“African Lament” . . . by Mbizo Chirasha, Zimbabwean poet on the run

Vodun altar in Abomey, Benin courtesy of  Dominik Schwarz under CC BY-SA 3.0

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Nelson Mandela

In yesterday’s essay by Mbizo, we learned what life is like for him and for artist-activists who are exiled for so passionately loving their countries and humankind that they are left vulnerable for standing against abuses of power. Through Mbizo’s essay today, we learn exactly what are those abuses and what is the fallout from them.

Thanks to those of you who donated to the fundraiser for Mbizo sponsored by the International Human Rights Arts Festival. It was a successful. Mbizo was able to buy food and a second-hand computer on which to continue his work when he has access to electricity.  A few have provided letters of support to the organizations that fund writers-at-risk moving to safe harbor. We now have the attention and support of a couple of those organizations. Progress! We still seek a host for Mbizo in Germany or someplace in Northern Europe preferably, though England or U.S. would work as well. If you can help, please email me at bardogroup@gmail.com. Thank you! / J.D.

-political press,websites,magazines
-African Union Press
-United Nations Human Rights Press
– Sky News, CNN , BBC Radio Magazine
-Open Society Foundation
-Africa Report
-Africa Confidential
-Africa Writes
-American Press
– British Press
Oxford University Press

Harvard political press

Standard Zimbabwe

Essay Contest about Africa

International Essay Contest African Politics

EU-Delegation Press

-International Human Rights News/sites
-Freedom of expression websites

When chickens sprout claws and chase the eagle up the misty mountain, the corner has turned the road and normal is redefined. Shouted whispers armed with lethal prayers are  unleashed at the naked torso of a man, whose crime is spotting the looters of the lone old lady’s granary, leaving her myriad orphaned grandchildren with emptiness for dinner. Her acidic inner tears cough curses behind cupped hands as she coaxes the dying brood to rest in peace. What is stolen, is then sent to the market for the moneyed to fill their carts and celebrate the independence of a nation.

An itchiness wraps the land with a grandiose malady of anxiety and paranoia for the eyes of state hoots everywhere assessing the hearts of the masses for disloyalty. The music of the land has turned to a one liner in praise of a uniformed gravestone dressed in military fatigues. Even empty farts of the quarreling bowels must be timed to resonate with the loving tribute of the figure looming over the dry dreams of ruler ship. What a time of it the
dwellers of this land have. Daily they’re served with weighty slogans in praise of structures bent by the wind of gluttony. They watch in resignation as every rural youth runs across the border searching for sense and direction to a full stomach.

Africa, the land of mystery and the bucket list of many a Foreigner is a case of rot trading insults with vulgarity. You have been set up by outside drama kings of commercial shenanigans and now you are setting yourselves up. The irony is not lost on your coarse manner in which you treat your fellow kin. Your hand is rough and your manner immoral. Your heart is darker than your night sky’s on a moonless night. You are drunk on the ideas imported from lands that know not to respect the Creator. Blaming the past is a past time and preoccupation akin to prescription intake of medication. The only news welcome to your elephant ears specially tuned to hear dissenting voices is a deal where you earn more than the economy of older nations. Largesse is your middle name and spares nothing and no one when it comes to grander.

Africa, your name is a shocking pronunciation in decent society. You rape your own without shame and invest where others provide security. You cripple every effort of social growth fearing your exposure by opened senses. You imprison the voices of truth and murder protesters. You sponsor battles and wars against unarmed masses. You bring your people to their knees through ignorance and denial. Your only class is repeated mantras of the rising star of “your Nation” even as the world looks on in horror.

Africa, when shall you awake to the fact that the truth has no price and that greed is a short holiday before time catches it with the proverbial fire, purges it and shames it, sending a story for history to chronicle? Africa, the land of giant mines, rich forests and magnificent wildlife, what other blessing do  you need when you mismanage the very resources others covet? The very brains you chase across borders for their truth are the very priests that would have presided over the senses of your  sickly mind, healing it enough for you to see the insanity of your ways.

Past the jungle of netting goons, your sons find welcome respite in soils away from their hearth. They brood over lost times and relationships even as they toil to stay alive. They survive. They thrive. And make names for themselves thousands of miles away from where their umbilical cord weeps with yearnings for the footsteps of lost sons.

