Some Boing Boing readers may know Edward Gorey without knowing it. The author and illustrator of a 100 (or so) ironic-gothic, darkly droll little picture books with titles like The Beastly Baby, The Deranged Cousins, and The Loathsome Couple, Gorey was the inspiration for YA novels such as Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events books and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, and Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas owe him a creative debt, too. Gorey, who died at the age of 75 in 2000, wrote mock-morality tales and nonsense verse, typically set in Victorian or Edwardian England and dealing, inevitably, with murder, mayhem, and Acts of God, all recounted in a deadpan that never cracks though it manages, even so, to insinuate a kind of camp-macabre subtext into events. More often than not, tots get the axe, as in his most famous work, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an abecedarium that recounts the deaths of 26 little dears in rhyming couplets (“B is for Basil/ assaulted by bears…”) His texts are accompanied by pen-and-ink illustrations so intricately crosshatched and stippled they fool the eye into thinking they’re antique engravings, perhaps by the nineteenth-century printmaker Gustave Doré or John Tenniel, illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.
A polymath who taught himself to read at age three and left a personal library of some 20,000 volumes when he died, Gorey was a man of ungovernable intellectual passions, hardly missing a performance, over three decades, by George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet and taking in a thousand films in one notable year of wall-to-wall moviegoing. One of his lesser-known interests was the occult, a fascination that crescendoed in the late ’60s, when the cultural atmosphere was thick with Eastern mysticism, New Age philosophy, pop astrology, and bestselling accounts of supernatural phenomena, whether fictional (Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby, about devil worshippers in ’60s New York) or purportedly real (Hans Holzer’s paperback books on paranormal activity).
The December 1966 issue of Esquire featured “A Chthonian Christmas,” the sort of holiday feature Gorey was often asked to do—to his undying vexation, no doubt, given his detestation of holidays. This was the golden age of magazines, and Esquire was riding high, its ad-fat issues overstuffed with the innovative New Journalism of zeitgeist dowsers such as Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, fiction by heavy hitters such as Norman Mailer and John Cheever, and celebrity profiles. At 360 pages, the December 1966 issue had an editorial budget that could easily afford witty frivolities like the Fantod Pack, the Gorey tarot that was part of “A Chthonian Christmas.” “A Chthonian Christmas”—the Goreyan adjective means “of, or relating to, the underworld”—includes eight Gorey cartoons. In one vignette, a trio of children finds Father sprawled beside the hearth, throttled with a Christmas stocking. In another, a man, confronted by the December days left on his wall calendar, eyes his gas range speculatively. Behind the black humor, we detect a whiff of the loneliness that’s only made bleaker by other people’s holiday cheer.
The centerpiece of “A Chthonian Christmas” is a two-page gallery displaying the Fantod Pack, a set of twenty tarot cards designed and illustrated by Gorey. (The Fantod Pack has been published as an actual pack of cards in various versions. It first appeared in 1969, in pirated form, as a cheaply produced deck released by the Owl Press. In 1995, the Gotham Book Mart published a quality edition. The most recent version is the laminated, crisply printed set produced by Pomegranate in 2007.) As late as 1969, his interest in esoteric matters was still going strong. “In answer to your queries,” he wrote his friend and collaborator the children’s book author Peter Neumeyer, “of course I believe in graphology, also palmistry, the I Ching, the tarot, astrology, and all those other delicious things you can find in places like thesaurusi (can that be the plural? No, it can’t, it must be thesauri), which turn out to mean prognostication by means of snail tracks or something.” Gorey’s “belief,” it should be noted, wasn’t a literal faith in the oracle’s prophetic powers. The Taoist in him thought it might be one of many ways of tapping into the Tao, while his inner surrealist hoped it might prove useful in accessing the unconscious.
Gorey didn’t intend the Fantod Pack to be taken all that seriously, but like most of his jokes it hints at hidden truths. After all, he chose the images that make up his Major Arcana, handpicking them from the visual lexicon of characters, objects, plants and animals, and landscapes that recur in his work. (The Major Arcana are the tarot’s trump cards.)
Like Magritte’s surrealist painting The Key to Dreams (1930), the Fantod Pack is an inventory of unlike things whose only connection is their role in the artist’s personal mythology: urns (“The Urn”); the bearded, fur-coated, hypermasculine gent (“The Ancestor”); dead, dying, and ill-used children (“The Child,” a grinning skeleton tot pulling a wooden animal on wheels); the Black Doll (which, unlike the other nineteen trumps, bears no title and has no explanation beyond “In the words of the old rhyme: What most you fear / Is coming near”).
On the back of each card, Figbash—an inscrutable creature with a long-beaked, featureless face, a squat, short-legged body, and impossibly long arms—rides a unicycle while balancing a platter on his upraised hands. On the platter sit a skull, a chalice, and a candle, barely more than a stump but still burning—memento mori rich in occult associations, though their spookiness is undercut by Figbash’s antics.
Each of the Fantod Pack’s cryptic images dares us to uncover its meaning. But one card, “The Bundle,” suggests that the key to Gorey’s dreams will always elude us. A bulky package tied up with a latticework of ropes, it calls to mind The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse (1920), a surrealist object created by the photographer Man Ray in homage to Ducasse’s deathless line in Les Chants de Maldoror (a proto-surrealist novel written under the nom de plume Comte de Lautréamont), “beautiful as the chance meeting, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” In Ray’s case, we know what’s inside the lumpy blanket tied with twine: a sewing machine. The contents of Gorey’s bundle, on the other hand, are unknowable.
To those who believe that “eroticism is all-pervasive, almost claustrophobic, in [Gorey’s] little books,” as the author of one magazine profile asserted, “The Bundle” will invite the obvious Freudian reading: a stifled sexuality, kept tightly under wraps. At the same time, it has a huddled, abject look; its outline strongly suggests a shrouded figure with its head on its knees—the universal posture of despair. Like the rest of Gorey’s “great secrets,” it’s an arcanum whose purpose is to remain arcane.
Image: “The Bundle.” The Fantod Pack. (Gotham Book Mart, 1995)
Lisa Kereszi "has an eye for the kind of detail that makes you feel like slitting your throat," Sarah Boxer writes in her New York Times review of an exhibition that included Kereszi's photos of Governors Island, in New York Harbor. A courtesy phone the color of freshly dried blood; a drinking fountain that somehow manages to look sinister against the traffic-cone orange of the wall behind it; an abandoned motel room whose queasy-green carpet still bears the ghost image of a bed, a discolored rectangle uncomfortably reminiscent of a grave: looking at Kereszi's images of the former military and Coast Guard base, we have to agree with Boxer's observation that she "revels in…plain and awful surfaces."
Kereszi, who is director of undergraduate studies in the Yale School of Art when she isn't prowling modern ruins, captures the uncanniness of the banal, the creepy melancholy of the abject, the disquieting blur at the edge of camera frame. Boxer compares her work to Eugène Atget's proto-surrealist photographs of dreamlike boulevards and sleepwalking mannequins in Belle-Époque Paris but to my mind it's more accurately a cross between Diane Arbus's mixture of the mundane and the insinuating — her ability to render the everyday freakish with the snap of a shutter — and the nameless creepiness of David Lynch. (I'm thinking of the saloon singer's apartment in Blue Velvet.)
Nowhere is this quality more abundantly on display than in Haunted, a "Halloween series" of "temporary and semi-permanent scare attractions" Kereszi has "been working on, on and off, since 2004," as she told me in an e-mail. Inspired, in part, by a 1961 Diane Arbus photo taken inside the Spook-a-Rama ride at Coney Island, Kereszi's images of down-at-the-heel dark rides and ramshackle spookhouses are unsettling in a way never intended by their creators. "There is a dislocated sense of space in these transitory structures, and something about the failure of the fantasy to sustain its scare factor under daylight or flash," she points out. "There's also something about finding beauty and poetry in these otherwise horrible, grotesque" — and, be it said, kitschy and unintentionally campy — tableaux, not to mention "an uncomfortable amount of violence against women, and of sexualizing violence in general. Male mannequins are obviously also being tortured and dismembered in the setups, but it's the women who are scantily clad, with nipples protruding, mouths open, dressed as vixens in S&M gear and fishnet stockings, tied up."
In Haunted, Kereszi lifts the trapdoor of the pop unconscious, exposing the more deeply disturbing things we sublimate into horror films and haunted-house rides. Her inspirations for the series are revealing: Arbus's Spook-a-Rama photo as well as "the one of the Psycho house facade, which shows the support beams holding the thing up," along with Garry Winogrand's images, in his book Public Relations, of photo ops and other staged P.R. events "photographed from behind the press corps or the politician, making the image that no one was supposed to see, the one that is maybe more accurate, and certainly more critical." In Haunted, she says, "I am using specific kinds of places as material in which to create something poetic and meaningful that is about death and dying and fear and escapism."
Kereszi's own fears — and dreams of escape — are rooted in memories of "growing up in a world where drugs were part of the family dynamic — that and suicide, which is the ultimate escape. I grew up myself wanting to escape this difficult environment and milieu. Truth to tell, she confides, "I hate horror movies and roller coasters. I have enough real fear and anxiety that I don't really need any more of it, even fake. It's a mystery to me why I am drawn to these places. Or maybe it's painfully obvious."
With guns on the public mind, now might be a good time to read Melancholy Accidents: Three Centuries of Stray Bullets and Bad Luck, an anthology of newspaper accounts of accidental shootings, mostly fatal, compiled by Peter Manseau. Spanning 1739 to 1916, they're brief, only a half-page on average, but their old-fashioned diction, formal as a wing collar, and the ironic distance between their deadpan recitation of the facts and the mayhem they recount gives them a prosaic poetry. They uncover the matter-of-fact madness of what Manseau calls "a nation that fancies itself created and sustained by guns, yet remains resigned to being culled by them with unnerving frequency."
