Brian Evenson: Song for the Unraveling of the World

If reason is not a chimera, then it must resolve this problem: how to disengage, amid the factual beings given in experience, that which, adequate to beings as such, is not itself contingent?

—Quentin Meillassoux

CaptureWhat if our life was a mere shadow of a Greater Nightmare, and we but the enactment of its dark intentions? That we are a contradiction, a veritable alien thing amid the sleep walkers of this planetary realm of organic madness is apparent to almost anyone with a inkling of intelligence. Yet, there are those who wander through life as if it were perfectly normal, that it was all planned out ahead of time, each of us a mere particle or semblance of some indefinable blueprint long ago bargained for in the distant reaches of the pre-cosmic abyss. Others seeking only the safety net of security and certitude have fallen into cages of religion or philosophy that offer certain consolations and deliverances from the absolute contingency of the world, believing they can master and control their destinies with Reason and Knowledge. Like shadows in a timeless void we pretend we are real when in truth we are not even unreal, but mere allusions and echoes of some former realm that has all but been shattered by the cosmic catastrophe within which we find ourselves. A speculative thinker of our era, Quentin Meillassoux terms this absolute contingency – within which we move and have our being, a hyper-chaos; or, as he puts it “absolute time” itself. As he states it:

What do I mean by this term? To say that the absolute is time, or chaos, seems very trite, very banal. But the time we discover here is, as I said, a very special time: not a physical time, not an ordinary chaos. Hyper-chaos is very different from what we call usually “chaos”. By chaos we usually mean disorder, randomness, the eternal becoming of everything. But these properties are not properties of Hyper-Chaos: its contingency is so radical that even becoming, disorder, or randomness can be destroyed by it, and replaced by order, determinism, and fixity. Things are so contingent in Hyper-chaos, that time is able to destroy even the becoming of things. (Time Without Becoming 25)

This notion of time being able to destroy the becoming of things reflects the strangeness I find in a series of tales in Brian Evenson’s new collection Song for the Unraveling of the World. 

In the title tale of the Evenson’s collection we discover a Father whose five year old daughter has gone missing. The details of the story are simple and bare: the father has kidnapped his own daughter from his (ex?) wife, brought her to a safety-house (or, so he thinks!), provided her with toys, dolls, and all the possible comforts he could. He falls asleep listening to a song he assumes she is singing herself to sleep by through the thin wall between their rooms. He awakens to find her gone, her room secured from the outside; her bed and room strangely unused and a circle of her new things distributed around the bed like some unusual ritual had been performed with her as the star attraction. He searches the home, then the neighborhood, bars, the town… he finds nothing, nothing at all. He calls his ex-wife and discovers she does not have the daughter. He sits down again in his home and stares at a tv broadcasting only pure static as if from some alternate reality. As he thinks to himself:

It had not been his fault, he told himself. Sometimes things just happen and you can’t do anything about them. Just as with the scar on Dani’s temple—that had not been, when you considered it logically, his fault. It had simply been bad luck. (SUW 32-33)

We discover that he’d taken the daughter without thought, it had been a mistake, but that now that he had he’d built a safe haven against the very real world of Law and Society, against the powers of reality. He’d lived in his home with his daughter as if in a pure zone of freedom. He’d bolted the doors, boarded up the windows, isolated himself and his daughter from the world. For a year he lived this way as if that might just be enough time to escape the real burden of his choices. But that was all over now, his hopes of return, of redemption, of his wife’s forgiveness, of living ever happily after with his daughter. All gone.

And then the song started up again, the song from his daughter’s room, a strange and disquieting song in a language not quite of this world. He carefully pries open the door hoping to find here there, but finds nothing, nothing at all. He asks himself the question: “What does it mean to me?” He’s broken the ritual circle, laid down on his daughter’s bed, listening, thinking, hoping against hope that she will return: “He lay there, trying to feel some sign of his daughter’s presence. All he could feel was his own ungainly self.” (SUW 35)

As he is laying there contemplating the past, present, and possibilities of a future he will again as: “What does it mean to me?” This repetition without an answer of a question of meaning in a meaningless universe brings us back to that notion of absolute contingency. As Drago thinks to himself:

