The Poverty of Left Accelerationism: A review of Srnicek and Williams, “Inventing the Future”

Reading Jehu’s critique I kept thinking of Kurt Vonnegut’s satire Player Piano on this very theme of a fully automated society where everyone is provided a UBI while the machines do all the work… Published back in 1952, it depicts a dystopia of automation, describing the deterioration it can cause to quality of life. The story takes place in a near-future society that is almost totally mechanized, eliminating the need for human laborers. This widespread mechanization creates conflict between the wealthy upper class—the engineers and managers who keep society running—and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society have been replaced by machines.

As Vonnegut said, the theme is simple: “How to love people who have no use.” A critique of the whole capitalist society based on voluntarism and utilitarianism is the central motif. The point being that what happens in a society when the notion of voluntarism (God’s Will, Blind Faith, Ineffability) and utilitarianism (Work Ethic) vanish? Player Piano’s society was created by indifference, both of the populace and the technology that replaced it. As such, it is the sense of purposelessness of those living in a capitalistic society that has outgrown a need for them which must be rectified.

In other words once we get rid of labor, once we have “free time”, a basic survival quota, etc.. What do people do? What becomes their purpose? If the vast masses have no goal what happens? If they have all this free time on their hands what will they do with it? One need only look back into the writings of the Marquise de Sade rather than Rousseau to realize where this is heading… boredom, entrenchment, alcohol, drugs, black markets, madness… And, even if you tried to organize people to become more creative, more inventive… for what? And, who will maintain infrastructure: not everything even in an automated society in transition can be automated… what of those real material aspects of society that cannot be automated? And profit? If it is machines doing all the basic work, and humans have only a base income… where is the excess needed to support the profits of the capitalists, then? Nada… isn’t coming… this is a devolving system based on a notion of equilibrium and social justice, but a profit driven system is based on disequilibrium and competition. So what gives?

Vonnegut spent most of his adult life battling against such Utopian nonsense… Mankind’s blind faith in technology (and its usually disastrous effect on society) as well as the dehumanization of the poor or oppressed have since become common themes throughout Vonnegut’s work. Throughout his life, Vonnegut continued to believe the novel’s themes were of relevance to society, writing for example in 1983 that the novel was becoming “more timely with each passing day”. Even in his novel the non-workers rebelled, seeking to reconnect to their old jobs, positions, etc. -even after reeducation they sought to oust their master’s machines… and, of course it ended badly, as it always does for the workers, for the poor and outcast, the expulsed and excluded.

Obvious Non-Solutions that will rock it badly in parodic farce:

1. Luddite banning of machines and automation.
2. Welfare payments leading to massive expenditures (i.e., medical, food, resource, etc.)
3. Education – What would you educate for? Work no longer viable, what is the goal of education? A quick study of American Utopian Communes of the last two hundred years based on education shows this leading to nullity, going nowhere; as in Greek Hellenic society education breeds divisiveness and dispositional conflict rather than solutions. One imagines wars over various schools of academic squalor… yes, I’m being facetious!
4. Innovation – With the end of human labor and know-how will the notion of technological progress become mute? Society left in stasis like the ancient Egyptians building monuments to its machine gods?

Some are already providing warnings on the “devastating consequences” for those who perform routine tasks arising from robots, 3-D printing, artificial intelligence, and similar technologies. In their view, “there are more American men on disability insurance than doing production work in manufacturing. And the trends are all in the wrong direction, particularly for the less skilled, as the capacity of capital embodying artificial intelligence to replace white-collar as well as blue-collar work will increase rapidly in the years ahead.” Lawrence Summers in his 2014 report has also said that “[T]here are many reasons to think the software revolution will be even more profound than the agricultural revolution. This time around, change will come faster and affect a much larger share of the economy. […] [T]here are more sectors losing jobs than creating jobs. And the general-purpose aspect of software technology means that even the industries and jobs that it creates are not forever. […] If current trends continue, it could well be that a generation from now a quarter of middle-aged men will be out of work at any given moment.”

With all that time on their hands, and having less gumption than their intellectual betters, what would the precariot do with their supposed free time: sit in the bars, turn to drugs, become sexaholics, turn to new and strange forms of entertainment… not everyone will want to join in the academic treadmill of educating their brains, so what do all these non-readers and people who don’t want free time and boredom to do? Take a good guess…

But beyond that is the top .01% who are running the show, enslaving the planet in a self-replicating income nightmare for the vast majority who will be left to their own devices… or, if not, will be cajoled into participating in government run reeducation systems to become productive members of what, exactly? I guess I’m leery of this brave new world of automation which seems more about the Neoliberal agenda to reduce world population and to enslave the rest of the vast population in some new enclosure… to what end?

When I begin thinking like this I return to J.G. Ballard’s last three novels which dealt with time, with too much time on people’s hands and what they would do with it under various circumstances … and it lead to new forms of a psychopathically insane society of sociopaths, a world built out of nightmare visions of play – a Disneyland of murder, mayhem, and chaos; new paths toward jouissance rather than pleasure: a sadomasochistic society of voyeurs and pain artists, a world of infinite cruelty and blood lust built on the notions of ennui and freedom. In a world without work or goals, a purposeless world where the only thing left to do is feed one’s brain or body one imagines what Richard Tristman remarked about freedom and sex, “All sexuality entails some degree of theater.” Sex contains an element of the abstract and transpersonal, which only sadomasochism forthrightly acknowledges. Tristman continued: “All sexual relations involve relations of dominance. The desire for equality in women is probably an attenuated expression of the desire to dominate.”

Daydreaming or introspection is unneeded in a world where realization immediately follows desire. The libertines are like Roman emperors in wealth and power, two things, as Sade observes, which give absolute sexual control over others. Like Blake, Sade exalts Romantic imagination, the source of wish and therefore fulfillment: “The imagination’s fire must set the furnace of the senses alight.” Free imagination is able “to forge, to weave, to create new fantasies.” Juliette declares, “The imagination is the only cradle where pleasures are born.” Without it, “all that remains is the physical act, dull, gross, and brutish.” (de Sade, Juliette: 341)

In a non-utilitarian society beyond voluntarist notions of God of the Abyss will humans enter into infinite games of sociopathy, creativity, or brutishness? Will the earth become an Artaudian “theatre of cruelty” and self-abasement, or a realm of festivity and inane games of sex and drugs and rock n’ roll? Are will our masters invent new forms of command and control once they realize things didn’t quite turn out for the best (i.e., the best of all possible worlds for the rich, that is.)?

Nietzsche once stated this about decadence:

The concept of decadence.— Waste, decay, elimination need not be condemned: they are necessary consequences of life, of the growth of life. The phenomenon of decadence is as necessary as any increase and advance of life: one is in no position to abolish it. Reason demands, on the contrary, that we do justice to it. It is a disgrace for all socialist systematizers that they suppose there could be circumstances— social combinations— in which vice, disease, prostitution, distress would no longer grow.— But that means condemning life.— A society is not free to remain young. And even at the height of its strength it has to form refuse and waste materials. The more energetically and boldly it advances, the richer it will be in failures and deformities, the closer to decline.-— Age is not abolished by means of institutions. Neither is disease. Nor vice. (Nietzsche, Will to Power)

One has to ask the obvious: In a society where work has been eliminated where is the strength, where the waste? As Nietzsche said above with the elimination of all our supposed social ills at the hands of automation and a non-utilitarian non-work ethic; in a society where leisure and play, education and learning; a world where poverty is eliminated, health-care provided, financial burdens alleviated… would it not entail the utter condemnation and elimination of our lives as well? And, ultimately, in such a world who truly benefits from automation: the vast majority of the oppressed, or the .01% at the top? As automation takes over more and more jobs eliminating workers, will the very forces demanding this innovative enthronement of machines not also discover reasons for eliminating the useless population that no longer serves a purpose, a telos within their hellish paradise?

Can one really imagine 6 Billion people down at the beaches, or wandering the parks, or sitting in classrooms, or glued to the enuui of the latest Reality TV show, MMO, GO Mobile Live, or a thousand and one trivial pursuits of the leisure set? Or, would we rather have a society of total and unabashed socipaths out on the hunt for mischief, joining gangs, wandering the streets in search of new excitement… a sadomasochistic society in a complete ‘theatre of cruelty’? A society resembling something closer to a William Burroughs or J.G. Ballard novel than to some Alice and Wonderland fairy tale escapade for grown ups, a realm of nightmares and thanatropic excess where humans enact the darkest aspects of sex and death as routinely as they now enjoy a day at the Salon.

Or, more to the point, would the Neoliberal vision of total time control create a society based on a totalized machinic intelligence, a world of advanced AGI’s (artificial intelligences) that would be connected through neural implants and interfaces to humans directly through nanotech surgery, etc., a system that would essentially make humans into organic servomechanisms in an ongoing enslavement that eliminates both pleasure and pain and all human personality in a system of total psychopathic indifference and impersonalism? A world of inhuman humans to serve in whatever capacity more as organic robots and cattle to the higher powers of the elite and their minions? A dark dystopian society…

While the Left dreams of social emancipation and justice the Neoliberal vision is far darker and more to the point: the total enslavement of human desire to the machinic world-view.

The Real Movement

Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams have written a book, Inventing the Future, proposing the complete automation of production and a reduction of hours of labor. The proposal is fascinating and stands head and shoulders above the gruel typically on offer on the Left.  Nevertheless it is poorly argued and in serious need of additional theoretical development.

The meat of the book can be found in chapter 6, where the authors discuss the Holy Grail of Left Politics, non-reformist reforms — reforms that, of themselves, have revolutionary implications, that force society to go beyond existing capitalist relations. To this end they propose four demands they believe are necessary, “to start building a platform for a post-work society.”

These demands are:

1. Full automation of production
2. The reduction of the working week
3. The provision of a basic income
4. The diminishment of the work ethic

I will spend…

View original post 2,723 more words

A Radiant Promise of Dawn

(c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

It’s all dubious now; the memories, –
scratch-etchings at best; and, we,
who once believed in each other -separated,
distant – alone in our solitude,
seem too restless to listen to those inner voices,
coming and going like the winter leaves falling from time;
maybe it’s for the best, as if light were an answer
to a problem, a problem 
that has since lost its efficacy, an object
pursuing shadows – haunting us like false memories
of a future that never was nor could be;

and, yet, we gaze… yes, gaze…
outward into the mist – the bright one in his aura, even the sun
channeling the liquid rays across this ocean of light

 …………..without us…

S.C. Hickman ©2016

David Roden: Becoming Inanimate


Been having an interesting discussion with Dr. David Roden of Enemy Industry on his new theory fiction: Becoming Inanimate. In this short narrative he explores the notion of an entity no longer human and no longer organic, that has for reasons unknown merged with a body in a world we will assume is Earth. In the second paragraph he states:

He was interloper in this body, floating on its echoes and tides. Becoming unhitched from the animal. Its ending was nothing like death. During his increasingly rare visits to the clinic, he sensed the weariness he induced in the staff. They would glance at him furtively or frame responses to things his body had said in his absence. They complimented him on his insights or returned physical intimacies he had never initiated. They complained about the lack of pathology. He left the building feeling vindicated somehow.

This sense of being an “interloper” in an organic substratum, of “floating on its echoes and tides” hints at an unknown, of something that cannot be named, an ineffable thing. Yet, as we know an interloper etymologically speaking is

1590s, enterloper, “unauthorized trader trespassing on privileges of chartered companies,” probably a hybrid from inter- “between” + -loper (from landloper “vagabond, adventurer,” also, according to Johnson, “a term of reproach used by seamen of those who pass their lives on shore”); perhaps from a dialectal form of leap, or from Middle Dutch loper “runner, rover,” from lopen “to run,” from Proto-Germanic *hlaupan “to leap” (see leap (v.)).

This sense of trespass, not authorized, a hybrid manifestation, inter-between – a traveler between temporal zones – interzone transgressions; a leap from one state of being (immaterial?) to another (organic?); a possible alien manifestation, or a psychosis; a dimensional time-traveler seeking asylum from futurial catastrophes? We are left in that uncertain state of non-being, an in-betweenness: a wavering gap or abyss opening inward, unable to define whether this is real or irreal/unreal; or, if the narrator is reliable or not – left with the notion that as in skepticism we should possibly suspend judgment and allow the narrative to continue without letting certainty – a reaching after hard facts, intervene and close down meaning, etc.. Yet, we understand that this organic being, whether interloper or something else has been visiting a clinic, and seems to be producing effects on the staff of “weariness,” there dis-ease and dis-quiety glances and furtive gestures and responses to this thing – that, if the narrator is reliable have been done while he (whoever he/she? is has been absent). And, this other – the narrator, who seems to have returned to his organic being (but where did he go?) is offered no sense of relief, but is told he is perfectly normal, no pathologies found.

In the next sentence we get this sense of absent while present, an almost Heraclitean notion: “The night might lead nowhere. He would find himself standing on a bridge looking upriver to the hastily assembled barrages, dimly aware of the reasons for their construction; not minding either way.” A sense of impersonalism, of apathy, of a distance from both emotive and organic registries.

We know that the modernists were already keyed in on such impersonalism. One variant of this tendency might be termed an impersonal subjectivism or a subjectivity without a subject. In this form of dehumanization (common in novels by Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, and Nathalie Sarraute, among others), there is a fragmentation from within that effaces reality and renders the self a mere occasion for the swarming of independent subjective events—sensations, perceptions, memories, and the like. The overwhelming vividness, diversity, and independence of this experiential swarm fragment the self, obliterating its distinctive features—the sense of unity and control.1

In the next paragraph we are introduced to “C”. Who is this being? The narrator, the thing, or someone else?

“C said the future could not be this indifferent. That it might be cancelled yet. But nobody believed her. By whatever aberrant causal loop, now obtained beyond the sea walls and patrols, it was coming back. She was accused of all manner of deviations in this period – of clinging to charms and gimcracks.”

Is the narrator remembering a past conversation? Does it matter? Is the important thing the statement about the future, a statement that offers an opinion from that future, one looking back at that conversation, realizing that the future might yet be changed, a retroactive engagement with the past that might yet cancel such futures? The narrator remarks that no one believed her – the clinic, the doctors, friends, associates? And, yet, there seems to be a temporal element, an “aberrant causal loop” – a return or retroactive action from elsewhere “beyond the sea walls and patrols”? And, C herself is presumably accused of being abnormal, a deviationist of the current reality matrix, accused by the guardians of the Reality Laws of this “period” of ludicrous attachments (“clinging to charms and gimcracks”). Why?

Suddenly in the next paragraph a conspiracy is introduced. Who is this “he”? Who accuses him of his involvement in a cabal in which he seems to be a blind devotee, seduced by a temptress with all the gothic puppetry of mechanical doll – “tinny machine sounds,” repetitions of ritual invocations…. as if he were being “inducted into something”. But what exactly? –

He was somberly informed of his involvement with one of the cabal who passed for rulers here, a woman of no reputation. He sometimes recalls the passions she indulges: a double door at the top of milk white stairs; a slit of artificial light dividing it from the warm glow of the scented candles. A tinny machine sound, masking a low voice repeating some verbal formula or prayer. He was being inducted into something.

This seems more nightmare vision than a reality, a decadent reweaving of gothic themes. And, yet, the sense of fragmentation, the dislocation, the lack of reliable information. In Discognition, Steven Shaviro tells us “Sentience, whether in human beings, in animals, in other sorts of organisms, or in artificial entities, is less a matter of cognition than it is one of what I have ventured to call discogniton. I use this neologism to designate something that disrupts cognition, exceeds the limits of cognition, but also subtends cognition. My working assumption is that fictions and fabulations are basic modes of sentience; and that cognition per se is derived from them and cannot exist without them.”2

Can we say that David’ theory fiction enacts this sense of discognition? As David in a comment section of this post suggested to me:

I seem to be coming at this problem from different angles, but they probably have as much in common with aporetics of deconstruction, phenomenology or even Laruellian non-philosophy (which I don’t claim to understand) as naturalistic ontology, or the considerations adduced by speculative realists. If one’s going to defend scientific realism, for example, you need to push for an ontology of contemporary natural science – e.g. along the lines of Ladyman and Ross (though not necessarily in the form they recommend).

I haven’t the depth of knowledge to be honest. I’m ultimately more interested in the way anti-realist or correlationist attempts to order the world break down – what I used to call “constitutive inefficacy” in relation to holist theories of language, for example.

If frameworks like phenomenology, holism, etc. are constitutively inefficacious, then correlationism is false not because realism is true, but because nothing (not language, not subjectivity) has the hard determining needed to make the correlation work. The fantastic or Weird is one way of figuring this broken correlation – the subject exists but the object no longer plays ball, no longer abides by constitutive principles that knit objects and worlds.

One way, I’ve argued, this works is in my critique of (analytical) pragmatism. This is roughly that itm requires an account of practice and the best account of this is interpretationist. We can say little more about what a practice beyond its susceptibility to interpretation under ideal conditions or our background speech habits. But then even Brandom must presuppose an interpreting subjectivity that falls outside the explanatory scope of his system.

The subject is not represented but presupposed and its nature and bounds are not given: a dark precursor, a thinking nature, obscure from the perspective of the discourses that, at the same time, render it minimally thinkable (a nature that we cannot think as such, as Scott might say – opening the account to a kind of enclosure paradox maybe). It is an extra-subject, a supplement or remainder- alien to the speaker to the person, perhaps in the way Lacan suggests. But rather than follow Lacan (and Stiegler) in arguing for an aporetic subject constitutively exteriorized without origin, I think we need to take this aporia as a contingent mark of the limit, a screw up – as Fodor might say. Fictive exploration is part of that, a way of mapping our relationship to the inhuman that we are.

So in the sense above David is still working within the Idealist metaphysics of the Subject and its disquisitions. He is hanging on to this terminological systems of subject/object even if striving with its realist/anti-realist variants in the phenomenological and post-phenomenological, and even – in his mention of R. Scott Bakker – of current neuroscientific theory and practices. This sense of arguing for an “aporetic subject”. Aporetic etymology suggesting a notion of lack, loss, impassable, impracticable, difficult, etc. A sense of the self as void or lack, of an undecidability at the core of the organic (human?); a waif, a perplexity or difficulty, an inclination to doubt and uncertainty concerning the state or mode of being of this aporetic subject:

c. 1600, from French aporetique, from Greek aporetikos, from aporeein “to be at a loss,” from aporos “impassable, impracticable, very difficult; hard to deal with; at a loss,” from a-, privative prefix.

Or – The Oxford English Dictionary includes two forms of the word: the adjective, “aporetic” which it defines as “to be at a loss,” “impassable,” and “inclined to doubt, or to raise objections”; and the noun form “aporia,” which it defines as the “state of the aporetic” and “a perplexity or difficulty.” The dictionary entry also includes two early textual uses, which both refer to the term’s rhetorical (rather than philosophical) usage.

Just here we see an emphasis either on the loss of the feeling that reality is external or on the loss of reality’s aura of significance. It’s this double meaning and undecidability, a wavering between these two that leaves us in the uncertainty of this aporetic subject.

Which aligns well with the next two fragments in David’s theory fiction:

As if acting in one’s private capacity is not sufficient. Or rather it is a legal fiction. Something she was bitterly dedicated to emptying. Plato might take her for an ideal ruler, if she had wanted anything beyond the venom. Maybe it was coming for them, as it had already for the Broken.

The fragility that had terrified the adult was to be celebrated. He wondered if he ever killed for her, or if she would ask him to kill her. She was, in his fitful memories, rarely so direct. The disease analogized in the body politic. Maybe he wanted this as much as she.

As sense of playfulness – “as if” – a dramaturgy of playing out, masking, imposing a “legal fiction” which “she” (C?) is “bitterly dedicated to emptying” – this sense of the masked persona or social role / self as others define or reduce her too. But why would Plato see her as the Philosopher King… and, then her ironic and sardonic witticism and dismissal of such a thought as if she needed “anything beyond the venom”? And, what is it that is “coming for them” – and, who are they? – and, the “Broken” – we’ve heard nothing of them, no explanation, history, fantastic or otherwise? Another reflection from the future, a memory of the future? We are left with a sense of terror, of the “he” in the next paragraph wondering if he has killed or murdered (C?), or if she would suggest a suicide by murder? Is the “she” from the future or the past? Is he the entity or the other? Is this like Chuang Tzu’s paradox of the butterfly dreaming it is a man or the man dreaming it is a butterfly? Memories like so many nightmares… the disease of personal organism, or the metaphor “body politic” of the social? And, what does he want? Suicide, death… a finality?

But of course the last paragraph:

For his own part, he collated the medical indices. Most cancers were inarticulate, or at least asocial: he was told these talked to one another. There was evidence of a circuit, a parallel nervous system for which distortion and aberrances were the preferred stimuli. It wasn’t hard to persuade Sax to loan him the scanning microscope. A simple matter to make its data available to the processes he had set in train.

Is he a machine after all, an advanced alien intelligence, an Artificial intelligence sent back from the future, an infobomb sent to destroy the illusions of an organic species? Communication among cancerous biotics or inforgs (information oranisms?). A duality: a parallel nervous system… an alternate mode of being and consciousness, an optimized intelligence arriving from the future… and, who is Sax, one of the clinicians… and, what processes is he setting in train? Uncertainty, temporal diagesis, gender transformation, transgender mutations and immanent or transcendent reversals?

Like all fantastic narratives we are left with more questions than answers, caught in the mesh of disquieting thoughts, unable to move toward a definitive resolution toward the marvelous or the uncanny; a movement of actual alien intelligence, or a psychotic breakdown or breakthrough? Who can say or no? The author being as unreliable as the narrative leaves fragments and gestures that point in both directions at once, a Janus-faced image not of temporal dislocation but of a (trans)gendered sea of impossible possibilities – a ‘mutant thought’, or a hyperbolic dance between shifting realities? And, yet, this is the point after all, that we are in a moment, a time wavering between, in-between human and inhuman, or posthuman formulations with no clear path forward; yet, at a loss, aporetic, unable to call on knowledge itself: the knowledge base of Western Civilization being useless in its apprehension of this transitional mutation we all seem to be undergoing and suffering.

  1. Sass, Louis Arnorsson. Madness and modernism : insanity in the light of modern art, literature, and thought (Kindle Locations 642-646). New York, NY : BasicBooks. Kindle Edition.
  2. Shaviro, Steven. Discognition (Kindle Locations 2925-2929). Watkins Media. Kindle Edition.

Topology of the Unknown: A Fantastic Anthropology

I suggest that the imagination feeds on realia— transforming, transposing, and projecting them into the realm of myth, or maintaining them in the sphere of beliefs that are mistakenly labeled superstitions.

-Claude Lecouteux,  Demons and Spirits of the Land: Ancestral Lore and Practices

I’ve started reading a collection of works by Claude Lecouteux the author of several books on the study of popular beliefs regarding supernatural entities in the Middle Ages, arguing that many of them had their origins in pre-Christian pagan world views that were, of course, expunged, suppressed, and eventually moved underground in fairy tales, legends, popular lore and ballads, etc.. His domain of research includes magic, mythology and folk tales. As a historian of medieval history he began to discover a great many incongruous accounts of ancient pagan beliefs and customs still arising throughout the literature, folk tales, popular ballads and poetry, as well as in many of the various tracts of monks, nuns, and clergy of the period that have for the most part due to our scientific and rationalist cultural matrix been overlooked, dismissed, and left in a scholarly dead zone, hidden an almost invisible except in unread journals and thesis’s etc. As he stated in an interview: “from the 19th century, we find everything, but we have never tried to attend the historic and diachronic dimension, in other words over the course of a long evolution, beliefs, the believers and the impact on their daily lives. However, from texts and archaeological excavations carried out burial sites, I made a panorama specific and amazing stories of ghosts and ghosts in the middle ages. So, I thought it would interest students. Certainly my seminar deals with cultural anthropology, but as soon as I touch these topics here, I expanded my audience to students and teachers of other disciplines.”

He began seeing a pattern of notions, ideas, figures, tropes in the various traditions that had been suppressed and written out of most modern absorption of this sunken literature of the medieval world. Notions like reincarnation, ghosts: the return of the dead, vampires, were-wolves, strange and mythical land spirits, house spirits, etc. All of these the Catholic Church began to codify and in a Manichaean scheme to imprison in a discourse of hell, purgatory, paradise in which the various entities would forever be placed and the folk beliefs associated with the old notions forever silenced.

In the old Germanic imagery, Death is a temporary exile, from where you return you reincarnating in one of your descendants, provided that it is given your name! Otherwise, the child could succumb to a disease. That is to say the weight of beliefs! And the Church has tried to kill the ghosts! If you take the dialogues of Grégoire le Grand, in the middle ages, the ghosts are beside us, on Earth. We talk to them! Coming from a Pope, it’s amazing! Then, from the [?]emesiecle, the Church attempted to imprison them in his Manichaean scheme: the dead among the dead (hell, purgatory and Paradise), the living at home! Without bridge between the two worlds. Literature of Revelations speaks constantly of the manifestations of the dead from the living, even in the 13th century, but most of the time, in dreams. Otherwise, it’s purgatory, and they leave an indelible trace of their passage, like a burn for example. A tip: never shake hands with a ghost!

