Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Hex by Arthur H. Lewis


 Hex (published 1969) tells a tale from the old, weird America, circa 1928, in which three young men attack and kill a self-professed “witch” in the backwaters of York County, Pennsylvania.  The eldest of the men, John Blymire, a third-generation witch or “necromancer” had been under the belief for years that he had been hexed by another practitioner in the Pennsylvania Dutch country.  After years of consulting other witches in attempts to break the spell or at least identify the person who had hexed him, the trail led to an isolated farmhouse where Nelson Rehmeyer, an eccentric personality in a county that was apparently rife with them.  Blymire pays two nocturnal visits to Rehmeyer, with the aim of either cutting a lock of his hair or stealing his hex-book, a strange compendium entitled The Long Lost Friend, published first in 1819 by John George Homan (and still in print), containing spells, hexes, occult warnings and spiritual advice.  Possession of a personal item, particularly a highly personal item such as hair, clothing, etc., of the person one wishes to hex is a common feature of sympathetic magic such as practiced in York County.


The second visit does not go well.  The conspirators (one of which was a 14 year old boy) clumsily fight with Rehmeyer, savagely beating him to death and attempting to burn the body to conceal the evidence.  Once the body is discovered by a neighbor (led to the property by a hungry, braying mule), Blymire is picked up and charged in short order, as it had been known in the region for years that he had been hexed and was engaged in a never-ending pursuit of the person who had enchanted him.  Once arrested, Blymire, relieved to have had the spell broken quite happily told the story in minute detail, implicating his (equally loquacious) conspirators in the process.

The trial is a bit of a farce, while gaining worldwide attention because of the witchcraft angle, the local authorities, fearful that York will garner attention as a illiterate backwater full of superstitious yokels, work hard to keep the discussion of hexes and necromancy out of the trial, skewing the motive for the killing as simple robbery.  In the end, the conspirators are given harsh punishments (Blymire gets a life sentence), which are commuted years later. 

While the first portion of Hex is interesting in describing the belief system of the rural Pennsylvania Dutch country and the events leading up to the murder, the narrative starts to drag once it hits the courtroom. After the story of the murder and its aftermath is finished, Lewis spends an additional 50-plus pages on interviews with several witches and faith-healers circa 1969 in order to illustrate that the superstitions were still prevalent 40 years later.  In large part, the activities of these practitioners revolved mainly around bodily aches and pains, with an apparent emphasis on wart removal.  Rivalries between the witches, however, still remained.  I had occasion to spend some time in York back in the 1990’s, but I was unaware of the story of the area’s most famous trial, so I can’t tell you how active the witching community was at that time. 

Mephisto by Klaus Mann


 Mephisto, written in 1936, is Klaus Mann’s revealing, if fictional, portrait of his brother-in-law’s ascendancy to the directorship of the State Theatre under the Nazi regime.  In this novel, we see the trajectory of Hendrick Hofgen (Gustaf Grundgens in real life), a talented if mercurial actor, from relative obscurity to fame as a result of a Faustian bargain within himself.  


With early successes under his belt, Hofgen, a somewhat left-leaning actor/director is at first fearful for his life as Nazi power grows in Germany, given his earlier (albeit largely superficial) embrace of Communism, and his poor treatment of a brown-shirted fellow actor.  Safely out of the country when Hitler is elected Chancellor, he is lured back by his desire for fame when he is assured protection by an old acquaintance, an actress who has become the paramour of a powerful party member (clearly Hermann Goering, although Mann is careful not to use names when referring to high-ranking Nazis).  He acquires fame and wealth, a mansion, and a stable full of fine automobiles, and hosts fantastic parties with the well-connected.  Still he finds himself in precarious circumstances as the Minister of Propaganda, a rival to his protector, learns more and more of his suspicious past, which includes not only leftist activities but sexual deviances as well (disguised in the novel as a masochistic relationship with a half-black dominatrix, it is generally acknowledged that Mann was loathe to expose Grundgens’ true “deviance” – homosexuality – as he was in fact homosexual himself).  Ultimately, his protector wins out over the propaganda minister, and Hofgen comes to feel secure in his bubble, distancing himself from former loves and acquaintances (some very obviously representative of the “old” Germany), desperately shuffling off those who could expose his past, and shutting out the more unsavory events transpiring around him.

