John Norman is best known as the author of nearly 30 novels about Gor, a primitive planet where heroism rubs shoulders with male domination. But when we found out he was also a philosophy professor, we had to know more.
Since 1966, Norman has been writing the Gor books, a "sword and planet" series along the lines of John Carter of Mars. In the Gor books, a British professor named Tarl Cabot travels to another planet, where the gravity is lower and life is primitive. Meanwhile, Norman has been teaching for decades at Queens College CUNY, under his birth name, John Lange.
A major feature of the Gor books is their lengthy descriptions of men enslaving women, and the suggestion that female slavery is in some sense a natural order. The controversy over this stance has led to Norman being disinvited as a participant at one WorldCon, but it has also sparked a huge "Gorean" subculture — especially in online forums such as Second Life, which have a huge Gorean community. There were two Gor movies, the second of which appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
We were curious to find out more about how a philosophy professor came to write one of the most controversial science fiction book series of all time, so we sent him some questions. Here's what he told us.
What was it like, growing up in the Depression? And how did that experience shape your views about the nature of society and the individual?
As the family legend has it, when my father's company slashed its employee list, he was the last fellow retained, namely, the cut-off started with the next fellow. For example, if there were one hundred on the list, and half were released, and we were counting up from the bottom, he would have been number fifty-one. My wife's father was not so lucky, and he, apparently, was reduced to picking apples, when they were ready to be picked, and such. The common supper, I gather, was beans. Clearly the Depression, the great depression, with its dislocations, hardships, low salaries, something like a thousand dollars a year, or so, and massive unemployment, something like 20 percent, was a difficult time for a great many people and much of the country. On the other hand, the Depression was not a terrible time for the 80 percent or so who had work, because the prices were correspondingly low. In this way, as father had a job, I, as a boy, and like most people, did not have a first-hand experience of the worst aspects of the Depression. Interestingly, many "veterans" of the times, even those who knew hardship, risk, and scarcity, look back on them with nostalgia, even satisfaction and pride. They tend to see them less as debasing and crushing than as meaningful and challenging. Life was tough, hard, and such, but, too, they did not give up; they stuck it out, they cared for one another, they worked, as they could, they kept their families together, they survived. In some respects, I think it was a good time to grow up, a hard time, but a good time. Statistically, despite all the poverty, there was very little crime during the Depression, and there was, I think, a stabler ethos, and a more coherent moral consensus then than now. The country was less politicized, less Balkanized, less mercenary and competitive, less confused and disordered, than now. In a general answer to your question, I would suppose the times would affect individuals variously. Personally, I am pleased to have had the experience of growing up when I did; it was, in its way, to quote Dickens, "the best of times and the worst of times," and certainly a times unlike most other times. Consider what it might have been to grow up on the frontier, or in the time of the Declaration of Independence, and such. Special times, times not like others. I gathered that society, ideally, consisted of decent, honest, hard-working, self-reliant individuals, civil and neighborly, not sheep in need of a shepherd, appropriately to be hemmed in within the fences of the state, herds of the state, to be pampered, sheared, or butchered as the state might please. The individual, in my view, however perilously today, and despite obvious risks, should be independent, and think for himself. This will win you no awards, and will generate hatred, and such, but there will always be someone who will understand. And even if there is no one else who understands, ever, it is enough that you yourself understand. That is enough.
When did you become interested in science fiction and fantasy? What were the authors you first got interested in, and how did you get involved in fandom?
I have no idea when I first became interested in science fiction and fantasy. That is a long time ago. Big Little Books, for example, the Flash Gordon books, and various comic books, for example, Buck Rogers, are doubtless in there somewhere. The Flash Gordon serials at the local theater on a Saturday afternoon were wonderful. I can remember Tarzan books by Burroughs, but I do not think I knew about his various science-fiction works until many years later. I used to enjoy reading Planet Stories, an adventure pulp magazine. That is probably an embarrassment to more sophisticated science-fiction aficionados, but I nonetheless remain calm. John Norman can get away with that. Everyone knows what he is like. Such an admission on his part, as opposed to one on the part of others, is unlikely to jeopardize future sales, invitations to parties, and such. As Sam Moskowitz once said about the pulps, the stories had beginnings, middles, and ends, and heroes and heroines. And, as far as I can tell, there is nothing wrong with that. A French auteur was once asked, supposedly, if he thought stories should have beginnings, middles, and ends, and his response was, "Yes, but not necessarily in that order." I think the pulps will always hold a place in the hearts of many. My favorite author there, I think, was Emmett McDowell, whom many folks may not remember. Naturally I read H. G. Wells, Heinlein, and Bradbury. I do not remember how I became involved in fandom, but it was undoubtedly a result of being invited to participate in one convention or another. For several years I attended, and participated in, a number of conventions. Then, it seems, a tectonic shift took place in the geology of science fiction. For example, despite millions of sales, I was not permitted to participate in the World Con given in Philadelphia in the year 2000. As my wife nicely put it, "In Philadelphia the Liberty Bell does not ring." In any event, changes take place, monothink blossoms, orthodoxies must not be threatened, political solidarity must be maintained, censorship is great, when we do it, and so on. I have not been invited to conventions for years now, which certainly shows me, and perhaps other writers, as well, who might be astute enough to pick up the signals. If we can do this to John Norman think what we could do to you. I guess it is a matter of failing to subscribe to the Disciples' Creed. At any rate, I am no longer interested, in any event, in attending conventions. I wish them well, and I hope, someday, they may become again what once they were, theaters in which a thousand flags may be flown, and a thousand voices heard, authentic science-fiction conventions, not church meetings, not political-party conventions.
