Preparing Transformation for publication, I am having to make painful decisions. In particular, I have to jettison the opening essay, "More Mysteries for Martians." I read it now and it just feels ostentatiously 90s, a little self indulgent, uncompromisingly vague.
So it has to go. It’s not a piece of crap or anything. In fact, I like the way its written, but it does not capture the reader’s attention with the "short, sharp shock" now called for in a "signal rich" world. Oh, let’s face it. I was trying to be a Mr. Smarty Pants at the very point in a book when you are supposed to be unmistakeably clear.
Here is the offending, now orphaned, essay. See what you think.
More Mysteries for Martians
It’s a dark and stormy night. Leaves spin in little circles. Light fills the sky. A ship sets down beside us. We are in the carefully modulated company of an interplanetary other.[i]
The holograms shimmer. After careful investigation, our Martian visitors have 3 questions: Why was Whitney Houston chosen as the Statue of Liberty? Why was a man from 20th century California living in 18th century England? Why are living rooms being driven around Shanghai on the back of flat bed trucks?
The Martians have been reviewing the rededication of the Statue of Liberty on July 4th, 1986. At the high point of the occasion, Whitney Houston sang The Greatest Love of All. The festival was, the Martians could tell, important. It was a chance to refurbish a national icon and the values it stood for. “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
The Martians thought Ms. Houston made a stunning Lady Liberty. There was no disagreement there. But The Greatest Love of All they found puzzling. Is this really, they wanted to know, a song for immigrants?
I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow
If I fail, if I succeed, at least I lived as I believed
No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity
Because the greatest love of all is happening to me.
I found the greatest love of all inside of me.[ii]
The Martians aren’t judgmental. (They are, they understand, from Mars.) They are prepared to accept the Houstonian proposition, that the greatest love is self love. But they couldn’t help wondering whether this was the right choice for the occasion? America celebrates nationhood with a song about individualism? Lady Liberty sings a song…to herself?
We make the usual spectacle of our ignorance. “What Whitney was saying, really, was…umm…Lee Iacocca organized the thing, that’s important…probably…and basically, you see, basically…”
“Thank you,” interrupts a hologram, “that was scintillating. We have a second question. What was Dennis Severs doing living in 18th century London?”
Dennis Severs lived, until his death in 2000, in London’s east-end. His house had no running water, no electricity, no toilet, no shower, no toaster, no TV, no modern conveniences of any kind. Mr. Severs lived with his butler in a stone house and, for most intents and purposes, the 18th century.[iii]
The Martian wants to know why a man would forsake the conveniences of the present day for a London of perpetual semi-darkness, coal fires, resentful servants, and none of the communication marvels of the moment, no telephone, no fax machine, no computer, no vivaphone…never mind that last one. Why would a man give up his age for a vastly cruder one? “Besides,” says a hologram, “he was from Escondido. We looked it up.”
Mysterious, indeed. The obvious answer, “Escondido can do strange things to a man,” doesn’t help very much. If Dennis were mad, it was a disciplined madness. And if it was merely a sustained form of dress-up, surely it would’ve ended years ago. To the Martian eye, Mr. Severs had reconstructed the 18th century thoroughly and thoughtfully, and lived in it with no obvious signs of distress.
As usual, we’re flabbergasted. We would like to make ourselves useful…but, well, Mr. Severs is a mystery to us, too. “And … you … er … what was the third question, again?”
Since they talked to us last, the Martians have been to Shanghai. (If they can pick a Dennis Severs out of London, they’re bound to notice, like, China.) They went to the Bund, that great wall of banks built some 70 years ago by Western powers on the city’s harbor. Carefully disguised (as Dutch tourists), they climbed the semaphore tower (pictured) that used to warn ships of the approach of the deadly typhoon.
And they looked down. They looked into the traffic that courses ceaselessly below the tower. And they saw something they hadn’t seen before. They saw open trucks filled with furniture. And not furniture higgledy-piggledy but carefully laid out: a sofa against one wall of the truck bed, a card table in one corner. Still more interestingly, the furniture was occupied. A man was reading a magazine on the sofa. At the table, men played cards.
The Dutch tourists saw truckload after truckload of men living the good life at 40 m.p.h., apparently at home and at leisure when actually at work and at large. A Martian inquisitor asks us, “go figure.” (They know how much we like metaphor.)
Silence falls on our leaf swept corner. Time passes. We figure. Nothing happens, really. No, we don’t know what the Chinese are doing. We don’t know why Lady Liberty sang a song to herself. We haven’t a clue what Dennis Severs was up to. Dusk draws down. We stare at one another. Something flickers on.
[i] Readers of The Culture by Commotion series will recognize the Martian theme. I gave a public lecture at the Royal Ontario Museum on the publication of the first volume, and afterwards a pleasant looking middle aged man approached me and said, “I was glad to hear you mention them.” “Yes, well.” I murmured, desperately trying to think who “them” might be. “Perhaps you’d like to join us,” he said significantly, “we go out to wait for them. I’m sure they’d like to meet you.”
[ii] Masser, Michael and Linda Creed. 1985. The Greatest Love of All on the album Whitney Houston, copyright Golden Torch Music Corp (ASCAP)/Gold Horizon Music Corp (BMI).
[iii] Dennis Severs’ house was at 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, London, E1 6BX. He received visitors the first Sunday and Monday of every month until his death in January of 2000. Martin, Douglas. 31 January 2000. Dennis Severs, Who Lodged London’s Ghosts, Dies at 51. New York Times. sec. A, col. 1,2, p. 25. A similar experiment for Britain’s Channel 4 television, when “the Bowlers, a thoroughly modern 1999 family, were transported back to 1900 to live in a house restored to the exact specifications of the late Victorian era. They lived there for three months with no central heating, no refrigeration, no detergent and no penicillin, exposed to every detail of turn-of-the-century living from cleaning the cutlery with brick dust to shaving with a cut-throat razor.” http://www.channel4.com/1900house/home.htm. Thanks to Leora Kornfeld for alerting me to the program and the website.