As you spit nonstop at the news of their success, having shorn your followers of any and all sense of truth making them fear to tell anything close to reality, you continue your marauding verbosity that makes for sad entertainment at news hours in your own media which – if you cared to check – airs to emptiness in the homes of those you assume are your faithful’s.

A dictator is a sick and wounded skunk whose stench is only accommodated by fellow skunks and vultures who thrive on the dead and dying. He loves his own stories and jokes and misses the well camouflaged yawns and embarrassed looks of those in
attendance. Then, there is the opposition politics. Lol!

Another lot of voices with eyes on what’s wrong but with no plan on how to make the wrong right. If they have, the chance is crippled by marred protests as they try their hand at contesting the tick on the tit at statehouse.

Theatre of the absurd is the daily show in most of our beloved states. Pockets lined with promissory notes at deals to be sealed upon succeeding in a coup or bought and botched elections, confusion is the ration to the nation each tribe pitted against the other in the quest of looting and not governance.

Which way for Africa really? Which way for its people who are pawned in their homes and on their streets by the lawlessness masquerading as law keepers? Which way for a people who know not which way the sun will rise tomorrow and whose tune shall be embraced?

Africa, the land of much is married to less that is lessening by the day. With leaderships whose allegiance is to self-first, then the sponsors of the seat which sit the leader, the land breeds continuously with a narrative that reads like a never-ending dirge. Africa, you lament at the bent of your story told by foreign mouths, but check the faces of those you gore on the heads with yet unpaid bullets for telling it as it is. Which angle does their mistreatment, arbitrary arrests, imprisonment without trial and even death under a ghastly cloud of mischief tell? How else can death from lack of medicines and hunger be told except as it it?

Militarizing social interactions where each is afraid of the next and the death of human camaraderie is told by the silent tongues and opaque staring eyes. And they tell much, those who suffer in silence. They tell about those who ride the nights under fire from your goons. They tell much of those who rely on bush treatment for their ills. They tell much those who follow you as you abuse their manhood for a morsel and stale beer leftovers from your high table. They tell much those who see your motorcade snaking around town with top of the range fuel guzzler while TB wracking lungs wheeze at the roadsides to cheer your dead soul on to your next mission of visionless leadership.

Africa, the land of diversity and resilient souls, when shall you learn to be your own men and stand for what is right even if it’s the neighbor playing truant with his kin. You have mirrored the world and come up with prefects capable of predicting treads of upcoming disasters. Why do you wait till the rapist is through the wreckage of life before arriving for talks armed with first aid bandage for the deep gushes of inflicted injuries? Are these fine institutions for window dressing to show the world you live in a modern bungalow or is there more? If there is more, what is it and where has it worked and what are the results for earning mileage and allowances besides the hefty salaries? Perhaps its job creation for the elderly and the relations of their sweethearts to loot from the wider continent under guise of Africanism.

One has to wonder why a distant figure takes human interest in a human who is thrown to the dogs by his own, for that is the fate of Africa with those either insane enough to stand to the truth, or foolish enough to dare it knowing the consequences.

Africa, the land of beautiful drumbeats and of majestic sunrises only rivalled by their sunsets. When shall you ever sit long enough to read the history of what brings you to where you are? Politics has no friendships but a whore serving for a moment for a fee.

Politicking has a price and when it involves you trading with the devil you must know he is worse than Shylock. He shall come calling. This time not for repayment but for your soul and soil. Africa, once upon a time when your eyes only knew the truth, a stranger came calling. He hoodwinked you, stole your wit and your children. Another has come calling. This one has a magic purse and rains on your every wish with a sly eye.

As you smile all the way to a numbered account and palatial homes far away from your beggary populace, remember this. The man you bludgeon for telling the truth is not the enemy, neither is he after you or your raw power. He is the hope of the land you are dispossessing. He is the voice of those you have silenced. And like all who are dead to truth, your day is well on its way. What shall your defense be when the deadness you have blanketed your people with wears off?

