Saturday, March 2, 2013

II. This Sex Which Is Not One

The events narrated in Under the Black Ensign take place in 1680, under the reign of Charles II.  The hero of the novel, Tom Bristol, is an American navigator impressed into the Royal Navy and serving as a common sailor aboard HMS Terror.  In the opening chapter, we find Bristol high in the rigging splicing ropes with a marlinespike, "his bare back rippl[ing]," and regarding, on the deck below, the mincing antics of the Lord High Governor of Nevis.  All Bristol can see of the Governor is "a circle of black hat brim and the extremity of his paunch."  

This little vignette is emblematic of larger themes of autobiographic prophecy in the Under the Black Ensign.  It is difficult not to see the svelte young Hubbard of the Carribbean Motion Picture Expedition gazing down at the obese, tyrannical Commodore of the Sea Org, pacing the deck of the Royal Scotman puffing one of his ever-present KOOLs.  Indeed, while this vision may be fanciful it is practically certain that some young Sea Org recruit or member of the Commodore's Messenger Org did in fact view the elder Hubbard in a similar situation, given his habit of punishing disfavored junior crew by exiling them to the crow's nest.  This is not the only vein of prophecy in the text, but a summary of the plot will be necessary to access the others.


The marlinespike was inoffensive enough.  In capable hands it might have laid a man out.  But Tom Bristol had shown few signs of wanting to lay anyone out, and if he had, it is certain that he would not have used a short piece of wood for the purpose.  And yet that marlinespike was to be Tom Bristol's passport to piracy.  
So opens Under the Black Ensign.  As Bristol hangs in the rigging contemplating the Lord High Governor's paunch, he inadvertently drops the inoffensive marlinespike, which crashes to the deck within inches of that august personage.  For this infraction he is sentenced to a hundred lashes, and his insolence in addressing the Governor as "sirrah" earns him another hundred.  Again, it is hard to quell a sense of dramatic irony when one considers the resonance between the sneering brutality of Captain Manville and the stories of Hubbard's own reign of terror in his years as Commodore.  Compare this passage, from the first chapter, with an anecdote from Wright's Going Clear:
"Flogging takes it out of them," said [the Lord High Governor.]  "If we let this insult pass God knows the results upon the rest of this mangy scum."
Captain Manville nodded.  "Ah, yes.  Flogging.  Bristol, stand to the mast and prepare yourself for a hundred lashes." (UBE, p. 6)
Hubbard chose a different punishment for another of the older members of the crew...He and two other Sea Org crew were made to race each other around the rough, splintery decks while pushing peanuts with their noses.  "They all had raw, bleeding noses, leaving a trail of blood behind them," a senior auditor recalled..."It was hard to say which was worse to watch: this old guy with a bleeding nose or his wife and kids sobbing and crying and being forced to watch this.  Hubbard was standing there, calling the shots, yelling 'Faster, faster!'" (Wright, Going Clear)
Unlike the Hubbard's luckless crewman, Bristol is saved by a pirate attack.  The pirates, in "an avalanche of furious color" board the ship with the buccaneer Captain Bryce at their head.  Bryce humiliates the snivelling Governor and the craven Captain Manville.  Gallantly declining to "dirty my rapier" with their blood, he puts them off in the boats.  Bristol's plight arouses his sympathy and when Bryce learns he is a "sea artist," he assigns him to his second officer, now captain of the Terror, the dishevelled, murderous and, (we are reminded ad nauseam,) "pistol-proof" bucaneer Ricardo.

In his new context, "the sailor's dream of Valhalla," Bristol first encounters the axis mundi of the novel, the midshipman Jim - a lad "handsome enough, [with] a low, pleasant voice."  Without elaborating, Hubbard notes that "midshipmen did not have a very wholesome reputation."  The torrid homoeroticism of Bristol's initial encounter with Jim suggests a plausible category of unwholesomness:
The familiarity with which Jim treated the bucaneer captain was easy and natural.  In fact, everything about the lad was that way.  The big blue eyes were frank and steady, and the yellow hair, caught up in back, made the eyes seem all the bluer. (UBE p.23)
Partially at Jim's instigation, tempers quickly flare between Bristol and the pirate, with further intimations about the economy of sexual power in this all-male society.  "You'll take it from Ricardo," says the malodorous brigand, "and like it."  The hero's honor cannot stand this insult, and they fight.  During the tussel, Ricardo strikes Jim across the face:
The jaunty cap fell off, and the yellow hair streamed down on either side of the handsome face.  The mark fo the blow was red as blood on the white cheek...   
"My God," cried Bristol, "she's a girl!"  (UBE p.26)
Bristol dispatches Ricardo and, in the moments before he is taken into custody by the quartermaster, "Jim" reveals herself to be, in fact, Lady Jane - the bride-to-be of the sadistic Lord High Governor of Nevis, captured on route to her nuptuals.
"I knew my fate at the hands of the crew wouldn't be so good...I took the uniform from the locker of a midshipman while the fight was in progress and put it on.  I knew a woman could pass for a boy, if the worst came of it." (UBE p.30)
Hubbard does not expand on what "the worst" that might come of it is, but one can turn to B.R. Burg or Pastor Joe Schimmel for the details.

