Monday, December 21, 2009

Fechner's Little Book of Life After Death

Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801-1887) was a 19th century experimental psychologist and philosopher credited with several discoveries in perceptual psychology, such as the Weber-Fechner Law and the visual illusion called Fechner Color, in which colors may be perceived in a moving pattern of black and white. As per William James’ introduction to his Little Book of Life After Death (the present volume brings together this work and some supplementary materials from Fechner’s other writings), God for Fechner was “the totalized consciousness of the whole universe, of which the Earth’s consciousness forms an element, just as in turn my human consciousness and yours form elements of the whole earth’s consciousness.” One may see in Fechner a bit of the pantheist, or a forerunner of Bucke’s cosmic consciousness and Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious.

Fechner saw our life as an intermediate stage between fetal development and the third, postmortem, stage. Each stage is an outgrowth and fulfillment of the previous stage, as (in the timeworn analogy) the butterfly is the realization of the chrysalis. All is well and good, so far, for those willing to accept Fechner’s conception of meaningful existence, but then the good doctor makes a further leap and proposes that each human soul on this earth is an arena of influence for other souls existing in the afterlife, and that these souls, both good and evil, exert themselves through the individual‘s soul in such degree as the soul has affinity with these spirits. Sometimes one follows the better nature and guidance of these spooks, sometimes not.* Now, where Fecher has come up with this scenario, he doesn’t say. There is no appeal to precedent, although an illustration in the text gives one to believe that it is somewhat based on Fecher’s work with color and color blending. There is also a nod to the Great Man conception of history: “No man’s life is without consequences that remain always and eternally.” Fecher supports the sweet idea that when we think of the deceased, then live not only in memory, but are in fact brought to us spiritually, which naturally leads to a discussion of ghosts and why it’s not such a good thing to think of the dead too often.

All in all, Fechner’s hypothesis seems an odd and inadequate explanation for the workings of human consciousness, and given this, one’s sense of dubiousness (not to mention tedium) increases as one proceeds further into this book.

*One is also tempted to see the influence of Swedenborg in this conception.

Note: The edition under review is the Pantheon Books edition of 1943, with introduction by Willam James and preface by John Erskine. The link below is to a different edition.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Accumulated Wisdom

Born in Kiev to Catholic Poles, Krzhizhanovsky was the youngest of five children, the only son, highly musical. As an adolescent, he secretly read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, a deeply unsettling experience: "Before it had all seemed so simple: things cast shadows. But now it turned out that shadows cast things, or perhaps things didn't exist at all." Kant, as he put it, had erased the fine line between 'I' and 'not I.'"

-From the introduction to Sigismund Krzhizhanovsky's Memories of the Future (New York Review Books, 2009)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Other Side by Alfred Kubin

The Other Side, Alfred Kubin's only extended literary work, is a strange and fantastic dystopian nightmare, and a book which would make my list of 100 favorite books, if I were prone to making such lists.

The Central Asian "Dream Kingdom" established by the enigmatic Claus Patera is ruled by manipulation of the subconscious and furnished with the tarnished and threadbare cast-offs of Europe. It is to the capitol of the Dream Kingdom, the city of Perle - a place perpetually oppressed by grey skies - that the narrator is inexplicably summoned. The eccentric inhabitants of Perle live as if under a spell, subject to bizarre hallucinations and ruled by the secluded Patera. To the degree that Patera may be an emanation of Patera’s mind, it is subject to his increasing madness as events in the physical realm reflect the explosive violence of his mental disintegration.

Alfred Kubin was primarily a visual artist. The Penguin Modern Classics edition* includes drawings by Kubin and an autobiographical appendix. Born in 1877 in northern Bohemia, Kubin’s was a morbid personality, given to torturing small creatures in childhood and obsessing over death. He later fell under the thrall of Schopenhauer’s pessimism, which he considered the only reasonable response to life. He “found keen pleasure in dwelling in imagination on catastrophe and the upsurge of primeval forces”, a perspective that informs the cataclysmic climax of his novel. In his collected illustrations, Kubin’s dark and fantastic imaginings are a natural (or unnatural, as the case may be) progression from Redon’s cyclopic, grinning spiders and the sexual fetishism intimated in Rops. Click on David X's blog over there on the right for more about Kubin and his art.

*There is also an edition published by Dedalus (link below), which appears to be out of print.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Origin of the Brunists by Robert Coover

Written in 1966, way before he became a proponent of non-linear “hypertext” literature, Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists is an excellent narrative fiction detailing the rise of a religious cult in the aftermath of a coal mine disaster. There is a certain mastery of narrative in this first novel, realistically told, as Coover explores the motivations of several disparate characters over 500-plus pages.

The quiet lynchpin of the novel is one Giovanni Bruno, an Italian-American miner, rather dim and shiftless, and (like his near namesake) a bit of an apostate from the local Catholic church. The early chapters effectively portray the crude humor and dangerousness of the miners world. When one Oxford “Ferd” Clemens saves his young new partner from a sexually humiliating hazing deep in the mines, they slip into a side room to share a smoke, unaware of the deadly accumulation of noxious gases awaiting only the spark of a match to send the mine and 98 of its workers to the appropriately titled “kingdom come”.

By some random miracle, Bruno has sequestered himself in a tight spot, avoiding the death by asphyxiation that kills several co-workers. Overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning, he lingers in a coma for weeks before awakening to utter a very few cryptic words. By the time he awakens, there is an intimation of religious revival in the air, occasioned by a short enigmatic note left by another miner, the Reverend Ely Collins, to his wife. Rumors have also been circulated about a mystical white bird seen in the mine just before the disaster.

It is at this point that several characters, including former local golden boy, sexual conquistador, and newspaper owner “Tiger” Miller and Mrs. Eleanor Norton, a mystagogue with an unhealthy interest in teenage boys who receives signals from a transdimensional character named Domiron, descend upon Bruno and the widow Collins. With Norton as the catalyst, that most American of institutions - the apocalyptic cult - begins to form around Bruno and the “martyred” Reverend Collins. Against the backdrop of economic depression in the town of West Condon, and increasing suspicion of the cult by the Nazarene preacher Abner Baxter and local big wheel Ted Cavanaugh, the elements of the drama come together like cogs in a wheel, moving inexorably towards a explosive climax on The Hill of Redemption, formerly a makeout point near the mine known by the cognocenti as Cunt Hill.

Coover constructs the novel intricately and with fine and humane characterizations, although once can see the continued fascination with the male organ that first appeared in his first collection of stories, Pricksongs and Descants, and which has apparently continued in his later works. The experimentalism for which Coover is known, while present in this novel in a series of gnomic (and ignorable) italicized sections, do not interfere with the narrative. Humor and the pathos of shattered dreams and human gullibility imbue this novel with a distinctly timeless realism.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Claude Levi-Strauss

Way back in 1979, entering my freshman year as an Anthropology undergrad at the University of Texas, I picked up a copy of Levi-Strauss's The Raw and the Cooked. This was the initial volume of a four volume work on structures of human thought. I took it back to the dorm, cracked it open...and was immediately mystified.