© 2020, Mbizo Chirasha

Mbizo Chirasha

MBIZO CHIRASHA is a recipient of PEN Deutschland Exiled Writer Grant (2017), Literary Arts Projects Curator, Writer in Residence, Blogs Publisher, Arts for Human Rights/Peace Activism Catalyst, Social Media Publicist and Internationally Anthologized Writer, 2017 African Partner of the International Human Rights Arts Festival Exiled in Africa Program in New York. 2017 Grantee of the EU- Horn of Africa Defend Human Rights Defenders Protection Fund. Resident Curator of 100 Thousand Poets for Peace-Zimbabwe, Originator of Zimbabwe We Want Poetry Movement. He has published a collection of poetry, Good Morning President, and co-created another one Whispering Woes of Gangesand Zembezi with Indian poet Sweta Vikram.

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Wordsworth’s Mysticism

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This is a version of a mini-essay I did for an online course designed by Lancaster University on FutureLearn. My late father was a Wordsworth enthusiast so this is partly a tribute to him. I have a few of his books on Wordsworth and have enjoyed reading my father’s many annotations he made in pencil.

Although Wordsworth became an orthodox Anglican in his later years this should not be held against him or detract from his championing of the ‘indwelling spirit’ throughout his life but especially in his younger years. He is not as radical as William Blake but, nevertheless, there are passages in The Prelude where he is preoccupied with a mystical view of reality and that necessary inner spiritual transformation of the individual.

We are all familiar with his ‘nature-worship’ which goes by the term ‘pantheism.’ Perhaps this is epitomised in his Lines Written a Few Miles…

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“My Goedel Is Kill Me” by Resident Skeptic, James R. Cowles

James R. Cowles is a member of the diverse Bardo Group Beguines, publishers of The BeZine, which I manage and edit. James also regularly contributes to The BeZine’s sister site, Beguine Again. James isn’t shy of controversy and while you may not always be in agreement with him, you will always be encouraged to revisit and rethink … and, the man is endlessly entertaining. / J.D.

Have you ever had the experience of noticing a certain pattern in a wild variety of contexts, a pattern that occurs so consistently that you feel it simply has to mean something … but you have no idea what? I say “in a wild variety of contexts” to rule out cases of patterns that occur within the same context, even though, at the time, you may have no idea of the cause. I remember back in the early 1960s, when I was in junior-high school, I went on a “geology jag”. I spent several months reading books on geology, geophysics, and volcanology that noted with perplexity the mysterious – in the early ’60s – pattern whereby volcanic activity tended to be concentrated around the circumference of, e.g., the Pacific Basin, what we today call the “Pacific Ring of Fire,” and similar places. Given the context, it was very reasonable to suppose that the pattern had something or other to do with the physics of the deep earth. Several years later, along came tectonic-plate theory and suddenly the “Ring of Fire” pattern made all kinds of sense:  the dots were connected. Well … those are not the kinds of patterns I mean, i.e. patterns that are so closely associated with a common context that inferring a common context-related cause is almost unavoidable.

Kurt Goedel
M. C. Escher

Rather, what I do mean are patterns like the recurrence of the irrational, transcendental number pi in contexts that, at least on the surface, have nothing to do with the calculation of, e.g., the circumference of a circle, the area of a circle, the volume of a sphere, the period of a pendulum describing a circular arc as it swings, etc., etc. I have written about this elsewhere. I still find this pattern mysterious, enticing, almost an invitation to some kind of Platonic or Pythagorean mysticism.

I recently had an “Aha!” moment about similar patterns that are … hmmm … well … rather than attempt an abstract definition whose generality would probably render it unintelligible anyway, I will start by citing a specific example:  the enigmatic drawings of M. C. Escher. (The context in which I encountered Escher is also important, but more about that a little later.) Many of Escher’s drawings are conventional enough, distinguished by an austere, draftsman-like precision of line, geometry, and perspective. Others, however, are anomalous, counterintuitive, antinomic. The antinomy is especially pronounced in e.g., drawings in which two hands sketch one another, a spiral staircase where the uppermost landing coincides with the ground floor, etc., etc. In all these drawings, there is a kind of pseudo-hierarchy, “pseudo“ in the sense that ascending through the various echelons of the hierarchy ultimately leads back to the lowest level thereof. I show several examples in the images that accompany this column.