These two initial sequences set the tone for the rest of the novel.  In the opening sequence, Bristol's insubordinate inclinations are realized by his subconscious; but he is rescued from the consequences of his unacknowledged attempt to brain the Lord High Governor by Captain Bryce, (which Hubbard would call a "covert act") who not only stops his flogging but realizes Bristol's desire to see the Governor degraded in a way which does not morally compromise Bristol.  In the same manner, his burgeoning homoerotic attraction to the unwholesome midshipman is defused by the revelation that this "handsome lad" is in fact a girl.

It seems unlikely in this connection that Kevin J. Anderson, author of the series introduction mentioned in the last post, has read Under the Black Ensign closely.  As we saw, he is eager to place Hubbard in the company of such luminaries as "William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, and Alexandre Dumas," and authors who "lived adventures [their] own characters would have admired," such as "Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Jack London and Ernest Hemingway."  What follows will make it clear that, had Anderson attended more closely to Under the Black Ensign, he would have included Virginia Woolf in the first list and Herculine Barbin in the second. 


Bristol is marooned on a small spit of land and shortly joined by Lady Jane/Midshipman Jim, who has been put off the pirate ship in her own boat, ostensibly bound for Nevis.  "For heaven's sake," he cries upon seeing her, "Jim!" Strikingly, Bristol addresses her as the male midshipman, and continues to treat her as a male and an equal: 
There were several pieces of canvas [in the boat], and he brought them back to the trees.  Spreading them out of the wind, he turned to Lady Jane. "There's your bunk, sailor." (UBE p.37)
This is a significant choice, the deliberate nature of which is further evidenced by the fact that during this episode Hubbard intermittently refers to her in the voice of the narrator as "Jim."  As we will see, Jim/Jane's gender is the crucial indicator of the novel's oscillations between social and sexual experimentation and its periodic retreats to conventional morality.

In short order, the two witness the wreck of a Dutch slaver on a nearby reef.  They board the abandoned vessel with the intent of obtaining provisions, and discover that the slaves are still chained below decks.  They decide, on humanitarian grounds, to release them.  The slaves are initially described in standard terms characteristic of the period:
[Bristol] knew the roaring mob which might leap out at him if he removed the [hatch] covers...With expert fingers, he threw back the boards that covered the opening.  Along with the stench came a low mutter, like that of animals suprised in a den...They were no more than red-shot eyes in the darkness.  A suffering voice came out of the darkness, uttering words in a foreign language.  (UBE p.43)
However, it turns out that, as Bristol puts it, "I guess it'll be all right.  One of them speaks English."  It transpires that the slaves are "Nubians," lead by a tall man named Amara who learned Bristol's language "from English captives of the Moors."  The one who speaks English is described as follows:
Bristol was tall, but this man was taller by almost a foot.  Some of the black's tremendous vitality still remained.  His head was well shaped, his brow high, and his full lips opened to display even, shinign teeth.  Aside from a white saber slash which ran from his ear to the point of his jaw, he might have been considered handsome. (UBE pp. 45-46)
Compared to Sax Rohmer's racist excesses in the saga of Dr. Fu Manchu (which was published over a period corresponding almost exactly to that from Hubbard's birth to his invention of Scientology) this is fairly tame stuff (although another prophetic dimension of the slave episode is the resonance between Hubbard's loving description of Amara's physiognomy and current Church leader David Miscavige's comments regarding Scientology's recent efforts to woo the Nation of Islam.)  The interesting thing about the slaves is not Hubbard's patronizing racism;  Rather, we should take our cue to interpreting this incident from the two described above, and try to see what conflict is being resolved.  The slaves below-decks are an undifferentiated mass of bestial force; above decks, they become an articulated disaggregation.  This recalls vaguely the psychoanalytic tradition with which the young Hubbard was "worked over" by Commander "Snake" Thompson aboard his father's ship: dangerous, subterranean desires are "handled," (to use one of Hubbard's favorite words,) by articulation in English and the light of day.