Growing used to his exalted position and emboldened by his fame, Hofgen assuages his guilty conscience by securing the release of a former leftist compatriot from torture and detention, but the release is short lived as the man, Hans Ullrich - in clear contrast to our protagonist – is a man of ideals and commitment who returns to his heroically doomed anti-Nazi activities.  In seeking further aid for his friend, Hofgen is starkly put in his place by Goering, who coldly reveals that he knows everything that Hofgen is, and that he is his to use or dispose of as he sees fit.  The bargain is complete, and Hofgen is in Hell, placed there by himself, and himself alone.

Klaus Mann was the son of the pre-eminent 20th century German author, Thomas Mann (who himself confronted the degeneration of the German soul in his 1947 novel Doctor Faustus). Although written in 1936, the book was not translated into English until 1977.  A film version of Mephiso, directed by Istvan Szabo and featuring Klaus Maria Brandauer received the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1981. I had hoped to re-watch it after finishing the novel, but despite its former acclaim, it has proved difficult to find on streaming services. After some wandering in exile from the Nazi regime, Klaus Mann became a U. S. citizen in 1943 and served in the United States Army during World War II.  He died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1949.  His novel was the posthumous focus of a long-running lawsuit in West Germany brought by Grundgens’ adopted son. 


Recently read:

The Silent Crossing by Pascal Quignard

A series of thoughts, in chapters, on life, death and existence, tending somewhat towards the gnomic and grotesque. Still, a poetic and satisfying read that begs to be revisited often.

The Trial of Socrates by I. F. Stone

Towards the end of his life, the eminent liberal journalist turned to classical studies, and in particular, an examination of the trial of Socrates for “corrupting the youth of Athens” via the exercise of free speech.  Stone makes it abundantly clear that Socrates was a bit of a civic annoyance, no advocate for democracy, and held some (to modern ears) peculiar ideas about ideal government.  Despite the corrosive effect of Socrates’ teachings (which might, indirectly, have justified some atrocious mass political murders in 4th century B.C. Athens), Stone believes that his execution was a betrayal of the ideals of the Athenian polis.

All Souls by Javier Marais

A satirical novel of academia, in which a visiting Spanish professor maintains an affair with a female colleague (suspended for most of the novel), and searches for rare books in the second-hand bookstores of Oxford town. Points for passing references to two of my favorite authors, Borges and Nabokov.  The narrative threads come together nicely in the end.

Hamlet in Purgatory by Stephen Greenblatt

More of a general study of European notions of Purgatory (both Catholic and Protestant) as a background to Shakespeare. Interesting, but not a lot of new ground covered.

The Northern Crusades by Eric Christiansen

This gets pretty deeply into the weeds quite quickly with regards to the peoples of - and brutal colonization activities within - the Baltic north, but a good general survey of a little-known aspect of European history.

Phantastica by Louis Lewin, M. D.  
I picked this up based on references in the previously-reviewed Abrams book on opium use among the English Romantics.  This is a quaint review of hallucinogens published by an eminent German ethnobotanist in 1924. Although I can’t imagine this work retaining much value for students of neurology today, the exhaustive and painstakingly collected anecdotal data from around the world is enjoyably charming. Despite the hideous cover of my modern reprint (a colorized Gypsy(?) woman with a pipe and a “come hither” gaze) and its limited scholarly value, this is a good volume in which to browse. Dr. Lewin’s medicine cabinet must have been something to behold.