Some of the book's entries have a Fortean absurdity that splits the difference between tragic and comic, like the February 13, 1739 item from The New England Weekly Journal about some men trying out a new firearm on the broad side of a barn. As fate would have it, "one of the Bullets struck upon some piece of Iron and split it (the Bullet) in two, one piece of which flew to a considerable Distance from the Barn." A Doctor Rice was traveling along the road; it cut him down. The other half came to rest near a cluster of people but "did no Hurt." One of them, the Reverend Mr. Sterns, "sent the piece to the Men who were firing, with a desire that they would take more Care for the future."
Other reports are contenders for the Darwin Award, testimonials to the stupidity of the species. The July 26, 1759 edition of The Pennsylvania Gazette reports the story of a man who grabbed his gun by the muzzle to shake a recalcitrant cartridge into place. Right on cue, "it went off, and mangled and tore away [a] great Part of his Belly, so that his Entrails fell out." Some of the stories have a distinctly gothic undertone, like the account of a deer hunter named Sherron shot dead by a deer-hunting neighbor who mistook him for quarry. "It is remarkable," the reporter notes, with sinister suggestiveness, "that this said Sherron was shot at by the same Person twice before and badly wounded, but through Mercy escaped with his Life."
Manseau is the religion curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, so it's no surprise that he reads these tales of "melancholy accidents," as they were called, as parables for a nation that has grown up with a bible in one hand and a firearm in the other. To Americans, "the gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate," writes the cultural historian Garry Wills. "It is an object of reverence. … Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned."
Manseau quotes these lines to underscore our veneration of the gun as a tribal totem and our embrace of the Second Amendment as holy writ, brought down from Mount Sinai by Charlton Heston. Then he complicates that relationship by noting that, paradoxically, injuries and fatalities like the ones anthologized in Melancholy Accidents have "presented to a largely religious nation blasphemous evidence of divine indifference."
American history has at least two possible futures. Shamed by the moral courage of the teenaged survivors of the Parkland shooting, we can snap out of our three hundred years' trance and stop making sacrifices to the God of the Gun (38,658 of them in 2016 alone, according to the CDC ). Or we can double down on the American death cult, take it seriously as the religion it is. Build megachurches, black as gunmetal, with spires modeled on rifle cartridges. Ordain a clergy to officiate over masses where the cross has been replaced by the crosshairs and the communion chalice brims with real blood. The priest's benediction will be a malediction, beginning, as Manseau's book does, with a line from the Russian journalist Svetlana Aleksievich: "People shoot, but it's God who delivers the bullet."
Standing in the Mütter Museumof medical oddities, contemplating a neat row of jars, each containing a malformed fetus with spina bifida, Riva Lehrer realized just how easily she, too, could have ended up a specimen in a bottle, an object of curiosity, pathos, and, yes, revulsion. "Their spinal column failed to fuse all the way around their spinal cord, leaving holes (called lesions) in their spine," she writes, in a New York Times essay so scarifyingly honest it feels like self-anatomization. "Some extrude a bulging sac containing a section of the cord. These balloons make the fetuses appear as if they're about to explode. This condition is called spina bifida. I stand in front of these tiny humans and try not to pass out. I have never seen what I looked like on the day I was born."
Born with Spina bifida, the survivor of scores of surgeries, Lehrer is "less than five feet tall." She writes, "I have a curved spine. I wear huge, clunky orthopedic boots." Yet as she notes in her Times essay, she no longer winces at her own reflection. Through her stunning, photorealistic portraits of people with disabilities—people like Mat Fraser, a.k.a. Sealo the Seal Boy from American Horror Story; Nomy Lamm, born with one leg smaller than the other; Lynn Manning, a blind actor and 1990 World Champion in Blind Judo shown brandishing his white cane like a katana—she has come to see "disabled bodies as unexpected and charming and exciting. Each one stretched the boundaries of what it meant to be human. They made the world big enough to include me"— and the rest of us into the bargain. Riveting, moving, powerful, profound, her essay as well as her art recall the well-known quote from the Roman playwright Terence: "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto" (loosely, "I am human, and nothing human is alien to me").
"Theresia Degener," by Riva Lehrer.
A gallery of Lehrer's astonishing work is online, at her site, here.
In the flurry of obituaries for Sam Shepard, who died last Thursday, at 73, from complications related to Lou Gehrig's disease, the playwright and actor appears in close up, as an uncompromisingly honest anatomist of family traumas, and in long shot, as the last mythologist of the American West. He grew up "all over the Southwest, really — Cucamonga, Duarte, California, Texas, New Mexico," yanked from place to place by his Air Force-pilot dad's postings, but when he moved to New York in '62, he seemed oddly at home in the bohemia of the Lower East Side, plunging into the experimental theater scene orbiting around La MaMa. His Gary Cooper features, laconic way with words, and cowboy cool seemed right, somehow, for the post-beat, proto-punk underground that produced Andy Warhol's 1968 movie, Lonesome Cowboys, and Velvet Underground songs like "Lonesome Cowboy Bill" (1970), both ironic, deadpan jabs at the moribund myth of the American Frontier (at the very moment that John Wayne was performing CPR on it in True Grit). In his early play, Cowboy Mouth (1971), binge-written in the Chelsea Hotel with his then-lover, Patti Smith, Shepard reimagines the high-plains drifter of John Ford legend as a wannabe Keith Richards, "a street angel…with a cowboy mouth."
Coming of age at a moment when the rock guitarslinger was coolness itself, both Shepard and Smith, like many Boomer writers, sublimated their dreams of rock stardom into bravura improvisations on the typewriter. "First off let me tell you that I don't want to be a playwright," wrote Shepard, in 1971. "I want to be a rock and roll star. I want that understood right off."
I got into writing plays because I had nothing else to do. So I started writing to keep from going off the deep end. That was back in '64. Writing has become a habit. I like to yodel and dance and fuck a lot. Writing is neat because you do it on a very physical level. Just like rock and roll. A lot of people think playwrights are some special brand of intellectual fruitcake with special answers to special problems that confront the world at large. I think that's a crock of shit. When you write a play you work out like a musician on a piece of music. You find all the rhythms and the melody and the harmonies and take them as they come. So much for theory.
That sensibility animates Hawk Moon, Shepard's 1973 collection of "short stories, poems, and monologues" dedicated to "Patti Lee" (Smith). Most of the obits have focused, rightly, on Shepard the playwright—he wrote some 55 plays, one of which, Buried Child (1978), won him a Pulitzer—and Shepard the actor, a veteran of more than 50 roles, most notably Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983). Still, it's a pity so little mention has been made of Shepard the prose poet.
No doubt, Hawk Moon is early, immature Shepard, half-baked in spots, overegged in others. The London Review dismissed the book as "scrappy and inconsequential," rolling a derisory eye at its "breathless, unpunctuated prose-poems and cute little seven or eight-liners in free verse in the style of Richard Brautigan." Yet the reviewer conceded that the best of the fleetingly brief stories—flash fiction decades before the term was coined—"are sharp, macabre histories of urban fear and violence" that are very much of their moment ("the mechanized world of motor-car, radio culture, rootlessness and nuclear threat") yet can still see the "mythical world of the Frontier, the Wild West, the prairies" receding in the rear-view mirror.
At their best, Hawk Moon's poems and short, short stories have the fishtailing, careering momentum of Jayne Mansfield's deathmobile, which, as it happens, puts in an appearance, in "The Curse of the Raven's Black Feather": "Visions of wrecks. Visions of wrecked stars; Jayne Mansfield's severed head. Jackson Pollock. Jimmy Dean. Visions of wrecked cars. Asleep at the wheel." We can hear the incoming buzzbomb squall of punk rock in Shepard's hopped-up, free-associated imagery, and in the manic glee of his depictions of a post-'60s America gone to seed.
In "Seven is a Number in Magic," a marauding gang of feral kids—close kin to William Burroughs's Wild Boys, on "customized Schwinns and stolen bikes with raccoon tails flying from the handle bars…and mud flaps with red and orange reflectors and the Ace of Spades stuck in their spokes"—surround a gaggle of nurses, out for a night on the town. Slashing the young women "with silver car antennas like whips," they steal their purses. When one of the nurses makes a run for it, a boy gives chase, "doing wheel stands and burning rubber right on her heels." Lopping off her ear with a switchblade, he brandishes it in triumph. The next day, alone on a rooftop, he threads a leather thong through the ear and hangs it around his neck, a fetish object for the Lord of the Flies. "He stands up and raises a fist to the sky. The Gods are well pleased."
Minimalist and modern-sounding, Man Ray is the sort of name that seems as if it should be outlined in buzzing neon. Born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia on August 27, 1890, the photographer and visual artist shortened his nickname, "Manny," to Man, and after 1912 went by a less Jewish-sounding version of his surname in response to the anti-Semitism of the times.
It was an inspired choice. Man Ray sounds like a shaft of light in human form—a radiant man. "I have freed myself from the sticky medium of paint and am working directly with light itself," the frustrated painter exulted, after discovering the technique that enabled him to produce Rayographs, as he called them—spooky, one-of-a-kind images created by placing objects on light-sensitive paper and exposing them to light, producing white silhouettes that glow eerily against a black background, like ectoplasmic manifestations in a Spiritualist photograph. "Everything can be transformed, deformed, and obliterated by light," he said. "Its flexibility is precisely the same as the suppleness of the brush."
