Fiction v. History

by James Wallace Harris, 9/25/22

Ken Burns’s new documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, punched me in the soul. No documentary has ever moved me as much, and I’ve seen a lot of them. And it’s not because it’s about the Holocaust. I’ve even read about most of the painful facts it presents before. No, the gestalt of this film, which is well over six hours, is to set off an epiphany about our relationship with history.

At the highest level, the documentary asks: What did Americans know about the treatment of the Jews under the Nazis from 1932 to 1945 and when and how did they learn it? But to answer that question Ken Burns and company have to describe what Americans were like during those years. The U.S. and the Holocaust give a different history of America for those years from any I’ve ever encountered from people, in school, reading, at the movies, or on television.

Maybe the best way I can describe it is to say: Everything that has horrified me about living through the years 2016 to 2022 existed in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The documentary cements a theory that I’ve been developing in recent decades – that people don’t change and even the percentages of the population that hold specific opinions don’t really change either.

The documentary set off this existential conundrum: Why didn’t I already know what the documentary revealed? Or did I just filter it out? Republicans are in an uproar over Critical Race Theory and other curricula that they’re afraid will upset their children. I imagine they will be just as upset at The U.S. and the Holocaust. I knew about the wide popularity of the KKK and eugenics in the 1920s. I knew Americans were mostly isolationists and anti-immigration in the late 1930s. But the documentary gives us a different take on history than what I was taught.

I have to wonder since FDR was president from 1932-1935, have we always gotten the Democratic party’s view of that history? I wonder if Ken Burns has rounded out the historical period by adding the Republican party’s take on those years? I do know the documentary feels very synergistic with today’s politics.

I love old movies from the 1930s and 1940s, and none of the hundreds of movies I’ve seen from that era convey what I learned from The U.S. and the Holocaust. My grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles, all lived through those years, and none of them ever described the mood of the country revealed in the documentary. I’m a bookworm that has read countless works of both fiction and nonfiction about America in those decades, giving me some of the details from in the documentary, but not in the same gestalt. Two books that come to mind are One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson and In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.

After I watched the Ken Burns documentary I read The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. It’s a kind of science fiction novel, an alternative history where Charles Lindbergh wins the 1938 presidential election and for many of the reasons described in the documentary. Roth was born in 1933, and he makes himself the point-of-view character in his novel. Young Phil is only 8 when it begins and 10 when it ends, but his viewpoint is mature. It’s about the anti-Semitism of those years.

I thought The Plot Against America was a well-told story about Jewish life in Newark, New Jersey 1938-1942. I thought Roth’s alternate history speculation was well done, deriving from the kind of knowledge I got watching The U.S. and the Holocaust. But the story is mainly a personal one, and its gestalt is different from the documentary.

Last night Susan and I watched Radio Days for the umpteenth time. It’s Woody Allen’s nostalgic look back at those same years. It completely ignores all the political history of The U.S. and the Holocaust. Radio Days is like both movies from that period and later films that worked to recall that era. They all filter out the nastiness of racism and xenophobia that existed in America back then. Although some of it came through in the film The Way We Were, and the book version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

And just before I watched the three episodes of The U.S. and the Holocaust I read Revolt in 2100 which contains a 1940 short novel by Robert A. Heinlein called “If This Goes On….” Heinlein imagined America would go through decades of The Crazy Years, before undergoing a second American revolution that created an American theocracy. I was disappointed that Heinlein didn’t do more world-building for his novel, but after seeing the Ken Burns documentary I understand his inspiration for writing it. It’s obvious that many Americans back then wanted a Protestant theocracy. Consisting of only white people from England, Germany, and some Scandanavian countries.

I think it’s important to distinguish fascism as a political philosophy from the Nazis, who were also fascists. What many Americans wanted then and now is basic fascism, and the Philip Roth novel shows how America could have turned fascist.

The other day I saw a quote on Facebook that went something like this: If you get warm and fuzzy feelings reading history then you’re not studying history. I’m on the third volume of world history by Susan Wise Bauer, and it’s brutal. Most people want to romanticize history, which is what we get from novels and movies. The Republicans don’t want CRT taught because they want their kids to feel all warm and fuzzy studying American History. The new Ken Burns documentary will not leave you feeling warm and fuzzy.