Levi-Strauss on myth was completely alien to the facile narrative-based comparative mythologies of Joseph "Masks of God" Campbell and Mircea Eliade. It took a perusal of The Savage Mind and two volumes of material on Structural Anthropology to start to get a handle on him. It didn't help that my first class on Levi-Straussian thought was taught by a disciple of his, Ira Buchler. Buchler came into class on the first day, stood thoughtfully for a few minutes, and then, in a barely audible monotone, started to relate a story of a turtle his daughter had found in the middle of the road. This led into a monologue so opaque that it wasn't until two classes later that one brave soul stood up and, speaking for the rest of us, made it known to Buchler that we had no idea what the hell he was talking about. Fortunately, things got better after that.

Over time, I drifted away from Levi-Strauss, and I understand that his theories have not aged particularly well, at least in American academia, where structuralism seems to have joined the field of sociobiology on the intellectual dustheap. But maybe this is a harsh, ill-informed, judgement on my part.

Still, once one gets into his mindset, he is a fascinating and intricate author and thinker. Despite the difficulties of his works, I can state unequivocably that his memoir of fieldwork*, Tristes Tropiques, is one of the classics of 20th century writing, no matter how you slice it. I still get goose bumps reading the final elegaic pages:

Just as the individual is not alone in the group, nor any one society alone among the others, so man is not alone in the universe. When the spectrum or rainbow of human cultures has finally sunk into the void created by our frenzy; as long as we continue to exist and there is a world, that tenuous arch linking us to the inaccessible will still remain, to show us the opposite course to that leading to enslavement; many may be unable to follow it, but its contemplation affords him the only privilege of which he can make himself worthy; that of arresting the process, of controlling the impulse which forces him to block up the cracks in the wall of necessity one by one and to complete his work at the same time as he shuts himself up within his prison; this is a privilege coveted by every society, whatever its beliefs, its political system or its level of civilization; a privilege to which it attaches its leisure, its pleasure, its peace of mind and its freedom; the possibility, vital for life, of unhitching, which consists - Oh! fond farewell to savages and explorations! - in grasping, during the brief intervals in which our species can bring itself to interrupt its hive-like activity, the essence of what it was and continues to be, below the threshold of thought and over and above society: in the contemplation of a mineral more beautiful than all our creations; in the scent that can be smelt at the heart of a lily and is more imbued with learning than all our books; or in the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity and mutual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one can sometimes exchange with a cat.

*Levi-Strauss, back in the 1930's, contributed to the "Tropical Forest Tribes" volume of the excellent Handbook of South American Indians, by far the most expensive book I had hitherto bought when I special-ordered it in the early 80's.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Thank You

A quick "thank you" to old and new friends who follow this blog. I don't pay much attention to the social aspects of blogging, so I was quite surprised to have a look this morning and notice that I have a few "followers". I look forward to mining your very intelligent blogs for good books, films, images, and other pleasant diversions. I'm quite impressed with the amount of work you all put into your blogs! I hope to return the favor in the near future by linking to these blogs so that others may find and enjoy them.

On the negative side, knowing that someone is reading will goad me to put my sloth aside and work harder to come up with more thoughtful reviews and opinions!

Cheers, and happy reading!


P.S. In case you don't know, I also have a sister site on blogger called "Tijuana Bible", dedicated to random images, unusual short films and strange old cartoons. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that this site exists until a few minutes ago. I suppose I had better think about updating it.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories by Algernon Blackwood

The weird stories of Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) are supernatural in the truest sense. They testify to an awareness that the natural world is greater and more powerful than the puny destiny of man. Blackwood the nature-mystic holds the certitude that there are deeper forces at work in the universe, of which man is ignorant and before which he is helpless. These forces are not malignant per se, but are rather of such immensity of power and so mysterious in their purpose that before them man is but an insignificant microbe. The horror in Blackwood is the realization that modern man is insignificant to the degree that nature hardly deigns to perceive him, or perceives him only as a slight impediment in the fabric of the cosmos. Blackwood writes of a terrifying nature spirit or elemental (“The Wendigo”) that haunts the great northern forests of North America, of the Danube willows which threaten to engulf two stranded campers on a island crumbling in flood (“The Willows“), and of the innate animalistic instincts of the atavistic soul (“Ancient Sorceries”, which loosely inspired the film “Cat People”). Anyone with an interest in tales of the strange and uncanny ought to be acquainted with the stories of Algernon Blackwood.

The Penguin Classics edition of Blackwood contains four fewer stories than the Dover publication misleadingly named The Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood, but does contain a useful introduction by S.T. Joshi, who has also compiled editions of the works of Lovecraft, Machen, and Lord Dunsany.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Accumulated Wisdom

History as Existential Despair, or, What Fools These Mortals Be

She that once appeared the mistress of the world, we have seen what has become of her, shattered by everything that she has suffered from immense and manifold misfortures - the desolation of her inhabitants and the menace of her enemies. Ruins on ruins...where is the Senate? Where the people? All the pomp of secular dignities has been destroyed...and we, the few that we are who remain, every day we are menaced by scourges and innumberable trial...No more Senate, no more people, but for that which still survives, sorrows and groanings, multiplied every day. Rome is deserted and in flames, and as for her buildings we see them fall down of their own accord.

Gregory the Great (540-604)

The entire human race, both present and future, is condemned to death. All the cities that have ever held dominion or have been the splendid jewels of empires belonging to other - some day men will ask where they were. And they will be swept away by various kinds of destruction: some will be ruined by wars, otheres will be destroyed by idleness and a peace that ends in sloth, or by luxury, the bane of those of great wealth. All these fertile plains will be blotted out of sight by a sudden overflowing of the sea, or the subsiding of the land will sweep them away suddenly into the abyss.

Moral Epistles lxxi. 15

The future belongs to future men. No Sibyl uveils to our view the roads which mankind will travel after us. As it advances in the mass, we will recede into the background. Today we look back upon the past's social and political culture forms as upon obsolete stages of spiritual development. In exactly the same way, subsequent generations will glance backwards upon the constitution which society, state and church have achieved in our present. We know only this: that the synthetic spirit of man forms the world's panorama more splendidly and more uniformly with every day, and that every miracle of its inventive power opens an inconceivable series of miracles yet to come.

Ferdinand Gregorovius (1821-1891)
Historian of the City of Rome and Incurable Optimist

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Chateau d'Argol by Julien Gracq

Chateau d'Argol (1938) is a curiously moody work and, in the precise phrasing of the inestimable magus benwaugh, “baroquely oblique”. One seems constantly on the verge of revelation, only to have the spectres dissolve into the mist of incomprehension. The novel has the ephemeral quality of a dream, and shares with de Chirico’s Hebdomeros (see previous review) the dubious reputation as a “surrealist” work. The narrative is gothic and atmospheric, centering on a decaying castle in Brittany recently purchased by Albert, “the last scion of a rich and noble family.” Ordinary reality holds no attraction for Albert, who shares the name of a the medieval philosopher and reputed alchemist Albertus Magnus, who was reputed to be in the possession of a brazen head. His doppelganger and secret sharer is Herminien, with whom he has pored over ancient manuscripts and shared elevated discussions. In my copy of the book, I have penciled real or imagined references to alchemical phrases, as the text is itself a kind of chemical retort where various elements are conjoined and refined, with volatile consequences.

(A crib note: we find the following under “Hermes” in the flawed but invaluable Wikipedia: “An interpreter who bridges the boundaries with strangers is a hermeneus. Hermes gives us our word “hermeneutics” for the art of interpreting hidden meaning.”)