Ray's work is collected in a new book, Man Ray (part of Taschen's Photo Masters series). A fellow traveler of the Dadaists and Surrealists, Ray (1890-1976) pioneered unconventional techniques that, married to his visual wit, evoke hidden realities. "By assembling a vocabulary of seldom-used darkroom techniques, he freed photography from its reputation for recording the observable world and used it to create images drawn from the imagination," writes Katherine Ware in her essay "Chemist of Mysteries," included in the book. In his alien still lives, Calla lilies give off a radioactive glow (a special effect produced by solarization, in which a print or a negative is exposed during its development, causing some darks to appear light, some lights to appear dark). He had an offhanded brilliance when it came to titles. An eggbeater, lit so it casts a shadow and photographed from an awkward angle, takes on a life of its own, especially when titled La Femme ("The Woman"). In "Le Violon d'Ingres" ("The Violin of Ingres"), a pair of f-holes, painted onto a photo of a naked woman with her back to us, turns a run-of-the-mill nude into a sly, Duchampian pun. But it's his Rayographs of everyday detritus—bottles, combs, toy guns—that open the door to another world. Surrealist X-rays, they expose the unconscious lives of inanimate objects.
"The stars look very different today." I've written, on several occasions, though most revealingly here, about glam's desperate importance to those of us marooned in the beige, tract-home nightmare of '70s suburbia.
Is Daniel Handler Pugsley Addams, all grown up? Like the boy in the Addams Family films, Handler—known to you as Lemony Snicket, author of the ironic-gothic children's books, A Series of Unfortunate Events—wears his hair in a burr cut and has a round, baby-faced mug that makes him look far more boyish than his 45 years. Charles Addams once described Pugsley as "a dedicated troublemaker" and a "genius in his own way," and Handler is both, though whether he builds "toy guillotines, full-size racks, threatens to poison his sister, [and] can turn himself into a Mr. Hyde with an ordinary chemical set," who knows? That said, I can easily imagine him decapitating his sister's doll. (He does, in fact, have a sister.) And he reportedly makes a mean martini, a drink that has been known to bring out the Mr. Hyde in even the most demure, well-manicured types.
It's a treacly truism of the bookchat set, as Gore Vidal called it, that the best writers of children's books are adults who haven't forgotten what it was like to be a kid, and Handler fits the bill. "Before he could talk," he says, of his son Otto, "we would go for a walk and I would say: 'If I see a tree, I'm going to go crazy,' and he would point at a tree and I would pretend to go crazy. Or I'd say: 'If I see a piece of gum on the sidewalk I'm going to fall on the ground,' and he'd point at the gum. I still meet children who, when I make that kind of joke, are alarmed. Some of them are my nieces. You can't win them all."
Clearly, Handler wears his adulthood lightly. He keeps his manuscripts-in-progress in the refrigerator's crisper drawer, he claims, "in case the house burns down." Asked what brings a tear to his eye, he says, "The scene towards the end of The Life Aquatic, when Bill Murray's character says of the shark, 'I wonder if it remembers me.'" What does he want his gravestone to say? "Please keep off the grass," a parting shot that's in a league with the Surrealist artist (and irrepressible prankster) Marcel Duchamp's epitaph: D'ailleurs, c'est toujours les autres qui meurent ("Anyway, it's always the other guy who dies.") In his novel, The Adverbs, he quips, "It's always dawnest before dark," which sounds like Larry David's idea of Taoist wisdom. The best job he ever had, as an unpublished young writer, was working as an executive assistant to a man who was in the hospital, busy dying, a honey of a job that left Handler ample time for writing. Oh, and the "aura of doom that hung over it was very helpful to me as a beginning novelist as well." His advice to aspiring authors? "Try to work for someone who's dying. You get a lot of time." The fact that he hasn't read Proust is a source of undying shame. "I'm trying to start a Dive Bar Proust Club, where we meet regularly at dive bars to discuss Proust, but the people I invite keep asking, 'Do we have to meet at dive bars?' or 'Do we have to read Proust?'"
Not that he's some kind of man-boy. Because, paradoxically, the best children's authors don't try to pass as overgrown children (is there anything creepier?), nor, on the other hand, do they treat kids like miniature adults. Handler's narrator, Lemony Snicket, speaks to his young readers in a voice that's perfectly poised between arch and earnest, portentous and twee, chronicling one Unfortunate Event after another in a deadpan that never cracks. Like the mock-moralizing books of Edward Gorey, whom Handler admires, A Series of Unfortunate Events is at once a send-up of moralizing children's literature and, in its own amusingly lugubrious way, a useful lesson in the survival skill of wringing black comedy from life's million little agonies and absurdities.
On the subject of children and childhood, Handler says, "I think the basic questions you ask yourself as a child—What are people doing? Why are we thinking about this and not that?—I think those questions never get answered in adulthood. You learn that it's rude to ask them, and you learn that what you're really supposed to do is get up and go to work. But they're never answered so they continue to haunt me. And I think that they haunt everybody. I think that people are different degrees of dishonest about it."
As for Handler's own childhood, it would be nice to think that he grew up a forlorn orphan, in a vast Victorian pile subsiding into a moor, but aside from a longer-than-average list of morbid fears and a tendency to brood over injustice, he appears to have had a more or less happy boyhood, regrettably, in the San Francisco of the 1980s. He was, of course, a ravenous reader, and can remember where he was when he first read J.D. Salinger's nutty, disturbing story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" better than he can any birthday party. But it was The Blue Aspic, by Edward Gorey—the first book he bought with his own money—that made him who is, he insists: "It opened up a curious and shady world—you know, the one we all live in—I am still exploring."
Not that his childhood was nothing but blue skies: Handler is Jewish, and his father fled Germany as a little boy, in 1939, to escape the gathering Nazi horror. "I knew about the Holocaust at an earlier age than most people learn about it, I think, and so the idea that the world could suddenly go very wrong, and that it had no bearing on what sort of person you were, sunk in pretty early," he told an interviewer. "And it's affected my politics and my writing and my life."
We spoke by e-mail.
Mark Dery: The Lemony Snicket voice—arch, ironic, Edward Goreyesque—flirts, at times, with camp. To my ear, it borrows some of its tone from pre-Stonewall gay humor, specifically the pricking wit of 1920's British writers such as E.F. Benson, author of the Mapp & Lucia series; Ronald Firbank (whom you once said would be your ideal biographer); and Ivy Compton-Burnett. (All of whom Gorey, one of your biggest influences, loved.) There's a tongue-in-cheek tone to that voice, not quite bitchy but definitely insinuating, which some adults relish, but kids don't get. Or do they?
Daniel Handler: I was just at a party where a small child was wolfing down cookies, and I said to her, "You probably shouldn't eat very many of those, because one of them is poisoned." The deadpan juxtaposition of the mundane and the frightening is always interesting—and often hilarious—to me, and it comes not only from the sort of authors you mentioned but is also at the root of Jewish humor. I grew up in a household that understood that just because you'd escaped Germany in 1939 by the skin of your teeth didn't mean it wasn't also terrible when you were out of pudding. It's no surprise to me that, culturally, this type of humor tends to spring from people who are treated atrociously but are somehow thriving anyway, nor that someone of the next generation would find Woody Allen and Ronald Firbank more or less saying the same thing. The Snicket voice is in there somewhere, and its insinuations find appreciation in a certain type of person, independent, in my experience, of age. It's difficult to say exactly what this sort is, but we know each other when we find each other. The child immediately fell writhing to the ground. That's the sort I mean.
MD: In your latest Lemony Snicket series, All the Wrong Questions, you've transposed Snicket's voice from the key of ironic gothic into that of tongue-in-cheek noir. It's an intriguing move, because the gothic often plays with gender, queering it in weird and wonderful ways, whereas noir, especially the hardboiled Raymond Chandler version you're riffing on, is all about a particularly American brand of tough-guy masculinity—humorless, not great at anger management, its emotions repressed behind an iron-jawed façade or drowned in a bottle of rye. There's a misogynistic strain in noir, and, not incidentally, an undertone of homophobia. (I'm thinking of Chandler's sneering caricature of the effeminate playboy in "Mandarin's Jade," a gigolo clearly coded as gay with "a soft brown neck, like the neck of a very strong woman," who walks "like a dancer" and uses exclamations like "Gracious!") I'm wondering if you're exploiting the tension between the knowing, deadpan Snicket persona and the noir genre as a way of satirizing American ideas about masculinity, among other things.
DH: I find the voices not so far apart—and the distance is on the same path, I think. Noir's hyper-masculinity feels as slippery and stagey as the gothic novel's troubled heroes—Joseph Hansen's gay noirs make some nice hay with this, I think—and certainly the treatment of women seems like very similar shades, ahem, of grey. (Whether you'd rather be married off at a young age to a seething, violent count in a castle, or slapped around in a hotel room by a hard-drinking tough, is really just a matter of taste.) I hope that Violet Baudelaire, whose inventiveness is in nimble contrast to gothic heroine's pearl-clutching passivity, and Ellington Feint, who makes the femme fatale stand toe-to-toe with the detective, where she belongs, looks askance at both genres' ghastly sides.
But more to my point: the noir and gothic poses both are strategies to work one's way through a mysterious and thoroughly corrupt universe, which is why they both fit so neatly into the journey of childhood. It makes sense to me that young Snicket would be trying on an ill-fitting tough-guy stance on his way to the softer, more flourishy persona in which he finds himself as an adult. Both genre universes represent ways in which we can gaze at the actual world, which rarely falls into such neat tropes. I had a wonderful conversation with Guy Maddin, another touchstone, in which we talked about how much easier it is for us to think about the world when the story is writ very, very large, in the tropes of melodrama.
MD: While we're on the subject of gender and sexuality, you've joked about being a "simpering sissy," having no muscles (except for the bizarrely overdeveloped shoulder muscles you've gotten from playing that least macho of all instruments, the accordion), and being mistaken, by everyone at your high-school graduation, for the guy another student speaker was referring to when he said, "I think it says something about this school that a gay man can address the crowd," when he was, in fact, outing himself.
I wonder if you'd be willing to talk about how normative notions of what's manly—masculinity, American-style—and, inversely, what's sissy-ish affected you as a kid? And how you've responded, in your work, to those experiences (if you have)?
