Behind the Jet-Propelled Couch: Cordwainer Smith & Kirk Allen

ALAN C. ELMS In 1978 I began to…

ALAN C. ELMS

[Originally published in the New York Review of Science Fiction, May 2002]

In 1978 I began to pursue the question of whether Paul Linebarger, aka Cordwainer Smith, had been the patient in “The Jet-Propelled Couch,” a psychoanalytic case history written by Robert Lindner. Over the past quarter-century I’ve accumulated more information and ideas on that question than I can fully present here. Instead I’ll use the format of a FAQ – a list of “frequently asked questions” and fairly brief answers.

1.) Why are you doing this?

a) As a follow-up to one of the most famous case histories ever published. Robert Lindner’s book, The Fifty-Minute Hour, has sold several million copies since its first publication in 1955 and has remained almost constantly in print. The book’s most fascinating case, “The Jet-Propelled Couch,” has been reprinted in magazines and anthologies, has been dramatized on live TV, has repeatedly been optioned for a feature-length film, and even provided the basis for a Stephen Sondheim musical that (like all those potential film versions) was never completed.

Obedience as Personal Response: The Role of Individual Differences

Obedience is…

[Originally published as Chapter 4c of Alan C. Elms, Social Psychology and Social Relevance (Boston: Little, Brown, 1964)]

Obedience is a curse. That is what makes Germans.

— Gertrude Stein, Yes Is for a Very Young Man

The forty volunteers in each of Milgram’s experimental conditions were quite similar to every other forty volunteers in age, sex, and general occupational category. This sameness of certain individual variables, and the randomness of others, made it possible for Milgram to draw his conclusions about situational variables. If he’d used forty Yale sophomores in the Touch-Proximity condition, and forty middle-aged Rotarians for the Remote Feedback condition, he could hardly have said anything about behavioral differences between groups – whether they were situationally determined, or determined by any or all of the ways in which Yale sophomores differ from Rotarians.

The Sin of Conformity

Stanley Milgram’s obedience studies were not the product of an isolated genius creating a radically different body of research. They came out of a heavily worked vineyard within social psychology, the field of experimental conformity research. Milgram’s virtue is that he has drawn new wine from old vines. But conformity research itself has not been unproductive. It has even had its vintage years.

[Originally published as Chapter 4d of Alan C. Elms, Social Psychology and Social Relevance (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972)]

The land of the free! This the land of the free! . . . Why, I have never been in any country where the individual has such an abject fear of his fellow countrymen.

— D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature

Stanley Milgram’s obedience studies were not the product of an isolated genius creating a radically different body of research. They came out of a heavily worked vineyard within social psychology, the field of experimental conformity research. Milgram’s virtue is that he has drawn new wine from old vines. But conformity research itself has not been unproductive. It has even had its vintage years.

A Psychologist Investigates Cordwainer Smith

Alan C. Elms [Author’s 2002 note: Well over a decade ago, a Japanese correspondent requested my permission to translate my…

Alan C. Elms

[Author’s 2002 note: Well over a decade ago, a Japanese correspondent requested my permission to translate my paper, “The Creation of Cordwainer Smith,” for publication in a Japanese fan magazine devoted to the work of Cordwainer Smith and titled (in English) Alpha Ralpha Boulevard. He sent me several sample copies of the magazine, which were quite impressive in their professional printing, their illustrations, and (as far as I could tell without being able to read Japanese) their serious treatment of Cordwainer Smith. I readily gave my permission for the translation. Subsequently the translator, Mahito Nomura (who uses the pseudonym Rei Sakaki for his translations) invited me and several other American scholars of Cordwainer Smith to contribute brief papers to the Tenth Anniversary issue of Alpha Ralpha Boulevard, published in August 1995. The magazine printed both the English original as below, and a Japanese translation by Rei Sakaki.]

The Woman We Didn’t See

A review/essay discussing the many strengths and some weaknesses of Julie Phillips’s generally fine biography of James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Bradley Sheldon).The book is “beautifully written, narratively gripping, thoughtful and subtle in exploring the complexities of Alice Sheldon’s life and work…. Though she [Phillips] is not a psychologist, many of her individual comments are remarkably insightful. But they do not add up to an overall picture of Sheldon’s personality structure, and they do not fully explicate the sources of Sheldon’s substantial psychological problems.”

[Published in Science Fiction Studies, 2007, 34, 117-128]

Alan C. Elms

The Woman We Didn’t See: A Review-Essay.

Julie Phillips. James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006. 470 pp.  $27.95 hc.

Suppose you had started thinking, a dozen years ago, that you would like to write a book-length biography of some science fiction writer. Suppose you wanted to write a biography that would draw the interest not only of the field’s scholars and serious fans, but of the broader reading public. Who would you choose? Isaac Asimov, or Robert Heinlein, or Arthur C. Clarke, each of whom had already achieved substantial visibility and best-seller status in the culture at large? Ray Bradbury,  whose Fahrenheit 451 (1953) remained on the reading lists of nearly every high school in the country? Perhaps Philip K. Dick,  who was already attracting biographers but was odd and intriguing enough to provide fodder for more? Maybe even Ursula K. Le Guin, the field’s best-known woman writer – but surely not that death-obsessed friend of hers, James Tiptree, Jr.!

Acts of Submission

Imagine yourself living in New Haven, CT, in the summer of 1961. You see an ad in the local newspaper, asking for volunteers for an experiment on Memory and Learning, to be conducted at Yale University. The ad looks a little too flashy for Yale, you think. But – well, hell, why not? So you send in the coupon. A couple of weeks later, you get a phone call. This young man says he’s calling for the Memory and Learning Project at Yale, and he wants to know whether you can come tomorrow evening at eight. How about nine, you say, since you eat dinner at 7:30. He says okay and gives you directions. The next night, you drive through the fancy arch by the art gallery, right into the heart of the Old Campus, and park your car outside one of those old stone buildings, Linsly-Chittenden Hall. You stroll through the first floor hallway until you see another guy, middle-aged uncle type, bumbling around like he doesn’t know where to go. “You looking for the memory experiment?” you say, and when he says yes you point to what you think is the right number: “This door here, looks like.”
[To be continued….]

[Originally published as Chapter 4, Sections a and b, of Alan C. Elms, Social Psychology and Social Relevance (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972)]

milgram’s myrmidons:
two experimental scenarios

Myr-mi-don. 1. Class. Myth. one of the warlike people of ancient Thessaly who accompanied Achilles, their king, to the Trojan War. 2. (l.c.) one who executes without scruple his master’s commands.

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language

Suppose your name is Arthur Krumholz and you live in New Haven and you are sitting at home reading The Register as usual and you come upon a two-column display ad:

Public Announcement

WE WILL PAY YOU $4.00 FOR
ONE HOUR OF YOUR TIME