What does it mean to be me? He had lived, it seemed to him, several lives, and when he strung them together they didn’t seem to make any kind of chain. Whatever continuity was supposed to be there seemed to have dissolved and he didn’t know how to get it back. Even in just the last two years, there had been a life where he and his wife had been together and had been happy, followed by a life where he had been alone and miserable, followed by a life with just him and his daughter, followed by this life now, the one that was now beginning. What did it all add up to? Nothing. Merely four separate existences. He wasn’t the same person in any of them. Or rather, in the first three he was three different people. For this life, the newest one, it was still too early to say what, if anything, he was. (SUW 35-36)

As if his life were itself a series of disjunctive episodes that did not connect or touch each other, as if each time-frame were part of some strange world of pure contingency without rhyme or reason; a world where time had suddenly become destructive, a power of ruin and erosion, entropy and decay, as if time were unraveling all around him. As if whatever we are as persons were not what we thought we were, but something else; and that nothing we’d been told about the continuity of self and world were true at all, as if the facticity of the world had suddenly vanished into thin air and been replaced by some strange form of hyper-chaos.

Late that night he awakens and sees his daughter just beyond the ritual circle, groggily he rises up and tries to reach her but is bound to the inside of the circle like a demon:

When he got out of bed and moved toward her, he found he could not cross the border of the circle. As if I’m a demon, he thought. He prowled along inside the circle, edging around the bed, looking for a way out. But there was no way out. (SUW 36)

In ritual magic such a space is a circle (or sphere, field) of space marked out by practitioners to contain energy and form a sacred space, or provide them a form of magical protection from demons or other alien entities.

Drago watches his daughter from within the circle, and she watches him in silence for a long while. Then she rises up and leaves him there without a word being exchanged. After she leaves the spell that kept him bound to the inside of the circle is broken, and he follows her down the stair. Suddenly everything changes, the front door shatters, two detectives and his wife enter and accuse him of atrocities unimaginable. His wife crying, clawing at him through the window, begging him to tell her what he’s done to their daughter. And just as he’s about to understand just what he doesn’t know and will never know…  he wakes up.

Most of us think the world is a safe place, a haven against the cosmic night of horror lurking just outside our green, green earth. We think we can master and control the forces of horror arrayed against us, dispel the darkness of the unknown with the wand of reason and science. Then something happens to disturb this illusion, something inexplicable happens to us or a loved one, something that we cannot explain with either rational thought or those so carefully tended notions of common sense and the pragmatic truth of what we’ve known as reality. We begin to question ourselves and the world, suspecting either something has gone wrong with our minds or that the world has shifted into a darker and more mysterious zone. We begin to look around us and question the very nature of our lives and of those we took to be our friends. Paranoia sets in and we begin to fear that something is wrong with the world in ways it never was before. It’s this sense of things being a little off that these tales of Brian reveal with such simple prose. A prosaic world that moves along as if everything is normal then suddenly veers off into strange zones of being we never knew existed before.

Brian’s tales lead us into those alcoves of nightmare that we’ve hidden from ourselves all these years. Dark recesses of being that open out onto that Greater Nightmare where anything is possible, and will at one time or another probably happen. It’s a realm where the very nature of our self-identity begins to unravel, a realm in which the world you’ve known suddenly dissolves and another more sinister one is revealed. For far too long we’ve allowed ourselves to live comfortable lives in our illusory realms of as if, telling ourselves that our shared world of work and play is the only world. It is not. There is another realm waiting in the wings, between the cracks and seams, just outside our normal awareness that at any moment may just pull the blinkers off your eyes and reveal itself for what it is. You cannot hide from it, you cannot run from it, it is this world we all share seen with other eyes than the one’s you’ve allowed to be shaped by normalcy. It is the real world, a world of horror and ecstasy situated no where more central than in your own sleeping mind. It is the nightmare land where your real life begins, a monstrous life that only now you begin to understand and realize is the only ever life you ever had and will be without end.

