Ambrose Bierce, “In the Midst of Life” (1887-1897): “Civilians”

The second half of In the Midst of Life is a bit more difficult to come to terms with because its themes are more opaque.  The first fifteen stories considered the lives of soldiers in the Civil War and suggested Bierce’s quite modern (almost 20th century) view of warfare as indiscriminate and fundamentally at odds with a republic based on the elevation of individuals due to talent.  The second half – “Civilians” – puts people in no less extraordinary situations.  We get the same feeling that there is a thin line between the extraordinary and the banal.  Criminals are hung, marriages are strained, wills are enforced, and people go mad.  This is all the everyday happenings in a society, but Bierce masterfully presents these events are bizarre, almost supernatural happenings.  It almost makes us wonder how extraordinary our own lives are.


We also find men and women capable of transcending existing reality.  A writer in “The Suitable Surroundings” suggests the ability of literature of doing this.  The writer justifies his demand for the reader’s absolute attention as follows.  “To deny him this is immoral.  to make him share your attention with the rattle of a street car, the moving panorama of the crowds on the sidewalks, and the buildings beyond — with any of the thousands of distractions which make our customary environment — is to treat him with gross injustice.” (184)  The eleven stories that make up the second half of In the Midst of Life are full of characters who actively refuse to accept the world as it is.  Yes, their situations are often banal but as we learned in the stories about soldiers, we do not experience grand events.  Even when part of what will be larger remembered grandly (a Civil War battle for instance) our experiences are downright commonplace.  The ability to refuse existing reality is an important skill as we search for alternatives, but we do not need to be imagining alternative systems.  Often shaking our mundane lives by refusing to accept the hand we have been dealt is enough.  For instance, in “The Famous Gilson Bequest” a condemned thief leaves in his will a provision that his fortune (which turned out to be sizable) will go to the man that can provide his guilt, otherwise the wealth will go to his lawyer.  Through this simple act – a poorly-written will – a simple criminal challenged the legal system and in effect controlled the future destiny of his lawyer.  In “A Holy Terror” the protagonist goes West to hunt for gold, which he believes exists in a liquid state.  In the process he abandons his family and eventually resorts to grave robbing.


More troubling is the many characters in these stories who are bound or trapped by their situations.  The most extreme example of this is in “The Man and the Snake,” where a bookish fellow is horrified at the presence of a snake in his room.  He dies of fright, but as it turns out the snake was merely a stuffed specimen, “its eyes were two shoe buttons.” (166)  In more run of the mill examples, people are trapped by the state, marriage, or their own personalities.  In “The Boarded Window” an Ohio frontiersman is unable to save his wife from a fever but is also unable to grieve.  “He had had no experience in grief, his capacity had not been enlarged by use.  his heart could not contain it all, nor his imagination rightly conceive it.” (191)  Another man, incapable of admitting his adultery spends years in prison for burglary.  When he later meets his former lover, she falls out of her window in a mad effort to reach out to him.  The narrator reminds us that although she was capable of breaking the divine law of God against adultery she could not break the natural law of gravity. (“The Man out of the Nose”)  In the same way that the line between the extraordinary and the banal is subtle and depends on your perspective, the line between freedom and confinement is vague at best.

Perhaps due to his 1888 separation from his wife over concerns about her infidelity, Bierce’s stories from this 1890s seems to suggest a profound ambivalence about marriage.  The relationships we see in these stories are often shallow, existing in name only, shattered by adultery, or simply bizarre.  He even used one character’s lack of knowledge about snake species to throw out “a man who ascertains after marriage that his wife does not know Greek, is entitled to a divorce.”  (165)  More brutal is “An Adventure of Brownville” which involves the narrator observing the violence within another family after overhearing a conversation.  In attempts to intervene to the wife after her sister died under suspicious circumstances.  The wife eventually finds escape only in suicide, which had no affect on her husband who treated her death with legalistic abstraction.  He strolled from his wife’s body singing “La donna e mobile.”

