In his preface to the now-classic Animal Farm, George Orwell described how censorship in the British media worked 80 years ago. There was no need for the blue pencil of the Soviet bureaucrat to make sure newspapers and radio broadcasters stayed on message. The media did that job on their own. They knew what to print and what not to put out on the airwaves. They knew it as if by instinct because they, the reporters and newsroom editors, were all part of the same establishment, had attended the same exclusive schools, subscribed to the same ruling-class values. For more than a century, those men (almost always men) and their relatives had been administering an empire based on a common set of imperialist values. The job of journalists was not to question those values but to preserve them.
The preface Orwell had written for his parable of how political thought is manipulated in a non-totalitarian society was omitted by the publisher of Animal Farm. It was one thing to describe in fictional form a bunch of farmyard animals wresting power from their human overseers and then using it to create a society just as oppressive. It was quite another to demonstrate, as Orwell did in that preface, how Britain accomplished the same goal without an all-powerful Ministry of Truth (as in his novel 1984). Great Britain’s educational and class systems did the job on their own without fuss or threat to the average Englishman’s faith that freedom of the press and, by extension, freedom of thought were guaranteed.
The media in the US operate in much the same way…. (Continue reading…)
My wife’s ashes were ready for pickup three days ago. She died January 19th. The excuse for the delay was that winter is a busy time for the funeral business. She would not have cared. She gave no thought to what became of her after she died, didn’t consider it worth her time. I tried to see the delay at the funeral service the same way, but the idea of her lying in a cold morgue all this time bothered me. Most of her life she felt cold even though the temperature in our living room remained, summer and winter, 80 degrees Fahrenheit. I once saw a photo of her taken when she and her first husband were camping out on their way back to the east coast after a year spent at a university in Oregon. She is still in her sleeping bag. Her eyes are only half-open. She looks as if, were it up to her, she would no more come out of that bag than a cat would jump into a cold lake….. (Read more.)
I learned moral relativity from a linguistics course I took in my junior year of college. It was one of the few interesting courses I had in that institution of higher learning, and ironically, it taught me something about the real world contradictory to everything the place, a religious college, stood for. That lesson turned out to have as profound an impact on me as did my finding out many years earlier about the way babies were made, though in this case the force of the revelation operated over the course of a couple semesters rather than in a few staggering minutes in a schoolyard.
But revelation it was nevertheless, and that one course changed my understanding of the moral world more profoundly than did the fifteen years of religious schooling preceding it. And, unlike its birds-and-bees counterpart, the revelation that there are no linguistic absolutes, no rights or wrongs about how a language is used beyond the way people do in fact use it, became a template I could and would apply to almost every other area of human experience, even if I only did so mostly in retrospect…. (Continue reading)
I invite my blog readers to sample my new novel, Beer, for free at Amazon/com: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09LSQ853W/ref=sr_1_1…. It will be soon also be available in other e-versions as well as in a print edition.
Beer is a novel in the form of family memoir compressed into one hot August afternoon, each member’s narrative interwoven and framed by the youngest’s account of that ordinary, extraordinary day.
A young boy sits in a dark bar waiting for his father to finish his beer. His mother waits for them on the baking sidewalk outside. At the end of the day they will return home, the father drunk, the mother furious, the day’s outing an all-too-familiar disaster.
Other voices alternate with the boy’s own, past alternating with present and future in a timeless continuum. Mother and father ask understanding for behavior they could neither control nor understand. The eldest son still smarts years after the physical and emotional violence he endured as collateral damage of his parents’ unhappy union. A daughter still craves the maternal support she never received. A second son continues to bear the weight of being both the object and victim of his mother’s all-but-incestuous love.
The reader has a sense of eavesdropping on family secrets, drawn into a kind of complicity with the revelations of this one family but addressed to the dark heart of families generally: how is it so much love has so much power to destroy?
The afternoon drags on, first in that bar, then in the surrounding neighborhood where the boy-narrator and his mother seek relief from the heat and their long vigil. For the boy, these family histories have yet to take place or are buried in the deep past. For the others they are accounts that flow backward and forward, weaving what has already taken place into what has yet to happen.