Brian’s tales open portals into and out of that nightmare land. Each tale giving a glimpse of its strange manifestations, hinting at more than revealing. Tales that shift from time-present to time-past, else into sidereal zones of being that seem to exist in some parallel time world just this side of hell. Vampyres in the western lands; skin-changers in some New York boutique; aliens from inter-dimensional chaos whose only telling mark is to leave us faceless; murderous psychopaths; secret sharers of darkness and change; the friendly next-door cannibal family;  paranoid filmmaker’s who discover unbidden truths; holes in deep space that harbor inhuman mysteries… the litany of horrors like a kaleidoscope revolve round and round in this collection leading the wary reader into realms where the mind begins to literally unravel and begin to dissolve in the darkness of inescapable abysses. This is Brian Evenson’s world of terror and beauty where anything can happen and most likely will…

There is more to tale I related, but I’m not going to reveal that to you just now. Not now, not ever; for that you must read it yourself. But I can assure you this that each of the tales in this collection is like a song in that unraveling world of time that is hyper-chaos, a realm in which all continuity is gone, a realm in which every facet of existence is unraveling in a song of horror and delight. These are tales of that Greater Nightmare that surrounds us on all sides, a realm that we block out through our security blankets of culture and civilization. We believe ourselves immune to it through the perfect illusions we’ve created for ourselves, our normal dreamtime of comforting day worlds of work and play. But it is not true, just the other side our normal lives is an infernal region of absolute contingency that sooner or later will begin playing its song for you, too. And when it does your world will begin unraveling in into that Greater Nightmare carnival of existence… a realm of absolute contingency in which anything can happen and most assuredly will happen to you.

Enjoy the ride!


You can find Brian Evenson on his blog: https://brianevenson.com/

And his new collection on Amazon: Song for the Unraveling of the World

 

 

The Road to the Unreal

…each night, as he dreamed, he carried out shapeless expeditions into its fantastic topography. To all appearances it seemed he had discovered the summit or abyss of the unreal, that paradise of exhaustion, confusion, and debris where reality ends and where one may dwell among its ruins.

—Thomas Ligotti, Vastarien

The echoes of thought from one work to another is a twisted tangle of chaos, a forest of nettles and puzzles, a labyrinth of false paths and wrong turns; and, yet, it does happen from time to time, that a brave quester, a journeyer into the obscure zones of horror will occasionally pass through the barriers between the real and unreal, enter into those nether regions of the unknown where the unmanifest mysteries of a darker and more uncertain topography of the fantastic is revealed and transmitted. Echoed in the secret chambers of hearts and minds like so many leaves swirling in the autumn wind.

There are those who have left signs, fragmentary visions, sorceries of hallucinatory voyages or strange adventures: lunatics and madmen, savants and dark prophets, oracles and sirens; decadent visionaries full of lurid tales of the unknown. Those who have been torn and wounded by the indifference of the natural and unnatural forces of these ruinous and unfathomable realms have on occasion returned to relay their dark wisdom. Especially those of the minor canon of pessimistic authors who have never been widely circulated in mainstream culture, those who have opened portals and doorways into these dark and tantalizing regions of the ancient occulture and obscura, seen  hidden arcana of the unholy that breaks the weak souled brethren but gives back to those who persevere unbidden truths.

The Well of Wyrd, where memory, pain, and torment commingle and the tales left by these voyagers surfaces from the depths of the haunted labyrinths we learn of their failures and successes. Generations of women and men seeking by untraditional means avenues into those nether regions of psychogeography where the unknown allures and seduces us toward the strange and puzzling mysteries and obscure sites of imaginative need and poverty begin to topple our consensually accepted reality and reveal to us something else; something ever about to be. These questers after the mind’s dark haunts bring back to us amazing fragments and tales of the infernal paradises of the Unreal that so many have craved, sought after, and quested in pursuit of like unholy seekers of a luminous sect of grail knights of horror and beauty. Some have like Browning’s questor to the ‘Dark Tower’ prepared themselves their whole lives for a glimpse of the impossible kingdoms of darkness and terror, and here and there a few have brought back out of those bleak realms the ruinous beauty of their short tales of the weird, fantastic, and strange; captivating us with glimpses, however blurred and twisted, of those sinister and yet fascinating realms of the Unreal.

The Daemonic Quest

The essential claim of the sublime is that man can, in feeling and in speech, transcend the human. What, if anything, lies beyond the human— God or the gods, the daemon or Nature— is matter for great disagreement. What, if anything, defines the range of the human is scarcely less sure.

—Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime

Reading Thomas Ligotti’s tales of horror over the past twenty years I’ve felt that pull of the “daemonic imagination” toward some indefinable darkness and enlightenment, a zone of horror and ecstasy hovering in the interstices of the world like flowers of corruption waiting to bloom. For Ligotti as a Master of horror did not seek some Platonic realm transcending time and space where the eternal forms (Ideas) dwell that guide and shape our lives; no, in his quest toward an “enlightenment in darkness” (one he admits he never attained) he sought what I’ll term the daemonic path: a formless path of unrest, driven by the elemental forces at play within the infernal garden of our catastrophic cosmos.  As Stefan Zweig in his study of the daemon in the works of Hölderlin, Kleist, and Nietzsche suggests:

It seems as if nature had implanted into every mind an inalienable part of the primordial chaos, and as if this part were interminably striving — with tense passion — to rejoin the superhuman, suprasensual medium whence it derives. The daemon is the incorporation of that tormenting leaven which impels our being (otherwise quiet and almost inert) towards danger, immoderation, ecstasy, renunciation, and even self-destruction.1

Unlike the ancient sublime of transcendence that sought to move beyond our cosmos into some eternal realm of light as in Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise toward a beatific vision, Ligotti’s nightmare quest and visionary tales led him to toward the malevolent powers of darkness of the daemonic abyss. Following Edgar Allen Poe and Howard Phillips Lovecraft, seduced and lured as they were by the impersonal and indifferent cosmos of elemental malevolence, Ligotti would be driven toward a secular rather than religious theophany; one – unlike those sweet visions of God’s majesty with their soteriological visions of redemption and salvation, would lead Ligotti to fall forward, restlessly swerving  into the dark labyrinths of an impenetrable chasm and cosmic abyss of torment and suffering, moving endlessly through the doom-ridden layers of time and space where an unknown and unknowable malevolent presence pervades every singular atom within the ruins of reality.

“These dark sounds are the mystery, the roots thrusting into the fertile loam known to all of us, ignored by all of us, but from which we get what is real in art. . . .”
– Frederico Garcia Lorca

It was the poet, Frederico Garcia Lorca, in reference to the duende – the dark muse of song—daemon, hobgoblin, mischief maker, guardian of “the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore.” Unlike the Muse or Angel, which exist beyond or above the poet, the duende sleeps deep within the poet, and asks to be awakened and wrestled, often at great cost. He would speak of that unfailing instinct that opens within one like a black orchid, or breaks through the mind with those dark sounds that wound. The duende is the dark angel of the blood and emotion, the driving force of that creative action that sings in the throat black sounds: “…the duende has to be roused in the very cells of the blood. … The real struggle is with the duende…. To help us seek the duende there is neither map nor discipline. All one knows is that it burns the blood like powdered glass”.2

This sense of duende is at the heart of most great music and poetry, as is it is of those transformative moments within the genre of horror. It is root and cause of that which stirs below the threshold of consciousness, gathering its sublime forces, generating the dread and terror that reveal to us the darkest truths of our suffering and pain. The nihilistic light that formed us from the beginning breaks over our vein egoistic selves shattering the vessels of our own ignorance sending us into a tailspin of doubt and panic from which there is no escape. As the poet Leopardi would sing of the dark malevolence below the threshold, the duende:

King of the real, creator of the world,
hidden malevolence, supreme power and supreme intelligence,
eternal giver of pain and arbiter of movement…
– Leopardi, Canti

William Blake once described the struggle with and against the daemon, the duende as the struggle with the Female Will, the matrix of night, death, the mother, and the sea.

 


  1. Zweig, Stefan. The Struggle with the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche (pp. 11-12). Pushkin Press (July 24, 2012)
  2. Lorca, Federico García(1898-1937) In Search of Duende. New Directions; Second edition (March 30, 2010)

 

*Working on this as a prelude to my book on Thomas Ligotti… will add more as it comes, and will link it from my outline page: here.