Albert receives word of a visit from Herminien, who will be bringing a mysterious friend named Heide. Trancelike, he ponders the significance of this visitor, he know that the name is rumored to be associated with “violent revolutionary outbreaks”, and thus is a potential disruptor of the intellectual camaraderie he shares with Herminien. Wandering, he reaches an ancient cemetery, and absentmindedly scratches the name of the stranger on the decayed face of a gravestone, a dark portent.

Heide is a white-skinned beauty, ephemeral but captivating, an element of discord and potential estrangement between Albert and Herminien. As in a gnostic parable, she is an attractor, a tempting and physical being who plucks the companions from their spiritual and intellectual pleroma. Albert is captivated by her, and thus begins an uneasy cycle, played out in the isolated landscape, of degeneration, renewal, violence and death, culminating in “the icy flash of a dagger gliding between…shoulder blades like a handful of snow”.

Gracq’s writing is maddeningly voluptuous and oblique, with the concentrated potency of an alchemical process. The Pushkin Press edition is translated from the French by Louise Varese.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Accumulated Wisdom

"Since we are compelled always to relate things to ourselves, let us remember that there would be fewer martyred children if there were fewer tortured animals, fewer sealed trains carrying the victims of whatever dictatorship to their deaths if we had not become accustomed to cattle cars in which animals die without food or water en route to the slaughterhouse, fewer human game felled with guns if the taste for and habit of killing were not the prerogative of hunters."

Marguerite Yourcenar
"Who Knows Whether the Spirit of Animals Goes Downward"

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Insatiability by Stanislaw Witkiewicz

“A study of decay: mad, dissonant music; erotic perversion; widespread use of narcotics; dispossessed thinking; false conversions to Catholicism, and complex psychopathic personalities.”

-Czeslaw Milosz on Insatiability

It’s bad form to introduce a review with another review, but Milosz’s concise summary can scarcely be improved upon. As a work of modernity and madness, Insatiability prefigures Gravity’s Rainbow by half a century, and there is a certain resemblance between the two - the hypersexed antihero facing a crisis of self in the face of an overwhelming force, the young man in a historical moment headed for a schizoid breakdown, the biting social satire and grim humor and, not least, the secret transformation of civilization.

Insatiability takes place in a hypothetical late 20th century Poland . A quasi-Bolshevist Europe, and specifically a hedonistic Polish upper class, receives disturbing reports of an Asian tidal wave, an overwhelming Chinese army rolling in from the East, engulfing greater Russia and setting its sights on the puny European peninsula, bearing with it a new religion that utilizes a narcotic as a means of social control. Once again, Poland is the bulwark, the great plain through which the invaders must roll to get at the creamy center. But let’s begin at the beginning….

When choosing my destiny, I choose insanity
-Tadeusz Micinski, quoted by Witkiewicz

Genezip (Zipcio) Kapen is marked from birth as a prodigal son, a Valentino-faced scion of the upper middle class drawn towards melancholy and the salon society of the nobility. By means of his repulsive and perverted older friend, the avant-garde composer Putricides Hardonne, he gains entry into the salon of the aging Princess di Ticonderoga, a “blue-eyed vulture” (one of the kinder descriptions) who adopts Zipcio as a sexual initiate, an indefatigable boy-toy. The first half of this long book is mostly taken up with this relationship and the yin-yang of attraction and repulsion he feels for this spoiled and decadent siren. In addition to Hardonne (who early on debauches the boy in the woods) and the Princess (who debauches him everywhere else) there is a bizarre cast of characters dizzying Genezip’s mind with philosophies and perspectives which set the stage for his breakdown in the latter half of the novel. Insatiability is a sardonic and misanthropic novel with nary an attractive character, a cesspool of ideas in the form of Witkiewicz’s extended rants and ramblings. Actual dialogue is minimal, and usually in the form of extended philosophical discussions, intellectual ramblings which bear little on the perverse passions which form the undercurrent of the interpersonal relations. Most of the pages are either Zipcio’s interior monologue or pages upon pages of sarcastic third person observations on the grotesqueness and psychological vileness of the characters.

After Zipcio’s awakenings in the first half of the novel, part two (titled “Insanity”) follows him into young adulthood. The “Yellow Peril” has become all too real, and society braces for the impact. Genezip has been through school and is now a military officer. He becomes attached to the staff of the Quartermaster General Sloboluchowicz (the “Great Slob’), the dominant figure of the second half and a self-styled, self-assured Nietzschean superman whom Zipcio comes to idolize. Through his sister Lilian (for whom he, of course, has incestuous longing) and her connection with the theatre, Zipcio makes the acquaintance of the delectable Persy, who brings him to her rooms only to torture him with extended sexual teases, which give her a sadistic satisfaction. Zipcio is unaware that Persy is also the Great Slob’s mistress, who, in the intervals of strenuous lovemaking sessions, rebuilds his lust by recounting her teasings of Zipcio. Finally, at one point, it appears that Zipcio can control himself no longer and is on the verge of rape when Persy leaves the room. From another door enters another man, an adjunct of Sloboluchowicz, who has been spying on the two under orders of the General. Perhaps as a result of his own arousal from viewing the proceedings, he approaches Zipcio with clearly unwholesome intent. Zipcio picks up a hammer and buries it in the man’s temple. He leaves, disoriented but remorseless, and by lucky turn of fate guerilla warfare between rival factions begins that very night. Zenezip is wounded and wakes up in an infirmary.

He finds himself in the care of the gentle and virginal Eliza. Following the murder, Zipcio has experienced a breakdown of sorts, a disassociation from reality. He sees in Eliza a boundless calm and none of the guile that has characterized the women with whom he has heretofore associated. Eliza explains that she is a convert to a new religion, a religion that takes the form of mysterious pills dispensed by an Indian named Djevani, who is a sort of advance man, an infiltrator spreading the neo-Buddhist gospel of Murti-Bingism through Davamesque B2, a pill that takes away the anxieties and concerns of philosophy, the obsessions and insatiabilities of the artist and the intellectual, by revealing the “Grand Truth“. Zipcio partakes of the drug and experiences a mind-bending alteration of reality, which leaves him in a schizoid state, by turns docile and psychotically manic.

Zipcio keeps his hands off Eliza, mostly worshiping her virginity and wondering at her inner peace, but also bearing silent witness to a certain contempt of her. Finally, on their wedding night, they consummates their relationship, an act which turns Eliza sexually ravenous - in a word, insatiable. In the heat of sex giving way to his revulsion of her, Zipcio grips his hands around Eliza’s throat and strangles her in a last erotic convulsion. He rises the next morning, puts on his uniform, informs the desk that Madame will be staying an extra day, and calmly leaves to join his unit. He travels with Persy and the Great Slob to Polish Byelorussia, where a minor Armageddon is to be staged in the face of the advancing Chinese (the acknowledgement of this second murder is taken calmly by the Great Slob, as he is certain that Zipcio will perish at the front anyway along with the rest of the army, obviating the need for punishment). But it turns out that the Great Slob himself has partaken of Davamesque B2 as well. He knows that resistance to the Chinese is futile, and that his army will be slaughtered. At this point, under the influence, this great leader who has planned martyrdom and a blaze of glory for himself makes the astonishing decision to surrender. Despite angry rebellion by other units in the Polish army, the deed is done, and the group is taken to the camp of the Chinese general, where a group of Chinese are being lazily beheaded for minor infractions in the preparation for a battle that never takes place. Sloboluchowicz has assured himself that a man of his experience, stature and charisma will be invaluable to the Chinese, but he allows no show of emotion when he is calmly informed that they really have no use for him, and he is taken out to be summarily decapitated. In the aftermath, Zipcio, after a brief emotionless fling with Persy, takes up his new position in the new order, a “consummate lunatic, a mild catatonic” and is forcibly married off to a noble Chinese beauty. The new devotees of Murti-Bing, freed of unproductive intellectual inquiry and decadent Western ennui, take their assigned places in the new order.

