Formative Experiences

Introduction

I'm not a big reader of blogs, but I'm pretty sure this section is unusual.  The idea for it has been bouncing around in my head since long before the advent of blogs - long before the Internet, for that matter.  Pride of place, then, as the formative experience behind Formative Experiences, goes to what I've thought for years was an episode of The Name of the Game.

In it the hero, played by Doug McClure, when asked by the exasperated villain to explain his annoying tenaciousness, says "When I was a small child I read The Little Engine that Could and it had a profound effect on me."  I said that I thought it was an episode of The Name of the Game, but when I tried to look it up I found that Doug McClure wasn't one of the stars of that show.  He did star in a cotemporaneous show called Search which has a similar format.  So either I'm misremembering the show or the actor, but I'm pretty sure of the scene, and it has always made me sensitive to the effects that my experiences, and in particular my reading and watching, have had on me.

Of course one has to recognize the possibility that nothing external had an effect on me.  It could be that my personality was determined by a combination of genetics and very early childhood experiences - too early for me to remember - and that I simply picked up on things that happened later because they coincided with my existing inclinations.  For my purpose here I don't see how it matters.

Speaking of my purpose, I can't say for sure that I know what it is.  It could be the exhibitionist urge that the Web seems to bring out in some people.  It could be whatever drives a memoirist.  My friend Herzl would probably say it's the fear of death, but then that's just a stock answer he wheels out like a Freudian would say "sex".  There's the attraction of doing something that I'm good at.  This is something that I actually hadn't realized until friends Josh and Ruthie pointed out a few years ago that I have an knack for producing a quote or a scene to fit many occasions.

And that's really what we have here, not anything like an autobiography.  I don't remember many details of my life, but I have a good memory for what I've read, seen and heard - the trivial stuff, at least.

Anyway, I've thought that my kids might get a kick out of reading it, so I'm going to stick with that.

So, using the McClure line as my starting point I should mention that I myself do not feel that I was influenced by The Little Engine that Could.  Among children's books that I remember being affected by there's The Lost Playground, from which I remember only a heartbreaking feeling of night, longing and sadness; of tragedy, really, because there was the feeling of missed opportunity, that somehow things needn't have been this way.  Of course all this is a vague recollection of a book that I last saw when I was maybe 4 years old, so I may have it completely wrong.

Another seminal book was Horton Hatches the Egg.  Even at the age when I must have first encountered it the difference between the selfish and irresponsible Maisy bird and the selfless and dependable Horton stood out in my mind.

Moving over to early TV viewing (is this going to be chronological?  hard to believe I can keep that up...), there was an episode of Beanie and Cecil revolving around - I think - the search for a famous horse (famous in the Lassie sense, not the Seabiscuit sense); I can clearly hear it in a TV-announcer's voice:  Thunderbolt, the Wonder Colt!  Anyway, as I recall the horse was found on some off-the-grid island and brought with much fanfare back to civilization.  Nothing much there to excite the imagination, but Thunderbolt wasn't alone on the island.  There was at least one other inhabitant, an old castaway who begged the rescuers to take him too.  They refused, saying he wasn't special enough, or words to that effect (the joke was that they were speaking to him through his hut window, and after they left the camera panned back to show that he had half-a-dozen legs (or arms, or both - I don't remember).  The callousness of the rescuers made me insanely angry, and the tragic figure of the castaway filled me with sorrow.

I'm known for being a stickler about separating what we know from what we think.  I've read a number of books that support this attitude (Innumeracy, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, How to Lie with Statistics, How We Know what Isn't So, Fooled by Randomness and Thinking, Fast and Slow come to mind), but I doubt any of them formed my attitude - they just gave it ammunition.  Sources of the attitude might be the episode of Star Trek where, in order to free himself of possession by an alien mind, Spock has himself exposed to light so intense that it blinds him.  Only afterwards did McCoy discover that the light that really does the trick isn't in the visible spectrum, so the blindness could have been avoided.  That was probably my first inkling of the difference between correlation and causation.

And then there's The Judgement, by Kafka, wherein the lives and relationships of a man, his father, his wife and his best friend are first described by the man, but then turned 180-degrees when the father describes the same facts while ascribing completely opposite motivations.  Nothing to do with statistics or causation, but rather the contingency of our knowledge of the human world and its actors.