My current theory is humans can’t handle reality. That we develop all kinds of psychological delusions to filter reality out. We prefer our fantasies. And popular history along with pop culture gives us nice takes on the past that allows us to cope. It’s also why most people’s theory of how reality works is no more complex than a comic book. It’s why we’ve always clung to religion. It’s why I have a life-long love of science fiction.

We just can’t handle complexity. There are plenty of real history books that document the reality of the times they cover, but they aren’t widely read. Maybe the Republicans are right, and history is too brutal for children. But maybe we keep repeating history because we’re all too wimpy to handle history.

I’m getting so I can’t stomach the historical lies of Hollywood, but I don’t know if I can handle all that much real history either. I used to think that maybe four percent of the population was mentally ill. In recent years, I’ve upped that to forty percent. But lately, I’m thinking there’s an entry for all of us in the DSM-5.

JWH

“Dr. Bloodmoney” by Philip K. Dick

by James Wallace Harris, 2/17/22

Do you ever wonder why your favorite authors are your favorite authors? Growing up, the writer I loved more than all the rest was Robert A. Heinlein. As I got older I also became obsessed with other writers, like Samuel R. Delany, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Charles Dickens, Jane Austin, Louisa May Alcott, but never for long. I first discovered Philip K. Dick (PKD) in 1968 when I took Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? off the new 7-day bookshelf at the Coconut Grove Library in Miami, Florida. I was sixteen. Since 1968, I’ve read many of his novels and short stories. I’ve read several biographies. I’m even reading his collected letters. But I have to admit, Philip K. Dick was one strange human being. I doubt if I could have hung out with him as a person because of all his crazy ideas. Yet, I keep reading his books. Some many times.

I didn’t plan that Dr. Bloodmoney would be my sixth book to read in 2022. I’m trying very hard to broaden the selection of books I read in 2022> I want to get away from reading so much science fiction. And it’s dangerous for me to start reading too much PKD because it can be like falling into a black hole. I read We Can Build You last week because I was trapped at home without power in an ice storm and I wanted to indulge myself with something purely fun. Researching that review led me down the PKD rabbit hole just a bit. That’s when I read that Dr. Bloodmoney, a novel I’ve never read, is considered one of PKD’s best. I always thought from the cover of the Ace original that it was one of his crappy paperback quickies. Boy was I wrong.

My new tips were right, Dr. Bloodmoney is great. Trigger Warning: Unless you’re a rabid fan of PKD, sometimes known as Dickheads, don’t run out and buy this novel. I know from experience from stories friends have begged me to read that the magic doesn’t always transfer. It’s that magic that I want to talk about. My buddy Mike loves PKD, but I don’t think the Philip K. Dick magic works with any of my other personal friends. I know that Richard Fahey loves PKD because of the comments he leaves on this blog. I also know that there are a fair number of Dickheads out there because the price of PKD’s used books keeps going up and up. But the truth is, I just haven’t met that many fellow fans.

Wikipedia has an excellent biography of PKD and an extensive article on Dr. Bloodmoney. I won’t reiterate what they’ve already done – it’s much better than I could do. No, what I want to describe is why the novel resonates so deeply with my soul. And feel free to leave comments on what writers ring your bell and why. Maybe would-be novelists could pick up some tips.

Dr. Bloodmoney, written in 1963-1964 and published in 1965, is set in San Francisco, Oakland, and Marin County just before the atomic bombs exploded and seven years later. 1965 is one of my favorite years. I consider 1965 the pinnacle year for popular music, and it was the year I read a pile of science fiction that influenced my reading for the rest of my life. I was 12 and 13 in 1964 and 1965. Folks, puberty, and pop culture really do a number on us.

I’ve never been to California, but Dr. Bloodmoney captures the feel I have remembering the 1950s and early 1960s. I was living in Miami at the time, but the people and settings of PKD’s novels written during those years have always reminded me of how people were when I grew up. This is a powerful attraction.

