Creativity comes through individuals but no one successfully creates alone. It is mysterious only to outsiders who can't see how it is done and mystify it further by calling it genius. No one has it all life through; their creativity takes off when they find their distinctive technique and their niche in the world of rivals, audiences, and downstream followers. And one learns it by getting deep inside a network of intellectual and artistic life, recombining and flipping techniques to produce something resoundingly new. Creativity via Sociology shows how they do it.

Friday, February 17, 2017

THE ASSASSINATION OF THE TERRACOTTA EMPEROR (a fiction after the style of Jorge Luis Borges)

            Most famous of all the Emperors of China was Ying Zheng, King of the state of Qin, who united the Warring States and took the title Qin Shihuang-di, the First Emperor.  The thousands of life-sized terracotta warriors buried with him are described by tour guides as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Their sight proclaims China on tourist posters all over the world, and heads of state visit to have themselves photographed with China’s new rulers alongside the terracotta army. Qin Shihuang-di ended the anarchy of the feudal lords, bringing order out of chaos by imposing uniform laws, standardizing the writing scripts, unifying the currency, even regulating the length of cart axels so that the ruts of roads everywhere might be equally passable. He established the rule of centralized bureaucracy which became the stamp of Chinese civilization, and began the cycle of dynasties that fall only to rise again.  He built the Great Wall to keep out the Northern Barbarians, sending 700,000 workers whose bones were buried under the Wall to make it strong. His tomb took 38 years to build, the length of his entire reign, consuming another 700,000 workers. They surrounded it with underground caverns filled with terracotta warriors and battle chariots lifelike in every detail, and also with real horses and household servants who were buried with him, along with incalculable treasures in jade and gold. To deter grave-robbers, crossbows were cunningly set to kill any intruder in the underground passageways, and the craftsmen who knew the secrets of the tomb were buried inside it.  Qin Shihuang-di was a tyrant, but a great one.

            Even his enemy Jia Yi, writing in the Han Dynasty which overthrew the Qin after the death of Qin-Shihuang-di, extolled him.  According to the ancient text: “After this the First Emperor arose to carry on the glorious achievements of six generations. Cracking his long whip, he drove the universe before him, swallowing up the eastern and western Zhou and overthrowing the feudal lords. He ascended to the highest position and ruled the six directions, scourging the world with his rod, and his might shook the four seas. In the south he seized the land of Yüeh and made of it the Cassia Forest and Elephant commandaries, and the hundred lords of Yüeh bowed their heads, hung halters from their necks, and pleaded for their lives with the lowest officials of Qin. Then he caused General Meng Tian to build the Great Wall and defend the borders, driving back the Huns over seven hundred li  so that the barbarians no longer dared to come south to pasture their horses and their men dared not take up their bows to avenge their hatred.

            “Thereupon he discarded the ways of the former kings and burned the writings of the hundred schools in order to make the people ignorant. He destroyed the fortifications of the states, assassinated their powerful leaders, collected all the arms of the empire, and had them brought to his capital where the spears and arrowheads were melted down to make twelve human statues, in order to weaken the people of the empire. He garrisoned the strategic points with skilled generals and expert bowmen and stationed trusted ministers and well-trained soldiers to guard the land with arms and question all who passed back and forth. When he had thus pacified the empire, the First Emperor believed in his heart that with the strength of his capital within the Pass and his walls of metal extending a thousand miles, he had established a rule that would be enjoyed by his descendants for ten thousand generations.”

            Nevertheless, the old chronicles tell us, the great Emperor came close to being assassinated before all this could be done.  None of this might have come about: China unified, cart axels, pottery soldiers and all. The Grand Historian, Sima Qian tells the story, which he verified from those who had talked to eyewitnesses at the scene. Qin had not yet destroyed the six remaining great feudal states, but pressure was growing. His generals inflicted defeated on the state of Zhao to the east, and buried alive the 400,000 soldiers who surrendered. The state of Yan, in the north, was the weakest of the states; its prince, Dan, knew that if the other states fell, Yan could not survive. At this time Fan Yuqi, a Qin general, knowing that his master Ying Zheng, King of Qin, was unforgiving of failure but jealous of success, fled to the protection of Yan. Knowing that receiving Fan Yuqi would provoke Qin even more, nevertheless Prince Dan took him in.

            His worries redoubled, Prince Dan sent for a famous assassin, Jing Ke, and asked him to eliminate the tyrant. But the King of Qin sat always in fear for his life; how would Jing Ke come armed into his presence? Only one way: the Prince must send a secret envoy, offering alliance; to assure good faith, he must carry the head of the traitor Fan Yuqi. He would also offer a map of the Yan fortresses, wrapped up in which would be the dagger Jing Ke would use to kill Ying Zheng.

            Jing Ke agreed to the plan and called on Fan Yuqi.  The ex-general received the assassin courteously. He had been thinking, he said, of how he could contribute to revenge on the King of Qin. Now he understood; and with that, he cut his own
 throat, offering his head to Jing Ke.

            Jing Ke now journeyed to Qin, offering bribes and gifts to the appropriate officials to arrange an audience with King Ying Zheng. Ushered into the royal chamber, he took the head of Fan Yuqi from the box in which it was packed with salt, and brandished it before King Ying Zheng. The king beckoned Jing Ke forward to unroll the map of the Yan fortifications. Seizing the dagger that appeared at the end of the roll, Jing Ke sprang forward. Now the king, terrified of assassination, allowed no one armed to enter his inner hall; so the courtiers and attendants were unable to defend against Jing Ke.

            The king alone had a sword, but it was a ceremonial sword, longer than anyone else’s because he was the king; its scabbard was so long that he could not draw the blade as Jing Ke rushed at him. They darted around the pillars of the court chamber, Jing Ke giving chase with the dagger, King Ying Zheng fleeing and trying to draw his sword, while his courtiers watched in horror. Or perhaps indifference. No one gave orders to call armed soldiers from the outer halls, and since they had not been called, no one risked punishment by entering the upper hall.  Only the court physician, Xia Wuqie, battered at Jing Ke’s dagger with his medicine kit. At last the king unsheathed his sword and managed to cut down Jing Ke’s legs. Falling, Jing Ke hurled the dagger at the king, but missed him and struck a pillar. Thus King Ying Zheng of Qin escaped assassination. The assassin Jing Ke was hacked to pieces and his head displayed on the city walls. The king of Yan, hoping to appease the wrath of Qin, ordered the head of Prince Dan cut off and sent to Qin, but a massive Qin army destroyed Yan, and soon after unified the Middle Kingdom.

            Such is the story as reported by Sima Qian, Grand Historian of the Han dynasty, who lived 100 years ater Ying Zheng, the First Emperor. In truth, the story went differently. As the courtiers stood paralyzed, or indifferent, while Jing Ke brandished his dagger, only the court physician Xia Wuqie  attempted to protect the king. But as he moved forward to place his medical kit between the king and the assassin’s dagger, he was held back by a pull of the long sleeve of his gown by the Prime Minister, Li Si . The tyrant king Ying Zheng was unable to draw his sword from its scabbard, and as he dodged behind the pillars, Jing Ke’s dagger found its target. The tyrant was dead. Only then did the Prime Minister Li Si call the guards from the lower chamber, who rushed in and killed Jing Ke. At a sign from Li Si, they killed too all the courtiers who were close enough to see what had happened -- whether as punishment for not protecting
their soverign, or to eliminate witnesses of the deed, no one would ever know.

            Now Prime Minister Li Si and court physician Xia Wuqie held conference over the king’s corpse, out of sight behind a pillar.

            “The situation is thus,” observed Li Si. “King Ying Zheng was suspicious of everyone. That is why our most successful general, Fan Yuqi, fled to Yan. Ying Zheng has been king since he was twelve years old. As he has grown up, it has begun to dawn on him that we ministers, who flatter him as the great and tyrannical king, have always controlled the state of Qin. Soon he would have turned his suspicions on us. It is better we are rid of him.”

            “In that case,” remarked the physician Xia Wuqie, “are we not now superfluous? Or do you intend to make yourself king?”

            “Not at all,” said Prime Minister Li Si. “Who I am is known to everyone. It is preferable to remain Prime Minister, and replace the king.”

            “To replace a king is not easy,” replied Xia Wuqie.

