#4 - Alive And Well And On A Friendless Voyage

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Adam-Troy
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#4 - Alive And Well And On A Friendless Voyage

Postby Adam-Troy » Sat Jan 29, 2005 9:07 am

"Alive And Well And On A Friendless Voyage" is, on the surface, one of Harlan's most enigmatic stories, so open to interpretation that any analysis on my part might easily prompt the observation that I'm full of shit and didn't get it at all.

I think not. The fantastic imagery, though never explained, seems provided just to establish a sense of overall strangeness. A vessel passing through the "boiling white jelly" of the "megaflow," travelling to the "last stop before the end of measurable space and time and thought." The significance of all this is never made clear, but by story's end most readers will recognize that it never had to be. The fantastic setting, which gives everything that follows the power of dream logic, accentuates, rather than distances us from, the emotional power of everything that follows.

The ship has many passengers, milling about in the lounge, and a crew of one, named Moth. Moth passes among them, and as he does he confesses to a variety of sins, from allowing his child to die, to allowing his marriage to fail, to surviving a fire where everybody else died. The passengers greet his confessions with reactions ranging from sympathy to scorn. It becomes clear that he is confessing THEIR sins, and that they are reacting to him the way they feel about themselves. At the end he meets a thin, plain-looking young woman sitting by herself and says, "I've come to realize we're all alone." He asks if anybody would like to take his place. Nobody volunteers, and the ship disembarks.

Reading this in 1977, as a teen, I thought, WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT ALL ABOUT? It was powerful, it was twisted, it was as emotional as all hell, and it had the force of a dream.

Moth feels the sins and hidden heartbreaks of all these people. He is empathy in human form, providing a service which might be absolution and might be no more than simple recognition. It's a job that leaves him doomed to his own form of isolation. When he asks the others if any would take his place, nobody will: it's too tough a job.

On its broadest terms, it's a tale about the price of empathy: about being a feeling person in a world driven by pain. It's a tough row to hoe. Sometimes it isolates.

I've always believed that a lesser case could be made that it's also about the dark side of being a writer: about imagining all these lives, about mucking about in the heads of folks you'd cross the street to avoid, of FEELING them and BEING them long enough to get them down right, then remaining behind as they disembark the ship of your imagination and return to the dreamstuff from whence they came.

Of course, maybe I'm full of shit and didn't get it at all.

Either way, it's one of the three or four favorite Ellison tales.

Discuss amongst yourselves...!
Coming in 2007: THE SHALLOW END OF THE POOL! Plus THE UNAUTHORIZED HARRY POTTER (Ben Bella Books).

Coming in 2008: EMISSARIES FROM THE DEAD!

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Postby Micheal » Sat Jan 29, 2005 10:03 am

Quae nocent docent - "What pains us, trains us"

Ellison always seems to me to be a writer of exhortation, one who finds himself in dialogue with his audience, often to impart a wisdom he feels so many need.

I'd always read "Alive" and "Count the Clock that Tells The Time" that way, in the fact of the two protagonists being forced to examine the ways that they don't measure up in their existence. As usual, choice lies at the core of the writing; as usual, so many choose the living in quiet desperation, not considering the value in attempting to live with courage enough to truly feel, to be human.

As Moth wanders from table to table, inveigling the sitters with his tales of woe, we see Ellison construct a man who has always tried to take the easy way out, not to have the courage or take the risk of pain that life promises in living, perhaps afraid that the consequences will outweigh the joy. What interests me are the reactions of those who respond to him, visceral jets of singular emotion; compassion, love, hate, spraying at Moth in punishment for his cowardice. I don't find there is any coincidence in the fact that Ellison starts the emotional reaction as one of kindness, then runs the passenger's response to the other end of the emotional spectrum; complete hatred for Moth. I'm left feeling that this was done to cumulative effect, that Moth's repeated cowardice in the face of life's reponsibilities is finally coming to be met by its most honest reciprocation. Moth's final connection to the world is pity through the touch of the unremarkably looking young woman, a simply jesture being the last that can be mustered toward this pathetic man.

l've never seen the "passengers" as passengers. I see them more as manifestations of self-recrimination, representations of Moth coming back to haunt his for the pettiness of his existence, ultimately punishing his deeds with the punishment they so richly deserve; with apathy.

At the end, no-one will go with him, the doors slam shut, and Moth is left to the end of the journey, the silence of oblivion. He has never shown empathy, courage, love or honesty. The others will not share his journey: they do not wish to spend eternity as a man who has never lived as one, or for that matter, lived at all.