I lived at Homestead, AFB during the Cuban missile crisis, and grew up doing the duck and cover drills in grade school. 1964 was the year that Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Fail Safe came out, two almost identically plotted stories about atomic bombs. Dick wanted to call his novel In Earth’s Diurnal Course or A Terran Odyssey but Donald Wollheim at Ace wanted to cash in on Dr. Strangelove and titled it, Dr. Bloodmoney, Or Have We Got Along After the Bomb. In years since it’s been shortened to just Dr. Bloodmoney. But the important thing is it captures the fear of WWIII people had back then. The atomic bomb hung over our future like climate change hangs over young people today. That made it a touchstone for me.

The fear of nuclear war inspired a huge number of post-apocalyptic novels. I’ve always loved those stories. Philip K. Dick does something very different than all of them in Dr. Bloodmoney, he imagines American civilization surviving and getting back to normal after WWIII. For all its weirdness, it’s a very positive tale. He imagines people using horses to pull cars and having wood-burning steam engines power trucks. The direction of the novel is to return to a 1950s normalcy – and isn’t that what everyone wants today? And Dick knew of the evils of those years. One of his main characters, Stuart McConchie, is a black man who was just starting to make it as a television salesman when the bombs fell, is among the characters who strived the hardest to bring back personal success. It’s the simple things we wanted out of life back then, that make this novel so appealing now. Then and now, people just want a decent life, a good job, and to be free to pursue their own happiness.

The characters in Dr. Bloodmoney are quite diverse, but their most appealing quality is how much we care about them, even the evil and the deranged. All of them have “I’m just a little person trying to survive” in a big world vibe. Because this is a PKD novel, most of the characters, if not all, suffer various forms of mental illness. Dick suffered from mental illness his whole life and saw it everywhere. Mental illness, delusional thinking, and other psychological struggles are the main themes of all of PKD’s works.

Stuart McConchie, who I’ve already mentioned, undergoes many transformations in this book but could be the sanest person in the story.

Hoppy Harrington was a Thalidomide baby, born without arms and legs. He has psychic powers that he uses at the beginning of the story to get a job as a TV repairman. He rides around in a little cart and has artificial arms. After the bomb, his skills as a handyman becomes vital to the Marin County community, making him a highly respected member of the community. Unfortunately, his need to be loved leads to tragedy. In the novel, he is called a phocomelus, which is a word I thought PKD made up, but Wikipedia says it’s a real condition of people with malformed limbs.

Walter Dangerfield was an astronaut heading to Mars when the bombs fell, leaving him stranded in orbit around Earth. Because his spacecraft had years of supplies, and a huge library of books and music, Dangerfield becomes a disk jockey in orbit, playing music and reading books. Communities around the world live without electricity but jury rig old radios with car batteries to listen to Walt when he passes over. His folky ways tie people together and give them hope. Walt is one of the saner characters too but mentally struggles with loneliness and health problems.

Bonny Keller is a pivotal character who is desired by most men and the lover of many. She is also a leader of the Marin County community, and the mother of two of Dr. Bloodmoney‘s most essential characters, seven-year-old Edie, and her twin brother Bill, who lives inside her as a telepathic homunculus. Bill is in contact with the dead. The other characters think Bill is just Edie’s imaginary friend, but he’s very real. Okay, I did tell you this is one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read? Maybe I didn’t. I have now.

Bruno Bluthgeld, hiding out as Jack Tree because the world knows him as the physicist that caused the 1972 radiation crisis resulting in many human and animal mutations. He’s also assumed to be the cause of the atomic war. Bruno is Dr. Bloodmoney – the rough translation of Bluthgeld. Bruno also has psychic powers and suffers from tremendous paranoia because he believes everyone hates him and wants to assassinate him. Of course, sometimes that is true.

Andrew Gill is a post-apocalyptic entrepreneur. He’s developed a recipe of available plants to replace tobacco and has perfected a much sought-after brandy. When the bombs fell he was riding around in a VW bus. Gill was probably a proto-hippie.

This isn’t half of the characters in Dr. Bloodmoney. They are all wonderfully strange and have their own agenda. Dick is great at presenting little people in science fiction. Science fiction often has big heroes that save the planet, galaxy, or universe. PKD loved little folks that save themselves. Dick even has empathy for his most evil characters. He doesn’t see them as being evil, but enduring forces that are evil.