            “On the contrary,” said Li Si, “this very king, Ying Zheng, was just such a replacement. You may recall my predecessor, the Prime Minister Lü Buwei. He was once a common man, merely a wealthy merchant. But he befriended one of the grandsons of a previous king of Qin; standing nearly lowest out of more than 20 sons of the royal concubines, Prince Zichu had little chance of receiving the succession on his own. By distributing bribes and gifts at court, Lü Buwei had the king’s favorite concubine, who was childless, adopt this prince as her own son, and by her wiles prevail upon the old king to put aside his first son and name Prince Zichu as his heir. Then Lü Buwei, promoted to Prime Minister, gave one of his own beautiful concubines to Prince Zichu; in fact she was already pregnant by Lü Buwei, but Prince Zichu believed he himself quickly impregnated her with a son. It was this son, Ying Zheng, who succeeded his father as king of Qin.

            “Being only twelve years old when he ascended the throne, Ying Zheng was naturally under the advice of Prime Minister Lü Buwei. As we know, for six generations the state of Qin has followed a policy of expansion. Ministers have come from every state, offering their clever plans, and the shrewdest have been given office here in Qin. Our generals have built the most massive armies, scouring territories of the outlying marchlands west of the Pass and south into Sichuan to build up our population. Our ministers have established laws regulating the people, concentrating power in the tentacles of the court, while the other feudal states have allowed a free hand to their unruly barons. Our policy has worked well, as long as no ruler was allowed to interfere with it. Therefore, in order to occupy the attention of young King Ying Zheng, Prime Minister Lü Buwei encouraged him to take an interest in magic, and flattered him to believe himself a cruel tyrant. As soon as Ying Zheng took the throne, the Prime Minister set before him plans to build his tomb, greater than any predecessor. Three hundred years before, King Jingsong of Qin buried hundreds of horses and attendants in his tomb; King Ying Zheng of Qin would have thousands more. Lü Buwei sent to him alchemists and sorcerers, filling his ears with tales of magic potions bringing immortality. Thus the King of Qin thought more of his tomb than of anything else; he would have an army underground to accompany him in the afterlife -- and protect him too, since already in his young life his cruelty surrounded him with enemies, and the world of immortality in the grave is in this respect no different than our mortal life.

            “Thus young King Ying Zheng enjoyed his cruelties and took pleasure in building his huge underground toy. But Lü Buwei let himself become too grand. He began secretly to take back his beautiful concubine, aged though she was.  Finding her insatiable, he arranged other lovers for her, choosing a man with a giant penis who they secretly passed into the women’s quarters as a eunuch. On reaching the age of twenty-two, King Ying Zheng grew suspicious; he had his mother imprisoned, and her suspected lovers killed, along with their relatives through the third degree of kinship. Lü Buwei, realizing he had overreached himself, offered to retire. But even on his vast country estate, King Ying Zheng suspected Lü Buwei of being too grand; taking a hint, Lü Buwei killed himself. It is thus that I, Li Si, became Prime Minister.

            “I have guarded King Ying Zheng since he was twenty-two. I have changed nothing suddenly, only extended previous precedents. King Ying Zheng I have kept occupied with filling his vast tomb with precious objects and building his army of terracotta warriors, while I have continued plans of previous Prime Ministers to build the state of Qin and unify the Middle Kingdom.  Our armies grow steadily stronger than any of the feudal states. They are stronger, too, even off the battlefield, since they are drawn from a population where everyone is harnessed to the will of the state. Elsewhere the feudal nobles do what they wish, following their honor codes of loyalty to friends and sworn vengeance to enemies. Here in Qin no one stands above the law. Only one, the king appears to stand above. But he too does not escape the law; he is merely the name in which all others are leveled.

"The king of Qin is at the center of this circle we are constructing, because we need one point on which all eyes are focused. But the king does this for Qin only as long as I control him, I the Prime Minister, just as another Prime Minister did before, and another Prime Minister will after me. At times I have considered: if this child ever realizes what we are doing, he will ruin everything.

            “Of late, it has come close to that. Ying Zheng’s suspicions were growing. His cruelties were striking everywhere, ever closer at hand. It was time to replace him. Heaven has sent this assassin at the right time. Truly, Heaven looks down on the state of Qin, and on its destiny to unify the Middle Kingdom.”

            Court physician Xia Wuqie bowed his head to Prime Minister Li Si in the kowtow.  “You are truly wise, Prime Minister.  But what shall we do with the corpse of Ying Zheng?  And who shall we put in its place?”

            “There is a servant in my household,” said Li Si.  “Low-born, lacking confidence in himself, he will do what I suggest. His face and body match the late King Ying Zheng well.  He is superstitious too, a halfwit. He is also a coward, fearful of enemies, so we can easily make him Ying Zheng, fearful of assassins. I have detected in him signs of cruelty, and that too we can encourage, giving him petty victims to begin with. Let him start by executing his fellow servants of my household, who might recognize him, and the former servants of Ying Zheng. They can be executed for treason, for failing to fend off the assassin. After that, let him move on to bigger cruelties. We can use him to cut off any rivals who might appear at court, who have designs on our own offices.”

            So it was done. The young halfwit was dressed in the robes of the king, and taught to brag how he killed the assassin with his own sword while his cowardly courtiers watched. To get him in the right spirit, Li Si and the physician Xia Wuqie had him hack at the body of the dead king Ying Zheng, after it had been stripped of its clothes, until it was mutilated beyond recognition. This they represented as a henchman of the assassin; and its head too was displayed on the city wall.

            And so the halfwit was set on the throne. Qin’s armies resumed their task of reducing the state of Zhao in the northwest and Yan in the north, Han and Wei in the center, Chu in the south, and finally the mighty king of Chi in the east.  In 221 B.C. the halfwit was named emperor of all the Middle Kingdom.  On the advice of his ministers (Li Si standing in the front row not too far forward, showing due humility as no more than foremost among the ranks below the emperor), he took the title of Qin Shihuang-di. Being told repeatedly by everyone of his great achievements, he came to believe in them himself.

            For Li Si, there remained one chief problem. Only the court physician, Xia Wuqie, knew the secret.  The thought began to trouble Li Si’s mind: had he told anyone? The scholars too seemed to have an air of knowing something, both Li Si’s old schoolmates in the School of Rigidly Enforced Laws, as well as the advocates of the other systems, the followers of Confucius and Modi and Laozi, the theorists of the Yin-Yang and of the Five Processes, the debaters and the School of Names. The solution was simple. Li Si insinuated to the emperor that the scholars were plotting against him, using their books (which he could not read) as evil portents against his rule. The emperor obligingly ordered all books collected and burned. When the scholars protested, 460 of them were buried alive.

            The emperor became steadily more cruel, and more concerned with magic. The Prime Minister, extending old policy, suggested connecting all the walls of the older states of the north into one Great Wall to keep the Huns beyond the borders. The Emperor accepted the suggestion, but believed the magicians who told him that the wall would be strong only if thousands of living persons were buried alive beneath the wall. His tomb became a maze of caverns beneath an enormous mound. The emperor began to meld in his halfwit mind the idea of immortality in the grave and immortality above the ground, through magic potions that would enable him to mount to the sky as equal of the gods. He sent expeditions into the Eastern Sea, toward the Land of the Rising Sun, where alchemists told him the potion of immortality would be found, if only the ships were manned by 4000 beautiful boys and girls. These were taken from their wailing parents and sent off, but the ships always wrecked and never came back successfully.

            The two old conspirators, Li Si and the court physician Xia Wuqie, grew increasingly suspicious of each other.  Xia Wuqie acted first; in his straightforward way, he decided to explain to the emperor the true circumstances of how Li Si had put him on the throne. Affronted by a dim recollection that no longer fit his sense of himself as the great Qin Shihuang-di, the emperor had Xia Wuqie struck down.  But the thought lingered in his mind; perhaps Li Si was plotting against him. Others, quick to see how the wind was blowing, began to spread rumours about Li Si. The burning of the books and execution of the scholars had increased the numbers of his enemies. It ws not difficult, with a distribution of gifts and bribes, to have stories circulate that would reach the emperor behind the back of Li Si.  One day Li Si found himself on the execution ground, the emperor watching from one tower, the new Prime Minister (a hitherto unnoticed court official) from the other, while the relatives of Li Si through three degrees of kinship were lined up to be executed, and Li Si was sentenced to be cut in half.

                           *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *

            Does the story end here? Like a cycle that is the history of China (and the pattern of the world, according to some sects of the scholars), events turn on a wheel. Sometimes faster:  after ten years of the reign that was to last ten thousand generations, the First Emperor died, poisoned by mercury which was the principal ingredient of the immortality potions he was taking. After his death, revolt broke out.  Peasants exhausted by work on the Great Wall and on the enormous tomb with its terracotta warriors, flocked to join rebel armies. The court at the emperor’s magnificent city of  Xianyang broke into factions; no one gathered in his fist all the reins of power like the Prime Ministers Li Si, Lü Buwei, or their predecessors; each turned on each, betraying them to the rebels. The city of Xianyang and its palace were destroyed. The underground caverns of terracotta warriors were broken into, their weapons stolen to arm the rebels, the statues smashed into shards, not to be reassembled until archeologists twenty-two centuries later began to reconstruct their own myth.