As the boy-narrator puts it, “Home is where a part of you a goes on living long after you have moved elsewhere and grown old, that tugs at you and is perhaps better left unrevisited because, no matter how much bad there was, it always remains a paradise lost, the one time when your existence was complete, when all the characters that should be there were there, when happiness seemed not only possible but a daily routine that could so easily be mistaken for normalcy.”
In the television series Star Trek the crew of the spaceship Enterprise take their vacations on something called the “Holodeck”—a play on the words “holiday” and “holovision.” They are transported into a virtual world in every way as real-seeming as the one they live in on the Enterprise. Plus, that world can be anywhere and at any point in history, or pre-history for that matter. They can go back to the gun-slinging days of the American frontier or the time of the dinosaurs a hundred million years earlier. But whatever place and period they choose to visit, they exist there as real people vulnerable to the bullet of a six-shooter or the jaws of a tyranosaurus.
I don’t remember any members of the Enterprise explaining just how a Holodeck worked. Presumably, the virtual reality was generated algorithmically in the same way a virtual reality is produced for us today by putting on special goggles hooked up to a computer. Only, in Star Trek the “reality” is of a much more sophisticated kind. Science fiction is more about the present, in any case, than it is about the future, a matter of what-if added to what-is. Star Trek was entertainment, not epistemology. The play’s the thing, not its plausibility. The audience must believe, at least for as long as the show lasts, that the characters have been transported in space and time and exist there in as real a state as if they were still back on board the Enterprise. That’s no more a demand on an audience than to expect them to believe a spaceship can travel at “warp speed,” a catchy phrase for a phenomenon best not discussed in detail.
But that holodeck, a reality generated by machine, can be taken as a metaphor for the reality we earthbound folk actually live in, except our reality, the only one there is, is generated not by computers but by our imaginations, continuously, for as long as the organs we need to create that unimaginable imaginary are in good working order. But it is not just a reality we generate, it and we are that reality, the only reality there is….
My latest short story at Eclectica:
“Three extensions, all usable both as telephone and intercom. Two rings mean, “I’m going to the bathroom,” so I don’t inconvenience her and am not myself interrupted. Three rings means I took my blood-thinner. Three rings from her means I should do so if I’ve forgot. One ring means, “I’m going to bed,” though neither of us bothers with that one much. If one of us is going for a walk, we say so face-to-face, usually as we’re on our way out the door.
“I have my room, she has hers. We used to share a king-size mattress before she hit menopause. Hot flashes, frequent urinations, night sweats, insomnia. I couldn’t get two hours sleep without interruption, and once I’m awake, I’m up for hours. I started sleeping in the spare room, the one Jerry grew up in. It still has the Minnesota State comforter on the bed. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement. My wife was apologetic about the menopause. Can’t be helped, I said the night I picked up my pillow and headed into the boy’s room. It will pass, I said. God, I hope so, she said….”
To read the rest:
“People who endured ongoing aerial bombardment must have experienced something like this, though of course in a more urgent way: Live for today, love for today. If it’s really important, do it now. Or, just as essential: relax, stare out the window, watch the leaves and snow fall, enjoy the screeches of the children playing on the street and the noises of workers and machines making road repairs. You can’t waste time, you can only misuse it.”
Thoughts after a full year of lockdown….
The complete essay:
My new short story in Eclectica:
We grew up together, Mack and I. Or at least we shared the same classrooms from Sister Mary Margaret’s kindergarten through Father John Patrick Denning’s 12th-grade history class. But it was only later, after my wife and I divorced and Mack was just getting engaged, that we became friends.
Mack was the name he preferred. His real name is Judah Maccabeus O’Flaherty. It should have been “Judas” Maccabeus, of course, but his mother was afraid the other kids would tease him for having the name of the apostle who betrayed Christ—an odd scruple on her part, given the handles she actually did burden him with. But parents are like that. They rarely consider what it’ll be like for their offspring to wear a sandwich board of weird monickers for an entire lifetime. I should know. My parents called me Christopher Aloysius Lifkovitz….