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.