Philip K. Dick’s stories might be the most filmed of any science fiction author, but quite often the movie characters are nothing like his book characters. PKD loves ordinary people leading ordinary lives encountering the strange. Dr. Bloodmoney is science fiction because of the atomic bombs and post-apocalyptic communities, but it also includes psychic powers, which were common in science fiction in the 1950s, and even the supernatural. Bill and Hoppy are aware of what happens to people after they die, and it’s not just delusions of their insanity. However, the atmosphere of the story feels like mundane characters leading mundane lives, even though they are weirdos in a weird land.

I listened to Dr. Bloodmoney, narrated by Phil Gigante, who does a fantastic job with these characters, giving them each a unique voice. I was totally mesmerized by the story, no matter how fucking strange it got. And it gets very out there indeed. Is the weirdness why we Dickheads love PKD? I don’t know. I tend to believe I love him for his ordinary folks struggling to find meaning in a crazy reality.

The audiobook is available at Audible.com and Scribd.com. If you haven’t read Philip K. Dick, I recommend starting with Dr. Bloodmoney and with listening to the audiobook version.

[I’m going to try very hard to avoid another PKD novel and finish two nonfiction books next, but I can’t promise that for sure. Sometimes another PKD novel is just too enticing.]

JWH

On the First Day of My Seventies

by James Wallace Harris, 11/25/21

When I left the work world back in 2013 I thought I’d apply myself toward writing science fiction short stories in my retirement years. For some reason, I’ve hit a barrier that hasn’t allowed me to do that. Very few people succeed at new creative pursuits in old age. I still hope to beat that statistic.

I’ve decided to attack the problem with a different approach. For my seventies, my goal is to write a nonfiction book. This is kind of an absurd goal since I’m starting to have trouble cranking out blog posts. But I have an idea — aim low, but be persistent. I seriously doubt I can produce a commercially successful work of nonfiction, so my ambition is to write a book I wouldn’t be embarrassed to self-publish on Amazon.

Two things make me think this is possible. I’ve written thousands of blog posts. All I’ve got to do is write fifty 1,000-word essays on the same topic that ties together in a coherent readable way. I already have several ideas that interest me, but can I make them interesting to other people?

At seventy, focus, concentration, and discipline are hard to come by. This week I’ve been watching videos on the Zettlekasten method of taking notes. Those videos have inspired me because they use an external system to organize ideas and build connections. This might let me overcome my cognitive limitations.

The older I get the harder it is to hold a thought in my head, much less juggle several thoughts at once to show how they connect. I’m encouraged I might overcome this limitation with the software Obsidian. That software is designed to help retain what you study and build a knowledge base. To help me remember what I find while researching on the web I’ll use Raindrop.io. I’ve already been using the mind-mapping software Xmind to organize ideas visually. Combing all of these programs might let me construct a large coherent collection of related thoughts and ideas.

I need tools that map where I’ve been and hopefully reveal where I want to go. These tools need to quickly show what I’ve already thought through. I just can’t do that in my head anymore.

Of course, I could be deluding myself. I used to wait until I felt good to work on my hobbies, which is a terrible approach. Now, I never feel good, so I’ll have to push myself to work anyway. That should be good for me. I’m usually drained of all psychic energy by mid-afternoon. I’ve even quit going out at night because I’m no longer functional by late afternoon. Working on this goal feels like I’m rolling a rock up the hill.

I just don’t want to give up, at least not yet. I just don’t want to become a passive consumer of other people’s creative efforts. There’s nothing wrong with that. Consuming creative works still gives me a lot of pleasure. I’m just an old dog that wants to learn one last new trick.

JWH

Which Came First – the Emotion or the Hormone?

by James Wallace Harris, 3/26/21

This essay began when I asked myself: Do emotional states stimulate hormone production or do hormones flowing first cause us to experience an emotional state? Does happiness increase energy, or does energy increase happiness? Our mental, emotional, and physical states are all interconnected. As I get older I’m trying to figure out how to increase all three even though aging seems to be reducing them equally. I’m wondering if working on any of the three will cause a corresponding increase in the others.