Tuesday, August 07, 2018

The Milk of Paradise: The Effect of Opium Visions on the Works of DeQuincey, Crabbe, Francis Thompson, and Coleridge by M.H. Abrams


This short work began as an undergraduate essay, expanded into a senior thesis by Abrams before being published by Harvard University Press in 1934. My 1970 Harper & Row Perennial edition paperback includes a new introduction by the author as well a selection of three works referenced in the text.  These consist of two opium-inspired poems by George Crabbe (who was an otherwise decidedly uninspired author) and a short story by Francis Thompson* entitled “Finis Coronat Opus”.   While Abrams’ work is a pleasant curiosity regarding opium use among 19th century British authors, most obviously Coleridge and DeQuincey, it’s the Thompson story that’s the real attraction here.  This is a tale of a vainglorious author of diabolical temperament who sacrifices his true love to a demonic power for a transitory taste of fame.  The suitably opulent - and somewhat creepy - prose is informed (it is Abrams’ contention) by Thompson’s opium-induced visions.  

I don’t recall seeing “Finis Coronat Opus” heavily anthologized in any of the abundant, and often repetitive, collections of classic horror stories, of which David Tibet’s The Moons At Your Door is the most recent example.  Tibet has another anthology on the way entitled There Is a Graveyard That Dwells in Man; if it isn’t too late, perhaps he could squeeze this little piece into it? 

*Thompson, whom I understand Chesterton enthused over, is considered a “Catholic” poet for his major poem “The Hound of Heaven”, and is known to have spent a good portion of his adult life on the streets as an opium fiend.




Friday, July 20, 2018

The King in the Golden Mask and Imaginary Lives by Marcel Schwob


With The King in the Golden Mask, Wakefield Press continues its endeavor to publish the works of Marcel Schwob with a volume of fantastic and macabre tales. The author spins stories of violence and mild sexual transgression that are divided between those derived from actual historical places or events and others that are pure fantasy.  There’s enough leprosy and mutilation to keep things interesting and, on the whole, the book is skewed more towards the lurid than The Book of Monelle.  The stories have that quaint poeticism that one finds in certain fin de siècle authors – they are nicely translated by Kit Schluter with an appropriate dreamlike quality, and are quite enjoyable, if not particularly memorable.  

Also published by Wakefield, just this year, Imaginary Lives resembles – and was an inspiration for – Borges’ wonderful Universal History of Infamy.  Not all of the 24 personages* in Schwob’s fictionalized biographies are degenerates and reprobates (Pocahontas, of all people, appears in the mix), but it’s not giving anything away to say that sad, unfortunate ends are the norm here.   In a few pages each, Schwob tells the story of a number of famous, infamous, and obscure characters from antiquity through the Renaissance and up into the 18th Century (he has a particular thing for pirates, it appears). This is a worthy addition to Wakefield’s Schwob project.

Very much in the vein of the aforementioned cruel tales is Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace in Rome, which I read some months ago but neglected to mention here.  It is the unfortunate tale of a 17th Century Italian engraver, who bears hideous facial scars as a result of an ill-fated romantic encounter, excellently told by a modern master and published by Wakefield in 2016.

Note: I’ve decided to revive my practice of providing Amazon product links, as decent bookstores can be hard to find, and the few loose cents dropped into my Amazon account every year or so is a good reminder to not give up my day job.  If you are fortunate enough to live in a place with a local bookstore brave enough to stock these titles in the vain hope that some ne’er-do-well will wander in looking for an intelligent, yet lurid, read (as Malvern Books in Austin does), then by all means patronize them.