            The empire of the great tyrant was shattered. On its ashes, the leaders of the peasant revolt built a new empire and a new city, Changan (which later generations would call Xi’an), a few kilometers east of the city of Xianyang. The glorious Han dynasty arose, taking over the laws of the Qin -- its mutilations and punishments, its conscript armies, its people condemned as criminals and sent as slave labor to build new walls, or march in ranks like live terracotta warriors to extend the frontiers of the Middle Kingdom in every direction. Sima Qian, who preserved the stories of the the evil Qin emperor and his would-be assassin, himself lived under a newer and greater Emperor, Wudi.  Angering the emperor for some offense -- could it have been protesting against repeating the policy of the tyrannical First Emperor, when the Han emperor Wudi conscripted new millions to build walls and extend even further the Middle Kingdom?  However that may be, Sima Qian offended the emperor enough to be sentenced to castration -- not to death by being cut in two, nor to having his head displayed on the city walls, since the Han dynasty was a more progressive time, and laws were adjusted to circumstances. Thus Sima Qian survived, to give us the records of the Grand Historian, and to hide from us (although, we believe, with guarded omissions and hints), the truth of the assassination of the First Emperor, Qin Shihuang-di.

            Sometimes the wheel turns slower: more than twenty centuries later, another period of Warring States returned, followed by yet another unification.  Some date it to the time of the Opium Wars with the Western Barbarians, some to the rebellion of the Taiping tian-guo, the Kingdom of Great Heavenly Peace, some to the warlords of the 1920s and the invasion of the Japanese from the Land of the Rising Sun. After this came another turn of the wheel, the unification of the Middle Kingdom. Righteous and militant, its leaders proposed a rule of rigorously enforced laws, with all people in equality beneath the state. Here again ministers struggled at court over who should be the point on which all eyes are focused, the picture on the front of the Imperial Palace in the capital city. In the struggle, one minister in emulation of Li Si launched another burning of the books. This too, like all burnings of books, flared up unstoppably and then burned itself out. During a period of twelve years (the length of the Qin dynasty itself, from 221 B.C. to the death of the First Emperor in 209 B.C.), the book burners buried in peasant villages those who wrote books and those who read them. And since books are written not only on strips of bamboo and on paper, but also on stone steles and inscribed on walls and in very shape of the statues and the tile roofs of temples and all the monuments of culture, there was a formidable task of destruction to be done, too much for the book burners to carry it all out before they themselves burned out.

            Fortunately -- or not, since in the great turnings of the wheel nothing happens by chance -- in 1974 A.D., exactly twenty-two hundred years after the assassin threw his dagger at the First Emperor, peasants digging a well in the countryside near the old imperial cities of Xianyang and Changan, came across the underground caverns and Qin Shihuang-di’s armies of terracotta warriors. The book burners were flickering, their leader aging and about to die. The new regime, eager to divert attention from the emblem of the leader whose picture looked down from every wall, seized on the new discovery of the old emblem.  An army of archeologists reconstructed and reassembled the terracotta army, and in 1979 -- the year China opened a new policy and pierced its own walls to the world -- the Eighth Wonder of the World was announced. Foreign heads of state, and tourists bringing money for development and admiration to rebuild the prestige of China’s ancient  culture, were invited to Xi’an and photographed in front of the terracotta warriors of Qin Shihuang-di. The First Emperor, great builder and great tyrant, who was himself but another terracotta warrior, now took the place of the great leader, great picture on the wall of the Imperial Palace in the capital city.  The wheel turned.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017


Akira Kurosawa’s film, Rashomon, is famous as an unsolvable puzzle: multiple clashing viewpoints, with no truth to be found. If we view the film through the eyes of the sociology of fighting, however, one of the four witness accounts is true to life. The others are largely false.

Four realities

The film tells the story of a murder and rape set in Japan during a lawless period of the 12th century. There are four witnesses.

The bandit  says he was aroused by the sight of a beautiful woman on horseback being led through the woods by a samurai. The bandit offers to show the samurai where a cache of weapons is hidden in the forest; when they arrive there, the bandit seizes the samurai from behind and ties him up, then lures the woman to the forest glade and rapes her. Afterwards, she tells the bandit that she can’t live with the shame of being seen by two men, and that one of them must die. The bandit unties the samurai and gives him his sword back. They fight heroically in classic samurai style. The bandit brags about it after he is captured: no one ever clashed swords with me for twenty strokes; we fought like tigers until I killed him with the twenty-third stroke. But the woman had run away.

The woman  says that after the rape, she rushed to her husband and cut him free with her dagger. But in his eyes she saw only a cold look of loathing. The bandit was gone. She tells her husband that she can no longer live with him, and asks him to kill her. When he refuses, she loses consciousness, then awakens to find she has stabbed him. She tries to kill herself but she hadn’t the strength. So she ran away.

The dead man’s  story is told by a spirit-medium, to testify before the police investigator. After the rape, the samurai remained tied up, listening to his wife’s conversation. The bandit tells her that her virtue is stained, so that her husband won’t take her back; why not marry him instead? She suddenly cries out, Kill him! I can’t marry you as long as he lives. The bandit angrily knocks her down, and asks the samurai what he should do with her, kill her or let her live? While the samurai struggles to answer, the woman escapes into the forest, and the bandit cuts his bonds and disappears. After a long silence, the samurai hears someone crying: it is himself. He finds his wife’s dagger and stabs himself.

These three witnesses comprise the story as written in 1922 by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, which Kurosawa used as the basis for his 1950 film. But Kurosawa now adds a fourth witness. In the original, there is a woodcutter who finds the body. In the film, Kurosawa has the woodcutter tell his story, not to the police inspector, but to a small group of listeners at Rashomon gate, where they are waiting out a rainstorm. The woodcutter, hiding among the trees, saw the rape and its aftermath. The two men fight, but not at all in the heroic samurai style. Both are tense and fearful; they hang back, make sudden charges and retreat again. They swing wildly and can’t keep their feet, falling into the bushes in their uncontrolled rushes. Finally the samurai drops his sword and gets tangled in branches-- an easy target, finally, for the bandit to stab him through the heart.

Real fights in sociological observation

The fourth version is true to life. Fighting in films and in literature has almost always been depicted inaccurately, portraying fighters as more heroic than they really are. In the last 20 years, as real fights have been captured on video and CCTV, sociologists find a very different pattern. Fighters are tense and mostly incompetent. They swing wildly, shoot inaccurately and hit the wrong targets. Because of the tension, angry disputes often end in standoffs before they get going; most fights abort without a clear winner. This is the pattern in fist-fights as well as gun violence. One-on-one confrontations are the hardest to carry off; most such fights abort. The exception is where there is an audience who cheers on the fighters, making it more like a boxing match or a duel, where the social pressure of the group keeps them fighting. Fights between evenly matched antagonists have the highest tension; violence is successful mainly when it consists in the strong attacking the weak, catching them off guard in an ambush, or by a group ganging up on a single individual-- the most common pattern of violence seen in riots.

In Rashomon, the fighters are evenly matched-- the bandit versus the samurai. At the very beginning, the bandit attacks the samurai from behind and ties him up; attacking from behind is a favorite tactic of robbers, giving a psychological advantage, avoiding the tension that results when the contenders stare in each other’s face. Later-- in the woodcutter’s account of the sword fight-- they are evenly matched, and hesitant to fight. The woman goads them into fighting, screaming that neither is acting like a real man; but once the fighting begins she is terrified, can scarcely bear to watch the fight, and runs away. This fight fits the pattern of the most difficult kind of confrontation-- one-on-one, without a supporting audience.

And here the fighters are very incompetent. Their sword-swings and lunges are clumsy; they screw up their courage, then run away; they have trouble staying on their feet. This clumsiness is common in cell-phone videos of fighters, whose wild swings often throw themselves off balance; in street confrontations with guns (as among rival gangs), there is a lot of wild firing that misses its target. The threat of a violent confrontation generates a surge of adrenaline, the flight-or-fight hormone, tensing up the body to go either way. The mythology of fighting pretends that the adrenaline surge (called “heart” or “courage”) always presses forward in a determined attack; in reality, most fighters either retreat or at best keep themselves on the spot by an effort at self-control, their body pulling two ways at once. This is the mechanism that produces heavy breathing and trembling limbs, with the result that fighters often can’t control their fists or their weapons.

