Rhetoricians have traditionally held that one can argue by means of logos, the appeal to logic or reason; pathos, the appeal to emotion; or ethos, the appeal to credibility. As Aristotle explains in the first chapter of the Rhetoric (1356a), "Persuasion is achieved by the speaker's personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided." Aristotle, who emphasizes that ethos "should be achieved by what the speaker says" and not by his reputation prior to speaking, concludes that character or ethos "may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion."
Of course, all argumentation tries to convince the listener or reader that the speaker deserves credence, and every convincing instance of logic, authority, or testimony demonstrates that he has earned it. But the writings of the sage are unique in that their central or basic rhetorical effect is the implicit statement to the audience: "I deserve your attention and credence, for I can be trusted, and no matter how bizarre my ideas or my interpretations may at first seem, they deserve your respect, your attention, and ultimately your allegiance because they are correct and they are necessary to your well-being." This appeal to credibility, of course, plays some role in any kind of literary mode or form of argumentation that attempts to convince someone of something, but only in the writings of the sage does ethos become the principal effect, and not merely a contributory one.
Ethos and the various techniques that produce it are hardly unique to this genre. What is unique, however, is the central importance of the appeal to credibility, which subsumes the sage's other rhetorical devices. In essence, one might define the genre of the sage as that in which evidentiary and other appeals function only to produce such confidence in a speaker or writer that he can be believed when conventional wisdom, supposedly expert testimony, or one's inclination argues against his position. After briefly comparing the sage's ethos to that of the narrative voice in Victorian fiction, I propose to suggest the ways that the sage's characteristic techniques work to create credibility. Then, after sketching a taxonomy of techniques that produce ethos, I shall concentrate on those central ones involving autobiography and self-revelation that attempt to authenticate the sage's message by authenticating the sage himself. Finally, citing examples from the writings of Didion and Mailer, I shall show how techniques that strive to create this effect of credibility function to create an equivalent to plot in fiction.
Ethos in Fiction and Nonfiction
Although many of the greatest Victorian novels employ techniques that create ethos, they do so for quite different purposes than do works of the sage. Whereas Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold rely upon the appeal to credibility as a means of urging the reader to accept their judgments, Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope use it to make the reader accept the judgments of their novels' narrators, and these judgments in turn enable the reader to evaluate characters and events. Ethos in the novel thus works at one remove from the actual author. Of course, not all novels employ (or create) ethos — only those that have an implied author who makes use of extensive commentary.
Such commentary plays an important role in fiction and shapes much of the reader's experience. As Geoffrey Tillotson pointed out more than three decades ago in his study of Thackeray, reading that novelist involves more than an encounter with narrative and description: "If, while reading Thackeray, we look into the composition of our experience, we find that a portion of it, even while the narration is at its purest, is experience of commentary."
The evidence of Victorian and modern readers proves that this kind of commentary, which until quite recently was thought to exemplify non-novelistic" and inartistic elements, provides an important art of the pleasure of reading a novel and cannot therefore be considered necessarily extraneous to it. Wayne Booth correctly argues in The Rhetoric of Fiction that if our criterion for allowing authorial commentary is "appropriateness to the whole work, we are forced to ask ourselves what the 'whole work' is when dozens of ages have already been devoted to commentary. We do not experience these 'intrusions' as independent outbursts; they are continuing steps in our acquaintance with the narrator."
Acquaintance with the narrators of Victorian novels provides a major source of these books' pleasure. Unfortunately for critical understanding of this kind of fictional effect, the emphasis upon indirection and avoiding authorial commentary made by Percy Lubbock's influential The Craft of Fiction (1921), which dominated criticism of the novel in England and America for four decades, imply led critics to deny the critical validity of narrative comment and refuse to take seriously the remarks of those who claimed to receive pleasure from it. Not surprisingly, this reductive Jamesian approach to the novel assumes that readers who enjoy authorial commentary are naive and critically uninformed. contrast, Booth, who argues that authorial commentary is inevitable, accepts the testimony of readers. In particular, he cites as e kind of evidence a critical theory of fiction must take into account remarks by readers that they enjoy the narrators of Eliot, Dickens, Forster. Booth specifically raises this subject because it contributes to our understanding of the role played in fiction by e implied author's commentary; the fictive personality of this implied author is created, we recall, by commentary. Booth's clear-headed approach also permits us to observe how Victorian fiction employs ethos.
Ethos-creating statements can take the form of either interspersed commentary or miniature essays. The twentieth chapter of George Eliot's Middlemarch provides an example of individual sentences of commentary that alternate with those containing narrative or description. When Eliot relates Dorothea Brooke's disorientation after she has encountered Rome, the implied author emphasizes the effect of "the gigantic broken revelations of that Imperial and Papal city thrust abruptly upon the notions of a girl who had been brought up on English and Swiss Puritanism."
Because this encounter is so important to understanding Dorothea, the novel provides a detailed analysis of her character in order to present us with the necessary context. At this point, the narrator of Middlemarch first makes a generalization about other young women and then describes the culture shock Dorothea experienced:
The weight of unintelligible Rome might lie easily on bright nymphs to whom it formed a background for the brilliant picnic of Anglo-foreign society; but Dorothea had no such defence against deep impressions. Ruins and basilicas, palaces and colossi, set in the midst of a sordid present, where all that was living and warm-blooded seemed sunk in the deep degeneracy of a superstition divorced from reverence; the dimmer but yet eager Titanic life grazing and struggling on walls and ceilings; . . . all this vast wreck of ambitious ideals, sensuous and spiritual, mixed confusedly with the signs of breathing forgetfulness and degradation, at first jarred her as with an electric shock, and then urged themselves on her with that ache belonging to a glut of confused ideas which check the flow of emotion. Forms both pale and glowing took possession of her young sense, and fixed themselves in her memory even when she was not thinking of them, preparing strange associations which remained through her after —
Immediately following these sentences relating Dorothea's disorientation comes the kind of generalization that has long been considered typical of George Eliot (and the implied authors of her novels): "Our moods are apt to bring with them images which succeed each other like the magic-lantern pictures in a doze." The concluding portion of this sentence then applies this generalization to Dorothea in the form of a narrative of her future, for we are told that in certain states of dull forlornness Dorothea all her life continued o see the vastness of St Peter's. . . . spreading itself everywhere like a disease of the retina." Eliot's implied author moves back and forth among statements of narrative, description, and generalized truths that support the other two, providing them with a context and richer meaning, but that do not relate specifically to them.