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Interesting

Postby Adam-Troy » Sat Jan 29, 2005 10:11 am

....our interpretations of the story are almost completely exclusive.

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Harlan Ellison
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HE REPLIES TO ADAM-TROY CASTRO

Postby Harlan Ellison » Sat Jan 29, 2005 5:29 pm

No, indeed, my friend, you should have no qualms about your powers of analysis. You are dead on. Others may interpret this story any way that enriches them, but as for MY auctorial intentions, you have swum in to shore on precisely the red tide I intended. So, you see, it's not quite as mysterious and abstruse as might be thought. You've summed up the underlying themes (I omitted only the one that informs "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams," purposely, because I din't want to cast the net too widely)(but, thematically, they link) succinctly and accurately.

But try to not say "from whence." WHENCE means 'from.' To say "from whence" is like saying "you prime rib comes with au jus" or "I live in a nice house home."

Tsk-tskingly yours, Harlan

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Judgement Day

Postby Subey » Sat Jan 29, 2005 7:05 pm

This is a story about Judgement Day.

like voices of the dead, whispering for their final hearing, their day in the court of judgment


The key to understanding the story is accepting the ambiguity with which the stories are presented.

Adam-Troy sees each story as being the story of the individual passengers. While Michael sees the passengers stories as reflections of Moth's own.

Both perspectives are relevant because the question on Judgement Day that is being asked is who is responsible? The created (passengers)? Or the Creator (Moth)?

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Postby Micheal » Sat Jan 29, 2005 8:09 pm

This is why I like this: it's about subjectivity, not fact.

And I'd be remiss if I tried to recant my post. I don't, not out of being seen as wrong, but being seen as me. The truest sense of the artist is when their work becomes less theirs and more the audience's in expanding the imagination. I'll happily leave the author his coin in trade for the process of opening my imagination with their craft.

Adam-Troy's and Ellison's takes intrigue me, however.

By the way Subey, both. The created (the god), and the creator (man). You've got it backward.

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Harlan Ellison
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REPLY TO MICHEAL

Postby Harlan Ellison » Sun Jan 30, 2005 4:12 pm

Hold the bus, kiddo!

Recant not, you perspicacious li'l savant, you.

I posted my comment to Adam-Troy Castro before I read yours.

But you are absolutely smackdab correct in your analysis.

BOTH OF YOU ARE CODIFYING WHAT I INTENDED THE STORY TO CONVEY.

THAT's why the ambiguity.

Each of you has pierced to the intent of the story as I conceived the presentation. As Adam definitely knows (I've read his work as palimpsest) and as I hope you, Micheal, know--a story selects its own manner of presentation by its content and intent. Whether first person or epistemological or surreal or locative or romantic, form follows function. In this case, I was determined to keep readers from embedding themselves in one "true" answer.

The codex for this one can be either/or as well as either/neither/BOTH.

I like the third option. Both Adam's and Micheal's reveals are precisely correct. Meld them, and you stand before the doors I needed to open when I was writing this one.

So you see, Micheal, you need preen, not recant.

You got it right.

So did Adam-Troy.

And the two of you, commingled, separated at birth, encompass every last little intention of the Author at the point of midwifery.

Yr. pal, Harlan

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Postby Micheal » Sun Jan 30, 2005 4:36 pm

Adam-Troy and Harlan:

HE:

Don't worry about my ego, if that was your concern. I seem to recall in one intro or another a description of your amusement at the literary interpretations of your work by readers, imbuing the text with some far flung and varied intensity of symbolism, then sitting in agreement with everyone of them in turn. As to the discussions of the tales, I don't see "right" or "wrong"; I see Adam-Troy, or Barney, or sjarret or whomever. The comments tell me much more about them than about you.

The prize is discourse and it's quite rewarding.

Adam-Troy:

It's an enrichment for me to have gone back and re-read the tale last night with your insight firmly set in mind, the result being quite a different taste and feel for the psyche, and a rather enjoyable one. Thanks for the alternate route.

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Postby Jan » Sun Jan 30, 2005 5:43 pm

For me the key to the story lay in understanding that Moth was a receptacle for lending a body and a tongue to whatever the passenger was dealing with internally and enabling them for a moment to express their distance to or acceptance of what they have done. I didn't feel much ambiguity in that regard, apart from the fact that Moth seemed to be the only person really alive. It seemed clear to me that Moth in all likelyhood couldn't have commited all these things (one even seemed like something that a woman would do more likely than a man), and the fact that what he did was revealed to be a job (which to me was the only point of the last scene) confirmed that suspicion.