A summary of the main narrative of Insatiability hardly does the book justice. The neologisms, the obscenities, the mad jargon, poisonous satire, and tooth-grinding contempt of Wikiewicz for the banal shine forth crazily from every dark page. Insatiablity flows forth like a manuscript smuggled out of an asylum, a bizarre, unique document of the early 20th century avant-garde, and a work of breathtaking genius, decades ahead of its time. In a strange coda for one who had created such a novel, Stanislaw Witkiewicz committed suicide at the Russian border upon learning of the Soviet invasion of Poland. Later investigation, it is said, revealed that his coffin held the body of an unknown woman.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Journals of Jules Renard

As with most journals and books of aphorisms, Renard’s Journal is best taken in small bites. Still, as a whole it is a remarkable portrait of one man’s life, and highly recommended.

It is difficult to convey the beauty of this book without quoting extensively, but to do so would require missing some excellent passages and thus giving an incomplete picture (beware of Renard “quotes“ on the internet - some sound suspiciously like fortune cookies). Jules Renard (1846-1910) was a French author, a largely rural personage although he did have some success in Paris. Many of the longer entries concern his townsfolk, although Verlaine, Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt and Gide also pass through the pages.

Oscar Wilde next to me at lunch. He has the oddity of being an Englishman. He gives you a cigarette, but he selects it himself. He does not walk around a table, he moves a table out of the way. His face is kneaded with tiny red worms, and he has long teeth, containing caves. He is enormous, and he carries and enormous cane.

I don’t mind signing the petition for Oscar Wilde, with the proviso that he will give his word of honor to stop - - writing.

His journal entries tend to be decidedly mixed towards his parents - he seems to despise them both, perhaps a reflection of how they felt about each other (they ceased speaking soon after Jules was born):

She is resentful because of her humiliations, of his obstinate silence. But if he said a word to her, she would cast herself upon his neck with a storm of tears, and, quickly go repeating the word to the entire village. But it is thirty years since he has said a word.

Maurice took the revolver out of the drawer of the night table, saying he wanted to clean it. Papa, who feels well tonight, says:
“He said that but he was lying. He is afraid that I’ll kill myself. If I had a mind to kill myself, I wouldn’t use a tool that can only mutilate.”
“Will you stop talking like that!” says Marinette.
“I’d go at it squarely and take my rifle.”
“You’d do better to take an enema,” I tell him.

The story of his mother’s death, falling (suicide?) backwards into a well is too long to recount here, but it is masterful, betraying his inner conflict: “A skirt floating on the water, a slight eddying such as there is when one has drowned an animal. No human face.”

Renard died the following year.

Some of his more terse observations prefigure the paradoxical comic Steven Wright: “I like solitude - even when I am alone.“ “Truth that creates illusions is the only kind I like.” “What happens to all the tears we do not shed?”

He has a clear-eyed view of human nature, and can be in turns, lyrical and astringent. Religion, aging, and death preoccupied him, although with no clear conclusions drawn.

As a man, Christ was admirable. As God, one could say of him:
“What? Was that all He could do?”

There is no paradise on earth, but there are pieces of it. What there is on earth is a broken paradise.

And, at the end, this jewel:
“One should say nothing, because everything offends.”

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Baudelaire on Decadent Literature (Essays on Poe)

In his essays on Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Baudelaire defined the aesthetics of "decadent" literature, with Poe himself as the exemplar. Here are a some extracts from "New Notes on Edgar Poe", included in Baudelaire as a Literary Critic (ed. Hyslop).

Decadent literature!— Empty words which we often hear fall, with the sonority of a deep yawn, from the mouths of those unenigmatic sphinxes who keep watch before the sacred doors of classical Aesthetics. Each time that the irrefutable oracle resounds, one can be sure that it is about a work more amusing than the Iliad. It is evidently a question of a poem or of a novel, all of whose parts are skillfully designed for surprise,whose style is magnificently embellished, where all the resources of language and prosody are utilized by an impeccable hand. When I hear the anathema boom out—which, I might say in passing, usually falls on some favorite poet—I am always seized with the desire to reply: Do you take me for a barbarian like you and do you believe me capable of amusing myself as dismally as you do? Then grotesque comparisons stir in my brain; it seems to me that two women appear before me: one, a rustic matron, repugnant in her health and virtue, plain and expressionless, in short, owing everything to simple nature; the other, one of those beauties who dominate and oppress one's memory, adding all the eloquence of dress to her profound and original charm, well poised, conscious and queen of herself—with a speaking voice like a well-tuned instrument, and eyes laden with thoughts but revealing only what they wish. I would not hesitate in my choice, and yet there are pedagogical sphinxes who would reproach me for my failure to respect classical honor. —But, putting aside parables, I think it is permissible to ask these wise men if they really understand all the vanity, all the futility of their wisdom. The phrase decadent literature implies that there is a scale of literatures, an infantile, a childish, an adolescent, etc. This term, in other words, supposes something fatal and providential, like an ineluctable decree; and it is altogether unfair to reproach us for fulfilling the mysterious law. All that I can understand in this academic phrase is that it is shameful to obey this law with pleasure and that we are guilty to rejoice in our destiny.—The sun, which a few hours ago overwhelmed everything with its direct white light, is soon going to flood the western horizon with variegated colors. In the play of light of the dying sun certain poetic spirits will find new delights; they will discover there dazzling colonnades, cascades of molten metal, paradises of fire, a sad splendor, the pleasure of regret, all the magic of dreams, all the memories of opium. And indeed the sunset will appear to them like the marvelous allegory of a soul filled with life which descends behind the horizon with a magnificent store of thoughts and dreams.
There is in man, he says, a mysterious force which modern philosophy does not wish to take into consideration; nevertheless, without this nameless force, without this primordial bent, a host of human actions will remain unexplained, inexplicable. These actions are attractive only because they are bad or dangerous; they possess the fascination of the abyss. This primitive, irresistible force is natural perversity, which makes man constantly and simultaneously a murderer and a suicide, an assassin and a hangman;—for he adds, with a remarkably satanic subtlety, the impossibility of finding an adequate rational motive for certain wicked and perilous actions could lead us to consider them as the result of the suggestions of the Devil, if experience and history did not teach us that God often draws from them the establishment of order and the punishment of scoundrels;—after having used the same scoundrels as accomplices! such is the thought which-, I confess, slips into my mind, an implication as inevitable as it is perfidious. But for the present I wish to consider only the great forgotten truth—the primordial perversity of man—and it is not without a certain satisfaction that I see some vestiges of ancient wisdom return to us from a country from which we did not expect them. It is pleasant to know that some fragments of an old truth are exploded in the faces of all these obsequious flatterers of humanity, of all these humbugs and quacks who repeat in every possible tone of voice: "I am born good, and you too, and all of us are born good!" forgetting, no! pretending to forget, like misguided equalitarians, that we are all born marked for evil!