In contrast to the way Eliot here intertwines sentences and even phrases of generalizing commentary with narrative and description, Trollope's The Way We Live Now contains wisdom statements that take the form of miniature essays. Trollope's narrator here is comnenting upon those guests who eagerly attended Melmotte's banluet for the Emperor of China despite believing their host immoral nd even criminal:
There can be no doubt that the greater part of the people assembled did believe that their host had committed some great fraud. which might probably bring him under the arm of the law. When such rumors are spread abroad, they are always believed. There is an excitement and a pleasure in believing them. Reasonable hesiration at such a moment is dull and phlegmatic. If the accused be one near ; enough to ourselves to make the accusation a matter of personal pain, of course we disbelieve. But, if the distance be beyond this, we are almost ready to think that anything may be true of anybody. In this case nobody really loved Melmotte and everybody did believe. It was so probable that such a man should have done something horrible! It was only hoped that the fraud might be great and horrible enough. (Chap. 62)
The first sentence in this paragraph, like the last three, comments directly upon the thoughts of characters whose actions are being narrated by the implied author. The five that follow, in contrast, form a kind of extractable essay that presents the narrator's under standing of how people act in general and not just in this specific case. One can make three observations about this Trollopean moral essay-in-miniature: First, it presents general truths that are not specific to the facts or situation being narrated. Second, it focuses our judgments of the events and actions presented by the implied author. As Wayne Booth points out, "any story will be unintelligible unless it includes, however subtly, the amount of telling necessary not only to make us aware of the value system which gives it its meaning but, more important, to make us willing to accept that value system, at least temporarily.... The work itself ... must fill with its rhetoric the gap made by the suspension of my own beliefs" (112). The implied author's comments, in other words, provide necessary pointers to the reader, which, even if they do not change his mind completely about any particular moral or other judgment, nonetheless orient him and in this way inform him how to interpret a particular set of actions and ideas. Third, Trollope's brief essay on the way people delight in rumor also serves to build the reader's confidence in the implied author, who appears in such statements as a wisdom speaker.
Although such remarks will have their most positive effects when the reader accepts them as valid generalizations about human conduct, they work to an important degree even when he takes them only as witty, if cynical, observations and apothegms, and they do so because they inform the reader how the implied author wishes to be understood. In other words, such statements, which generations of readers have testified provide a great deal of the pleasure in the novels of Trollope, Eliot, Thackeray, and other Victorians, indicate both how readers should judge character and event and also how they should regard the presenter of them. Even if readers refuse to grant the narrator full credibility, even if they resist and reserve judgment, they at least do not feel at sea in the world of the novel.
Furthermore, even when the implied author presents attitudes and opinions with which the audience chooses not to agree, he does not produce the sage's characteristically abrasive effect, for such generalizations rarely involve either the Victorian sage's aggressiveness and assumed superiority or the modern sage's equally aggressive thrusting of private weakness and intimate fact upon the reader.
Techniques that Create Ethos in Nonfiction
Although the primary novelistic means of creating ethos involves the use of wisdom statements, a use which distinguishes novelistic ethos from that of the sage, occasionally Victorian fiction does employ means of producing it that resemble those of the sages. For example, as Booth points out, much novelistic commentary contributes to "our sense of traveling with a trustworthy companion, an author who is sincerely battling to do justice to his materials. George Eliot, for example, involves us constantly in her battle to deal with the truth" (214); and, writing of Melville's Billy Budd, Booth adds that "even the most clumsily worded intrusion can redeem itself by conveying this sense of how deeply the narrator cares about what he is doing" (215). In fact, as Booth suggests in passing, a novelist's attempts to ingratiate himself with the reader provide another kind of plot, one quite different from that of fiction but often necessary to it. Much of Fielding's commentary in Tom Jones, for example, "relates to nothing but the reader and himself," but such intrusion justifies itself on the grounds, argues Booth, that it shapes our "attitude toward the book as a whole" by providing "a running account of growing intimacy between the narrator and the reader, an account with a kind of plot of its own and separate denouement" (216).
Wayne Booth's clarifying the role of commentary in Victorian and early fiction demonstrates that John Holloway was on firm ground when he claimed in The Victorian Sage that authors of fiction and nonfiction shared rhetorical techniques, for, like the sages, the narrators of many Victorian novels strive to create this effect of credibility. In fact, certain works of Victorian fiction — George Eliot's Felix Holt comes to mind — succeed to the extent that they do largely because of an interesting, trustworthy narrator and not because they have particularly effective characterization or plot. Holt stands out as a particularly ineffective and ineffectual protagonist, and yet Eliot's novel engages the reader, for like the writings of Carlyle and Arnold, its discursive sections successfully produce ethos. Nonetheless, I must emphasize once again that despite such important similarities between ethos in fiction and nonfiction, the appeals to credibility made by the narrator of Felix Holt differ in two ways from those in Chartism, Unto This Last, or Culture and Anarchy. First, although both literary forms create personae that represent idealized versions of the author, that in the writings of the sage remains much closer to the author himself and is clearly meant to be understood as being the author. Second, the kind of ethos sought by the major Victorian novelists is that of the traditional wisdom speaker whereas that sought by the sages is that of a contentious, alienated prophet. Eliot's narrator in Felix Holt, in other words, has far more in common with Emerson than with Carlyle and Thoreau.
Autobiographical Reference and Ethos
Some of the most important techniques for creating ethos involve autobiography and the revelation of intimate experience. The grounding of these techniques in the personal is entirely appropriate, since the ultimate appeal of the sage, to which all of his other techniques contribute, is that his interpretations, criticisms, and suggestions can be believed, finally, because he is a morally and intellectually trustworthy person. Anything, therefore, that purports to provide readers with information about the speaker that can convince them either that he possesses admirable intellectual, moral, or other traits or that he speaks from authentic experience makes his statements more acceptable. Such techniques for creating the sage's credibility sometimes involve what purport to be revelations of his most intimate, most private thoughts and experiences. These attempts to authenticate the sage — for the sage must be authenticated before his message can be — often involve admissions of major weakness.
Before looking at the more complex strategies involving autobiographical reference, I propose to examine those that function rather more simply as topoi, or rhetorical commonplaces, that imply the sage's statements arise in personal experience. In its simplest version this technique takes the form of "Reader, as I was walking down the street, I saw ... " Thus, in "Traffic" Ruskin opens his discussion of class, taste, and national character with such a citation of personal experience. He has already stated a central sententia of this lecture: "What we like determines what we are, and is the sign of what we are; and to teach taste is inevitably to form character" (18.436), and he continues, thereby moving from abstract or generalized statement to an almost casual mention of personal experience. We have all the usual devices of the sage here vouched for by citation of homely personal experience and the informal, personal tone with which it is presented: Ruskin has taken his casual encounter with a minor contemporary phenomenon and from it produced a characteristic definition, interpretation, and satiric emblem. Furthermore, like Carlyle's and Arnold's quotation of a newspaper and other reports, this brief personal narrative demonstrates not only that the sage can perceive that such apparently trivial phenomena have something important to tell us but also that he can communicate that significance to his audience. One of the most important aspects of this device for creating ethos is the very informality and even humility with which it presents the sage. Since Ruskin, like Carlyle and other nineteenth-century sages, often treats his audience so harshly and with such aggression, these brief intimate passages do much to soothe the feelings of its members, act as transition between such attacks, or otherwise provide some relief to the audience. Such personal glimpses of the sage, which can serve as acts of gracious condescension, also strive to win favor with the audience by establishing a sense of community between him and his readers or listeners.