More importantly, however, the liberation of the Nubians anticipates the logic of psychopathology he later developed aboard the Flagship Apollo.  The slaves here also resemble the "body thetans" to whom many disorders of mental and physical function are attributed - disembodied souls which cling to the individual and retard his spiritual progression.  The process of auditing is intended, among other things, to enact a kind of interpellative exorcism on these confused noetikons.  The auditor, using his e-meter, is supposed to locate them and "handle them" essentially by hailing them.  This allows the body thetans to recognize their individuality and thus to "blow," leaving the embodied thetan free to proceed along the Bridge to Total Freedom (Incidentally, it is worth noting that the same verb is used in Scientology for apostasy.  The term "blow drill" refers to a protocol for returning fugitive apostates to the fold).  The slave episode foreshadows part of a lecture Hubbard delivered onboard Apollo in 1968, in which he recounts the story of a "very malignant body thetan" who is, in fact, a slave:
A guy did something to a slave girl at some time way to hell and gone back on the track and she's been around ever since. When they gave her a little bit of auditing and tried to boot her out, she left, but three days later she came back, and man, she really knocked that guy flat. He was the flattest PC - you ever saw, there is a case history on this. What they did was do the usual ... did the usual actions of three. The auditor however, on a meter and so forth, located and isolated what the thetan was, handled the thing, ran the incident one, incident two necessary to resolve the situation and finally and forever, why, the slave girl blew. 
Bristol and Jim/Jane's engagment with the slaves sits at the crossroads of Hubbard's adolescent exposure to psychoanalysis and his adult elaboration of dianetics and scientology.  It is an infrequently remembered fact that Scientology was, in its early days, a valued constituent of the anti-psychiatry movement.  This reaction to the profession's flagrant abuse of the mentally ill during the first half of the twentieth century, championed by members of the profession, advocacy groups, and celebrity intellectuals like Michel Foucault, was enormously successful in forcing various salutary reforms.  The fact that the Citizen's Commission on Human Rights, now dismissed by Wikipedia as "a Scientology front group," was co-founded by L. Ron Hubbard and eminent SUNY psychoanalyst and social critic Thomas Szasz indicates the degree to which anti-psychiatric views conferred respectability in some progressive intellectual circles.  Hubbard's later work in scientology remained a basically counter-psychiatric practice, retaining to the end the impression of its opposite.  It is in this context that the liberation of the slaves in Under the Black Ensign should be understood as  preliminary foray Hubbard's lifelong work of translating of Snake Thompson's corrupted Freudianism into the exactly reproducible, radically objective body of "Standard Tech" on which all Scientology auditing is based.


As in his mature work, Hubbard is not simply playing chicken with illicit desire.  In a 1952 lecture entitled "The Role of Earth," apparently delivered in London, he reminds his listeners:
Space is wild. There aren't any writers down here and there isn't any audience down here that could take real stuff about space.  It's wild. [...] You  wouldn't  dare  write  real science fiction  -  not  real  science fiction. Nobody's guts could take it, that's all there is to that.
In Under the Black Ensign, Hubbard is unable completely to restrain himself from exploring the wild.  The desert Carribbean island Bristol and Jim share with Amara and the rest of the slaves becomes a laboratory of social experimentation.  Hubbard describes a stateless and radically egalitarian society, which is contrasted explicitly with the stale, racist, Catholic mercantilism of the seventeenth-century Pacific and implicitly with the contemporary world of industrialist capitalism and Jim Crow laws.

