[extropy-chat] Arthur Schopenhauer

Damien Broderick thespike at satx.rr.com
Fri Apr 27 22:11:56 UTC 2007

Where there's a Will...

Fwiw, here's a chapter dealing very fleetingly 
with this notion. It's from my book *x, y, z, t: 
Dimensions of Science Fiction*:


7: The Stars My Desperation

           I remember in reviewing one of Jim 
Blish's books, `For God's sake, Jim, will you go 
out and chase ladies, gamble, rob a bank, do 
something. Get experience, because although your 
science is great your characters are completely unreal.'
                    Alfred Bester, Schweitzer Interview (13)


Alfie Bester's strategy was always to lead the 
reader a merry dance, not to say a danse macabre, 
to leap from concealment with shouts and 
firecrackers, to lurk and entice and disguise 
and... unmask! Explosion! Concussion! When he was 
in form, his pace, attack, payoff were exemplary, 
dazzling. Out of form, he was... not flabby, as 
you might expect, but strained, herniated, 
desperate, clattering maniacally with his 
varicose veins on a stage stuffed with burst 
toys, while the last of the audience gritted 
their teeth in humiliation and pity.
           Damon Knight noticed all this half a 
century ago, when Bester was writing at the top of his form:

           Dazzlement and enchantment are 
Bester's methods. His stories never stand still 
for a moment; they're forever tilting into 
motion, veering, doubling back, firing off 
rockets to distract you.... Bester's science is 
all wrong, his characters are not characters but 
funny hats; but you never notice: he fires off a 
smoke-bomb, climbs a ladder, leaps from a 
trapeze, plays three bars of `God Save the King,' 
swallows a sword and dives into three inches of 
water. Good heavens, what more do you want? (Knight, 1967 [1956], 234)

When I was fourteen or fifteen, I loved Bester 
like a father. (I loved Arthur C. Clarke like a 
Father, the sort with a white reversed collar and 
a vision of the City of God built out of science, 
transcending science. Strange chariots!) Yes, 
imagine how it would be if your old man had a 
brain like that, sizzling with lunacy, knowing, 
cynical but flushed with a baroque unashamed 
romanticism that was not all that common under 
the grey banner of the close of the 1950s. Later 
I had the guilt of conspiring with the other 
siblings, spiteful and oedipal, in trying to kick 
the old man off to Sunshine Acres, making it 
plain that he should have taken himself there 
while he still possessed some decent control over his sphincter.
           The Demolished Man (1953) and The 
Stars My Destination (1956) were unforgettable 
neon poetry blazing against the suburban night. 
But it is hard to remember anything at all from 
The Computer Connection (1976), also known as 
Extro, also known as The Indian Giver. That last 
variant offers a clue: wasn't there a wild-man 
Native American in it? And... a bunch of 
immortals who had defeated death by yielding to 
it at the nastiest possible moment. And... some 
super-intelligent slugs, first of a new breed of 
Homo Superior. And... a global computer? And... a 
narrator whose name was given both as Daniel 
Curzon and as Edward Curzon, which perhaps 
indicated exactly how riveted Bester himself was 
by the whole exercise. In a 1979 interview with 
Charles Platt, he called it `a disaster... that 
confounded book': `There was something vitally 
wrong with that book, and I knew it when I 
finished it, and I couldn't patch it then, and to 
this day... I can't understand it, so I can't 
profit by it' (in Platt, 1983, 243).
           Some two decades earlier, Bester's 
masterwork left one in no doubt of the 
protagonist's name. The Penguin edition back 
jacket blurb caught it with vulgar precision:

           What is Gully Foyle? ...Saviour, liar, 
lecher, ghoul, walking cancer... a man 
possessed... a blazing hero of a science fiction 
novel that transcends its category.