Bierce is decidedly misanthropic and often pessimistic, but there are brief windows of optimism in his work.  Not only does he embrace characters who are capable of acts of goodness and conscious in the face of systems or individuals that are clearly psychopathic.  More importantly, he sometimes shows that is possible to transcend the traps fate lays for us.  As with prisoners, escape may be all but impossible but that does not relieve of us the obligation to attempt escape.  Our first step, and the one Bierce embraces, is to step away from the gigantism of the era.  Compared to the soldiers, the civilians had options to escape the indiscriminate violence and enforced indifference.


Philip K. Dick, “Now Wait for Last Year” (1966): Commitment, Marriage, and Politics

Philip K. Dick’s Now Wait for Last Year puts in an Earth stuck involved in a Cold War like conflict between two superpowers. In this setting, however, the Earth is not one of the major powers. Instead the Earth is a vassal state of one of the major belligerents. This is, of course, the place millions of humans found themselves in between 1945 and 1990, forced to chose between two odious alternatives. Through this position, Dick explores the consequences and obligations of commitment at the geopolitical stage and in personal relationships.

Our hero is a surgeon named Eric Sweetscent. who constructs artificial organs and transplants them into patients, often old and rich people who can afford this expensive procedure. He works for Virgil Ackerman, the boss of the Tijuana Fur and Dye Company, which used to make consumer goods through a replication process using microorganisms that tend to copy nearby objects. The company has been recruited into serving the needs of the war. For, Earth has been recruited by the ‘Starman in their war against the non-humanoid reegs. The ‘Starmen, although fully authoritarian, seemed a better ally because they looked human. Eric’s estranged wife is a likely adulterer and certainly uses drugs. Her job is to create replicas of earlier times by collecting antiques. Consumerism has merged with nostalgia and Katherine Sweetscent is an expert.


Soon, Eric is asked to work for the Secretary General of the United Nations, Gino Molinari (The Mole). His job is to keep him barely alive. The Mole is a laughable figure. Politically savvy enough to become the leader of humanity, but he presents himself as chronically ill and a fool. In fact, The Mole is an ideal figure to navigate the horrible position the Earth is in. The ‘Starmen want to fight to the last man and the Mole attempts to save as many lives as possible. In one humorous meeting, Molinari dies at a critical moment at a negotiation in order to avoid committing 1.5 million humans to almost certain death in the war effort. The context is horrific, but the only resistance is through absurdity. Perhaps there is some truth to this dilemma. We often try to resist our bosses and overlords but forget Melville’s lesson. “Now, as you well know, it is not seldom the case in this conventional world of ours- watery or otherwise; that when a person placed in command over his fellow-men finds one of them to be very significantly his superior in general pride of manhood, straightway against that man he conceives an unconquerable dislike and bitterness; and if he had a chance he will pull down and pulverize that subaltern’s tower, and make a little heap of dust of it.” Like the slave feigning ignorance, Molinari evades human being made into a little heap of dust.

At the same time, Katherine become addicted to a new drug called JJ-180, which has the interesting effect of moving the user along the timeline, but often in parallel universes. It gives the user some predictive powers. Molinari uses it to help see the consequences of his political decisions as he tries to either get the Earth out of the war or switch sides without facing the wrath of the ‘Starmen. This drug is highly addictive and leaves its victims in a debilitated state with significant brain damage. Eric uses these to locate a cure for the addiction (which exists in the future) and gain information on the war effort. All of these political machinations fail, however. At the end of the novel, the ‘Starmen invade to prevent Earth from defecting to the reegs and the war changes to a struggle against occupation (although this long struggle is only foreshadowed).

The core of the novel is the struggle over two promises. Earth’s promise to the ‘Starmen and Eric’s promise to Katherine. Dick seems to think that one of these is illegitimate and the other is absolutely essential. The ‘Starmen acquired the help of the humans through some physiological manipulation and maintained their authority through brute power. They looked on humans as simple fodder for their war and were willing to use or break Earth law to get their way. In their view Molinari’s purpose was simply to stamp their policies on behalf of the humans, who are all but slaves. Dick argues that this type of relationship must be resisted. The promises made under these conditions are illegitimate. Eric’s embrace of the resistance against the invading ‘Starmen symbolizes Dicks support for opposition to authoritarian power and slavery.