I was thus reminded of the equally introspective SHATTERDAY in which an event allowed a person to distance himself from previous actions and the respective personality traits. The story share a preoccupation with the past history of the characters. ALIVE reminded me of a song which says that memory doesn't allow you to cancel anything you have experienced; everything is being recorded, and you will remember it whether you want to or not, as will others. (The song is about how the singer made a mistake in a relationship, and now that mistake is forever a reality that can't be undone and has led to a break-up.) While SHATTERDAY includes the idea of changing for the better, ALIVE is not about that, it's (to me) about being stuck with what you've done. You can do with it what you want, but it's there. Every passenger we meet has a different way of dealing with their mistakes, one is more permissive, one is more openly critical or disgusted etc. The kind of attitude one has towards oneself is the basis for growth, and memory - painful as it CAN be - enables us to learn from our mistakes (as well as repeat our successes). Perhaps one could say that this story is perfectly supplemented by the earlier SHATTERDAY because one story is more about the downside of memory and the other more about the upside. ALIVE is to me about the different forms of dealing with oneself, again with the notion of personal responsibility floating around in the back.

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Postby Jan » Mon Jan 31, 2005 6:33 am

It occurred to me that no one seems to have picked up on what the lady says to Moth: "I've come to realize we're all alone." This is a feeling one sometimes gets, and of course I wonder if this is something Harlan thought when writing the story, or if it's just characterization. The positioning of this dialogue towards the end makes it seem more important than the previous exchanges. In the introduction of the book Harlan said he felt one the messages that the book imparts is "You are not alone". Yet ALIVE seems to contradict this, but perhaps both things apply. We are not alone in the sense that what we are going through is not unique. We are alone in the sense that we lead individual lives that no one else can really fully understand. However, at the end of the exchange about alonness, the lady touches his hand. In that moment neither she nor Moth is alone.

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Postby P.A. Berman » Mon Jan 31, 2005 5:58 pm

Why does Moth have to be the Creator or the created? He reminds me of Anubis, the jackal-headed god who weighs men's hearts before they can enter the afterlife. He stands at the gate and allows the souls to tell their tales and react to him as reflections of their own feelings about themselves. After all, Heaven or Hell is what we make of it, is it not? Like Anubis, the Moth doesn't deal out punishment or offer consolation; he tells the tale, acts as devil's advocate, accepts the reaction, and moves on, until the passengers disembark at their destinations. It must be an exceedingly hard job, which is why no one else wants it.

Just off the top of my head,
PAB

Subey
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Postby Subey » Tue Feb 01, 2005 12:19 am

Jan wrote: However, at the end of the exchange about alonness, the lady touches his hand. In that moment neither she nor Moth is alone.

I think the opposite is implied.

At the end of "interviews" the narrator says

and then the lights died and they were once again alone.

"again" implies that during the duration of the interview Moth and passenger were together.

The woman at the end however there is no mention of a light within her eyes. Only an allusion that that light (i.e. her soul) might he hiding in her lips.

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aloneness

Postby KristinRuhle » Tue Feb 01, 2005 12:51 am

I think the part about "being alone" means that ultimately you are alone with the wrongs you have done, even though others may (or may not) offer compassion. To put it in religious language, you are "naked before God" on the day of judment.

I share the view that Moth is more of an allegorical figure than a character per se.

One issue is, each story-within-a-story provokes a different reaction from the passenger/sinner (?) All strike the reader as repugnant to varying degrees (especially the one with the child; there are religious cults like that in real life, and how far should one go with respecting religous belief when someone is too young to decide for themselves about things like medical treatment?) Does the authorial voice(if there is one...)pass any judgment?

kristin, stumbling around

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Postby sjarrett » Tue Feb 01, 2005 9:16 am

One of the things this story reminds me of is the Welsh tradition of the sin-eater. I don't want to oversell the analogy, because I think what's going on in the story is more complex and more interesting than that, but it seems to me that there is a parallel to be drawn. Something about the cost of engaging with the sins of others and, through an act of profound acknowledgement, recognizing them to be one's own. Or, as Adam-Troy succinctly put it, the price of empathy.

Steve J.

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Postby lonegungirl » Tue Feb 01, 2005 3:05 pm

Man, I am such a goober. I must have read this story a dozen times when I was younger, and it never occurred to me that it was the other passengers' experiences Moth was expressing. I always thought it was all a reflection on his misdoings or mental attitudes although some did seem contradictory. Moth as reflection of others does make a great deal more sense--thanks for the insight.

Actually, I always pictured him to be a kindred spirit to Peter Novins--they even had some similar contretemps. Maybe the ultimate moral is to never allow someone to set you up with an expensive apartment without getting the money in advance...


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