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.

No comments:

Post a Comment