The most important effect of such autobiographical testimony, however, is that it establishes an authorial persona that the audience can trust. A major source of such techniques is Montaigne, who continually cites his own experience and character when he attempts both to tell the entire truth and to win his reader's assent
As I was thinking over this, in walking up Fleet Street the other day, my eye caught the title of a book standing open in a bookseller's window. It was — "On the necessity of the diffusion of taste among all classes." "Ah," I thought to myself, "my classifying friend, when you have diffused your taste, where will your classes be? The man who likes what you like, belongs to the same class with you, I think. Inevitably so. You may put him to other work if you choose; but, by the condition you have brought him into, he will dislike the work as much as you would yourself. You get hold of a scavenger or a costermonger, who enjoyed the Newgate Calendar for literature, and 'Pop goes the Weasel' for music. You think you can make him like Dante and Beethoven? I wish you joy of your lessons; but if you do, you have made a gentleman of him: — he won't go back to his costermongering." (18.43~37)
Part of his reason for telling so much about himself obviously derives from a characteristic skepticism, which distrusts any broad theories and generalizations. He therefore desires to root his ideas in a specific context while also allowing others to perceive possible connections that he himself may have missed. Presenting the context within which his ideas took form, he necessarily must also characterize himself since he constitutes the most important context, and hence he advises his reader: "As my fancies present themselves, I pile them up; now they come pressing in a crowd, now dragging single file. I want people to see my natural and ordinary pace, however off the track it is. I let myself go as I am.'' Much of the time he simply draws instances from his own experience of himself because, as he points out in "Of Experience," he knows himself better than anyone else. "I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics, that is my physics" (821).
This belief that one's personal and personally achieved knowledge has more authenticity (and hence credibility) than that acquired from one's community appears in the Victorian emphasis upon autobiography. In fact, what makes autobiography as a mode so characteristic of the age is that it provides a means of finding public uses for private experience and thus answers one of the central Victorian problems. As E. D. H. Johnson has pointed out, the major Victorian authors made heroic attempts to strike a proper balance between the demands of society and of self. In particular, Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold sought
to define the sphere within which the modern poet may exercise his faculty, while holding in legitimate balance the rival claims of his private, aristocratic insights and of the tendencies existing in a society progressively vulgarized by the materialism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Thus it came about that the double awareness, which so generally characterized the Victorian literary mind, grew almost into a perpetual state of-consciousness in these poets through their efforts to work out a new aesthetic position for the artist.
William Holman Hunt's The Light of the World. Click upon image for extended discussion of painting. [Not in print version.]
This "double awareness" derives from (and in turn produces) heroic attempts to maintain a hold on both public and private, subjective and objective, feeling and fact. One result of such double awareness, as David J. DeLaura has pointed out, appears n the way that autobiography pervades Victorian nonfiction: "A great deal of the most notable prose of the century even whole books-full — consists of 'passages' and highly digressive 'essays"' unified by a "a unique meditative or reflective strain . . . bound together by a continuous, or at least intermittent, readiness for self exploration and self-manifestation and the manipulation of one's own personal presence for highly diverse ends." Victorian poetry, fiction, painting, and autobiography and other kinds of nonfiction in the period all sought new forms to accommodate private experience, simultaneously making it relevant to the needs of others. Like Sartor Resartus, In Memoriam, David Copperfield, The Light of the World, and Modern Painters, these nineteenth-century histories of the self find public uses for private experience in forms hat at the same time open the self to others and seek some way to protect that fragile individuality from them.
In Culture and Anarchy Arnold playfully mocks the characteristic Victorian citation of autobiography when he asserts that nearly every English man and woman contains the elements of Barbarian, Philistine, and Populace.
For instance, I myself (I again take myself as a sort of corpus vile to serve for illustration in a matter here serving for illustration may not by every one be thought agreeable), I myself am properly a Philistine, — Mr. Swinburne would add, the son of a Philistine. And although through circumstances which will perhaps one day be known if ever the affecting history of my conversion comes to be written, I have, for the most part, broken with the ideas and the tea-meetings of my own class. .
As Arnold's tongue-in-cheek mention of evangelical conversion narratives suggests, not all sages share intimate personal experiences for rhetorical effect. In particular, Carlyle, who remains closer to the pose and tone of the Old Testament prophet than do the others, uses no literal autobiographical examples.
Montaigne's Intimacy with the Reader and the Sage's Ethos
One must also emphasize that however much the sage's citations of autobiographical testimony partake of a characteristic Victorian need, their primary rhetorical purpose is to convince the reader that the author writes from personally achieved experience — and that he therefore writes as an honest, trustworthy man. Indeed, as we see from Montaigne's citations of his own experience, such manner of proceeding inevitably suggests that one speaks about a subject upon which one is an incontrovertible expert at the same time that it implicitly makes the claim that one is an honest, frank, forthright speaker of the truth, above all a trustworthy person. Once Montaigne, for example, has demonstrated an expert knowledge of himself, he then claims to be able to extrapolate from it.
This long attention that I devote to studying myself trains me also to judge passably of others, and there are few things of which I speak more felicitously and excusably.... By training myself from my youth to see my own life mirrored in that of others, I have acquired a studious bent in that subject, and when I am thinking about it, I let few things around me which are useful for that purpose escape my notice: countenances, humors, statements.... The scholars distinguish and mark off their ideas more specifically and in detail. I, who cannot see beyond what I have learned from experience, without any system, present my ideas in a general way, and tentatively. ("Of Experience," 824)
Although Montaigne's Victorian and modem heirs rarely write from such explicitly skeptical premises, some, like Ruskin, Lawrence, Mailer, and Didion, frequently cite autobiography for much the same reason as had their predecessor — to convince their readers by purporting to reveal the surroundings within which an idea took shape. Although the conception of the sage as master of experience does not demand that he write directly from his own experience, many such passages in fact take the form of autobiographical records. For example, we recall that when Ruskin attacks Poussin's La Riccia he proceeds by comparing the painting with a word-painting of the scene itself, which he begins by explicitly stating that his knowledge of the actual landscape derives from personal experience: "Not long ago," he informs the reader, "I was slowly descending this very bit of carriage-road, the first turn after you leave Albano" (3.278). Unlike his mention in "Traffic" of his encounter with a book on the diffusion of taste, this citation of personal experience emphasizes, not his intellectual acuity, but his capacity for experience. It also emphasizes, as do most such word-paintings in autobiographical passages, that the writer has a personally achieved, rather than a secondhand, knowledge.