One advantage that he enjoined was knowing all the Germanic languages. He was able to introduce in his study everything which was narrated in the Scandinavian countries, in the middle ages. Thus, he found texts that have not yet been “Christianized”, reflecting faithfully the mental concerns of people from the 10th to the 12th centuries, out of religious considerations. The Church having not yet managed to banish ghosts in the hereafter, nor to make their purgatory that associates the ghosts to souls in need, he was able to work with the literature of the dead and discovered in it that there was nothing separating or distinguishing the dead from the living: no boundaries of separation between the realms, no purgatory until after the introduction of Christianity. As he’d say

Ghosts have three dimensions: they talk, eat, copulate, mother, fight and enjoy revenge on their human doubles! It’s the true revenant! Because even the semblance of a living, the Ghost is an immaterial being that in the middle ages, mainly manifests in dreams or dreams. Even if in the morning when you wake up, you have evidence that he came to visit you, either by filing an object near you, or injuring you in your sleep! It is impossible to catch him to tackle or to kill… again! However, the revenant is a living death that can kill a second time! And even permanently, with certain methods…

Reading the above I kept thinking of Clive Barker’s famed Cenobites, those erotic monks of hell who torture their victims in love… In the lore of Scandinavia there was a good and bad death. As he’d discover you can’t forget those who come back. Because they have a reason to come back: the need to be Avenged, for they avidly lecture their descendants or to ask for favors, etc.. On the other hand, an idea that is dear and underlying studies he conducted was the notion that as long as the memory of the dead remains, the dead lives. “And when the memory disappears, the death is “mythisé”: if it has been a very good death, the dead one turns into another creature like an Elf and, if not, a Dwarf! Scandinavian texts were very explicit on these metamorphoses.”

Asked about the transcendent realms, of the beyond whether it was singular in the ancient lore like the notions of the Church:

No. There is not a single beyond. You have a fantastic and magical characters. An afterlife of the dead, that is not the same. Etc. It also distinguishes between beyond and other world, to avoid confusion, as far as possible. In-between, there are bridges which is in the transformation of the dead in mythical characters, such as the dwarf, Elves or fairies. For example, the white ladies are fairies, kinds of warning ghosts of death, called banshees in Celtic folklore. The legendary death, so it is a scary tackle world because information go in all directions. Real “mental archaeology” as calls it my friend Régis Boyer, the real work is to find the internal consistency of all these scattered elements. Like a gigantic puzzle that would have thrown in the air and which should now pick up the pieces. Why did we think? This is what interests me! And I finally found an explanation: a design of the very special soul, which derived directly from shamanism. That is to say if it’s old! From here, we kiss the multiplicity of souls in the body. And, according to the texts and vocabulary, which survived and allowed the body to live is his double!

So already we see prefigured many of the themes and tropes of the modern fantastic from Hoffmann to our current masters of the Literature Fantastique: doubles, plurality of souls, shamanistic time travel, other worlds, etc. He tells us in his travel around Europe that the “country  that has the most ghosts, to the point that people are amazed to see an ethnologist studying the phenomenon and lore, it’s the Iceland!” After that, comes the Norway, the United Kingdom, and other countries. He sent a team of journalists who met a ghost hunter in Iceland, dressed for the ritual of expulsion of the ghost as if it were just a daily routine for the Icelander. Looking at American TV here in the States one finds the same thing with SyFy’s Ghost Hunters, or the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, etc.. These 21Century ghost hunters pursue haunted houses, office buildings, court houses, prisons, asylums, etc. in search of the living revenant. They use advance imaging cameras, infra-red, sound equipment, specialized magnetic and ion capturing systems, a whole gamut of electronics to supposedly capture ghosts in these localize places. And, millions of viewers tune in every week to see the latest apparition chase some hunter around, or manifest bite or claw marks on their chests or arms, completely convinced that their in touch with either dead people or demons. What’s even stranger they make a living doing this…

When asked about these hunters in Iceland he laughed and said:

Except that this isn’t the fantastic! This is part of their daily lives. There are several decades, in the North of the Iceland, the Government had decided to build a hydro-electric plant. A public survey was conducted. And public opinion overwhelmingly objected to the project, arguing that it was going to bother the genius of the waterfall…

Asked if he is a believer in ghosts… he said: “I’m a Cartesian! We require proof, and so far there is only things that go bump in the night of ghost hunters and fools.” But he adds, “I still believe in literature, in the old ways that seem to live and live in our old tales… so who can say for sure, heh? And, both gods, demons, and ghosts vanish from the mind of man if we neglect them, allow them to disappear from our books, our texts… only then do they truly die the second death, banished from memory and time.”

Some of his books in cultural anthropology, folklore and the history the fantastic:

  • The Secret History of Vampires
  • Demons and Spirits of the Land
  • Phantom Armies of the Night
  • The Return of the Dead
  • The Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses
  • The Tradition of Household Spirits
  • Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies
  • The Book of Grimoires
  • Encyclopedia of Norse and Germanic Folklore, Mythology, and Magic

Fantastic Authors: Achim von Arnim(1781 – 1831)


A German novelist and poet, born in Berlin. He is best known for a collection of folk-songs made with Clemens Brentano. and published (1806-08) under the title of the initial song, Des Knaben Wunderhorn. He studied the natural sciences at Göttingen and Halle, and received the degree of M.D., but never practiced medicine. His first work, Theorie der elektrischen Erscheinungen, showed a leaning to the supernatural, common among the German romanticists, still more strongly marked in his Hollins Liebeleben (1802), and Ariels Offenbarungen (1804). Der Wintergarten (1809), a collection of romantic tales, was followed in 1810 by a striking novel, Die Gräfin Dolores. Halle und Jerusalem (1811) is a humorous romance, and Isabelle von Ägypten (1811) a mediocre novel. Two years later he collected his dramas. In 1817 he produced his last and best romance, Die Kronenwächter, a story of the days of Emperor Maximilian. His works are careless in form, incoherent in structure, and romantically whimsical, but they show a remarkable originality of invention. They were collected, with an introduction by Wilhelm Grimm, in twenty volumes (1839-48). There is a brilliant eulogy of Arnim in Heine’s Deutschland.

Théophile Gautier would say of him:

The genius Achim d’ Arnim, so deeply German and romantic in all the meanings which one can give to this note. A purist of that fire – a Fantastic Écrivain (Writer), whose voice does not have the clearness of a Callot or Hoffmann, but which draws from a life centre based in the extravagant and bizzare world of shadows, a spectral fantastic with the precise contours of a  Tartaglia, Sconronconcolo, Brighella, Scaramouches, the Trousers, Truffaldins and other characters of the grotesque; he proceeds rather in the manner of Goya, the author of Caprichos; he covers a board of black, and, by some skillfully distributed keys of light, he outlines in the medium these garish clusters of darkness in which the spectral inhabitants are hardly indicated, and these figures from which the enlightened side is barely perceptible and detached, and in which the other is lost confusedly in the shadow of sombernous; serious strange aspects in keeping with an intense morbidity, heads of an intimate and insipid charm and decadent grace, masks of sniggerers with worrying cheerfulness, look at you, smile at you and scoff at you at the bottom of this night of nights in a shadow world where vague gleams fray and disperse under a blank sky.

Sadly I have not found any good translations of his works in English. Arnim is considered one of the most important representatives of German Romanticism. His works were collected, with an introduction by Wilhelm Grimm, in twenty volumes (1839–48). Heinrich Heine wrote a eulogy of Arnim in his Deutschland. His works include:

  • Hollin’s Liebeleben (1802)
  • Ariel’s Offenbarungen (1804)
  • Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Folktale Collection, 3 vol., with Clemens Brentano, 1806 and 1808)
  • Tröst Einsamkeit (Book collection of Arnim’s published Zeitung für Einsiedler, 1808)
  • Der Wintergarten (1809)
  • Mistris Lee (1809)
  • Armut, Reichthum, Schuld und Buße der Gräfin Dolores (1810)
  • Halle und Jerusalem (play, 1811)
  • Isabella von Ägypten. Kaiser Karl des Fünften erste Jugendliebe (novella, 1812)
  • Schaubühne (play, 1813)
  • “Frau von Saverne” (story, 1817)
  • Die Kronenwächter. Bd. 1: Bertholds erstes und zweites Leben (unfinished novel, 1817)
  • Der tolle Invalide auf dem Fort Ratonneau (novella, 1818)
  • “Fürst Ganzgott und Sänger Halbgott” (story, 1818)
  • Die Gleichen (play, 1819)
  • “Die Majoratsherren” (story, 1820)
  • “Owen Tudor” (story, 1820)
  • “Landhausleben” (story, 1826)
  • Die Päpstin Johanna (published posthumously by Bettina von Arnim, 1846)

A Short History of Modernity: The Dark Shadows of Instrumental Reason – Voluntarism and Utilitarianism

Round about the 1300s, there arose a radically new way of thinking. It is probably the greatest earthquake in the history of thought, and creates a great chasm that separates moderns from the ancients. By ancients I mean Greek philosophy (Plato, Aristotle), and everything up through Thomas Aquinas, who is partly so important because he was the last one to battle for the old way before the new way broke through.  In brief, the ancient way of thinking thought that the world basically made sense, even if we can’t figure it all out. And it believed that our minds basically have the ability to see some of that sense in the world, and to live accordingly.

Short History of a Debate: Nominalism and Voluntarism

The new way is summed up by the terms Nominalism and Voluntarism. “Nominalism” is from the Latin word for names. Nominalism says that we give “names” to things, but we don’t really know what they are. You call that thing and that thing “flowers” (or that thing and that thing “human”) but beyond imposing a name, you have no idea what they are.

“Voluntarism” is from the Latin word for will. Once the world doesn’t make sense, all we can do is make acts of blind will – and God is nothing more than a naked will. So Christian and Secular thought would follow this track line of nominalist and voluntarist thought.

The ancients saw us as basically in contact with the real world around us; life was about finding our place in Reality. Moderns sometimes impose ideas on the world, but they don’t think there is any Reality, any “nature,” to conform to.

Voluntarists hold that God created morality and imposed it upon us by an arbitrary fiat of his will. He is essential to morality, therefore, because -he created it and can always, in principle, alter it – as he seems to do on those rare occasions, such as his commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, when he intervenes in it. On the other approach, often called “intellectualism,” God did not create morality. When he gives us moral commandments, his will is guided by his intellect’s knowledge of eternal standards. He is nonetheless essential to morality because his providential supervision ensures that we live in a morally ordered world.1

Voluntarists can accept the part of intellectualism that sees God as actively superintending the universe he created. But they need not do so. They do not have to hold that the universe is morally intelligible to us. Intellectualists cannot accept the most basic claim of the voluntarists. But they can agree that without God’s command the truths at the basis of morality would not have the status of laws imposing obligations on us. Other mediating positions are also possible; but many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century religious believers vehemently rejected voluntarism in any form, and devoted much effort to making a thorough intellectualism acceptable. (11)

Where Thomas Aquinas, in his synthesis of Christian Neo-Platonism and Aristotelian hylomorphism, always maintained the priority of the intellect in creation, theological voluntarists asserted the priority of the divine will, and this had far reaching consequences for philosophy and theology.

One might begin with Abelard. In his Ethics, Abelard identifies consent, which we list among the acts of the will, as the essential character of sin, distinguishing it both from vicious dispositions to sin and from other acts that either precede consent or follow upon it (Abelard 1973, 188–202). The reduction of morality to consent to obey impoverishes ethics and opens the door to the rejection of nature as a source of moral norms. Morality as a rich understanding of living well is replaced by morality as a meeting of two wills, and all other factors begin to fall into the periphery.

One can also trace this voluntarist view of will back to the Stoics. Stoicism reduces virtue from a complex account of the functioning of the powers of the soul to a singular perfection of the will, and Stoicism abandons the teleological notion of moral excellence as the perfection of the rational and appetitive powers of the free agent, affirming instead only the unconditional goodness of the will that obeys moral law.

Intellectually, then, voluntarism seems to be the outcome of the Christian and Stoic traditions, but there is another factor that brings Stoicism to prominence from time to time, namely political change. When radical political change overturns shared conceptions of the common good, one is left with a culture in which morality appears to demand real personal sacrifice for no other end than obedience to the law.

We are familiar with the medieval rediscovery of Aristotle, and its rejection; we know about the Black Death and the other complex circumstances that brought medieval culture into decline; we know about the Renaissance and the Reformation; and we know about the secularization that came with the Enlightenment. While these events are commonly read as the history of progress toward individual freedom, they are also moments in the history of the turn to voluntarism that gave birth to the modern culture of emotivism that tyrannizes those traditional moral communities that it does not dissolve.

The outcome of the rejection of Aristotelian natural teleology in ethics was the establishment of a morality in which obedience to moral norms can be conceived only as an end in itself. The voluntarism of Luther, Calvin, and Jansen made their accounts of moral norms, like their accounts of reward and punishment, essentially arbitrary. Kant’s rejection of the moral worth of heteronomy gives voluntarist morality a new philosophical expression, but does not change its character. Mills affirmation that the “readiness” to serve “the happiness of others by the absolute sacrifice of his own […] is the highest virtue that can be found in man” sounds noble, but turns out to be only another recurrence of the stoic denial of the private self in a social arena that lacks shared conceptions of the common good.2

Taken together, the emphasis on law, the rejection of teleology, and the denial of the private self establish an approach to morality and moral action in which both morality and moral action become unintelligible, for moral action, thus conceived, cannot be accounted for as human action.

Human action is so inherently teleological that the normal human response to actions that do not seem to make sense is to ask “what are you doing?” and “why are you doing that?” To disconnect freedom and obedience from salvation, as Luther, Calvin, and Jansen do, to propose that morality is pursued without an end in view, as Kant does, or to affirm that readiness to act in ways that serve the pleasure of others through utter self-destruction is a sign of moral excellence, as Mill does, is to make it impossible to answer these normal human questions in any satisfying way.

A forerunner to late medieval voluntarism is found in the conception of God in St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (CE 354–430), who, while greatly influenced by the pagan Neoplatonists, had rejected the characteristic Greek optimism in the powers of human reason. In Janet Coleman’s words, such a conception of human rational powers was regarded “as part of a perverse human fantasy of self-perfection, self-sufficient omnipotence and self dependent autonomy. Ancient ethics exemplified man’s original sin, that of pride which rejoices in private goods and a perverse self-love”. It was this critical attitude to the limits of human reason that was to emerge once again in the thirteenth century, as manifested in the Condemnation of 1277, in which Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris, condemned the entertaining of a variety of philosophical ideas that had been reintroduced from pagan sources into contemporary theology. Included in the condemnation was Thomas Aquinas, who had died just three years earlier. The beneficiaries of the voluntaristic condemnation of Aquinas’ Aristotelianism were nominalists such as Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, and the consequences for the development of Western culture have been the focus of considerable attention.3

For Ockham, for example, the only law to which God was himself subject was the law of non-contradiction, and some medieval voluntarists did not even admit of that constraint.19 But this voluntaristic model of God was explicitly challenged by Leibniz: “people have pleaded the irresistible power of God … and have assumed a despotic power when they should rather have conceived of a power ordered by the most perfect wisdom” . For Leibniz, God acts according to two basic principles, the law of non-contradiction and the law of sufficient reason: the former represents a type of metaphysical, and the latter, a type of moral necessity. The idea of God’s being subject to moral necessity seemed to place constraints on the possible universes that he might have created, but such “constraints” are only a measure of his goodness. God could have created other possible universes, if it were not for the fact of his divine justice, which implied that he create the best of all possible worlds. Indeed, this was the one he had created: this world was, as he famously argued in the Theodicy of 1710, the best of all possible worlds. (Redding, 15)

Both Luther and Calvin are voluntarists. For both, God, the creator and director of the cosmos, is far beyond human understanding. That it was predestined from eternity that Adam would sin, that in his sin all mankind would be ruined, that out of the mass of totally undeserving beings some would mercifully be chosen for salvation, that those not chosen would be left to suffer the anguish of permanent separation from God (Institutes II.V.12) all this is God’s justice and is incomprehensible to us. (Schneewind, 32)

Behind this is the notions of incomprehensibility, divine will, the inscrutability of God, and an anti-intellectualism that would guide much of the common themes in both religious and secular thought.

Leibniz and the Anti-Voluntarist Tradition

Empiricism from Bacon through Locke had a strong affinity with voluntarism in ethics. Voluntarism in ethics tended to be associated with extreme conceptions of morality as obedience to God. Objections to the latter, based as much on moral as on purely theological grounds, were therefore taken as objections both to voluntarism and to empiricism, particularly to empiricist views of meaning and the limitations they imposed on our concepts. Rationalists argued against empiricism as much because of what they believed to be the grave moral defects it entailed as because of the errors they saw in it about concepts and a priori knowledge. (Schneewind, 12)

Leibniz and the rationalists were anti-voluntarists, depending on reason not will as the guiding theme of philosophy. While for the nominalists, the omnipotent will of God was beyond human comprehension, and so reason must give way to revelation. However, a radically secular version of such a voluntaristic anti-Platonic, anti-Aristotelian view was to appear in the seventeenth century in the thought of Hobbes, a thinker against whom Leibniz would oppose his own philosophy. In short, in Leibniz’s opposition to Newton’s conception of space we find the implicit opposition of a Platonist to Newton’s voluntaristic theology. (Redding, 16) Redding argues that the Idealists were anti-voluntarists that in the wake of Leibniz, were characterised by an anti-nominalist opposition to empiricism, and that in the wake of Kant, to a critique of the metaphysical conception of spirit or mind as a type of nonmaterial substance. (Redding, 18)

In the seventeenth century, the voluntaristic position could be seen clearly in Descartes’ claim that there are no truths antecedent to God’s will. Moreover, similar remnants of such a voluntaristic theology were even contained in the otherwise predominantly naturalistic approach to political thought found in Hobbes. Hobbes is most well known for introducing the idea that political legitimacy is founded on the agreement of the will of those ruled, an agreement struck in a kind of “compact” or “social contract”. (Redding, 27) Leibniz according to Redding belonged to that tradition that, in its appeal to synthetic forms of Platonism and Aristotelianism, stood in contrast to the nominalistic and voluntaristic forms of thought also reflected in complex ways in the emerging natural sciences. (Redding, 23)

Leibniz would oppose Hobbes nominalism and voluntarism, his notions of power and conceptions of governance in contract. In fact, Leibniz was explicit in his opposition to Hobbes’ combination of nominalism and voluntarism, and such opposition would have important consequences for later idealist thought, not least in influencing the idealist conception of the will.  As has often been pointed out, it is difficult to see how Hobbes’s contractarian idea can appeal to the grounding of authority on the free-willing of subjects, given his naturalistic account of the will. Hobbes effectively identifies the will with an empirical bodily appetite or aversion: “In deliberation, the last appetite, or aversion, immediately adhering to the action, or to the omission thereof, is that we call the WILL; the act, not the faculty, of willing”. (Redding, 27)

In distancing himself from the faculty of willing, Hobbes was setting himself against the scholastic view going back to Aristotle of the faculty of the will—voluntas—as a type of rational power causing the action. Instead, Hobbes introduces appetite and aversion as quasi-mechanically acting affective states, causally brought about by perceptual interaction with the world, and manifesting themselves in particular actions. This means that freedom for Hobbes cannot be identified with any notion of a rationally self-determining will, presupposed by the Christian Platonist tradition. A man can no more “determine his will than any other appetite, that is, more than he can determine when he shall be hungry or not”. Rather than consisting of the will determining itself, freedom consists in doing “what the will is determined unto”. In psychology, just as in theology, voluntarism makes rationality consequent upon a concept of willing outside the scope of any reasoning. The content of the will is simply something given. (Redding, 28)

In his opposition to voluntarism in its theological and secular forms, Leibniz appealed to Aristotelian and Platonist considerations, but here as elsewhere this was done in a way that attempted to reconcile this mode of thought with the type of thought that was characteristically modern. These attempts were not without their problems, and in many ways Kant’s later approach to the will with its similar opposition to psychological voluntarism of the Hobbesian variety appears to have been an attempt to get beyond those problems. But what characterises Kant in this regard is a commitment to the same broadly Aristotelian considerations that marked Leibniz’s stance against the secularised version of the nominalist–voluntarist orientation of his antagonist, Hobbes. (Redding, 28)

While for Newton the world was made up of “dead” matter, passively moved around by the will of an omnipresent God acting at every single point in the universe, the bodies making up Leibniz’s world acted, but not on anything other than themselves.26 Nevertheless, Leibniz opposed the Spinozist view which made God entirely “immanent” to the extended world. From Leibniz’s point of view, Spinoza, like Hobbes, had sacrificed any and every conception of individuals as freely self-determining, by subjecting them to natural laws conceived as absolutely determining in the same way as the voluntarists’ all-powerful God. (Redding, 33)

Kant would modify Leibniz’s monadology and reintroduce voluntarism in opposition to it. Kant believed that we have direct experience of our own capacity as minds to affect physical bodies when we act voluntarily. I resolve to move this pen on the table in front of me, and, via the intermediary of my body, the pen moves. Similarly, as minds Kant believed we experience changes in our own inessential states, such as our own sensory states, in ways that we can think of as being brought about by the influence of other physical monads. (Redding, 39) The tension between Augustine’s voluntaristic idea of God as creator of the world ex nihilo and the Neoplatonic conception of the “emanation” of the world would therefore return in the form of the dispute between the voluntarism of medieval nominalists such as Ockham and the Neoplatonic opponents of voluntarism who thereby courted the accusation of a pantheist heresy. We can see the successor of this same dispute emerge in the context of Kant’s idealist reshaping of philosophy at the end of the eighteenth century. (Redding, 67-68)

Political Governance and Voluntary Consent

In its political application the idea of natural law was meant to provide some sort of foundation to enable us to either justify or criticise the coercive, positive laws of the state. In contrast, the understanding of political legitimacy which invoked the notion of a social contract, and which stemmed from the revolutionary approach of Thomas Hobbes, saw the grounds of an individual’s obligation to positive law as resting in that individual’s own voluntary consent to the law—a consent which, for Hobbes, derived from the individual’s rational self-interest. (Redding, 81)

Thus, whereas Grotius saw humans as naturally sociable, Hobbes saw them as naturally isolated and egoistic, with their fragile sociability as artificial, and as consequent upon their willingness to leave their natural state. In Hobbes’s account, the explanation of social behaviour was much like the type of explanation found in Galilean physics. No teleology was needed, as the movements of any of the isolated parts— the egoistic individuals—could be described in terms of the basic properties of the parts, on the one hand (basic, naturally given inclinations and aversions, together with a capacity for calculation) and the fact of their interaction, on the other. Paradoxically, as we have seen (section 2.3), Hobbes’s seemingly materialist and “atheist” approach can also be viewed as a development of the nominalist outlook emerging from the late Middle Ages, as a consequence of theological “voluntarism”. (Redding, 82)

In Kant we find traces of both voluntarist and anti-voluntarist ideas. With Kant stressing the limits of human reason and finitude, his voluntarist ideas characteristically asserted that we are thereby reliant on revelation for understanding the content of God’s will, but consistent with anti-voluntarism, Kant treated revealed religion as a symbolic presentation of a moral law equally capable of being known through reason; and the very idea of God, Kant showed in his discussion of the transcendental ideal, came about through our tendency to hypostatise and personify principles of human reason itself. (Redding, 102) Kant’s hypostatization of the “thing-in-itself” would ultimately be seen by his critics (Nietzsche, et. al.) as the philosophical equivalent of the voluntarists’ radically transcendent God. (Redding, 140)

Yet, it would be in Schopenhauer that voluntarism would resurface. For Schopenhauer the metaphysical core is the ultimate expression of that theological voluntarist picture that Leibniz had opposed. Leibniz’s rational God has now been replaced by the processes of a will shorn of any recognizably rational characteristics. (Redding, 158) If Fichte’s absolute will was a modern depersonalised analogue of the simultaneously rational and beneficent God of Christian Platonism, Schopenhauer’s was that of the arbitrary, almost psychotically arational but all-powerful God glimpsed in the theology of some medieval voluntarists. (Redding, 161)

In lieu of a conclusion… a Coda.

As is always the case with Augustine, his account is characterized by its vulgarity, gracelessness, and complete destitution of intelligence.

-Nick Land, A Thirst for Annihilation (70).

From Augustine to Kant the voluntarist tradition would denigrate reason and intelligence at the expense of Will and Divine Inscrutability and Mystery. For others such as Nick Land intelligence, not Will is key; or, an Willing of the Intelligence of the Unconscious: as he’ll say of Schopenhauer, “the intellect is constituted by willing, rather than being constitutive for it. We do not know what we want” (KL 2110). It is no longer a matter of ‘thinking about’, but rather of observing an effective, “alien intelligence in the process of making itself real, then it is also a matter of participating in such a way as to continually intensify and accelerate this process”.4 What Land and his immediate precursor, Georges Bataille seek is a new type of intelligence: aggressively exploratory, incommensurable with human subjectivity and untethered from social reproduction. (Land, KL 535)  In fact, as Land suggests the high road to thinking no longer passes through a deepening of human cognition, but rather through a becoming inhuman of cognition, a migration of cognition out into the emerging planetary technosentience reservoir, into ‘dehumanized landscapes … emptied spaces’  where human culture will be dissolved. Just as the capitalist urbanization of labour abstracted it in a parallel escalation with technical machines, so will intelligence be transplanted into the purring data zones of new software worlds in order to be abstracted from an increasingly obsolescent anthropoid particularity, and thus to venture beyond modernity. (Land, KL 3982-3987)

With such a vision of the future who needs a voluntarist finitude?