Eric and Katherine’s relationship seems at first glance no less exploitive. Katherine makes more money than her husband but still overspend, depending on this salary. Katherine uses her sexuality to make her husband jealous. She uses drugs, breaks the law, and torments her husband at work. She is the typical PKD succubus. Yet, by the end of the novel, Katherine is completely dependent on Eric for basic survival. Eric resists an affair (again we see his insistence on serial monogamy) and almost kills himself. In the final, touching scene, Eric discusses his situation with an automotive cab. The cab (a robot) suggests he stay with his wife because “life is composed of reality configurations so constituted. To abandon her would be to say, I can’t endure reality as such. I have to have uniquely special easier conditions.”

However, we can ask, how is the relationship that different. Did Eric choose to be tormented by a psychological abusive woman, a wastrel for a wife? In the same way, Earth did not know they were entering in on the losing side of a war. Like Eric, they entered the abyss without all the information. Could not robot’s same logic apply to Earth? Yes, you want to switch side in this war now that the going is rough. By what right do you have to change reality to suit your needs? You should remain committed to your choices?

In truth, I am not satisfied that there is a huge difference here. But in the subtlety exists a thin but deep divided between these two situations. It is imprecise, but it makes all the difference. Eric’s commitment to his wife at the end has less to do with the vows he shared years before. Instead it is about the basic necessity of human solidarity. At the end, the cab does not call Eric a “good and loyal husband,” he calls him a “good man” for sacrificing himself for another person.

Philip K. Dick, “Confessions of a Crap Artist” (1959, published in 1974): Insanity of the Bourgeois Marriage

As everyone knows, Philip K. Dick wrote several non-science-ficition novels in his life.  He had hoped to make a career in “mainstream” writing but never quite escaped his branding as a science-fiction pulp writer.  Thankfully these novels that he wrote have been published.  The division between his science-fiction and “mainstream” work is dubious.  Many of his science fiction tales deal with mundane questions of marriage, work, and politics.  This is why his work always seems so familiar to us.  Eye in the Sky is set fully in this world.  Most of Time Out of Joint is set in a familiar world.  Even publishers fail to make the distinction, perhaps for marketing purposes.  In the Vintage publication of his work, Confessions of a Crap Artist, is labelled as Fiction/Science Fiction.


In Confessions of a Crap Artist: A Chronicle of Verified Scientific Fact, 1945-1959 we are confronted with the adaptability of the apparently insane and the real insanity of the apparently rational bourgeois relationship.  As I brought up in my musings on Counter-Clock World, Dick was personally and artistically ambivalent about monogamy.  Confessions of a Crap Artist is one of his several dissertations on this question, and perhaps the most fully developed.  His argument, a balanced, scientific examination of a middle-class, suburban, typical marriage reveals that such a marriage can only be sustained by psychopathy.

The story begins by introducing us to the crap artist, Jack Isidore.  Jack seems to have some mental illnesses, but if he is insane, many of us are.  He is a collector of odd ideas, unverified scientific theories, and bizarre eschatologies.  He is an admirable figure as an autodidact, but that led him to lack an objective teacher who can correct his heresies and delusions.  One does not need to spend much time on the Internet to realize that we are all in dangers of falling into the excesses of autodidactism.  Every bizarre theory now has its own wiki, internet community, and Facebook page. Is this an American perversion.  It seems that Europeans were mostly capable of becoming secular without filling the gap left with religion by bizarre theories.  In the United States, the religious are becoming nuttier and those who leave the religion of their birth often choose to become eclectic heretics grabbing a bit of New Age, deep ecology, Buddhism, and UFO cults.  In a significant sub-plot to the novel, Jack meets Claudia Hambro, one of these Californian cultivators of New Age cosmologies.  She and her group just borrow whatever craziness seems to work.  Someone like Jack is open to these claims, lacking the filters created by a rational education.  Here is part of Claudia’s message.  “Over the house there was a huge blue light hanging, like cracking electric fire.  I laid on the ground and that fire consumed me, from that spaceship. The whole house became a spaceship ready to go into space. . . . It’s the force that’s pulling us all together.  Throughout the world.  There’s groups forming everywhere.  The message is the same: suffer and die to save the world.  Christ was not suffering for our sings, he was suffering to show us the way.  We all have to suffer.  We all have to ascend the cross to gain eternal life, each in his own way.  Christ was from another planet.  From a more evolved race.”
It is not just Americans.  We find this craziness around the world.