When I bring ideas like this up to my kids, which is mostly when one of them is making some claim around the dinner table that I explain is unsupported (the claim, not the dinner table), their reaction is often "You're being ridiculous; according to you we can't know anything."  To this I invariably respond "You don't know anything, or at least you don't know the thing that you're stating.  Isn't it better to recognize that?"

But before I digress too much from what this page is about, I'll mention a couple of the works that gave me a certain faith in things working out, even when I can't understand them:  1984 and Rollerball (the original with James Caan.  I hear there was a remake).  1984 has a lot to recommend it, and a number of things that have stuck with me, but its deepest effect, I think, was from Winston's thoughts at the closing.  Having been successfully "re-educated", Winston comes to the realization that the Party (is that how the book refers to it, or as the State?  I don't recall) is now free to kill him because he loves Big Brother.  I thought to myself:  What's the connection?  The Party had won; it had caught him and neutralized any threat he could conceivably have represented.  Why did it need to convince him before killing him?  The clear implication was that had he died before his complete conversion the Party would in some amorphous way have lost.  The germ would have been planted that would ultimately cause it to collapse!  All because one man, defeated and isolated, has held out.

To this day I don't know whether Orwell meant that such a "victory" for Winston would be evidence of some existing flaw that would ultimately bring the system down, or that it would destroy the system actively, in a manner not specified and seemingly transcendental.  I also don't know whether I believe it, but it got me thinking about the hope of hidden, long-term rewards for doing the right thing.  Similarly, although in a decidedly low-brow fashion, Jonathan E., the hero of Rollerball, implicitly defeats the whole ruling system of his world by refusing to bend or break.  From a slightly different angle there's the scene in The Last Unicorn where the hero confronts the venal populace of Hagsgate, who watched the unicorns being harried out of the world and did nothing.  When a woman asks "What
could we have done to save the unicorns? We were afraid of the Red Bull. What could we have done?"  The hero replies "One word might have been enough, you'll never know now."

An honorable mention on this topic has to go to Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale.  I read it much too late for it to have been "formative", but it describes this idea -- like so many others -- so beautifully that it would be a shame not to quote it:  ...all the flames and sparks of justice throughout all time reach to invigorate unseen epochs—like engines whose power glides on hidden lines to upwell against the dark in distant cities unaware.

Having brought Helprin in for the power of his prose, let's talk about influences on my aesthetic sense. I haven't spent enough time thinking about it, or studied it rigorously, to be able to explicate an aesthetic sensibility.  I can give some points of information with supporting references, though.

For one thing, I like doing more with less.  The use of le mot juste; a powerful image or phrase; a painter's ability to imply a figure with a few strategic shadows.  Jack Vance is one master of word-choice, mostly in his dialog (his descriptions can be a bit flowery).  In that way his prose is Runyonesque, since virtually every character, of whatever station, commands a vocabulary that would make R. Lichtenstein proud.  The dialog also tends toward the wry, the oblique and the trenchant, the latter two especially being ways to get a lot of mileage out of a few words.

Another way of doing so is used to good effect by Patricia A. McKillip in her Hed books, where she uses images from the plot itself as similes and metaphors in both the narrative and the dialogue.  Thirty years ago or thereabouts I mentioned this to an old high-school friend, Lewis Klausner, who was then studying English Literature.  He told me the technique is known as symphonic imagery and is a notable feature of one of Shakespeare's plays (one of the kings, I think, but I don't remember).

Imagery in general is something that appeals to me.  Some of my favorite examples are from Peter S. Beagle, who describes Spring returning to a barren land after a curse is lifted with "wildflowers racing up-and-down the hillsides like escaped prisoners," and describes someone as "rubbing his hands like a fly or a lawyer."

Flies are ubiquitous, lawyers somewhat less so.  In fact, lawyers are a cultural artifact, making -- I think -- a lawyer-simile fundamentally different from a fly-simile.  In fact, probably the method for packing the most information into the fewest words (or pictures, I imagine) is allusion.