In your 1970 book, The Cognitivity Paradox, you seem to be trying to call into question the "truth value" of philosophical premises as a whole - and by implication, the whole field of philosophy. What sort of response did this book receive within the field?
How very nice that you are familiar with the Cognitivity Paradox book!
Philosophical questions, once one gets beyond questions of food, shelter, drinking water, Susan's availability, and such, are the most important questions that a human being can ask. They are inevitable, recurrent, and persistent. Further, like many other important questions, they are unamenable to quantitative resolution. We cannot resolve them by measuring and weighing, looking and counting, and such. Yardsticks and scales, microscopes and telescopes, cyclotrons and electrostatic grids, are unavailing. It is not obvious that any of the usual sorts of truth theories, for example, correspondence, coherence, and pragmatic, at least as usually understood, will suffice for resolving questions of philosophical truth, should it exist. Accordingly, the book addresses itself to the possibility of philosophical truth, whether or not it is possible, what it might be, if possible, or what it could acceptably be taken to be, if we wish to sustain claims of its truth, and so on. It is my impression that the philosophical community did not know much what to do with such a book. Philosophers pride themselves on looking into assumptions and presuppositions, but they seem unwilling to look into their own. It is much easier to continue on with "business as usual." I think Nietzsche put it nicely, when he noted that anyone can have the courage of his convictions. That is easy and cheap. What requires real courage is an attack on one's convictions. I am less dramatic than Nietzsche here, of course. I was not really asking my colleagues to attack their own convictions, but, so to speak, to look and see what they might be, or whether there are any there or not.
How were you influenced by authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard? And how did you feel like your works were able to expand on these influences? What inspired you, in particular, about these types of heroic narratives?
I think, pretty clearly, the three major influences on my work are Homer, Freud, and Nietzsche. Interestingly, however obvious this influence might be, few, if any, critics, commentators, or such, have called attention to it. Perhaps it is so obvious that it is simply taken for granted. In Homer you have the primitive, hardy, aristocratic warrior ethos; in Nietzsche you have the rank, distance, and hierarchy, concern with the etiology of belief, the trenchant culture criticism, and such; and, in Freud, of course, you have the depth psychology, and a sense of the radical centrality of sex to the human condition.
As a boy, as I recall, I read some of the Tarzan books. If I was influenced by them, I shall hope it was benignly. Certainly I have an affection for Edgar Rice Burroughs, and his work. I think he was a wonderful man, and had one of the great imaginations with which our species has been blessed. As mentioned, too, I was not familiar with his other work, or at least I think not, until I was an adult, fully employed, teaching, in a college, and such. I think I was doing research at Berkeley, on a fellowship, or such, when the Burroughs "explosion" took place, and a number of his works, the copyrights supposedly having expired, struck the paperback market. I think, as it turned out, the copyrights had actually been renewed on the original magazine publications of some of the work, which presented, as I recall, some touchy legal concerns. As I recall, I was particularly impressed with several of his series, and, doubtless, in particular, with the Martian series. Given my earlier reading in Planet Stories, and such, you can see how that might be. As before, if I have been influenced by Burroughs, I shall hope that the influence has been benign, and has redounded to the benefit of a wonderful genre of literature.