Ruskin frequently asserts that he has such personal knowledge, particularly in is earlier writings on art, and whereas his brilliant bird's-eye view of the Mediterranean in The Stones of Venice (10.186-87) obviously exemplifies a purely imagined sight, his opening discussion of the doges' tombs (9.48-51), like his tour of Torcello (10.17-19) and the inside of St. Mark's (10.85-89), are presented the records of personal experience by a master of vision.
This entire matter of citing one's own experiences — or as Arnold puts it so well, using oneself as a corpus vile — relates intimately to the common technique of creating ethos by confessions of weakness, shortcomings, and error. Once again, Montaigne provides both an example and a source of this means of creating credibility. many passages in the Essays demonstrate, he reveals his most intimate personal habits and preferences, willingly informing the reader of matters generally hidden or ignored. We learn his fears, is preferences in eating and sleeping, the minor details of his health, the frequency and method of his urinating and defecating. such revelations of private facts are closely related to the common technique used by the sages for which Montaigne also provides many precedent — the creation of ethos by confessing one's shortcomings — for in both cases one attempts to win the audience's allegiance by sharing details with it that one usually keeps secret. As Emerson points out:
Montaigne is the frankest and honestest of all writers. His French freedom runs into grossness; but he has anticipated all censure by the bounty of his own confessions.... nobody can think or say worse of him than he does.... But, with this really superfluous frankness, the opinion of an invincible probity grows into every reader's mind. ["Montaigne; or, the Skeptic," 698].
Emerson's comment is particularly valuable, since it provides evidence of the effect such techniques had upon one nineteenth-century reader.
Montaigne's means of creating this impression of "invincible probity" take many forms, not all of which exemplify authentic revelation or confession. For example, although he accuses himself in "Of the Inconsistency of Our Actions" of a multitude of shortcomings — he is alternately chaste and lascivious, clever and stupid, surly and affable, lying and truthful (242) — such citations of his own flaws hardly constitute his true confessional mode, since he cites himself as a typical instance of flaws and inconsistencies that he believes to be shared by all people. He uses the true confessional mode, however, in "Of Cruelty" when he insists that he is hardly a virtuous man. "I am so far from having arrived at that first and most perfect degree of excellence where virtue becomes a habit," he confesses, "that even of the second degree I have hardly given any proof. I have not put myself to great effort to curb the desires by which I have found myself pressed. My virtue is a virtue, or should I say an innocence, that is accidental and fortuitous" (311). Such confessions urge upon us that the author is frank, sincere, and honest, that one who so willingly reveals his own shortcomings, intellectual, social, and moral, can be trusted to tell the truth.
Paradoxically, both assertions of strength and admissions of weakness can contribute to the sage's credibility. Although Carlyle writes with the extreme confidence of the biblical prophet, Ruskin and Thoreau generally admit weakness or error as a way of winning the audience's allegiance. One clear admission of supposed weakness takes the form of a topos we can describe as "Excuse me, friends, because I am being forced to say these painful truths." Thoreau, for instance, opens "A Plea for Captain John Brown" by claiming to have been driven, apparently against his will, to speak on Brown's behalf: "I trust that you will pardon me for being here. I do not wish to force my thoughts upon you, but I feel forced myself. Little as I know of Captain Brown, I would fain do my part to correct the tone and the statements of the newspapers, and of my countrymen generally, respecting his character and actions. It costs us nothing to be just" (111).
In response to the disavowals of Brown by New Englanders after his arrest at Harper's Ferry, Thoreau has himself rung the bell of the Concord, Massachusetts, town hall and read his "Plea" to his assembled fellow citizens; he delivered his defense of Brown a day later in Boston and Worcester. Thoreau in this matter is obviously pursuing an unpopular, even dangerous course, and during the progress of his speech he ill savagely ridicule his listeners. He therefore begins by emphasizing in tones of great humility that his actions arise in some way outside himself. He claims that a sense of justice forces him to speak against his will — and by so doing he of course lays claim to moral stature greater than that of his listeners who have felt no such need to speak the truth or defend a martyr.
Ruskin similarly begins "Traffic," a lecture he delivered at the town hall, Bradford, on 21 April 1864, by protesting to the audience that he has been forced to speak against his will and apologize to its members for what they will hear. Addressing them as his "good Yorkshire friends," he reminds them that they have invited m to talk about "this Exchange you are going to build: but, earnestly and seriously asking you to pardon me, I am going to do nothing of the kind." Ruskin explains that he can say very little about their exchange because he "must talk of quite other things, though not willingly; — I could not deserve your pardon, if, when you invited me to speak on one subject, I willfully spoke on another" (18.433). Here we encounter the same opening note of apology and the same humility that we find in Thoreau's "A Plea for Captain John Brown." And like Thoreau, Ruskin quickly shifts tone and treats his audience aggressively. In fact, he ends his first paragraph with the candid admission:
I do not care about this Exchange of yours," but he then soothes his audience by telling them at he did not wish to be rude by turning down the invitation to speak, after which he tells them he doesn't care about their exchange- because you don't; and because you know perfectly well I cannot make you. [18.433]
One reason, he explains, that they do not concern themselves earnestly with the architecture for exchange is that it does not cost very much. According to him, the cost of such an exchange is to them, collectively, nothing and in fact buying a new coat is a more important financial outlay to him than erecting this planned building is to them.
you think you may as well have the right thing for your money. You know there are a great many odd styles of architecture about; you don't want to do anything ridiculous; you hear of me, among others, as a respectable architectural man-milliner; and you send for me, that I may tell you the leading fashion; and what is, in our shops, for the moment, the newest and sweetest thing in pinnacles. [18.434]
By reducing his enterprise as a critic of architecture to the level of millinery, he mocks himself for receiving so little of his audience's respect, and in this way he makes some small amends for the abrasive charge that it cares little about the proposed subject of his talk. But, of course, drawing such an analogy between himself and the female milliner not only points out how little respect his listeners have for him as man and thinker, it tells far more harshly upon them, since the analogy implies that they perceive little more in a matter crucial to their society than transitory fashion. (Paradoxically, like many satirical analogies that cut at least two ways, this one begins to take on an unexpected validity by the close of the lecture, for as the audience gradually realizes that architecture does indeed clothe and body forth a nation's inner self, one also perceives that Ruskin's initial satire has a Carlylean application and truth. Like Carlyle's Teufelsdrockh, Ruskin has shown that buildings are in a sense clothes, symbols of spiritual facts that they embody. ) Likewise, Ruskin's extensive commentary on his former views and mistakes in the footnotes to later editions of Modern Painters is also a device to create ethos; it convinces the reader of his openness and willingness to admit error — and hence guarantees the authenticity of his present views. Such self-deprecation often appears near the beginning of a work in this form. Ruskin's admission in "Traffic" that most members of his audience consider him little more than a man-milliner and Arnold's in Culture and Anarchy that he is a product of the aggressively uncultured middle classes cultivate their audiences' sympathy.
