [!] of the geometrical behavior of our L’ spheres, let us assume that in our space there are no rigid bodies at all in the sense of Euclidean geometry, but only bodies having the behavior of our L” spheres. Then we shall have a clear picture of three-dimensional spherical space, or, rather of three-dimensional spherical geometry. Here our spheres must be called “rigid” spheres. Their increase in size as they depart from S is not to be detected by measuring with measuring-rods, any more than in the case of the disc-shadows on E, because the standards of measurement behave in the same way as the spheres. Space is homogeneous, that is to say, the same spherical configurations are possible in the neighborhood of every point. Our space is finite, because, in consequence of the “growth” of the spheres, only a finite number of them can find room in space.

In this way, by using as a crutch [!!!] the practice in thinking and visualization which Euclidean geometry gives us, we have acquired a mental picture of spherical geometry. We may without difficulty impart more depth and vigor to these ideas by carrying out special imaginary constructions. Nor would it be difficult to represent the case of what is called elliptical geometry in an analogous manner. My only aim today has been to show that the human faculty of visualization is by no means bound to capitulate to non-Euclidean geometry.

This must be the worst crutch ever made. I used it, and now both legs are broken.

I copy this here, incidentally, in the hope that by having it around to re-read a hundred times I will eventually get it. You can read the original piece here.

Titles being my least favorite part of writing, I’ll make the title of this piece misleading right away. The following are not the reasons why Dylan Farrow’s renewal of accusations that Woody Allen molested her in 1993, when she was seven, have not yet caused me to toss out my copy of one of the greatest movies ever made.

1. Because That Bitch is Just Crazy/Lying/After His Money. (How the hell would I know that? More importantly, given how universally that line of argument is used to dismiss any woman to whom anything bad happens, ever, why wouldn’t I view these arguments with suspicion? Moreover, if common decency flinches from attributing horrible deeds to Woody Allen, a stranger, why would it be any more comfortable attributing such motives to Dylan Farrow?)

2. Because Though He May Have Done Horrible Things, We As Intellectuals Must Separate the Art From the Artist. (How do you do that, exactly? Art is, among other things, a kind of distanced communication, and communication always occurs in a context. In this case, that context may well be that Woody Allen is, to use his own terms, horrible as well as miserable. And for me, at least, that context has been inescapable, of late.)

3. Because I Just Can’t Believe That the Guy Who Came Up With [Scene Name Here] Could Possibly… (See art history, passim.)

Nothing I’m saying here is intended to cast aspersions on Dylan Farrow. Whether her open letter to the New York Times describes things that happened to her or things that she was coached to think happened to her (by a person betrayed beyond human capacity to bear), it takes guts to step forward as she has. And she will face reprisals, whether they come from Woody Allen or not. Anyone whose name gets mentioned on CNN once, in whatever context, is gonna get, at the least, creepy mail for the rest of her life.

For what it’s worth, it’s also true that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pay money for a Woody Allen movie again. But that ship sailed a long time ago: ca. 1989, in fact, when Allen allowed Martin Landau’s Crimes and Misdemeanors character to get away with murder, because life means only what we say it means. Woody Allen gave up any pretense of moral seriousness with that film, and when you give up moral seriousness, even if you’re a comedian—especially if you’re a comedian—you give up on making art that matters. Before Crimes and Misdemeanors his characters’ worrying at Big Problems and Existential Issues felt at least intermittently genuine; after that, it was a tic, or, worse, an assertion of cultural capital: you should care about these spoiled, vain, selfish people because they have been furnished with expensive educations and the ability to quote Kierkegaard more or less accurately. They are like us. In retrospect you could see the rot setting in as early as Manhattan, a movie that insists you sympathize with Isaac because … why, exactly? He dated a 17-year-old? Because he’s a writer, and not a very good one at that? Because True Love? It’s not clear what makes him less awful than anyone else in the movie, which is why Manhattan didn’t hold up for me on adult rewatching.