  1. Jerome B. Schneewind. The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. Cambridge University Press (December 13, 1997)
  2. Christopher Stephen Lutz, From Voluntarist Nominalism to Rationalism to Chaos: Alasdair MacIntyre’s Critique of Modern Ethics. Analyse & Kritik 30/2008 ( c
    Lucius & Lucius, Stuttgart) p. 91–99
  3. Paul Redding. Continental Idealism: Leibniz to Nietzsche.
  4. Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 (Kindle Locations 489-492). Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.

The Grand Illusionist: The Non-Existent Self

Sometimes in those insomniac nights of sleeplessness and ennui  I ponder the reams of paper or the interminable light-bits of datatrash – those computing algorithms that have gone into the veritable destruction of the Great Illusionist: the Subject as Self-Identity and Substance. Everything from the current philosophical speculators to the vanguard research of neurosciences tells us the Self is an illusion, that it doesn’t exist… and, yet, the illusion persists, we get up every morning, we wander into the bathroom, we wash our face, and then look at the sack of shit staring back at us out of the mirror and, say: “You’re just a figment of my imagination, an illusion and linguistic trick, an evolutionary display of memes, ideas, notions, errors all wrapped up in bullshit.” We blink, we laugh, we cry… it’s still there, whatever ‘it‘ is or is not; it want go away, disappear, fall off a cliff.. the illusion of Self persists; it endures your vituperative invective, your satirical jibes, your slow witted verbiage… it blinks back at you, defies you, challenges you to disbelieve in its existence. But it does not go away… this illusion of Self. No matter how many intelligent people show you in report after report, thesis after thesis, image after image that it is an empty thing, a dead concept, a parlor trick… nothing more. We cling to our ‘I’ – our sense of identity, our uniqueness, our eccentric and marginal belief that we are different, that we are singular, unique, and one-of-a-kind beings; that all those who would reduce us to a cipher, an automated process in a vast and complex system of algorithms shifting in the substratum of the brain’s own biochemical vat must be wrong. So that in the end we hang onto this illusion of Self – this self-reflecting nothingness, a mirror world of illusive memetic monstrosities we keep referring to as our intentions, our intentional self; both intelligent and willful. Illusion, as Freud once believed, is not so easily gotten rid of, even the illusion of self and identity.

Most of the great religious systems of the world were built around deprogramming this sense of Self. Buddhism is a veritable registry of this hollowing out of the illusion of Self and Things or Mindedness… One turns to the Gnostics, remembering Basiledes who said: “Show me your face before you were born.” Or, Monoïmus the Gnostic who would tell his followers: “Cease to seek the Self as Self, and sayeth: ‘My god, my mind, my reason, my soul, my body.’ And learn whence is sorrow and joy, and love and hate, and waking though one would not, and sleeping though one would not, and getting angry though one would not, and falling in love though one would not. And if thou shouldst closely investigate these things, thou wilt find the Void in thyself, one and many, just as the atom; thus finding from thyself a way out of thyself.”

One could recite a Thousand and One Nights of such quotes from both religious, philosophical, scientific and other literature. Robert Musil in The Man without Qualities would say of Self and self-reflection: “This non-plussed feeling refers to something that many people nowadays call intuition, whereas formerly it used to be called inspiration, and they think that they must see something suprapersonal in it; but it is only something nonpersonal, namely the affinity and kinship of the things themselves that meet inside one’s head.”

The notion that the sense of Self is a mere congeries of things floating in and out of the voidic hollow of one’s brain is an apt metaphor for out times – a time when we still believe in the notion of Self – of the hollow men and women we call Leaders who presume to represent other selves in a Government based on the illusion of Selves in Nations built on an outmoded liberal model of subject and subjectivity, representation and presence, an illusion of the stable and continuous Liberal Subject-as-Substance and Substance-as-Subject. Amazing, quite amazing…

The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self

In their book The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity  Raymond Martin and John Barresi would trace this sordid history into all its nooks and crannies (at least into its Western Heritage and lineage). Yet, it was in Hume that the defining moment came to turn the mind’s scalpel onto that strange entity. In book 1 of the Treatise , the heart of his account is his argument that belief in a substantial, persisting self is an illusion.1 Hume addressed the task of explaining why people are so susceptible to the illusion of self. And in book 2 he explained how certain dynamic mentalistic systems in which we represent ourselves to ourselves, as well as to others, actually work, such as those systems in us that generate sympathetic responses to others. This was Hume the empirical psychologist at his constructive best. In these more psychological projects, Hume often seems to have taken for granted things that in book 1 he had subjected to withering skeptical criticism.(163)

Next we come to the work of Thomas Cooper (1759–1839). Cooper’s most important philosophical contribution was his Tracts, Ethical, Theological, and Political (1789). 53 In a chapter, “On Identity,” he first surveys the important eighteenth-century literature on personal identity, including Locke, Leibniz, Isaac Watts, Clarke, Collins, Butler, Priestley, Price, and Charles Bonnet. Cooper’s own view, which he expresses all too briefly after his leisurely survey of the views of others, is, in the language of our own times, that personal identity is not what matters primarily in survival. He argued that there is no evidence that people have immaterial souls and ample evidence that all of the matter out of which they are composed is constantly in the process of being replaced, with nothing remaining constant. (172)

Cooper would destroy (or so he hoped) the last metaphysical bastion of the afterlife – the notion of a Soul. In Cooper’s view, no one lasts even from moment to moment, let alone year to year. Rather, there is a succession of similar people, each of whom is causally dependent for its existence on its predecessors in the series. This similarity misleads people into supposing that identity is preserved, that is, that someone who will exist in the future is the very same person as someone who exists now. He concluded that personal identity is an illusion—at best a pragmatically useful notion with no adequate support in the nature of things. In response to the objection that “the man at the resurrection will, upon this system, be not the same with, but merely similar to the former,” he replied that similarity, rather than identity, is the most that can be got even in this life, which no one regards of any consequence. He concluded that maintaining identity should then be of no consequence in connection with the afterlife. (173)

Next we come to Schopenhauer whose notion of Will would replace this thing we call the ‘I’:

When you say I, I, I want to exist, it is not you alone that says this. Everything says it, absolutely everything that has the faintest trace of consciousness. It follows, then, that this desire of yours is just the part of you that is not individual—the part that is common to all things without distinction. It is the cry, not of the individual, but of existence itself; it is the intrinsic element in everything that exists, nay, it is the cause of anything existing at all. This desire craves for, and so is satisfied with, nothing less than existence in general—not any definite individual existence. No! that is not its aim. It seems to be so only because this desire—this Will—attains consciousness only in the individual, and therefore looks as though it were concerned with nothing but the individual. There lies the illusion—an illusion, it is true, in which the individual is held fast: but, if he reflects, he can break the fetters and set himself free. It is only indirectly I say, that the individual has this violent craving for existence. It is the Will to Live which is the real and direct aspirant—alike and identical in all things. (203)

Yet as Schopenhauer declared if our individual selves are at bottom an illusion, how can people overcome their egoistic concerns? Up to a point, he says, by developing the human capacity for sympathy and thereby becoming more virtuous. But what is really needed to overcome our self-centeredness is not mere sympathy but a “transition from virtue to asceticism,” in which the individual ceases to feel any concern for earthly things. In this “state of voluntary renunciation,” individuals experience “resignation, true indifference, and perfect will-lessness,” which lead to a “denial of the will to live.” Only then, when humans have become “saints,” are they released from insatiable Will. (204)

Of course as we know Schopenhauer was steeped in the new influx of translated works from both Hindu and Buddhist literature of that era in German scholarship so that his notions would meld the old Christian apophatic traditions with those of India to create a new deprogramming model for self-abnegation. Nietzsche would catch the drift of this and keep a wary eye on the old pessimist.

Yet, we need to turn back to those old Eighteenth century mechanists of the spirit, too. Among those whom influenced by such notions was Paul-Henri d’Holbach (1723–1789), who in System of Nature (1770) defended secular materialism. In it, d’Holbach argued, at the time sensationally, that humans are a product entirely of nature, that their moral and intellectual abilities are simply machinelike operations, that the soul and free will are illusions, that religion and priestcraft are the source of most manmade evil, and that atheism promotes good morality. (213)

The work of Nietzsche is well known so I want add examples here. A few—Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, for instance—had claimed that there is an irrational, unconscious part of the mind that dominates the rational. But Freud had a much more elaborate theory of how this happens, for which he claimed support from his psychotherapeutic and historical case studies, as well from his analyses of dreams and mental slips.

Freud claimed that most human behavior is explicable in terms of unconscious causes in the person’s mind, a view which he supported by appeal to ingenious interpretations of such things as slips of the tongue, obsessive behavior, and dreams. In short, the mind is like an iceberg, the bulk of which—the unconscious—lies below the surface and exerts a dynamic and controlling influence upon the part which is above the surface—that is, consciousness. It follows from this, together with a general commitment to universal determinism, that whenever humans make a choice, they are governed by mental processes of which they are unaware and over which they have no control. Free will is an illusion. Nevertheless, one can empower the ego by making the unconscious conscious. (256)

Freud had been interested in the process by which children become civilized, productive adults. He hoped that by bringing the contents of the unconscious into consciousness, repression and neurosis would be minimized, thereby strengthening the ego or self. His goal was the development of an ego that is more autonomous. In Lacan’s view, Freud’s goal is an impossible dream. Since the ego is an illusion, it can never replace or control anything, let alone the unconscious. Lacan’s theoretical interest was not in how children become civilized, productive adults but in how they acquire the illusion of self. (267)

Lacan in his notions of the mirror image would see in the child a sense of misrecognition as a category mistake that creates what Lacan called the “armor” of the subject, an illusion of wholeness, integration, and totality that surrounds and protects the child’s fragmented sense of its own body. This illusion of wholeness gives birth to the ego . That, in essence, is Lacan’s famous mirror theory . The idea that one is an ego or self, he said, is always a fantasy, based on an identification with an external image. (268)

Whereas the real is a realm of objects, the imaginary, which is prelinguistic and based in visual perception, is a realm of conscious and unconscious images. In this realm, the mirror image, an “ideal ego,” becomes internalized as the child builds its sense of self and identity. The fiction of a stable, whole, unified self that the child saw in the mirror becomes compensation for its having lost its original sense of oneness with the mother’s body. The child protects itself from the knowledge of this loss by misperceiving itself as not lacking anything. For the rest of its life, the child will misrecognize its self as an illusory other—an “image in a mirror.” This misrecognition provides an illusion of self and of mastery. (269)

In his recent work Antonio Damasio, a neurologist, has, on the basis of reports from his patients who have suffered brain damage, proposed the existence of a neural self . 45 He claims that these patients, deprived of current information about parts of their bodies, have sustained damage to the neural substrate of the self. By contrast, healthy people use their senses of self to access information about the slowly evolving details of their autobiographies, including their likes, dislikes, and plans for the future. They also use them to access representations of their bodies and their states. Damasio calls a person’s representations, collectively, his or her concept of self , which, he says, is continually reconstructed from the ground up. This concept is an evanescent medium of self-reference. It is reconstructed so often that the person whose self-concept it is never knows it is being remade unless problems arise. (291)

In a more recent book, Damasio, proposed that consciousness represents a relationship between the self and the external world. The self model that actually shows up phenomenologically as a more or less constant feature of our consciousness is not the robust self of our narrative reveries but what he calls the core self . It is a representation of a regulatory system in the brain and brain stem, the function of which is to monitor and maintain certain of the body’s internal systems, such as respiration, body temperature, and the sympathetic nervous system. He calls the system being represented, the protoself . In his view, all states of consciousness are bipolar in that they include a representation of the core self in relation to the external world. In this representation, he says, the core self remains relatively stable, while sensory input from the external world changes dramatically and often. Thus, in almost every conscious state, there is something relatively stable, namely the core self, and something changeable, the external world. This fact about consciousness, he claims, generates the “illusion” that there is a relatively constant self that perceives and reacts to the external world. (292)

Ultimately in the conclusion to their survey – dated in 2006 so lacking in current research, they suggest that our notion of a unified self-identity is not only an illusion, but that the disturbing realization that what we are characterized as a unified self is not something that we once had and then lost sight of but, rather, something that we never had to begin with. To whatever extent it may have seemed like we had it, this was an illusion. In this view of things, a better way of characterizing what happened as a consequence of the development of theory is not that we lost something valuable that we once had but that we became better positioned to shed an illusion and finally see what we had—and have—for what it truly is. Shedding an illusion, even the comforting one that there is a unified subject matter of self and personal-identity theory and we can grasp it whole, is a kind of progress. It is not progress of a sort that is internal to any theory but, rather, progress in gaining a better synoptic understanding of the development and current state of theory—metaprogress, if you will. Arguably, it is a sign of the importance of the shedding of the illusions of a unified self and of theoretical closure that it may be psychologically impossible to embrace wholeheartedly that there may be no knowable comprehensive truth about who and what we are and about what lies at the root of our egoistic concerns. (313)

Nevertheless, they argue, each of us seems to have a kind of direct, experiential access to him- or herself that makes the development of theories of the self and personal identity, however interesting, seem somewhat beside the point. This feeling of special access is what fueled Descartes’s contention that one’s own self is first in the order of knowing. The truth, however, seems to be that nothing is first in the order of knowing, that is, that there is no single privileged place to begin the development of theory, no single privileged methodology with which to pursue it, and no practical way to unify the theories that result from starting at different places using different techniques. This was not so apparent until recently, but it seems abundantly clear now. In sum, as “we have already suggested, if there is unity in sight, it is the unity of the organism, not of the self or of theories about the self”. (314)

Such are the quandaries of this strange history, a world built out of words and thoughts, lies and misrecognition, illusory at best; yet, a world that continues to build on such illusions as Self; its secret histories, battles, disjunctive sense of loss, even though we know it to be the Great Illusionist at the core of the human project. But, then again, are we even human anymore? We let the machines answer that, our future progeny may look back on our quandaries and laughingly click metal to metal as if to say, “Those fools who once shared our world and spent so much effort in creating us as the perfection of their dreams of Reason. Little did they know what it was they were doing…” or why?

  1. Raymond Martin and John Barresi. The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity.  Columbia University Press (July 22, 2006) (Page 163).

(Note: I could have brought it up to current speed with both neuroscientific, philosophical and other literature after 2006, but thought it would make this post far too long …)

Kafka’s Journey into Madness

Franz Kafka in his late Diaries on mental disequilibrium and breakdown (and, one should remember this was in those long months when he was writing The Castle):

16 January. This past week I suffered something very like a breakdown; the only one to match it was on that night two years ago; apart from then I have never experienced its like. Everything seemed over with, even today there is no great improvement to be noticed. One can put two interpretations on the breakdown, both of which are probably correct:

First: breakdown, impossible to sleep,’ impossible to stay awake, impossible to endure life, or, more exactly, the course of life. The clocks are not in unison; the inner one runs crazily on at a devilish or demoniac or in any case inhuman pace, the outer one limps along at its usual speed. What else can happen but that the two worlds split apart, and they do split apart, or at least clash in a fearful manner. There are doubtless several reasons for the wild tempo of the inner process; the most obvious one is introspection, which will suffer no idea to sink tranquilly to rest but must pursue each one into consciousness, only itself to become an idea, in turn to be pursued by renewed introspection.

Secondly: this pursuit, originating in the midst of men, carries one in a direction away from them. The solitude that for the most part has been forced on me, in part voluntarily sought by me – but what was this if not compulsion too? – is now losing all its ambiguity and approaches its denouement. Where is it leading? The strongest likelihood is, that it may lead to madness; there is nothing more to say, the pursuit goes right through me and rends me asunder. Or I can – can I? – manage to keep my feet somewhat and be carried along in the wild pursuit. Where, then, shall I be brought? ‘Pursuit,’ indeed, is only a metaphor. I can also say, ‘assault on the last earthly frontier’, an assault, moreover, launched from below, from mankind, and since this too is a metaphor, I can replace it by the metaphor of an assault from above, aimed at me from above.

-Franz Kafka. The Diaries of Franz Kafka

Fantastic Philosophy: The Politics of the Impossible


Even as a child I was drawn to the dark underbelly of the fantastic flowing out of Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Morris, Jules Verne, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, H. Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, Ambrose Bierce, Arthur Machen, and H.P. Lovecraft and his followers…

Yet, with the advent of Lord Dunsany, and the Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and their followers the fantastic seemed to be hijacked into pure fantasy, into a Platonic amalgam of sub-worlds, and sub-creations after some theological speculations and overlays that regressively sought to reduce the world of the impossible and uncertain into the nostalgic returns of mythical medievalism and neo-Christian redemption – a world of nostalgia rather than a forward looking and probing of the political and social world of the present and future.

So there has been this great ongoing divide between the dark fantastic, weird tales, strange and speculative fiction communities and those others. The dark fantastic – at least to me, is the more viable path, the realm that allows for a more open and philosophical, even scientific and speculative opening onto all that is most disquieting in our present civilization and its cultural milieu. It’s as if the authors of the dark fantastic were already secret sharers of that age old spirit of rebellion and skepticism, those dark nihilistic and daemonic beings who down the ages have questioned what is most atrocious and tyrannical in our world, questioned power, knowledge, and the values that bind and keep us from exploring beyond the known, the veil of reason’s limits: outside the limits of finitude in the Great Outdoors of Being.

Sometimes I think of Hermann Hesse’s hermetic fantasy Journey to the East and want to say that instead of this insipid journey toward the transcendent and the sublime we join an opposing tribe, a secret brotherhood and sisterhood of the dark fantastic who have through the ages shared similar passions, and darker paths into the abyss of the erotic, decadent, and impossible; beings who were willing to enter the unknown of our earth, to wander the labyrinths of madness and chaos just the other side of Reason’s limits and finitude; join with these creatures of the autochthonous and chthonic realms, become members of their immanence, wanderers not of some transcendent realm, but rather of the Impossible and Unknown that lies submerged all around us in the earthly abyss like a hellish paradise awaiting its reemergence.

Fantastic Gnosis: Political Exit, Political Fantasy?

For a while now I’ve studied the great fantasies of the ancient Gnostics not as literal myths and theologies of acosmic religious gnosis or soterological mythologies of salvation, but rather as pragmatic portrayals of a philosophical and political program of action that uses the dark fantastic of inversion and subversion of ancient religious systems to both escape and exit the tyrannical dominion of a form of political, cultural, and social control; a way of deprogramming people from the literal death machines of society that have them trapped in erroneous ideological constructs and symbolic orders that feed on their energy and thrive on their physical and emotional life as part of an ongoing parasitism.

Call political gnosis a dark fantasy that helps guide us out of the sub-creations and dungeons of a Reality System that has locked humans in a cave of symbols and beliefs – a Symbolic Order(s) – that continues to manipulate and use humans to drive its own alien and transcendent enterprise and agendas. Think of the various philosophical wars between thinkers of transcendence and immanence that seem locked in some Manichean battle across the millennium. Now one side, now the other takes the upper hand, but in the end we’ve seen the slow reduction of Reality to a singular and monocultural systems of command and control that in our time seem to be unraveling at the edges. The question is: How can we help this along? How to begin pulling apart the woven fabric of this Reality System that has entrapped humans in a system of tyranny and enslavement for millennia? How did we fall into the sub-world, the sub-creation to begin with? And, no, there is no Gnostic Demiurge behind the curtain pulling the strings, no Wizard of Oz hiding behind the illusionary structures and myths of this world. Instead we’ve done it to ourselves, allowed our own incessant urge for perfection and immortality, our need to transcend the human condition, our need to believe in some more perfect utopian world of purity and fulfillment to goad us into this false system we’ve built against an age old enemy – Time. That’s right, we’ve build culture and civilization as a Time Machine, a temporal system of historical continuity and duration to defend us against the impersonal and indifferent monstrosity of the natural universe of death, chaos, and annihilation.

I know, I know… you say: “This is ludicrous, have you gone mad, man? What kind of gibberish are you asking us to believe? This sounds like one of your fantastic stories, some dipping in the jar of phantasmagoria?” Maybe. A possibility? Or, maybe not. What if it is just a handy extrapolation into an extravagant linguistic system to awaken and disturb people, to arouse their interest, to pique their taste for the exotic and extreme? What if it is a foray into the impossible? What of that? One can take or leave such thoughts as I portray (if they be thoughts?). One can walk away and say: “Hickman has gone mad, taken to heart the strange and ridiculous worlds he’s been steeped in for far too long.” Yes, yes… maybe you’re own to something there. But maybe a little madness and excess is what we need. A little disturbance of our sleep, perhaps? A wake up call? A sort of fantastic bomb that suddenly brings one nightmares from within, immanently?

Yet, strangely there are those sub-creators, those of the other party, the reactionary front who seem to think of radical thought as something that needs to be squelched in the nib. I think of such thinkers starting with Eric Voegelin, who in his Science, Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays castigate what he termed political Gnosticism of modernity, lumping Positivism, Hegelianism, Marxism, and the “God is Dead” movement as variants of the Gnostic tradition of antiquity.1

Ioan P. Couliano in an interesting work on the Renaissance would liken magic and the magician as political actors enabling a new science of phantasms, one in which magic is primarily directed at the human imagination, in which it attempts to create lasting impressions upon the psyche of the masses. The magician of the Renaissance is both psychoanalyst and prophet as well as the precursor of modern professions such as director of public relations, propagandist, spy, politician, censor, director of mass communication media, and publicity agent.2 As he’d suggest

Nowadays the magician busies himself with public relations, propaganda, market research, sociological surveys, publicity, information, counter information and misinformation, censorship, espionage, and even cryptography—a science which in the sixteenth century was a branch of magic. This key figure of our society is simply an extension of Bruno’s manipulator, continuing to follow his principles and taking care to give them a technical and impersonal turn of phrase. Historians have been wrong in concluding that magic disappeared with the advent of ״quantitative science.” The latter has simply substituted itself for a part of magic while extending its dreams and its goals by means of technology. Electricity, rapid transport, radio and television, the airplane, and the computer have merely carried into effect the promises first formulated by magic, resulting from the supernatural processes of the magician: to produce light, to move instantaneously from one point in space to another, to communicate with faraway regions of space, to fly through the air, and to have an infallible memory at one’s disposal. Technology, it can be said, is a democratic magic that allows everyone to enjoy the extraordinary capabilities of which the magician used to boast. (104)

So in this sense we already live in a magical reality, a world constructed out of symbols and belief systems that have become demythologized of their ancient roots in lore and religious ritual and practices. Of course, nothing new here, Adorno and Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment would show this demythologization process as a progression from magic to religion to secular enlightenment, etc. As they’d suggest in the earliest popular epics this theoretical element of magic ritual became autonomous. The myths which the tragic dramatists of Greece drew on were already marked by the discipline and power which Bacon celebrated as the goal. The local spirits and demons had been replaced by heaven and its hierarchy. the incantatory practices of the magician by the carefully graduated sacrifice and the labor of enslaved men mediated by command.3

Yet, one asks: What is being commanded? The simple truth of it is – desire. We’ve created in magic, religion, and now secular systems machines to capture desire. But to understand how we’ve been manipulated by our own propensity to desire things, objects, and – yes, transcendence, is to understand first what desire is and does. Alexandre Kojève once taught that human desire is ultimately a desire for nothing tangible but a battle for pure prestige, a struggle to enslave the other’s desire to one’s own.4 In other words desire is intransitive. Objectless, desire seeks only the gratification of it’s own desire for desiring, and seeks to subordinate and enslave other’s desires to its own command and control systems. Let us call this the Prospero Syndrome and follow John Fowles postmodern fantasia The Magus down the rabbit hole.

The plot can be only inadequately summarized. Nicholas Urfe, a youngish, charming, intelligent and rather callous Oxford graduate “handsomely equipped to fail,” takes up with Alison, an Australian girl he meets at a party in London. Their affair becomes serious (“In our age it is not sex that raises its ugly head, but love”). This is more than Nicholas’s effete cynicism can stand, so he leaves Alison to accept a job as an English instructor at the Lord Byron School, a sort of Eton-Harrow enclave on the Greek island of Phraxos, “only a look north from where Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon.”

Bored, immeasurably depressed by the self-revelation that he is not, as he had thought, a talented poet (“I felt no consolation in this knowledge, but only a red anger that evolution could allow such sensitivity and such inadequacy to co-exist in the same mind”), out of phase with the throb of the sultry, white-sunned Mediterranean island.

Nicholas contemplates suicide, then takes to long solitary walks. On one of these walks he meets a wealthy English-born Greek named Maurice Conchis who may or may or may not have collaborated with the Nazis during the war and now lives as a recluse on his palatial, art- encrusted island estate. Conchis is the magus.

The estate is known as Salle d’Attente (the Waiting Room), and it is here that Nicholas is ushered into the mysteries–Conchis’s paradoxical views on life and his eccentric masques which, Nicholas later learns, are called “the godgame.”