Poingantly, however, Hubbard's experimentation in most settings led to remarkably stale and predictable results.  The stories recounted in "The Role of Earth" are boring episodes of tame space opera.  Battlefield Earth, as I have argued elsewhere, is remarkable for its unusual combination of florid prolixity and total lack of imagination.  Hubbard's genius lay in his glib ordering of cliche, and his representation of anarchist Carribean pirate society is representative: he repeats without substantive addition a story about pirate life which can be dated at least to the story of the bucaneer Captain James Mission, recounted in Volume II of A General History of the Pyrates first published in 1724 (of which more later).  Early in the narrative, Mission takes a merchant ship (which, like Bristol's slaver, is a Dutchman).  The incident is recounted as follows:

The Nieuwstadt had some Gold-Dust on Board, to the Value of about 2000
l. Sterling, and a few Slaves to the Number of Seventeen, for she had
but begun to Trade; the Slaves were a strengthening of their Hands, for
the Captain order'd them to be cloathed out of Dutch Mariners Chests,
and told his Men, 'That the Trading for those of our own Species, cou'd
never be agreeable to the Eyes of divine Justice: That no Man had Power
or the Liberty of another; and while those who profess'd a more
enlightened Knowledge of the Deity, sold Men like Beasts; they prov'd
that their Religion was no more than Grimace, and that they differ'd
from the Barbarians in Name only, since their Practice was in nothing
more humane.
Bristol and his liberated crew soon take a Spanish merchantman, using only "native canoes" manufactured by the Nubians, and make for Charlotte Amalie on the island of Sankt Thomas in the Danish West Indies.  They meet offshore two dour and miserly Protestant cargo-brokers, with whom Bristol has the following exchange:
"Have our slaves go over and begin shifting the goods," he said.
Bristol looked surprised. "My slaves?"
"Why...why, yes," the Dane replied, certain that he had somehow made an error, but not quite certain just whaterror it had been. "These men about your deck." 
"You mean my crew," replied Bristol, an undercurrent of anger in his voice.  "These men are free men not slaves.  I don't happen to be of your stamp, gentleman.  When I take lives I use the rapier, not the whipping post and starvation, and yet I am a pirate, while you and your brothers are supposed to be civilized beings."
"You mean," gasped Jersen, "that you consider them as equals?" 
"More than a naval captain considers his men as equals.  And I might remark," said Bristol with a quiet smile, "that I would rather sail with this crew than one of your breed."
As usual, Jim/Jane remains the master signifier as Hubbard elaborates this fantasy of an all-male anarchist society; throughout this episode, she retains (and improves) "her identity as Midshipman Jim Campbell," exaggerating her masculinity with gold braid, giant shoe-buckles, and a brace of ornamented pistols.  She insists, over Bristol's objections, on all consequences of her identity by going ashore to take the pleasures of the harbor with a few burly Africans.  However, Hubbard's experiment cannot stand this turn; onshore, she is recognized by members of the Lord High Governor's crew and forcibly re-interpellated as a member of the chattel economy of early modern marriage.  Bristol goes ashore when she fails to return, and finds that she has been packed off to Nevis for her destined marriage.

This is the chiasmus of the novel, and marks the end of experimentation; from here on out, Jane remains Jane, and the proper order of things is progressively re-instantiated in a protracted precursor to the flagrant cop-out familiar from later works of classical symbology.


While the denoument of Under the Black Ensign is predictably disappointing, it continues the theme of prophecy already identified.  Bristol and his crew storm the bastions at Nevis, and take the Governor captive in the moments before his wedding with Lady Jane.  The latter, turned Deus ex machina, produces a blanket pardon and privateer commission for Bristol, which elevates him to a rank superior to the Governor.  He forces the Governor to write a humiliating letter of resignation to the King, and takes Lady Jane as his wife.  Like Hubbard, Bristol is full of elevated Enligtenment rhetoric about the equality of man and the brutality of entitled monarchism until he becomes a rich autocrat, at which point he is only to eager to seize upon the prerogatives of his position.  This is reflected in Jim/Jane's final transformation back to domestic femininity, which begins with her capture by the Governor's minions but is permanently consolidated when Bristol not only rejoins the political economy he proudly denounced to the Danish cargo-brokers, but becomes its supreme authority in the Carribbean.

This post has briefly described Under the Black Flag as a text prophetic of Hubbard's later life and work, a sort of homonculus in which the outlines of both Hubbard's later maritime adventures and his counter-psychiatric system are present in nuce.  In the next (and hopefully final) installment, I will examine the relationship between Under the Black Flag and a somewhat later work concerned with similar themes.