Two remarks are probably in order now. First, Burroughs, I would suppose, had his own influences, which is natural and to be expected, and, certainly, did not invent the genre in which he reveled, and which he did so much to distinguish, nor, obviously, does he own it. Adventure fantasy does not belong to any particular human being, unless perhaps to the author, or authors, of the Gilgamesh epic, and his, or their, copyright would presumably have expired by now. Second, one may simply read Burroughs, and read my work. It seems very clear to me, and to most people, that the two corpuses, for better or for worse, are considerably different. The test is simple. Go, read. I have read some Robert E. Howard, as I recall. And, once again, if there is any influence there, I would hope it would turn out to be benign. Writing springs out of a human life, and a vision of the world, and there are thousands of influences, over the years, which contribute to the nature of any given individual, whether a writer or not. All in all, it would be very difficult for a writer to comment illuminatingly on this sort of thing.
There is at least one thing here I would like to credit to Mr. Burroughs, and that has little to do with what he did, but more with how he did it. He, in an era of snobbery, style, pomposity, arrogant sophistication, and such, had the courage to deal honestly and directly, boldly, movingly, straightforwardly, with simple, primitive feelings and emotions. To put it disparagingly, he had the "courage to be corny," or to put it less disparagingly, and as I would rather put it, he had the "courage to write with spirit and heart, without apology, letting the chips fall where they might." Did he not touch the hero and the heroine, the warrior and the princess, the scribe and the poet, in us all? He seems to have occasionally felt diffident about the quality of his own work. He is entitled to his views, of course, but I find that a bit sad. He will be read generation after generation, after generation, while one crop after another of the witty and disdainful, the shallow and clever, the polished and sophisticated, the celebrated winners of prizes, and such, comes and goes. People feel, life feels. He felt. We are grateful, and feel, too.
In your new book, The Philosophy of Historiography, you say that Nietzsche's attempt to create a new human ideal to replace God in people's hearts has been widely misunderstood. How do you feel this misunderstanding has happened? Also, people frequently describe Gor as a Nietzschean society - what do you think Nietzsche would make of Gor were he to visit there? What do you think of the popularity of Nietzsche among young philosophers and some post-modern theorists?
In Nietzsche, the expression is ‘Übermensch', which might be translated variously. A common translation today would be ‘Overman'. It might also be understood as a higher person, a superior person, an ideal as to what a human being might be, a comprehensible ideal toward which a human being might aspire, and such. The term is not original with Nietzsche. It occurs in Goethe, and even in Greek, as ‘Hyperanthropos'.
Briefly, the background here has to do with Nietzsche's apprehension of what social consequences might follow from a general loss of belief in the existence of a divine entity, one which, supposedly, constituted a foundation for, and an enforcer of, moral rules, and such. It was presumably one thing for "intellectuals," the cognitive elite, and so on, disengaged from the masses, conversing privately amongst themselves, to reject the existence of such an entity and quite another for a general population, whose morality might be motivated primarily by greed, fear, and other prudential concerns, for example, avoiding punishment and accessing rewards.
"God is dead," of course, does not have the implication that God was ever alive, in any serious sense. If gods are immortal, presumably they will never get around to dying, say, of divine measles, or such, but they might be forgotten about. For example, who remembers Khnum, the god of the first cataract of the Nile? Accordingly, "God is dead" would be a lovely, poetic, but harrowing, metaphor for the loss of belief in a divine entity. If this was a belief in that which was "holiest and mightiest," a belief which, in effect, shaped and stabilized a society, one might well concern oneself with the consequences of its disappearance. Might this not "unchain the earth from its sun"? Might not "night begin to close in upon us?" Would we not be straying "as through an infinite nothing?" Assuming that most human beings want to have something to live in terms of, something to, so to speak, "worship," it is natural to speculate what might be likely to fill the ensuing spiritual vacuum. Nietzsche seemed to fear, plausibly enough, that the most likely candidate for ascending the empty throne, for inserting itself into this colossal spiritual vacancy would be an idol, a particular idol, a "new idol," namely, the state. It seems to be against the background of these two considerations, the loss of a traditional belief and the supposed need for a new belief, which might well be as monstrous as the state, that one might understand the proposal of a new ideal, not to be worshipped or petitioned, but to be a summons to a higher order of being, rather like a mariner's star which might serve as a beacon, in the light of which one might conduct one's life, without hoping to reach it.
I think it is quite clear in Nietzsche that the Übermensch is not intended biologically. The word is always used in the singular, never as though there could be more than one. It would be absurd to say, for example, that the Übermensch had blond hair and blue eyes, or brown hair and brown eyes, that he was six feet tall and weighed one hundred and eighty pounds, that he was whiz at math, that he wears size-ten shoes, that you had his autograph, that you had loaned him fifteen dollars, and such. An ideal is involved, not a prediction. The most fit species, given evolution, would seem to be the termite, the crocodile, the shark, and such. Nietzsche, like most 19th Century intellectuals, did believe in eugenics, and he did speculate on the possibility of producing a "master race," bringing together the finest specimens of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds, but this is clearly independent of, and separated from, references to the Übermensch. I think the best interpretation of the concept is in terms of a higher self, one forever unattainable. There seems to be a clue to this in his "Schopenhauer as Educator," one of the essays in his Untimely Meditations (Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen), where we hear "...for your true nature lies, not hidden deep within you, but immeasurably high above you, or at least above that which you normally take to be yourself."