This last claim, however, is precisely wrong, for 
the book is a quintessence that exactly 
epitomizes, emblematizes its genre category. 
Samuel Delany, who rightly esteems it, noted that 
`The Stars My Destination (or Tiger! Tiger! in 
its original title) is considered by many readers 
and writers, both in and outside the field, to be 
the greatest single sf novel.... It chronicles a 
social education, but within a society which, 
from our point of view, has gone mad' (Delany, 
1978, 35). More than that, it is the apogee of 
Bester's consistent struggles with a single 
theme: the heightened image of a compulsively 
driven individual bursting through the prison 
bars of nature and nurture both, marked by 
demonic and transcendent stigmata, a Bergsonian 
emergent evolutionary salient embodied in one 
passionate, driven creature who hurtles through a 
world stripped to hard, brilliant, teleological metaphors.
           Here is Bester's crucial notion, now 
long abandoned by practicing biologists and 
philosophers: that Nature is in some sense a 
Designer with a Plan and a Purpose, shaking the 
bottle of elan vital until it seethes and spurts. 
Bester's books are overgrown with grotesque 
coincidence, lucky accidents of history that have 
the obvious narrative merit of advancing the 
story with maximum attack but through their 
failure to offend us conveying as well, and more 
importantly, a subterranean awareness that in 
these universes Nature is a participant, a 
partisan, rooting for the seed-bearers.
           In an incompetent way The Computer 
Connection, Bester's belated return to the sf 
novel, persisted with this theme, but blurred its 
expression hopelessly by skeining the dialectic, 
shortsheeting the narrative, splitting the 
typical Besterian dyad into a multitude of funny 
hats performing comic capers, some of them not so 
comic. The Demolished Man, Bester's bravura 
mystery story set in a world policed by 
telepaths, evoked that dyad stunningly in Ben 
Reich/Lincoln Powell (criminal/detective), Ben 
Reich/Craye D'Courtney (upstart/tycoon, and 
son/father), Ben Reich/The Man With No Face 
(conscious/unconscious selves). All of those were 
subsumed, quite deliberately on Bester's part, 
into an archetypal mandala of contest which can 
be represented (at some cost) as Eros/Thanatos, Life/Death.
           In The Stars My Destination, the dyad 
is above all Gully Foyle/Olivia Presteign, each 
at once the other's sibling Other and Self. This 
is true at least in terms of narrative impulse, 
but the dialectic between them points to 
something grandiose and in individual terms 
almost unspecifiable: perhaps the emergent 
salient of Life itself, set against the frigid, 
uncaring vacuum of spacetime. On the social 
level, the ground halfway between the 
psychological rampaging of individual compulsion 
and the final magisterial epiphany of 
Foyle-as-god, the dyad is manifest as common 
humanity versus power elite. Foyle effects a 
one-man revolution in human consciousness and 
power by dispersing PyrE, a kind of primordial 
Schopenhauerish element, to the brutalized masses 
of the world. PyrE is the primal stuff of the 
universe, latent force in its purest form, 
responsive only to Will and Idea. On the one 
hand, Foyle's act seems precisely an unwitting 
metaphor for mid-fifties liberal aspiration. On 
the other, it is an intriguing figure (no doubt 
overdetermined) for the devastating potential of 
both art and science in the conduct and context of human affairs.