DH: It is so easy to overdramatize the alienation of one's childhood, when it is clear that any thinking person on earth feels disenfranchised from the culture, particularly during one's tenderest years. But as a boy with a deep love of classical music (as a listener and a performer) and an equally deep disinterest in sports, an emerging gastronome who ran the literary magazine whilst finding action movies tedious and the one-up-manship culture of bro-talk painfully offensive, I was subject to teasing of various stages of aggression. Literature, for the most part, pointed me to a world in which I could forge my own way as a man. Wodehouse, Marquez, Hijuelos, Durrell, Kundera, Auster, Firbank, Chandler, Wilde—these writers showed me a path forward, and by late high school I was more or less in place. I have a distinct memory of changing my clothes after gym class, and the guys in the locker room, hunched over a centerfold, calling me "fag" because I wasn't interested. I wasn't interested because my girlfriend was waiting for me, and we were going to go back to her place to have sex, while these guys hung around in their underwear looking at porn. I felt very heterosexual in comparison.
MD: Wodehouse seems obvious enough, but the thought of a high-school kid discovering Firbank in the 1980s, much less liking him, frankly staggers me. Even now, Firbank is obscure, known only to a tiny cult of devotees, and is very much an acquired taste. What was it about Firbank that spoke to you as a teen? Are you still an admirer of his work? Gorey, a fellow Firbankian, told an interviewer he was "reluctant to admit" his youthful obsession with Firbank "because I've outgrown him in one way, although in another I don't suppose I ever will."
DH: Well, I grew up in San Francisco, which was even more bookish then—stuffed with used bookstores stuffed with cheap used editions friendly to a high school allowance. Who knows what attracted me to Firbank – a loopy title, an eye-catching edition, or perhaps some reference to him someplace that put his name in my head. By then there was an aesthetic to which I was attracted; I guess we'd call it twee now, but back then I couldn't have described it, really. More even than the content of his work—though certainly some of the characteristics you describe were in the Snicket loam—was the entire notion of an obscure, strange author. The finds in those bookstores were always so wondrous, and my dreams of a literary career were along those lines, especially the Snicket work, which I assumed would be invisible in the marketplace but unforgettable to a tiny handful who managed to find the work. I first read Wodehouse in one of those hardcover library editions without dustjackets; it took me maybe 25 pages before I realized it was supposed to be funny. I first read Master and Margarita [by Mikhail Bulgakov] as a used paperback with both cover and title page missing, so the author's name was unknown to me for years. I miss that kind of blind reading, virtually impossible in the Internet age.
I recently reread Firbank for the first time in years, and found him even stranger than I'd remembered. I'd call him "notably out of step" with everything, but as a writer, I have an appreciation for the writers who venture far, far out; Reverdy's A Haunted House, the littlest of Lydia Davis's short fiction, Aram Saroyan's poetry. It's always tempting to pretend to have outgrown the charms of such work, but its delights never falter for me.
MD: And what was it about Chandler that jumped off the page? I would've thought Hammett would've struck a more responsive chord, since he sets his stories in San Francisco. Or maybe the bleaker, more mordantly existentialist noir writers, such as Patricia Highsmith or James M. Cain or, closer to the depraved end of the spectrum, David Goodis or Jim Thompson. Chandler is fascinatingly perverse, in many ways: a textbook example of the hardboiled style, yet his stuff is often as Baroque, especially in its florid metaphors and similes, as the Aesthetes at their most mauve. And his plots are notoriously incoherent and improbable, straining the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, even though he's synonymous with gritty realism. What have you taken away from him? Is there anything of his—a novel, a short story, or even just a sentence or for that matter a turn of phrase—you'd kill to have written?
DH: I put Chandler head and shoulders above the other writers you mention, glorious as they are, for precisely the reasons you describe. His language put an aura of glamor over all of the sordidness of the plots, and the overdone similes made the whole thing slightly askew. I've swiped enough overdone language and melodramatic plotting—not to mention an inscrutable code of honor and some highly opinionated digressions—from Chandler not to ask for anything more, but I do think The Long Goodbye is an American masterpiece, up there with Lolita.
MD: A masterpiece in what way? Your use of the adjective makes me wonder if you think it's especially revealing about the American psyche or social landscape? Likewise, what makes Lolita a masterpiece? Does Nabokov, in Russian émigré whose alien perspective made him a kind of Martian anthropologist, tell us something profound about ourselves as Americans?
DH:The Long Goodbye manages to convey something enormous about American culture, particularly American masculinity—the adherence to a certain set of principles past all reason, creating a thread from those principles that wends its way through an otherwise incomprehensible, ravaged world. Chandler brings to fruition the bigger idea of the detective story, first hinted at in Poe, that it's really a search for self, with which later noirists like Ellroy and Auster—even even later, Mosley and Abbott—made much hay.
Not too dissimilarly, Lolita shows us that our ideas of America are foreign-born and have as much tether to reality as the perversions of a pedophile's imagination. And they're both whopping good reads, rewarding endless (as far as I can tell) rereading, which is more important in my vague "masterpiece" definition.
MD: You mentioned loving classical music and playing it, in high school. You're known as a self-deprecating but ardent accordion player who occasionally tours with The Magnetic Fields. You've said that you listen to music while you're writing—playlists inspired by the mood of the book-in-progress, such as the "classical music from the Romantic era" you listened to while writing your adult novel, We Are Pirates, since it had "the kind of swashbuckling dazzle" you hoped to capture on the page. Your tastes run from the quirky electronic duo Matmos to "strange classical and squawky 20th-century jazz." Is there any bleedthrough, so to speak, from the musical side of your mind to your writerly consciousness, or vice versa? If A Series of Unfortunate Events had been a symphony, which symphony would it have been? If The Basic Eight were a pop song, which one would it be?
DH: Music moves my work a lot, though not my participation in it, I think. A rigorous classical music education surely taught me kinds of discipline that help me stay at a desk for hours, and gave me a good eye for structure, which I've used a lot. And then, yes, a good playlist can help in an emotional-ambient sort of way, which is why I can match music to any of my books (Unfortunate Events, Shostakovich; The Basic Eight, the Darling Buds). But my music gigs, such as they are, are always beholden to someone else's instructions: I show up, and add a little flourish to the chords they've provided, and this, too, is good for me as a writer, to spend some time on someone else's artistic vision. But for this reason I don't think the music I make has anything to do with my books.
MD: I'd like to dig a little deeper into the theme of Jewishness, which you touched on earlier. You mentioned the Jewishness of your sense of humor, which made me think of the British writer Will Self's essay about "resigning" as a Jew, in response to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Self uses the occasion to question everything we think we know about Jewish identity. In an interview, he told me, "When in my '20s and '30s, I kind of self-identified as a Jew, but there was really something bogus about it, I now think. What was I laying claim to—the fact that I kind of liked Woody Allen? Or that I was clever? I just reviewed this book by Shlomo Sand, How I Stopped Being a Jew, and I think he's nailed a lot of this stuff. I do think that an awful lot of secular Jewish identity, for people of Jewish heritage like me, there's nothing to it, really; what it amounts to is that we're the sort of people the Nazis would kill first, that's all." (Oddly, a 2013 Pew poll seems to bear this out: Asked "What does it mean to be Jewish?," the most common response, given by 73% of American Jews, was, "remembering the Holocaust.")
This is a two-part question, I guess: What does it mean, to you, to be Jewish? And how does your sense of your Jewishness inform your writing, beyond your sense of humor? Do you see yourself in the tradition of American Jewish literature—Roth, Bellow, Paul Auster (whom you've mentioned here), Cynthia Ozick, Nora Ephron, Michael Chabon, the Three Jonathans (Franzen, Lethem, Safran Foer)–?
DH: Jewish identity is indeed slippery, and far be it from me to imagine reaching a consensus with Will Self. I do think there's a sensibility that comes from being raised Jewish, which for my generation is indeed often in the shadow of having survived the Holocaust. My father's stories of leaving Germany in 1939—who made it and who did not—shaped me growing up, and I'm never surprised that others share this aspect of Judaism. (Most cultures tend to keep recent catastrophes in mind, yet people seem surprised when the Jews do.) It's a dark form of humor, which looks askance at the world at all times, distrusting sentiment and other easy narratives. I think it's a difficult sensibility to pin down—a bit like describing exactly what jazz is—but I know it when it's there. Will Self can renounce anything he likes; My Idea of Fun is a Jewish book.
As for a literary tradition, there's a line that runs Kafka-(Gertrude) Stein-Sendak. With all due respect to (almost) all of the writers you mention, I find my Jewish thread there.
MD: I'm surprised that Maurice Sendak doesn't come up in your interviews. His grimly funny take on childhood, the gothic themes in Outside Over There, his philosophy of children's literature ("I don't believe in childhood. I don't believe that there's a demarcation. … You tell [children] anything you want. Just tell them if it's true"), even his lifelong obsession with the Lindbergh kidnapping: you and he seem to be birds of the same dark feather. Did you read him when you were a kid? Is he an influence, or at least a writer whose work opened the door for yours?
DH: I have an enormous admiration for Sendak. I guess the reason he hasn't come up in too many interviews—although I do remember various newspapers calling me when he died—is because I think for children's writers he's so revered that it goes without saying. ("Gosh, Shakespeare's good.") His work has a central mystery to it that always entrances me. The stories, like their illustrations, unfold surprisingly but inevitably, like all the best literature.
MD: And then there's Roald Dahl, who, like you, wrote for both children and adults, but waded deeper into the bog of the unconscious than Sendak, at least, seemed willing to go. Some of his stuff is unabashedly nasty—depraved, even. Any thoughts on Dahl's work?
DH: I like Dahl a lot. His work is admittedly of varying quality—it certainly seems that his editors played a crucial role in his best books—but he's always been an inspiration, too.