Confrontational tension in sword-fighting

This is what we see in the woodcutter’s account of the fight: they are tense, breathing heavily, gasping for breath, wearing themselves down as the fight proceeds. The bandit only wins because his opponent loses his sword and becomes tangled in the bushes. Suddenly it turns into an unfair fight, the strong attacking the weak, and this is when the bandit gets enough control over his bodily tension to kill him. After the fight, he is so debilitated that he can barely walk away.

Almost all our evidence of realistic violence in video and first-hand observation comes from modern times, in fights with fists or guns. Does it also fit sword fights? Certainly there are a lot of Hollywood movies and TV series of medieval heroes and sword-and-sorcery dramas, showing sword-fighters in the mythical heroic mode: never afraid, always attacking and counter-attacking; far from being clumsy, they make acrobatic moves, especially when the hero has to swirl around fighting his way through a crowd of opponents on all sides. This is also the style of kung-fu films and Chinese flying-dragon films, where the acrobatics are enhanced by computer-generated images. And Japanese samurai films-- including those made by Kurosawa in his long career after he made Rashomon-- also show Zen-inspired warriors, flashing their lightning sword-thrusts and making the graceful moves of a martial arts school routine. All this means is that sword-fighting films, both the Western and the East Asian versions, are designed to be an entertaining spectacle. It’s all done in the studio, and the film editing. Movie sword-fights are no more accurate than movie fist fights or gun fights. 

Here are two pieces of direct evidence. A samurai in 1864 just before the Meiji revolution in Japan describes a night-time encounter  on the streets of Edo (Tokyo):

            “The time had already turned an hour past midnight-- a cold and clear winter night with the moon shining brightly overhead. Its silent, white beams made me feel unusually chilly for no good reason. I walked along the broad, vacant street-- no one in sight, absolutely still. Yet I remembered that strolling ruffians had been appearing every night, cutting down unfortunate victims at dark corners.
            “I saw a man coming toward me. He looked gigantic in the moonlight, though now I would not swear to his stature at all. On came the giant.
            “ ‘I cannot run back,’ I thought, ‘for the rascal would only take advantage of my weakness and chase me more surely. I had better go ahead. And if I go ahead, I must pretend not to be afraid. I must even threaten him.’
            “I moved diagonally to the middle of the street from the left side where I had been walking. Then the other fellow moved out too. This gave me a shock, but now there was no retreating an inch. If he were to draw, I must draw too. As I had practiced the art of iai, I knew how to handle my sword.
              ‘How shall I kill him? Well, I shall give a thrust from below.’
            “I was perfectly determined that I was going to fight and felt ready if he showed the slightest challenge. He drew nearer...
            “Now there seemed no alternative. If the stranger were to show any offense, I must kill him. At that time there was no such thing as police or criminal court. If I were to kill an unknown man, I would simply run home, and that would be the end of it. We were about to meet.
            “Every step brought us nearer, and finally we were at a striking distance. He did not draw. Of course I did not draw either. And we passed each other. With this as a cue, I ran. I don’t remember how fast I ran. After going a little distance, I turned to look back as I flew. The other man was running, too, in his direction. I drew a breath of relief and saw the funny side of the whole incident.
            “Neither had the least idea of killing the other, but had put up a show of boldness in fear of the other. And both ran at the same moment... He must have been frightened; I certainly was.”  [The Autobiography of Fukuzawa Yukichi,  236-37]

During the Tokugawa period of the 1600s, when the civil wars had ended, the Shogun required all the great lords and their samurai to spend every other year in Edo. The samurai spent much of their time in sword-fighting academies, where the graceful movements of stylized exercises and mock duels were practiced. It kept the samurai ethos alive, but in fact it was almost all for show. There was very little real fighting, while carrying swords and displaying the elegant etiquette of the sword schools became a key part of the samurai code. Japanese sword-fighting turned into the equivalent of boxing gyms, which in England and the United States became popular for men at just the time when modern law-and-order was eliminating duels and most real fighting.

The bandit’s idealized sword-fight

The bandit’s account portrays the usual mythology of fighting. It is all very honorable; the bandit cuts the samurai free so that they can have a fair fight, just man-on-man, to decide who will get the woman. Both look like they were trained in a sword-fighting school, making all the proper feints and maneuvers. The bandit is bragging, showing off afterwards to the police and declaring that he expects to die sooner or later and he repents of nothing. His claim that they crossed swords 23 times is implausible-- not that it couldn’t have happened, but a real fighter in the midst of adrenaline rush would find most of it a blur.  (This is typical of cops describing their experiences in a gun-fight, where time is distorted and they often are unaware of how many shots they fired.) In the bandit’s version of the Rashomon  fight,  both men perform their moves like a ballet or a sword-school exercise. This is the opposite of the woodcutter’s version, which shows the fighters sweating profusely. Their breathing is so heavy that it fills the sound track.

The other two versions

We can rule out the bandit’s version, and accept the truth of the woodcutter’s version, as far as the sword-fight goes. What about the other two stories-- could they be true? There is no fighting in either of these. In the woman’s version, she cuts her husband loose, but he refuses to fight for her. In the dead man’s version, he also refuses to fight, refuses to let the bandit kill his wife (even though in his view she has betrayed him), and kills himself. Both accounts are self-serving. The woman says she killed her husband while she was blacked out. This is plausible; losing conscious awareness can happen during extreme states of adrenaline rush. After she runs away, she tries to kill herself by drowning, but fails. This too is plausible, since the majority of suicide attempts fail, and women’s attempts fail more frequently than men’s.

If we leave aside the sword-fights, comparing the four stories one after another turns up something unexpected: the woman is the central character driving the overall plot. And she becomes increasingly dominant from one version to the next.

In the first version, she resists the rapist ineffectively: she lunges with her dagger, he dodges, he overpowers her. Then she turns on sexually: the camera shows her hands clutching the bandit’s back as the rape proceeds. (This is the bandit’s story, and it sounds like rape mythology, that a woman enjoys it.) Afterwards, she demands that the two men fight over her, and they comply. 

In the second version, she takes the initiative to free her husband; but when he refuses to fight for a dishonored woman, she goes into a fury, demanding that he kill her to relieve her shame. When he refuses that too, she flips out of ordinary consciousness, and stabs him.

In the third version, she switches tactics strategically (as her husband sees it). After the rape, she implores the bandit to take her with him; he agrees. Then she implores him to kill her husband; this makes the bandit angry. He offers to let the husband decide whether he should kill her or not. Her husband is now reduced to complete passivity, and the woman successfully escapes the bandit.

From scene to scene, she becomes more central; in the fourth version, she dominates most of the action.  After the rape, the bandit is won over by her, and begs her to marry him, even promising to give up crime for her. She’s not letting anyone tell her what to do; she breaks away with her dagger and frees her husband. But her husband takes the same line as the second and third versions, refusing to fight for a worthless woman: “You’ve been with two men. Why don’t you kill yourself?” In version two, she asked him to kill her, but now she switches tactics: she rushes to the bandit, calling on him to wait, crying she is only a helpless woman. “Stop  crying. It’s not going to work any more,” her husband says. This gets the bandit to take her side: “Stop bullying her.” She laughs angrily, “If you’re my husband, why don’t you kill this man?” Annoyed at his cowardice, she turns to the bandit: “I was sick of this tiresome daily farce. I thought you could save me. But now I see you’re as petty as my husband.” She laughs hysterically at both men, and they hesitatingly begin to fight.

As an actor would say, she takes over the scene. A micro-sociologist would say she achieves emotional domination, forcing the men to do even what they don’t want to do.

Dramatic sequence or alternative realities?

Does this help us decide which scenarios are more truthful than others? Unfortunately not, except in the all-important point, that the fight scene in the first version is untrue, and the last version is typical of real fights. Focusing instead on the woman, we see that she becomes increasingly dominant over the men, by her emotional tactics, from one version to the next. This implies that it is really the screen-writer and director-- i.e. Kurosawa-- who has developed the sequence in this way. He does it for dramatic considerations, in order to make the film build up towards a climax.

In effect, Kurosawa is running through a series of permutations on what can happen in a sexual triangle following a rape: who blames who, and who gets killed. Strictly speaking, there is no sequence; it could have been run in any order.* This would be maximally relativistic-- maximal Rashomon effect-- but it would not be as dramatic.

*In fact one could produce as many as 36 different versions of the film, differing only in the order of the 4 witnesses’ accounts. This relativistic device was used, 35 years later in Milorad Pavic’s novel, Dictionary of the Khazars,  published in two versions (male and female) identical except for one key passage.  More recently, the device was used to structure Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red.