The Long Shadow: Mervyn Peake and Gormenghast

If you’ve never read this classic you just have no clue: Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake is the real deal, a work that stands alone among the great fantasists. It is the opposite of a Tolkien world with its Christian mythos laid across the old English mind-set… No. Peake gave us a mad world of ancient cruelty and psychopathic charm, creatures drifting through a world where time is decaying and the inhabitants of this stone palace ritualize the very instability of Time itself through the weird notions of a family romance of pain and sadism. The opening paragraph is still one of the best in that genre:

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one halfway over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.

—Mervyn Peake, The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy

Peake’s work is anomalous. Asked in a radio discussion of Titus Groan whether he had tried to fit his book ‘into any known literary form’, he answered that for him there are

two kinds of books, one of which is on the classic side, where there is the mould – the mould which one accepts, then pours one’s words into. … And then there’s the other, which is not, I think, necessarily a formless thing [but which] creates its own form. (MPR 10 (Spring 1980), 14)

Sui generis! It is not easy to fit Peake’s work into any genre of the past two hundred years. As Peake once observed,

There are always those who wish to limit art to within the boundaries of their own faculties: to recognize only such work as reflects their own attitude to life and aesthetics. And this is natural, if unintelligent. A man is unable to see anything other than himself. A mule faced with an El Greco can only glare in a mulish way: can only receive what mules can receive. Similarly, a particular man can see only his own reflection. (D9)

Mervyn Peake was born of British parents in Kuling (Lushan) in Jiangxi Province of central China in 1911, only three months before the revolution and the founding of the Republic of China. His father Ernest Cromwell Peake was a medical missionary doctor with the London Missionary Society of the Congregationalist tradition and his mother, Amanda Elizabeth Powell, had come to China as a missionary assistant.

The Peakes were given leave to visit England just before World War I in 1914 and returned to China in 1916. Mervyn Peake attended Tientsin Grammar School until the family left for England in December 1922 via the Trans-Siberian Railway. About this time he wrote a novella, The White Chief of the Umzimbooboo Kaffirs. Peake never returned to China but it has been noted that Chinese influences can be detected in his works, not least in the castle of Gormenghast itself, which in some respects echoes the ancient walled city of Beijing, as well as the enclosed compound where he grew up in Tianjin. It is also likely that his early exposure to the contrasts between the lives of the Europeans and of the Chinese, and between the poor and the wealthy in China, also exerted an influence on the Gormenghast books.

His education continued at Eltham College, Mottingham (1923–29), where his talents were encouraged by his English teacher, Eric Drake. Peake completed his formal education at Croydon School of Art in the autumn of 1929 and then from December 1929 to 1933 at the Royal Academy Schools, where he first painted in oils. By this time he had written his first long poem, A Touch o’ the Ash. In 1931 he had a painting accepted for display by the Royal Academy and exhibited his work with the so-called “Soho Group”.1

The influence of Milton and Shakespeare is obvious in this vast work. Steerpike, like Satan’s appearance in Milton’s great poem Paradise Lost,  savours all the hellish qualities of the place:

The air was chill and unhealthy; a smell of rotten wood, of dank masonry filled his lungs. He moved in a climate as of decay – of a decay rank with its own evil authority, a richer, more inexorable quality than freshness; it smothered and drained all vibrancy, all hope.

Where another would have shuddered, the young man merely ran his tongue across his lips. ‘This is a place,’ he said to himself. ‘Without any doubt, this is somewhere.’ (G258; Peake’s emphases)

As Winnington in his study2 of Peake remarks:  Peake’s most Miltonic passage is also one of the most extraordinary in Gormenghast, a four-page account of Steerpike’s journey across the castle, during which his shadow seems ‘every whit as predatory and meaningful as the body that cast it’. Even when it disappears for a moment, it remains ‘like the evil dream of some sleeper who on waking finds the substance of his nightmare standing beside his bed – for Steerpike was there’ (261; Peake’s emphasis). The narrator wonders why this should be, and why this particular shadow should evoke a sense of darkness:

Shadows more terrible and grotesque than Steerpike’s gave no such feeling. … It was as though a shadow had a heart – a heart where blood was drawn from the margins of a world of less substance than air. A world of darkness whose very existence depended upon its enemy, the light. (G263)


  1. Mervyn Peake biography – 1911-1968″. mervynpeake.org. 2013. Retrieved 29 August 2015.
  2. G. Peter Winnington. The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination. Liverpool University Press; 1 edition (October 15, 2006)

 

Gary J. Shipley: Quote of the Day!