One of the prime distinctions between the earlier sages and those of the past decades lies in the fact that writers of the late twentieth century not only present themselves in terms of a far less elevated, less magisterial persona than had their predecessors but also urge upon their readers their own flaws and weaknesses to an unprecedented degree. Like Montaigne, Didion and Mailer tell us about their basic, perhaps their innermost attitudes and habits of mind as if it were necessary to know these facts about them before we could appreciate the authenticity of their writings. In Didion and Mailer as in Montaigne such willingness to thrust the author's own qualities forward has several sources. First, an essential skepticism and consequent relativism require that, to tell the reader the truth as they see it, they reveal the habits of mind and attitudes within which these ideas arose.
They choose such a tack, it appears, because they suspect that their ideas might be genetically related to such mental geography, and to be honest they must therefore permit their audience to draw its own conclusions.
Then, of course, such essentially confessional modes — even when the confessions involve matters of intellect and not sin or flaw — have a rhetorical intention as they always have a rhetorical effect, for as we have already seen, such admissions always implicitly claim that the author has so freely confessed his or her own weaknesses that we the audience can trust everything that follows. I do not know how one can accurately determine the relative weight of these two intentions, but given the obvious fact the writings of the sage depend so heavily upon convincing the sage's audience that he deserves credence, I suspect that the rhetorical takes precedence over the confessional one.
At its simplest, such the sage's admission of weakness admission can take the form of presenting the author's surroundings as she writes, something Didion does in the opening of "On Morality:"
As it happens I am in Death Valley, in a room at the Enterprise Motel and Trailer Park, and it is July, and it is hot. In fact it is 119. I cannot seem to make the air conditioner work, but there is a small refrigerator, and I can wrap ice cubes in a towel and hold them against the small of my back. With the help of the ice cubes I have been trying to think, ;because The American Scholar asked me to, in some abstract way about 'morality,' a word I distrust more every day, but my mind veers inflexibly toward the particular. [Slouching towards Bethlehem]
Didion continues by mentioning the particulars of an automobile accident nearby and then shows how they contain information about morality, her stated subject. The point is that she begins by revealing the physical and psychological setting within which she writes. She claims in this way to tell the truth, the whole truth.
A related means of supplying the context of one's own ideas involves presenting a thumbnail self-portrait that purports to provide a frank survey of one's essential qualities. Didion's "In the Islands" makes use of this technique, familiar since Montaigne, of informing the reader about the author's strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, to provide a sense of context for her ideas. After narrating how she, her husband, and her daughter sit in their Honolulu hotel and wait for news of an expected tidal wave, she adds that she has come to Hawaii instead of filing for divorce, after which she explains that she has related these intimate facts "because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting" (White Album, 133).
Like Mailer, who begins by presenting his own shortcomings as a reporter, Didion frankly, almost aggressively, thrusts her potential shortcomings as a truth-teller upon the reader. The weaknesses each chooses to exploit, however, suggest what differentiates male and female applications of the sage's ethos — and what, therefore, can differentiate the works of men and women who write as sages. In "Letter from Paradise," which contains her poignant ruminations upon Hawaii as a place of loss, Didion admits to such extreme emotionality (conventionally, if not in reality, a woman's weakness) that she cannot observe what she has come to report. The occasion is her trip on one of the bright pink tour boats that take the visitor to the sites of several sunken warships that still lie in Pearl Harbor. After describing the way the tour begins in a "kind of sleazy festivity," she mentions that at first amid such surroundings "it is hard to remember what we came to remember. "
And then something happens. I took that bright pink boat to Pearl Harbor on two afternoons, but I still do not know what I went to find out, which is how other people respond a quarter of a century later. I do not know because there is a point at which I begin to cry, and to notice no one else. I begin to cry at the place where the Utah lies in fifty feet of water, water neither turquoise nor bright blue here but the grey of harbor waters everywhere, and I did not stop until after the pink boat had left the Arizona, or what is visible of the Arizona the rusted after-gun turret breaking the grey water, the flag at full mast because the navy considers the Arizona still in commission, a full crew aboard, 1,102 men from forty-nine states. All I know about how other people respond is what I am told that everyone is quiet at the Arizona. (Slouching towards Bethlehem, 192)
In her attempt to demonstrate why the attack on Pearl Harbor was the single most indelible event" to her generation, as the assassination of John F. Kennedy was to people only slightly younger, Didion's confession of being blinded by tears unexpectedly serves to create ethos. For what matters, really, is not precisely how others react to the sites of such loss but that Didion feels sincerely and authentically and that she has the courage to share her feelings with us even when they threaten to cast doubt upon her abilities as a reporter of objective truth. Paradoxically, rather than weaken her hold upon her audience, such confession strengthens it by convincing us that she is trustworthy. Such confession has the further effect of expanding (or redefining) the sage's ethos, for her attempt to win credibility by admitting to a supposedly feminine weakness becomes, as we have seen, a means of presenting that emotionality as strength. At the same time, such emotional sensitivity becomes a mark of the sage herself.
Such elaborate self-presentation, which often involves narrative, differs from those techniques used to create ethos that are essentially rhetorical topoi. When Ruskin and Thoreau use the "I am forced to speak out against my will" or the "As I was walking down the street" commonplaces, they do so to open an argument effectively or to make transitions within one. Didion's more elaborate dramatization of supposed weakness has a different, more central purpose, since it intermingles with her main theme. Her narrative representation of extreme emotionality thus simultaneously works to establish her credibility while presenting the ideas and attitudes that credibility is meant to guarantee.
Another main version of this basic technique for creating ethos, of which Didion also provides a modern example, emphasizes intellectual rather than emotional weakness. Again, the often detailed presentation required to turn such admissions of flaws into strengths permits (and occasionally forces) the writer into making it the central structure of a work. For instance, "On Keeping a Notebook," which employs this version of the confessional mode, begins by advising the reader that Didion has never kept one "to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking" because that would require "an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess" (Slouching towards Bethlehem, 133). Once again, what begins as a confession of weakness is intended to end up implying strength. Didion's subsequent confession that she has trouble retaining facts and also lives in a slovenly manner quickly transforms itself into a claim that she deals instead with higher imaginative truths. Thus her notebook, which contains bits and snippets of overheard conversations, eccentrically observed phenomena, and other apparently trivial facts, turns out — are we surprised? — to justify her claims to high intellect and imagination: "What is a recipe for sauerkraut doing in my notebook? What kind of magpie keeps this notebook? 'He was born the night the Titanic went down.' That seems a nice enough line, and I even recall who said it, but is it not really a better line in life than it could ever be in fiction?" (138). In fact, that is exactly the point of her notebook entries — not that they provide data upon which to base her writings but rather that they provide tags, brief spots of time, that allow her to retrieve her past and hence be a coherent human being. After claiming that "it all comes back" to her, she explains that this ability to maintain contact with one's past selves is absolutely necessary.