The Godgame: Political Enclosures and Sub-Creation

John Fowles was fascinated by the ancient Aesopian fables and their Aramaic roots in didactic political and mystical medievalism.  The notion of a “Domaine Mysterieux” became a central motif of his early works, The Ebony Tower and The Magus in which most of the godgame takes place is constituted by – in a literal sense – the cellar, and also in a wider, literary and semi-mythological way, by the very tale of Charles Perreault’s fairy-tale Bluebeard, first published in 1697 in Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye. John Fowles said later that he had been inspired by the symbolism of a man imprisoning women underground seeing Bela Bartok’s opera version of Bluebeard’s Castle.5

Yet, there may be another reading, far more sinister in which it is not only women, the excluded element within androcratic regimes that is being imprisoned underground, but desire itself and more than that, reality itself that is being submerged below the horizon in favor of a world of simulacrums where desire can be trapped in an eternal present without outlet in a Timeless realm where profit is the only thing that can circulate and nothing can be exchanged but Death – the ultimate currency and sacrifice.

It’s in this sense that the characters in these novels and stories much like ourselves have entered into the godgame, a sub-creation of our real world, where they and we have become bit players in a “meta-theatrical” production that we are blind too, unaware of participating in, and locked in an hellish realm of economic, social, and political enslavement in which desire is the ultimate commodity and tool of corruption. In other words these fables are in many ways enactments of the very political enslavement we are currently experiencing within the Neoliberal world theatre, a cruel realm in which the real world is excluded and only the grand effects of the Industrial Mediatainment complex of World-Wide Communications and Information Systems replace the truth with its simulacrum.

The Trouble with Pleasure

Aaron Schuster in his new book The Trouble with Pleasure tells us that at the heart of Freud’s theory of mental life he describes three levels of desiring: —that of desire and its dissatisfaction, the struggle for recognition that constitutes the ego, and the crafty enjoyment of the drives. (KL 202) He goes on to describe Freud’s theory of drives, etc. saying that among all the ailments and afflictions recounted there, there is one kind of complaint that enjoys a particular privilege: the neurotic complaint. Inexplicable tics and bodily ailments, irrational fears, obsessive and intrusive thoughts, sexual malaise, entrenched guilt, and generally self-defeating behavior: in examining these various ills, Freud discovered that the neurotic complaint has a peculiar structure. In spite of their grumbling and dissatisfaction, his patients proved stubbornly attached to the conditions from which they suffered, and Freud claimed that they were, in ways unbeknownst to themselves, deeply complicit in their own discontent. This is one of the most revolutionary aspects of psychoanalysis, whose full implications still remain to be discovered today: to consider those afflicted with psychopathologies not merely as passive victims of an illness, but as the unwitting architects of their own unhappiness. As Freud writes, while the ego “says to itself: ‘This is an illness, a foreign invasion’” and is thus unable to understand why “it feels so strangely paralyzed,” analysis reveals that the malady is actually “a derivative of [the neurotic’s] own rejected instincts.”  What appears to be externally imposed is nothing other than the mutilated product of one’s most intimate desires and fantasies. In other words, at a certain (unconscious) level, symptoms are very much wanted and “enjoyed.” (KL 202-216)

In other words you get what you deserve, you are the architect and prime mover of your own misery and discontent, that no one is imposing any chains on your freedom and that the world you have chosen to live is as Leibniz once defined it “the best of all possible worlds,” the world you yourself chose to live in and have your being, the world of your most intimate desires and fantasies.

Sub-Worlds, Sub-Creation

From the time of W.H. Auden, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, fantasy literature was seen as fulfilling a desire for a ‘better’, more complete, unified reality and as an art form providing vicarious gratification. This transcendentalist approach was part of a nostalgic, humanistic vision, of the same kind as those romance fictions of George McDonald and others of the Nineteenth Century. The moral and religious allegories, parables and fables informing the stories of Tolkien and Lewis move away from the unsettling implications which are found at the center of the purely ‘fantastic’. Their original impulse may be similar, but they move from it, expelling their desire and frequently displacing it into religious longing and nostalgia. Thus they defuse potentially disturbing, anti-social drives and retreat from any profound confrontation with existential dis-ease.6

Movement into a marvellous realm transports the reader or viewer into an absolutely different, alternative world, a ‘secondary’ universe, as Auden and Tolkien term it. This secondary, duplicated cosmos, is relatively autonomous, relating to the ‘real’ only through metaphorical reflection and never, or rarely, intruding into or interrogating it. This is the place of William Morris’s The Wood Beyond the World, Frank Baum’s Wonderful Land of Oz, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, Fritz Leiber’s Nehwon, Tolkien’s Middlearth in The Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert’s Dune, the realms of fairy story and of much science fiction. (Jackson, 42-43)

These forms associated with the neo-Christian vision of the Inklings is to build up another universe out of elements of this one, according to dystopian fears and utopian desires, rather like Swift’s satirical methods in Gulliver’s Travels. Their other world, however new or strange, is linked to the real through an allegorical association, as an exemplification of a possibility to be avoided or embraced. The basic relation is a conceptual one, a linking through ideas and ideals. This is the basic notion of a Symbolic Order.

Much of what is termed post-Marxist thought of such thinkers after Lacan, such as Deleuze, Laclau, Mouffe, Žižek and so many others offer us a  version of the symbolic turn inherited from the structuralist era that was as much an obstacle as a vehicle for the various political projects to be discussed in this essay. The structuralist understanding of the symbolic is incapable of conceiving forms of critical thought and action that could disrupt hegemonic ideological forms, as structuralism takes these to be constitutive of our subjectivity itself.7

According to Breckman post-Marxism involves a confrontation between the relatively rigid semiotic concept of the symbolic order and looser, less formulaic and less deterministic ideas of the symbolic. (Breckman, pp. 12-13) These more open concepts tap the complicated legacy of the symbolic turn, a history with roots deeper than the twentieth century. The polyvalence of the concept of the symbolic opens up the terrain of post-Marxism: on one hand, the view of the symbolic as a “gargantuan” matrix, a ubiquitous ideological grid. As Breckman states it:

…the symbolic draws on roots in aesthetic and religious thought to indicate a special kind of representation, a representational form that oscillates between creating a certain kind of presence and remaining permanently flawed, shot through with that which it is not and cannot be. Viewed in this way, the symbolic opens the possibility for reorienting critical theory toward radical democracy, conceptualizing the power of symbols to body forth ideas, while at the same time viewing the social space as open and unmasterable. (pp. 13-15)

Many have portrayed postmodernity as intrinsically allegorical (which would be to say antisymbolic) because it has forever foreclosed on the fantasy of immediacy, presence, identity, and transcendence.8 All through the nineteenth century we discover in the Romantics, Decadents, and Symbolists a tension between symbol and allegory, which of course was a feature of the Romantic era itself, frequently hardening into an opposition. And, by extension, the notion that the postmodern age is allegorical rests inherently on a contrast to a modern age that was symbolic. It should be clear from the present discussion that it is a mistake to elevate one dimension of Romantic symbol theory above the polyvalence that lies at its core: the symbol is simultaneously a figure that concentrates and disperses meaning; it is a powerful figure, not just one sign among all others, but one that has the paradoxical power both to present or body forth and to accentuate the gap between the sign and the signified.

It would be this gap between the sign and the signified that would haunt the twentieth century. This sense that our thoughts about and reality itself had forever been severed, and we were now for better or worse living in constructed worlds – worlds where the social and cultural systems we seem to take for granted are machines of capture, machines that capture desire. We are living in an artificial world that feeds off our desires and manipulates our physical and mental life as part of a system of knowledge and power (Foucault) of which we are no longer the masters (if we ever were?).

Jean-Paul Sartre, in The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination would tell us that acts of creation are in fact negations of the existent, acts of positing a “thesis of irreality.”9 This view ultimately opens directly onto basic themes of Sartrean existentialism, for even though the imaginary suffers an “essential poverty” compared to the fullness of perception, the imagination is nonetheless the basis of our existential freedom because it is the source of man’s transcendence of the real; though the imaginary may be the source of enslavement to our own fantasies, it is also the source of the spontaneous freedom of consciousness in the Sartrean universe.

The notion of irrealism has generally been used to describe something which, while unreal, is so in a very specific or unusual fashion, usually one emphasizing not just the “not real,” but some form of estrangement from our generally accepted sense of reality. Some argue that irrealism should not be confused with anti-realism, that it is defined as being a type of existentialist thought and literature in which the means are continually and absurdly rebelling against the ends that we have determined for them. An example of this would be Franz Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis, in which the salesman Gregor Samsa’s plans for supporting his family and rising up in rank by hard work and determination are suddenly thrown topsy-turvy by his sudden and inexplicable transformation into a man-sized insect. Such fiction is said to emphasize the fact that human consciousness, being finite in nature, can never make complete sense of, or successfully order, a universe that is infinite in its aspects and possibilities. Which is to say: as much as we might try to order our world with a certain set of norms and goals (which we consider our real world), the paradox of a finite consciousness in an infinite universe creates a zone of irreality (“that which is beyond the real”) that offsets, opposes, or threatens the real world of the human subject. Irrealist writing often highlights this irreality, and our strange fascination with it, by combining the unease we feel because the real world doesn’t conform to our desires with the narrative quality of the dream state (where reality is constantly and inexplicably being undermined); it is thus said to communicate directly, “by feeling rather than articulation, the uncertainties inherent in human existence or, to put it another way… the irreconcilability between human aspiration and human reality.” 10

One last point is the notion that we are living in a sub-creation, an artificial sphere of information, images, representations, fabrications constructed out of fragmentary aspects of the real world. Luciano Floridi coined a term Infosphere that denotes the whole informational environment constituted by all informational entities (thus including information agents as well), their properties, interactions, processes, and mutual relations. It is an environment comparable to, but different from, cyberspace, which is only one of its sub-regions, as it were, since it also includes offline and analogue spaces of information. Maximally, it is a concept that, given an informational ontology, can also be used as synonymous with reality, or Being.11

The Godgame: The Matrix and the Pale King

Who will ever forget the moment that Neo awakens into reality. Neo is initially so distressed my Morpheus’s explanation of Zion as the real world and the Matrix as illusion he becomes disoriented and confused. Once disengaged from the neural interactive program of the Construct, Neo staggers and falls on the floor of the Nebuchadnezzar crying out, “Don’t touch me. Stay away from me. I don’t want it. I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it”. So intense is Neo’s feeling of confusion that he vomits – a literal expression of his sense of abjection.12

Neo’s reaction is not just disorientation due to the misrecognition of Zion as reality and the Matrix as fantasy, it is also due to the distress and anxiety caused by the loss of physical boundaries upon which his subjectivity is based. Rather than an individual with a discrete organic body, Neo finds that he is a composite entity, part human and part machine. The electro/ mechanical umbilici that connected Neo to the vast network of the Matrix destabilise his sense of self by blurring the boundaries between his body and the malevolent machine. Awareness of this situation is a moment of horror for Neo, not just because the machine he was attached to is monstrous, but also because he realizes that his body is part of the monster. (Williams, p. 68)

This sense that Neo is now disconnected from the Matrix of which he was a mere battery, a system of biopower that the machinic civilization – that had replaced and enslaved the human population after the great wars – is thrust into Neo’s consciousness with all the abject horror that such a revelation entails.

Andrew Culp in his Dark Deleuze reminds us that philosophically, connectivity is about world-building. The goal of connectivity is to make everyone and everything part of a single world.13 As he states it:

When connectivity is taken as a mantra, you can see its effects everywhere. Jobseekers are told to hop on to the web (“ While your resume can help you get the interview for a new job, a fully optimized LinkedIn profile can bring you more business, more connections, and can increase your professional reputation!”). Flat hierarchies are touted as good for business management (“ Power is vertical; potential is horizontal!”). And the deluge of digital content is treated as the world’s greatest resource, held back only by unequal access (“ Information wants to be free!”). As perverse as it sounds, many Deleuzians still promote concepts that equally motivate these slogans: transversal lines, rhizomatic connections, compositionist networks, complex assemblages, affective experiences, and enchanted objects. No wonder Deleuze has been derided as the lava lamp saint of “California Buddhism”— so many have reduced his rigorous philosophy to the mutual appreciation of difference, openness to encounters in an entangled world, or increased capacity through synergy. (Culp, KL 142-149)

In a connected world there is not distance, to time, no sense of movement. What we are witnessing according to Floridi is an epochal, unprecedented migration of humanity from its Newtonian, physical space to the infosphere itself as its Umwelt, not least because the latter is absorbing the former. As a result, humans will be inforgs (i.e., informational organisms) among other (possibly artificial) inforgs and agents operating in an environment that is friendlier to informational creatures. And as digital immigrants like us are replaced by digital natives like our children, the latter will come to appreciate that there is no ontological difference between infosphere and physical world, only a difference in levels of abstraction. When the migration is complete, we shall increasingly feel deprived, excluded, handicapped, or impoverished to the point of paralysis and psychological trauma whenever we are disconnected from the infosphere, like fish out of water. One day, being an inforg will be so natural that any disruption in our normal flow of information will make us sick. (Florid, pp. 16-17)

Floridi seems happy about this situation, a member of those scholars who form and shape the Neoliberal fantasy and seek to instill its illusionary force. Yet, even he admits that after the fall into this sub-world of the neoliberal fantasists, this global Matrix of machinic civilization that those who find themselves disconnected may like Neo suddenly find themselves “deprived, excluded, handicapped, or impoverished to the point of paralysis and psychological trauma whenever they are disconnected from the infosphere, like fish out of water”.

In Place of a Conclusion…

David Foster Wallace in his last and unfinished novel The Pale King offers us through one of his characters the nightmare of our present moment:

‘No, you’re missing the genius of it. It’ll all be played out in the world of images. There’ll be this incredible political consensus that we need to escape the confinement and rigidity of conforming, of the dead fluorescent world of the office and the balance sheet, of having to wear a tie and listen to Muzak, but the corporations will be able to represent consumption-patterns as the way to break out— use this type of calculator, listen to this type of music, wear this type of shoe because everyone else is wearing conformist shoes. It’ll be this era of incredible prosperity and conformity and mass-demographics in which all the symbols and rhetoric will involve revolution and crisis and bold forward-looking individuals who dare to march to their own drummer by allying themselves with brands that invest heavily in the image of rebellion. This mass PR campaign extolling the individual will solidify enormous markets of people whose innate conviction that they are solitary, peerless, non-communal, will be massaged at every turn.’14

In this nightmare vision even the revolution is a commodity in the endless Reality TV series that has become our lives.

I’ll return to this theme in Part Two with further divagations on how we might get out of this mad house we created for ourselves. Stay tuned…

  1.  Voegelin, Eric. , Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays. Gateway Editions; Gateway Ed edition (March 27, 2012)
  2. Couliano, Ioan P.. Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (November 15, 1987)
  3. Dialectic of Enlightenment . Stanford University Press; 1 edition (March 27, 2002)
  4. Schuster, Aaron. The Trouble with Pleasure (Short Circuits) (Kindle Locations 127-128). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
  5. Charlotte Nolsøe Høegh. Godgames Revisited – The Early Oeuvre of John Fowles. (University of Copenhagen, 2009)
  6. Jackson, Dr Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (New Accents) (p. 9). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition
  7. Breckman, Warren. Adventures of the Symbolic: Postmarxism and Democratic Theory (p. 12). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.
  8. Gail Day, “Allegory: Between Deconstruction and Dialectics,” Oxford Art Journal 22, no. 1 (1999): 103–118.
  9. 33. Jean-Paul Sartre, The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination, trans. Jonathan Webber (New York: Routledge, 2004), 10–11.
  10. Evans, G.S. and Alice Whittenburg, “After Kafka: Kafka Criticism and Scholarship as a Resource in an Attempt to Promulgate a New Literary Genre,” Journal of the Kafka Society of America, 31/32(1+2):18-26.
  11. Floridi, Luciano. The Ethics of Information (p. 6). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.
  12. Williams, B Conrad. What is the Matrix? (Jean Baudrillard and Simulation in the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix Series) (p. 68).  . Kindle Edition.
  13. Culp, Andrew. Dark Deleuze (Forerunners: Ideas First) (Kindle Locations 135-142). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
  14. Wallace, David Foster. The Pale King (p. 147). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.


Death of a Scholar (An Aside)

Couliano across several works would seek out ways of understanding this magical science of mass deception, manipulation, and control. Some say he was even murdered because of his radical views and stance, having been outspoken in his own homeland of Romania. Much of Culianu’s political activity remains vague, such as why he phoned someone in Medellin, Colombia, the capital of the world cocaine cartel, shortly before he died. Also unclear is the nature of his relationship with Mircea Eliade, whom he knew to have been an active supporter of the Romanian fascist Iron Guard movement. Detailed biographical material on Culianu leaves us convinced that the most remarkable thing about his life was its grotesque ending in a university toilet stall. Odds are it was the work of the Romanian Securitate secret police, but to this day the investigation is a mystery without conclusion. (see: Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu, Ted Anton)

Either way his work has been praised by such writers and thinkers as Umberto Eco, Harold Bloom, and others for its inventive and powerful scholarship and political and social acumen.

Bloom on Whitman: Elegist for the Self


Perhaps all that Whitman shared with Shakespeare, Goethe, and Henrik Ibsen was an implicit insight that the self was a necessary fiction, an illusion so desired that leaves of grass would sprout from the barren rock of being. A smoky taste flows but then ebbs in our reception of agonies as one of Walt’s changes of garments. Rancidity gathers, though it does not fall, and our self-vividness grows less bright. We turn blankly and discover that no direction is at home in us. … Our prime celebrant, Walt, is also our greatest elegist for the self, for the daemon errant in time’s wastages. Whitman’s art abides in nuance, indirection, gesture, subtle evasiveness, insinuation, ineluctable modalities of the visible, the signature of all things that he summons us to come and see. Shamanistic shape-shifter, Hermetic androgyne, he indeed is prelapsarian Adam, early in the morning of what has become our Evening Land.

-Harold Bloom,  The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime

Fantastic Chronology: A List (1900 to 1949) Part Four


Continued from Part Three…

  • 1900 Sigmund Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams, issuing a
    caution to all lovers of hallucinatory fantasy. F. Anstey’s The Brass Bottle
    toys with the idea of letting an intrusive fantasy get out of hand. L. Frank
    Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz suggests that if you live in Kansas,
    the grass might be greener on the other side of the portal.
  • 1902 Kipling’s Just So Stories inject a healthy dose of nonsense into the
    business of fabulation. E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It adapts Ansteyan
    fantasy for young readers. Arthur Machen’s Hieroglyphics explores the ecstatic dimension of enchantment.
  • 1904 J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan explores the psychological politics of escapism. W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions and H. G. Wells’s “The Country of the Blind” bid farewell to lost races.
  • 1905 Lord Dunsany’s The Gods of Pegana goes in for secondary creation
    on a large scale in lapidary form. The launch of Winsor McCay’s comic
    strip Little Nemo in Slumberland adapts fantasy to a new and exceedingly
    hospitable medium.
  • 1907 George Sterling’s “A Wine of Wizardry” sets out a manifesto for
    fantasy in a suitably decadent style and demonstrates that the readers of
    Cosmopolitan are small-town folk at heart.
  • 1908 G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday demonstrates that the
    spy story is an unsuitable medium for religious allegory. Kenneth Grahame’s
    The Wind in the Willows demonstrates that animal fantasy is the last viable
    refuge of Arcadian fantasy. Dunsany’s “The Sword of Welleran” attempts to
    recast chivalric romance in the mold of heroic fantasy. William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland demonstrates the utility of leaky portals.
  • 1909 Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird demonstrates that fantasy is
    stageable, provided that one takes a sufficiently impressionistic approach.
  • 1910 Walter de la Mare’s The Return and Algernon Blackwood’s The
    Human Chord fuse occult and existentialist fantasy.
  • 1912 James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold revisits the Irish Arcadia and finds it slightly tarnished. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes provides a key model of the Noble Savage.
  • 1914 Anatole France’s The Revolt of the Angels provides literary satanism with its masterpiece, shortly before the outbreak of the Great War in August; shortly thereafter, Arthur Machen’s “The Bowmen” illustrates the hazards of fantastic indulgence in a time of great social stress. The Vorticist periodical Blast is founded, taking esoteric allegory to new extremes.
  • 1915 Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis
    illustrate the anxieties bred by war. Jack London’s The Star Rover celebrates escapism. Machen’s The Great Return suggests that Wales was never in greater need of a grail.
  • 1917 James Branch Cabell’s The Cream of the Jest employs portal fantasy to mock the follies of American mores.
  • 1918 A. Merritt’s “The Moon Pool” employs a definitive portal fantasy to issue a manifesto for escapist fantasy in pulp fiction. The Great War ends in November.
  • 1919 Stella Benson’s Living Alone indicates the need for postwar reenchantment. James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen continues his symbolist satirization of American mores and is fortunate enough to excite stern opposition.
  • 1920 David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus modernizes metaphysical allegory. The Capek brothers’ Insect Play and Hugh Lofting’s The Story of
    Dr. Doolittle provide contrasting templates for modern animal fantasy.
    Jessie Weston’s scholarly fantasy From Ritual to Record makes an important contribution to the ideology of Celtic Arthurian fantasy.
  • 1921 Barry Pain’s Going Home takes sentimental fantasy to a new extreme.
  • 1922 Eric Rucker Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros demonstrates several
    new extremes to which transfiguration of epic materials might go. David
    Garnett’s Lady into Fox modernizes theriomorphic fantasy. Ben Hecht’s
    Fantazius Mallare celebrates the perversities of delusionary fantasy.
  • 1923 Weird Tales begins publication.
  • 1924 Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter gives Faerie a crucial
    symbolic role in the politics of re-enchantment.
  • 1925 Margaret Irwin’s These Mortals and Christopher Morley’s Thunder
    on the Left reverse the conventional direction of portal fantasy in order to
    highlight the moral effects of disenchantment.
  • 1926 Ronald Fraser’s Flower Phantoms considers the metaphysical implications of erotic fantasy. Hope Mirrlees’s  Lud-in-the-Mist revisits the symbolism of forbidden fruit. Thorne Smith’s Topper adapts Ansteyan fantasy to an American milieu. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes casts the Devil as a loving huntsman.
  • 1927 John Erskine’s Adam and Eve adapts Edenic fantasy to the purposes of modern satire. Herman Hesse’s  Steppenwolf suggests that the magical Theatre of the Imagination might hold the answer to problems of alienation. T. F. Powys’s Mr. Weston’s Good Wine offers a revised account of divine benevolence.
  • 1928 Wyndham Lewis’s The Childermass transfigures Dantean fantasy
    for the modernist era. Robert Nathan’s  The Bishop’s Wife imagines that
    even angels can fall in love. George Sylvester Viereck and Paul Eldridge’s My First Two Thousand Years explores the ways in which an accursed wanderer might profitably employ an extended sojourn in the world. Lewis Spence’s The Mysteries of Britain collates the scholarly fantasies underlying modern Celtic fantasy.
  • 1929 Aleister Crowley’s Moonchild provides a key example of occult fantasy informed by scholarly and lifestyle fantasies. Robert E. Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom” offers a tentative template for sword and sorcery fiction.
  • 1930 Charles Williams’s War in Heaven demonstrates that genre thrillers
    might benefit from a dash of religious fantasy.
  • 1931 T. F. Powys’s “The Only Penitent” suggests that the moral rearmament of the confessional might work both ways.
  • 1932 Robert E. Howard’s first Conan story establishes a more authoritative exemplar for sword-and-sorcery fiction. John Cowper Powys’s A Glastonbury Romance explores the potential of reckless mythological syncresis.
  • 1933 C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau” hybridizes planetary romance and mythical fantasy. James Hilton’s Lost Horizon establishes a new escapist myth.
  • 1934 C. L. Moore’s “Black God’s Kiss” feminizes sword and sorcery
    fiction in graphic fashion.
  • 1935 Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr Lao employs a circus as a
    mirror to various hidden aspects of the American Dream. Herbert Read’s
    The Green Child remodels the underworld of Faerie in surreal fashion.
  • 1936 Evangeline Walton’s The Virgin and the Swine demonstrates the
    utility of Celtic fantasy in the dramatization of post-Frazerian scholarly
  • 1937 J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit; or, There and Back Again sets a crucial precedent for modern immersive fantasy. Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” sets up a crucial title fight between the Devil and an American lawyer.
  • 1938 T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone provides significant new models of education and wizardry. Mikhail Bulgakov writes The Master and Margarita, knowing that he will be unable to publish its satanic rebellion against Stalinism. J. R. R. Tolkien’s lecture “On Fairy Tales” offers an unprecedentedly robust apologia for fantasy literature.
  • 1939 Unknown provides a vital arena for the development of chimerical fantasy. Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds takes metafiction to new extremes. James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” provides a classic description of everyday escapism. World War II begins in September.
  • 1940 Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Silvina Ocampo compile a showcase anthology of international fantasy literature. Robert Nathan’s Portrait of Jennie provides a key example of sentimental fantasy.
  • 1941 The United States becomes embroiled in World War II in December.
  • 1942 C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters breaks new tactical ground in
    propagandistic Christian fantasy.
  • 1943 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince provides a parable of
    enchantment destined to become the best-selling book of the 20th century.
  • 1944 Neil M. Gunn’s The Green Isle of the Great Deep wonders whether
    heaven itself might be endangered by the spirit of Fascism.
  • 1945 C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce redraws the map of Dantean fantasy in a calculatedly unmelodramatic style. George Orwell’s Animal Farm adapts animal fantasy to modern political allegory. Charles Williams’s All Hallows’ Eve places the war-torn world in a melodramatic metaphysical context. In August, World War II is concluded with an unprecedented melodramatic flourish.
  • 1946 Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan sets a new standard in Gothic grotesquerie. Mervyn Wall’s The Unfortunate Fursey lends a new sophistication to humorous fantasy.
  • 1948 Fletcher Pratt’s The Well of the Unicorn begins the sophistication
    of American heroic fantasy.
  • 1949 Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces maps the essential features of the heroic quest. The Magazine of Fantasy is launched
    (becoming The Magazine of Fantasy Science Fiction after its second issue).

