Just this last Thursday, we lost SF writer and critic Harlan Ellison, who died of natural causes at the age of 84. I have a confession to make:
I have heroes.
But all of my heroes are human, not graven images on a pedestal, and all of them have the proverbial feet of clay. I prefer my heroes that way, human, flawed, with warts and all. That goes for skeptics and writers I’ve read and learned from over the years, from even the late Carl Sagan, to Michael Shermer and his current controversy, and yes, the irascible Harlan Ellison.
So…I’ll waste no time saying that Ellison was a ‘great’ writer, much less a ‘great guy.’
From his own words, I can rightly guess that he would laugh in my face at the very suggestion of him being ‘great.’ And he would be right to do so. So there will be no sycophantic bullshit or lionizing from yours truly. A word of advice: never try to flatter or piss off short people, especially when their name is Harlan Ellison. They will learn you, or burn you, with words, and that made Ellison not only a successful writer, but a fierce critic of publicly promulgated bullshit in a number of areas, from social criticism, to films, and even takedowns of pseudoscience in the public square. He was not known as a very nice guy, but in my view, he was fundamentally a good man, however unkind he may have been when annoyed.
It was in late 2006, I think at a place I used to do volunteer work as an administrative assistant, and I was reading one of Ellison’s collections outdoors in a quiet spot near the building. I think the collection was Edgeworks: An Edge In My Voice, volume 1, and I came across something I’d not read from other authors (I was just beginning to expand my reading horizons to something less sheltered), or at least not the way Ellison put it in a moment of self-critique: the notion of being scrupulously, ruthlessly honest with himself. His was self-honesty even to the point of accepting short-term self-loathing over longterm self-loathing by not telling himself pretty lies, or deceiving himself over personal motives.
This is, I know now, and I’m sure he knew then, a tall order indeed, and impossible to fully achieve. But that’s the whole point of an ideal: you don’t adopt one to actually reach it with finality, but to get as close as possible to it, asymptotically, not as any kind of ‘destination.’ An ideal is perfectably strived for, never perfectly arrived at. That’s why it’s an ideal, an abstraction, not reality. But it doesn’t have to be reality to be worth striving for.
But that idea burned itself in my brain as I stood there, reading on, and since that day, it has been something that I truly believe is worthwhile. For how can you be truly honest with others if you can’t be honest with yourself? Integrity matters. Even when it’s not coupled with a pleasant demeanor or a kind disposition. It was also that year when I was introduced to the world of podcasts with my aging Classic model iMac, and my first iPod. It was that year I began listening to The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and had two particular books gifted to me that Christmas: Lynne Kelly’s _The Skeptics’ Guide to the Paranormal_, and Michael Shermer’s _Why Darwin Matters_.
A lot’s changed since then, but I’d like to end this post with a sendoff: Peace out, Harlan. Whatever happens to your memory from here on, you wrote a thing that has real meaning to me, and I think that counts for something. For what it’s worth, I’m a skeptic. And I’ll remain one for the foreseeable future. I know that doesn’t make me better or smarter than anyone else.
But with that in mind, I don’t need to be.
Tf. Tk. Tts.