Observations on Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Revisited
Thoughts and observations:
I’m re-reading Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, the expanded unabridged edition; my Son Alex loaned it to me. I first read it almost half a century ago.
I’m trying to grasp what so many others, including Alex, have apparently found so meaningful but which it seems I missed. So far, probably based on the social context during the times in which it was written, it feels a bit sexist and homophobic. In one segment, on page 375 of the copy I’m reading, it addresses rape as frequently being, at least in part, the victim’s fault. Very uncharacteristic given Heinlein’s attitude toward sex both in the book and even more as reflected in his future writings but I still have roughly a third of the book to read so perhaps it’s just setting the stage for a dramatic philosophical metamorphosis (afterword: — Yep, that certainly seems the case).
His writing style now seems disappointing to me. That’s been the case each time I’ve reread him during the past decade but I recall how powerfully it affected me at each initial reading, perhaps because his story lines are so powerful, so resonant, that I didn’t notice the style (I think I was seven when I first read one of his books, Space Cadet). Perhaps, as my own writing matured, I became more judgmental. Does that say something about him or about me?
The book made me recall how close I’ve always felt towards Lazarus Long, a friend in the sense that Freud once expressed in the linkage of kindred spirits over time and space, it being enough that once, somewhere or some when, there lived a man who thought as I did, to which I’ve added, “and knew that I’d know, and that in that manner we might cherish each other, sharing hope”. There’s a bit of an incipient Lazarus in Jubal Harshaw and a bit of Jubal, I think, in my very different friends, Sam Hamill and John Wayne Smith.
Apparently, Heinlein doesn’t like Emmanuel Kant, finding his reasoning circular. Reminds me of David Hume’s criticisms of John Locke and by extrapolation, of all the contractualist philosophers. Of course, in neither case does that imply that their conclusions were wrong but rather that they lacked support for their premises; not surprising since premises are all too frequently either difficult or (more often) impossible to prove.
I don’t know why all the references to discorporation in the book led me to this chain of thought but they did: if one was working through the components of incorporation as a linguistic structure based on morphemes in order to determine its meaning, one ought to conclude that it refers to the assumption by an incorporeal entity of a physical form. I then found myself speculating on how that came to apply to the process whereby artificial but exceedingly powerful entities are “created” (corporations, in other languages they’re more frequently referred to as associations or societies with an appropriate adjective indicating the extent to which their liability is limited). It may be an interesting train of thought to follow on some other occasion.
Solipsistic pantheism. Interesting. I wonder if Heinlein ever considered panentheism?
Catagelophobia (Heinlein did not use the term, just the concept), I wonder if there is a meaningful difference between fear of being ridiculed and fear of being ridiculous (with fear of acting ridiculous somewhere in the middle). I would think there is and that it might be vast.
The Oneida Community (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oneida_Community) was founded by John Humphrey Noyes. Interesting, Noyes was the maiden name of my former wife, I wonder if she had any inkling? Probably not, she was never close to her father. I wonder if he had any inkling. About a decade ago I renewed membership in the Church of All Worlds, the church started in emulation of the one by the same name which forms an interesting part of the book’s concluding segment. I can’t recall when I initially became a member but I never practiced the religion, at least not formally. I was intellectually motivated and my interest also represented a link in a long a spiritual quest that sought a system that embodied libertarian principles within an ecologically centered framework. I might have enjoyed it. Perhaps I still can.
So: (1) pantheism, clear; (2) elimination of sexual taboos and jealousy, worthwhile if we can handle it emotionally and very libertarian; (3) reflection of an American redneck version of Hebrew mobs several millennia ago; disturbing given current events and the concentration of power among villains, both real and literary. Still, … I don’t grasp the books massive spiritual appeal (although ironically, the concept of grokking makes sense). Perhaps next time.
I guess this is heresy of sorts but if so, then among the Grumbles from the Grave, one might be a bit proud of me.
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2014; all rights reserved