Eventually, we all go looking for the Fountain of Youth. Some want to look younger, others like myself, want to feel younger. I quit believing in magic when I was a kid, so whatever is the source of vitality it should be discoverable by scientific observation. My current amateur theory is youth and vitality come from chemistry, but I also assume aging affects the efficiency of the chemical processes in our bodies.

Most people want to believe in mind over matter, but is there any evidence to support that belief? Can positive thinking overcome entropy? Or do positive thoughts come from robust chemistry? We all know hyperactive oldsters, but does their energy come from force of will or thriving endocrinology? If we’re low energy beings because of our wimpy hormonal system, can we fertilize them with right thinking, positive emotions, or good eating?

I’m pushing myself to write this essay. The whole time while I’m writing part me is begging to be allowed to go eat and watch television. But I’m still writing. Is that because willpower has empowered by want, or is it because I stoked my chemical furnace with good food and a nap this afternoon?

Does our state of mind set hormones in action that create our feelings, or do hormones generate our feelings which dictate our state of minds? Lately, I’ve been trying to observe my feelings and mental states. I’ve even wondered if changes in my brain chemistry in the past year is making me more aware of my feelings and thoughts. Other reasons for increased contemplation is I’m feeling old, tired, and worn out, so I’m spending more time just relaxing, and that’s leading to increase cogitation and self awareness, but not productivity.

What I want is to be more active. I can’t tell if that’s wishful thinking since I’m turning seventy this year and decrease activity is natural with aging, or if I could be more active if I thought the right thoughts, or felt the right emotions.

Has the stress of living a year in pandemic isolation drained my vitality or is my diminished energy just coinciding with normal aging? Life is complicated. There are no quick and easy answers. However, I’m not ready to give up. I’ve been retired from work since 2013 and easy living might also be a factor in my decline. Of course, we do have to be logical. How many aging people gain youthful vitality as they progress in years? How many retired people start doing more?

I’ve never thought of myself as an emotional person. Whenever I’ve seen people getting wildly excited at parties, sporting events, and rock concerts I wondered why I wasn’t jumping up and down and yelling too. I’ve always considered myself a happy person because I don’t get depressed. But then I don’t get exuberant either. If I was more emotional would that give me more energy?

I can energize myself somewhat by artificial means. I gave up drugs a half century ago. I’m slightly tempted again because old age seems like the perfect time for uppers and cocaine, but I know that would only accelerate my decline. I also gave up caffeine decades ago for mental clarity. And in recent months I’ve given up refined sugar, which might explain my current low mental states. But I’m also feeling better physically since I gave up sugar, and I’m losing weight, so I hope in the long run eating healthier will translate into more mental energy.

When I said I could energize myself artificially, I meant with music, books, movies, and television shows. Sometimes a nap and some good music leads to gung-ho thinking that inspires actual activity. Or has my lunch digested while I slept stimulating hormone flow leading to roused thoughts and finally feeling inspired to get up and do something? It’s a subtle distinction.

Whatever refuels my tank doesn’t do it for long.

For example, when I play “Here Comes the Dawn Again” by Billy Vera and the Beaters real loud, I feel physically stimulated. That also turns up the flow of emotions.Then my thinking speeds up. After that I feel like getting up and doing something. Has music increased hormone activity? Or did music increase my thinking which increased hormone activity? Is this a bit of evidence for the power of positive thinking?

Writing this essay is energizing me – to a degree. I can’t quite call it a jolt of youthfulness. I also feel myself draining my battery as I write. I wish drugs weren’t so self-destructive because I feel like doing a Kerouac and chewing benzedrine cotton from a broken inhaler to write more.

Now that I’m older I feel more emotional, but still not highly exaggerated emotions like I see in other people. We all have different levels of energy and emotions. Are highly emotional people more active people? I have observed that some of the most emotional people I know are also the most active.

Instead of mind over matter, could it be emotions over matter? Or is there a direct relationship, more emotions means more mental activity? If that’s so I’ll have to find a way to increase both. However, I’m still trying to decide if more mental activity increases emotions, or if more emotions increase mental activity.