MD: Which of his books is your favorite?
DH: Danny, the Champion of the World, which lifts off from the real world so gracefully, so magically, and lets in far more kindness than so much of his work.
MD: I've always wondered if Count Olaf was descended from Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker in James and the Giant Peach. They—and he—are truly horrid in a way that few villains in children's books are. I remember being shocked when Count Olaf backhanded Klaus Baudelaire in The Bad Beginning. Where did the Count come from? His relation to Max Schreck's vampire Count Orlok, in Nosferatu, seems obvious enough, but I'm wondering if there's any Hollywood Nazi in there, or a bit of some Dickensian villain, maybe Quilp from The Old Curiosity Shop, or perhaps even a caricature drawn from life, as they say?
DH: That's pretty much the Rolodex of my villainous sources. What I wanted most of all was the person one thinks of when one hears "villain" – he's ridiculous until he's scary until he's ridiculous.
MD: Sendak told a story about the best response he ever got to his work: "Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children's letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, 'Dear Jim: I loved your card.' Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, 'Jim loved your card so much he ate it.' That to me was one of the highest compliments I've ever received. He didn't care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it." What's the best response you've ever gotten from a kid who's read one of your books? And: What's the worst response you've ever gotten from a parent, perhaps to something you've said to his or her child?
DH: I've always loved this story, although my wife wrote Sendak when she was a child and never received a reply. I get more letters from children than I can possibly answer, and my favorites are always from children who are utterly and easily participating in the world of Snicket—alerting me to suspicions in their own lives that are connected with the books—rather than any sort of compliment. There is a letter from a child I often use in my talks, which I can recite in its entirety: "Dear Mr. Snicket, I read your books. Why do I like them so much? I am always curious when something happens. Your Friend, Brandy." I think of this letter daily, whenever something happens to me and I am curious about it.
The negative responses all blur into one, frankly. The banality of objection: "You're inappropriate, children shouldn't think about such things, there's nothing funny about x and I should know because I have an excellent sense of humor." I've signed many books "to a future orphan" and there are apparently many parents who think their children would rather hear that their parents will outlive them.
MD: What trend in children's literature or YA fiction, as we're instructed to call it, do you most regret?
DH: I can't think of one. Even the vilest of trends has usually been done very well once. For a while there were too many vampires, for instance, but Bram Stoker remains a wonderful YA author.
MD: I find it incredible, just short of unbelievable, that your son Otto hasn't read A Series of Unfortunate Events. Can this really be true? Why, I wonder? And if he isn't reading you, who is the poor, deprived child reading?
DH: My son has a great appreciation for All The Wrong Questions, which is Snicket enough for any child, let alone mine. He has a keen and startling interest in nonfiction, a sort of literature I never read voluntarily at his age. Watching him read a children's biography of Benedict Arnold is a powerful reminder of the endless variety of reading, and having him ask me questions about it is a powerful reminder, like much of parenting is, of how little I know.
MD: You've said that you think "character is bunk," and that "good fiction comes from good story and good tone," which "create circumstances that are interesting and thus feel 'real,' even though the story is of course not a realistic one." In the same vein, you've said that you "try to write dialogue that reflects the accidental stylization" of actual, overheard conversation, dialogue that both "feels like life and yet also more interesting than life."
I feel as if you're pushing back against the compulsory naturalism of the American novel, going back to Hemingway, or maybe Dreiser—planting the flag for a counter-aesthetic of—what? unnaturalism?—in fiction. I'm reminded of the poet Frank O'Hara, who according to his biographer Brad Gooch "knew that he didn't want to be a Hemingway, the sort of popular writer who reduced the complexities of felt life to an 'elegant machinery' while his characters pretended to a deceptive lifelikeness. [He] wanted rather 'to move towards a complexity which makes life within the work and which does not (necessarily, although it may) resemble life as much as most people think it is lived…'"
DH: It's true that the stylistics of so-called "realism" are not very realistic—a paragraph of Virginia Woolf or Stephen Dixon captures more about the human brain than the high melodrama of Dreiser—but that to me is more a conversation about labeling; Belgian waffles aren't Belgian, but they're still delicious, and my love for An American Tragedy is not diminished by the fact that the author isn't doing what they say he is.
There is a wave of American fiction, ascendant now, with charms to which I am immune, in which all strangeness, in story and language, has been seemingly purposefully scrubbed. Nobody—author, character, reader—seems to be having any trace of fun. There is an overemphasis on character-building at the expense of plot or even incident, such that we know everything about a person to whom nothing is happening. This is boring. It is also not like life.
I'm interested in invoking the strangeness of our nonetheless familiar existence. O'Hara does this magnificently.
MD: You've said that your latest novel, We Are Pirates, asks, "'Is it possible to go someplace that is really away and be beyond the arm of not just the law, but civilization?' And the answer is well, yes, and then you're outside of civilization – and that's terrible."
MD: I take it you didn't stumble on the literature of pirate utopias when researching the book? Peter Lamborn Wilson in Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs & European Renegadoes and William S. Burroughs in his novel Cities of the Red Night use Libertatia, a pirate colony that may or may not have existed in Madagascar in the late 17th century and may or may not have been run according to anarchist principles, as an example of a pirate utopia. (It's mentioned in Johnson's General History of the Pyrates.) Or maybe you did, but opted for a more Lord of the Flies vision of the pirate's life?
Also, I'm wondering if your dim view of the countercultural fantasy of striking off society's shackles–"to live outside the law, you must be honest," etc.–is a product of growing up in California, where the road to utopia has often ended in places like Spahn Ranch and Jonestown.
DH: Burroughs led me to Libertatia, although I don't know if you can label a likely-fictional anarchist colony that dissolved into bloodshed a successful enterprise. Utopian narratives are generally doomed, although the Californian version—the Didion version, if you will—probably casts a little shadow on We Are Pirates. It was interesting to me, as I started work on this book, that the history of utopias is more catastrophic than the history of civilization. It's a little like winning the Lottery; it wrecks people, but everyone still wants to do it.
MD: What role did Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean play in your imaginative life, as a kid? (I'm guessing The Haunted Mansion was more your style.)
DH: I didn't have much Disney in childhood. My parents took me to Disneyland once or twice—we had cousins in L.A.—but it wasn't until high school that a reading of A High Wind in Jamaica put piracy in my brain.
MD: Edward Gorey is one of your acknowledged influences, as we've discussed at some length on another occasion. Can you put your finger on just what it is about Gorey's work—his style, his sensibility, his philosophy of life—that makes his work reverberate in your mind?
DH: The deadpan tone of being aghast, the elliptical presentation of a world familiar and strange, the dark but fluttery considerations of catastrophe and strife, the departure from "realism" in order to make more sense. Mystery and language, genre and art, theatricality and philosophy. Even his treatment of masculinity, such as it is, has been of interest. To look askance at the world by being honest about its sinister forces. What else should literature do, really?
In essay collections like The Disappointment Artist and The Ecstasy of Influence—the title is a good-natured rejoinder to the "anxiety of influence," the critic Harold Bloom's overheated Freudian notion that a writer defines himself through the Oedipal rejection of his fannish first influences—Jonathan Lethem wants to tell you what Philip K. Dick and Shirley Jackson and Ernie Kovacs and Italo Calvino and the Chilean poet Roberto Bolaño and Thomas Berger and J.G. Ballard mean to him. And who the Top Five Depressed Superheroes are. And why McCabe & Mrs. Miller is, in its entirety, a "great death scene." And what roles Jerry Lewis turned down. (The Robert Shaw part in Jaws, the John Hurt role in Alien, and Rip Torn's character in The Man Who Fell to Earth, to name a few). By no accident, the title essay in The Ecstasy of Influence is a no-holds-barred defense of artistic borrowing as essential to the creative act. It's seamlessly cut-and-pasted together entirely from quoted matter, a metacritical elbow in the ribs so cheeky, and so witty, it makes brothers of Oscar Wilde and the precocious nerd in Lethem.
Fannibals, as they call themselves, are swooning over Hannibal Lecter's killer style in the NBC series Hannibal. They've poring over Esquire's tips on how to get the Lecter Look ("Different shades of the same color are layered to create an effect that's part understated, part show-off"), duly noting the double-Windsor knots in his paisley ties, loving the blood-red walls of his office (he's a clinical psychiatrist), and searching out the chef's knife he cooks with (a Chroma Type 301 by F.A. Porsche), the better to painstakingly recreate his Lambs' Tongues en Papillote with Duxelle Sauce.
Isn't all this commodity fetishism a little tasteless, given that the show is, after all, about a smiling sociopath whose "well-tailored person suit," as his shrink puts it, conceals a gourmet cannibal? In one sense, not at all, since the Lecter of the Thomas Harris novels Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal—the inspiration for producer Bryan Fuller's reimagining of the Lecter myth—is very much a consumer, both in the figurative sense (he's an opera buff, a patron of his local orchestra, a connoisseur of old-money status totems) and in the more obvious, literal sense: he's an oenophile, a gastronome, and, of course, a cannibal (albeit a well-bred one, the sort who knows which fork to use).
But consuming things is what Lecter does, not who he is. Lecter isn't some shop-aholic, consuming for the sake of consumption; that would be mere materialism, which is gauche, and one thing Lecter isn't is gauche. Just the opposite: he's the epitome, at least outwardly, of upper-crust gentility and highbrow good taste. The NBC series gets this. A close reader of Harris's novels, Fuller understands that Lecter is defined by his tastes—as are we all, in a consumer society. In his books, Harris signals the centrality of taste to Lecter's psychology by repeatedly zooming in on his tongue, whose unnaturally "red and pointed" appearance marks him as both bestial and demonic. He scents the air with a nose so supernaturally sensitive it can conjure the ghost of the L'Air du Temps perfume the FBI trainee Clarice Starling sometimes wears, even though she's "determinedly unperfumed" at that moment. (Smelling and tasting are intertwined, in our sensory apparatus.) In fact, he's such a supertaster he can savor not just his own sensory impressions but the contents of another man's mind, or a woman's heart: in Silence, he takes a sip, like some sadistic sommelier, of the psychic pain he's inflicted on Senator Martin; in Dragon, he inhales the bouquet of the serial-killer profiler Will Graham's thoughts, which have "the warm brass smell of an electric clock."