Friday, June 05, 2009

Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

Both of my parents are dead. My sister recently made good on a longstanding threat to send me some of their personal possessions, in three boxes of diminishing size, like children's stacking blocks. The boxes included a brass tea set (allegedly from Russia), a ceramic ink pot (also from Russia), some carved wooden boxes (Indonesian? - empty, but which used to hold family photos), a few odd pieces of crystal and ceramics, the smelly trunk which I always assumed my father had while in the Navy, but which, in fact, my grandfather brought over from Ireland, some photos (mostly of me at various stages of youthful development), and some assorted odds and ends: a little leprechaun statuette that my youngest son thinks looks as though it's pooping on a shamrock, some newspapers of the JFK assassination, and no less than three Bibles(!) and two Bible storybooks from the 1920s, now sadly fallen into heathen hands. The detritus of a few lives lived in the last century and a half, mostly of no monetary value, and hardly any (to me) sentimental value. Stuff that gets pass down a couple of generations, and then (all familiar associations spent) deservedly disappears without a trace.

This is the sort of thing Julian Barnes meditates upon in this book, a personal examination of family, memory, and mortality. Barnes is afraid to die. That is, he is afraid of being dead, and seems to fret about this incessantly. (The canard is that people are either afraid of dying, or of being dead. I suppose, as the prospect of total extinction has always held a certain appeal to me, I fall within the former category. But as long as there's not a lot of blood or exposed organs, I'm ok with it.)

Early on, Barnes makes generous use of insights by the likes of Jules Renard and the brothers Goncourt , Stendhal, and Shostakovich. Rachmaninoff makes a humorous appearance as a man so terrified of death that he ran shrieking from the first graveyard scene in "Frankenstein", but later became convinced, temporarily at least, that salted pistachios calmed his death fear. Stendhal is used as an exemplar of the faultiness of memory, as his diary entries of an early trip to Florence are compared to later recollections. There is a smattering of philosophical speculation and medical information, but little space devoted to religion, a perspective on death that Barnes, an atheist/agnostic, sees as little more than whistling in the dark. (Not that I disagree.)

Nothing to Be Frightened Of sustains interest for most of the first half of the book (thanks to Renard & Co.), but gets rather bogged down in the middle with somewhat unfocused meanderings and blathering frets and fears at the prospect of his eventual sloughing of this mortal coil (the title of the book, if you haven’t figured it out, has a double meaning). By the end, with a meditation on Stendhal, Barnes manages to pull it together again. If I were into ratings, I'd give this a middling one.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sympathy for the Devil

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

“Who told you there was no such thing as real, true, eternal love? Cut out his lying tongue!”

On a bench in Patriarchs’ Pond Park, two literary types discussing the Christian religion are accosted by a mocking figure. The boorish editor, Berlioz (an incidental figure, and the uncoincidental namesake of the composer of La damnation de Faust) has his death prophesized by the stranger, a prophecy which wastes no time in being realized due to the demonically inevitable conjunction of sunflower oil, a turnstile, and an all-too-punctual streetcar. Thus, another latter-day John the Baptist is beheaded.

With this prologue, The Master and Margarita begins a dual narrative which commences in the midst of Holy Week and reaches its culmination on Easter Sunday. The primary narrative (1920s Moscow) is satiric and brutally funny, while the story within the story, the Master’s retelling of Christ’s Trial and Passion is serious and delicately written. As the primary story unfolds, the identity of the stranger and his retinue (which includes a harlequin figure and a huge black tomcat with a gourmand’s appetite) becomes increasingly apparent, an identity which would be unmistakable even without the various hat-tips to the Faust legend. For the “magician” Woland, time and reality are pliable, lending a surreal quality to the story that is both hilarious and disconcerting (see the - literally - empty suit diligently catching up on its paperwork). The tendency of the narrative is more along the lines of a trickster cycle than a morality play, although the Pontius Pilate storyline is a study in existential dilemma worthy of Dostoyevsky or Kafka.

The prohibitions and paranoia of Soviet Russia (“Never Speak to Strangers” is one chapter title) are slyly satirized to the degree that Bulgakov’s novel was suppressed for decades before its first publication in 1966/67. The paranoia, the empty suits, the xenophobia, and the use of the asylum as a means of control are some of Bulgakov’s touchstones, yet even in Stalinist Russia, he managed to tell a tale of love and final redemption, courtesy of that scapegoat of humanity who is “Part of that Power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”

Monday, April 27, 2009

Darconville's Cat by Alexander Theroux

Lexicographic madness and Rabelaisian excess characterize this long novel of love, hate, madness, revenge and - perhaps - grace. Some chapters (particularly those pertaining to academia) are among the most hilariously misanthropic I’ve ever read. The latter portion (after the two black pages) are quite assuredly the most misogynistic pages ever written, and the lampoon of Southern culture is devastating, if unfair. Famously, Theroux wrote this after having been jilted, and having the gauntlet thrown before him - as he vowed revenge - in the words “Do your worst.” Foolish words, for Theroux is best at doing his worst. In fact, he attains here the supreme paradox of being stupefyingly brilliant. While you could skip entire chapters and not miss a beat of the narrative, you would miss out on the full force of Theroux’s treasure chest of obscure knowledge, inventive wordplay, and puns which are groaningly corny despite their sophisticated execution.

Darconville is an archetype as old as the hills - the sensitive soul undone by an unworthy woman (I think of Maugham’s clubfooted innocent in Of Human Bondage). The vituperation, the bile, is not his (he seems to remain innocent, if misguided, until the end), but rather is that of the sardonic narrator, and later given over to the Satanic eunuch Crucifer, who lives a shadowy existence in an opulent Harvard attic and pisses through a little silver tube (Theroux, the Catholic apologist, may commit many sins, but skimping on the details is not one of them).

Darconville is the object of undergraduate desire at an obscure girl’s college in the inbred heart of Virginia, but as fate would have it, he is instantaneously smitten by a mousy self-effacing girl with golden locks named Isabel Rawsthorne, a hick chick from the sticks. She constantly frets that he is too good for her, and after a false start, they are on the road to matrimony. But when Darconville publishes a respected novel and is offered a professorship at Harvard, Isabel becomes distant and uncommunicative, and then the the revelation that precedes the aforementioned black pages confirm his worst fears. Being jilted by a fat-legged girl for a jug-eared sailor does not sit well with Darconville: he falls into madness, and falls prey to the woman-hating eunuch, whose interest in Darconville seems mainly to revolve around his esteemed bloodline. True to form, the eunuch is both servant and master to the blue-blood, and leads him down unholy paths to the infernal regions of the soul, inspiring a Jacobean lust for revenge.