I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. .
Such assertions of her own ability to retrieve her past from such fragments of language and image both authenticate her claims to know herself, her claims to ruthless honesty, and also demonstrate her courage and wisdom. To her it all comes back, Didion tells us. Even an old sauerkraut recipe bears significance since it dates back to a time, a particular night, she wishes to preserve: "I was on Fire Island when I first made that sauerkraut, and it was raining, and we drank a lot of bourbon and ate the sauerkraut and went to bed at ten, and I listened to the rain and the Atlantic and felt safe" (141). Like Ruskin's quoting in Modern Painters and Fors Clavigera from diaries and letters written years and even decades earlier, Didion's public examination of her notebooks goes far to establishing her claims as a truth-teller. Here is a person, we are supposed to realize, who cares about getting it right, a person who wants to know the truth about herself. Here is a person, so goes the implicit claim, whom we can trust. In addition, such citation of autobiographical data not only demonstrates the writer's sincerity, openness, and courageous honesty, it also demonstrates Didion's ability at interpretation and retrieval. Like Newman, Ruskin, Lawrence, and others who make frequent use of such autobiographical data, Didion commits us to a literature of experience and lends us her own memories and experiences.
The White Album, Didion's collage of Californian images from the late 1960s, exemplifies her most important and most successful use of autobiographical data in such a literature of experience. From the point of view of one studying the modern sage's attempts to create ethos, The White Album also exemplifies perhaps her most important use of intellectual weakness both to claim intellectual strength and to make the points that claim ultimately supports. Such thematized technique makes its appearance in the opening paragraphs when she tells us, "I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself, a common condition but one I found troubling" (White Album, 11). As it turns out, then, Didion has chosen these images because for her they capture the experiences of 1966-71, which she takes to be a crucial turning point in the life of herself and her time. Like Ruskin, Carlyle, Newman, and a host of nineteenth-century predecessors, Didion as sage elects to make a crisis, a crisis survived, the test case by which she can explain — impose another story upon events for the sake of her reader. Taking herself as paradigm like Newman and these other writers of what have come to be termed "conversion narratives," Didion offers her own experience as a Sign of the Times.' These are the events, she tells us, that puzzled her. These are the events for which she could not find or invent the "right" story.
In the manner consecrated by so many Victorians, she presents her crisis as significant, as immediately relevant, to us. Unlike Carlyle or Ruskin, she does not, however, use biblical imagery to suggest the archetypal nature of her experience, for unlike them, although she may perceive herself in an all too common situation, she finds no solace, no usefulness, in figuring herself forth as an Ishmael, as an Israelite wandering in the desert, or as a person trying to gain admission to the ark. In her words, such analogies are not "workable"; they do not explain anything any longer. She was able to exist, to survive, during these years, and indeed she gave an adequate enough performance, as improvisations go. The only problem was that my entire education, everything I have ever been told or told myself, insisted that the production was never meant to be improvised: I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know I the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no "meaning" beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience. In what would probably be the middle. of my life I wanted still to believe in the narrative and in the narrative's intelligibility, but to know that one could change the sense with every cut was to begin to perceive the ; experience as rather more electrical than ethical. (White Album , 12-13) Having begun her personal album of the late sixties with a gathering of puzzling images, she now presents a puzzling one that horrifies us — the image of a child purposely abandoned to die on the divider of a California highway. The problem for her, for us: "Certain of these images did not fit into any narrative I knew" (13)
Didion's somewhat reduced version of prophetic stature retains many of the Victorian sage's claims and characteristics. Like Carlyle and Thoreau, she writes both as one who is an outsider and as one who has much in common with the audience. Furthermore, she establishes her claims to credibility in part by an astute alternation of satire and sympathy that tends to create the sense of a superior intellect and moral sense judiciously assigning praise and blame. Again, the act of making an unexpected interpretation and an unexpected discovery of relevance establishes ethos. Unlike the earlier sages, Didion achieves these effects in part by making specific, detailed admissions of weakness, and her weakness turns out to be at least a partial strength, or strength within a particular context, because only such a sense of dread would have led to her recognitions.
Mailer's Of a Fire on the Moon similarly thrusts his egotism, self display, and other shortcomings upon the reader as a means both of assuring that reader about his essential honesty and also of revealing unexpected strengths. Like Didion, he uses the more elaborate forms of creating authorial credibility to provide a center to his entire investigative enterprise. Employing a literary strategy important at least since The Prelude and In Memoriam, these authors make themselves paradigms, Every(wo)man, whose admissions of weakness and experiences of crisis not only serve as Signs of the Times but also lead to important means for their readers to understand themselves and the age. These attempts to create ethos, in other words, serve as thematic centers, concentrations of techniques that convey the author's ideas and ideology. More than that, they provide the reader of this kind of prose with a means of reading, with a way to follow the "plot" (for, in fact, the twists and turns of authorial attempts to produce credibility provide a nonfictional analogue to the plot of fictional narrative). These various moves and strategies that the sage employs to create ethos provide a set of signals to the reader, which in turn provide clues to how the work is to be read. Such a strong, intrusive authorial persona does, however, involve major rhetorical risks.
Tom Wolfe's writing, which avoids both such a self conscious use of this kind of persona and the risks it can produce, points up the importance of ethos in this genre. In particular, although Wolfe's dispersion of the author's presence into different voices avoids many of the rhetorical difficulties created by sages such as Ruskin and Mailer who thrust themselves into our notice, it frequently creates other major problems, not all of which he manages to solve. His floating point of view and multiple voices succeed in conveying the attitudes and experience of many of his subjects, but nevertheless, the impression of sympathy his techniques convey creates serious, sometimes insoluble, rhetorical difficulties in his satirical pieces. Because these sketches, which are essentially latter day versions of Carlyle's Latter-Day Pamphlets, always take a particularly mordant view of their subjects, whether mod office boys in "The Noonday Underground" or rising executives in "The Mid-Atlantic Man," Wolfe's reliance upon entering the satirized figure's imaginative world often strikes the reader — at least this reader — as betrayal of these figures and hence morally suspect. Wolfe's turning to attack a character on whom he has lavished so much sympathy comes across as cruel and inhumane — and hence does much to undermine his credibility.