A quarter century later, Bester had recused from 
the social dimension. Golem^100 (1980) revived 
the dyad abandoned in The Computer Connection, as 
male/female, although this is not self-evident, 
since the male component is further bifurcated, 
without thereby generating a triad. Its imagined 
society, shared with The Computer Connection, is 
a pot-pourri of gaudy images with no underlying 
texture, no embeddedness in gritty reality. While 
this is true also of The Stars My Destination, in 
that book the apparent cartoons are clearly 
emblematic, at once shimmering with wit and 
satirical laughter and darkening into depths of 
authentic pain, cruelty, aspiration. The Guff of 
the later books­most loathsome sector of the 
Northeast Corridor­is `a lunacy of violence 
inhabited by a swarming population with no 
visible means of support and no fixed residence' 
(1980, 32). It is `a raree show', curiously 
premonitory of William Gibson's Swarm (a 
conurbation running down the eastern edge of his 
cyberspaced future America). Portions of Third 
World cities already fit his description, but 
Bester's adoption of the locale possesses no 
rationale beyond his patent wish to strut his 
exhausted obsessives one more time on the 
peep-show stage­a desire confirmed in his final 
novel, The Deceivers, a terminal case of frenetic 
technique in the service of nothing beyond its 
own tired exercise. (A dire posthumous 
collaboration with Roger Zelazny, Psycho Shop 
[1998] is better passed over in silence.)
           The story line in Golem^100 is 
surprisingly frail. Eight bourgeois `bee' ladies 
with twee `secret names' while away their bored 
lives in the protected redoubts of the brutal 
Guff, playing at raising the devil. Their rituals 
bear fruit only when a husband, Droney Lafferty, 
`the celebrated necrophile' and piebald haploid, 
introduces a radioactive catalyst into their 
incense. Awakened and given focus, `the brutal 
cruelty that lies buried deep within us all' 
(10)­as Bester simple-mindedly characterizes 
Freud's Id, evidently having learned nothing 
after the same simplifications in The Demolished 
Man were lambasted by critics­emerges, expressing 
its nature in atrocities. These crimes defy 
normal explanation, to the chagrin of Police 
subadar Adida Alkhand-Sarangdar-ind'dni (whose 
palindromic names hint at some ontological 
mirroring or antinomy). Events from Bester's 1974 
short story `The Four-Hour Fugue' were modified 
and incorporated as an alternate narrative 
strand. Scent chemist Dr. Blaise Shima 
(previously Skiaki) is slacking at work. Warlock 
Salem Burne (sic!) and psychodynamician Gretchen 
Nunn determine that Shima's supernal olfactory 
acuity, coupled with his neurotic self-pity, make 
him obsessively vulnerable to human pheromone 
trails: specifically, the trail of would-be 
suicides. In the reversed or inverted 
mask-persona of `Mr. Wish', Shima tracks these 
unfortunates and becomes the occasion, though not the agent, of their demise.
           For no clear reason, the Golem 
monster-from-the-Id makes its presence known in 
such a way as to implicate Nunn and Shima in its 
roster of crimes. To clear themselves they must 
find the monster and defuse it. Their attempts to 
do so merely destroy its original embodiment, the 
eightfold `hive', and provoke Gretchen Nunn 
(meanwhile revealed as `the new Primal Man') into 
re-establishing the hive with herself as Queen. 
As part of the murderous nuptial flight preceding 
this consummation, Nunn couples with numerous 
`drones', including a dog, and climaxes by 
tearing Shima's penis from his body with the 
muscles of her clenched vulva. Awakening, she 
learns with horror (perhaps) that the honest 
policeman Ind'dni has been replaced by his 
negative self, a perverted being from the same 
Collective Under-realm which gave birth to the 
Golem. Luckily, he is now an extraordinary lover, 
a Primal Man fit for a Queen. He is, in fact, Golem^101.
           Bolstering this inane and attenuated 
plot were, firstly, the usual Besterian 
helter-skelter pyrotechnics, inventive setpieces, 
and concrete poetry formal variants, segueing to 
and from, secondly, about a hundred pages of 
quite fine integrated graphics by sf artist Jack 
Gaughan, doing by and large what could not be 
done by text alone. Alas, the fireworks were no 
better than bizarre variants on Bester's 
genuinely original and brilliant games of the 
fifties. Replacing Lady Olivia Presteign, albino 
heiress blind to all but the infrared, is 
Gretchen Nunn, Watusi genius who sees through the 
eyes of others (a singularly unworkable notion) 
and in the cosmic ray spectrum through the `cloud 
chamber' of her own flesh (a singularly useless 
ability). Visual disabilities or variants crop up 
repeatedly in Bester. Shima himself is color 
blind, Salem Burne semiotically `sees' the 
meaning of physical gesture. No doubt this 
emphasis is motivated by Bester's own eye 
troubles: `my eyes failed, like poor Congreve's' 
(`My Affair With Science Fiction', 450). This is 
no accident in any case, for the second great 
theme in Bester is perception: sight and insight, 
sleight of sight (the Man With No Face) and 
enhanced perception (telepathy; the obsessional 
rhythms of the Pi Man; a Baudrillardian 
replacement of vision by sheer motion, in 
teleportation; the Promethium-induced visions of 
Golem^100. Unhappily, the variants forced in his 
late novels like stones from the urethra are 
agonizingly constructs, with no imaginative life.
           Above all, in these late texts 
Bester's own artistic perception and tact seemed 
crusted with cataracts. In a schoolboyish note of 
lavatory puerility, a character named Phlegmy 
utters this Pukebox song (admittedly quite 
prescient of the rap lyrics popular two decades later):

           Vomitation. Vomitation.
           Retchitation. Retchitation.
           Spew. Spew.
           Upchuck, daddy,
           With a solid pour. (374)

Presumably this was intended as a scathing 
if-this-goes-on satire provoked in the early 
1970s by, say, Alice Cooper. But the sexist and 
nightmarish play-format scene on the next page is there for its relish:

           (A Hang-Glider sails low overhead, 
slowly descending. A man hangs by the neck from 
the glider, the strangling noose knotted into the 
traditional 13 turns of the rope.)


           Ooo look, Miz Gretch person. I seen a 
lot of suicides but never like this one before.

           A gaggle of crones follows the falling 
glider avidly absorbing the emissions from the 
spasming penis of the suicide.) (375)

At one level this is familiar territory to 
readers of William Burroughs. On another, it is 
an extreme extension of the Extrapolation Theory 
of sf proclaimed by Bester in his electrifying 
short story collection, Starlight (1976):

           Here's my definition:

           Extrapolation. The continuation of a 
trend, either increasing, decreasing or 
steady-state, to its culmination in the future. 
The only constraint is the limit set by the logic of the universe.