Penrose Staircase (by Roger Penrose), after M. C. Escher
Ascending and Descending … M. C. Escher

I had been familiar with Escher’s work for some time, first encountering it in Douglas Hofstadter’s fascinating and challenging book Goedel, Escher, Bach – An Eternal Golden Braid. Hofstadter termed “strange loops” Escher’s work, much of Bach’s music (e.g., The Musical Offering), and for technical reasons I will gloss over for now, Kurt Goedel’s monumental Incompleteness Theorem of 1931.(Goedel fled European anti-Semitism, emigrated to the United States, and took up a research position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, where he became an intimate friend of Albert Einstein, who had fled Europe for the same reason. Fascists in the Europe of the 1920s and 30s were much like Republican conservatives today, believing that too many smart people, especially really smart Jews, constitute a liability, not an asset.) Strange loops — I am pretty sure the term was coined by Hofstadter — are structures that appear to be hierarchical, but that are structured such that following the hierarchy up ultimately — after a perhaps large but finite number of steps — terminates in the lowest level, the “ground floor”, of the hierarchy, much as if one climbed the Washington Monument — and exited back on the Mall.

I was so fascinated by strange loops that, shortly after reading Hofstadter’s book (hereafter GEB), I talked to a professor-friend of mine — I was a graduate student in math, physics, and philosophy at Wichita State University at the time — whose specialty was mathematical logic and Bob agreed to basically teach me Goedel’s great Incompleteness Theorem. Bob has passed now, but his legacy for me was a continuing fascination with the foundations of math and systems of inference — so much so that the semester after the independent study I read Goedel’s Proof, a semi-technical treatment of the proof by Ernest Nagel and James R. Newman. Anyway … the whole point of this paragraph is to give you some idea of how monumentally dense and dumb I was:  I understood almost all of what I read, but, lacking an appreciation of the “wild variety of contexts” I mentioned in the beginning, I saw only the individual trees and never the Forest.

Goedel and Einstein at Princeton

The reason Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem — the biggest Tree in The Forest — qualifies as a strange loop is because, in the process of proving his eponymous Theorem, Kurt Goedel managed to mirror in the proof of the Theorem the Theorem itself. In fact, more than that, the proof of Goedel’s Theorem ends up being isomorphic, i.e., structurally identical, to the numbers and to the very statements about numbers that constitute the very subject of the Theorem. Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem is actually about itself.  Now, for very deep reasons I simply haven’t the space to go into — hence the “hand-waving” tone of this column — strange loops, however different they are in other respects, all have in common this property of self-referentiality: in different senses, all strange loops are “about” themselves and lead back to themselves … except that there is no “back” because there is no movement. That is a common feature of the various species of contextual trees in the strange-loop Forest.

But I saw the Forest, in fact, I realized there was a Forest, only gradually as I began to reflect on other contexts — contexts radically “other” than mathematical logic and the foundations of math.  I remember the chill that ran up my spine — gradually and over time — as more and more of the Forest became visible, as strange loops manifest themselves in an increasingly “wild variety of contexts”.  Herewith a few:

o Goedel’s Theorem itself

Without getting lost in the technical “weeds,” suffice to say that Goedel’s Theorem asserts that, under certain very weak conditions (basically, you only have to be able to do elementary arithmetic in your system of mathematics), there are certain statements in any system of mathematics / inference / logic that are true but not provable. (Here “provable” means, essentially, producible by a “Turing machine” or “Turing algorithm,” i.e., an algorithm / recipe that just mechanically grinds out theorems for your system of inference with no admixture of creativity on the part of the mathematician / logician who is turning the Turing machine’s wheels.) That is to say, if your only way of proving theorems is via recourse to a mechanical, “paint-by-numbers,” recipe-like, follow-the-bread-crumbs prescriptive procedure, then Goedel’s Theorem says that there will always be certain statements that are true, but which cannot be proven.

If you want these unprovable theorems to be provable, you can always alter the axioms of your system — but then other statements, including statements previously provable, will end up being unprovable in the revised system. In any system of logic, there will never be a one-to-one, exhaustive relationship between statements that are true and statements that are provable. (Goedel proved his Theorem in response to Principia Mathematica, the monumental attempt by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead to derive all of mathematics from logic alone. Goedel’s Theorem is a technically rigorous way of saying “Sorry, gentlemen! Y’can’t get there from here!”) A good visual metaphor for this is trying to trap a droplet of mercury under your thumb:  you cannot, because the mercury droplet will always find a way to squirt out. The “thumb” of any axioms and rules of inference will always allow certain true statements to escape.