And do not take it the wrong way.  “Loving Hut” is my favorite vegan restaurant in Taiwan (my new home), but these people are nuts.

Jack move into the home of his sister and brother-in-law, Charley and Fay Hume.  They have two kids, a nice home, and an ideal bourgeois marriage.  In other words, they are completely insane.  Virtually every interaction they have is framed in capitalist logic.  They compete with each other for money, for friends, for connections, and for leadership.  They are good friends with an academic couple Nat and Gwen Anteil.  Both Charley and Fay assume the other is out to get them (and neither would be wrong).  Their marriage exists only for the material benefit, image, and propriety.  Charley has a heart-attack, which he immediately blames on Fay’s machinations.  For what good is a bourgeois marriage without paranoia.  He is not wrong to be a bit paranoid, Fay does take her husband’s hospitalization to seduce Nat Anteil.  Why does she do it?  Does she just want to break up the Anteil’s marriage?  Does she want to revenge on Charley?  Does he truly love Nat?  Whatever her motives are, Dick is convinced that they are psychopathic.  At one point, Fay suggests to Nat that if her husband would die, she would remarry Nat.  Interestingly, Charley does not care about the affair when Jack brings it up (with a full scientific documentation).  He does want to ruin Fay, however.  This he finally achieves by killing himself and writing Fay out of half of the marriage property, giving it to Jack.

In all of this craziness, Nat seems to us to be the one character with authentic motives.  He seems to truly fall in love with Fay.  But when his internal monologue struggles with committing to the affair with Fay, we learn that he was attempting to express his autonomous will.  “Then he asked himself why he was doing it.  I have a really wonderful wife, he thought.  And I like Charley Hume.  And, he thought, Fay is married and has two children.  Why, then? Because I want to, he decided.”  While refreshing compared to the mind Jack, Charley, and Fay it is not much of an improvement.  Why does Jack believe that sunlight has weight?  Why does Claudia follow UFO cults?  Why does Fay choose to torture her husband? Why does Charley kill himself?  These are all expressions of the characters triumph over rationality.

In Confessions of a Crap Artist, Philip K. Dick is giving us a close look at the world of bourgeois liquid modernity.  Like the worlds of his science fiction novels, this one contains flexible realities, dubious loyalties, false facades, and psychopathy instead of humanity.

Vintage, trying to make it look all science-fictioney.

Vintage, trying to make it look all science-fictioney.

It seems to me that there is evidence that Dick is assaulting a particular form of marriage, that he saw in suburban America of the 1950s.  We are presented with a healthier, more natural, more rational, and more cooperative marriage with Nat and Gwen Anteil.  When learning of the affair, Gwen does not seek revenge but approached the situation with objective rationality.  They are not concerned with appearances to the level that the Humes are (their income could not allow it).  Standing on a real education, they are also apparently immune from the crazy sub-cultures and heresies that infect Jack’s mind.  Ultimately Dick is calling for relationships based on solidarity and love instead of social expectation, image, and wealth accumulation.


Herman Melville “Typee” Part Two

C. L. R. James wrote: “In Typee [Melville] holds up to admiration the civilization of the Typees and makes the most damaging comparisons with Western civilization.  Melville says that during the weeks he lived among the Typees, no one was ever put on trial for any public offense.  As far as he could see there were no courts of law or equity.  No police.  Yet everything went on in the valley with a perfect harmony and smoothness.  He denounces missionaries, white traders and government officials for degrading and corrupting this ideal civilization, cannibalistic as it was.”  (James, Mariners, Renegades & Castaways, 71).


Most of the second half of the novel Typee amounts to travelogue and ethnography, as Melville tells his readers about the society he lived with for around a month (four months in the time frame of the novel).  There is not much left to tell in respect to plot.  In addition to living among the Typee, Tommo considers leaving at times and attempts to convince the Typee to allow him to leave, but settles in.  When he catches his hosts with three severed heads, Tommo begins to fear for his life, living among cannibals.  Despite resistance and difficulty, Tommo is able to escape by signing onto a whaling vessel.  His adventures will continue in the novel Omoo, where he will take on the name “Typee.”  This novel does have two epilogues.  One examined a British occupation of Hawaii.   The second considered the adventures of Toby after his escape from the Typee.