I will spare you the plot details. Honestly, if you like straightforward narrative, this probably isn’t for you. But if you like to savor the words and are willing to stretch your reading experience out to indeterminate lengths, and if you have a tolerance for mean-spiritedness in the service of art, you might consider looking into this philosophically rich and entertaining work.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Leonard Cohen at the Dodge Theatre, 4/5/09

Here's a toast to the inspiring and sartorially magnificent Leonard Cohen. At the invigorated age of 75, he played the crowd through an impeccable 3.5 hour set at Phoenix's Dodge Theatre last night. A once in a lifetime event, an odyssey through a remarkable career, and quite simply, a true delight.

Plus, I got to share it with a beautiful woman.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Blanquerna by Ramon Lull

The Catalan novel Blanquerna, described as “the first novel to be written in any Romance language” is less a novel than an extended work of religious instruction in narrative form. Written in 1283 by the Majorcan mystic, heretic, and martyr Ramon Lull - a neglected figure in the western mystical tradition - the work is severe, with an almost morbid religiosity and an emphasis on extreme piety and deprivation, rejection of the world and absolute submission to the (supposed) will of God.

Blanquerna is the eponymous hero of the tale, the son of the fanatically devoted Evast and Aloma, a noble couple who have forsaken all worldly goods to live in poverty. They attempt to arrange a marriage for their son, so that as a husband and householder he may manage their wealth in service to God while they retreat into a live of austere deprivation. To the consternation of her mother, Natana, the woman they have chosen for their son, decides after a few minutes interview with Blanquerna to retreat to a convent for the remainder of her life. The following section of the book is an extended description of the mortifications she introduces into the convent.

Meanwhile, Blanquerna sojourns into the forest to live as a hermit. He encounters a castle occupied by the personifications of the Ten Commandments, wailing bitterly over the fact that they have been forgotten in this wicked, wicked world. All our hero really wants to do is squirrel himself away in the woods to live a life of quiet deprivation. The problem is that the woods are chock full of knights, shepherds, merchants, and others to whom he can’t resist giving a detailed assessment of the wickedness of their ways. In no time, this killjoy has gained a reputation as a wise exemplar of godly living. (Be warned, the “action” in this story is thinly sandwiched between extended dissertations on various holy topics). Because of his wise counsel and pious example, Blanquerna (as always, against his will) is called upon to live in a monastery, where he becomes first sacristan (whatever that is), then abbott. He eventually rises to the bishopric, and is ultimately elevated to the papacy. Introduced into the story is a wise fool, Ramon, who assists the pope by citing the example of various pious works of reason and devotion (works which happen to be identical to those written by one Ramon Lull). As Pope, Blanquerna oversees the realization of one of Lull’s own pet projects, the establishment of linguistic academies in order to facilitate the conversion of foreign and ungodly souls, particularly the Saracens (Lull himself achieved martyrdom after being stoned by an angry mob in North Africa, presumably following one of his habitual anti-Islamic rants - see illustration). In the end, Blanquerna renounces the papacy in favor of the life of a simple hermit, the role he has fervently coveted throughout all his peregrinations.

Much of Blanquerna is taken up with crashingly dull expositions of the religious life, with a few anti-semitic talking points thrown in for good measure. Incorporated into the end of the narrative are two short works of mystical devotion, “The Book of the Lover and the Beloved” and “The Art of Contemplation”. Coming at the end of a rather tedious read, the former is a particularly refreshing, rich, and surprisingly vibrant work of mysticism, inspired by Sufi devotional books and in the tradition of the Song of Solomon and the works of San Juan de la Cruz. This edition, published by Dedalus Books under the guidance of the medievalist Robert Irwin, is a reprint of a ca. 1920’s translation by Edgar Allison Peers.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Five-and-Twenty Tales of the Genie by Sivadasa

Despite the overall darkness of the frame story - the acrid stench of the cremation grounds, an ascetic who brutally murders a child he has had with a courtesan, a necromancer seeking mastery over the world, and a decaying corpse inhabited by a genie, telling tales to an emperor - the stories in this volume are court tales of romantic love and crossed destinies, magical yogis and fairy brides, wise kings and wiley tricksters. These tales haved a real charm about them, and reflect a rich oral tradition masterfully compiled by the medieval poet Sivadasa.

Each of the tales told by the genie are designed to test the wisdom of the legendary emperor Vikramaditya, who is called upon at the conclusion of each story to pass judgement regarding the actions of those within the story. As the tales progress, the emperor gains the trust and admiration of the genie, who ultimately reveals how Vikramaditya can vanquish the sorcerer and gain the Eight Powers which the sorcerer covets for himself.

The Five-and-Twenty Tales of the Genie (which saw an earlier bastardized version by the Victorian adventurer and rogue Sir Richard Burton called Vikram and the Vampire) is one of a recent series of Indian/Sanskrit classics translated and published by Penguin. This excellent series illustrates that the legacy of ancient Indian literature is not confined to the justifiably revered epics Mahabharata and Ramayana.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hebdomeros by Giorgio de Chirico

Hebdomeros is an extended prose piece by the Surrealist artist Giorgio de Chirico, a painter best known for his dark and desolate paintings of sterile town squares devoid of human beings. This novel (for want of a better word) was written in 1929, several years after the muse of painting had abandoned de Chirico.

Writing in his introduction, the poet John Ashbery compares the mysterious protagonist to Maturin’s Melmoth or Lautremont’s Maldoror, characters which evoke the sense of a solitary superman, above and beyond ordinary human morality. While this characterization is not inaccurate, it should also be noted that there is a certain absurdist - comic, even – quality to Hebdomeros that is lacking in those brooding gothic antiheroes, and might even seem to be a parody of the idealized overman. (It should be noted that de Chirico was an admirer of Nietzsche.)

The difficulty in reading Hebdomeros lies in adjusting one’s expectations as to what one might expect in the way of narrative. Simply put, there really isn’t any narrative. To fall back on a cliché, de Chirico is painting pictures – sometimes wonderfully surreal pictures – with words. But there is also a similarity with the William Gibson story of several years back, which was marketed on a CD-ROM designed to melt into oblivion soon after it had been read. Hebdomeros is like this – the episodes, despite their beauty and humor, seem to fade almost immediately. Every time I picked up this short text, I had to reread the previous page or two, so quickly did they fade from memory. In this, the lyricism and strangeness of Hebdomeros resembles a dream which fades to oblivion upon awakening.

There is a cinematic feel to the text, as is appropriate for a visual artist. It helped for me to read this text while imagining (that crucial word!) it as one of those pioneering pieces of surreal cinema, as envisioned by Dulac or Bunuel. There is an undercurrent of anti-bourgeois sentiment through this piece, a certain savaging of middle-class norms and expectations, and the descriptions of the various personages encountered or described by Hebdomeros are quite in keeping with the conventions of the silent cinema, the bowler hat, walking stick, and waxed moustache of the mid-level clerk. Even so, anachronisms abound – savage Northmen are eternally poised to flood through those vacant town squares, leaving destruction in their wake, ancient Rome with its bestial gladiatorial combats, and Mediterranean coastal towns with their boorish tourists are evoked as well. Hebdomeros seems to stride across time and space, with his companions or disciples in tow, making Zarathustran pronouncements at once lofty and absurd. One has to be willing to approach surrealism, in any of its guises, with a sense of humor, or at least a sense of the ridiculousness of the common run of humanity. Hebdomeros is a minor work in the grand scheme of things, but it is a perfect period-piece for the surrealism of the early 20th century.