But again, as any devout reader of the Harris novels knows, Lecter isn't so much a man who tastes but a man of taste; his oral fixation is, among other things, a metaphor for his obsession with taste in the cultural sense. Like Count Dracula or des Esseintes in Huysman's novel Against Nature , he's that stock character from Gothic and Decadent literature, the depraved aristocrat, debased in his appetites yet refined in his tastes. He may have eaten a census-taker's liver, but he served it with fava beans and a big Amarone, and the presentation, no doubt, was pure gastroporn. He quotes Marcus Aurelius from memory, daydreams about Géricault, and tut-tuts about the post-literacy of our times. Speaking of which, he'd surely win the heart of Allan Bloom, the culture warrior who bemoaned the decline of cultural literacy in The Closing of the American Mind (and who, by no coincidence, is the namesake of a forensic psychiatrist in Red Dragon who helps the FBI profile serial murderers). Courtly, erudite, punctilious in matters of grammar, Hannibal Lecter is William F. Buckley's idea of a cannibal killer, quoting Alexandre Dumas's Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine and dispatching his victims to the strains of Bach's Goldberg Variations (the Glenn Gould version, of course).
The NBC series, smart as it is, has to heave most of Lecter's high-culture references and classical allusions overboard because it's trying to do a multi-threaded, emotionally complex drama for a network audience. Still, the show gives us the look of taste, and does so with such visual intelligence that you find yourself scouring the credits for Umberto Eco's name, under "semiotics consultant." The camera runs its eye—our eye—over sumptuous interiors, caresses the jutting cheekbones of Mads Mikkelsen (who plays Hannibal), appraises his bespoke suits, feasts on the Baroque still lifes of Lecter's gourmet dishes, and even gazes, rapt, at the bizarre tableaux left by the show's various killers: a totem pole made of dead bodies; a corpse with a swarming beehive nestled in his scooped-clean brainpan; a shrink with his tongue pulled through a gash in his neck (the talking cure?). And it should gaze, because, like everything else on Hannibal, the crime scenes are aestheticized to death; worlds away from the squalid, forlorn remains of real-life homicides, they're installations by murder artists. ("I love your work," Lecter tells a maniac who's gluing his victims, chosen for their skin tones, into a "human mural.") "This is my design," says the serial-killer profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), channeling the murderer as he surveys his gory handiwork. The catchphrase winks at the show's metanarrative of design, style, taste.
Fuller and his writers have forgotten the same thing that Harris lost somewhere along the way from Silence to its soulless sequel and the summer house in Sag Harbor and the winter house in Miami Beach and all the other fine things Hannibal has bought him. What they've forgotten is the monster of class we see up close and ugly in Silence, the Hannibal who showed us there's a Mr. Hyde to the highbrow side of him that sips Batard-Montrachet and listens to Bach. And it's not just his closet cannibal. It's the insufferable toff who mocks Starling's cheap shoes, badgers her into admitting her dear dead dad wasn't a heroic lawman after all, just some minimum-wage schmuck scraping by as a night watchman. For all his vaunted good taste, the Lecter of Silence has a nasty streak of snobbery. Classy he may be, but his class consciousness locates him right alongside Conrad Hilton, the trust-fund lout last seen terrorizing the crew on a British Airways flight, screaming, "I will fucking own anyone on this flight; they are fucking peasants. … I could get you all fired in five minutes. I know your boss!"
Which is what makes Harris's Hannibal a more complex, unsettling, deeply American character than Mads Mikkelsen's tasteful, subtly but unmistakably foreign-born Hannibal, mesmerizing a presence as he is. In his Janus-faced nature, the Lecter of Silence incarnates our class conflicts and our conflicted feelings about class. Because what is taste, after all, but a way of talking about class? Lecter puts a face on our cognitive dissonance about the 1%: we're taught to believe in the meritocracy, but we know the game is rigged in favor of the Conrad Hiltons of the world, and we know they think we're fucking peasants. The average CEO earns 11.7 million a year while wage laborers rake in $35,293 but we're fed the line that life is a level playing field and CEOs are self-made men, an inspiration to us all, and the free market is what makes the Land of the Free free, and a lot of us swallow it.
The "guilty pleasure" has come under beady-eyed scrutiny from critics young enough to be incredulous at the class insecurities that underwrite the whole notion but historically aware enough to know there was a time, not so long ago, when the battle lines were drawn between highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow—between men who wear ascots and guys who think a toothpick is a fashion statement; between The Great Books and comic books; between the ability to make cocktail-party badinage about Whitehead and Russell's Principia Mathematica and not knowing what "badinage" means, or what a Whitehead is. In other words, between cultural literacy and the Decline of Civilization As We Know It. (Just who "we" were went unexamined since, as everyone patrolling the borders of elite and mass taste knew, "we" were People Like Us.)
Chuck Klosterman led the charge in 2004, in his Esquire essay, "Why Your Guilty Pleasures Matter (And the Curious Etymology of a Phrase Gone Wrong)," arguing that "the only people who believe in some kind of universal taste—a consensual demarcation between what's artistically good and what's artistically bad—are insecure, uncreative elitists who need to use somebody else's art to validate their own limited worldview. It never matters what you like; what matters is why you like it." (Klosterman, be it noted, is a Cocoa-Puffs populist, a scruffily bearded heavy metal guy from North Dakota who wears his proletarian politics on his sleeve. Which is, inevitably, attached to a T-shirt, typically emblazoned with a—knowing—slogan like "Take drugs and listen to Black Sabbath.")
In 2013, Jennifer Szalai drove another nail in the coffin with her New Yorker essay "Against 'Guilty Pleasure.'" Szalai doesn't like the ass-covering irony implicit in the term, the have-your-elitism-and-eat-it-too disingenuousness of its function "as an indicator that one takes pleasure in something but knows (the knowingness is key) that one really shouldn't." For her money,
the term exudes a false note, a mix of self-consciousness and self-congratulation. Aside from those actively seeking out public debasement, if you felt really, truly ashamed of it, you probably wouldn't announce it to the world, would you? The guilt signals that you're most comfortable in the elite precincts of high art, but you're not so much of a snob that you can't be at one with the people. So you confess your remorse whenever you deign to watch Scandal, implying that the rest of your time is spent reading Proust. … [T]he guilty pleasure seems to me the distillation of all the worst qualities of the middlebrow—the condescension of the highbrow without the expenditure of effort, along with mass culture's pleasure-seeking without the unequivocal enjoyment.
Of course she's right that, too often, the phrase masks intellectual cowardice with glib irony. Typically, we reach for it when we want to have things both ways, holding what we claim to love at arm's length while pretending to embrace it, like an air kiss between frenemies.
But Szalai's inability to conceive of the guilt in our guilty pleasures as anything but the devil's mark of elitism, or to imagine that anyone "who felt really, truly ashamed" of, say, liking "Miracles" by Insane Clown Posse "probably wouldn't announce it to the world" tells me that she hasn't pushed the needle of her own tastes far enough, past stuff that's either unequivocally likable or unlikable; past the unambiguously ironic pleasures of kitsch and camp; into the mortifying cringe comedy of things you like and dislike, stuff that attracts you and repulses you, stuff that embarrasses even you, yet you can't resist.
Guilty pleasures are all about cognitive dissonance. When I say Thomas Harris novels like Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon are one of my guilty pleasures, it's not because I'm a holdover from a bygone era when People Like Us believed "in some kind of universal taste" or because I'm a closet snob who's secretly "most comfortable in the elite precincts of high art"; it's because I'm genuinely ambivalent about Harris. I want to nuance my affection, locate it somewhere on the grayscale spectrum between the black-or-white binaries of love and loathing.
I love the cut-and-thrust of the serial killer Hannibal Lecter's philosophical dialogues, in Silence of the Lambs, with the FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling. There's something in them of the Socratic dialogue, of Jesus parrying the Devil's cross-examination in the Book of Matthew, of the high-stakes poker of noir-movie repartee. The atheist in me is especially taken with Lecter's meditations on the nature of evil and what theologians call the theodicy—the knotty problem of why evil exists in a world overseen by an omniscient, omnipotent God Who So Loved The World That He Gave His Only Begotten Son, etc., etc.:
I collect church collapses, recreationally. Did you see the recent one in Sicily? Marvelous! The façade fell on sixty-five grandmothers at a special Mass. Was that evil? If so, who did it? If He's up there, He just loves it, Officer Starling. Typhoid and swans—it all comes from the same place.
For that very reason, I loathe Harris's reduction, in Silence's sequel, Hannibal, of the magnificently perverse Lecter—a civilized cannibal to whom rudeness is anathema; a moral philosopher in the Sadean mode—to cheesy self-parody. In Hannibal, Lecter is a depraved aesthete, chewing the scenery in the best Hammer Horror manner. He's gone camp and, worse yet, doesn't know it. Even more embarrassingly, he's a middlebrow's idea of highbrow, an aristocrat sporting an ascot borrowed from Vincent Price, well-versed in the fine points of preparing brains—human brrrainnns, of course—in beurre noisette. In the manner of B-movie villains from the Phantom of the Opera to the Abominable Dr. Phibes, he works out his issues in florid flights on the keyboard (the harpsichord, in Lecter's case).