* Just for the hell of it, here is the list:
Empedocles (Supposed God)
Herostratus (Incendiary)
Crates (Cynic)
Septima (Enchantress)
Lucretius (Poet)
Clodia (Licentious Matron)
Petronius (Novelist)
Suffrah (Geomancer)
Fra Dolcino (Heretic)
Cecco Angiolieri (Hateful Poet)
Paolo Uccello (Painter)
Nicolas Loyseleur (Judge)
Katherine the Lacemaker (Lady of the Night)
Alain the Kind (Soldier )
Gabriel Spenser (Actor)
Pocahontas (Princess)
Cyril Tourneur  (Tragic Poet)
William Phips (Treasure Hunter)
Captain Kidd (Pirate)
Walter Kennedy (Illiterate Pirate)
Major Stede Bonner (Pirate by Temperament)
Messrs. Burke and Hare (Murderers)




Friday, July 06, 2018

Les Nuits de Paris by Restif de la Bretonne


One would suppose from Jacques Barzun’s introductory essay to this selection that this project, which Restif originally imagined as 1,001 Parisian Nights, was conceived as a sort of documentary experiment.  An exhaustive catalogue of the seamy nocturnal underworld of Paris in the late 18th century, Restif’s extended rambles and the salacious tableaux he witnessed (and more often than not inserted himself into as a sort of immaculate and irreproachable moral authority – a pretty damn good joke in its own right) were allegedly duly reported to “the Marquise”, a mysterious noblewoman with an apparently bottomless desire to assist the poor, the disadvantaged, and the unavoidably debauched.  Barely 30 pages into this selection – itself a portion of a much larger work – we’ve already met con artists, brothel keepers, grave robbers, pickpockets, juvenile delinquents, murderers, pedophiles, gay-baiters, child prostitutes, and “effeminate men”. 

Restif (the “de la Bretonne” was an affectation) was a tireless scribbler who, when he wasn’t on the prowl for a suitable orifice, was consumed with writing about what he found when he got there, and keeping precise records that, if we can trust him as an erotic memoirist, rival those of his near contemporary, Giacomo Casanova.  On his own terms, this short, fat, balding and swarthy fellow was a bit of a libertine, or as we might more accurately describe his sort these days, a serial rapist. In these pages, however, the idealized Monsieur Restif is much more interested in returning seduced young maidens back into the arms of their worried parents than one would suspect from what we know of his autobiographical portrayal in other works.

The dust jacket of my 1962 edition shows an amusingly clean drawing of Paris in broad daylight that belies the dark and disturbing portrait of the nocturnal metropolis that Restif is trying to convey. Reading the selections, I like to imagine what a delightfully dark series of graphic storybooks this could make under the pencil of a suitably talented illustrator (think of something akin to Dore’s illustrations of London as a city of dreadful night).

We must assume that there is a kernel of reality in the vision that Restif is attempting to portray, but I am less inclined than Mr. Barzun to see Restif as a social reformer (although he did, in fairness, support reformation – although certainly not elimination – of prostitution in Paris) than as an exploitative storyteller trading on and embellishing to lurid effect the dangers and degeneracies of the lost and hopeless habitués of the dark city. This is neither Henry Mayhew’s London nor Jacob Riis’s New York, but rather an entertainment based on the debased sufferings of the lower depths, in which the Marquise is the conscious stand-in for the titillated reader. It is, for all that, quite entertaining, particularly when taken in small doses.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Recent Re-readings


Light in August by William Faulkner 
I haven’t really read Faulkner since my college days, but I recall this one as being a favorite, and I’d intended to reread it since way back when Vintage reissued the Cormac McCarthy catalog (which I devoured) in softcover prior to publication of his breakthrough “Border Trilogy”.  For the past 25 years or so, we can safely call McCarthy mainstream, but back in the days of Child of God and Blood Meridian, the influence most cited for McCarthy was Faulkner. 
As a southern gothic masterpiece, there is enough cruelty, menace, and just plain creepiness in Light in August to justify the connection with early McCarthy.  Joe Christmas, who dominates the novel, is one of the most remarkably drawn characters in American fiction, a  soul doomed from the start to a life of pain and darkness. As it builds, the narrative pulls you along remarkably well, and it stays with you.  I’d forgotten many of the details over the years, so a second read was definitely rewarding.

Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach

Any reader with an interest in the degenerate/symbolist literature of the fin-de-siecle must hang their head in shame if they are not acquainted with this story of degeneration and obsession.   Hugues Viane, a widower, has made a cult of his young, dead, wife.  He obsesses over her relics for hours in the rooms he has dedicated to her in his gloomy house before he passes into the twilight of the Bruges night.  He has chosen this Belgian town for its pallor of death and stagnation, a congenial atmosphere in which to pass the remainder of his mournful, empty life. 

Of course, it’s only a matter of time before he begins to notice a phantasm of his wife working her way through the streets.  She is a doppelganger to whom his obsession transfers: he establishes her in  a cozy apartment in which he can spend the days and nights slobbering and fawning over her, pawing her long blond tresses, the very image of those which he has established in a glass reliquary in the shrine room of his own house.  She soon tires of this creepy attention, and, with loathing, begins to bleed him dry.  

I won’t reveal any more, except to smack my lips at the appropriately lurid denouement.  Keep the Dedalus edition on your shelf, as it’s worth a great deal of decadent street cred.  And reread it occasionally for the delightful melodrama of it.

The Bhagavad Gita
Finally, I’ve probably mentioned the impact the Bhagavad Gita had on my young mind - and the rich worlds it opened -  when I found the Penguin edition, translated by Juan Mascaro, many years ago at a Las Cruces, New Mexico library sale.  Mascaro was well versed in the Spanish mystics, and he brought that sensibility to his translation of this text (as well as to Penguin’s edition of the Dhammapada).  While there was much lyricism and beauty in his rendering, I became suspicious as I got older of just how faithful his translations were. In his introduction to the Gita, Mascaro aims for universalism, approaching the text in light of what Huxley used to call the Perennial Philosophy. 

The Gita is a philosophical/religious discourse forming a portion of the much larger epic, the Mahabharata. In 2008, Penguin finally released a new translation by Laurie L. Patton, and while the unfamiliar format is at first jarring, the translation appears to be much more faithful to the text, fixing the translation firmly in context without Mascaro’s universalism, and providing a useful introduction to the work. 

As I’ve been reading Patton’s translation, it has begun to grow on me, and I’m not sure I’d go back to Mascaro’s edition for any reason other than sweet nostalgia.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Sin and Fear: The Emergence of the Western Guilt Culture, 13th -18th Centuries by Jean Delumeau









As this work reminds us, the Church, throughout much of its history didn’t go out of its way to offer loving comfort to the poor and oppressed (or anyone else, for that matter) as they made their way through this vale of tears, and what made matters worse was that “opting out” wasn’t an option. Essentially, you were born Catholic (or heathen, but that’s another story) and you were expected to stay that way.  Deviation on the smallest point of doctrine might well earn you a visit from your friendly and enthusiastic inquisitor.

So what did the Church do with this captive audience?  Bombard them fairly constantly with harangues about their own state of deathly sin in this life and the promise of unceasing torment in the next, that’s what! In Sin and Fear (1990), Jean Delumeau more than supports this thesis with anecdotes, sermons, lyrics, and other writings from throughout Europe that ceaselessly dwell on human unworthiness, the unavoidable punishment of sin (even the rules for sexual relations within wedlock could be so convoluted as to require a tax attorney to interpret them, let alone some poor illiterate peasant), the general suckiness of life and the overwhelming stench of death. The words and images emphasizing the morbidity of the flesh and the stink of corruption were omnipresent, and all it took was a good outbreak of the plague to reinforce the truth and hopelessness of it all as, to quote Lou Reed, “all the dead bodies piled up in mounds”. 