Another related source of rhetorical (and moral) difficulties lies in Wolfe's emphasis upon problems of status throughout many of these satirical pieces, for after taking his reader into what he terms the "statusphere" of his characters, he always ends up demonstrating how the subcultures they inhabit never truly function as independently as they seem to do to their inhabitants, and as they first seemed to do when Wolfe showed them to us. In every case society, the establishment, or whatever one wishes to call it has the final word, and the English adolescents in their noonday underground, the American ones at a California beach, and all of his other specimens always turn out to be poor, deluded, powerless fools. Despite their novelty and often original vantage points, these satiric pieces turn out to be conservative, even reactionary, because they all imply that the old social order still is not only dominant but the only correct standard. Such a conclusion coming after such apparently daring sympathy with the weird and novel, particularly when combined with Wolfe's entrance into these figures' imaginative worlds, strikes the reader as unsavory because dishonest. Two kinds of work, however, do not fall prey to these problems, those rare pieces, such as "The Truest Sport," in which the tone is not primarily satirical, and those, such as "The Put-Together Girl," in which the target of satire is not the focus of the work.
"A Loss of Ego," the chapter that opens Of a Fire on the Moon, repeatedly presents Mailer at his most annoying, and if we can understand how his various statements, admissions, and verbal gestures are intended to act upon the reader, we can better understand and evaluate the work. To begin with, he certainly opens on an odd note. This purported study of the Apollo-Saturn project first presents, not some cultural, technological, or other historical background, but the occasion upon which Mailer heard of Hemingway's death some eight years before, something that the reader might well take at first to be completely irrelevant, a mere bit of self-indulgent rambling. But of course, like Ruskin's initial announcements in "Traffic" that he cannot meet his audience's needs and expectations, it proves to be nothing of the sort. First of all, it permits Mailer to warn the reader about his strengths and weaknesses as a reporter and as one who reacts to contemporary events. Mailer admits ( in the book's second paragraph): "Of course, he finally gave a statement. His fury that the world was not run so well as he could run it encouraged him to speak. The world could always learn from what he had to say — his confidence was built on just so hard a diamond" (3). His willing admissions of such egotism and his following admissions of "gracelessly" inveighing "how the death would put secret cheer in every bureaucrat's heart" (4) suggest how frankly he will treat his reader, and he soon explains the relevance of Hemingway's death to the Apollo-Saturn project:
Hemingway constituted the walls of the fort: Hemingway had given the power to believe you could still shout down the corridor of the hospital, live next to the breath of the beast, accept your portion of dread each day. Now the greatest living romantic was dead.... Technology would fill the pause. .
Hemingway's conception of masculine romance and masculine heroism had provided a spiritual center for Mailer, and when he died it seemed that modem technologies, which permitted no place for the human and no place for heroism, would empty the world of meaning and value. The moon project, the incarnation of the feared technology, forces Mailer to confront that central question, Can heroism, can true humanity, exist within such a technologically oriented endeavor? Or, as he states it much later in the book — "Heroism cohabited with technology. Was the Space Program admirable or abominable? Did God voyage out for NASA, or was the Devil our line of sight to the stars?" (80). "Was the voyage of Apollo 11 the noblest expression of a technological age, or the best evidence of its utter insanity?" (382). Again, like the aggressive opening of Ruskin's "Traffic," Mailer's initial denial of audience expectations turns out to be simultaneously a correction of them and an answer to them.
In the course of announcing his own interpretative project, which is "to comprehend the astronauts" (4), he both explains why he, Norman Mailer, has undertaken such a project and sets forth the strengths and weaknesses that will assist or hinder his succeeding with it. His first strength, says Mailer, is that "he is a detective of sorts, and different in spirit from eight years ago. He has learned to live with questions" (4). Claiming no particular brilliance or even expertise, he characterizes himself as an outsider who is little more than a mediocre reporter. Before long each of these self-criticisms turns out to be an authentication, a certification for his interpretative project. Thus, although he "feels in fact little more than a decent spirit, somewhat shunted to the side," it is the "best possible position for detective work" (4). Similarly, his quixotically unsuccessful campaign for the office of mayor of New York left him "with a huge boredom about himself. He was weary of his own voice, own face, person, persona, will, ideas, speeches, and general sense of importance. He felt not unhappy, mildly depressed, somewhat used up, wise, tolerant, sad, void of vanity, even had a hint of humility" (5-6), and although this self appraisal, which includes a large dose of self-mockery, obviously presents a markedly unimpressive, rather ordinary, middle-aged version of Mailer, it effectively separates him from his well-known abrasively egotistical, assertive self while suggesting that "detached this season from the imperial demands of his ego" (6), he found himself in the perfect position for such a task as he has proposed.
Even Mailer's denials that he possesses the requirements of a first-rate journalist are intended to elevate him in the reader's estimation. "People he had never met were forever declaring in print that he was the best journalist in America. He thought it was the superb irony of his professional life, for he knew he was not even a good journalist and possibly could not hold a top job if he had to turn in a story every day" (7). He admits, further, that he does not have the consistency, the enormous curiosity, or the drive necessary to be a really good journalist. Such denials obviously permit him to mention the status he has in the eyes of others, thereby providing him with a kind of credential for his enterprise. More important, he is finally able to prove to himself (and to the audience that is always watching his struggles) that orthodox journalism remains inadequate to embrace such phenomena as he e encounters. A new method becomes necessary, and he can offer it.
However crucial his possession of certain basic techniques and attitudes necessary to his monumental task, he nonetheless continually strives to create ethos by admitting — indeed by emphasizing — his own flaws and mistakes. He successfully dramatizes his experience of slowly comprehending the nature of the entire project by willingly admitting his errors and narrowness of sympathy. For example, entering the gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building with its forty-story doors, he finds his preconceptions about the joylessness of working with technology incorrect.
He was now forced to recognize the ruddy good cheer and sense of extraordinary morale of the workers in the VAB. As they passed him in the elevators, or as he went by them in the halls and the aisles, a sense of cooperative effort, of absorption in work at hand, and anticipation of the launch was in the pleasure of their faces. He had never seen an army of factory workers who looked so happy.... Trade-union geezers, age of fifty, with round faces and silver-rimmed spectacles strutted like first sergeants at the gate for a three-day pass. 
The result of such recognition, Mailer informs us, is that he began to live "without his ego, a modest quiet observer who went on trips through the Space Center and took in interviews, and read pieces of literature connected to the subject, and spent lonely nights not drinking in his air-conditioned motel room, and thought — not of himself but of the size of the feat and the project before him.... He was there now merely to observe, to witness" (56-57). As we encounter Mailer making erroneous judgments and then correcting them, admitting them to be little more than the prejudices of the modem liberal intelligentsia and the cultural establishment, we are supposed to credit him with many things: a flexibility of intellect that permits him to abandon false judgments, no matter how long or firmly held; a courage to admit his errors and prejudices even though such admission might make him appear foolish; a commitment to the truth that makes that truth appear more important than any need to gain credit for himself. And, of course, as he changes his opinion, he changes ours as well.