One | Two | Three | Four

-Stableford, Brian. The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. (Scarecrow Press, 1989)

Fantastic Chronology: A List (1850 to 1899) Part Three


Continued from Part Two…

One | Two | Three | Four

  • 1851 John Ruskin’s King of the Golden River provides the cardinal English example of an art fairy tale.
  • 1853 Richard Wagner begins his operatic transfiguration of Nordic fantasy in The Rheingold.
  • 1854–56 Éliphas Lévi’s Dogma and Ritual of Transcendental Magic provides a handbook for modern lifestyle fantasy.
  • 1855 Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” furnishes a key source of enigmatic imagery.
  • 1856 William Morris’s account of “The Hollow Land” lays down a template for the design and decoration of secondary worlds.
  • 1857 Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal pioneers decadent style.
  • 1858 George MacDonald’s Phantastes lays down a template for didactic
    portal fantasy.
  • 1859 Éliphas Lévi’s History of Magic completes his couplet of scholarly
    fantasies, adding theory to practice.
  • 1860 Paul Féval’s multilayered and chimerical  Knightshade demonstrates the elasticity of metafiction.
  • 1861 Bulwer-Lytton’s  A Strange Story reclaims, with interest, what
    Éliphas Lévi had borrowed from Zanoni.
  • 1862 Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” explores the symbolism of “forbidden fruit.” Jules Michelet’s La Sorcière demonstrates that real historians
    can fake history more skillfully and more extravagantly than mere pretenders.
  • 1863 Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies explores the utility of phantasmagoric imagery in Christian fantasy.
  • 1865 In response to George MacDonald’s suggestion that he too might
    produce something akin to The Water Babies, Lewis Carroll prepares Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for publication, achieving something quite
  • 1866 Sabine Baring-Gould’s Curious Myths of the Middle Ages provides
    easily accessible imaginative fuel for contemporary fantasists. Théophile
    Gautier’s  Spirite pioneers paranormal romance. William Gilbert’s  The
    Magic Mirror exemplifies the Victorian attitude to wish-fulfillment fantasies.
  • 1867 Henrik Ibsen’s  Peer Gynt demonstrates the difficulty of putting
    fantasy on stage.
  • 1869 Jean Ingelow’s  Mopsa the Fairy exemplifies the sentimental aspects of the Victorian fascination with fairies.
  • 1870 Frank R. Stockton’s Ting-a-Ling founds an American tradition of
    children’s fantasy.
  • 1871 Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass takes “nonsense” to new extremes of logical effect.
  • 1872 George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin exemplifies the
    darker aspects of the Victorian fascination with fairies.
  • 1874 Gustave Flaubert publishes the revised version of The Temptation
    of Saint Anthony, featuring a more comprehensively modernized image of
    the Devil.
  • 1876 Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark gives nonsense its verse epic.
  • 1877 Madame Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled lays the foundation for a scholarly and lifestyle fantasy of unprecedented complexity. Mrs. Molesworth’s
    The Cuckoo Clock refines didactic portal fantasy for children.
  • 1878 Max Adeler’s “Mr Skinner’s Night in the Underworld” adds an
    American irreverence to humorous fantasy.
  • 1880 Vernon Lee’s “Faustus and Helena” sets out a new theory of the
    functions of the supernatural in literature.
  • 1882 F. Anstey’s Vice Versa employs humorous fantasy to expose the follies and impostures of Victorian attitudes. Gilbert and Sullivan’s light
    opera Iolanthe arranges a cultural exchange between the fairy court and the
    House of Lords. Wagner’s heavy opera “Parsifal” completes the set of his
    mythical dramatizations.
  • 1883 Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio explains the difficulties involved in becoming human.
  • 1884 Oscar Wilde’s “The Sphinx” takes a tour of the cosmos of the contemporary imagination.
  • 1886 Rider Haggard’s She takes the lost race story into new fantastic territory. Marie Corelli’s A Romance of Two Worlds pretends to revitalize religious fantasy while luxuriating in wish fulfillment.
  • 1887 Oscar Wilde’s account of “The Canterville Ghost” sophisticates the
    humorous ghost story.
  • 1888 Richard Garnett’s The Twilight of the Gods displays the scope of
    contes philosophiques dressed with a sharp satirical wit and a blithely
    decadent style. Robert Louis Stevenson’s  Strange Tale of Dr. Jekyll and
    Mr. Hyde adds a new dimension to moralistic fantasy. A. E. Waite’s Elfin
    Music summarizes the tradition of English fairy poetry.
  • 1889 Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court breaks
    new ground in didactic timeslip fantasy.
  • 1890 James Frazer publishes the first version of The Golden Bough, supplying a mythical account of the evolution of magic and religion destined
    to inform countless historical fantasies. Anatole France’s Thaïs brings the
    ideals of Christianity and Epicureanism into sharp conflict. Andrew Lang’s
    Blue Fairy Book launches an encyclopedia of the sources of modern children’s fantasy. William Morris’s The Story of the Glittering Plain brings
    the Hollow Land up to date.
  • 1891 George du Maurier’s  Peter Ibbetson celebrates the power of
    dreams to activate wish fulfillment. Oscar Wilde exemplifies the thesis of
    “The Decay of Lying” by publishing The House of Pomegranates and The
    Picture of Dorian Gray.
  • 1892 “Amour Dure” and “Dionea,” in Vernon Lee’s Hauntings, set new
    standards in decadent erotic fantasy.
  • 1893 W. B. Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight celebrates the mystical survival,
    in spirit, of the Irish Arcadia.
  • 1894 Fiona MacLeod’s The Sin Eater and Other Tales and Episodes argues that Scotland was also part of Britain’s Arcadia, although William
    Morris removes it to The Wood beyond the World. Rudyard Kipling’s The
    Jungle Book brings animal fantasy to a new pitch of sophistication.
  • 1895 H. G. Wells’s The Wonderful Visit employs an angel as a critical observer of Victorian folkways. John Kendrick Bangs’s A Houseboat on the
    Styx credits Dante’s Inferno with New York’s urbanity. Marie Corelli’s The
    Sorrows of Satan sympathizes with the Devil’s aristocratic ennui.
  • 1896 M. P. Shiel’s  Shapes in the Fire and Laurence Housman’s  AllFellows deploy decadent style in very different ways. Gerhardt Hauptmann’s
    The Sunken Bell struggles heroically with the problems of staging fantasy.
  • 1897 Bram Stoker’s Dracula invents a monster of unparalleled seductiveness.
  • 1898 Aleister Crowley joins the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn,
    bringing a dash of Rabelais to the world of English lifestyle fantasy. H. G.
    Wells’s “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” offers a definitive analysis
    of the tragedy of wish fulfillment.
  • 1899 Charles Godfrey Leland’s Aradia mixes Michelet and Frazer into a
    heady new cocktail for scholarly and lifestyle fantasists.

One | Two | Three | Four

-Stableford, Brian. The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. (Scarecrow Press, 1989)

Fantastic Chronology: A List (1800 to 1850) Part Two


Continued from Part One…

One | Two | Three | Four

  • 1801 M. G. Lewis’s Tales of Wonder collects ballads with a supernatural
    theme, adding several new compositions.
  • 1802 Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border provides a significant supplement to Percy’s Reliques.
  • 1803 Robert Southey’s translation of Amadis de Gaul imports chivalric
    romance into 19th-century Britain.
  • 1805 Walter Scott’s “Lay of the Last Minstrel” consolidates the Romantic image of the wizard in its depiction of Michael Scott.
  • 1808 Goethe publishes the first part of his definitive allegorical version
    of Faust.
  • 1811 Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine and Ludwig Tieck’s “The
    Elves” provide the paradigm examples of the German art fairy tale.
  • 1812 Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm issue the first volume of their  Children’s and Household Tales, firmly establishing the notion of folktales as
    tales told by adults to children.
  • 1813 Fouqué’s  The Magic Ring revives the tradition of chivalric romance within the novel format. Percy Shelley’s “Queen Mab” establishes
    an important precedent for the 19th-century English revival of fairy art and
  • 1814 The first volume of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s  Tales in the Manner of
    Callot and Adalbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl introduce a note of
    sinister grotesquerie into the German art fairy tale.
  • 1818 Mary Shelley’s  Frankenstein creates an important template for
    tales of man-made monsters.
  • 1819 Washington Irving’s “Rip van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy
    Hollow” pioneer the invention of American “fakelore.” John Polidori’s
    “The Vampyre” supernaturalizes Lord Byron.
  • 1820 John Keats’s “Lamia” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” reintroduce two carefully re-eroticized classic motifs into English Romantic fantasy. Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound provides a model of disguised literary Satanism.
  • 1822 Charles Nodier’s Trilby imagines a goblin in love with a human
  • 1824 Walter Scott’s “Wandering Willie’s Tale” renders the substance of
    a fantastic ballad into prose. William Austin’s “Peter Rugg—the Missing
    Man” Americanizes a European folktale as an allegory of history.
  • 1828 Thomas Keightley’s Fairy Mythology provides a Bible for the English vogue; excerpts appear in the Athenaeum, assisting John Sterling’s experiments in fantasy fiction.
  • 1831 Honoré de Balzac’s account of The Wild Ass’s Skin provides a paradigm example of modern moralistic fantasy. Nikolai Gogol’s Evenings on
    a Farm near Dikanka give literary form to Russian folklore.
  • 1832–33 Benjamin Disraeli’s “Ixion in Heaven” exemplifies the use of
    classical fantasy as political allegory.
  • 1833 James Dalton’s The Invisible Gentleman attempts to adapt humorous moralistic fantasy to the three-decker format.
  • 1834 The diffusionist thesis of Keightley’s  Tales and Popular Fictions
    emphasizes the contribution of recycling and transfiguration to the heritage of modern fantasy.
  • 1835 Elias Lonnrott compiles the  Kalevala, synthesizing a Finnish
    “epic” from fragmentary folk songs. Hans Christian Andersen begins publishing his synthetic fairy tales.
  • 1836 Théophile Gautier’s “Clarimonde” breaks new ground in erotic
    fantasy. Gogol’s “The Nose” reinvents absurdist satire.
  • 1837 Sara Coleridge’s Phantasmion provides a significant example of an
    allegorical fairy romance with elements of heroic fantasy. Nathaniel
    Hawthorne’s “Dr Heidegger’s Experiment” assists the foundation of an
    American tradition of fantastic  contes philosophiques. Andersen’s “The
    Little Mermaid” warns young women of the dangers of standing on their
    own two feet.
  • 1838 John Sterling’s The Onyx Ring attempts to found an English tradition of experimental contes philosophiques in novel form.
  • 1839 Captain Marryat’s account of  The Phantom Ship transfigures the
    myth of the Flying Dutchman.
  • 1840 Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque takes up
    where John Sterling left off in demonstrating the breadth and versatility of
    the fantasy spectrum. The first series of R. H. Barham’s Ingoldsby Legends
    provides a crucial exemplar for English humorous fantasy.
  • 1842 Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni provides a key exemplar of occult
    fantasy and launches a thousand lifestyle fantasies. Poe’s “The Masque of
    the Red Death” establishes a paradigm of decadent fantasy. Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” recycles a famous folktale in hectic
  • 1843 Charles Dickens’s  A Christmas Carol creates the tradition of
    moralistic Christmas fantasy. Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman”
    begins his development of fantasy in musical form.
  • 1844 Dickens’s The Chimes attempts to strike a great blow for the poor
    but exposes the limitations of moralistic fantasy. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s
    account of “Rappaccini’s Daughter” aims at a softer target.
  • 1845 Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” gives an archetypal form to a
    hopeful modern myth. Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter takes the tactics of parental moral terrorism to a new extreme.
  • 1846 Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” lays down a template for modern
    Orphean fantasy. Edward Lear’s  The Book of Nonsense takes up arms
    against the tyranny of “common sense.”
  • 1848–49 Gustave Flaubert writes the first version of The Temptation of
    Saint Anthony, working toward a modern conception of the Devil. Douglas
    Jerrold’s A Man Made of Money demonstrates the literary potential of literalized puns.
  • 1850 Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand” embarks upon a perverse
    quest for the unpardonable sin.

One | Two | Three | Four

-Stableford, Brian. The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. (Scarecrow Press, 1989)



Fantastic Chronology: A List (8th Century to 1900) Part One


First in a two part chronological listing of fantastic works situated on the one hand by the marvelous and mythical epics, tragedies, comedies, and tales; and, on the other the slow demythologization or secularization of the marvelous into psychological, nihilistic, and other modes of the modern fantastique. Part one deals with those works up to 1900. I am indebted to Brian Stableford’s excellent The A to Z of Fantasy Literature which details out this history and its main authors from antiquity to the present.

One | Two | Three | Four

Part One: 8th Century to 1900

  • 8th century BC The Homeric epics are recorded, establishing the notion
    of literary genius and launching the tradition of fantasy literature. The
    works of Hesiod, including the Theogony, record the wider substance of
    classical mythology.
  • 6th century BC The fables credited to Aesop are recorded.
  • 5th century BC Aeschylus founds the tradition of tragic drama; his notable works include a post–Trojan War trilogy featuring Orestes, whose
    tribulations are further described by Euripides. Sophocles contributes a
    trilogy about Oedipus. In 423 B.C., Aristophanes’ ground-breaking humorous fantasy The Clouds wins one of his several prizes for satirical comedy.
  • 19 BC Virgil’s Aeneid imports Roman ideals into a sequel to the Homeric epics.
  • c10  AD Ovid compiles  Metamorphoses, a theme anthology recycling
    mythical tales, including the story of Perseus and Andromeda.
  • c65 The wandering protagonist of Petronius’s Satyricon encounters various leftovers of classical mythology.
  • c150 Lucian satirizes traveler’s tales in the “True History” and writes
    “Lucius; or, The Ass,” a licentious tale.
  • c165 Apuleius’s transfiguration of Lucian’s “Lucius,” The Golden Ass,
    elaborates the story considerably, interpolating the original allegory of
    “Cupid and Psyche.”
  • c425 Longus writes the Arcadian fantasy Daphnis and Chloe.
  • c725 Beowulf, written in a language ancestral to English, provides a key
    example of a local hero-myth.
  • c850 The Voyage of St. Brendan offers an account of an Irish expedition
    to a series of marvelous islands, providing a popular exemplar of a traveler’s tale with quest elements.
  • c1090 The Elder Edda provides a poetic version of the foundations of
    Nordic fantasy.
  • c1130 The earliest surviving manuscript of The Song of Roland, transfigures the defeat of Charlemagne’s army by Basque forces in 778, describing a valiant but hopeless rearguard action by Roland and his comrades.
  • c1135 Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pioneering exercise in scholarly fantasy,
    History of the Kings of Britain, supplies the primal seed of Arthurian fantasy. Geffrei Gaimar’s similarly imaginary History of the English includes
    the story of Havelok the Dane.
  • c1165 A letter is allegedly received by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, signed by Prester John, the ruler of a Christian kingdom in
    India. The fake letter—an instrument of propaganda intended to drum up
    support for the Crusades—is widely copied, its account of Prester John’s
    kingdom provoking a good deal of scholarly fantasy.
  • c1170 Marie de France produces her Breton lays, many of which employ
    the Arthurian court as a backcloth; Sir Orfeo hybridizes Arthurian romance
    with the classical materials that provide the other major inspiration of
    French verse romance. A clerk known as Thomas writes The Romance of
    Horn, an account of unjust dispossession followed by heroic exploits, culminating in eventual reinstatement. The earliest texts composing the Roman de Renart lay the foundations of modern animal fantasy in their elaboration of fabular accounts of Reynard the Fox.
  • c1185 Chrétien de Troyes dies, leaving The Story of the Grail (aka Perceval) tantalizingly unfinished and awkwardly entangled with the similarly
    unfinished Gawain, provoking the production of thousands of literary fantasies and hundreds of scholarly fantasies.
  • c1210 Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal imports Chrétien’s account of
    the grail into German, co-opting Prester John as the grail’s guardian and
    making him a cousin of Parzifal’s son Lohengrin. A French Cistercian
    monk expands Chrétien’s story vastly in The Quest of the Holy Grail, making the grail quest a major endeavor of Arthur’s court.
  • c1220 Snorri Sturluson’s Icelandic Prose Edda, together with the Germanic  Niebelunglied and Scandinavian  Volsunga Saga, completes the
    foundations of Nordic fantasy. The French romance of Huon of Bordeaux
    introduces a chivalrous hero to the fairy king Oberon.
  • c1225 Guillaume de Lorris begins composition of The Romance of the
    Rose, an allegorical visionary fantasy based in classical sources.
  • c1275 Jean De Meun completes a much-expanded version of  The Romance of the Rose, which is extensively copied.
  • c1298 The death of Jacobus de Voragine, the compiler of The Golden Legend and the inspiration of much subsequent Christian fantasy.
  • c1300 The White Book of Rhydderch provides the earliest written source
    for the substance of Celtic fantasy.
  • c1307 13th October: Knights Templar throughout France are arrested,
    charged with heresy, and tortured by crown inquisitors to force confessions, providing the seeds of countless secret histories and fantasies of diabolism.
  • c1320 Dante’s Divine Comedy provides a key model for afterlife fantasy.
  • c1355 The Marvellous Adventures of Sir John Maundeville exemplifies
    the fantasized traveler’s tale.
  • c1370 The story of Gawain and the Green Knight provides a key exemplar of English Arthuriana and a significant exercise in obscure allegory.
  • c1375 The Red Book of Hergest adds the second foundation stone of
    Celtic fantasy; it includes “Peredur of Evrawc,” which recycles Chrétien’s
  • c1387 Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales introduces fantasy—as
    well as naturalism—into the nascent tradition of English literature; the
    tales display a clear understanding of the various functions of calculated
  • Early 15th century The first version of the chivalric fantasy Amadis of
    Gaul is written, probably in Portugal; the original is lost but serially expanded versions in Spanish and French boost the novel-length version to
    international popularity.
  • 1485 Le Morte d’Arthur, bylined Thomas Malory, refashions the massive
    body of Anglo-Norman Arthuriana into a continuous and more-or-less coherent prose narrative, deemphasizing its supernatural elements but providing modern fantasy with its most important taproot text and exemplar.
  • 1492 Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World demonstrates that not all traveler’s tales are ludicrous.
  • 1494 Matteo Boiardo dies, leaving his epic poem Orlando Innamorato
  • 1515 The lifestyle fantasist styling himself “Nostradamus” publishes his
    first set of quatrains, laying down a rich vintage for future scholarly fantasists.
  • 1516 Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso picks up where Boiardo left
    off, taking chivalric romance to new extremes of elaboration and exoticism, spicing them with sophisticated wit.
  • 1532 François Rabelais’s  Pantagruel begins a series of parodic satires
    that provides a crucial exemplar for Swiftian satire and Voltairean contes
    philosophiques, and for lifestyle fantasists avid to adopt the guiding motto
    of the Abbey of Thelema (“Do As Thou Wilt”).
  • 1550 Gianfrancesco Straparola’s  Nights offers literary versions of 20
    folktales, including texts of Puss-in-Boots and Beauty and the Beast.
  • 1587 Johann Spies publishes a fantasized account of the career of an obscure German scholar, founding the genre of Faustian fantasy.
  • 1590 Edmund Spenser publishes the first part of The Faerie Queene, allegorizing contemporary culture in the form of a fairy romance. Sir Philip
    Sidney performs a similar allegorical service for the myth of Arcadia.
  • 1593 Christopher Marlowe is murdered, leaving behind  The Tragical
    History of Dr. Faustus, a transfiguration of Spies’s Faust Book.
  • 1595 William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream offers a new
    blueprint for English fairy literature.
  • 1605 Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote pillories chivalric romance as
    a kind of folly, but concedes that if nostalgia is a mental disease there is a
    tragic dimension in its cure.
  • 1611 Shakespeare’s The Tempest produces a key model of the figure of
    the Enchanter—an important archetype of philosophically inclined wizards—and supplies him with an equally influential exemplary household.
  • 1634 Giambattista Basile’s  Pentamerone recycles many folktales
    recorded by Straparola and adds many others, including versions of Snow
    White, Cinderella, and Rapunzel.
  • 1654 Justus van den Vondel’s epic drama of the rebellion in heaven, Lucifer, is couched as a complaint against Puritanism.
  • 1667 John Milton’s epic account of the rebellion in heaven,  Paradise
    Lost, turns the ideological tables on Vondel.
  • 1668 Jean de la Fontaine’s Fables recycles works by Aesop and Pilpay,
    supplementing them with many new examples in a more cynical and satirical vein.
  • 1678–79 The first part of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress revives and
    modernizes the tradition of medieval Christian allegory.
  • 1691 Robert Kirk writes his account of  The Secret Commonwealth of
    Elves, Fauns and Fairies, which languishes unpublished until 1893.
  • 1696–98 Madame d’Aulnoy’s sophisticated satirical fairy tales found a
    fanciful tradition in French literature.
  • 1697 Charles Perrault’s collection of moralistic tales adapts folklore to
    the function of “civilizing” children.
  • 1701 Antoine Galland’s translation of the adventures of Sinbad the
    Sailor adds a vital new element to Madame d’Aulnoy’s brand of fantasy.
  • 1704–16 Galland’s  Thousand and One Nights provides the foundation
    stone of Arabian fantasy.
  • 1707 Alain-René Lesage’s Asmodeus; or, The Devil on Two Sticks displays considerable sympathy for the eponymous devil and provides an important model for supernaturally assisted tours.
  • 1726 Jonathan Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver sets a crucial precedent for English satirical fantasy.
  • 1730 The posthumous publication of tales by the exiled Count Anthony
    Hamilton—who had died in 1720—provides significant exemplars for
    French writers of Gallandesque satires and entertainments.
  • 1746 Voltaire’s “The World as It Is” pioneers the tradition of fanciful
    contes philosophiques.
  • 1752 Sir Francis Dashwood establishes the Friars of St. Francis of
    Wycombe (nicknamed the Hell-Fire Club by its detractors) at Medmenham Abbey, setting an important precedent for modern lifestyle fantasists.
  • 1757 Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our
    Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful considers the venturesome exercise of
    the imagination as a psychological necessity.
  • 1764 James Ridley imports Gallandesque fantasy into English in Tales of
    the Genii, bylined Charles Morell. Horace Walpole represents the moralistic Gothic fantasy The Castle of Otranto as a translation of an Italian manuscript.
  • 1765 Thomas Percy’s  Reliques of Ancient English Poetry provides a
    classic compendium of English ballads.
  • 1768 Voltaire’s “The Princess of Babylon” leavens a  conte
    philosophique with fantasy for entertainment’s sake.
  • 1772 Jacques Cazotte’s The Devil in Love provides a crucial example of
    sympathy for a seductive devil.
  • 1782 Johann Musäus issues the first volume of his collection of German
    Folktales, prompting the brothers Grimm to start their collection.
  • 1785 Rudolf Eric Raspe’s Baron Münchhausen provides the tall story
    with its literary paradigm.
  • 1786 William Beckford’s Vathek gives Arabian fantasy a decadent twist.
  • 1787 Charles Garnier’s collection of  Imaginary Voyages is launched,
    providing a library of philosophically informed traveler’s tales.
  • 1793 William Blake publishes the first of his “prophetic books.”
  • 1795 Johann von Goethe publishes his Märchen, providing a key model
    for the “art fairy tale.”
  • 1797 Ludwig Tieck’s “The Faithful Eckhart” transfigures material from
    Musäus to create a new German hero-myth.
  • 1798 Nathan Drake’s Literary Hours describes the “sportive” element of
    Gothic fiction. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s  The Rime of the Ancient
    Mariner appears in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads, exemplifying the
    fantastic aspect of British Romanticism.
  • 1799 William Godwin’s  St. Leon introduces moralistic alchemical romance to the medium of the three-decker novel.

One | Two | Three | Four

-Stableford, Brian. The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. (Scarecrow Press, 1989)




Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: The Fantastic Stories of Russia

Thought I’d start a new series highlighting authors of the fantastic that may or may not be on your radar. If you’ve not heard of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky then read on…

SIGIZMUND KRZHIZHANOVSKY (1887–1950), the Ukrainian-born son of Polish emigrants, studied law and classical philology at Kiev University. After graduation and two summers spent exploring Europe, he was obliged to clerk for an attorney. A sinecure, the job allowed him to devote most of his time to literature and his own writing. In 1920, he began lecturing in Kiev on theater and music. The lectures continued in Moscow, where he moved in 1922, by then well known in literary circles. Lodged in a cell-like room on the Arbat, Krzhizhanovsky wrote steadily for close to two decades. His philosophical and phantasmagorical fictions ignored injunctions to portray the Soviet state in a positive light. Three separate efforts to print collections were quashed by the censors, a fourth by World War II. Not until 1989 could his work begin to be published. Like Poe, Krzhizhanovsky takes us to the edge of the abyss and forces us to look into it. “I am interested,” he said, “not in the arithmetic, but in the algebra of life.”

