Not Nothing and Speculating Late

by Ada Palmer on April 14, 2017

The “Not Nothing” in Thomas Carlyle’s Protagonization of History

a response to

John Holbo “Heroes and Aliens”

John Holbo’s essay is a masterwork of hinting without revealing, discussing pieces while keeping the veil across the whole.  As I read it, a visual kept entering my mind, of great hands reaching under the belly of a Leviathan, lifting it toward the ocean surface, not high enough to expose its shape or color, just enough for the many reefy knots and house-sized barnacles that stud its skin to poke up through the dark waves like an island chain, so the spectator on the shore can just make out that there is a living vastness in the deep whose structure connects makes many new-bared lands one.

My first contact with Carlyle’s Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History came suddenly, in my second year of grad school.  The title lurked on my list of required historiographical background reading, preparation for my oral exams, amid so many histories of Italian city-states, and rebuttals of Hans Baron.  My cohort and I were wolfing down a book a day in those months, looting each for thesis and argument, so we could regurgitate debates, and discuss how our own projects fit with the larger questions of the field.  Only two books refused on that list to be so digested: Carlyle’s, and Burkhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.

It isn’t that they couldn’t fit into the outline of thesis and rebuttal—responding to Burkhardt is still 1/3 of my job here at Chicago, and Carlyle was on there to represent Great Man History, which, like Whig history and Marxist history, was a thought pattern we, as young historians, needed to learn to recognize and grapple with.  It’s that they were unskimmable.  Each paragraph of both was such a work of rhetoric and rhythm that the quick eye-slide from first sentence to last was as meaningless as connecting the first and final chords of a line of Renaissance polyphony without the intricate structure which transported us from A to B.  I had to read every word, and this slow food encounter with Carlyle, against so many modern historians whose brilliance was also packaged to be easily devoured like a midday sandwich wrap, changed the way I thought about the pace of argument.  Made me think about how sometimes pace is argument, reader assent deriving from the emotional arc of the word-flow itself, again like music when we feel the chords progress and need them to complete that climax and resolve, and feel that tingle of joy-relaxing muscles when it does resolve as it needed to.  So for the clear and penetrable modern books I wrote my one-page summaries, as their authors intended, while for Carlyle I wrote my one-page summary and also kept mulling and mulling, and practicing and practicing, until I could give him the response I felt he wanted, which required learning how to write a paragraph about Voltaire which has the rhythm, the suspended dissonance, the climax, and that moment when the rhetoric itself pulls the reader into feeling sympathy, pride, excitement, disappointment, zeal, wrapped around the truth-claim like chords around lyrics almost lost in them.  Which required learning to write Mycroft.

I don’t want to suggest that I created Mycroft Canner wholly in response to Carlyle, but it was feeling his prose that made me think history could be explored this way too, that made me confident a strongly-voiced narrator—based above all on Diderot with whom I was already in love—could be used to create a sense of history as well as a sense of character, and to give the reader a window into another understanding of the mechanisms of the world, as different from our everyday understanding as ours from Thomas Carlyle’s.

Latin has a charming double negative; lacking the word “something” one instead says “not nothing” (non nihil), ancestor of my favorite English formula for faint praise “there is not no merit to X.”  Taken seriously, however, “not nothing” is often a useful phrase for thinking about why we still need to read, respond to, and grapple with old readings of the past, or of society, like Carlyle’s Great Man theory, even when have already been largely discredited (and when they have such problematic, nationalist and even racist baggage as Carlyle’s does).  Because there is not nothing to the Great Man Theory of history—it hits a nerve, not of how history actually works, but of how we tend to perceive history.  The act of trying to understand history, to record it, retell it, make sense of it, reduce it to pieces of a size we can wrap our heads around, so often generates narratives, with protagonists, heroes, and villains.  It describes an important part of our perceived world, and everyone who tries to read, or especially to write, any kind of history needs to think about how that narrativization process—one could almost call it a protagonization process—filters our perception of history every bit as much as our inability to see the ultraviolet spectrum filters our perceptions of flowers and stars.  In the same sense there is not nothing to Whig history (as I recently discussed on my blog), and there is not nothing to Marxist history.

Revisiting Carlyle’s kind of history in Too Like the Lightning, by having the history be written by a fictitious historian whose obsession with the Great Human Powers around him makes him see his Days of Transformation much as Carlyle might have seen them, lets me explore how our tendencies to protagonize histories might filter our understanding of the events that shake my year 2454.  But—the great part—the fact that Mycroft’s voice (like Thomas Carlyle’s) feels so alien to a 21st century reader, so different, conspicuous, emotional, idiosyncratic, biased, makes the reader constantly a little wary of Mycroft’s interpretation, makes us very conscious of his distortions, and makes us consequently try to filter it out, to make our own corrected version of the narratives, just as all those more modern historians did with Carlyle, and Burkhardt.  Because the real 21st century reader of Too Like the Lightning inhabits a world where we read, and write penetrable, clear, skimmable histories.  Holbo’s comment, “The scorecards may have been tampered with,” is one articulation of what dozens of readers have said to me about their efforts to work out the broader picture beyond what Mycroft gives us.  And at the same time that Mycroft’s voice and obsession with Great Men is letting us chew on the “not nothing” that is part of Carlyle’s Great Men  Theory, other parts of the text let us chew on other not nothings.  The “not nothing” of Marxist history rears in the Censor’s office, and the question of whether Misubishi landlords and tensions over property make conflict inevitable.  The “not nothing” of Whig history rears in the rehabilitated progressivism of Utopia, and of the Humanists and Cousins, and in the declarations we hear from characters like Sniper and Vivien Anclet that their system of Hives and borderless nations is the best age in history, a triumphant achievement forged by the natural decay of the primitive nation-states.  Throughout the text we encounter narrativizations of this future history, in strong voices that encourage the reader to unpack them and create a new narrative, the reader’s own.  The image of the great man as lightning which strikes the dry sticks of ordinary people ripe for change activates, not only our emotions, but our appetite for analysis, and readers who are excited to analyze and pick apart are exactly those who get the most out of the years of effort I put, first into building the world, then into holding it beneath the waves so we have to construct the shape from just the few bare islands, just as we do with history itself.