In short, you pretty much had it drilled into you what a worthless bag of worm meat you were, and your hopes for at least some comfort in the afterlife were pretty much nil.  Delumeau at one point quotes a sermon wherein the priest tells his congregation that there wasn’t a damn one of them that had the remotest chance of escaping hell.  This isn’t to say that maybe you lucked out and got a humane, kindly village priest, but he was probably the anomaly, and anyway if word filtered up that he was coddling his flock with some fool notions of God’s mercy and loving kindness, he was likely to be shipped off for “re-education”, because, as everyone knew, God the Father* was a real son of a bitch.

Now, sadly, I’d like to tell you that the Reformation (and the seemly endless cycle of religious wars - how’s that for an oxymoron?) showed the Church the error of its ways, but of course as we all know, Luther, Calvin, et al., fine products of the guilt culture that they were, were just as merciless in their grim accounting of the corruption of the human soul, and Jonathan Edwards’  key sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” only proves to show that, far from being just an outgrown medieval mindset, this madness was still alive and kicking well into the 18th century and beyond.  In the psychological dimension, the author makes a pretty good case that the relentless instillation of fear and guilt over a period of centuries created a cultural psychosis that we, at least in the west,  are still a far ways from escaping. 

*At one point in this heavy tome, Delumeau reminds us that the original association of the word “father” was not some gentle and forgiving Ozzie Nelson-type bumbling around in a cardigan, but rather a violent, demanding autocrat with a short fuse, so whether you’re thinking of the God of the Old or New Testaments, the parish priest, the Bishop of Rome (whose informal title, after all, derives from the Latin papa) or even dear old Dad, the initial association in the early days of the church one was not necessarily a positive one.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Miguel Serrano: A Record of Two Friendships (or, How I Ingratiated Myself to Two Old Men for My Own Sleazy Purposes)


I have had this book on my shelf for a number of years, but only glanced into it occasionally before deciding at the end of last year to read it through.  A few pages into Miguel Serrano’s memoir of his association with Hermann Hesse and Carl Jung, published by Schocken Books in 1966, the author casually mentions a small deception he made in conversation with Hesse by implying that he was going to India as a seeker, a humble wanderer, rather than in a diplomatic capacity.  I thought that this was a curious thing to do, so I decided it was time to learn more about Mr. Serrano, Chilean diplomat and (inconsequential to our discussion) alleged paramour of Indira Gandhi.
Well, I got an eyeful about Mr. Serrano.  In this book, he presents himself as a metaphysical seeker, an introspective searcher who had learned much from the esoteric writings of the elderly gents into whose orbit he so forcefully inserted himself, fawning at their feet to eke out a few letters from them in return.  Try as I might, in my reading of this volume, I don’t seem to find any reference to Serrano’s true life passion - as exposed by the easy access of information that the internet provides us - the glorification and apotheosis of Adolf Hitler, known as Esoteric Hitlerism.  Apparently his deep reading and thoughtful meditation had led him to cobble together a bizarre amalgam of “Aryan” Vedic knowledge and Nazi cultism to bring forth a strange and vile religion based on Hitler worship and (surprise!) vilification of the Jews.  If you care to have a gander at Google Images, you can see images of Senor Serrano down through the years, done up nice in his crisp black uniform with its assorted vile paraphernalia, waving a peculiarly stiff goodbye to someone apparently out of the camera shot.

Now the biggest, and most puke-inducing, kick regarding this bullshit is that this loathsome creep somehow shanghai’d Schocken Press, a pre-eminent publisher specializing in Judaica to publish it, in those glorious pre-internet days before one could “google” a name and see what kind of freakish dishonest bastard you were dealing with.
I don’t know to what extent Hesse and Jung had any Nazi sympathies (apparently there are suspicions and rumors regarding Jung that I’ve never taken the time to look into), but they certainly weren’t on display here.  What this tiresome memoir looks like is some fast-talking sleaze pushing himself upon two semi-retired figures in their dotage, and harvesting their acquaintance to facilitate publication of, as far as I can tell, the only remotely respectable piece of work he ever presented to the world.  Mr. Serrano left this world in 2009: I hope they buried him proudly in that lovely uniform - in a pile of dung.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Reading List


