Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The "Education" of This Poet (4): Brain Wave and the End of Science Fiction



For the past few days, at the invitation of the editors of the online journal Linebreak, I've been a guest blogger; the work I did for that very welcome gig was inevitably connected with writing I've been doing for Mindbook for the past several months. Therefore, with the permission of Linebreak, I'm reproducing those entries. Be sure to visit Linebreak to see the excellent work they're publishing.

Mr. G. handed out an assignment: something mimeographed. The odor of fresh mimeograph ink is still a tangible presence in my memory, indelible. The assignment had that reek, part chemical and part sexual. But we were juniors in high school; everything was sexual.

In a school full of abysmally bad teachers, Mr. G. stood out. It was not that he was a better teacher than any of the others; he wasn’t. He was lazy and often ill-informed. But he was younger than the others. He had just turned 30 a couple of months before, and that had been a shocking day; it was 1966 and our trust, rumor had it, was not to extend to anyone over 30 years of age. Not trust Mr. G.? Not trust him to do what? The truth is that, having turned 30, Mr. G. suddenly seemed unspeakably ancient, like all his colleagues. Before that, he had been ours somehow; now he was theirs.

What Mr. G. had that the others lacked was an element of hipness. He was blandly handsome, slightly moon-faced but clear-eyed, with a sort of transparency about him: very white skin, blond hair kept close-clipped but not buzz cut like a coach’s. He cultivated a blasé irony that eleventh graders recognized and appreciated. He wore his own mediocrity lightly and forgave mediocrity in others, but he abhorred outright stupidity and was merciless in hostile pursuit of it. He was, in short, a sort of meta-highschooler himself, a big man on a small campus who has outlived his time.

About the high school I attended, I want here to say as little as possible. It was wretched in and of itself, and its wretchedness compound by the fact that during the eon I attended it (1964-1968) it was completely and adamantly segregated—was, in effect, locked down where African Americans were concerned. In Mississippi, there was a war going on. Nobody said so, but that is the truth. Our school was a citadel in the conflict; we had our battlements and our cannonade. Enormous mental and spiritual energy that might otherwise have been expended on our education went to the war effort. Enormous resources also went to the maintenance of two “separate but equal” school systems in a community that could scarcely support one. It is not surprising that the school was, as I have said, abysmally bad. For me, though, in ways I would spend years coming to comprehend, it was a disaster.

The science fiction writer Poul Anderson wrote a novel called Brain Wave, which I somehow encountered in the tenth grade, in the course of living through a serious obsession with science fiction novels that was thoroughly and nakedly escapist. The thesis of Brain Wave (I recently re-read the novel out of curiosity, and it holds up reasonably well) is that millennia ago the earth drifted into a region of space where a huge force field was located. The force field was fundamentally harmless, but it turned out to affect all earthly intelligence. As life evolved, intelligence was damped down by the action of the force field: every brain was 1/3 as intelligent as it might have been otherwise. None of this caused any noticeable effect on the planet, of course, as every intelligence was equally reduced, and no mind had experienced any other condition. But then one night in the early 1960s the planet finally exited the force field, and in seconds the intelligence of every remotely thinking entity on Earth—human, animal, bird, fish, insect—was tripled.

The majority of the novel is given over to the consequences of this radical alteration in mentality. Anderson cleverly and densely imagines how the world changes for people as well as, oh, say, pigs (pigs become very smart and very dangerous). Looking back on my teenaged self, I realize that what I was obsessed by (I probably read this little book half a dozen times) was the unconscious sadness of things before the change. I identified with the characters whose intelligences had a governor on. The world inside the force field: that was my world; indeed, that was the school I attended. Later on, through my 20s, I would live the other part of the book, the lifting of the inhibitor. But that was in the future, and I had no way of knowing that liberation would ever arrive.

Science fiction was a good secret of mine in those years; some of the books I read in order to feel I was someone else in another universe or dimension actually addressed my condition, as Anderson’s did; others exercised, or exorcised, my stultified and stunted intelligence, like much of Asimov. But, truth to tell, sci fi was a dead end for me. Much as I enjoyed a certain implicit and possibly unintended satire in the depiction of the dampened souls inBrain Wave, the fact is my problem was not stupidity but depression. The force field that enveloped me from the time I was 11 until I was 22 or so—half a 22-year-old’s lifetime—was a situational depression produced by the place and time in which I was living. The only salvation for me was the one I finally chose for myself—removing myself physically and mentally from the source of the problem. But when I was in the eleventh grade, that removal was still nearly a decade in the future, and I could not even begin to imagine it. For me, science fiction was self-medication, the way alcohol may be for depressed adults. It was insufficient, but it helped me get by from day to day.

Mr. G. was hip to sci fi; he read it himself (he also had, I learned years later, a rather serious drinking problem). It was from him that I first heard the fatal title Lord of the Rings—Mr. G. was writing a master’s thesis on it. In retrospect, that fact alone reveals the quality and range of his mind, but for me at that time the thought of such work was astonishing. On Mr. G’s recommendation I ordered Tolkien from the only real bookstore in the area, a tiny establishment in the next town 30 miles up the highway; my order was weeks being filled. It’s hard to imagine, now, a universe before Borders and the internet, when there were still arcane tomes (not to mention musical recordings) one virtually had to scour the earth to locate and obtain. The town I lived in was a mental black hole, the epicenter of Anderson’s force field. I gathered my little trove of secrets and built a life raft of them.