In the light of the foregoing, I think it is reasonably clear that an interpretation of the Übermensch in terms of a particular biological entity, or entities, for example, crossing borders, firing machine guns, marching into Paris, dropping bombs, and such, Aryan "supermen," or whatever, is mistaken. Nietzsche hated the state, authority, force, regimentation; and superstition; he favored finding one's own way, intellectual diversity, and creativity. As has often been pointed out, it seems likely that if he had been alive during the time of Hitler, he would have been one of the first to be sent to a concentration camp. I think the common misunderstanding of Nietzsche is largely due to his illegitimate appropriation by the National Socialists, who were looking about for intellectuals, and the propaganda of the allies, who were eager to challenge and exploit the foregoing misappropriation.
I am not sure what a Nietzshean society would be like, as he seems to me an anarchist at heart. He did value virility, and somehow failed to believe that women were identical with men. He seems to have thought they were quite different, and very interesting. I have no idea what Nietzsche would think, were he to visit Gor. As a classics scholar I suspect he would find it fascinating.
I did not realize that Nietzsche was popular amongst young philosophers and post-modern theorists. I accept this information, however, with equanimity. He is clearly an unusual and wonderful philosophical voice, one trenchant, insightful, lyrical, poetic, and powerful. He is pretty clearly a major philosopher of the 19th Century and, if we allow philosophy to have important things to say, if we allow it to make a difference in the world, then he is pretty clearly the greatest philosopher of the 19th Century, and, in the "life sense," one of the greatest of all time. He concerns himself with big things, and speaks well, as opposed to the usual philosophical values of concerning oneself with little things and speaking poorly. One wishes there were more like him. Perhaps some like him as an antidote to statism, authoritarianism, collectivism, redistributionism, egalitarianism, the poisons of monothink, the stultifying demands of political conformity, and such. I am sure he would lose out on promotions today, and could forget tenure.
Why do you think the Gor books are experiencing so much lasting popularity? Do you think there are younger audiences who are just discovering these books afresh? Do you think they speak to a 21st Century audience the same way they did to a 20th Century one?
The Gor books are not mere science fiction or adventure fantasy. They are also intellectual, philosophical, and psychological novels. They have a great deal to say, and have been willing to say it. One of their attributes, for better or for worse, is the fact that they examine an alien culture from the inside, seeing it rather as its indigenous populations might see it and understand it, rather than criticize it from the outside. They are, of course, written for a minority audience, highly intelligent, highly sexed adults, both men and women. This limits readership, but, I think, improves its quality. In any event, the reader is respected, not insulted.
I would suppose there are always new readers who discover the books. One hopes so, at any rate. As mentioned above, the books are written for adults; this is not, however, to deny that many young readers are fully capable of reading the books. Many young readers are, in effect, adult readers. Adulthood does not always index to chronology. Some adults are essentially children, and some children are, for most practical purposes, intellectually, and such, adults. I would count anyone who can read the Gorean books intelligently as, for most practical purposes, an adult reader. The real distinction here is not adult/child, but good/not so good.
As the Gorean books deal with human things in a human way, and have to do with human constants, I do not think they are indexed to any particular time or place. One still reads Homer, Herodotus, the Song of Roland, Cervantes, Austen, Dickens, Nietzsche, and so on. I should like to think the books get on well without clocks and dates. It is possible, of course, that particular or local values might differ a bit from time to time. For example, in an age of hatred, censorship, and suppression, they might, in virtue of their integrity and difference, inadvertently play a role which they might not in a more liberated, open time, in which diversity was welcomed and celebrated, and the gates of the literary marketplace were not policed by a narrow, insecure, politically uniform constabulary.
Have you spent any time among the Gorean communities on the internet, such as Second Life? What do you think of the popularity of real-life Gorean slavery among some people in the BDSM community?
No. I am not a computer person. I am, so to speak, still trying to figure out quill pens. I have heard of Second Life, but know very little about it. I have heard that large numbers of my books have been "pirated," so to speak, and distributed freely in that community. I am disappointed that individuals would do that, if they are doing that. Let us hope that that claim is mistaken. If individuals do care for an author, and his work, it seems to me they should, in respect, refrain from such a practice. Intellectual property is property, after all, as much as a baseball glove or a bicycle.