The Letter Killers Club:

The Letter Killers Club is a secret society of self-described “conceivers” who, to preserve the purity of their conceptions, will commit nothing to paper. (What, after all, is your run-of-the-mill scribbler of stories if not an accomplished corruptor of conceptions?) The logic of the club is strict and uncompromising. Every Saturday, members meet in a firelit room filled with empty black bookshelves where they strive to top one another by developing ever unlikelier, ever more perfect conceptions: a rehearsal of Hamlet hijacked by an actor who vanishes with the role; the double life of a merry medieval cleric derailed by a costume change; a machine-run world that imprisons men’s minds while conscripting their bodies; a dead Roman scribe stranded this side of the River Acheron. But in this book set in an ominous Soviet Moscow of the 1920s, the members of the club are strangely mistrustful of one another, while all are under the spell of its despotic President, and there is no telling, in the end, just how lethal the purely conceptual—or, for that matter, letters—may be.

The Autobiography of a Corpse:

This  collection of eleven mind-bending and spellbinding tales includes some of Krzhizhanovsky’s most dazzling conceits: a provincial journalist who moves to Moscow finds his existence consumed by the autobiography of his room’s previous occupant; the fingers of a celebrated pianist’s right hand run away to spend a night alone on the city streets; a man’s lifelong quest to bite his own elbow inspires both a hugely popular circus act and a new refutation of Kant. Ordinary reality cracks open before our eyes in the pages of Autobiography of a Corpse, and the extraordinary spills out.

Memories of the Future:

Written in Soviet Moscow in the 1920s—but considered too subversive even to show to a publisher—the seven tales included here attest to Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s boundless imagination, black humor, and breathtaking irony: a man loses his way in the vast black waste of his own small room; the Eiffel Tower runs amok; a kind soul dreams of selling “everything you need for suicide”; an absentminded passenger boards the wrong train, winding up in a place where night is day, nightmares are the reality, and the backs of all facts have been broken; a man out looking for work comes across a line for logic but doesn’t join it as there’s no guarantee the logic will last; a sociable corpse misses his own funeral; an inventor gets a glimpse of the far-from-radiant communist future.

The Return of Munchausen:

In Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s update, the Baron returns in the troubled twentieth century, where he will rediscover the place of imagination amid the tenuous peace, universal mourning, and political machinations of the aftermath of World War I. “To me,” he claims, “the debates of philosophers, grabbing the truth out of each other’s hands, [resemble] a fight among beggars over a single coin.” Transcending truth, the Baron instead revels in smoke and mist. He is a devotee of the impossible and a worshipper of “Saint Nobody.” But lost as he is in the twists of his imagination, can the Baron heal Europe through diplomacy—or at least hold a mirror up to its absurdities?

NY Times: Review of Autobiography of a Corpse and Books on Amazon

Paranoia of the Body: Fear of Human Enhancement, Biotech, and Posthuman Metamorphosis

The more I study the regulation of enhancement drugs that are denied to Olympic athletes the more I ask myself: Why are we doing this? I’m not speaking of the supposed moral and normative appeal to unfair advantage, etc., but rather to the paranoia and total and pervasive liberal humanist fear of human enhancement in general. Our culture has become superparanoiac about the regulation and control of physical processes and medical, scientific, and practical intervention into the bodies of the best and brightest among us for using scientific know-how for competitive advantage.

Of course when it comes to regulating Capital, or capitalism itself it’s just the opposite. The same culture that disallows the enhancement of the individual body, allows the social and political body all kinds of agonistic enhancements – the corporate body of fake persons who control the wealth and security of the planet can almost get away with anything; or, when called out pay a small fine for such infractions against the real bodies of its constituents. Here in the world of capital there seems to be the opposite effect of allowing total deregulation and merciless use of any and all known scientific know-how for advantage over both its own constituents and all external competitors in the arena of Global Finance.

But this isn’t my point, my point is that we hear all the time about the benefits of the sciences for personal health, wealth, and advantage. Of how all new neuroscientific and other grand breakthroughs are going to enhance us through biotechnology, medicine, and social graces, etc., and yet when it comes down to it those in real power behind the sciences (no, no paranoia here!) don’t really want all this to become anything more than a pipe dream at best for the vast common populace. All these advancements are meant for the elite, the wealthy and powerful rather than for the great majority of worldly denizens. So they sponsor fantasy and regulation over our bodies and promote a culture of fear against GMO’s and Human Enhancement, Posthuman AI and Robotics. And instead the future is filled with bleak landscapes of terror, climate disaster, and the totalitarian world or total regulation of every citizens under regimes of self-regulatory voluntarism.

Watching how many Olympians were sidelined through neoliberal regulation in these summer games made me realize that what we’re really doing is trying to turn the clock back, to become ultra-conservative and slow down scientific and biotechnological revolution in gene therapy, stem-cell research, medical and engineering (prosthetic) research and advances, while at the same time allowing these same substances to be used in unregulated ways by those outside the proscribed limits of the accepted system: the rich and powerful Oligarchs and their minions.

This is once again about what it mean to be human, what is normal, what is the proscribed limits of the human project and its sciences? Access to technology: for the rich or for all, have’s or have not’s?  The focus of anti-enhancement and anti-biotechnology (i.e., the use of enhancement drugs and therapies, etc.) has reached a fever pitch within the boundaries of world culture. Why? Why do we fear tinkering with the body? This speaks to other fears as well, the current promotion of fear and paranoias against the LGBTQ community seems to be a part of this same Culture of Fear that is allowing ancient atavistic forces of deep seated monotheistic and voluntarist cultures, both religious and secular who seek to command, control, and regulate every aspect of our bodies – brain and appendages – through carefully crafted rhetorical gestures of cultural paranoia, and key medical intervention and biotechnological access or denial.

What’s the agenda? This whole unprogressive system of expulsion, exclusion, exploitation, regulation, and power over our bodies is part of a wider circulation of both intrinsic and extrinsic cultural and social conservative voluntaristic thought and practices stemming from antagonistic and desperate religious perspectives based of fear that are allowing the reemergence of ancient atavisms as self-imposed normative ploys to limit this brave new world to an elite minority? We’re seeing the dismantling of the atheistic world-view in our time, the slow erosion of the last vestiges of the critical apparatus of the radical Enlightenment project, which is being hollowed out as core voluntarist and utilitarian principles  once again make a bid to establish themselves and replace all aspects of the radical critiques that gave us democracy. Now the Oligarchs and elites seek to become sole masters of the House of Global Secularism. Hiding their actual intentions and designs under the promise of an automated and fantastic future of AGI’s, Smart Cities, Transhuman perfection, etc…. while all along knowing that only a small elite will ever enter the golden portals of these hellish paradises.

Continue reading

On Being Southern: Faulkner and the Southern Writer

Sometimes I have to just put things down and reread my Faulkner. On my best days I’d like to think I’ve escaped my southern heritage, but I know it’d be a lie. No one can actually escape such a sordid world, one can only remember it and work through the corruption and taint of its bitter history, not through some nostalgic bit of fantasy, but rather through opening one’s eyes and peering into the darkness and abyss of that world without flinching. Having lived in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi back in those early years we like to forget: childhood, the stench of racism, bigotry, small minds – that whole gamut of, as Hemingway hated to say, Men-without-women – misogynists, one and all, who seem to pervade our literature as they do our real and imaginary lives like dead flies that keep resurrecting their ugly life reminding you that nothing stays buried forever. We have to face it as part of what is there, a part of a retroactive education in the grotesque and macabre Gothicism that tweaks us back into our present, not changed but rather stamped and molded by its dark river of images. As Faulkner himself once said:

“Because it is himself that the Southerner is writing about, not about his environment: who has, figuratively speaking, taken the artist in him in one hand and his milieu in the other and thrust the one into the other like a clawing and spitting cat into a croker sack. And he writes. We have never got and probably will never get, anywhere with music or the plastic forms. We need to talk, to tell, since oratory is our heritage. We seem to try in the simple furious breathing (or writing) span of the individual to draw a savage indictment of the contemporary scene or to escape from it into a make believe region of swords and magnolias and mockingbirds which perhaps never existed anywhere. Both of the courses are rooted in sentiment; perhaps the ones who write savagely and bitterly of the incest in clay floored cabins are the most sentimental. Anyway, each course is a matter of violent partisanship, in which the writer unconsciously writes into every line and phrase his violent despairs and rages and frustrations or his violent prophesies of still more violent hopes. That cold intellect which can write with calm and complete detachment and gusto of its contemporary scene is not among us; I do not believe there lives the Southern writer who can say without lying that writing is any fun to him. Perhaps we do not want it to be.”

-William Faulkner, His Intro to The Sound and the Fury

Nothing about our heritage is fun, but if we don’t face it we will continue living it and suffering all those fools that keep repeating its mistakes. Maybe that’s why we need to reread our Hawthorne’s, Melville’s, James’s, Twain’s, Faulkner’s… not because it gives us pleasure, but because the pain of its dark truths awakens in us that desire not to repeat that past, but to change our lives in such a way as not to sink into its abyss. The southern writer is passionate and full of bluster, rather than that “cold intellect which can write with calm and complete detachment,” and writes as if the very pen in his hands were ablaze with the fierce truth that hides in the blood like some gothic tale better left in the silence of dead worlds. Yet, writes he does with all the verve and oratory of an ancient sophist expounding on the way of things and people that live in the hollows of swamps and villages, along the broken trails of back woods and muddy rivers where the music of a fiddlist plays into the wee hours of the morn, and men and women fall into that mad world of sex and death: make love and die, rage and dream, bless and curse. People who live by the Good Book even if they no longer believe in its God.

Healers, prophets, madmen, jokers… the sordid lot of con men who seem to sale you the moon, and hand you the keys to hell in a hand basket. Men whose smiles could bring you comfort and peace, and at the same time shake you down for every penny you have left. Men who with a straight face tell a woman how beautiful they are and with their eyes commoditize each thread on her body as if everything was made of gold. A world where words still have weight and solidity and you’d better be able to back them up with your fists not your lies. Working men who spend everyday scraping together a life for their own and who protect their own to the death if need be. Men who don’t give a shit about intellectual bullshit or educated idiots but rather if you can actually do something with your hands not your mind; cunning men who live by tongue and hand pragmatic intelligence. They respect the mind but only after you’ve proved yourself to be a man among men. This is a world of status and clannish ways of being where appearance is reality and people don’t hide behind masks but stand before you unmasked in their savage glory. A violent and world where people love deeply and hate just as … deeply. This is the world where a man will give you the shirt off his back if you need it, and want expect repayment; only that you live up to what it is you are and can be. Yet, if you cross the unwritten line watch out. Nothing in hell could stop a man from unleashing his fury if you’ve harmed are even threatened to harm his loved ones. He doesn’t give a shit about himself, but threaten what he loves and he’ll kill you; or, at least make you wish you’d been killed. (Of course in this day of legality such a world is part of a shadowed distemper of its ancient heritage.)

And, yet, there is life here, life like it isn’t in those great cities of death around the world. Here are people who give a shit about themselves and each other, who still hold onto certain tried and true ways of the earth. Pain is central for sure: blood, sweat, and tears always a part of it. Humor and laughter are here, too. But there is something else, a sense of being part of something, a sense of community, of family, of all those others you share this sweet earth with – ties to the land that encompasses us around about. Might not mean much to most people but it’s there nonetheless. All the clichés aside the southerner lives a separate life and really doesn’t give a shit what the rest of the planet thinks as long as they don’t enforce or impinge on their right to live they way they see fit and be left alone. What they hate is Big Brother Federal government imposing its ethical and legal crapology: it’s neoliberal way of life on people who don’t take kindly to it. It stirs them up, pisses them off, makes them do things maybe they shouldn’t, and generally get in trouble for their efforts. Southerners just want to live and let live, and most of all to live it without someone setting traps for them, telling them how to raise their kids, how to talk, how to vote, and – how they should live their lives… people down south go to church or the bar where they can be among there own, untroubled by those fools who would take their way of life away. Don’t even go there…

I mean you can take a gander at the list below and see what makes a southerner tick. Do you have a favorite southern book or author? Add it to the comment list and I’ll add it below:

  1. A Childhood: The Biography of a Place – Harry Crews
  2. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
  3. A Death in the Family – James Agee
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
  5. Airships – Barry Hannah
  6. A Land More Kind Than Home – Wiley Cash
  7. A Lesson Before Dying – Ernest Gaines
  8. All Over But the Shoutin’ – Rick Bragg
  9. All the King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
  10. Apostles of Light – Ellen Douglas
  11. As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
  12. A Streetcar Named Desire – Tennessee Williams
  13. A Time to Kill – John Grisham
  14. The Awakening – Kate Chopin
  15. Bastard Out of Carolina – Dorothy Allison
  16. Bats Out of Hell – Barry Hannah
  17. Big Bad Love – Larry Brown
  18. Black Boy – Richard Wright
  19. Blues All Around Me – B.B. King
  20. Brother to a Dragonfly – Will Campbell
  21. Burning Bright: Stories – Ron Rash
  22. Before Women Had Wings – Connie May Fowler
  23. Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
  24. Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters – Robert Gordon
  25. Child of God – Cormac McCarthy

The Transgressive Fantastic

The theoretical work of Julia Kristeva suggests that the non-thetic (non-conceptual and transgressive awareness) can be linked to all those forces which threaten to disrupt a tradition of rationalism. Such forces have been apprehended as inimical to cultural order from at least as far back as Plato’s Republic. Plato expelled from his ideal Republic all transgressive energies, all those energies which have been seen to be expressed through the fantastic: eroticism, violence, madness, laughter, nightmares, dreams, blasphemy, lamentation, uncertainty, female energy, excess. Art which represented such energies was to be exiled from Plato’s ideal state. Literature mentioning ‘the Rivers of Wailing and Gloom, and the ghosts of corpses, and all other things whose very names are enough to make everyone who hears them shudder’ was to have no place in the Republic. The working life of economic slaves, the oppression of women, or any intimation of their suffering, any reference to sexuality or childbirth, were similarly banned from fictional representation. Socrates and his audience agree that ‘We must forbid this sort of thing entirely’ (The Republic, pp.141-2). The fantastic, then, is made invisible in Plato’s Republic and in the tradition of high rationalism which it fostered: alongside all subversive social forces, fantasy is expelled and is registered only as absence. ‘Plato feels his rational and unified Republic threatened from within by forces, desires and activities which must be censored or ostracized if the rational state is to be maintained’.

As Todorov pointed out, fantasy is located uneasily between ‘reality’ and ‘literature’, unable to accept either, with the result that a fantastic mode is situated between the ‘realistic’ and the ‘marvellous’, stranded between this world and the next. Its subversive function derives from this uneasy positioning. The negative versions (inversions) of unity, found in the modern fantastic, from Gothic novels – Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Gaskell, Dickens, Poe, Dostoevsky, Stevenson, Wilde – to Kafka, Cortázar, Calvino, Lovecraft, Peake and Pynchon, represent dissatisfaction and frustration with a cultural order which deflects or defeats desire, yet refuse to have recourse to compensatory, transcendental other-worlds.

The modern fantastic, the form of literary fantasy within the secularized culture produced by capitalism, is a subversive literature. It exists alongside the ‘real’, on either side of the dominant cultural axis, as a muted presence, a silenced imaginary other. Structurally and semantically, the fantastic aims at dissolution of an order experienced as oppressive and insufficient. Its paraxial placing, eroding and scrutinizing the ‘real’, constitutes, in Hélène Cixous’s phrase, ‘a subtle invitation to transgression’. By attempting to transform the relations between the imaginary and the symbolic, fantasy hollows out the ‘real’, revealing its absence, its ‘great Other’, its unspoken and its unseen. As Todorov writes, ‘The fantastic permits us to cross certain frontiers that are inaccessible so long as we have no recourse to it’.

-Rosemary Jackson,  Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion

The Paraxial Realm: Dostoevsky’s Fantastic Truth

I think many of us are like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, in that we live outside the symbolic order that the majority of people on this planet seem to accept without thought or bother. Like the dead we wander the threshold lands in-between two-worlds: the world that most call ‘reality,’ and the other world – the world we can’t quite live in but know exists submerged in the underground just below the false one that the great majority cover over in their ruinous wastelands of capitalist luxury and mediascapes. Or as Jackson says of Dostoevsky:

Dostoevsky insists upon his fidelity to ‘truth’: ‘What other people call fantastic, I hold to be the inmost essence of truth.’ Dostoevsky undermines and corrodes the heart of a public ‘reality’. As with Mary Shelley, Gaskell, Dickens, Kafka or Pynchon, it would be misleading to dismiss Dostoevsky’s bleakness as personal nihilism. His figures are estranged from the social, occupying a ‘paraxial’ realm, because they do not feel themselves to be integrated within the symbolic order.

Dostoevsky’s un-covering of this meaningless, entropic zone uses fantasy rather more directly as a subversive mode than it is found in Lytton, Stevenson or Wells, where it is almost immediately re-covered. He pulls the reader towards a vision of a world other than this one, an ‘unreal’ underground reality, between life and death, from which all cultural order seems an absurd imposition. Such estrangement is not chosen: it is the consequence of a dissatisfaction with the ‘real’ as secularized, urban, atheistic, and ‘unnatural’, with what the underground man terms ‘our negative age’.

-Rosemary Jackson,  Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion

Balzac’s Master Criminal: The Great Vitalist – Vautrin


Who will ever forget the moment in Pere Goriot when that great criminal vitalist and a central character in three novels and a play by that indefatigable author of The Human Comedy Honoré de Balzac, Vautrin is caught out:

“Mlle. Michonneau was talking the day before yesterday about a gentleman called Trompe-la-Mort [Death-Dodger],” said Bianchon; “and, upon my word, that name would do very well for you.”

Vautrin seemed thunderstruck. He turned pale, and staggered back. He turned his magnetic glance, like a ray of vivid light, on Mlle. Michonneau; the old maid shrank and trembled under the influence of that strong will, and collapsed into a chair. The mask of good nature had dropped from the convict’s face; from the unmistakable ferocity of that sinister look, Poiret felt that the old maid was in danger, and hastily stepped between them. None of the lodgers understood this scene in the least; they looked on in mute amazement. There was a pause. Just then there was a sound of tramping feet outside; there were soldiers there, it seemed, for there was a ring of several rifles on the cobble-stones stones of the street. Collin was mechanically looking round the walls for away of escape, when four men entered by way of the sitting-room.

“In the name of the king and the law!” said an officer, but the words were almost lost in a murmur of astonishment.

Silence fell on the room. The lodgers made way for three of the men, who had each a hand on a cocked pistol in a side pocket. Two policemen, who followed the detectives, kept the entrance to the sitting-room, and two more appeared in the doorway that gave access to the staircase. A sound of footsteps came from the garden, and again the rifles of several soldiers rang on the cobble-stones under the window. All hope of flight was cut off from Death-Dodger, on whom every eye instinctively turned. The chief walked straight up to him, and commenced  operations by giving him a sharp blow on the head, so that the wig fell off, and Collin’s face was revealed in all its ugliness. There was a terrible suggestion of strength mingled with cunning in the short, brick-red crop of hair, the whole head was in harmony with his powerful frame, and at that moment the fires of hell seemed to gleam from his eyes. In that flash the real Vautrin shone forth, revealed at once before them all; they understood his past, his present, and future, his pitiless doctrines, his actions, the religion of his own good pleasure, the majesty with which his cynicism and contempt for mankind invested hint, the physical strength of an organization proof against all trials. The blood flew to his face, and his eyes glared like the eyes of a wild cat. He started back with savage energy and a fierce growl that drew exclamations of alarm from the lodgers. At that leonine start the police caught at their pistols under cover of the general clamor. Collin saw the gleaming muzzles of the weapons, saw his danger, and instantly gave proof of a power of the highest order. There was something horrible and majestic in the spectacle of the sudden transformation in his face; he could only be compared to a cauldron full of dense steam that can upheave mountains, a terrific force dispelled in a moment by a drop of cold water. The drop of water that cooled his wrathful fury was a reflection that flashed across his brain like lightning. He began to smile, and looked down at his wig.

In this almost Byronic grotesquerie of sovereign will and intellect, the singular force of the Parisian underworld and its leader, this great outlaw and outcast of society, at once a vitalist of absolute will and a creature in full control of his intellect and cunning practicality, forms that magnificent epiphany of almost occult power and unnatural daemonism we see above. W.B. Yeats would admire Louis Lambert for its occult and visionary energetics, yet it is in the novels (Pere Goriot, Lost Illusions, and A Harlot High and Low) and the play by that name (Vautrin) that we see Balzac’s vitalism incarnated in this titanic creature who ironically he would in his final novel place at the very center of authority and make Vautrin the head of Paris Sûreté (Police).

Balzac would always play the anarchist, yet would ultimately see the benefit of protecting his life’s work so that his alter ego and criminal mastermind would absolve himself of his dark natural proclivities and renter the symbolic order of society and become one of its prodigal sons and benefactors. Just like Dickens’s world of misfits, mountebanks, madmen, criminals, scoundrels, and socialites, politicians, bankers, prelates, etc., Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine gives us the depths and heights of life lived. Something always pulled him into that realm where the opposites seem forever at war, and yet he would step back from time to time to encircle this dark terrain with the humane wisdom of a man who’d seen every gambit in life thrown at him. Always on the edge of poverty he wrote to the point of exhaustion and hallucination, his mind fevered by the characters that inhabit his world, their lives the shape of his own uncanny mind. One imagines the “savage energy and a fierce growl” of Vautrin as Balzac’s own as he felt the force of his own uncanny power and daemon urging him onward through those trying years till the voyage was completed and the world he built could be inhabited by that great and terrible vitalist, the daemon Vautrin who as Chief of the police would oversee that world and keep its integrity safe through the ages. This was the genius of Balzac: he constructed a vessel within which he could place his own energetic spirit, his daemonic self – the Comedie Humaine.

Frankenstein & the Modern Fantastic


Frankenstein marks the establishment of a tradition of disenchanted, secular fantasies, becoming increasingly grotesque and horrific. It is haunted by a loss of absolute meaning, repeating a desire for knowledge and for ultimate truth, but it deflates and deforms this desire through the travestying form of the monster itself, a grotesque parody of the human longing for the more than human. … Mary Shelley’s novel reverses and denies the Romantic quest for gnosis. A vast gap is opened up between knowledge (as scientific investigation and rational inquiry) and gnosis (a knowledge of ultimate truths, a kind of spiritual wisdom), and it is in this gap that the modern fantastic is situated. In Frankenstein the ‘other’ who is created by the self is no supernatural or superhuman being, but an amalgam of bodily shreds and patches, a collection of mortal remains, the disjecta membra of a dead society raised up again as the living dead. Self as other is recorded here as a grotesque, unredemptive metamorphosis, as mere travesty, parody, horror.

-Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion

Fantastic Politics: Subversion, Symbolic Order, and Exit Strategy

Building on Lacan and others Rosemary Jackson in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion will express the underlying truths of our fractured age of anxiety and dissolution. She’ll read in the fantastic works of literature the strange paths taken by singular individuals seeking a way out of the straight-jacket of our false symbolic order, our civilization’s global hell:

Literary fantasies from Sade onwards are driven by precisely this kind of restless dissatisfaction. They express a desire for the imaginary, for that which has not yet been caught and confined by a symbolic order, yet the self-mutilation, cruelty, horror and violence which they have to employ to re-turn to the imaginary suggests its inaccessibility. Their awareness of the problem of representing the ‘real’ draws attention to the relation of signifying practices to that order and its constitution, for with the removal of a fixed notion of ‘character’, the problem of fictional representation is stressed. A fantastic text tells of an indomitable desire, a longing for that which does not yet exist, or which has not been allowed to exist, the unheard of, the unseen, the imaginary, as opposed to what already exists and is permitted as ‘really’ visible. Unlike the symbolic, the imaginary is inhabited by an infinite number of selves preceding socialization, before the ego is produced within a social frame. These selves allow an infinite, unnameable potential to emerge, one which a fixed sense of character excludes in advance. Each fantastic text functions differently, depending upon its particular historical placing, and its different ideological, political and economic determinants, but the most subversive fantasies are those which attempt to transform the relations of the imaginary and the symbolic. They try to set up possibilities for radical cultural transformation by making fluid the relations between these realms, suggesting, or projecting, the dissolution of the symbolic through violent reversal or rejection of the process of the subject’s formation.