For anyone who might think that the paucity of my posting is evidence of a slow reader, well, you’re not wrong. However, I do manage to get through quite a few more books than is evidenced on this lowly site. So, how do I choose what to write about? I have no idea: it usually depends on what else is going on in life, and my inclination to overcome a certain laziness towards non-essential tasks. I recently thought it might be interesting to me to think about what I’ve read in the past 12 months or so, which led to this list. I’ve relied on memory and on notes jotted down in my little, underutilized, reading journal to come up with this list, which only includes what I haven’t already discussed on this blog.  

The House of Life by Mario Praz

The Death of Lysanda by Yitzhak Orpaz

D’Annunzio by Philippe Jullian

Haunted Castles: Collected Gothic Stories by Ray Russell

A large portion of Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (interest waned about halfway through, but planning to get back to it…)

The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic Versus Classical Art by Kenneth Clark

Three essays on Goethe from Thomas Mann’s Essays of Three Decades

The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders by Peter Heather

The Creator by Mynona

The Cathedral of Mist by Paul Willems

Life in the Folds by Henri Michaux

Solomon’s Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment by Paul Monod

The All-Pervading Melodius Drumbeat: The Life of Ra Lotsawa by Ra Yeshe Senge (about halfway through, to be honest)

The Raven King: Matthias Corvinus and the Fate of His Lost Library by Marcus Tanner

Deeply dabbling in The Penguin Book of the Undead

A Barbarian in Asia by Henri Michaux

The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity by Peter Brown

Love & Sleep by John Crowley

Goodly portions of Brian Copenhaver’s anthology, The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment

A History of Gnosticism by Giovanni Filoramo (an excellent scholarly study)

The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West

ETA:

Memoirs of a Midget by Walter de la Mare

The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar

Monday, June 05, 2017

Morbid Curiosities: Collections of the Uncommon and the Bizarre by Paul Gambino



In the late 80’s I came across a reprint of an 1896 pseudo-medical text entitled Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine. This was a clinically lurid compendium of unfortunate and horrendous tumors, abnormalities, birth defects, and injuries. Some of the stellar personages included poor Phineas Gage (who had a large iron rod shot through his skull as a result of an industrial accident, and lived – one assumes with associated cognitive difficulty – to tell the tale), and Edward Mordrake, the (literally) two- faced individual whose extra visage allegedly tormented him with threats of damnation. There was also the Civil War soldier who became a papa by having a testicle shot clean through, with the projectile coming to rest in the womb of a fortuitously placed virgin. My faulty memory tells me that the two became hitched, and presumably spent many happy hours telling Junior stories of his early accelerated motility.


As entertaining as all of this is, you have to understand that Anomalies was a thick and well-illustrated tome, and the images, page after page, of unfortunately deformed infants - not to mention the cases of elephantiasis of the scrotum – were heart rending and nauseating enough that the volume soon satiated my morbid curiosity and ended up being shoved in some dark corner, before it was banished by means of donation or sale to some thrift shop or second-hand bookseller.

I’ll hazard a guess that most of the colorful characters in Morbid Curiosities have a copy of that esteemed treatise occupying pride of place in some enchanting tableau, amongst the fetal skeletons and serial killer ephemera. I don’t begrudge these collectors their enthusiasms, but as Nietzsche once remarked, if one stares too long into the abyss, the abyss begins to stare back at you. Let us not forget that behind every dead or deformed infant there is, one hopes, at least one broken heart. I’ll admit that I probably meditate upon these misfortunes somewhat more than my fellow-travellers in this vale of tears (and here’s a plug for a couple of my favorite emporia, Uncommon Objects in Austin and Obscura in New York), but I’d have to say that the folks profiled in this book - one of whom is an owner of the aforementioned Obscura - are invested.