I once spoke with an artist named Archie Rand, who suggested that my infatuation with allusion may spring from one-upmanship; that the reason I was enthralled by a character in Buffy the Vampire Slayer referring to a husband-and-wife commando team as "Nick and Nora Fury" is thatI got the joke -- meaning that I got the references -- and knew that the vast majority of viewers would not.  The number of people familiar with the Thin Man movies is dwindling and the number that had read Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. comics was never large (this was before he became as mass-market character in the recent spate of Marvel movies).  The intersection of these two groups, especially given their individual demographics, is correspondingly small.  He wasn't saying this to be dismissive, but it has served to make me self-conscious.  Still, I see no way to determine my "real" motivation, nor a required course of action should it prove somehow discreditable.  So I'll wrap this topic up by sharing my all-time favorite locution of this sort, which was offered in response to William Safire's request for a term to describe the phenomenon of two people accidentally impeding each other on the sidewalk and shifting from side-to-side in synchrony such that they remain trapped for a few moments.  After the pedestrian (pardon the pun) suggestion sidewalk shuffle someone came up with the incandescent faux pas de deux.  I get chills every time I think of it.

Getting back to influences on my moral sensibilities, I can cite sources for my attitudes toward physical and social courage.  Movies of course are replete with acts of over-the-top physical bravery.  I think this is a benign development, and if I have occasion to poke fun at a movie like Rambo it's never for its ideals of bravery, competence and perseverance.  The most striking act of physical courage that I can recall seeing in movies is in Aliens, when Ridley -- who has nearly made good her escape -- instead descends into the heart of the alien territory to save the little girl.

The most dramatic act of social courage is surely the penultimate scene of Angels with Dirty Faces, where the convicted gangster, a lifelong tough-guy who isn't afraid of anything, feigns abject, cringing fear when taken to be executed, so as to discourage the young street-toughs who idolize him from following his path.  Watching him take the thing most important to him, which is also the only thing left to him and the only thing by which he can leave his mark on the world, and turn it from a display of nobility and sangfroid into a thing of derision... well, I'm not sure but that it didn't take more courage than Ridley showed, which as I've mentioned is quite a lot.

At some point it became popular to treat The Twilight Zone seriously and to anchor various discussions in its episodes.  I enjoyed the show when I was a kid, but for as long as I can remember I've considered the inevitable closing ironies to be laid on a bit thick, not to mention predictable.  I think I enjoyed The Outer Limits much more; it was just out to tell good science-fiction stories, and if every episode had a moral then most of them were lost on me.  One episode I do remember being affected by involved a man and a woman abducted by aliens to take part in a gladiatorial contest for the fate of the Earth.  I remember little else of the plot or the characters, but at some point someone berates the woman for  being a "cheerleader" as opposed to actually doing anything.  The scathing denunciation -- of which I remember no details (I was maybe six years old) -- left me with a fear of being... ineffectual?  Irrelevant?  Timid?  I'm not sure exactly, but when I gave "unusual" names to my first four children I made them official, on their birth certificates, rather than contenting myself with the mere idea that it would be fun and then sharing that with friends and family.  Had I not gone and done the names for real I would have thought myself a "cheerleader", which perhaps gives a better idea of what I took away from that show.

Of course over decades of studying Torah (never with any great success, but decades are still decades) I can cite many influences, but two strike me as formative:  One, which I encountered sometime in elementary school, is "ודל לא תהדר בריבו".  This meshes with both my emphasis on knowing the truth of things regardless of what one does with the knowledge and my emphasis on the importance of means independent of -- and sometimes at the cost of -- ends.  Rash"i explains that judges might be tempted to say to themselves "The rich party is anyway responsible to support the poor one, so why not simply decide in favor of the poor one to provide a face-saving cover for that support as Justice rather than Charity."  The Torah tells us that this is wrong.  I interpret the reasons to be that it both obfuscates the truth and corrupts the legal process.

I may be giving myself too much credit for consistency, but I relate this to my dislike of realpolitik, which is another arena for ends justifying means.  I wonder what Orwell would have thought about this, because it seems to me that had Winston answered that he would not throw acid in a child's face to overthrow the Party, O'brien would have been stymied.

The other influence was not from direct Torah study, but when a high-school teacher of mine, Joel Wolowelsky, asserted that Judaism is "a religion of Responsibility".  This isn't the place to discuss the truth of this assertion, but it had a strong impact on me.

Beyond that, I think I was moved early-on by the story of Pinhas, who exhibited a kind of social courage different from that of James Cagney, but still beyond most sane people.
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