What if rather than on the level of the singular subject we see this process in the larger context of global civilization itself, of the collective subject of the various forces that seem to be tearing each other apart, the reactionary fronts of the religious fundamentalisms (i.e., the monotheisms of Jewish, Christian, Islam) that seem to want to impose their order upon the liberal humanist world; the liberal humanist world in dissolution through the slow and methodical self-reflection within its cultural critiques in the arts, philosophy, normativity, sciences, etc. that seem to be rewriting the very conception of subject and subjectivity in both individual and singular, as well as collective and political, social, and cultural domains; and, the instigation of the strange non-knowledge of that lies the other side of the human condition, just outside the constricted limits of the extremes of atheism or religious forms of life and thought. We seem to be at that point where the Symbolic Orders of both secular and religious civilizations are coming apart at the seams, and each is reacting to this situation through violent and cruel reductions to war and fundamentalist impositions of their vying Reality Matrix’s. If Zizek is correct (and I believe he is to some extant) what is needed is to disturb the current Symbolic Order to the point that it bursts and we can replace it with what has been hidden in the ruins of its fraying world-view for a long while now.

Reactionaries and Progressives alike seem to be failing us, seem to be falling into arch defiance of the truth that we are all succumbing too. The Symbolic Order that was built up over centuries that came to a head in the eighteenth century as the Enlightenment belief in instrumental Reason is giving way to something new, the power of the liberal humanist civilization is decaying and fraying at the edges through the power of its own self-critical apparatuses. It has been reversing and replacing the base conceptual frameworks it constructed over two-hundred years ago, and in the process other more primitive and religious fundamentalisms based on ancient ideologies and normative visions are testing the boundaries of this great behemoth. Liberal humanist civilization is dissolving in our time which is leading both reactionaries and progressives to extreme visions in seeking to stay the tide of this dissolution.

It’s my own contention that the literature, philosophy, and arts of the fantastic can shape this world vision, open us to the incomplete and unfinished symphony of reality, allow us to make the transition, guide us in this in-between time of the failing Symbolic Order, and help in shaping the new more open order replacing it. We are in that interregnum period or between-the-acts stage of transition in which the world seems to be entering a topsy-turvy, chaotic, and failing or crumbling world; one falling into war, fundamentalist reactionary and progressive visions, and a world-wide global civil-war among ethnic, social, and national conclaves based on age-old religious and political strife’s.  But in even in the midst of this break up of the old order we are seeing in fact reversing in its course, one revealing the decaying and artificial lies, propaganda, and illusionary systems of belief and ideology upon which civilization has been based for far too long. Even the madness of our current politics there is a sign of hope, at once a Bakhtinian moment of carnival when the center cannot hold and chaos and laughter sprout everywhere, even as tears and tragedy romp across the world in strange and fantastic forms of metamorphosis and transformative ways beyond telling.

The fantastic is not an escape from reality, but an opening up of new realities, of new forms of social, political, and visionary modes of being toward reality. Reality is not a cage for thought and feeling, not a prison house within which the rich and powerful can command and control the feedback loops of some industrial mediatainment complex and thereby the vast populations of the world. No. The fantastic is about subverting these vast systems of power and control that seek to keep us ignorant and asleep in a world of consumption, slaves to our desires for more and more and more. The earth does have its limits and we will confront them willy-nilly whether we like it or not. The corrupt world that capital built is falling apart at the seams and the writing is on the wall of what is coming with climate collapse and the depletion of our earth’s natural resources. We must discover new ways to meet these challenges and being able to navigate the real with a larger symbolic order based on an open and unfinished vision of the world and universe is what the fantastic is about. It offers nothing more than a way out of our present predicament, an exit into reality rather than a closure in the hell hole of modern neoliberalism’s dark fantasia of an austere hell of debt and poverty.

The Dark Fantastic: The Wild Lands of the Monstrous Other

Ever since I was a young my mother read to us from the lore and myths of those old tales of Lang and Grimm at night. And, of course, like many there were the humorous and fabulous, the marvelous and wondrous adventures of Aladdin and Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights to while away the hours, but it was  the darker worlds of ghosts, shadows, vampires, werewolves, doubles, partial selves, reflections (mirrors), enclosures, monsters, beasts, cannibals that sent shivers up my sister and my spines, those tales that both fascinated us and filled us with dread and terror that seemed to last into the nights and days, that seemed to haunt us long after the reading, and seemed at times to take on a life of their own; enter into our dreams and our day to day fantasy life, follow us like strange characters from another time, another world. This sense of being fascinated, bewitched, charmed and caught in a malevolent spell under the malicious sorcery of some strange force, some dark magick surrounding me in the invisible realms just outside my sight that draws me on as if something deep and uncanny within me seemed to belong there, live there, come from that space between things; some gap or void in the Real in which the dark ministrations of ancient powers seemed to exist just outside the veil of Reason and the comfort of home and the homely.

For Freud what is encountered in this uncanny realm, whether it is termed spirit, angel, devil, ghost, or monster, is nothing but an unconscious projection, projections being those ‘qualities, feelings, wishes, objects, which the subject refuses to recognize or rejects in himself [and which] are expelled from the self and located in another person or thing’.1 Through secularization, a religious sense of the numinous is transformed and reappears as a sense of the uncanny, but the psychological origins of both are identical. Literary fantasies, then, have a function corresponding to the mythical and magical products of other cultures. They return us to what Freud identifies as an animistic mode of perception, that thought process which characterizes primitive man at an evolutionary stage prior to his concession to a ‘reality principle’. Freud writes that we ‘attribute an “uncanny” quality to impressions that seek to confirm the omnipotence of thoughts and the animistic mode of thinking in general’ (Totem and Taboo, p.86).

Against Freud’s too positive reading of the uncanny from the side of reason, or his ‘reality principle’ is the work of Hélène Cixous who links a structural understanding of the uncanny as a mode of apprehending and associates fantasy to grotesque art: ‘The grotesque is a structure . . . it is the estranged world, our world which has been transformed’. The uncanny, however, removes structure. It empties the ‘real’ of its ‘meaning’, it leaves signs without significance. Cixous presents its unfamiliarity not as merely displaced sexual anxiety, but as a rehearsal of an encounter with death, which is pure absence. Death cannot be portrayed directly: it appears in literature either as figura (emblem) such as the medieval memento mori skeletons, or as mere space. This is materialized as a ghost: ‘the immediate figure of strangeness is the ghost. The ghost is the fiction of our relation to death made concrete.’ Das Unheimlich is at its purest here, where we dis-cover our latent deaths, our hidden lack of being, for ‘nothing is both better known and stranger to thought than mortality . . . “Death” has no shape in life. Our unconscious has no room for a representation of our mortality’. (Jackson, p. 68 see: Hélène Cixous. Fiction and Its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud’s Das Unheimliche (The”Uncanny”):New Literary History, Vol. 7, No. 3, Thinking in the Arts, Sciences, and Literature. (Spring, 1976))

Even as a child I remember one of my first dreams introduced me to that strange and uncanny dimension. I can still remember the terror I felt in waking up from a bad dream or nightmare in which I’d felt being overwhelmed by something other, something uncanny that was at the same time “old and familiar,” as if I had met a part of myself – my real self in that dream; but that in the moment of (mis)recognition, realizing it wasn’t me at all but rather some strange and monstrous thing – something at once daemonic and godlike – that sought to take my place and imprison me in the dark realms forever. It was at this gut wrenching moment that I awakened, sweating and crying out for help…

Strangely what terrorized me with such fear was this feeling that when I woke up I was no longer me, that I’d become this other thing, this other being; that it had taken my body and was even now taking over my life and mind – my very soul. Only later as I grew older would I hear of the notion of changeling. The notion of the double, of being replaced by some daemonic being, some dark and nefarious creature out of the nightmare lands. This notion that one was no longer one’s self, that one was an other would haunt me through my young childhood and into my adulthood. Of course my parents tried to soothe me, convince me it was all a bad dream, a nightmare, that I had seen a strange design on the closet door that reminded me of this bald man. That there are no worlds below ours, that the world is just as it is and will always be. Yet, I remained uncertain. It is this uncertainty that has remained with me to this day. What is reality, what dream? Who can be sure? Is it the mere caprice of daily worries as Freud suggest, a mere excess of an overwrought brain working out its own strange rhythms? Or, something else? That would lead me to explore those fantastic dreamworlds of the ancient and modern weird, those tales that seem to hint of darker worlds below our own, of places and spaces that hint of our actual life outside the work-a-day utilitarian reality of our cultural and social commitments: the realm of habit, custom, and sociality. Does it exist? Is it just a semblance, – a refraction of the brain’s twisted skein? Or something else? Something much darker and uncanny?

I don’t think we in the West are alone in this sense that just outside the sun lit worlds of our everyday gaze is something eerie, something strange and malevolent just below the threshold of existence, something lurking in the dark waiting, watching, calculating, monstrous. Of course we find these tales everywhere from China, India, Australia, Indonesia, Africa, the Middle-East, Russia, Europe and the Americas. One can spend years studying the anthropologists who wrote of both ancient and modern ritual and practices of past and present indigenous cultures around the world. We know that certain darker transgressive impulses were part of this uncanny world of our ancestral pool: incest, necrophilia, androgyny, cannibalism, recidivism, narcissism and ‘abnormal’ psychological states conventionally categorized as hallucination, dream, insanity, paranoia, were all part of the black light of this human heritage.

Magic, witchcraft, shamanism, voodoun practitioners, Oracles, devinarii, scyers, bone scravens, skinwalkers, vagrs, outlaws, dead, etc. who practiced various dark arts using natural substances, or what Richard Evans Schultes once termed the “Plants of the Gods”. The use of hallucinogenic or consciousness expanding plants has been a part of human experience for many millennia, yet modern Western societies have only recently become aware of the significance that these plants have had in shaping the history of primitive and even of advanced cultures. In fact, the past thirty years have witnessed a vertiginous growth of interest in the use and possible value of hallucinogens in our own modern, industrialized, and urbanized society.2 (9)

Michael A. Rinella in Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens would bring to light the impact of ancient drugs on early Greek Religion and Society. There had been many studies of the use of entheogens in the relation of religious and ceremonial practices of various cultures around the world but this one at the intersection of religion and what would become the beginnings of our origins in a Culture of Reason or philosopophia begin here where the Dionysian and Eleusinian Mysteries held sway. Rinella would suggest that the use of the term pharmakon by Plato and his mentor, Socrates, would be in direct competition and agon with its use in the Eleusinian Mysteries.3 He would follow the work of Carl A. P. Ruck whose work The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries spoke of the use of a pharmakon, the kykeion (i.e., Ancient Greek drink of various descriptions. Some were made mainly of water, barley and naturally occurring substances. Others were made with wine and grated cheese. It is widely believed that kykeon usually refers to a psychoactive compounded brew, as in the case of the Eleusian Mysteries.).

Plato on the other hand would demythologize the pharmakon, as well as the traditions of Empedocles, the Shaman priest who spoke of a literal metempsychosis or transmigrations of souls from body to body through which anamnesis and purifications techniques were to be applied to bring to remembrance one’s past lives and free one from the burdens of existence – much in the same manner as Buddha under the Bodhi Tree remembered all his own past lives, etc. Plato would abstract out of this religious practice a new secular and mundane practice of the ‘love of wisdom’ that would guide the young ephebe not to some knowledge of past lives, but rather to a knowledge of the eternal Forms, accessed not through some hallucinogenic pharmakon brew but rather through and initiation into the ways of Reason.

So began the long war between religion and reason, mystery and philosophy. Yet, even through its long history the darker worlds below the threshold of Reason never were completely expunged or expelled. Through two thousands years of Christian Civilization the dark forces of magic, witchcraft, the use of magical plants prevailed and with them much of the fear and terror of the unknown and forbidden lore of those times would become part of the vast fantasy life of our ancestral pool of fairy lore, mysteries, the occult, dark mysticism, hallucination, madness, the macabre, the grotesque, the tabooed realms of the irrational and the horrific. Yet, it remained…

Even Christiandom, the Jewish World, and the Muslim lands of the Middle-East and Castalian Spain would have their mystical and dark strains of heterological systems. From those strange realms of Gnosticism, Hermeticism, to Neoplatonic theurgy and the streams of various dualisms derived from the ancient Magi of Persia – the lore of Mani and the Magical. There has always been an underbelly to the world of Reason, a realm of the hidden and forbidden, a world of dark entities and outcast rogue thought. In the twentieth century the sciences would try to reduce reality to the physical and mathematical, to oust all other non-reductionist thought for once and all. It failed. All around us philosophy and the fringe worlds of thought are remerging from their silent exile in ways we cannot as of yet fully register. Hints of the old plant gods have once against been making forays into the very heart of Reason’s fortress, the Academy.

One wonders just what it is Reason fears? Is it the dark barbarism of all these monstrous children of the night that seem inevitably to be rising from some hinterland of our imaginaries? As Italo Calvino in his introduction to Fantastic Tales said

As it relates to our sensibility today, the supernatural element at the heart of these stories always appears freighted with meaning, like the revolt of the unconscious, the repressed, the forgotten, all that is distanced from our rational attention. In this we see the modern dimension of the fantastic, the reason for its triumphant resurgence in our times. We note that the fantastic says things that touch us intimately, even though we are less disposed than the readers of the last century to allow ourselves to be surprised by apparitions and phantasmagoria.4

And, yet, popular TV series such as Ghost Adventures or the Dead Files seem to have large followings. Why? Even as academics and philosophers, pundits and liberal secular and atheistic authors deride those who have fallen for various irrationalism’s and religions we discover that the majority of people in the world are and remain deeply rooted in ancient faiths and practices. After two centuries of the Enlightenment the atheistic outlook and philosophies are marginal at best, found only in the elite corp of the top tier of readers, thinkers, and secular pundits. For the rest of the various societies on there is the tried and true imprint of ancient ways. So why did the atheistic view of life with its expunging of gods and God, it’s command and control of reality by way of Reason fail to raise everyone on this planet into its world of light?

Yet, this is not the whole tale, no. Even now these vary same philosophers are lured into the darker corners of thought themselves. From the time of Kant onward there were limits set to what thinkers could and could not do: they termed it finitude. Reason had its limits beyond which it was taboo to go. That realm beyond which it was anathema to go was abstractly termed: the noumenal. A sort of empty placeholder for the great Unknown and Forbidden. Know one talked of it, know one dared. So philosophers stayed within the reasonable realms of the known and the visible, and let the dark and invisible realms shift for themselves. That is till modern sciences themselves came up against that limit and realized they would need to build tools to move beyond the barriers of human finitude. They did. They uncovered strange micro realms of quantum worlds where the known laws of Newton and Einstein no longer applied, where a strange and uncanny realm of mathematical entities lived and played by other rules, rules outside the strict limitations of our cause and effect reality. Einstein would call it madness, tell these other scientists that “God does not play with dice!” Period! Others would laugh and ask, eerily, “But what if he does?”

Tzvetan Todorov, in his Introduction to Fantastic Literature (1970), holds that what distinguishes “fantastic” narrative is precisely our perplexity in the face of an incredible fact, our indecision in choosing between a rational, realistic explanation and an acceptance of the supernatural. The character of the incredulous positivist who often appears in this kind of story, seen with compassion and irony because he must surrender when confronted by something he does not know how to explain, is not completely negated. According to Todorov, the incredible event the fantastic story tells must always allow for a rational explanation, unless it happens to be a hallucination or a dream (a fail-safe device that sanctions just about anything). (Calvino)

Yet, why should it be resolved by reason? What if there are anomalous events that should be left in that ‘in-between’ state between reason and its mystery, what if to reduce it to reasonable explanation is to destroy it, to kill its power, its potential for change and transformation. What if to make reasonable, to abstract out of the unknown a known is to turn it against itself, to make of it a utilitarian fact to be used rather than to allow the unknown to speak to us on its own terms without reaching after fact or reason?

Georges Bataille once believed that all genuine ecstasy is necessarily, and violently, negative. Bataille characterizes ecstasy as a laceration of the ego, a rupture that for a time dissolves the self-contained character of the individual as she exists in her everyday life. It is in the varieties of ecstatic experience—erotic fulminations, poetic effervescence, wrenching laughter, wracking sobs, and other excessive moments—that the self as defined and conditioned by the structures and strictures, the prohibitions and taboos, of profane, workaday life, is lost. Bataille’s writings are dramatic evidence of his relentless pursuit of the self-dissolving negative experience of ecstasy. They repeatedly reveal the sacrificial violence, the profound negativity, that haunts the always excessive moments that he deemed sacred.5 In one of his letters the poet Arthur Rimbaud would remark to his old teacher George Izambard,

Right now,  I’m beshitting myself as  much as  possible. Why?  I want to be a poet,  and  I ‘m working to turn myself into a seer: you won’t understand at all, and it’s unlikely that  I’ll be able to explain it to you. It has to do with making your way towards the unknown by a derangement of  all the senses. The  suffering is tremendous, but  one must bear up against it, to be born  a poet, and  I  know that’s what  I  am.  It’s  not  at  all  my fault.  It’s wrong to say I think: one  should say I am thought.  Forgive the  pun. I is someone else.6

This violent rending of the veil of reason, the ‘derangement of the senses’, this ecstatic realm of sex and violence – ‘erotic fulminations, poetic effervescence, wrenching laughter, wracking sobs, and other excessive moments’ – what is it that is happening here?

The Symbolic World of our Sociality

Some say that even as children we are still close to the ancient ways of seeing and doing, that only as we are transformed, modulated, enclosed and educated – educed into the social world where language, reason, myth, religion, philosophy etc. hold sway, the realm of our habitation – habitus, where habit and custom are grafted onto our neural circuits, and we take up the role of being the name we were named with by either parents or authorities of tribe or nation do we lose touch with the realm of the noumenal. Some never make the transition, some fall by the wayside into different forms of social and private madness between the extremes of various sociopathy or psychopathy. Some are born with obvious physical and biochemical ailments of the brain due to either malnutrition or abuse, or a number of genetic or other causal agents. Yet, the vast majority are not affected either by physical or mental defect or disease and grow up into a world that they belong, a society constructed out of symbolic exchange where various rituals and traditions are brought to bare upon the young to maintain social cohesion and relations among its members. When this is fractured, when the various rituals and cultural mores and norms are broken, when the civilization is slowly splintered into a myriad of sub-cultures like our own the world become topsy-turvy and there is no longer a center to hold things together.

We live in a world of mirrors, a realm of duplicitous and decaying forms of cultural life that seem day by day to be fracturing into new growths and worlds beyond the reasonable expectations of the Enlightenment project. Reason no longer rules our world. The Symbolic whole that once spun its chains of invisible thought around this civilization is coming undone, unraveling before our very eyes. Day by day different sub-cultures are wandering off into unknown zones, forbidden territory of the dark fantastic. The edge worlds of ghosts, shadows, vampires, werewolves, doubles, partial selves, reflections (hall of mirrors), enclosures, monsters, beasts, cannibals are arising in our midst once again like children’s tales that have been unloosened from their mental cages and released into the Unreal realms of our present world.

Through the imposition of prohibitions, and their lifting or suspension on clearly defined occasions, society effects an alteration from a state of individual, profane and utilitarian existence to a raised, higher or even ecstatic state of social or collective being. In these conditions being reaches it most intense states, not just of abandon but, simultaneously, of expenditure, joining or ‘intimacy’ with other beings, an intimacy usually occluded by the demands of individual, productive existence.7 Bataille sought something he termed the intimacy of others. For Bataille, influenced by Gnostic and Manichean dualism, the sacred and the profane are understood as two worlds, not as an opposition within a single ‘real’ or objective world. Notions of a ‘real’ world derive from the profane world, and appear solid and meaningful only on condition that they are not exposed to the sacred or heterological. Notions of ‘reality’ are, in a sense, inappropriate or irrelevant when considering the sacred world. (Pawlett, KL 759)

Yet, for Bataille the Sacred was divided again into a left and right hand path: a path of immanence and one of transcendence. Bataille took the left-hand path downward into the darkness of the abyss, and as the disciple of the monstrous, left sacred revels in “rupturing the highest elevation, and . . . has a share in the elaboration or decomposition of forms” attendant upon intoxication, madness, and artistic profusion. Excessive and
transgressive, the left sacred is that which escapes assimilation or systematization. In this way, like the chthonic god with which it is affiliated in Bataille’s thought, the left sacred is a “low value” that disrupts both the rational order of utility—the “real world,” conditioned by telic thought and dedicated to useful projects—as well as its divinized counterpart, the right sacred. It is at once activated by, and provokes the death of, the closed, individual self—the death that grants the experience of continuity. (Biles, 221)

In archaic times a person who stood outside the law, the culture, was considered ‘dead’ by ordinary people. In many instances the embodiment of these ‘dead’ was the bear or, even more importantly, the wolf. According to old Norse law and even much later, the wolf was deprived of protection of the law. In these barbarous lands of the old Norse the legends would speak of those vargr I veum, or ‘stranglers in the temple’ – outlaws who invaded the safe havens of ancient temples of the heathen gods for sacrifice and plunder. In the Lokisana or the Ragnarök, the ‘twilight of the gods,’ when all order ceased and things were turned upside down, the times of these times was called vargold “wolf’d time by the Voluspa. These dead, the outlaw and vagr, or wolf-men, the stranglers were banished persons became the monstrous breed of lore and legend, those without honor or who belonged to Odin, the god of death and war. The men of Odin were known as the ulfar, ‘wolves,’ or as Tacitus would speak of the hariers, the fighters of the Naharnawals, the black ones of death beyond the pale. These were men who lived outside the symbolic or social order, the lawless killers of fathers, or kin, the dark ones of the frozen underworlds.8

The key here is the separation of two worlds: the world of society and work, and the realm of the sacred outlaw and death. Duerr in his work speaks of it as those within the fence or hedge, separating the domain of wilderness from that of culture. At certain times this fence was, in fact, torn down. Those who wanted to live consciously within the fence, had to leave the enclosure at least once in their lives. They had to roam the forests as wolves, as outlaws and were beings – those touched by the Wyrd (i.e., the sisters of Fate). As Duerr puts it “they had to experience their animal nature” emptied of the symbolic order, the social bonds of shared systems of belief, habit, and custom. (64) For – as he suggests, their ‘cultural nature’ was only one side of their being which by destiny was inextricably bound to their animal fyligja, visible only to him who stepped across the dividing line, entrusting himself to his ‘second sight’ (65). In this sense the animal nature, the fyligja, is the side of a person that becomes available only when the cultural bonds of ones profane utilitarian self identity is relinquished, when one dies to one’s culture, one’s symbolic self and role as a member of society and becomes one who is dead, a vagr or outlaw.

As Duerr attests to speak of this other side, to speak of the fyliga, nagual, or chagri – the other I am is unintelligible to those within the fence of the symbolic world of culture; for them it is sheer madness and insanity, a realm of pure fright and demons where nothing is real. “The nagual,” says Don Juan Matus, “is the part of us for which there is no description – no words, no names, no feelings, no knowledge.” (70) Yet, to enter the wilderness is not to experience this other we are in the way of reason, one cannot speak it, or reduce it to this side of the hedge or fence of culture – one will immerse oneself in it, dissolve the everyday self into the other, and for a time become the other one is. Some speak of it was moving out of the womb of one’s protection and into the dangerous zones of the vastness, the abyss. One returns from such a realm changed, different. One is an other at all times, and without recourse to the former worlds of safety and poverty of imagination that those who do not know still cling to in fright and terror of the darkness outside the fence of civilized reason.

One could say that the authors of the weird, the fantastic, the bizarre hint at the truth of this state of affairs almost as those practitioners of zen koans do with their paradoxical riddles, they convey the pointers beyond the fence, and offer in their dark testimonies only a glimpse into the abysses where one becomes at once monstrous and alive, but only if one is willing to die to one’s utiliatarian world of safety and work. To be free is a terrible thing, nothing less that becoming other – beyond which there is no recourse or redress other than being reborn in the wild lands of the dangerous, decaying, and morbid sacred. To become other is to become monstrous – to absolve oneself of one’s cultural ties, to be reborn in the inhuman power of a universe where the human has no meaning and the only law is that of the jungle. One enters such realms at a cost, at the cost of one’s life, one’s sociality. One becomes a stranger to the others – a power, separate and alone; a daemonic presence among those who remain fixated with the defensive gestures of civilization and its symbolic order. A stranger, a foreigner, an outsider, a social deviant, anyone speaking in an unfamiliar language or acting in unfamiliar ways, anyone whose origins are unknown or who has extraordinary powers, tends to be set apart as other, as evil.