I love Harris's pitch-perfect ear for regional accents and idioms and slang; his tough, spare syntax; his gift for summing a character in a single, unforgettable detail: "Starling knew without thinking about it that the shine on [Dr. Chilton's] extended hand was lanolin from patting his hair. She let go before he did." And I hate the way he throws those gifts away in Hannibal, lets his muscle turn to fat, his prose go soft in precious mannerisms and schlocky, Harlequin-romance imagery ("He…bent to her coral and cream"—Harlequinese for nipple and breast—"in the firelight with his sleek dark head") and the sort of groan-inducing puns favored by campy villains ("All we ask is that you keep an open mind," Lecter quips, as he removes the dome of his victim's cranium, revealing the man's brain).
So when I say Harris is a guilty pleasure, it's my way of pushing back against middlebrow snobbishness that can't see past his bestsellerdom while, in the same breath, acknowledging that I'm not unaware that some of his stuff sucks the chrome off a trailer hitch.
Guilt, it turns out, isn't always the disapproving voice of the societal superego, internalized; sometimes, it's a legitimate expression of the tug-of-war between the better angels of your nature and the part of you that will defend, to the death, The Last Airbender. Which makes me realize that we need an adjunct phrase: "shameful pleasures." Because the feeling in question, more often than not, isn't so much guilt as shame. Rooted in religious beliefs or social mores we've internalized, guilt is a deeply interior emotion, an intimate torment inflicted by something we've done; shame, by contrast, is inescapably social, the unbearable awareness of society's disapproval or—even worse—snickering contempt at what, in the realm of culture, are often innocent pleasures, victimless crimes.
The guilt in guilty pleasures feels as if it comes from within, whether it's an unhealthy guilt that arises from our osmotic absorption of status-quo values (a guilt Klosterman and Szalai vigorously condemn as having no place in our nobrow culture) or whether it's what I'm arguing is a more useful guilt, the guilt that springs from our honesty with ourselves, an honesty that says, "I can't not like this thing, but even I have to admit itkind of sucks." The shame in shameful pleasures feels as if it comes from without and, as important, typically attaches to pleasures about which we have no ambivalence; in other words, our love of the thing is utterly unequivocal, as we'll happily admit to ourselves, but we're painfully aware that the world will never understand that love.
(It's crucial to note that "the world," when it comes to shameful pleasures, consists only of everyone within earshot; the shame in question is entirely context-dependent. The Deadhead who lets slip, in a roomful of Morrissey fans, his devotion to the tie-dyed pariahs predictably calls down a shitstorm of opprobrium, whereas the same admission at, say, the Kombucha booth at a Portland farmer's market would go unremarked on, if not fist-bumped.)
To review, a shameful pleasure is one that's always dogged by the dispiriting awareness that, if you were rash enough to confess it, you'd find yourself leaning into the gale-force winds of mockery. As I've argued elsewhere, an undisguised partiality to Jethro Tull is, for me, the textbook example. Equally likely candidates include the poetry of Rod McKuen, Thomas Kinkade Painter of Light™, historical reenactment, prog rock, Crocs, Renaissance Faires, Carlos Castaneda's "Don Juan" books, steampunk, and studio portraits of you and your family wearing matching outfits. (Don't get too smugly complacent, though; none of these verities is eternal. If the New York art-critical elite can rehabilitate Norman Rockwell, who's to say Thomas Kinkade is beyond hope? Could Rod McKuen be the next Leonard Cohen?)
By contrast, the guilt in truly guilty pleasures is just intellectual honesty, an owning-up to the truth that we're of two minds about a thing, as I am about Thomas Harris novels. Of course, splitting hairs is a ticklish business. The guilt in guilty pleasures may partake of the internalized snobbery Klosterman and Szalai denounce and it may reflect your own awareness of the rotten spots in the apple of your eye. Likewise, you can never give yourself over entirely to the pleasure of a shameful pleasure because you can always hear the laughter behind your back. But, at the same time, your own giggle is the loudest in the crowd because any pilgrim at the gates of Graceland knows, better than anyone who thinks Elvis was just a Macy's float version of Bubba, what's not to love about The King. Contrary to what Klosterman and Szalai argue, censure isn't always imposed from above; sometimes, it comes from the our own critical intellects, not some Voice of Authority. Confused? "Life's too slippery for books," Dr. Lecter reminds us. "Anger appears as lust, lupus presents as hives."
Booker prize finalist, blaster and bombardier of British journalism, psycho-geographer, Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University in West London, holder of a degree in philosophy from Oxford, famously a near-suicidal addict to dangerous drugs (he's stone-cold sober, now, and has been for 14 years), a curmudgeonly but cuttingly funny presence on British TV—grousing irascibly on Grumpy Old Men, handing some weaseling politician his head on Question Time: the 53-year-old writer contains multitudes, but is, in his deepest Self, a gonzo polymath who stuffs his "compendious" avant-pop novels with "a plethora of detail."
His latest, Shark, is no exception: written in a stream-of-consciousness style that's somewhere between Joycean modernism and case studies of schizophrenia, it's set in an R.D. Laing-inspired experiment in communal treatment where the patients are indistinguishable from the doctors and one of the residents is a PTSD'd survivor of the Indianapolis, the U.S. Navy cruiser that lost nearly 600 of its 900-man crew to sharks when a Japanese sub sank it in 1945. Imagine the LSD-soaked anti-psychiatry movement of the '60s, with the man-eater from Jaws standing in for the shadows circling in society's unconscious.
Which is where the everything-itis comes in: "You have this tendency to think, 'Well the book has to be in some way a kind of synecdoche of the entire world," he says. "You get this creeping feeling that everything has to be in it, so you're wandering around the streets and you see a plastic comb lying in the gutter and you think, 'Have I got plastic combs in the book?' … and then you hear somebody refer to President Mobuto of Zaire and you think, 'Is President Mobuto in the book?' and eventually it becomes this affliction called everything-itis.'"
Oddly, but then again not oddly at all, any literary sketch of Self, to be true to life, must itself succumb to everything-it is. An accurate portrait of the artist, in this case, can only result from a dérive—the Situationists' term for a serendipitous, de-familiarizing stroll—through the hedge maze of his mind and work and life, taking in everything, missing nothing, free-associating as we go. The man demands it.
Where to start?
Self is six-feet, five-inches tall, a derricklike height that must make for situation comedy when he walks his little Jack Russell terrier, Manglorian. He wears a perpetually morose expression that somehow suits his long face, which always makes me think of an Easter Island idol, if the Easter Islanders had worshipped Pete Townshend. He once had the unbeatable cheek to snort heroin—we might as well get this out of the way—on Prime Minister John Major's plane, while covering Major's re-election campaign for the Observer newspaper. He claims to become sexually aroused in libraries, and attributes "the library/lust phenomenon" to the awareness that "making love in the stacks is such a beautiful inversion of the intended use of these niches: instead of filling them with dead words, surely they should writhe with living bodies?"
Speaking of which, he is an inescapably embodied thinker, drawn, again and again, to the world, the flesh, and the devil; the corporeal metaphor is always within reach: "Paradoxically, what drove me to write was my fear that I couldn't; it became so extreme that I had to lance it," he says, in the South Bank episode devoted to him. One of his short story collections is titled Liver: A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes. Both of his parents died of liver cancer. Asked by a chipper interviewer to "tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising," he offered, "I have a vestigial third buttock (although I don't, as many people imagine, have two anuses)." His novel Cock and Bull is about a rugby player with a sensitive side who sprouts a vagina on the back of his leg. His mother had two boys, Self and his brother Jonathan, but "didn't want sons and always had a very uneasy relationship with our masculinity," he says. Cocteau's quote "that all artists are hermaphrodites" occurs to him. He can't help thinking cannibalism gets a bad rap, a Swiftian sentiment inspired by a pig's head he once ate, whose "glistening, lifelike appearance and crisped eyes" reminded him of " government ministers being interviewed on the television news." His mother was "a wiseacre Jewish girl from Queens," and he seems to take great pride in the American half of his Anglo-American identity.
That said, his speech is a macaronic hybrid of Latinate jawbreakers and "sarf London" slang ("chipped up," "off his chum," "It just coshed me"), delivered with the Eeyore lugubriousness of that stock type, the English miserablist (though one gets the irresistible impression that he, like Morrissey, is playing that character with tongue half in cheek, sending up a beloved national stereotype). He writes, in order to avoid the distractions of the Web, on a Groma Kolibri manual typewriter, made in the German Democratic Republic in the early '60s, in an attic room whose walls are squamous with yellow Post-Its, notes for works-in-progress.
According toThe Guardian, "Every spare inch is covered with Blu-Tacked scraps: drawings by Self's children, images of unknown Edwardians taken from Ancestry.com, and— in one easily overlooked corner— an advertisement for sanitary towels from a turn-of-the-century magazine." In years past, he wrote in a friend's house on one of the craggily beautiful, sea-lashed islands of Orkney, off the coast of Scotland. He believes that "the imagination responds, especially in sleep, to the presence of tidal movements and currents of water," hauling up abyssal dreams "that fade so slowly after waking that you're left feeling ontologically queasy for a long time…not sure what's dream and what's reality." He "just wants to be misunderstood" is his patented way of saying he doesn't write for readers, he writes for himself. Readers of England's daily papers are reliably scandalized by what they perceive as the shameless Self-absorption or, worse yet, elitism of this pronouncement; comment threads swell with indignation.
"That's probably some kind of insane egotism," he allows, but "I write desperately trying to keep myself amused or engaged in what I'm doing and in the world. And if people like it, great, and if they don't like it, well, that's that – what can you do?"
Will Self's writing room. Photo: Phil Grey
The following interview was conducted by phone, over the course of two days, and was extensively edited, and in a few instances rewritten, for clarity and concision. —M.D.