Goedel’s Theorem is a “strange loop” because, even though the Theorem is a theorem about meta-mathematics, i.e., a theorem about all systems of mathematics as such, the proof of Goedel’s Theorem — you will just have to trust me here (though I do recommend Nagel’s and Newman’s book, as well as GEB) — relies on replicating the structure of ordinary, non-meta-mathematics. That is, you think you have climbed one round higher on the logical staircase from mathematics to meta-mathematics, but in reality, you are still on the ground floor. You have not actually gone anywhere in any hierarchy. In fact, there is no hierarchy. You have always remained on the ground floor of Escher’s mad castle.

o Christian theology

The ancient world conceived of the Universe as a vast hierarchy spanning unformed matter at the ontological bottom up to God at the top. According to St. Paul’s great hymn in the second chapter of Philippians, Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, descended to earth, and even under the earth, and as a result God the Father — who was also Jesus, by the way — exalted Him to God’s right hand. So, in a celestial sense, by following the Hierarchy of Creation, Jesus ended up back where He started. This is usually described in terms of kenosis, but it is also a grand, cosmic strange loop:  Jesus, while remaining God, descends from God and returns to God without for all that ever ceasing to be God. Jesus’ kenotic Journey is a Journey back to where He “came from”, i.e., where He always “was”.

o Literature, in particular, T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”

As I have said elsewhere, I have come, after 40-plus years, to believe that the key to understanding the “Quartets” is the celebrated passage from Heraclitus that is the preface to “Burnt Norton”: The way up and the way down are one and the same. The “Quartets” comprise a literary embodiment of this maxim:  Eliot’s experiences during the London Blitz convinced him that the Journey into exaltation just is the Journey into pain:  the fire and the rose are one. So (“Burnt Norton”): At the still point of the turning world … Neither from nor towards … there the Dance is … But neither arrest nor movement … ,  so that (“Little Gidding”) the fire and the rose are one.  Thus we arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. Mystical spirituality is a strange loop:  a non-ascent through a non-hierarchy.

I could cite other examples of strange loops until you seriously consider slitting your wrists in a tub of warm water, e.g, fractal phase spaces of chaotic / non-linear / “far-from-equilibrium” phenomena, many short stories of Jorge Luis Borges, many paintings by Jackson Pollock, holograms, et al.  All these involve another characteristic of strange loops: scale invariance, whereby a piece of the strange loop, no matter how small, looks just like the entire strange loop, e.g., magnifying a small area of a Pollock paint-dripping painting.

But the most provocative, even uncanny, maybe even “spooky” aspect of strange loops is Hofstadter’s compelling argument in GEB that strange loops constitute the essence of consciousness.  Human consciousness has evolved as a strange loop:  from organic molecules, to single cells, to multicellular life … etc., etc. … finally culminating in human consciousness — which now “turns around” and contemplates itself and its own origins.  But beyond even this — which is momentous enough in its own right — is that the sheer ubiquity of strange loops, which are everywhere once you become sensitized to seeing them, invites the speculation that consciousness is not confined to the space in the skull between one’s ears. Consciousness may be a kind of ontological “field,” not unlike the old lumeniferous ether, that pervades all space and time like an ocean, and that individual consciousnesses are local waves in that vast expanse, Braham to the individual Atman.

Maybe strange loops suggest that Hindu mystics are right:  Tat tvam asi … “That art Thou”.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Goedel quote … QuoteFancy … Public domain
Picture of Kurt Goedel … Getty images … CC by SA 3.0
Picture of Einstein and Goedel … Katachriston blog … CC by SA 3.0
Collatz fractal … Photographer unknown … Public domain
Penrose stairs … Sakurambo … Public domain
“Ascending and Descending” … by M. C. Escher … Fair use
“Autumn Rhythm” … Jackson Pollock … CC BY-SA 2.0
Escher photograph … Hans Peters — Dutch National Archives … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported


FROM RESIDENT SKEPTIC, JAMES R. COWLES: Weird Comics and the Topology of Non-orientable Manifolds

James R. Cowles is a member of the diverse Bardo Group Beguines, publishers of The BeZine, which I manage and edit. James also regularly contributes to The BeZine’s sister site, Beguine Again. James isn’t shy of controversy and while you may not always be in agreement with him, you will always be encouraged to revisit and rethink … and, the man is endlessly entertaining. / J.D.