But then there are the figures larger than history: Bridger’s power, and, if we believe Him, J.E.D.D. Mason.  Holbo comments “how ironic that everyone is trying to figure out who stole and planted the Black Sakura Seven-Ten list—how, and why—while, meanwhile: Bridger exists.”  Indeed.  And, as I said in response to Belle Waring, if you believe resurrection and godhood are on the table it is insane to give one jot of time or attention to anything else, just as in Dungeon’s & Dragons it’s an act of madness to be anything but a cleric of the gods that reach through the fabric of the world to help you if you only pray.  The Christian Middle Ages, when belief in an actively interventionist God made Christianity have to develop a very sophisticated praxis to justify any portion of the population remaining on the farms or in the saddles and not devoting day and night to placating their absolute Creator, they also had a narrativization of history, as important for us to grapple with, and as much a part of our inherited historical toolkit as heroic protaganization or economic determinism: the theologization or providentialization of history.

As for the aliens, more aliens after book… not three… four.

Speculating Late

a response to

Lee Konstantinou “Ada Palmer’s Great Conversation”

First off I will say that I am proud, and delighted, that my effort to contribute to the Great Conversation has stimulated such a beautiful response as Lee’s articulation of what science fiction is, can do, and above all how it differs from fiction which represents everyday life.  I think he is spot on.  Science fiction, and related forms of genre fiction, do hope to change the world, and nurture thoughts and conversations about different worlds and ways, and hope for change.  As Ursula Le Guin has put it, science fiction authors are “writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope… realists of a larger reality.”  There is an optimism in even the darkest-seeming science fiction.  The Hunger Games depicts a world in which the systemic inequalities of our world are fifty times worse, and are successfully overthrown—a celebration of the hope that we, who face less ferocious versions of the same iniquities, can do the same.  In 1984 the dystopia genuinely cannot be overthrown, but 1984 itself has become one of our culture’s most powerful tools for raising awareness and galvanizing resistance, for preventing in reality precisely what it depicts in fiction.  And the many science fictional stories with no such overt political elements nonetheless foster rich new conversations, and about issues much more real than the fantastic elements at their hearts.  Those nights when we stay up late talking about how someone having the Flash’s power in real life would affect the economy, or making a list of our first visits if we had a time machine, are moments when we think deeply, constructively, about possible transformations of our economy, and we see as the most important events that shaped our history.  Our science-fiction-reading predecessors, who stayed up just as late talking about how robots might be used in society, or the consequences of cloning, are exactly what accelerated robots genuinely entering our society, and gave us a moral head start for real policies to regulate real cloning.

Science fiction is also—as Lee Konstantinou put it—a “refuge in an anti-Utopian age that seems determined to deflate any such ambitions,” referring to the ambitions of improving ourselves and transcending our limitations.  I agree: it is a refuge, a sphere in which speculation about alternatives, change, new paths, different paths, is welcome, encouraged, safe, normal.  Where you can talk about utopian projects or experimental governments without risk of being shut down by realism asserting its self-proclaimed monopoly on grown-up sophistication.

So I was interested in exploring what could happen if the line between speculative fiction and realist fiction became stronger, not just a genre line but a political identity, those who speculate a society in themselves.  I was interested in what that might do—positive and negative—for those on both sides of such a cultural wall, and for someone like Cato Weeksbooth caught between.  Are the Utopians good?  The degree to which our narrator is in love with them makes many readers reflexively want to stop and double-check, look for signs of the sinister, and I’m not going to interfere with the process of readers exploring that question as the books evolve.  Is the wall between Utopia and the non-Utopian majority good?  Bad?  Permanent?  Changing?  Increasing?  Weakening?  How would it have developed?  What would it mean for education?  For science research?  For pop culture marketing?  If that question set has joined alien genetics and the thermodynamics of dragons as something friends now stay up late to speculate about, then that’s all I would ask for.  Well, except the stars.  But here I agree with Mycroft, and Tezuka, and Voltaire, that the former is also our long road to the latter.



DCA 04.14.17 at 1:09 pm

“The act of trying to understand history, to record it, retell it, make sense of it, reduce it to pieces of a size we can wrap our heads around, so often generates narratives, with protagonists, heroes, and villains”

Just right. Cf. When They Severed Earth From Sky by Barber and Barber, a study of how (some) myths are the result of just this procedure, applied to actual events, because it is what makes them (in oral cultures) transmittable over many generations. (Also a great SF title, but that is by the way.)


John Holbo 04.15.17 at 2:11 am

Glad I guessed the riddle. Or at least that that which I grasped at was not nothing!


Michael Loukides 04.17.17 at 12:51 pm

You’ve solved one problem for me. I read “Too Like The Lightning” because of reading something else–and I’ve been strangely obsessed with what that “something else” was. Now I know. John Holbo is to blame.

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