`And good luck,' he added, `to the late, great 
Alfred Bester, American author' (377-78). He 
needed more than good luck to persuade us that 
the Hang-Glider scene (a pun with all the 
spritzig of the Salem Burne jest) fell within the 
logic of the social universe inhabited by human 
beings. In another introduction in the same 
gathering, Bester declared against pornography:

           A Puritan streak in my nature has 
always stifled the slightest temptation to do 
that sort of work. I'm strongly opposed to 
censorship in any form, and yet I confess to 
being disgusted by the passages that diagram it for you. (321)

           From the outset, Bester builds clues 
to his sociobiological culmination. The eight 
middle-class nitwits are referred to as `charming 
bee ladies' who meet in `the hive'. This parallel 
is not pressed immediately: `They were not all 
cut from the identical pattern like insect-type 
bees. They were intensely individual human-type 
ladies'. Nevertheless, the leader is Regina 
(pronounced Re-JYN-a), `the Queen Bee'. They 
`buzzed with gossip... did bee-dances... gorged 
on sweets... butted heads to establish an 
informal dominance-order' (7-9). At the outset we 
learn that one of the husbands (not Regina's; she 
is a virgin) is nicknamed Droney. The moment 
Gretchen Nunn inveigles her way into the hive, 
she is dubbed `Black Beauty' (for her Negro good 
looks), or BB, or, to spell it out, Bee-Bee. 
After a time the reader becomes dazed, over-eager 
to seize this motif. When the Glacial Army sing a 
revival hymn entitled `Where You Beez Come God's 
Big Freeze', one's attention is stung, perhaps in error.
           This is textual ontology with a 
vengeance, utterly overdetermined. The irruption 
of the inverse Ind'dni from the contra-universe 
is specified like an Attic fate in the shape of 
his palindromic name: not merely Ind'dni, the 
short form of his patronymic, but in his first 
name, mentioned once and neglected thereafter.
           Midway between these manifestations of 
the World as Word and Idea are the characters' 
names: Blaise Shima, the Japanese raised as a 
French Catholic (`Shima' is the Japanese for 
`island', an opportunity for the horrendous pun 
`Hero Shima'). Gretchen Nunn reeks of metaphor 
and metonymy. Some of the other names are purely 
for fun, if that is your idea of fun: the 
thespian Sarah Heartburn, the lesbian Yenta 
Catienta (a Yiddish pun), the twins Oodgedye and 
Udgedye, which Bester tells us is Chekhovian 
Russian for `Guess Who' and `Guess Which'.
           The impulsive conceit, of the 
bee-ladies and their hives, seems consequent on 
the original story, `The Four-Hour Fugue', and 
its preliminary exploration of the 
pheromone-compulsion motif. Bester took the lazy 
way out in developing this concept to novel 
length. Yes, pheromones are typical of insects, 
not humans. This is a good reason for supposing 
that humans do not use pheromones to organize 
their sexual drives, rather than for supposing 
that if humans did use pheromones they would become like insects.
           In his late work, Bester turned to an 
always-present but previously-contained taste for 
Grand Guignol (the nickname, after all, of the 
narrator of The Computer Connection) and it 
became the more schoolboy unpleasant in its 
execution. Shima's castration is unexceptionable, 
true, the stuff of archaic myth, harvest 
festivals, turned to sf usage more than once by 
Philip José Farmer and postmodern use by, say, 
Martin Amis, Iain Banks or Will Self. But the 
ugliness of the Golem atrocities is unrewardingly disgusting:

           The man was circling a pillar stub of 
the decayed opera-house portico; crawling, 
falling, rising, stumbling, crying piteously, 
shrieking, calling on Christ and cursing his 
gods. There was a gash in his belly that oozed 
blood and extruded intestine. One end of his gut 
had been fastened to the pillar, and as he 
circled and circled it was torn out of him, inch 
by inch, to garland the column with a bloody, grey hawser. (28)

My reaction on reading this botched book, 
despairingly confirmed by the novel that followed 
it, The Deceivers (1981), was simple dismay. 
Leave aside the discussions of masks and persona 
theory in Jung, the way Bester got Freud 
ludicrously wrong in his gutter psychoanalysis, 
how finally the supposed theme of transcendence 
got its comeuppance in the Epilogue (set 105 
years on, but on internal evidence clearly meant 
to stand at the beginning), how the book's 
proofreader could not spell `architectonic' 
correctly or decide on a consistent abbreviation 
of the element Promethium (Pm, or P-M, although 
on p. 88 it is explicitly spelled out), how Golem 
to the hundredth power is a rather larger quality 
than 100 times Golem, which Bester meant, how 
impoverished the Apollinaire calligrammes had 
become in their fall from The Demolished Man to 
Sarah Heartburn's tawdry expostulations. All this 
detail dimmed to irrelevancy before the 
heartbreaking wish to cry out (now 
superfluously): Give the game away, now that you 
have lost your skill at it, the late, great 
Alfred Bester, American author. Break your staff 
and bury it. For Bester, and perhaps for 
widescreen baroque sf, it was too late for 
reprise, for recovery, for the persistence of 
memory. Like the bloated late fictions of Isaac 
Asimov's, these depressing texts were, awful 
though it is to recognize the fact, nothing 
better than a final spastic fouling of the nest.

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