JWH

Finally Finished War and Peace – But Do I Recommend It?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 28, 2020

I began reading War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy back in April after watching and reviewing a recent 6-part BBC miniseries (2016) based on the book. I finished about forty percent of the novel and then stopped reading it in early summer. Then a couple weeks ago I decided I needed to finish it before the year was out. Every year I read one literary classic, and I had promised myself that War and Peace was going to be my 2020 read. War and Peace is currently #7 on The Greatest Books list. It did make an excellent companion to 2020, and illuminated the present with the past.

As I mentioned in my earlier review, War and Peace reminds me of Jane Austen because it’s set from 1805-1812 (plus epilogue 1813-1820), which was around the time Jane Austen was writing her famous novels. War and Peace has always been intimidating for his size – 55 hours and 30 minutes on audio, and 1,300+ pages in teeny tiny print. That’s almost like listening/reading all six of Jane Austen’s novels together. The plot and characterizations of War and Peace is about as complicated as reading all the Austen novels by round robin her novels chapter by chater.

That wouldn’t bother some readers, however, War and Peace mixes in countless pages of Tolstoy pontificating about war, power, military command, freedom, history, free will, leadership, etc., and I’m afraid that could turn them off. Thus it makes for a hard novel to recommend emphatically.

War and Peace wasn’t hard to read. Many people have asked me about that. Yes, the Russian names are problematic, but I think it helped that I watched the BBC series first, and watched the Russian language Mosfilm version that was released as four films over two years (1966-1967) while I was reading the book. Those four films of War and Peace are currently available on HBO Max.

My friends also ask me if War and Peace is worth all the trouble to read. When I’ve mentioned to folks that I was reading it, many reacted like I was doing something yucky. It’s actually a wonderful novel, quite philosophical, but mainly about romances within large aristocratic families during the Napoleonic Wars. If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey or Jane Austen, just imagine that kind of story on a much bigger scale with two epic battles, and the downfall of an emperor thrown in. I enjoyed the war parts, but I’m not sure if most readers will.

Again, I’m reminded of Jane Austen. Much of the book is about life and love among the aristocratic which is very similar to Austen. However, in Austen, the men go off to the Napoleonic wars but we’re never told of their experiences. In Tolstoy we are, and it’s important. The men are shaped by their experiences in battle, and two of them have intense spiritual conversions. War and Peace gives us the men’s view of the age, whereas Austen gave us the women’s.

I’ve never really understood Napoleon before. While reading this novel I went and read the entry at Wikipedia about Napoleon, which was very informative. But I actually believe Tolstoy gives a much better picture of this historical figure, even though Tolstoy obviously wanted to write his novel to give a revisionist assessment of Napoleon. I still don’t know enough history to know if Tolstoy is accurate or not, or even if he’s doing hatchet job on the man.

I have to admit that I wished that Tolstoy had published his soapboxing as a separate nonfiction supplement to his novel. It’s quite fascinating to hear Tolstoy’s 1860s knowledge of the sciences, including the new ideas about evolution, applied to events and people. Tolstoy is impressive in his insights, even by 21st century standards. I even used some of them to see Donald Trump in a new light. By the way, I was completely surprised by how important the French language was to Russian aristocrats at the time. I’ve always imagined Russia being very isolated from the rest of Europe.

On the other hand, I was always anxious to get back to the story, and I always wanted to know more about the characters, of which there were too many to chronicle here. Pierre was my favorite, but then he is much like Levin from Anna Karenina, my favorite character in that novel. In both cases, I wondered if those characters were stand ins for Tolstoy himself?

Still, do I recommend this monster of a novel? I am very glad I read War and Peace, and I found it very compelling, but it requires a tremendous commitment. I’m not sure I will ever try to reread it, but I think I will dip into every now and then. Some scenes and chapters are exquisite.

I can recommend reading War and Peace to anyone who loves 19th literature, to anyone who dreams of becoming a writer, or to anyone to enjoys finding philosophy entwined with fiction.

By the way, it’s quite cheap to try War and Peace since it’s in the public domain. Get a free Kindle copy. If you get hooked keep reading. I enjoyed reading it and listening to it on audio. My Kindle edition let me switch back and forth instantly.

JWH

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