Friday, February 8, 2013

I. Reeking of Columbus: The Maritime Imaginary of L. Ron Hubbard

And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, Come hither...
Revelation 17:1 
It was such creatures that, once fully adapted to land, would then turn around and go back to the ocean.  They seem to have done so with remarkable speed compared to the hundreds of millions of years it took vertebrates to emerge from the water.
David Rains Wallace, Neptune's Ark
I have high hopes of smashing my name into history so violently that it will take a legendary form even if all the books are destroyed.
L. Ron Hubbard to his wife, Polly, 1938

Under the Black Ensign is published by Galaxy Press, an organ of the Church of Scientology which publishes only Hubbard's early works and the winners of the annual fiction-writing contest he established.  In 2008, lamenting that "as the years go by, the original issues of every pulp...continue crumbling into brittle, brown dust," the Church began a multimedia campaign to bring the Founder's first works of fiction to a contemporary audience.  Titles available from Galaxy include such gems as The Crate Killer, The Devil - With Wings, The Blow Torch Murder, Chee-Chalker, Killer Ape, Dead Men Kill, The No-Gun Gunhawk, He Didn't Like Cats, The Automagic Horse, A Matter of Matter, Man for Breakfast, and When Gilhooly Was in Flower.  Many of these have been adapted to the stage by the Golden Age Theater in Los Angeles.  

In the series introduction, noted genre-hack Kevin J. Anderson (author of more than ninety "critically acclaimed" works of speculative fiction, including the novelization of LRH's Ai! Pedrito!) is eager to distinguish Hubbard from writers who wrote only for "literary colleagues and academic admirers," and thereby to place him in the company of  "William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, and Alexandre Dumas."  Anderson also reminds us that 

following in the tradition of such famed authors as Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Jack London and Ernest Hemingway, Ron Hubbard actually lived adventures that his own characters would have admired, [this makes one want to ask Dan Brown whether he admires Umberto Eco's adventures in semiotics] as an ethnologist among primitive tribes, as prospector and engineer in hostile climes, as a captain of vessels on four oceans.  Finally, and just for good measure, he was also an accomplished photographer, artist, filmaker, musician and educator.
There is no space to review these claims in detail, (although they do constitute one of the hopefully infrequent instances in which Wikipedia is more critically rigorous than the American National Biography,) but a close reading of Under the Black Ensign does demand some reference specifically to the nautical dimension of Hubbard's contested biography.

Lafayette Hubbard's life was defined by a series of ocean voyages which form, in retrospect, a sort of tragic diachronic archipelago.  Over the course of his life, the sea would be to him first a space of limitless possibility, freedom and intrigue, and finally a trackless wilderness in which he sought refuge from process servers, the DEA, the US Customs and Immigration Authority, the IRS, and the French, British and Moroccan governments (among other persecutors).

By the time Under the Black Ensign was first published in 1935, Hubbard was already a veteran seafarer and possibly something of a navigator.  His father had rejoined the navy after a brief hiatus when Hubbard was ten, and his childhood was punctuated by a series of long ocean voyages.  One of the first took him from Seattle to his father's posting in Washington, DC via the Panama Canal.  During the seven thousand mile voyage, he was impressed by one Commander Joseph "Snake" Thompson, a neurosurgeon and former spy, who according to Lawrence Wright (to whose controversial work I owe other biographical details below) was returning from Vienna, where he had been assigned to study under Sigmund Freud.  

Thompson taught Hubbard the secret of training cats using his own familiar, Psycho, as an object lesson.  He also unwittingly fed an unlikely tributary to the anti-psychiatry movement when, in Hubbard's phrase, "he started to work me over" with a somewhat bowdlerized version of Freudian psychoanalysis.

The family's peregrinations subsequently took them "from the Wild West to the inscrutable East," where, according to his offiicial biography, Hubbard studied with the last in the line of magicians from the court of Kublai Khan and "drank deep from the 'airy spiralings and dread mysteries' of Asia."  Wright tells us that in his journals, the young Hubbard distilled these observations thus: "The very nature of the Chinaman holds him back...the trouble with China is, there are too many chinks here."  

Not until the final semester of his aborted stint at George Washington University did he launch his first independent maritime adventure.  In 1932, he embarked for the Caribbean in a rented schooner, having recruited fifty "young gentleman rovers" with an advertisement in the University Hatchet specifying that "no tea-hounds or tourist material need apply."  Under Hubbard's guidance, these unfortunate Schwärmerei set out in the 205 foot Doris Hamlin, "still stinking from her previous cargo of livestock and vaguely known in nautical circles for having been blown farther off course than any ship in recorded history," to make film recordings of the haunts of 17th century Caribbean pirates and to "collect whatever one collects for exhibits in museums."  