The fourth version, as noted, is not in the original story Kurosawa used for his script. The original three episodes were not long enough for a full-length movie, so Kurosawa wrote a fourth episode, the woodcutter’s story. This introduces the realistic version of the sword fight, and it also gives the most complex psychology of the woman’s role.

The first three episodes were enough to establish the Rashomon effect-- multiple realities that are all equally plausible; and that is what the original writer (Ryunosuke Akutagawa) appears to have intended. But by adding a fourth episode, and making it into a banal, unheroic fight, Kurosawa shifted the emphasis: the fourth version ends up feeling more real than the others.  In the concluding scene of the film, however, one of the  listeners to the narrations at the Rashomon gate, declares that the woodcutter is lying too: he omitted to say that he was the one who took the pearl-inlaid dagger from the murder scene. Yes, this makes the woodcutter a liar, but only about that particular detail; what he saw and reported of the rape and its aftermath, including the incompetently-performed duel, is true.

Kurosawa clings to the Rashomon effect, although adding the realistic fourth version undermines his philosophical statement. His autobiography says that he intended a multiple-reality effect all the way through conceiving and making the film. It was a one-shot trial. None of his other major films use multiple realities.

Would a micro-sociological conclusion still be a great film?

Would the film be any better if it explicitly said the ignominious fourth version is the true one? Obviously not; the whole metaphysical Rashomon-effect would disappear, and it would turn into nothing but another mystery story solved at the end.

This raises a further question about the usefulness of micro-sociology in literary creativity. A thought experiment should convince us: omitting the woodcutter’s version would leave us feeling unsatisfied, even with the Rashomon-effect intact. Dramatically the film needs the fourth retelling in order to rise to the level of one of the great films.

This is the same conclusion reached in my analysis of the realistic violence in Camus' The Stranger; a micro-sociological insight is at the core of the plot, but the author can’t dwell on it, and has to stay on a philosophical level in order to keep up its serious message. The spoiler isn’t micro-sociology in general (most good fiction writers are good micro-sociological observers); it is the micro-sociology of violence in particular, the dirty secret of how ugly and disgusting people look in committing real violence.  The aesthetic fact is, real violence is just too unpalatable to get much space in a narrative that people will want to view. The writer’s dilemma is this: nothing makes a plot more dramatic than violence; but the more realistically violence is depicted, the more it has to be covered over by aesthetic distractions.

Rashomon does a lot to soften the violence. The bandit, Toshiro Mifune, is a rapist and professional murderer; but he is made into something of an anti-hero. In part, by his good looks and handsome physique-- he comes across as low-class only because he is scruffy and badly groomed; and he shocks the Japanese stereotype by lolling around in undignified postures, grimacing and slapping at mosquitoes. This was Toshiro Mifune’s first major film, and he and Kurosawa rose to stardom on the same vehicle. Yes, he is the villain of the plot, but he is irresistible to watch on screen; ebullient and spontaneous, laughing boastfully and childishly, but also overcome by fits of puzzlement. He grows more human through the sequence of retellings, alternatively in love with the woman he has raped and sympathetic with the samurai he has humiliated. By the fourth episode, we feel he is not a bad guy through and through... and our search for the bad guy widens to everybody.

The woman is beautiful and delicate in classic Japanese style, but the film makes her more than a mere victim. As the film goes on, she becomes the scene-stealer, the psychological center of attention. Against these two, the samurai is the straight man in every sense of the term, with his limited range of facial expressions, few speaking lines, his prim look: his slicked-back hair contrasting with Mifune’s wild hairiness.

Without the fourth viewpoint, Rashomon would have been a near-great try at a great film. It still would have the beautiful cinematography, perhaps the very best of the black-and-white era, with its rhythmic camera movement synchronized with the thrusting tom-tom of the music, and its psychologically revealing close-ups. It would have missed greatness, though, because the visual rhythms, the music, the shifting emotions of the actors, and the mounting philosophical doubt surrounding the whole thing are so tightly interwoven. A three-act version could have been just as beautiful, but it would have missed its climax. The three scenarios are too idealized, each artificial in its own way; the fourth, realistic scenario was needed to shift the mood and tie everything to the real world.

The four-part Rashomon is a greater film than the straight Rashomon-effect of a three-part version. The fourth alternative, anchored in the micro-sociology of violence, undermines the easy relativism of the Rashomon-effect. That dose of aesthetic tension makes it one of the greatest movies ever made.

Tragedy, the most serious form of literature, and action-adventure, one of the most popular forms, both depend on episodes of violence; but they cannot show violence as it really is. What does this mean for the rules of creative success? Future posts will take this further.


Akira Kurosawa. 1982.  Something Like an Autobiography.
Eiko Ikegami. 1995. The Taming of the Samurai.
Randall Collins. 2008. Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory.

Friday, December 16, 2016


Jack Kerouac in 1960 was fleeing from being famous. On the Road, published 3 years before, has reporters knocking on his door and pursuing him for interviews wherever he goes. Everyone in the literary bookshops in San Francisco recognizes him, and his secret visit to the bars and skid row hangouts is no secret at all, and ladies come in wanting a real beatnik for her party, so there is no way to deal with it except be rude and drink more and more, and finally he gets a cheap bus ticket to Big Sur where a hip friend has a cabin he can use.

(I will pause for breath even though Kerouac rarely does, just a nonstop stream of words in the present tense.)  Jack digs the ocean and having no people around and he is going to get down to writing another novel but first he will have a drink. Then he is walking in the canyon where the wind roars and the ocean has a voice and then the bottle is empty and he goes to bed. He wakes up in the morning without any food, but first he would rather have a drink but the bottle is empty. So he hitch-hikes up the mountain to the nearest tavern, where he has several drinks including a Manhattan with a cherry in it for nutrition, and he starts feeling like writing again, but this time makes sure he brings a couple of bottles back to the cabin. After three weeks of this, he can’t stand it any more, so he goes back to San Francisco, where everything is just like it was last time. So he rides 50 miles down to the farm country to see his old buddy Cody who drove back and forth across the country with him stoned in his last book and they do some drinking and driving around. Then it’s back to San Francisco and then Cody and a bunch from Los Gatos all pile in a car and go to the cabin at Big Sur where they get in each other’s way. Jack gets into a really long binge which goes like this: every day he drinks until he feels sick. Then he gets up in the morning and starts drinking to ease the hangover. He doesn’t feel like eating so when he’s hungry he drinks to get some energy in his body. This does something to his metabolism so after a while he can’t sleep. So he is hallucinating and wandering around and quarreling with people until something happens that pulls the plug on him and he sobers up for a while--

There’s more. We haven’t touched on the Zen/ beat theme and the literary movement and their drop-out trip and why the beats are different than the hippies that came after them. The point here is only that a writer has to have something to write about and a style in which to write it, and Kerouac got both of them by seeking intoxication. He’s not the only one, which is why Kerouac is a good entry-point for a whole movement. For another pointer-reading, take Norman Mailer.

Mailer and Kerouac are about the same age, in fact Mailer was born a year later (in 1923), but he became a best-selling author in 1948 for his war novel, The Naked and the Dead, while Kerouac was still trying to get his book published about bumming his way across America. The theme of intoxication is not important in Mailer’s earliest novels, but it looms more centrally into the 1960s when Mailer is a celebrity, a self-appointed political guru, an obnoxious drunk, and one of the most extreme self-promoters of that counter-culture decade. Mailer also happened to be a writer with flashes of excellence-- clear and easy to follow, a sharp eye for how things look and an ear for the way people talk, energetic writing that moves you forward on the page. For the sociology of creativity, it is very worth explaining how one acquires these skills, and the fact that Mailer is good at some aspects of writing and fails at others makes him useful for dissecting what makes a writer tick.

Here is Mailer in one of his most successful books, The Armies of the Night, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968. The topic is a big anti-war demonstration in Washington D.C. to shut down the Pentagon, or at least dramatize opposition to the Vietnam War by the tactic of non-violent resistance and getting arrested. Mailer puts himself in the center of the narrative, which is legitimate enough since he was one of the celebrity intellectuals invited by the organizers to make speeches and draw attention to their cause by their willingness to emulate Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Mailer is both participant and observer, and he uses his tell-it-like-it-is style to include backstage preparation for speeches in leftist political meetings and what it is like to be thrown into a police van. Mailer thus acquired literary acclaim for breaking down the boundaries between novel-writing and news reporting, becoming known as an exemplar of “the new journalism” along with Tom Wolfe and (on the heavily drugged-out side) Hunter Thompson.