I want to focus on the world Melville describes.  As I discussed in my last post, he was making a critique of “civilization” by praising the successes of the savages.  He saw the missionaries and whites as a corrupting force.  This theme is even more strongly argued in Omoo.  What is so special about the Typee community?  What can we learn from them?  Perhaps not much, but there remains much that is admirable.  The Typee have achieved a post-scarcity society.  The cultivation of breadfruit and “cocao-nuts” ensured a steady supply of food at the cost of little apparent drudgery.  Abundance of necessities is one half of eliminating scarcity.  The other half is in the elimination of desires.   “In a primitive state of society, the enjoyments of life, though few and simple, are spread over a great extent, and are unalloyed; but Civilization, for every advantage she imparts, holds a hundred evils in reserve; — the heart burnings, the jealousies, the social rivalries, the family dissensions, and the thousand self-inflicted discomforts of refined life, which make up the swelling aggregate of human misery, are unknown among these unsophisticated people.” (149-150)By needed little, the Typee did not need to invest much of their energy into production.  The benefits of this post-scarcity situation overflow on almost every page of the second half of the novel.  Let me just mention two: time and governance.

Time: Industrialization created a world defined by the clock.  One sells their labor by the hour.  Tasks in the day are measured by seconds and minutes.  More and more of our conception of reality is defined by the standardized time-keeping.  Melville describes the opposite process.  The Typee would not have been aware of it, but Tommo, coming from 19th century America would have notice how time became less important.  “Gradually I lost all knowledge of the regular recurrence of the days of the week, and sunk insensibly into that kind of apathy which ensures after some violent outbreak of despair.  My limb suddenly healed, the swelling went down, the pain subsided.” (148)  A simple thought experiment would reveal that given liberation from work, whether through a more egalitarian distribution of necessary work, a reduction in living standards, or the mechanization of labor most people would choose to organize their days in accordance to their desires.  Nonnegotiable schedules would quickly vanish.  An afternoon spent on family, drink, or hobbies would no longer be seen as time wasted, better spent on productive labors.  Clocks might remain, but they would be servants of humanity not the masters.

Governance: The system of government among the Typee is described in chapters 25 and 26.   Melville was impressed with its simplicity and its lack of authority.  Deference was seemingly given willingly by the people and was not forced because the chief has no real say over the affairs of the community.  “During the festival I had not failed to remark the simplicity of manner, the freedom from all restraint, and, to a certain degree, the equality of condition manifested by the natives in general.” (219)  (I cannot help but notice the similar language used by Tocqueville in describing 1830 U.S.A.)  This simplicity was replicated in the marriage system.  Melville describe the use of polyandry and the lack of extended and tedious courtships.  Divorces are common and mostly amicable.  “As nothing stands in the way of a separation, the matrimonial yoke sits easily and lightly, and a Typee wife lives on very pleasant and sociable terms with her husbands.” (226)  I wonder how much of this can be explained by the lack of the interference of property in marriage.  With property comes greater concerns about fidelity, paternity certainty, and, of course, divorces become more complicated.  Often what makes divorce so traumatic for individuals and communities is a direct outgrowth of our atomized, unequal, capitalist society. Who will care for the children?  Who will get to keep the marital assets?  These are questions that did not plague the Typee.  The raising of children was as straightforward and simple as everything else in Typee life.  And with no property to divide up, divorce could not threaten any man or woman’s survival.  If we stopped looking at our relationships through windows of ownership and property, perhaps divorce would be less common.  Adultery is a threat only to those who think love, sex, emotion, happiness, and joy are scarce and marketable commodities.  (Only the one who “paid the price”, i.e. got married, should enjoy those things.)  Conflicts amongst the Typee were rare.  Tommo claimed to have seen none.

“Civilization does not engross all the virtues of humanity; she has not even her full share of them.  They flourish in greater abundance and attain greater strength amongst many barbarous people.  The hospitality of the wild Arab, the courage of the North American Indian, and the faithful friendships of some of the Polynesian nations, far surpass any thing of a similar kind among the polished communities of Europe.  If truth and justice, and the better principles of our nature cannot exist unless enforced by the statute-book, how are we to account for the social condition of the Typees?” (238)