The trip was a financial and practical disaster, of which (where it not earlier attested) the West Indian folk song "John B. Sails" might have been a relic: the adventurers were blown off course, ran out of food and money, and spent four days becalmed and surrounded by fornicating eels in the Sargasso Sea.  After a series of bad decisions and unfulfilled promises, Hubbard lost all credibility and was ceremoniously lynched in effigy by his comrades.  More than a third of his party deserted even before the boat was recalled, at the behest of the appalled Captain, by its horrified owners, and several sued him afterwards for damages.  Hubbard did not even return home with the Doris Hamlin, and was last seen by its crew in Puerto Rico.  

There, he somehow installed himself (or was installed by his father) under the aegis of the Red Cross relief effort following the San Ciprian hurricane.  He spent most of his time, however, prospecting:
"Harboring the thought that the Conquistadores might have left some gold behind, I determined to find it...Gold prospecting in the wake of the Conquistadores, on the hunting grounds of pirates in the islands which still reek of Columbus is romantic..." ("The Camp Fire," Adventure Magazine).
Hubbard's youthful aspirations and sensibilities seem to have paralleled those of Joseph Smith, to whom he is sometimes compared, in their emphasis on hidden treasure and historical romance.  These themes were still clearly close to the surface when he wrote Under the Black Ensign, three years after he returned, empty-handed, from Puerto Rico.  It was his third or possibly fourth novella, and is set among the late 17th century pirates whose residua he had twice set out to find.

Undissuaded by past misadventures, in 1940 Hubbard joined the Explorer's Club, which he convinced to endorse his "Alaskan Radio-Experimental Expedition."  Hubbard and his wife (the only other member of the expedition) set sail for the Aleutian islands in his fishing boat the Magician, ostensibly to use modern methods of radio triangulation to more precisely delineate the geography of the Pacific coast.  The boat's crankshaft broke off Ketchikan, and Hubbard, having under-budgeted for such contingencies, was forced to raise funds for a new one by giving sensational accounts of his international adventures to the local radio station before finally returning to Puget Sound, six months older and having made no definite contributions to the geography of the Pacific Northwest.  

After his return Hubbard applied to join the US Navy and, through the influence of friends, was commissioned as a Lieutenant (junior grade).  He was given command of the USS YP-422, a lightly armed converted trawler commissioned to patrol the waters of Boston, but was removed from his post before the ship was launched on the grounds that he was "not tempermentally fitted for independent command."  

He did secure another commission before the end of the war, this time as commander of the more heavily armed, purpose-built submarine chaser USS PC-815, which patrolled the coasts of Oregon and California.  Hubbard's brief command of PC-815 was marked by two engagements.  In May of 1943, on Hubbard's orders, the ship expended 37 depth charges and called in two blimps and several other submarine chasers in a protracted battle with Japanese submarine which none of the other vessels could seem to locate.  Japanese records surrendered after the war confirmed that no Imperial vessel was in the area at the time.  A month later, PC-815 was participating in maneuvers off the coast of its home port of San Diego.  Having anchored near South Coronado Island, which is an outlying part of the Municipality of Tijuana, Hubbard began shelling it for gunnery practice, apparently under the impression that it was a) American and b) uninhabited.  The Mexican government protested, and he was removed from command for the last time. 
Hubbard with his second officer

The highly controversial, untitled document known alternately as the Affirmations and/or the Admissions of L. Ron Hubbard refers to the humiliation he suffered as a result of his naval exploits:
I was reprimanded in San Diego in mid-43 for firing on the Mexican coast and was removed from command of my ship. This on top of having sunk two Jap subs without credit, the way my crew lied for me at the Court of Inquiry, the insults of the High Command, all combined to put me in the hospital with ulcers.
The last sentence is interesting, since while Hubbard subsequently claimed that he had left the Navy only after being severely wounded in battle, and that he recovered his health "using only what I knew about Man and his relationship to the universe."  However, Veterans Administration records indicate that in 1974 Hubbard was still receiving disability pay for "duodenal ulcer, bursitis(right shoulder), arthritis, and blepharoconjunctivitis."  There is no official record of his having been injured in combat.
Jack Parsons

It would be twenty-four years before Hubbard returned, once again, to the sea.  In the intervening time he established himself as one of the most prolific pulp fiction writers in American history, dabbled in occultism and "sex magick" with Jack Parsons, a disciple of Aleister Crowley and pioneer American rocket scientist, published Dianetics, and created Scientology.  He had disembarked at the Port of Oakland in 1943 as a handsome if, as L. Sprague de Camp thought, rather satyric young man.  A string of disastrous misadventures stretched behind him, his wife had just left him, and he had no evident prospects.  He returned in 1967, (shortly after an ill-conceived attempt to take over Rhodesia single-handed,) as the portly leader of an established Church, and Commodore of the Sea Organization.