What this volume consists of, with ample illustrations, is biographies of various hipster collectors and photos of their treasures (the aforementioned infant skeletons must come cheap, ‘cause there are a hella lot of them). These folks holding court in their bone thrones share insights into their motivations and passions. All of this is fine as far as it goes: I can imagine this circle of enthusiasts passing and signing copies of this work among themselves like some demented high school yearbook. But I’d have to say that, as with Anomalies, a little of this one goes a long way.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761-1767 by Thorkild Hansen


Arabia Felix is an extraordinary story of endurance on an 18th Century Danish expedition to the Yemen, known in antiquity as “Arabia Felix”.  I noticed recently that New York Review Books was reprinting this book, and was reminded that I had the 1964 Harper and Row edition on my shelf.  I knew nothing of this work, but NYRB has a good record of reissuing excellent older titles, so I thought it would be worth a look.  I’m glad I did, because from the beginning I was pulled into a masterfully told narrative of exploration, rivalry, hardship and adventure.  Hansen tells the story so remarkably that I hesitate to reveal too much, other than to say that he breathes real life into the six men who set out to undertake the expedition under the aegis of the King of Denmark for the purpose of describing the manuscripts, monuments, and natural history of far southern Arabia.  The idea was that in this land, fabled in antiquity for its riches, an uncorrupted way of life harkening back to biblical times persisted, and that the discovery of those treasures would bring glory to the Danish kingdom and important scientific and historical knowledge to Europe.

The undertaking turned into a six year endeavor, the challenges of which most members of the expedition rose to heroically.  The success of the endeavor turned doubtful when one of the members, the thoroughly unlikable von Haven, purchases packages of arsenic in an Istanbul apothecary shop.  This creates a tension that underlies the expedition for quite some time, until the charms of their destination (which would soon enough turn sour) envelope them.  This country, which contains both scorching desert and idyllic mountain palaces, holds within it a sickness that will overtake the expedition and imperil its success.

Thorkild Hansen obviously did painstaking research for this book, and the genuine feeling of compassion and humanity that runs through it reveals that it must have been a labor of love.  If you enjoy a captivating tale of true adventure, I hope you’ll take a chance on this one.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Hunger by Knut Hamsun


Not an obscure book at all, a consideration of Hunger within its late 19th century context makes clear why it is considered an early modern classic, echoing through the literature of the century that followed.  Knut Hamsun’s novel stands in sharp contrast to much that had come before: it is a plotless narrative of a destitute writer’s mental state as he pits his personal vision against the harsh realities of the outer world.  Hunger and poverty weigh heavily upon him.  We don’t know exactly how he arrived at this state, although there are enough hints dropped for us to know that it hasn’t been a perpetual situation. 

We meet the author (clearly Hamsun’s surrogate) in the midst of his troubles, but at least with a roof over his head.  He is on the street soon enough, but holds optimism that a turn of fortune is at hand.  He does have a tendency, if not a determination, to subvert himself – no sooner does he come into a pittance than he impulsively gives it away, or rejects offered assistance through a misplaced pride.  He is prone to bouts of self-aggrandizement, alternating with periods of hopeless despair.  He further swings between touching sentimentality and fierce rancor.  In the streets of 21st century America, he would simply be counted among the homeless mentally ill, but the narrative is sustained by his internal dialog, and clearly there is a degree of intelligence and self-awareness being portrayed.

In narrative terms, the arc of the story is a rather shallow one, and one can’t imagine too many realistic scenarios (short of violence or death) by which Hamsun could bring the tale to an end, but there is enough of a narrative to pull the reader forward.  It’s considered that this story is largely autobiographical, with incidents from the author’s own years of desperation.  Aside from some unsavory opinions and associations during the years of Nazi occupation of Norway, I know little of Hamsun’s life and work.  I suppose Hunger serves as a proper introduction, and I’d be curious to investigate the perspectives of his other writings.