(Illustration: De Chirico’s “The Great Metaphysician”.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Strange World by Frank Edwards

Truth be told, Erich von Daniken was a johnny-come-lately in the field of extraterrestrial visitation. Still, just about the time his "researches" were hitting the paperback racks of the nation's drugstores, I was a curious and impressionable 12 year old looking for some mental stimulation. I discovered some new editions of two books by a Mr. Frank Edwards that promised to be a wealth of knowledge on the odd and paranormal (what with their Chariot of the Gods typeface and all), and I begged my parents to snag them for me. Happily, they heard my plea and the paperbacks popped up in my Christmas stocking that year, along with a pair of Groucho Marx glasses.

Flash forward a couple of years. I was now living in Roswell, NM, the interplanetary ground zero for Planet Earth. As the greater Roswell Chamber of Commerce hadn't realized the income potential of this fact, I was blissfully unaware. Still, in a little junk shop I found, among the crystal candy dishes and doilies, several back issues of FATE, a little pulp magazine out of the fifties, dedicated to the weird, the paranormal , and the sale of advertising space to the Rosicrucians. And there was good old Frank, a chunky meat-and-potato kind of guy, with his BCG's and portly frame. It seems Frank had a regular column in FATE, from which most of the pieces in his books had been lifted.

So, I found this book recently, in a lovely 1964 edition complete with dust jacket, and all the old favorites were there: "UFO Explodes Over Nevada", "UFO Over Hawaii", "The Search for the Hairy Giants", "The Monster Apes of Oregon", "The Enigma of the Atomic Tornadoes", "The Ghost Was Right!", "Monster on the Beach", "Ramu the Wolf Boy", "Bobby the Wonder Boy", "The Coffins are Restless Tonight!", "The Runaway Coffin Comes Home", "Exploding Fish Bowl", and the viral classic "Our Martyred Presidents".

Some of these pieces have the whiff of possibility, some seem suspiciously like Mr. Edwards had a deadline, and most seem like sources of Roky Erickson lyrics. No matter. Don't believe everything you read in a book, but at least stay awake to the possibility that the world is stranger, much stranger, than the evidence of pedestrian reality might suggest.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Dark Room by Junnosuke Yoshiyuki

Shuichi Nakata is a middle-aged writer living in 1960’s Tokyo. A widower, he has established a small network of available women with whom he meets for occasional sexual trysts, free of the concerns and constraints of commitment. Nakata maintains a chauvinistic attitude towards women, and, specifically, has a certain horror of the vagina, which he considers “has something very evil about it.” Still, he confesses in a magazine interview that he would “like to achieve a state where something evil looks like a rose.” It is this transformation, thorns and all, which gives this book its momentum.

In the course of the novel, most of the women in his network fall away for one reason or another, and he is left with Natsue, a woman in her early twenties. It gradually dawns on Nakata that he is beginning to form an attachment to this girl, a state which is abhorrent to him. Still, there is fascination in that Natsue is an outlet for his psychological aggression towards women. Like many young adult women, she has discovered The Story of O, and is fascinated by the themes of bondage and submission as a means of exploring sexuality. Nakata has little interest until he discovers that, by acting out, he can manifest in the flesh his ambivalent feelings towards Natsue. Envisioned perhaps as a means of maintaining distance from Natsue, the master/slave relationship ultimately pulls him emotionally closer to her, to the dark room of commitment.

In its essence a misogynistic novel, The Dark Room is interspersed with discussions of lesbianism, abortion (one of the female character states “I would love starting a kid and getting him [the doctor] to drag it out again"), prostitution and female sexuality, discussions which reflect, I assume, attitudes towards the increasing independence of women that may have been coming forth in 1960’s Japan. On the other side of it, it is a chronicle of a classic middle-age crisis, of a man sensing loss of vigor, physical stamina, and personal power, with the chill breath of decline and death on his neck. An interesting, if uncomfortable, novel of conflicted sexuality.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Poem by Fitz-James O'Brien

The Demon of the Gibbet
by Fitz-James O'Brien

There was no west, there was no east,
No star abroad for eyes to see;
And Norman spurred his jaded beast
Hard by the terrible gallows-tree.

"O, Norman, haste across this waste,—
For something seems to follow me!"
"Cheer up, dear Maud, for, thanked be God,
We nigh have passed the gallows tree!"

He kissed her lip: then — spur and whip!
And fast they fled across the lea.
But vain the heel, the rowel steel,—
For something leaped from the gallows-tree!

"Give me your cloak, your knightly cloak,
That wrapped you oft beyond the sea!
The wind is bold, my bones are old,
And I am cold on the gallows-tree!"

"O holy God! O dearest Maud,
Quick, quick, some prayers—the best that be!
A bony hand my neck has spanned,
And tears my knightly cloak from me!"

"Give me your wine,—the red, red wine,
That in a flask hangs by your knee!
Ten summers burst on me accurst,
And I am athirst on the gallows-tree!"

"O Maud, my life, my loving wife!
Have you no prayer to set us free?
My belt unclasps,—a demon grasps,
And drags my wine-flask from my knee!"

"Give me your bride, your bonnie bride,
That left her nest with you to flee!
O she hath flown to be my own,
For I'm alone on the gallows-tree!"

"Cling closer, Maud, and trust in God!
Cling close!—Ah, heaven, she slips from me!"
A prayer, a groan, and he alone
Rode on that night from the gallows-tree

The Fantastic Tales of Fitz-James O'Brien

Fitz-James O’Brien (1828-1862) was an Irishman who, after dissipating his inheritance, moved to the United States, where he became an author of fantasies of science and the supernatural. From the 1850’s to his death in the American Civil War, he wrote numerous pieces which garnered him a reputation as the “Celtic Poe”. The introduction to The Fantastic Tales of Fitz-James O’Brien makes it clear that, due to the need for ready cash to finance the style of living to which he had become accustomed, his output was largely confined to magazine work - stories churned out to meet deadlines and thus considered in some way “inferior”.

While he perhaps did not attain the stylistic reputation of a Hawthorne or a Poe, O’Brien was clearly a pioneer of fantastic literature, following in the footsteps of these personages and their antecedent, Charles Brockden Brown. It is difficult to assess, in retrospect, the inventiveness of a talent such as his, for his heirs build upon his groundwork, and thus almost make his writings seem pedestrian. Still, he wrote, in “What Was It?” the story of a malevolent, invisible being long before Bierce and Wells, and, to my mind, “The Diamond Lens” (in which a “microscopist” uses cutting edge technology to discover a lovely, almost sub-atomic, nymph in a drop of water) prefigures the scientific fantasy of Wells. “The Wondersmith” fuses gypsy magic with prefabricated homunculi to bring forth an army of tiny assassins, programmed to bring about the extinction of American Christianity by murdering its children, as they sleep and dream of Christmas joys.

The purely supernatural has its place in O’Brien’s stories as well. “The Pot of Tulips” effectively retells a story, as old as antiquity, of a miser who in death reveals through signs and symbols the location of his hidden fortune. “The Lost Room” is reminiscent of an inferior Hawthorne – a young man steps out for a cigar, and returns to find his room weirdly transformed and occupied by a orgiastic party of Venetian revelers who, after a wager, turn him out of his habitation to wander forever in madness and despair.