The Royal Scotman
"Sea Org," as Hubbard's penchant for technical abbreviations demanded it be called, now forms the elite nucleus of the wealthy and powerful Church of Scientology.  Its current flagship is the luxury liner Freewinds, which hosts exclusive training courses for wealthy and favored Scientologists.  Originally, however, Sea Org consisted of three re-purposed vessels: the Enchanter, the Avon River, and the Royal Scotman (sic, due to a clerical error in registration) a former cattle ferry.  Their names were later changed to Diana, Athena and Apollo, respectively.  Sea Org's mission was "to get ETHICS IN on this PLANET AND THE UNIVERSE," and to this end its members were asked to "subscribe to the discipline, mores and conditions of this group," signing contracts which pledged their services for "the next billion years."

Hubbard's crews largely echoed the hapless "gentleman rovers" of the Doris Hamlin in median age and general enthusiasm, although they were much better equipped and provisioned and more of them were attractive women.  The fleet began its peregrinations in the Mediterranean, where, in 1968, Hubbard developed a doctrine of reincarnation (giving rise to Sea Org's motto, "We Come Back.")  Recapitulating Hubbard's early efforts in Puerto Rico with a metaphysical twist, the ships cruised coastlines looking for hordes buried by previous incarnations of the Founder.  A former Scientologist told Lawrence Wright,
I was on the bridge with him, sailing past Greek islands. There were crosses lining one island. He told me that under each cross is buried treasure.
Unfortunately, erosion and other natural catastrophes had taken tolls unanticipated by Hubbard's previous bodies, and no treasure was ever found. The Avon River, with Hubbard at the helm, was interrupted in its search for a giant underground space-station containing a mothership and many other vessels and keyed to Hubbard's handprint by the Spanish government's threats to forcibly expel the Royal Scotman from Valencia.

During this period Hubbard brought the same glib energy to bear on the production of "Policy" and "Tech," which he had once applied to pulp fiction.  "Policy" consisted internal directives for the Church, e.g.  "MAKE MONEY. MAKE MORE MONEY. MAKE OTHER PEOPLE PRODUCE SO AS TO MAKE MORE MONEY."), while "Tech" referred to the increasingly baroque and gnostic system of levels through which, by graduated training, Scientologists were to achieve enlightenment - the "Bridge to Total Freedom."  His most famous production during this fecund period was OT III, ("The Wall of Fire") which includes the now famous story of Xenu.

As the fleet's Mediterranean peregrinations continued, Hubbard began to develop the idiosyncratic institutions of the Sea Org and became increasingly unpredictable, capricious and paranoid (although the last epithet is questionable since, as time wore on, an increasing number of people were actually out to get him).  He established the Commodore Messenger's Organization, which originally consisted of three girls between the ages of 11 and 13.  They were Hubbard's constant attendants, drawing his baths, lighting his cigarettes, and delivering personal and occasionally profane messages to subordinates, who had to address them as "Sir."  The current leader of the Church is a former Messenger.

Hubbard began to meet out severe punishments on thin pretexts, and to grant correspondingly vertiginous promotions to replace those cast out from the inner circle - for example, at one point he sacked the captain of one of his ships and replaced him with acolye Hana Eltringham, who at that point was in her early twenties, and knew nothing of sailing which she had not learned from Hubbard.  No crew member was immune to precipitous demotions; sometimes quite literally, since it was during this period that he hit upon the practice of "overboarding" as a punishment of officers who had displeased him by their actions, or simply by their suspicious E-meter readings.  It was partially due to local disgust with Hubbard's habit of throwing members of his crew, sometimes bound and blindfolded, into the sea that the Sea Org fleet was expelled from Corfu.  As Hubbard put it, "you have to establish an ethics presence hard.  Otherwise, you're just gonna be wrapped around a telegraph pole."