Armies of the Night is Mailer’s breakthrough performance. He is very self-conscious about his rank in the American literary pantheon; thus he is pleased to write about himself marching next to “America’s best poet?” (Robert Lowell) as “America’s best novelist??” But not to follow traditional decorum.  He gets roaring drunk the night before the demonstration, when the big names are supposed to make inspiring speeches at a rally. Just before going on stage, Mailer urgently has to take a piss, but he can’t find the light switch in the bathroom so he pisses on the floor. This gives him the idea of confessing he’s the one who did it so the hostile press can’t accuse the demonstrators of being slobs. He loves the idea because it will bring existential reality into the artificiality of public speech-making, and when he finally gets on stage he makes it the main point of his obscenity-laden speech. This tells you something about Mailer’s judgment, and how his worst ideas come from his belief that intoxication is writer’s satori.

The other side of Mailer’s method gets his book back on track. Once the march starts moving, he delivers perceptive details of the soldiers guarding the Pentagon (mostly small-town boys, like those he knew in the Army) and the demonstrators (mostly urban and educated) who clash with them.  Mailer continues his own preoccupations. He had planned to attend an exclusive party in New York that evening, and he grows impatient that the march is taking so long. So he makes himself one of the first to cross the open grass, accosting a military guard to arrest him; then he mingles details about being held in the same paddy wagon as right-wing counter-demonstrators, with his urgent need to get booked, bailed out, back on the plane and on the way to his Manhattan soirée. Honesty, egotism, political relevance, mix with not a little drunken recklessness to power the book to its conclusion. (Which is that he has indeed succeeded in writing The Novel as History, plus a sermon on how America lost its mojo.)

Intoxication as topic or as method

Intoxication is writer’s capital in two senses:  a topic for a writer to write about;  or intoxication as a method of writing, writing while drunk or stoned.

Intoxication as topic was explored by naturalistic writers like James Joyce describing the taverns of Dublin (later he did a riff on drunkenness as stream of consciousness). Hemingway had his impotent narrator watch his companion exiles from Prohibition America drinking and coupling in 1920s Paris. The genre goes back at least to De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), and medieval student-monks wrote Latin poem/songs about drinking.

Intoxication as writing method has been extolled since antiquity, but it clashes with the general pattern that most writers are disciplined and at least partly methodical, using notebooks, outlining, drafts, revising, putting in long months or years to see projects to completion. Historically some writers were heavy drinkers (and more recently, drug-users) but many were not;  some carousing authors alternated respites of intoxication with long hours of literary concentration. If and where intoxication was actually a creative method needs ferreting out in the details of how authors spent their time while writing.

The Cult of Intoxication

What makes intoxication important for a particular ecology of writers is that both kinds of capital overlap in a cult of intoxication. The writer is inspired: by the sheer act of creativity, of words in flight through one’s head and one’s pen, by the lyrical desire to sing what is in your heart, by  echoes of  pagan incantation in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Zen monks in medieval Japan had to produce as evidence of Enlightenment a poem that conveyed their experience. Baudelaire epitomizes the modern cult of the writer, simultaneously the free spirit unchained from social convention, the aristocrat of taste and perception, and the energized professional who can meet journal deadlines with a music review, an art exhibit criticism, or a serialized novel. Those were the social conditions for the writer’s cult of the 1850s; Baudelaire’s expression of it was the artist as magician in a world of bored readers.

Balzac contributed to the emerging cult by fueling himself through all-nighters with 50 cups of café noir, as he penned endless revisions directly on printer’s proofs. (He produced 85 novels in a spurt of 20 years, before dying, not too surprisingly, at age 50.) Downstream from  Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud deliberately engaged in “a reasoned derangement of the senses” by means of absinthe, hashish, whatever was available; and succeeded in writing memorably gnomic poems: 

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes:
A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes
Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles,
            Golfes d’ombres; E, candeurs des vapeurs et des tentes,
Lances des glaciers fiers, rois blancs, frissons d’umbelles;

A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels,
I will tell some day your latent births:
A, black corset hairy with brilliant flies
That bulge around cruel stenches,
             Gulfs of shadow; E, artlessness of vapours and booths,
Launched by proud ices, white kings, thrills of umbrella-shapes;

I, poupres, sang craché, rire des lèvres belles
Dans la colère ou les ivresses pénitentes;
            U, cycles, vibrements divins des mers virides,
Paix des pâtis semés d’animaux, paix des rides
Que l’alchimie imprime aux grands fronts studieux;

I, crimson, spit-up blood, laugh of beautiful lips
In anger or drunken penitence;
            U, cycles, divine vibrations of heaving seas,
Peace of meadows scattered with animals, peace of wrinkles
That alchemy prints on great studious foreheads;

            O, suprême Clairon plein des strideurs étranges,
Silences traversés des Mondes et des Anges:
--O l’Oméga, rayon violet de Ses Yeux!

O, supreme bugle full of strange shrillness,
Silences traversed by Worlds and Angels
-- O the Omega, violet ray of His Eyes!

Rimbaud still writes formally conventional verse, rhythm and rhyme; the stylistic break is in the shock of word associations. Does it have a meaning? It was not written to express a preconceived idea; the method itself creates striking phrases that readers must parse for themselves. Much in the same way rock bands of the 1960s gave themselves names like Strawberry Alarm Clock.

Where can you go after this, if you are a writer at the beginning of the 20th century?  Several places. Balzac was a caffeine freak but his method was naturalistic word-pictures of all corners of French society, propelled by melodramatic plots. These genres prospered for another century in novels of society and popular adventure, the invention of the detective story, and several other niches where an abundance of writers could find work.  Not everybody took the Fleurs du mal / Bateau ivre route.  Why then does the cult of intoxication come back so strongly in the 20th century, from the 1920s through the 60s?

The Partying Scene of the 1920s

The obvious thing would be Prohibition. The underground drinking scene of speak-easies and bootleggers gave American writers something new to write about, and they could be ironic or moralizing about what the change in American manners meant. But it wasn’t just an American phenomenon. American writers flocked to Paris where they wrote about the easy drinking and easy sex among the expatriots. But the expats were also British and other nationalities, who had no Prohibition but were mixing in the same scene, which they variously interpreted as loss of values, disillusionment from WWI, but also attraction to the center of action in literature, painting, and modernism generally.

In fact there was a new social phenomenon in the Roaring Twenties. Superficially it was the wild and crazy parties of the younger generation, thumbing their nose at the stiff formality of the older generation-- which, they could add, had disgraced themselves with their stupidity in promoting a devastating and pointless war. Fitzgerald became famous for writing about the partying scene in the U.S., but  the same kind of scene provides the materials for Evelyn Waugh’s and Aldous Huxley’s early novels of youthful high society in England. Germany has it too, reflected in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels and Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf  (the name of a Berlin bar that is the entrance to an alternative reality, more drug-flavored than alcoholic). Underneath the ideological blaming was a structural change: the breakdown of the traditional marriage market controlled by adults, and its replacement by a courtship scene where young people picked their own partners in affairs that began in fun parties. Love used to be sentimental but led to socially sound matches; now love is fun and excitement, leading to marrying the really fun guy or gal. If you were rich enough on your parents’ money, or had a good job in the booming Twenties, you could keep up the partying scene after you were married, full of fun couples like Scott and Zelda and the hilarious stunts they were always cooking up. (Evelyn Waugh gives a more sardonic picture of this than Fitzgerald, who is always sentimentalizing his alter-ego heroes, then bringing them down with a romantic/tragic crash like his bootlegger hero Gatsby who can’t get the rich girl after all, even though he does give better parties.) The sexual revolution isn’t yet full scale, compared to what happens later in the century, but the partying scene of the 20s is not only flirtation for the young but adulterous affairs later on and the growing acceptance of divorce (reaching even the King of England in 1936); in short, on the way to modern serial monogamy.

All this was great material for novelists, who at their best are sociologists of the moving social frontier. It also fed the modern cult of intoxication. Fun parties and zany antics were best engineered with a heavy dose of alcohol, but mixed with the excitements of flirtation, and a mild amount of sex (the real sexual outburst, as Kinsey, Laumann and others have shown, came decades later). Above all, making the scene, being present at the really cool party is more important than anything else. (Not for nothing does Norman Mailer waver between stopping the Vietnam War and attending a high-status party in New York.)