Throughout Of a Fire on the Moon Mailer makes major use of this confessional mode. For example, before brilliantly narrating the liftoff, he admits not only to the difficulty he is having getting any sense of the events about which he plans to write but also to sheer, banal envy. Thus he explains that he "felt somehow deprived that he could feel so little.... The damn astronauts weren't even real to him" (96), and then he realizes why he finds himself so out of sorts and so annoyed by every little thing and why he could feel so small. "It was simple masculine envy. He too wanted to go up in the bird" (97). And when the launch comes, as we have seen, he has worked hard to become a perfect reporter, who has earned our credence by admitting so many flaws and shortcomings. His maneuvering to create this effect of trustworthiness appears again in his admission of mixed motives, some good and some not, when he considers taking a closer look at all the celebrities and politicians who have come to observe the liftoff but then decides that
his liver will simply not permit it. He is here to see the rocket go up, not to stand and look at Very Important People and take notes in a notebook while he sweats in the heat. No, some sense of his own desire to dwell near the rocket, to contemplate its existence as it ascends, and certainly some sense of his own privacy, some demand of his vanity — aware of how grubby he looks and feels — now bids him stay with his own sweaty grubs, the Press and photographers. [90-91]
After claiming that he, unlike some other reporters, knows where the important truths of this story lie, Mailer characteristically admits his own vanity as well, as if to reassure us once again that he will tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, no matter how embarrassing to him.
All these admissions of his own shortcomings, like his brilliant technical analyses and experiential narratives, build toward the ideological climax of the book, which demonstrates that the highest heroism still exists in the midst of the machine. The chief source of Mailer's original fear of technology lay in his suspicion that it removed all risk and opportunity for decision from important endeavors, such as this flight to the moon. The machine, he feared, destroyed individual responsibility by taking away the human capacity to make choices and thereby determine one's fate. In looking into the technology involved in getting men to the moon and returning them safely, he quickly discovers that all those redundancies and redoubled safety systems still cannot remove risk.
No matter how many precautions the engineers take, the astronauts' ride on a forty-story bomb involves enormous risk and requires courage, skill, and trust. Moreover, no matter how powerful the computers that their designers produce to assist this lunar and perhaps lunatic enterprise, the men who peer at their screens have to make the crucial decisions. As Mailer reveals in a superbly narrated chapter, "The Ride Down," human beings always need more than the machine can provide, and having stretched it to its capacities, indeed to its breaking point, they must leap into darkness. In fact, the more Mailer looks into the details of the intricate technology, the more he discovers that he has encountered an enterprise he likes, an enterprise at the edge, one that pushes human capacities and demands accepting responsibility for oneself and others.
The descent of the lunar module to the moon's surface exemplifies the difficulties of the entire mission. The tiny space ship carries little fuel, and those who fly it down to the lunar surface must survive two opposing difficulties: If in the attempt to save fuel they descend too quickly, they will crash the module and die on the surface; if they descend too cautiously, they will use up so much fuel that they will be unable to return to space and will hence also die on the surface. To reduce risk of either eventuality, computers monitor the rate at which fuel is consumed and report the results to Mission Control back on earth. The only problem is that computers cannot always handle their job, and then people have to step in and make quick decisions that determine the survival of two human beings and the fate of a multibillion dollar project. The crisis occurs at the worst possible moment — as the tiny module descends toward the surface. Aldrin radios to Mission Control, "1202," a code that indicates the on-board computer has found itself overloaded and unable to carry out its functions. "In such a case the computer stops, then starts over again. It has recalculated its resources. Now it will take on only the most important functions, drop off the others" (376). Those at Mission Control immediately recognize the gravity of the crisis, because they realize "that if 1202 keeps blinking, the activities of the computer will soon deteriorate. The automatic pilot will first be lost, then control over the thrust of the engine, then Navigation and Guidance — the pilots will have to abort. In fifteen seconds it can all happen" (376-77). Lying upon his back a few feet above the rocket flames as he and his companion hurtle toward the moon's surface, Aldrin asks men a quarter of a million miles away to gauge the seriousness of the problem. Thirty seconds later, after conferring with his staff, Duke Kranz, the Flight Director, decides that the risk indicated by that 1202 is low enough to permit the men to risk landing on the moon.
Kranz has been quizzing his Guidance officers and his Flight Dynamics officers. It is a ten-second roll call, and each one he queries says GO. The words come in, "GO. GO. GO. GO." The key word is from Guidance Officer Stephen G. Bales. It is on his console that the 1202 is also blinking. But they have been over the permissible rate of alarm on which they can continue to fly a mission, and the 1202 is not coming in that fast — the Executive Overflow is not constant. So Bales' voice rings out GO. Listening to it on a tape recorder later, there is something like fear in the voice, it pitched, but it rings out. In the thirty seconds between Aldrin's request for a reading and the reply that they were GO, the decision has been taken. (377)
A capacity for major heroism turns out to exist not only in the astronauts, in whom one naturally might expect to find it, but also in those computer jockeys with their crew cuts and short whitesleeved shirts whom Mailer and his friends in the liberal intelligentsia hold in such low regard. Earlier in Of a Fire on the Moon he admits that he had trained as an engineer but abandoned engineering to become a writer. The book opens with a Mailer overtly hostile to technology and those who serve it. A confirmed humanist, he fears the destructive effects of technology upon our lives and spirits, and he particularly distrusts scientists, engineers, technocrats, and all other acolytes of the machine. Therefore his climactic recognition that such men have both the capacity and the opportunity to achieve heroism equal to that of Hemingway's bullfighters represents a powerful affirmation to all his questions about the triumph of the human over the mechanical. It further represents Mailer's reconciliation with the ghosts of his own past and his gracious admission that some of those men whom he had long scorned engage in the same endeavors that concern him and concerned Hemingway.
Essentially, Mailer demonstrates the role of the machine in culture, as he understands that Arnoldian term. Mailer's Of a Fire on the Moon proves a fitting work with which to end our consideration of this genre, to which he is a late and often brilliant contributor. Like its Victorian antecedents, Of a Fire on the Moon emphasizes the sage's definitions and his interpretations of often trivial grotesque phenomena, and like them, it also relies upon an episodic structure that incorporates segments that alternate between satirical attack and positive vision. Like the works of Ruskin, Lawrence, and Wolfe, it presents its author as a master of experience who lends us his feelings and imagination so we can fully perceive some physical fact. Like works of Ruskin, Didion, and others, Of a Fire on the Moon also presents its author narrating the experience of interpretation or understanding physical and other facts. Finally, like those of all other works in this genre, its techniques contribute to the creation of authorial ethos, for we finally understand and accept what Mailer has to say because he repeatedly shows us that his methods, his poses, his ideas are necessary.
Last modified 14 July 2008