“Seeing The World” is almost something out of the imagination of Borges. There is a mysterious stranger, returned from the East, who can heal the sick and confer poetic genius, but the price is outrageous, for the gift of seeing – of seeing everything in the world, in depth and simultaneously – the gift that Jupiter bestowed on Semele, is yet another doorway to madness. Finally, the collection is rounded out by the Oriental tale of “The Dragon Fang Possessed by the Conjurer Piou-Lu”, another tale of power and magic.

O’Brien writes most of the stories in the persona, apparently well know to him, of the comfortable bachelor, ensconced in his cozy lodgings, be it a haunted boarding house or a decaying Dutch mansion in upper Manhattan. Late evenings with cigar or opium, discussing supernatural possibilities with companions set a cozy tone, which will be upended by a shift of reality as objects of speculation become all too real. It would be wrong to judge O’Brien’s themes as hoary simply because we have encountered them in more well known authors who followed him down these speculative paths. Taken as exemplars of early nineteenth-century speculative fiction, these stories are still worth a read on a chill winter’s night.

(The illustration is a contemporary caricature of O'Brien as a Union Army recruiter.)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Stories of Paul Bowles

The author, composer, and translator Paul Bowles was raised on the stories of Poe and Hawthorne, and, like them, a not-so-subtle menace pervades his stories. Bowles exhibits no sentimentality in his writings but rather approaches the world as an outsider, an anthropologist of strangeness and cruelty. He is best in his stories of Morocco, which gives him an ideal stage for his dramas of fear and violence, the legitimate terror of the outsider in an inescapable downward spiral of detachment from identity. I think of the linguistics professor in one of Bowles’ most famous stories, “A Distant Episode”, whose western identity is severed when his tongue is violently (and needless to say, ironically) slashed from his mouth. Like Professor Unrat in the film “The Blue Angel”, his cultural persona flows from him like blood and he becomes less a man than a pathetic object of scorn and ridicule, wandering in incoherence, tin can lids jangling from his clothes for the amusement of ragged children. After many readings, the sudden and shocking violence of “The Delicate Prey” still gives rise to revulsion in the throat, and the deformed keeper of the underground pool in “By the Water” plays upon our age-old contempt for the grotesque. It is in the exploitation of the fearfully grotesque that Bowles found his métier.

A true expatriate, Bowles had the means to travel widely, and locales as diverse as Mexico and Sri Lanka show up in his stories. There are rare touches of humor, such as in “You Have Left Your Lotus Pods on the Bus”, but there are also instances of true American gothic, such as the madman of “If I Should Open My Mouth”, a 1954 tale of product tampering and the perverse “Pages from Cold Point”, an almost Nabokovian tale of seduction.

Bowles long had a reputation as a writer’s writer, and for many years his novels such as The Sheltering Sky, Up Above the World, and The Spider’s House languished in hard to find editions, until they were revived in the 1980’s. For the Beats, Bowles was a link to the past and a certain sort of respectability, and Burroughs and Ginsberg played out some of their most memorable antics in Bowles’ Tangier, the Interzone of Burroughs classic Naked Lunch. Later on, lured by his reputation as a composer and musicologist who pioneered recordings of the musicians of the Rif Mountains, Jagger and Jones sought him out (see Bowles’ notes for “Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka”). In truth, through recordings and translations, he did an invaluable service in attempting to preserve aspects of Moroccan culture before it became too contaminated by outside influences.

In documentary film and books such as Michelle Green’s The Dream at the End of the World, Bowles in old age became a pop icon, the dandy who traveled into the Sahara with a dozen trunks full of nappy suits and ties. The attention is deserved, but should not distract from the essence of Bowles: his novels, travel writings, memoirs, and short stories. Paul Bowles died in 1999.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Goethe's Tales for Transformation

It should come as no surprise that the author of Faust had a long and abiding interest in alchemy and the mythology of renewal and transformation. This collection brings together five stories and a short libretto (conceived as a continuation of Mozart's "The Magic Flute"), most of which touch directly upon themes corresponding to the Great Work.

Some of these pieces are heavily allegorical, particularly "Fairy Tale", a parable of metamorphosis which, as Alice Raphael convincingly illustrates in Goethe and the Philosopher's Stone, draws heavily on Egyptian mythology as understood by Masonic acolytes. Archetypes of Thoth (as Ferryman), the Lily or prima materia, the transforming serpent (which as the ouroboros embodies continuity or eternity, the Elder or lamp-bearer (who hold the key to the Great Work), and others act out a ceremony of transformation, the understanding of which is essential to the philosophical study of hermeticism and alchemy.

"The New Melusina" is the most enchanting tale of the lot, relating a young man's discovery of and betrothal to a beautiful and mysterious gnome princess. "The Counselor" and "The Good Women" (a kind of symposium) explore femininity and male/female duality, with an emphasis on female "constancy" which must have been a matter of discussion and importance to Goethe and his circle. "Nouvelle" is another allegory, this time pertaining to the taming of emotional passions, another significant step in spiritual transformation.

The collection is rounded out with Goethe's continuation of "The Magic Flute", in which the Queen of the Night imprisons Genius, the child of Pamina and Tamino, in a golden sarcophagus upon which a terrible curse has been lain, a curse which is finally overcome by trial and initiation.

The stories collected in this short anthology should appeal to anyone interested in Goethe's Masonic involvement, his lifelong interest in philosophical alchemy, and the aesthetic impact of these studies on his work.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Oriental Tales by Marguerite Yourcenar

Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar's best known novel, is in the form of a fictional memoir of the Emperor Hadrian, written to his successor Marcus Aurelius. There are some lovely passages here - wistful meditations on astronomy, history, the living of life, and sensual passion. This melancholy novel is mostly based on the biography of Hadrian from the Augustan History , but downplays the late Emperor's more vile characteristics, which were probably somewhat exaggerated in the original telling anyway. Fully deserving of its reputation as a 20th century classic.

Oriental Tales is Yourcenar's collection of ten stories, encompassing an "Orient" which stretches from the Balkans to China, in fantastic tales seemingly derived from folklore. Yourcenar has a way with a sensual phrase, and a sympathetic ear for the roguish seducer. Seduction is, in fact, a leitmotif of these stories, be it the artist Wang-Fo, whose superb paintings render pale the real world for a young Emperor (a seduction which carries an awful penalty, until the artist devises a means of saving himself), or the aging Japanese Don Juan, Genji, whose memory holds loving remembrance of all women save the one who loved him most deeply. There is a touch of the ribald in the sun-dappled stories of Greece and the Balkans (it is not a smile which almost betrays Marko Kraljevic in the story "Marko's Smile", feigning death until a dancing girl awakens his manly passion) and hints of the unearthly power of the feminine in "The Milk of Death", "Our Lady of the Swallows", and "Kali Beheaded", stories which seem to trace the beginnings of folklore and myth in anguished cries against patriarchal injustice.

Revised and supplemented from the original 1938 text, and translated lovingly by Alberto Manguel, these stories affirm Yourcenar as one of the premier (and most enjoyable) storytellers of the 20th century.

Not to be overlooked are two enjoyably diverse volumes of Yourcenar's essays - The Dark Brain of Piranesi and That Mighty Sculptor, Time.