As further proof that Prohibition (repealed in 1933) was not the cause, the partying cult continued into the WWII years and after. Drinking was a big part of seeing it through, especially in London during the blitz, along with singing and rolling home in the arms of your buddies. This was mass-participation drinking, with nothing specific to intellectuals. Why does there emerge a full-scale intellectual cult of intoxication in the postwar era? This time the U.S. is the center, already in the late 1940s, when Jack Kerouac is trying to hitch-hike his way out of New York City (although the term Beats does not catch on until the late 50s). The timing is a puzzle, since this is the period of postwar economic boom, and America has vaulted to Top Nation in world geopolitics. But the intellectuals are bailing out, not just ideologically (they aren’t as far Left as they were in the 30s), but in lifestyle; just when everyone seems to be becoming middle-class, the beats are going in for lumberjack shirts and fisherman’s dungarees, trying to find their soul downward and outward as far as possible from the upscale world of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The crucial development is a new form of intoxication, a scene, a philosophy and a status that trumps everything anyone else can do.

Heroin-fueled jazz and the hipster

Syncopated popular music, AKA jazz, had existed since the ragtime of the early 1900s. In the late 1940s it morphed into an esoteric version, modern/cool/jazz/bebop. The social scene was different. Instead of  loud audiences and dancing, it was more cerebral, dim-lit clubs where you concentrated on the music, and clapping or snapping your fingers showed you were not with it. Just being able to follow the way-out sounds was a secret code, and drugs unlocked the code. Booze made you sloppy, but the musician on heroin felt they could concentrate on the intellectual patterns of the music, creating new riffs for hours on end. A woman described a jab of the heroin needle in her leg as “an incredible exhilaration, as if an electric current flashed through her body, leaving her detached yet connected to the music and everyone in the room.” (Schneider, 31).  The cult of musicians and jazz fans were a secret society, with their own clothing, gestures, their own rhythm of walking and their own talk. (“I ain’t hep, to that step, but I dig it.”-- song lyrics from the 40s) They were cool and hip; everyone else was square.

Heroin wasn’t the only drug, and it had its problems. Hipsters also used morphine, cocaine, anything you could get your hands on if you were addicted enough. Marijuana was popular in the same circles, although advanced musicians looked down on it as “for kids,” too light to get the really far-out insights (that would come a dozen years later with LSD). But heroin addicts became unreliable band members, easily forgetting to show up for a gig. Teenage gangs, which appeared in New York around the same time, had the same problem; heroin was popular (as was bebop) but the really heavy users were useless in fights and  tended to wander away from the gang looking for a fix, so that after a few years the tough gangs became antagonistic to junkies.  William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959) gives a brilliantly surrealistic picture of the junkie’s life and fantasies. (Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg helped get it in shape and find it a publisher.)

Music and popular culture continued to evolve in the 50s and 60s. More up-beat music became easier to understand, dancing and partying came back in, youth gangs expanded and created a fringe of wannabees and look-alikes, youth movements both black and white became more political. Through it all one basic marker continued: the distinction between the hip/cool and the square. This was the essence of literary movements like the Beats (who tried to make their poetry readings sound like jazz), non-literary movements like the hippies, and celebrity writers like Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer.

Intoxicated by writing vs. writing while intoxicated

The cult of intoxication is one way of capturing the high point of a writer’s life. As the image of the writer as a higher being spread in the 19th century, even very straight-laced writers like Emily Dickinson could express it:

I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.

Till seraphs swing their snowy hats
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun!

If you get into Emily Dickinson there is no pitying her solitude; she is genuinely turned-on, tripping out on her own word-play and the shadows angling across the lawn.

Intoxicated writers, full of the lyric impulse, are not necessarily users of intoxicants. Walt Whitman, drunk on words as anyone could be, was more of a teetotaler. Ezra Pound, at his best in summoning up the spirit of tripped-out writers from the galleries of world history, conveys the downside of addiction to writing:

O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Give me in due time, I beseech you, a little tobacco-shop,
With the little bright boxes
                        piled up neatly upon the shelves
And the loose fragrant cavendish
                        and the shag,
And the bright Virginia
                        loose under the bright glass cases,
And a pair of scales not too greasy,
And the whores dropping in for a word or two in passing,
For a flip word, and to tidy their hair a bit.

O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Lend me a little tobacco-shop,
                        or install me in any profession
Save this damn’d profession of writing,
                        where one needs one’s brains all the time.

Getting intoxicated from writing can be an antidote to heavy drinking or doping, since one is competitor to the other.

Nevertheless, there have been great writers who were intoxicated most of the time. Some of them, like Scott Fitzgerald, made drunkenness their writer’s capital throughout their career. All his novels, from The Beautiful and Damned to Tender is the Night,  follow somebody like himself and Zelda, giving it a high-tragedy seriousness by making the pursuit of intoxication into a noble flaw, the hubris of the modern age. In his personal life, Fitzgerald’s drinking in pursuit of gay-zany episodes mostly alienated his friends, and kept him from getting his work done until he was no longer in fashion. Kerouac  was pretty much a one-note writer but he kept himself going by reporting each segment of his life in a new novel. Unlike Allen Ginsberg, he made no transition to the upbeat 60s, and died in 1969 at age 47. Other writers who drank themselves to death at an early age were Dylan Thomas -- an intoxicated poet in every sense-- and Flann O’Brien, who was an inventively good-humored drunk and a tremendous mimic of the voices of Dublin saloons and newspaper writers. For some of these, their topic and their style was so close to the world of drinking that they couldn’t avoid it; they lived in the groove that killed them.

In vino veritas?

The phrase goes back to folk proverbs, meaning no more than a drunk cannot keep a secret. If taken to mean anything deeper,  why would anyone believe it? Drunks mostly are sloppy, clichéd talkers, repetitive and boring. A good analogy is the way Dr. John Dee, an Elizabethan-era occultist, summed up his life of magic calling up spirits:  I have heard their voices for forty years, he said, but never learned anything from them but gibberish.

In vino there is little veritas, although a group of like-minded drunks may convince themselves that the only worthwhile truth is their happy solidarity. Intoxication works best when it is social, producing collective effervescence in the group, and thereby the feeling of deep, uninhibited bonding. One of the literary expressions of this is in James Jones’ From Here to Eternity (another cult-of-intoxication book from the 1940s, published in 1951). The book’s two protagonists, tough Sgt. Warden and soulful bugle-player Pvt. Pruitt, get falling-down drunk outside the Enlisted Men’s Club, and play out their comradeship in a parody of saluting each other. Alcohol encourages expressing deeper masculine bonds than anything else; and these are two soldiers in love with the Army, with Pearl Harbor about to happen.

Shared intoxication is good for temporary solidarity, but bad for action, planning, or self-control. Shakespeare depicts drunks as low-comedy buffoons. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus seeks the devil’s path of intoxication but he ends up selling his soul for little more than drunken hi-jinks, and the plot peters out without any great breakthrough on the wisdom front. Other drugs, like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop heroin, are more cerebral but their creativity is short-lived and self-liquidating. The only one who kept up a long career along this route was Burroughs, who would break his heroin habit from time to time by taking a cure, but then let himself get back on heroin for his next book; he knew he was on a life-long cycle. It helped that he was the heir of a big business fortune, always had an income, and could flee to foreign countries when things got bad, such as when he accidentally killed his wife while playing William Tell with a pistol in Mexico City in 1951.

And this brings us back to--

Mailer’s method of literary intoxication

Mailer’s pissing incident at the Pentagon rally is ludicrous, except from his own point of view. Mailer is no humorist, and he explains very seriously the key to his own creativity, as he sees it: 

“He was fond of speaking in public because it was close to writing... a good half of writing consists of being sufficiently sensitive to the moment to reach for the next promise which is usually hidden in some word or phrase just a shift to the side of one’s conscious intent. (Consciousness, that blunt tool, bucks in the general direction of the truth; instinct plucks the feather.) ... speaking-in-public (as Mailer liked to describe any speech that was more or less improvised, impromptu, or dangerously written) was an activity like writing; one had to trick or seize or submit to the grace of each moment, which were usually occasions of some mystery. The pleasure of speaking in public was the sensitivity it offered: with every phrase one was better or worse, close or less close to the existential promise of truth, it feels true, which hovers on good occasions like a presence between speaker and audience. Sometimes one was better, and worse, at the same moment; so strategic choices on the continuation of the attack would soon have to be decided, a moment to know the blood of the gambler in oneself.” [Armies of the Night, 28-29]

Mailer then describes what went through his mind while he decides that he will make the pissing incident the high point of his speech; later he describes how he tried to play the audience, getting a combination of laughs, hostile jeers, and embarrassed silence. Nothing fazed, Mailer both acutely reports his own stream of consciousness, and concludes that it was a great speech.