 ©Chris Mars: Paintings

I come to Proust on bended knee: “It seems that the taste for books grows with intelligence […] So, the great writers, during those hours when they are not in direct communication with their thought, delight in the society of books.” And as, with a shaky bowel, I anticipate looking out from this scoffing nowhere of broken spines and laden shelves, feel free to browse the clutter of words I have collected, words from which I formed the tools of death.

The Suicide Machine

The Universe is nothing else than a suicide machine created by a blind and fugitive monstrosity, whose veritable death throes generated the body of this universal catastrophe we now live in as fragments or shards of its dying embers, ash of its black light.

-©2016 S.C. Hickman, The Infernal Journals of Thaddeus Long

Thomas Ligotti will offer a surmise onto the strange necrotheology of the German philosopher Philipp Mainländer (born Phillip Batz), echoing a strain of Gnostic or Buddhist thought underpinning much of 19th Century Philosophy, saying: “Perhaps the Blind God was an unreliable narrator of weird tales. He did not want to leave a bad impression by telling us He had absented Himself from the ceremonies of death before they had begun. Alone and immortal, nothing needed Him. Yet, He needed to bust out into a universe to complete His project of self-extinction, passing on His horror piecemeal, so to say, to His creation.”1 He’ll comment on this amalgam of Catholic, Gnostic, and Pessimist speculation of Mainländer’s – remarking,

No one has yet conceived an authoritative reason for why the human race should continue or discontinue its being, although some believe they have. Mainländer was sure he had an answer to what he judged to be the worthlessness and pain of existence, and none may peremptorily belie it. (CHR,

The inability to posit an optimistic or a pessimistic reason for the continuation of the human species has left humanity in a quandary, oscillating between two poles like dark divers from some infernal picture show; members of a cult of death that keep on keeping on, only because of the ennui and the lack of vital thought or action necessary to decide one way or the other. So instead we have ritualized our world around certain age-old fetishes that our desires can grasp onto to maintain the status quo – if nothing else. As Ligotti delightfully relates: “Ontologically, Mainländer’s thought is delirious; metaphorically, it explains a good deal about human experience; practically, it may in time prove to be consistent with the idea of creation as a structure of creaking bones being eaten from within by a pestilent marrow.” (CHR, 38)


1. Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror. Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition. (CHR)

 

Cosmic Horror: Spinoza, Poe, and Lovecraft

Nothing exists of which it cannot be asked, what is the cause (or reason), why it exists.

-Baruch Spinoza

Spinoza: Sufficient Reason

The Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) stipulates that everything must have a reason, cause, or ground. Spinoza would add to the epigraph above that since “existing is something positive, we cannot say that it has nothing as its cause. Therefore, we must assign some positive cause, or reason, why [a thing] exists—either an external one, i.e., one outside the thing itself, or an internal one, one comprehended in the nature and definition of the existing thing itself.”1

Spinoza in Axiom 7 appeals in his  explanation – previously stated, that it is a variant of the “ex nihilo, nihil fit” (“from nothing, nothing comes”) principle, and stipulates that an existing thing and its perfections (or qualities) cannot have nothing or a non-existing thing as their cause. So would this for Spinoza preclude any form of relation with an inexistent? We know that in the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, Spinoza allows for one unique item to be without a cause. In §70 of this treatise, Spinoza argues:

[T]hat Thought is also called true which involves objectively the essence of some principle that does not have a cause, and is known through itself and in itself. (II/26/33–4.)

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Clark Ashton Smith: Visionary of the Dark Fantastic

To throw light upon the mysterious essence of the writer who has been overpowered by his daemon, to elucidate the true nature of the daemonic, I have inconspicuously delineated the dark inheritance of his escapades into the unknown.  The writer who soars upon the pinions of an uncontrolled daemonism is not one who is himself undaemonic, there is no art worthy of the name without daemonism, no great art that does not voice the music of the infernal spheres.