Not too long ago, I published a column on “weird”, X-Files-ish phenomena, the kinds of events and (alleged) experiences that are regularly recorded in Fate magazine. My original intent in writing and publishing that column was, quite frankly, to break my addiction to Donald Trump, Trump-ism, Russia-gate, and what was, and often still is, my unhealthy incipient addiction to the raw sewage that has flooded the White House and the Executive Branch, by getting my mind onto a different track.  But writing that column also had the unintended and unforeseen side-benefit of prompting some persistent reminiscences of the kinds of comic books I used to read just before and just after I entered puberty.  During that time, in addition to Fate, I read three comics published by the American Comics Group (ACG):  Forbidden Worlds (hereafter FW), Adventures into the Unknown (AITU), and Unknown Worlds (UW). I realize in retrospect that, just as the earlier column got me out of the rut of Trump and American para-fascism, the reading and remembrances of those four magazines got me out of what would have been the rut of unalloyed skepticism. Maybe the following will do the same for you. At the very least, maybe it will give us both a good laugh after having suffered through the passing of the fiscal kidney stone of the Republican tax “reform” bill, a.k.a. “No Multi-Billionaire Plutocrat Left Behind”.

The writing in the three latter magazines was almost unrelieved schlock, and the art on the covers — comprising buxom, scantily clad young women dressed in tight bodices and levitating hemlines, rather risque for that day — was often worse. (Fate was the most blatant offender, though in a different way, as a glance at today’s over-the-top-lurid Fate web site will attest.) But, at least as far as the writing is concerned, the operative word in the above is almost:  ” … almost unrelieved schlock“. Almost. But not always. Occasionally, i.e., often enough that I kept buying the “Big Three” ACG comics, the writing rose to the level of The Twilight Zone, Alcoa Presents One Step BeyondScience Fiction Theater (which was appearing at about the same time), and The Outer Limits. That the writing attained even occasional brilliance is all the more remarkable when you reflect that all the stories — every last one — were written by one man, the managing editor of ACG, Richard E. Hughes, who wrote all the stories under a series of five pseudonyms:  Lafcadio Lee, Zev  Zimmer, Kurato Osaki  (!), Shane O’Shea, and Pierre Alonzo, drawings of whose purely fictitious faces prefaced each story. To this day, I consider Richard E. Hughes to be a literary diamond in a cattle feed-lot. Consider …

o Forbidden Worlds

Hughes wrote what I consider 3 classics in the “weird-comic” genre, the first of which is “The Train that Vanished” in a May-June (cannot recall the year) issue of FW. The story centered on a brilliant, avant-garde subway design engineer who, working on his own time, discovers a way to enable 2 subway trains to run on the same subway track at the same time. (Think of Albert Einstein working in the Swiss Patent Office.) As a proof-of-concept / “beta test,” this genius engineer designs a black box and installs it on the track. When train 1 passes the black box, it is shifted to dimension A; when train 2 passes that black box, it is shifted to dimension B, and the 2 trains then alternate by trading dimensions, each time they pass the black box, so they never occupy the same track in the same dimension at the same time. Subway senior management discovers what he has done, and, perhaps because the engineer had not filled out the “goldenrod” copy of his time-sheet correctly in quadruplicate, fires him, whereup0n the engineer boards a subway train, waits for it to shift dimensions, and then leaps from the car into a community of dimension-B beings, who do value his creativity and genius.

When I first encountered this issue of FW and the subway story, I was coincidentally getting interested in the topology of what I later learned were called non-orientable manifolds, intuitively, surfaces like Mobius strips and Klein bottles in which concepts like “up-down”, “in-out”, “top-bottom”, “inside-outside”, etc., cannot be defined. (Hence the term “non-orientable”.) Going into detail about the “weeds” of non-orientable surfaces would eat me alive. So suffice to say that, if a way could be found to alter the local topology of spacetime into a non-orientable manifold, then, with other, even more technical tweaks, what the subway engineer did with the subway trains would be possible. I am astounded that Richard E. Hughes understood such a recondite subject even well enough to write a — rather brief! — comic-book story around it.

o Adventures Into the Unknown

The second “Hughes classic” is “The Man Who Couldn’t Sleep” in a November issue (again, I cannot recall the year) issue of AITU. Larry Keith — I still remember the character’s name after 50-plus years — is a neurochemist who becomes fascinated with what human beings might achieve if they no longer needed to sleep … and thereby waste roughly one-third of their lives unconscious. So he formulates a drug which, he thinks, will perform all the functions of sleep and yet leave the person fully awake, conscious, and alert. He violates the canons of science, however, and tests the drug on himself.