Mr. G. faced the class. It was 11:45 on a Friday, almost the end of the period, late in the school year. The high school principal had just completed 10 minutes of “announcements” on the school’s new intercom system, a device that allowed Mr. K., the principal, not only to speak his mind to all of us at will, but at the flip of a switch to listen in to any classroom any time he chose. Mr. K. had at his disposal a calendar of famous events in history, and every day we would be treated to at least one historic event that had occurred on the date at which we were cursed to have arrived. “Chirren,” he would intone in his deep rural southern drawl, an accent so intense that even though all of us had similar accents, Mr. K.’s was unusual, “today is the birthday of Sir Thomas More. Now, as you know, chirren, Sir Thomas More was a great American statesman. . . .”

Mr. G.’s eyes rolled back in his head as if he were having an epileptic seizure. He shook himself all over like a dog shaking water off its back. We all laughed and the intercom finally went silent.

Chirren,” said Mr. G. in a crass and accurate imitation of the principal, “I have something for you.” He began passing out the mimeographed material; the incense of mimeo ink suffused the room.

“I’m giving you this to read,” he said as he passed the thin stapled packet around, “because I trust you, OK? But you have to promise me something.” He paused and gave us a melodramatic Steve McQueen stare. “You have to promise not to tell anyone—anyone—by which I mean your parents, your minister, or your other teachers—that I gave you this. If you can’t promise me that, give the material back to me immediately.” He waited; nobody moved. “Good. I take your silence as acceptance of my terms. You must not tell, because if you do—“ another pause, this one with a more serious tone—“if you do, I will get in seriously deep doo-doo. OK? Seriously. So read this, but keep it to yourself. Do not, repeat, do not let it fall into enemy hands! Return with it tomorrow; I will take it up again; if you do not return it tomorrow, I will give you an F not only in this class but for your entire miserable life! Do I make myself clear, peons? Return it, and we will discuss it tomorrow. You have 24 hours to live with this secret document. Class dismissed!”

Lunch time. We began to gather our notebooks.

“Oh, wait!” Mr. G. shouted, as he had to in order to make himself heard above the din. “Wait wait wait. One other thing you need to know: the wordnada—n-a-d-a—is a Spanish word. It means nothing. By which I do not mean it means nothing. I mean it is the Spanish word for nothing. Now begone with you, you orcs!”


I do not know how the others in the class felt; I never discussed it with any of them. I, however, was riveted, so much so that I skipped lunch (not so unusual for me, since eating lunch in our school cafeteria was an ordeal scarcely to be contemplated). I went as quickly as I could to my usual refuge: the band hall, a place that, by virtue of my so-called musicianship, was virtually my personal fiefdom. There were a few other students there; a fierce game of ping-pong was in progress and several students were watching. (A ping-pong table in the band hall, you ask? Yes: there was a ping-pong table in our band hall. But that is another story, chirren.) I circumvented them, entered an empty practice room, and took out my mimeographed sheets.

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

Ernest Hemingway

It was very late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the cafe knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.

"Last week he tried to commit suicide," one waiter said.


"He was in despair."

"What about?"


"How do you know it was nothing?"

"He has plenty of money."

Feeling a little drunk on mimeograph ink, I read these words. What had I expected? What could be so dangerous that Mr. G. swore us all to secrecy? This? I read on, all the way through the 3 sheets; it took hardly any time at all.

Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself. It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.

The next day, in Mr. G.’s class, there was a discussion. Of that, I have absolutely no shred of a memory. Nothing was said there that made a difference to me, to my understanding (or lack thereof) of Hemingway’s great story. What I remember was my naked encounter with the forbidden document, the sheer strangeness of it. I did not have the equipment to understand it. I had never stood before a bar—a bar of any kind—with dignity or without. But there was a tone here that spoke to me, there was a black hole at the heart of the story that I knew and that terrified me, familiar though it may be: “It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too . . . Some lived in it and never felt it, but he knew it was all nada. . . .” This was it. This was the problem, the force field, the heart of darkness. Alien though it was, this was my life.

I gave back Mr. G.’s copy of the story at the end of class, like everyone else. If anyone else in the class felt anything unusual had happened, they didn’t show it. But on my way out of the room, I paused by Mr. G.’s desk.

“Mr. G.,” I said, and stopped.

Mr. G. assumed his faux priesthood. “Yes, my son.”

“This prayer to nothing. . . .”


“What does it mean?”

He signed and dropped his act for a moment. “I can’t tell you that,” he said.

I paused at that. It seemed like a teacher trick, like telling someone if you can't spell it go look it up. "You want me to figure it out on my own?"

He laughed. “No,” he said. “I can’t tell you because I don’t know.”

I didn’t know what to say. If he didn’t know what the story meant, why had he given it to us?

He paused a moment, looking bemused. Then he snapped his fingers and nodded. “Let me give you something else,” he said. “But you have to promise to be careful with it.”

“Why,” I said, taking on some of his irony. “Because it’ll get you into trouble?”

“No,” he said, “because it’s a library book, and if you lose it you’ll have to pay for it.”

Out of his briefcase he brought a slender book. “You won’t understand this either,” he said, “any more than I do. But read it anyway.”

I picked it up and looked at the spine.

Hamlet?" I said.


  1. I have nothing against escapism. If you can't leave this place in body, you've got to go somewhere in your mind to survive. My friend tells me this is especially true for Macon. I think he said something like "that town will make you want to set fire to yourself if you have any sense at all."

    This is a beautiful, profound series. I've enjoyed reading. Your writing about Mississippi says all the things I've thought and some I didn't know I'd thought. Every time I read one of these pieces I have the urge to write my own. But I'm not sure I'm ready. Part of me is afraid I can't keep living here if I say too much. Here's to the importance of elsewhere.

  2. Distance does help -- though I think it's not a completely necessary condition for perspective. Thanks for the good words about this. A lot of it has not been terribly easy to revisit.