-Stefan Zweig,  The Struggle with the Daemon

Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-coloured sun
Of secret worlds incredible, and take
Their trailing skies for vestment, when I soar,
Throned on the mounting zenith, and illume
The spaceward-flown horizons infinite.

-Clark Ashton Smith, The Hashish-Eater 

It’s hard to imagine just how prolific Clark Ashton Smith was in the various areas of art, poetry, and prose within which he established himself as an exemplar of the dark fantastic. In poetry alone his work is without doubt the last of the last great Symbolist from an era that stretched from Baudelaire to W.B. Yeats, from the Pre-Raphaelites to Austin Osman Spare. I see that S.T. Joshi and other editors have brought out a three volume edition of his poetry and translations (before his mentor George Sterling died he’d already become well known for his translations of Baudelaire), along with five volumes of his collected weird tales and one of his miscellaneous writings in other genres and sub-genres. But it is his five volumes recently published of his fantastic tales, his essays, letters, etc. of which I’ve been interested in of late. Many in his own time failed to understand him or his work properly, but much did. Many of the avant garde regarded his work, and especially The Hashish Eater, as being a mere extension of Sterling’s; Witter Bynner’s half-joking references to “the Star Dust Twins” are typical. This did not prevent the publication of Smith’s work in venues such as the Yale Review, Poetry, Smart Set, and Laughing Horse, and it was no stranger to popular anthologies and even school and college textbooks.1

Le Sprague de Camp considered him one of the “Three Musketeers” of the Weird Tale, along with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Yet, unlike the other two he never seemed to register on the psyche of readers. Some say it’s because he never created a mythos like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu or Howard’s Conan series, and yet he was by many aficionado’s (me included) the better stylist and prose writer, as well as more imaginative in displaying a command of world building and sheer control over the details of his explorations into the noumenal or unknown. For him the fantastic was not escapism – not in the sense of the Inklings or their sub-worlds; no, his was an exploration by indirect means of that vast invisible area we would term the speculative regions of the cosmos around us. Because of a false view of reality that after Kant reduced the cosmos and environment to the phenomenal and visible its taken a couple hundred years to come to the end of that circle of symbolic closure. Now in our time we’ve once again opened the doors to the unknown and impossible realms that our brains usually filter out because of our disposition toward hunger and reproduction. Yet, do to this caveat that our brains filter out most of the signals that surround us we are essentially blind to all but a small fragment of the Real. It’s in the work of this that those voyagers of the fantastic excelled; rather than in escape from reality, they chose to open up the aspects of reality that our cultural dominators chose to close off as taboo.

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Allan Moore: Jerusalem

51whd70y4clAllan Moore’s new novel is out at last. Jerusalem. Of course if you’re at all familiar with comics, Allan is a mortal god among gods. With such series as Watchman, V for Vendetta, Saga of the Swamp Thing, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Promethea, Voice of the Fire, Lost Girls and so many others his collaborations have produced some of the most innovative works in the industry. Now he comes out with what possibly might be his last work, and what a work. I’ve only downloaded it and begun to read it. So I’ll only jot from the blurb if you haven’t seen the work:

In the epic novel Jerusalem, Alan Moore channels both the ecstatic visions of William Blake and the theoretical physics of Albert Einstein through the hardscrabble streets and alleys of his hometown of Northampton, UK. In the half a square mile of decay and demolition that was England’s Saxon capital, eternity is loitering between the firetrap housing projects. Embedded in the grubby amber of the district’s narrative among its saints, kings, prostitutes, and derelicts, a different kind of human time is happening, a soiled simultaneity that does not differentiate between the petrol-colored puddles and the fractured dreams of those who navigate them.

Employing, a kaleidoscope of literary forms and styles that ranges from brutal social realism to extravagant children’s fantasy, from the modern stage drama to the extremes of science fiction, Jerusalem’s dizzyingly rich cast of characters includes the living, the dead, the celestial, and the infernal in an intricately woven tapestry that presents a vision of an absolute and timeless human reality in all of its exquisite, comical, and heartbreaking splendor.