I know nothing about "real-life Gorean slavery among some people in the BDSM community." The "BDSM" reference worries me. I dissociate myself from BDSM, at least as I understand it. I may, of course, misunderstand it. I wonder if one would settle merely for "real-life Gorean slavery," because, as I understand it, BDSM is not Gorean. If something is not beautiful, it is not Gorean. In any event, I am assuming that what is involved here, in any case, is consensual. If a woman chooses to submit herself, voluntarily, to a master, it seems to me that is her business, and his business. She would then, of course, be a slave, and would be treated as a slave. One supposes remarkable fulfillments may occur in such an arrangement. It is, of course, important to treat the slave, however uncompromisingly strict you are with her, however much she might fear you, in a humane way, as one would any other animal. Some men, I gather, dislike women, and enjoy hurting them. That makes no sense to me. Women are wonderful, and precious. It is a delight to own one; why would one hurt her? What would be the point of that, mere sadistic pleasure? I think we might distinguish between, say, S/M sex, or sadomasochistic sex, and M/S sex, or Master/Slave Sex. In a sense they seem opposite. Love is important. It is not to be confused with cruelty. Gratuitous cruelty seems to me uncalled for, and ugly, morally and aesthetically. Too, it seems unworthy of a true master. The point is loving and serving, and owning and mastering, not hurting. To be sure, the slave must understand that if she is not pleasing, she is subject to discipline. She is not to be left in doubt that she is a slave. It is easy to avoid discipline; she need only be obedient, submissive, and found pleasing, wholly, and in all ways. Sometimes a slave may desire to be reassured of her bondage. There are many ways in which the master, if he wishes, may see to this. I have written an entire book, the Imaginative Sex book, in which my views on such matters should be reasonably clear.
Did you watch the 1980s movie adaptations of Gor? Were you involved in them at all? What do you think went wrong?
I had, in theory, a consultancy in connection with the films, and, as I recall, I wrote up something like sixty to eighty single-spaced pages of comments, criticisms, suggestions, grumbles, gasps of astonishment, shrieks of dismay, proposals, and such. As I recall the only change made was in connection with my suggestion that we change one of the character's names. It was originally ‘Zeno'. In philosophy there are two famous Zenos, one the putative founder of Stoicism, and one the disciple of Parmenides, famed for constructing a series of classical paradoxes, Achilles and the Tortoise, and such. As I am fond of these Zenos I suggested we find another name for the film character. The name was changed from Zeno to Xeno, pronounced the same way. It was nice to have an input.
I am actually quite pleased that the two movies were made. It is very rare, statistically, for an author to be lucky enough to have a movie made in connection with his work, and I had this good fortune twice. I retain an affection for the producer, the crew, the cast, and so on. And might not Rebecca Ferratti have been worth the price of admission by herself? That seems to me quite possible.
At one time I worked for Warner Brothers Motion Pictures, in the great days of Jack L. Warner. As a result of this I probably have a bit better idea than some, at least, of the challenges and difficulties of getting a movie from a book to the screen. This is usually a long and complex process. Moreover, there are likely to be severe constraints involved, many of them having to do with the time available and the costs involved. When one works in Hollywood, it is common to speak of product, properties, the "industry," and so on. Plato's Film Studio is very nice, but real films are made in the real world, with real stuff, and real problems.
All in all, then, I am pleased that the two films were made. It would have been even better, of course, if they had had anything to do with my work. It seems to me that that might have been managed.
It is still an open question, to this day, if a real Gorean movie, say, with tarns, tower cities, fleets of lateen-rigged galleys, clashing armies, a genuinely alien culture, and such, might be possible.
One supposes not, for political reasons, if for no other.
Now that you have written over two dozen Gor books, how do you feel your approach to the series has evolved?
I think the approach to the series is pretty much unchanged. One tries to write well, to write honestly, deeply, and attentively. Most real writers will do this.
I have written independently of the market, and the market, astonishingly, came to me.
In a gray, polluted country, where one's mind is expected to wear a uniform, where acres of books are indistinguishable from one another, where values are engineered, and attitudes are packaged like corn flakes, where a small number of individuals will determine what you may and may not read, something different, that hints at truths you recognize but have been ordered to ignore, is likely to attract attention.
When the Gorean galley came to port, she carried exotic goods and news from remote, surprising lands.
Even if she is driven away, she might not be forgotten.
She has been once to port, and might be remembered. One likes to hear of other lands.
I wish you well,