One of the namings of otherness has been as ‘demonic’ and it is important to recognize the semantic shifts of this term, since they indicate the progressive internalization of fantastic narrative in the post-Romantic period. J.A. Symonds saw all fantastic art as characterized by an obsession with the demonic. He referred to Shakespeare’s Caliban, Milton’s Death, and Goethe’s Mephistopheles as ‘products of fantastic art’, and in earlier fantasies it is easy to see that the demonic and the diabolic were more or less synonymous. The term demonic originally denoted a supernatural being, a ghost, or spirit, or genius, or devil and it usually connoted a malignant, destructive force at work.9

‘Otherness’ is all that threatens ‘this’ world, this ‘real’ world, with dissolution: and it is this opposition which lies behind the several myths which have developed in the modern fantastic. Behind the modern fantastic is both a spiritual and political struggle to replace cultural life with a total, absolute otherness, a completely alternative self-sustaining system. The sense that the global order within which humans live and work is a false order, a symbolic order that has them enslaved like zombies in a movie unable to do anything but consume more and more of the products of an illusionary world. The dark fantastic returns us to the hinterlands of freedom, of the wilderness outside the control of the prison keepers of the current global system. It hints at another realm where one can become one’s true self, one’s other more dangerous and non-utilitarian self, and an outlaw and renegade to the current Reality system of governance and control. Those who police the Reality Matrix hunt down those who seek escape and lock them away as insane or criminals of the civilized world. Yet, some ride that hedge, that fence between two-worlds like masters of chaos, and bring back out of the abyss images of freedom, bits of information that helps awaken the sleepers of Time from their long sleep. It is to these that the dark fantastic calls… to those willing to dare all, to follow their minds and hearts into the chaos just this side of madness… out there where one becomes one’s Other…

  1. Jackson, Dr Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (New Accents) (p. 66). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
  2. Richard Evans Schultes, Albert Hofmann, Christian Ratsch. Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Healing Arts Press; 2nd edition (November 1, 2001)
  3. Michael A. Rinella. Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens. Lexington Books; Reprint edition (June 5, 2010)
  4. Italo Calvino. Fantastic Tales (Kindle Locations 32-36). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  5. Jeremy Biles (Editor), Kent Brintnall (Editor). Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion.  Fordham University Press; 1 edition (August 3, 2015)
  6. Schmidt, Paul. Arthur Rimbaud: Complete Works. Harpercollins (June 1, 1976)
  7. Pawlett, William. Georges Bataille : The Sacred and Society (Kindle Locations 209-213). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
  8. Hans Peter Duerr. Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary Between Wilderness and Civilization. Blackwell Publishers (June 18, 1985)
  9. Jackson, Dr Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (New Accents) (p. 54). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.


Notes on a Short History of the Self

Everything was lustrous and shimmering; everything gravitated passionately toward a kind of perfection whose definition was absence of friction. Reveling in all the temptations of the circle, life whirled to a state of such giddiness that the ground fell away and, stumbling, falling, weakened by nausea and languor—ought I to say it?—finding itself in a new dimension, as it were … Yes, matter has grown old and weary, and little has survived of those legendary days—a couple of machines, two or three fountains—and no one regrets the past, and even the very concept of “past” has changed.

-Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading

As regards ‘person,’ the ancient Greek term from which it originates explains the gap that separates it from the living body: just as a mask never fully adheres to the face that it covers, similarly the legal person does not coincide with the body of the human being to which it refers. In Roman legal doctrine, rather than indicating the human being as such, persona refers to the individual’s social role, whereas in Christian doctrine the person resides in a spiritual core that is irreducible to the bodily dimension. Strikingly, despite the internal metamorphoses of what we may well define as the ‘dispositif of the person,’ it never liberates itself from this original fracture. … But the same fracture was created by Christian doctrine in the distinction between body and soul, and by modern philosophy in the difference between thinking substance (res cogitans) and extended substance (res extensa). In all of these cases, the bios is variously sectioned into two areas that are valued differently, one of which is subordinated to the other. The result is a dialectic between personalization and depersonalization that has at various times been reworked into new forms.

-Robert Esposito, Person and Things: From the Body’s Point of View

From Zizek Dictionary:

In his recently published Less Than Nothing, Žižek analyses a well-known joke from American sitcoms. It involves one of the characters looking at a car being towed away and laughing, until they realize that it is actually their car. It is a “joke” repeated every time we catch an unfamiliar glimpse of ourselves in the bathroom mirror and are horrified before we remember it is us. In both cases, says Žižek, we do not recognize ourselves, but we are this misrecognition. It is in this delay between seeing and recognizing that the subject is experienced in its purest form and even in which the subject comes about. As Žižek writes: “The Lacanian thesis is that this delay is structural: there is no direct self-acquaintance; the self is empty” (LN: 145). The title Less Than Nothing is meant to refer to what allows appearance, but it can also be seen to refer to the subject. The “subject” is not “something” – some substantive, intact, really existing entity – but neither is it “nothing”. It is, rather, at once “more than something”, that for which appearance stands in, and “less than nothing”, able to be seen only through appearance. The self is “less than nothing” in so far as we are unable to match it with itself, in so far as what the experience of the subject reveals is not nothing but an endless drive towards nothing, “an obstinate repetitive fixation on a contingent object that subtracts the subject from its direct immersion in reality” (LN: 496).

Nabokov’s Gnosis of Freedom: Invitation to a Beheading – Quote of Day

Nabokov’s Gnosis of Freedom: Invitation to a Beheading –

It was then that Cincinnatus stopped and, looking around him as if he had just entered this stony solitude, summoned up all his will, evoked the full extent of his life, and endeavored to comprehend his situation with the utmost exactitude. Accused of the most terrible of crimes, gnostical turpitude, so rare and so unutterable that it was necessary to use circumlocutions like “impenetrability,” “opacity,” “occlusion”; sentenced for that crime to death by beheading; emprisoned in the fortress in expectation of the unknown but near and inexorable date (which he distinctly anticipated as the wrenching, yanking and crunch of a monstrous tooth, his whole body being the inflamed gum, and his head that tooth); standing now in the prison corridor with a sinking heart—still alive, still unimpaired, still Cincinnatic —Cincinnatus C. felt a fierce longing for freedom, the most ordinary, physical, physically feasible kind of freedom, and instantly he imagined, with such sensuous clarity as though it all was a fluctuating corona emanating from him, the town beyond the shallowed river, the town, from every point of which one could see—now in this vista, now in that, now in crayon, and now in ink—the tall fortress within which he was. And so powerful and sweet was this tide of freedom that everything seemed better than it really was: his gaolers, who in fact were everyone, seemed more tractable; in the confining phenomena of life his reason sought out a possible trail, some kind of vision danced before his eyes—like a thousand iridescent needles of light that surround the dazzling reflection of the sun in a nickel-plated sphere …

-Vladimir Nabokov,  Invitation to a Beheading

Nietzsche: 40 (March-June 1888) The concept of decadence.

On the State of the World:

— Waste, decay, elimination need not be condemned: they are necessary consequences of life, of the growth of life. The phenomenon of decadence is as necessary as any increase and advance of life: one is in no position to abolish it. Reason demands, on the contrary, that we do justice to it.

There are those who suppose there could be circumstances— social combinations— in which vice, disease, prostitution, distress would no longer grow — But that means condemning life. — A society is not free to remain young. And even at the height of its strength it has to form refuse and waste materials. The more energetically and boldly it advances, the richer it will be in failures and deformities, the closer to decline.

Age is not abolished by means of institutions. Neither is disease. Nor vice.

—Fredrich Nietzsche, Notebooks

Friedrich Nietzsche: The Pathos of Distance – Perfectionism, Transhumanism, and Post-Nihilism

By the abolition of distance, of the ‘pathos’ of distance, everything becomes undecidable.
– Jean Baudrillard, The Intelligence of Evil

Destroy the image, and you will break the enemy.
– Bruce Lee

In opposition to this dwarfing and adaptation of man to a specialized utility, a reverse movement is needed— the production of a synthetic, summarizing, justifying man for whose existence this transformation of mankind into a machine is a precondition, as a base on which he can invent his higher form of being.
-Fredrich Nietzsche, Will to Power

Those who have actually read Friedrich Nietzsche’s works will know that he was against all forms of racism, that he disparaged the Wagnerites, the anti-Semitic thinkers and every aspect of what he would see as a false semblance of German Culture with its bombastic and overblown rhetoric, late romantic, and decadent sickliness. At the heart of Nietzsche’s critique was a full blown critical destruction of Enlightenment values, the Romantic recursion to a secular supernaturalism, and the leveling spirit of democracy in which the ‘pathos of distance’ had been reduced to a mere plebian fart. Ultimately his enemy would be the whole of the Christian world-view and the civilization and culture it gave birth too. The Secular liberal and atheistic culture being nothing but an off-shoot, one that lead to our current nihilistic fragmentation and decline within democratic regimes of instrumental sciences and a politics of reduced, flattened, and degrading existence.

While Fascist or Nazi readings of Nietzsche have been thoroughly repudiated in Nietzsche scholarship, Nietzsche is usually conceived to espouse some kind of political aristocratism (Appel 1999; Conway 1996; Ansell-Pearson 1994).1 Many academics have tried to white wash his political elitism, his radical reappropriation of ancient Greek thought and aristocratic politics. Fossen will argue against those who see Nietzsche’s thought as a return to earlier and outmoded forms of political radicalism and aristocracy, and place his thought instead within his goal of transvaluation of all values: “Nietzsche’s thought is radically aristocratic, not because it proposes an alternative political theory but because it seeks to promote an ethic that is hostile to democratic civility.” (1) It’s this sense that it’s against modernity as the incarnation of a politics of democracy based on Christian values and moralist norms of utilitarianism and voluntarist traditions that Nietzsche sets his critique.

Continue reading

The Smile at the Foot of Time: The Enigma of Judge Holden in Cormac Maccarthy’s Blood Meridian

War is the father and king of all, and has produced some as gods and some as men, and has made some slaves and some free. -Heraclitus

Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. -Judge Holden, Blood Meridian

Note: Spoilers Ahead!

Reading Cormac Maccarthy’s Blood Meridian is not easy, it’s a bloody death march from beginning to end, a work that doesn’t let you get comfortable, doesn’t allow you to enter into its dark protagonists but rather forces you back on yourself, forces you to take stock of all those deep seated fears and terrors of the unknown that seem to abide somewhere between childhood nightmares and one’s imagined scenes of murder, mayhem, and ultimate war. Maccarthy’s fable, if you want to call it that, is a work that seem to offer no easy solution, no aesthetic pattern to hitch one’s thoughts and emotions on, and most of all it leaves one emotionally dead in the end just like the Glanton gang itself. And, yet, there is that thing – the undefinable Judge Holden who seems like some kind of ancient preternatural creature out of myth or legend who walks away from the novel unscathed as if the whole catastrophe were a mere stopgap in his eternal struggle against time, the elements, and the great unknown.

There’s something hermetic, inscrutable, and meaningless about the judge: this seven foot giant of a man (is he a man?), whose pale white hairless skin and bald pate shine with an alien glow, and those deep in-set impenetrable black eyes that bespeak of an intelligence that has reckoned with every facet of knowledge and found it all wanting. The judge has a peculiar habit that crops up over and over and over again like one of Thomas Mann’s leitmotifs – a smile, a disturbing and innocuous, smile. Over and over we come upon passages from the beginning of the book when he meets the Kid for the first time till then end game when he kills the Kid where he sits in an outhouse. The Smile. It’s eerie, it bothered me every time I saw it jut its ugly lips up out of those pages like some forbidden hint of a knowledge and secret world of evil that one is not and never will be privy too. And, by evil, I don’t mean some moralistic gesture of normativity, no – I mean the evil that comes with life itself, the evil that is other people – their mere presence or vicinity, what Emily Dickinson meant by ‘I wanted to be touched and didn’t want to want it.’ (Collected Poems) This sense that the touch of another is enough to annihilate one, to bring down that curtain of psychic being that one has so carefully built up and constructed against the Real. For if truth be told we all build our own psychic fantasies, our house of being against the truth of the world. It’s this sense of the judge’s smile as obscure, not obscurantism in the sense of rhetorical mystery; but in the sense in which all “expressive relations between entities are essentially solipsistic”.1

Continue reading

James Lovelock: Doom is Inevitable, Have a Happy Life!

Lovelock believes global warming is now irreversible, and that nothing can prevent large parts of the planet becoming too hot to inhabit, or sinking underwater, resulting in mass migration, famine and epidemics. Britain is going to become a lifeboat for refugees from mainland Europe, so instead of wasting our time on wind turbines we need to start planning how to survive. To Lovelock, the logic is clear. The sustainability brigade are insane to think we can save ourselves by going back to nature; our only chance of survival will come not from less technology, but more. Global warming has passed the tipping point, and catastrophe is unstoppable:

“It’s just too late for it,” he says. “Perhaps if we’d gone along routes like that in 1967, it might have helped. But we don’t have time. All these standard green things, like sustainable development, I think these are just words that mean nothing. I get an awful lot of people coming to me saying you can’t say that, because it gives us nothing to do. I say on the contrary, it gives us an immense amount to do. Just not the kinds of things you want to do.”

He dismisses eco ideas briskly, one by one. “Carbon offsetting? I wouldn’t dream of it. It’s just a joke. To pay money to plant trees, to think you’re offsetting the carbon? You’re probably making matters worse. You’re far better off giving to the charity Cool Earth, which gives the money to the native peoples to not take down their forests.”

Do he and his wife try to limit the number of flights they take? “No we don’t. Because we can’t.” And recycling, he adds, is “almost certainly a waste of time and energy”, while having a “green lifestyle” amounts to little more than “ostentatious grand gestures”. He distrusts the notion of ethical consumption. “Because always, in the end, it turns out to be a scam … or if it wasn’t one in the beginning, it becomes one.”

This is all delivered with an air of benign wonder at the intractable stupidity of people. “I see it with everybody. People just want to go on doing what they’re doing. They want business as usual. They say, ‘Oh yes, there’s going to be a problem up ahead,’ but they don’t want to change anything.”

read more… on The Guardian:

Fredric Jameson – Utopia, Dystopia, and the Myth of Neoliberalism

MAN is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.

-Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

It is easier, someone once said, to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism: and with that the idea of a revolution overthrowing capitalism seems to have vanished.

-Fredric Jameson,  An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army

The two epigraphs are well known to many on the Left and Right as being the bookends of a discourse that stretches from the Enlightenment to the demise of Soviet Communism in ’89. After the fall of utopian ideologies we’ve come to the point where such artificial dreams lie in a vacuous realm of fantasy rather than in any prospects for a future reality – and, to be fair, let us also remember what Susan Buck-Morass stated in her excellent survey of both Communist and Capitalist ideological utopianism:

The Construction of mass utopia was the dream of the twentieth century. It was the driving ideological force of industrial modernization in both its capitalist and socialist forms. The dream was itself an immense material power that transformed the natural world, investing industrially produced objects and built environments with collective,
political desire. Whereas the night dreams of individuals express desires thwarted by the social order and pushed backward into regressive childhood forms, this collective dream dared to imagine a social world in alliance with personal happiness, and promised to adults that its realization would be in harmony with the overcoming of scarcity for all.1 (9)

This leads me to the new book that once again tries to answer Jameson’s Utopian Manifesto. I speak of  An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army which brings together Jameson’s original manifesto, An American Utopia along with short stories, essays, and critical appraisal of this work. As Slavoj Zizek in his forward suggests this manifesto questions the standard leftist notions of an emancipated society, advocating— among other things— universal conscription as the model for the communist reorganization of society, fully acknowledging envy and resentment as the central problem of a communist society, and rejecting dreams of overcoming the division between work and pleasure. Endorsing the axiom that to change society one should begin by changing one’s dreams about an emancipated society, Jameson’s text is ideally placed to trigger a debate on possible and imaginable alternatives to global capitalism.2

Continue reading

Death of Culture: On the Decay of Thinking

It is very likely that never in human history have there been as many treatises, essays, theories and analyses focused on culture as there are today. This fact is even more surprising given that culture, in the meaning traditionally ascribed to the term, is now on the point of disappearing. And perhaps it has already disappeared, discreetly emptied of its content, and replaced by another content that distorts its earlier meaning.

-Mario Vargas Llosa,  Notes on the Death of Culture

( -Author’s disclaimer: these are but the ramblings of a disturbed creature living at the moment on planet earth, spinning about a minor sun in a minor galaxy flowing around in a void somewhere this side of eternity… probably not meant for you! Read on or not: the author no longer cares if you do or don’t, and if you want to spout invective back: that’s fine, too! But, be warned, the author is known to bite back…)

Our Necrophilic Culture of Doom
Creative Destruction: The Age of Metamorphosis
Crash Culture: Panic Shock, Semantic Apocalypse, and our Posthuman Future

Something happened yesterday to convince me that Mario is right, we’ve entered that stage of completed nihilism of which Nietzsche once prophesied. We’ve let whatever was once termed Western Culture (whatever that is? Or, however you wish to define it: I want!), whether in its European or its shadowed reflection here in North or South Americas vanish. What’s left is this ruinous wasteland of terabytes of textuallity that seem to run the gamut between the Sublime and the Ridiculous. The notion of a center of culture is laughable when our mediatainment complex seems to have replaced it with its simulacrum, its fake mirror of inane parodies.

No matter how many of us here on FB, WordPress, or any number of media communication systems seem to still read/discuss the classics, still harbor some inkling of the ancient signs of cultural data from Greek, Islamic, Hebraic, European, African, India, China, Russian, etc., what Tolstoy once sadly hoped would become ‘world literature’ is gone. What we have now is T.S. Eliot’s fragments shored against the ruins…

Should we bewail this? I doubt it… it’s done! We’ve allowed it to go down… our great modern masters such as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett live out its maximalist and minimalist designs and finished the bookends of Western culture in the burial grounds of the 20th Century. Now begins something else… a new world strikes up, one we should not bewail, but accept as a clean slate, and emptying of the vessels of sense and non-sense, of wiping the cultural frames of reference, making way for a new world.

Yet, we ask: Is there anything, anything at all out of the great traditions of the past worth saving, restoring, redeeming? What would you save, what restore, what redeem? Isn’t the cultural accumulation of Civilization like that over bloated thing we like to hate: Capitalism just one more decadent accumulation of too muchness? Maybe it is time to lop the excess, end the accumulation of data that no one but some advance machinic intelligence could ever encompass.

As one studies the latest trend of self-publishing one realizes that the majority of material published is illegible, almost inane and so badly repetitive and lacking in either good taste – literary or otherwise, that one wants to light a bonfire across the blipstream of our current cultural malaise. The literary critic’s task used to be one of arbitration, of being the great reader of her age, of forming the best, the aura and sparks of greatness from out of the cultural worlds around her, interpreting and embellishing the works worthy of the common reader’s consumption. But now this is nothing but a zoo for dissatisfied curmudgeons. Shaping taste is like any other commodity valueless, a part of the end game of a completed nihilism. One more bonfire of the vanities against which there is no redress.

Truly ours is the mongrelization of culture through a flattening of value into nothingness in which nihilism of value and meaning having wiped the external power of social, religious, and philosophical – and, some say, scientific and artistic meaning from its external anchors in authority and has forced us back on ourselves, forced us to seek out some internal compass to guide us and shape our taste, and – can we even say it, moral vision. Yet, as neuroscientists and cognitivists, and advance philosophical and other forms of thought keep reminding us: there is no there is, there is no Self, no Subject, no centralized inner being or essence, nor first-person singular left within this thing we once termed the “human”. Even to use such a term as ‘moral’ or ‘morality’ (i.e., normative navigation systems) has a certain tastelessness, a distaste and aftertaste of bitterness in our minds. There is nothing left to tell us what is of worth, no one from that cultural past from Plato to Deleuze to whatever calls itself the keeper of the cultural light, to give us a hint of what should be studied, reflected upon, scrutinized for shaping one’s life, mind, and sociality – one’s culture. There is no culture, only the endless sub-cultural mimesis of a thousand-and-one subaltern worlds of our cracked world.

Some might say: But wait, we’ve democratized learning, publishing: haven’t we? Have we? Is this what we want to call it now? This anything goes, over populated smorgsboard of anyone and everyone who can put one word in front of another and punch the Indie index screen, upload an .epub or .mobi to their favorite site for offloading by other Indie wannnabees? This endless circle of inanity? A sort of contentless content? A loop-world of repetition of desires without desire? No thank you.

Oh, but aren’t there some great books being published? Sure there are… one could name hundreds if not thousands published every month out of hundreds of thousands published at the same time. But who reads all these endless works? And, better yet, does anyone read anything older than last year anymore? People wonder how I know so much, wonder where I got the time in my life to read and study so many authors, thinkers, poets, political writers, philosophers, etc.? The secret is not how much you read, but rather how you read. I mean how effectively you gain access to those few authors that can compress hundreds of years of learning to the point that you do not need read everything, that in reading these few one knows the many, one has access to the minds of all those thoughts that have drifted down the ages through the best and brightest minds and now have a special place in yours.

But where to discover such authors? That’s the difficult question isn’t it? Because we can all understand a truism that what might be excellent and of value for me might be both foolish and of little value to you or another or any grouping of others. The path of learning, what the Germans once termed Bildung and the Greeks Paideia come with long struggle and hardship and difficulty. My life was singular since I did not have academic training, was not guided into certain pathways in my learning. I did not have the luxury of having past knowledge laid out for me to pick and choose. No. I did what many do outside the academy, I ambled through endless libraries of books seeking out of the sundry chaos of reading, of exploring art, philosophy, politics, sociology, medicine, history, etc. etc., without any rhyme or reason, order or pattern till I became aware of certain authors here and there that seemed to have discovered techniques in reading, memory, and visualization that allowed them to absorb vast amounts of information, and yet to do this with a keen eye for discernment that allowed them to separate the wheat from the chaff to use a colloquial expression.

Over time one began to listen to these various authors as they would mention each other as if in conversation across millennia. As if along the way one saw certain men and women being mentioned over and over, repetitively as exemplars of learning and taste. One began to realize that these men and women who were mentioned over and over, generation after generation formed a sort of canon of works that people would refer to continually. One could go to the index of almost any book and begin to discover certain authors listed repeatedly in book after book. These became the core of my curriculum, the set pieces of my reading and pondering of what seemed to many as the best and brightest thinkers of the past and present. It was this long struggle generation after generation that formed and shaped what we’ve come to know as Western Civilization and Culture, and it is this ancient canon of art, philosophy, literature, poetry, political writing, erotica, etc. that we are losing in our time. This ancient core curriculum that many battled to retain out of the past is now being dissolved, abandoned, dispersed by those who would seek the destruction of this past, efface it, demolish it, wipe it from the face of the earth as no longer viable. The whole humanistic enterprise of learning, bildung, paideia: culture is being overthrown for something else – nonhuman, posthuman, inhuman…. almost anything but – human.

So that we have to ask: Is this truly what we want? What have we gained in destroying our Western cultural inheritance? Has it truly opened up something new? Have we enriched ourselves with this blank world of non-meaning? Looking around me and watching the political, social, cultural worlds of our moment what I see is just warring factions, identitarian politics: race wars, gender wars, Left vs. Right to the maximalist nth degree of pyromania… we’re taking a nosedive into a final nihilism from which nothing human may ever again emerge… Why? Why do we think this is what we want? Why is a choice of Hilary or Trump a choice at all? Have we fallen so low into boredom and malaise that we can no longer think for ourselves? Demand of our Leaders something better? A world worth living in for our children and grandchildren? Is democracy truly dead? Is the liberal tradition now mute? The liberal era in politics and democracy over? Maybe it needs to be brought down? Looking around the planet all we can see is the dire effects of the liberal enlightenment world of democracy that has brought utter chaos and degradation to most of the rest of the Third-World through its supposed democractization efforts, hiding its actual economic and cultural imperialism and hegemonic globalist agendas. So should it just die a long slow death, or a hot fast one? If so, what comes next? Apocalypse or a new Dark Ages? That’s the question…

Our nihilism has taught us that the universe is a vast killing machine, indifferent and impersonal to human wants and needs; our planet is a cyclic processor of organic and inorganic systems of creation and destruction, a realm where from the smallest bacterium to the largest mammals in the oceans there is predation, endless and never ending. We all have pile up mountains of bones in our lives of the animals and plant life we’ve killed and eaten to survive. We’re nothing but processing systems with mouths and asses for intake and expulsion. We dress ourselves up in finery and pretend we are exception, unlike our distant cousins the apes and chimpanzees; or all the other creatures we share this planet with. We assume mythologies of angelic heights, but end up killing through genocide any and all who do not comply with our vision of secular or religious life and ideology. We are the only animal on the planet that will not accept being an animal. We seek immortal godhood through religion or transhuman egoistic individualism, trying to invent organic of inorganic modes of being to continue and endure forever. In the process we accumulate guilt and shame that we suppress and repress, hiding from ourselves the fact that we live fantasy lives that are nothing but … nothing.

Here and there through the ages the discovery of feral children has brought us back to the truth of our natural inheritance in animalistic jouissance. Yet, unable to accept the truth of who and what we are we dream of separate, transcendent worlds inhabited by glowing immortal beings to insure our hopes and wishes against the natural truth of our universal place in the universe that could give a shit about who are what we are, a universe that doesn’t even know we exist, a universe in which an asteroid at any moment could wipe the human species from the face of earth without further thought or meaning. This is the truth of nihilism…

…it’s against nihilism that we’ve built up the lies of culture, the chain of thought and images, poetry and philosophy against the actual and real truth of our nullity that we are mere accidents in the scheme of accidents that make up this universal catastrophe. Only now that Western Civilization and its Leaders can no longer provide the illusion of democracy or a viable planetary culture are we seeing this nihilism completed in our time. Now comes the decomposition of Western Civilization… an end to its growth and hegemonic reach, the final days of its empire. Now comes the age of barbarism… of the new.

‘Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!’

-Epitaph to W.B. Yeats Burial Stone

(Note*: This is not a definitive nor encyclopedic statement on nihilism or post-nihilism or any other notion, concept, proposition, or even non-propositional non-knowledge etc. for those below who wish to continue to embellish other facets of the diamond of nihil… feel free! I already see several commenters below and on reddit who have added their plenty to the empty reflections of said author, as well as attributing to his minor shit more shit…)