In these pages lurk demons from the second-century Book of Tobit and angels with golden blood who reduce fate to a snooker tournament. Vagrants, prostitutes, and ghosts rub shoulders with Oliver Cromwell, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce’s tragic daughter Lucia, and Buffalo Bill, among many others. There is a conversation in the thunderstruck dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, childbirth on the cobblestones of Lambeth Walk, an estranged couple sitting all night on the cold steps of a Gothic church front, and an infant choking on a cough drop for eleven chapters. An art exhibition is in preparation, and above the world a naked old man and a beautiful dead baby race along the Attics of the Breath toward the heat death of the universe.

An opulent mythology for those without a pot to piss in, through the labyrinthine streets and pages of Jerusalem tread ghosts that sing of wealth, poverty, and our threadbare millennium. They discuss English as a visionary language from John Bunyan to James Joyce, hold forth on the illusion of mortality post-Einstein, and insist upon the meanest slum as Blake’s eternal holy city.

It should be a wild romp full of surprises… looking forward to it.

Italo Calvino: Collection of Sand

The fascination of a collection lies just as much in what it reveals as in what it conceals of the secret urge that led to its creation. – Italo Calvino

In a curious travel sketch Italo Calvino relates the story of a woman who collected sand from the various landscapes and geographies of the world. He’s come to a Paris exhibition where she’s arrayed these various hued marvels or curiosities in glass jars with placards relating them to their points of origins:

There is a person who collects sand. This person travels the world and—on arrival at a sea-shore, the banks of a river or lake, or a desert, or wasteland—gathers a handful of sand and takes it away. On returning home, thousands of little jars are waiting, lined up on long shelves: inside them the fine grey sand of Lake Balaton, the brilliant white particles from the Gulf of Siam, the red shingle that the Gambia river deposits on its course down through Senegal, all display their not particularly vast array of nuanced colours, revealing a uniformity like the moon’s surface, despite the differences in granulosity and consistency, from the black and white sand of the Caspian Sea, which seems to be still bathed in salt water, to the tiniest pebbles from Maratea, which are also black and white, to the fine white powder speckled with purple shells from Turtle Bay, near Malindi in Kenya. …

One has the feeling that this set of samples from the universal Waste Land is on the point of revealing something important to us: a description of the world? The collector’s secret diary? An oracular response to myself as I scrutinize these motionless sand-clocks and reflect on the moment I have reached in my life? Maybe all of these things together. The collection of sands that have been selected chronicles what remains of the world from the long erosions that have taken place, and that sandy residue is both the ultimate substance of the world and the negation of its luxuriant and multiform appearance. All the scenarios of the collector’s life appear more alive here than if they were in a series of colour slides. In fact, one would think that this sounds like a life of eternal tourism (and that is just the way that life appears in any case in colour slides, and it is how posterity would reconstruct it if it were only slides that remained to document our times): basking on exotic beaches is alternated with more arduous explorations, in a geographic restlessness that betrays a sense of uncertainty, of anxiety. …

At this point there is nothing left to do except to give up, walk away from the case, from this cemetery of landscapes reduced to a desert, this cemetery of deserts on which the wind no longer blows. And yet, the person who has had the persistence to continue this collection for years knew what she was doing, knew where she was trying to get to: perhaps this was her precise aim, to remove from herself the distorting, aggressive sensations, the confused wind of being, and to have at last for herself the sandy substance of all things, to touch the flinty structure of existence. That is why she does not take her eyes off those sands, her gaze penetrates one of the phials, she burrows into it, identifies with it, extracts the myriads of pieces of information that are packed into a little pile of sand. Each bit of grey, once it has been deconstructed into its light and dark, shiny and opaque, spherical, polyhedral and flat granules, is no longer seen as a grey or only at that point begins to let you understand the meaning of grey.

So, deciphering the diary of the melancholic (or happy?) collector, I have finally come round to asking myself what is expressed in that sand of written words which I have strung together throughout my life, that sand that now seems to me to be so far away from the beaches and deserts of living. Perhaps by staring at the sand as sand, words as words, we can come close to understanding how and to what extent the world that has been ground down and eroded can still find in sand a foundation and model.1


  1. Italo Calvino. Collection of Sand (Kindle Locations 237-311). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

 

Fantastic Authors: Achim von Arnim(1781 – 1831)

Ludwig_Achim_von_Arnim

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)

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