One by one, the fleet was banned from other European harbors, including those of Gibraltar, Spain and England.  Hubbard's sadistic leadership found new articulations.  Disfavored followers (e.g., for a period of several months, the entire crew of the Royal Scotman, including a dog) were reduced to the condition of "non-existence," which meant being forbidden to wash or change their clothes and being forced to wear dirty rags tied around their arms (or collars) symbolizing their contamination.  Psychic decompensation was common, probably unsurprisingly given the type of people who tended to drop everything to sail aimlessly around the Mediterranean with their spiritual leader, and the conditions aboard ship, which remind one of experiments in operant conditioning designed to induce "learned helplessness."  Victims were confined to windowless cabins guarded by completely silent crew members, and Hubbard effected their "cures" by communicating with them through notes.  He found children particularly obnoxious, and would punish minor indiscretions with sentences to spend the night in the crow's nest, or be confined to the locker where the coiled anchor chain was stored.

The Sea Org stopped for a while in Morocco, where Scientologists played an unclear role in the aftermath of a plot to assasinate the King and were subsequently (yet again) expelled.  They returned to New York briefly, long enough for Hubbard to launch the largest domestic espionage operation in the history of the United States, Operation Snow White, before returning to the seas in 1973.  After a motorcycle accident on Tenerife, Hubbard marrooned his chief medical officer on Madeira, where the hapless leech waited for an entire year to be retrieved.  In 1975, he attempted once again to return to the US, but was warned by an onshore Scientologist who had smuggled a note into a port radio operator's office inside a pizza that the DEA, IRS, Coast Guard and US Customs and Immigrations Authority were waiting in ambush.  Looking for easier pickings, the fleet then essentially invaded the town of Clearwater, FL, whence Hubbard fled first to New York, then to the Pacific Northwest, and finally to a secluded ranch in the Southern California desert near Paso Robles.  He never took to the sea again, and died at his ranch in Creston, CA in 1986.

Over the course of his life, then, L. Ron Hubbard's relationship to the sea described a consistent trajectory.  His first independent trip on the Doris Hamlin clearly presaged his ultimate wanderings with the Sea Org, the main difference being in scale, funding, and ideologic infrastructure.  He was always a charismatic, naive, endlessly imaginative and narcissistic man.  As these traits found expression and resonance in others, he evolved from a garrulous young adventurer into a quixotic naval liability and found his full articulation as the simultaneously loving and sadistic Commodore of the Sea Org.  In the next post, I will specifically examine Under the Black Flag in the context of this biographical sketch.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Apology for Sciento(symbo)logy

Many people whose taste I respect and opinions I value are nonplussed by my participation in a critical enterprise dedicated exclusively to what they consider superfluous cultural excreta.  They consider symbological fiction to be, at best, indicative of phenomena which, they seem to think, are apprehensible by more elevated means.  "Why do you need to read a Dan Brown book - and not just read it, but read it closely, with annotations, even multiple times, in order to delineate certain operations of the culture industry, or ideology, or whatever you want to call it?" they ask.  "Can't you get all that from Adorno?  Isn't that more fun?"  Until I gave the whole thing up as essentially futile, I tried to persuade them that the consensus that books like this are to be read, if at all, then quickly and superficially - say, on a plane - is no accident.  In vain I remonstrated that their apparent vapidity is precisely what enables their subterranean functionality.  Open the black box of symbology, I said, and you will find illuminating assemblages.  My words fell on deaf ears.

This latest sortie in my apparently incomprehensible and Quixotic campaign can only make things worse.  My only consolation is in my fellow-travellers, one of whom gave me the "Review Copy" of L. Ron Hubbard's Under the Black Ensign to which the next few posts will be dedicated.  Another gave me my first copy of Battlefield Earth, which spurred a similarly doomed adventure.  (All traces of that foray have now been erased from the server, presumably after a "Cease and Desist" suit filed by some Scientologist lawyer.)  I hope these colleagues will not join the ranks of my alienated friends if I insist that we engage, at least briefly, with the only writer of ephemeral fiction to undergo full apotheosis.  Even if he cannot, strictly, be called a symbologist, I hope we will derive further insights from applying to his work the dictum to which (as I have argued elsewhere) the methodologic insights of Freud, Levi-Strauss, and Foucault can be reduced, namely, that if something or someone just looks stupid, you're not looking hard enough.