But Annie Hall… well, let’s say I decide I have a right to a definite yes-or-no opinion on the question “Is Woody Allen a child molester?” (I will argue below for why I don’t think I do and, in particular, why I resist a hardening left-wing consensus that says that bystanders must always believe accusers by default.) Annie Hall is the first work of art in any medium that told a nonlinear story to me in a way that made sense. It is the first movie that I ever watched, rewound, and immediately watched again. It conditioned my ability to read modern literature and art and probably helped to make me a writer. The day I met my wife-to-be, she mentioned it in conversation, unprompted, and this was one of several remarks she made that factored into my feeling like we had enough in common that I couldn’t go back to my room that night without kissing her, that she and I had achieved a level of rapport that was unprecedented for me and that for me not to kiss her that very night would be a kind of impiety, an unforgivable falseness to something good. And that kiss, in turn, was what made our eventual getting-together pretty much inevitable (much later, she referred to it as “the most romantic moment of my life”). I’m not saying that Annie Hall is too good of a movie to give up on over a little thing like child-molesting. I’m saying that I don’t know what it even means to conceive of myself without that movie somewhere in the picture. No Annie Hall, no me. It’s like trying to edit out a town you once lived in or a family member.

To say even this much is to open yourself up to the accusation that you’re sticking up for a culture that allows men to get away with these sorts of crimes. That suspicion is bolstered by the argument, which I’ve encountered in several venues but that I’ve seen best expressed here, that that says we should believe victims of rape, molestation, and sexual harassment by default. The argument usually concedes that court cases are a separate thing (there, you should use evidence and logic), but as far as mere social life is concerned, if someone says that Woody Allen molested her, she should be believed by default, until there’s certain proof against her or she recants. And he should be treated as though he did it. Then a second argument, which emerged in response to the revelation of Gunter Grass’s teenage Naziism and has since been levied at writer/john William Vollmann, tells us what we’re to do with artists whom we know (because default!) have done monstrous things: Never read, acknowledge, mention, or enjoy them again.

My first response to this is as the son-in-law of a man many of whose neighbors are sure that he killed his mother, and who was found guilty of same in a court of law, and who didn’t do it. That response is unprintable.

My second, less visceral response is to point out that nobody actually lives up to this code. For example, if you’re thinking judgmental thoughts about me for still acknowledging my personal debts to Annie Hall … well, I’ll assume you trashed all the R. Kelly sound files on your computer a long time ago. But did you pay money to see American Hustle—probably the best film of 2013, and definitely the only one made by a man whose transgender niece accused him of uninvited groping? Do you like Johnny Cash, who burned down a forest, or Elvis Costello, who yelled the n-word in a crowded bar? (Is there a Statute of Limitations on social shaming?) Dave Chappelle has rehabilitated Rick James for frat boys, but not, I suspect, for the woman James tortured. On my Twitter timeline, some of the same people who are so proud of their compassionate response to Dylan Farrow were the ones reacting angrily, mere days or weeks ago, to any mention of Pete Seeger’s Stalinism or Amiri Baraka’s anti-Semitism. And of course Woody Allen’s staunch defenders have made much of Mia Farrow’s continued protestations of friendship for Roman Polanski.

And that’s just considering the living and the recently dead. If we assume no statute of limitations, here’s who else can’t judge me: people who still listen to Michael Jackson on their car radios (I’m not sure he actually molested those kids either, but we’re talking about a culture of always believing victims); academics who continue to revere Louis Althusser, who definitely did strangle his wife; anyone who loves ’80s “Doctor Who” (John Nathan-Turner was recently accused of using his status as showrunner to lure underage teenagers backstage, where he’d try to have his way with them).

Some of the people mentioned above are probably innocent. Some definitely aren’t. (Elvis Costello was rightly and publicly ashamed of his juvenile tirade thirty-three years ago, and that capacity for shame is one reason that he’s so good at writing richly self-scrutinizing material. Again, it’s hard to fully separate art from artist.) Facts and logic may yet settle some particular cases. But facts, logic ,and particular cases are exactly what we’re being told to ignore when someone says “Believe Group X by default.” A culture of default belief in victims is actually a culture of default belief of accusers. Now, if our only options were that, or the culture we have now—the culture of That Bitch Is Just After His Money—I would, with fear and trembling, opt for the former. It seems defensible to risk a blackmailer’s paradise to get rid of a rapist’s paradise. But these aren’t our only options. In the absence of knowledge, we can always go with agnosticism: with “I don’t know, and I’ll probably never know.” And I’m more interested in defending that than I am in defending Woody Allen. Hesitation and indecision are important weapons against false certainty, and many of the worst things we do are done from that.

Except for this: Whatever else he did, Woody Allen, in making Annie Hall, helped me learn how hesitation and indecision can result in art.

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