At first, he only notices that he is up, out, and about ‘way past his normal bedtime. But as the night wears on, he notices that weird things begin to happen, the kinds of things that occur typically in nightmares:  his neighborhood is invaded by dinosaurs, including a troupe of great apes; a raucous Mardi Gras, New Orleans-style jazz band, hundreds strong, camps outside his window and begins to howl for human sacrifice, etc. Of course, they settle on Larry Keith as their victim. (I still remember their blood-cry from having read the story so long ago:  “Larry Keith! Let it be he!”) Finally, the drug wears off, and he awakes in his own living room unharmed, but splashed with mud and filthy water from his headlong flight away from the dinosaurs and the jazz-band musicians. The last frame of the story shows Keith, dressed in pajamas, and now in bed and remarking “I guess sleep is more important than I believed. So I’m going to get some. Good night!”

Aside from broaching the old conundrum about how one knows that the world one sees round about is the real world, and that one’s dream world is just a dream world, the story raises the unsettling possibility that, even if the waking world is the real world, perhaps the dream world would become real, were it not that it is just that:  the dream world. Maybe our dreams would come true in the absence of sleep, thereby, in a Platonic nightmare, releasing the visions of the id from the constraints of the superego and allowing them to become ontologically realized in what we are pleased to consider the actual world. If you are inclined to just smile indulgently at such a possibility, remember that Dr. C. G. Jung speculated that UFOs — phenomena with a demonstrably objective existence — were projections from within the mind’s collective unconscious. In any event, be careful what you wish for.

o Unknown Worlds

The third “Hughes classic” is a story that appeared in UW about an obscure, grey little man, much like Simon and Garfunkel sang about in “A Most Peculiar Man”, who keeps to himself in his basement apartment, has no friends, and who remains unknown to everyone. All that makes him conspicuous is that he has a prodigious talent for fixing all kinds of machinery. But not only does he repair it, he ends up improving it … without intending to or knowing how he does it. As the story unfolds, a young couple brings him a black-and-white TV to repair. They leave it with him, pick it up when he calls to say it is fixed, but immediately return, breathless with amazement. Their black-and-white TV now displays vivid color. (Remember: this story was published back when color TV was a high-tech luxury, unaffordable to anyone but the one-percenters of the late 50s / early 60s.) But notwithstanding, people still persecute and ridicule the little man because of his harmless eccentricities.

Some time before, the grey little man noticed he has a large hole in his apartment wall. He has never bothered  to fix it, and just hangs a curtain over it. But one day, especially depressed at being the pariah of his apartment building, he decides to explore. He climbs through the hole … and to his astonishment discovers an entire world on the far side of the hole. In that through-the-hole world, there are people of great compassion and discernment who, recognizing his genius, not only accept him, but accord him an exalted place in their society. The last frame of the story shows the grey little man as viewed through the hole, surrounded by his new adoring friends on the far side, who, like the people in our world, bring their devices to him, not only because they value his skill, but even more so, because they value him. As a kid who was a nerd before such a word had ever been coined, this UW story, for obvious reasons, resonated profoundly with me. Twenty-five years or so later, I found my own refugs — my own “hole in the wall,” if you will — in my wife and in my in-law family.

If there is a common motif in all three “Hughes classics”, it is that physical technology, especially when developed carelessly, can bite the hand that creates it. But the “technology” of compassion and dignity never turns upon and rends the one who practices  it. The former involves only confronting problems. The latter involves confronting Mystery. A mature skepticism always requires a recognition of one’s cognitive limitations. As the old Scholastics expressed it Omnia exeunt in mysterium.

James R. Cowles

Image credits:

“Adventures Into the Unknown” cover … Edvard Montz … Public domain
“Unknown Worlds” cover … American Comics Group … Public domain
ACG pseudonyms of Richard Hughes … http://www.a-zcomics.com/SCANS/UW.html … Public domain
Photograph of Richard E. Hughes … American Comics Group … Public domain
“The Train that Vanished” … American Comics Group …. Public domain