He has behaved far worse. Back in 1960, he stabbed his wife with a knife and almost killed her. Mailer had decided to run for mayor of New York, on a third-party ticket of hipsterism and existentialism. The idea seems to have come from petition campaigns that Mailer was involved in to change local cabaret licensing laws that prohibited drug-convicted musicians from performing. It was also a time when liberals and lefties were coming together to support the Civil Rights movement growing in the South. After John F. Kennedy got the Democratic nomination for president, Mailer wrote an Esquire magazine article called “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” extolling Kennedy as a hipster, like Mailer himself. The article was successful in the literary world, and Mailer got a thank-you letter from Jacqueline Kennedy, whereupon he replied that when they next met he would explain his ideas about rehabilitating the Marquis de Sade. Mrs. Kennedy did not write back nor invite him again, but after the election Mailer started claiming partial credit for Kennedy’s victory. He began to drum up support among his lefty and celebrity friends for his campaign for mayor. His wife, sister, and friends mostly think the idea is bonkers, but Mailer is running around to meetings, doing literary readings, and writing letters to famous people. A big party is planned for his apartment two weeks after Kennedy won, where Mailer plans to announce his candidacy.

On the big evening, Mailer is hyper. He has a couple of hundred guests, but enthusiasm for his candidacy is mixed, and as the evening goes on Mailer becomes more and more pugnacious. He follows departing guests into the street and gets into scuffles and fist-fights. Mailer has been drinking steadily. Around 4 a.m., the party is down to a handful. Mailer comes back in with a black eye, and his wife taunts him; he stabs her in the back and chest with a knife, narrowly missing her heart.

Mailer beats the rap. His friends arrange for a psychiatrist to admit him to Bellevue mental hospital. His wife survives and withdraws charges against him; a sympathetic judge gives him a suspended sentence and probation. During his two weeks in the mental ward, Mailer uses his time to gather material from the patients that will go into his next book; particularly interesting to him is one of the criminally insane who stabbed his brother. Mailer is developing his philosophy of violence. A year later, Mailer tells an interviewer that the death camp commander Adolf Eichmann had bureaucratically murdered thousands of people, but that if he had killed them with his bare hands, “he would have worn the scar of his own moral wound” and gained “our unconscious respect.” [Lennon 2013: 303]  Such is the existential viewpoint of the hipster philosophy.

Enough. Mailer had terrible judgment in the kinds of things he would say-- and apparently believe-- in his own hipster intuition. It is sometimes said that genius is personality; thank God it isn’t. You don’t have to like someone’s personality to get the best out of their writing. How could he be so good at some things and so ridiculously bad at others? Here is an example of what Mailer is good at, from his 1955 novel about Hollywood:

            “Seated on two couches which faced each other were half a dozen women. They were all dressed expensively, and their make-up to make up for such faults as thin mouths, small eyes, and mouse-colored hair, had curved their lips, slimmed their cheeks, and given golden or chestnut tints to their coiffures. Like warriors behind their painted shields, they sat stiffly, three and three, staring at one another, talking with apathy. These were the wives of important men and men who wanted to be important, the husbands in chase of one another through the Laguna Room while the women were left behind.
            “When a man went by, they tried to take no notice. They either walked by without a look, or stopped for a brief but wild gallantry which went something like:
            “Carolyn!” the man would say, as if he could not believe he saw the woman here and was simply overcome.
            “Mickey!” one of the six women would say.
            “My favorite girl,” the man would say, holding her hand.
            “The only real man I know,” the deserted wife would say.
            Mickey would smile. He would shake his head, he would hold her hand. “If I didn’t know you were kidding, I could give you a tumble.”
            “Don’t be too sure I’m kidding,” the wife would say.
            Mickey would straighten up, he would release her hand. There would be a silence until Mickey murmured, “What a woman.” Then, in the businesslike tone which ends a conversation, he would say, “How are the kids, Carolyn?”
            “They’re fine.”
            “That’s great, that’s great.” He would start to move away, and give a smile to all the women. “We have to have a long talk, you and me,” Mickey would say.
            “You know where to find me.”
            “Great kidder, Carolyn,” Mickey would announce to nobody in particular, and disappear into the party.
            “All through the Laguna Room, wherever there was a couch, three wives were sitting in much that way. Since a lot of the men had come without women, the result was that men got together with men, standing near the pool, off the dance floor, at the café tables or in a crowd near the bar. I picked up a drink and wandered through the party looking for a girl to talk to. But all the attractive girls were surrounded, though by far  fewer men than squeezed up to listen to a film director or a studio executive. Most of the girls seemed to like the conversation of fat middle-aged men and bony middle-aged men. Actually I wasn’t that eager [to join a conversation]. Being stone sober, the fact was that it was easier to drift from one circle of men to another.”   [The Deer Park, 69-70.]

This is Mailer being a micro-sociologist, walking around stone sober making mental notes on the ways people behave. He was in Hollywood for the filming of The Naked and the Dead, and accumulated enough material for a no-holds-barred portrait of the Biz. It also gave him the idea he was as fit as anybody to be a film producer, director, writer and actor, all of which he tried back in New York with his friends. Nothing much came of it; Mailer’s roll-with-your-intuitions approach did not work in an enterprise that requires a lot of coordination and planning.

Totting up his strengths and weaknesses, on the plus side we can put his vivid, realistic observations, his capacity to make the reader feel like you are there, and his quality of always being interesting. On the negative side, his characters tend to be off-putting, especially those based on himself. The narrator of The Deer Park is an ace fighter pilot, a near-professional boxer, great poker player, big-handsome-sexy irresistible to women who resemble Marilyn Monroe, and of course a great writer-in-the-making.  This adolescent fantasy check-list does nothing to advance the plot, but Mailer uses it for the main characters in most of his works of fiction. For his new journalism, he himself is the observation post, but this is his strong point and these are his best works.

He intrudes too much of his opinions, which he thinks are brilliant existential psychology but mostly come down to asserting that what the world needs is more of his spontaneously macho risk-taking and violence. He admires Hemingway and has some of his descriptive skill but none of his restraint. He regards himself as a high-intellectual leader but his ideas are too wacky to influence anybody; and as we have seen, his practical judgment is terrible.

His strength is social ethnography, vivid portrayals of cutting-edge scenes in America. Where does he get his skills? He trained himself to be a writer, already as a high-school student in New York and an undergraduate at Harvard. He went into the army near the end of the Pacific war, hoping to get near enough to the front to write a great war novel. (He had one combat patrol, but everything he observed went into a convincing picture of the military machine, especially the previously little-discussed class conflict between officers and enlisted men.) He has an excellent memory for detail and the sounds of people’s voices. Some of this is the memory component of high intelligence. One remembers best what one deliberately sets out to observe, and Mailer trained his mind to see what messages people are giving off while claiming to be something else. This is a Freudian-inspired mode of observation, that Mailer shared with his exact contemporary, Erving Goffman, when the Freudian vogue of the 1940s and 50s shifted away from deep childhood traumas to the fronts people are acting out all around us. In action Mailer was usually a jerk, but as an observer he was focused and on target.

What makes his writing so energetic? His sentences have flow; often they are long and strung-together, but without complex grammar or subordinate clauses, the whole thing rushing forward without a hitch. Whatever he is saying, you get it; you don’t have to figure it out. Like him or not, he keeps you awake; and except when he is sounding off on his own trips, his descriptions have the feel of reality.

With Mailer and Kerouac alike, the cliché is right, trust the writer’s reports, not the writer’s ego. Ironically, these are writers who believe the cult of intoxication gives them their true voice, but it gets in the way of the idea part of writing, which requires a lot of reflection. For all his claims to be writing philosophical novels, Mailer’s philosophy is the least impressive thing about it. Writers who truly have something to say (as distinguished from something to report), like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, or Proust, have a calmer tone; and their writing practice is the opposite of a frenzied rush.

What, then, does the cult of intoxication really deliver? As a method, it has its Kubla Khan peaks of poetry, but novels are made for the long perspective, passion recollected in tranquility. There are not a lot of successfully intoxicated novels. Its successes are all on the other fork, the cult of intoxication as a topic. It has been increasingly a central part of modern history, and one whose allure we have yet to fully understand.


Jack Kerouac. 1962. Big Sur.
J. Michael Lennon. 2013. Norman Mailer: A Double Life.
Norman Mailer. 1955. The Deer Park.
Norman Mailer. 1968. The Armies of the Night. History as a Novel, the Novel as History.
Bill Morgan. 2011. The Typewriter is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation.
Eric C. Schneider. 2008. Smack: Heroin and the American City.