Mark Dery — In the South Bank Show profile of you, you visit the island of Orkney, where you sometimes stay in a friend's house to write. Prowling around an ancient burial chamber, you tell the camera, "It carries quite a charge, this place. The bodies would have been excarnated, perhaps even by sea eagles; it was a sort of ossuary. It has almost a feel, as you look down it, of some sort of strange thanatological spaceship, heading off into another dimension." It's beautifully put, and captures perfectly the brooding uncanniness of the subterranean network of tombs.
But, watching the show, I couldn't help thinking that a phrase like "thanatological spaceship," which just rolled off your tongue, is so un-American; it's simply not the way we speak, these days, in the States, where the use of the polysyllabic is a hanging offense ( excarnated?! thanatological?!). In the States, there's this terribly tyranny of the insistently limpid New Yorker style, which is not so much Orwell's "prose like a windowpane" but rather a kind of mental Olestra that passes through your intellectual digestive tract and doesn't leave a trace. Writers shrink from the "writerly" voice—by which I mean: literary allusions, wordplay, poetic tropes—and strive for the chatty, disposable style of the Twitterati. So when someone like you makes the case for stretching peoples' brains, sending them to the O.E.D., it's like literary crack rock for some of us! I gather from things you've said that there isn't that literary monoculture in England, where everybody is held to the standard of this utterly characterless Malcolm Gladwellian style?
Will Self — No, I don't think there is. And yes, I agree with you about those kind of New Yorker stories that start, "It was only later, after the Wentworths had left the county, that they realized why they had decorated the small holly tree with baby booties." I know exactly what you're talking about, and that does seem to exist in some sort of unprofitable synergy with MFA writing programs in the States and the whole pseudoprofessionalization of producing fiction; there's not quite the same machine in place here yet. I think it's probably coming. I don't think that what diversity there is among English fiction writers is a function of some kind of concerted effort to resist a kulturkampf, but on the other hand, from what I read (and I don't read a great deal of fiction), there do seem to be some honorable modernists working in England today who are reasonably well-known. But the vast majority of what's treated as literature seems to me syntactically, lexically, imagistically pretty fucking dull, yeah.
M.D. — J.G. Ballard, whom you admire and have written about, was a great one for taking a stick to the sort of ingrown, parochial naturalism you're describing—novels minutely concerned with the neurotic egos and interpersonal psychology of middle-class suburbanites. I'm thinking of his mini-manifesto for a new novel (in his introduction to the French edition of Crash), where he exhorts novelists writing to create fiction that reflects the psychopathologies of everyday life in the Society of the Spectacle rather an obsolete literature that clings doggedly to "the techniques and perspectives of the traditional 19th century novel, with its linear narrative, its measured chronology," its Freudian fixation on "the sources of character and personality sunk deep in the past," the bourgeois domesticity of its "examination of the most subtle nuances of social behavior and personal relationships." Does Ballard's model of the postmodern self, and his argument that we need a new fiction for the affectless, decentered psychology of our times—"an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudoevents"—get any traction with you?
W.S. — Well, I'm sure I'm on record in numerous places as having said just that, and that's exactly the piece I would cite, not so much the novel itself but that introduction, which was like a kind of tocsin alerting me when I [first] read it at 26 to actualize my latent enormous desire to write fiction. At that point, I construed my own blockage, such as it was, in various ways, but one of the main blockages was that I wasn't reading anybody still writing in England who I felt that intense sympathy for, or who I felt was performing that thing that we want writers to do, the great kind of idea of what writing is for emotionally. It wasn't expressing the way I felt but had always been unable to articulate.
So, yeah, [Ballard's introduction] was hugely influential and I think I still am, in many ways—form, content, affect, lack of affect, critique of the established social and cultural forms—reverently my master's pupil. But, that being noted, there are equally considerable differences.
M.D. — What are some of those differences?
W.S. — Well, I think I'm much funnier than Jim ever was. I think there is humor there but it's beyond tinder-dry; it's kind of freeze-dried.
M.D. — I find the opening line of High Rise if not funny at least droll: "Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building duringthe previous three months."
W.S. — It's droll, but in a very languid way. Of course, the reality is that he was far more radical a writer than I could ever be. I'm much more traditional; as far as I'm concerned, the last couple of novels I've written are still doing the job of relating the individual psyche to social change that the 19th-century novelists saw as their project. I think that Jim was a genuine Surrealist; he was prepared to download his own virtually unmediated unconscious content onto the page (or, more chillingly, material that had the semblance of being unmediated) and seeing how it fell. Also, [he was] using prose fiction like a kind of ECG of the entire collective unconscious to register its bizarre landscapes and surges of enthusiasm and mania.
M.D. — But aren't both of you doing a kind of postmodern analysis of the mass psyche? Ballard is always called to account for writing flat characters, but you and I realize that is of course the whole point: he's simply doing a psychoanalysis of the psyche as it becomes different in a world of multistory car parks and freeway flyovers and ubiquitous advertising, where the self is experienced as a kind of mash-up of media fictions. You talk in your lecture "Naturalism and Sanity: Is the Mind Really as it's Portrayed?" about failed literary attempts to capture the turbulent slipstream of human consciousness. In Shark, aren't you going back, strangely, to a kind of Joycean riverrun of free association, revisiting early modernist experiments with freeze-framing consciousness?
W.S. — Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that clearly there is an attempt to adapt prose to more nearly evoke what consciousness is like than can be achieved using the third-person narrator and the simple past, so, yes, I can put my hand up to that and yes, it's clearly indebted to the modernists. But I think philosophically what my underlying beliefs about the world and language are probably quite different. I would resist the ascription "postmodern," which I don't really think exists; I think it's a marketing term. It belongs in architecture, clearly, but I'm not sure it really belongs in literature, which is obviously not so concrete.
And I think that I remain as ambivalent about character (and by "character" you can take it that I mean people) as I ever have. It's simply that I've found a way of writing about people that isn't really writing about people, actually. And the clue is in the abrupt transitions between the phenomenology of one character and another, because that's where my real belief lies, which is that individuals—and again I sort of collapse back into Jim's thinking—are not of any significance at all and, simultaneously, the only thing there is.
So how do you manage to express this? And how do you manage to express the incommensurable gap that every person who possesses reflective self-consciousness feels to exist between himself and the world? So these are the kind of techniques that I've used to deal with that. But I think it's a universal and timeless condition, not something that is uniquely present in the modern era.
M.D. — Just to push back slightly, maybe a better term is "posthumanist." Isn't that what Ballard is talking about in the Crash introduction, where he consigns to the dustbin of history the inward-turning humanism of conventional literary fiction in much the same way that critical theorists and continental philosophers have critiqued the Enlightenment notion of the closed, bounded self? Isn't Ballard's position posthumanist in that sense? And based on what you've just said, aren't you his comrade-in-arms?
W.S. — Yeah, but I'm in the paradox. As I say, I think [the individual] is simultaneously of no significance and all there is. In other words, not even of no significance and of great significance, but of no significance and it constitutes the world, so the question of whether or not it's significant becomes otiose, in the latter case. And, you know, if there's any truth to be discovered through prose fiction, then it seems to me just experimentally that probably a good place to start is by at least articulating that particular phenomenology in some way and seeing where it leads. But, you know, I'm guilty as charged. I mean, I did agree with him on most things, and can you blame me? He was a stone cold fucking genius. I read him first in my teens, then again in my early-to-mid-twenties, then I met and knew him when I was in my '30s and '40s. You could feel with him that sense of inexhaustible traction between mind and world. I think he had, when I knew him, long since resiled from any idea of human society as commonly understood.
M.D. — Tell me what you mean by that.
W.S. — I don't think he any longer viewed social relationships as constitutive of any kind of reality that he owed any particular allegiance to. And that's not like most people!
M.D. — You told Melvin Bragg in the South Bank Show devoted to you that your parents valued rhetorical prowess, that they gave you high marks for your ability to juggle words. What effect did this have on you as a child? Did you feel, as some people who have a facility with language do, that you were talking the world into being, so to speak? We've just been talking about the self's role in constituting reality, but drilling down an ontological layer it seems to me that for writers, language constitutes reality; it's language that weaves the warp and woof of how we see the world and ourselves.
W.S. — I don't think the world is made of language. But I am a transcendental idealist, and I certainly think that the world, for us, is mediated—by which I mean not just consumed but understood and acted upon—through language, or other very closely allied semiotic systems. Certainly, most of what we can say about reality is what we can say about it in language.
M.D. — It's a very interesting answer, but it dodges the bullet, namely, the personal aspect of the question.
W.S. — Oh, I think I was very precocious, and I think that they encouraged that precocity. I have to say I don't think I got into too much trouble for it; I only got beaten up a couple times. I don't think it's the worst thing that parents could encourage in a child; it's just another kind of nerdy thing, isn't it? My dad had wanted a career in politics, he was a lecturer, he was an academic; my mother was a wiseacre Jewish girl from Queens who had the sharpest, fastest tongue you could imagine. So it was a very different style of rhetoric coming from either side, but it was kind of stimulating.
M.D. — You mention your Jewish mother's "wiseacre" attitude and quick, pointed wit. Does your relationship to language—your love of jawbreakingly polysyllabic or obscure words, your delight in wordplay—owe anything to Jewish culture's love of language and literature, would you say?
W.S. — No, not really. The kids who I was at school with, who were English Jews, were all bar mitzvahed, whether they were liberal or orthodox; nouveau-riche kids who'd have the bar mitzvah party at the Dorchester in Park Lane and there'd be Cocktail Sobranies in the glasses—cigarettes with pastel-colored papers—and we'd sneak off and smoke them, in our sports jackets, in the toilet. But I was christened, and my father, while not devout, was at times in his life a regular church-attender, although he was not religiose. My mother was a Jew in flight from her Jewishness. She'd already been married to another Gentile and had a kid; she didn't want to be Jewish.
So Jewishness was around and there were strong ambivalent crosscurrents, both in the family and in the wider society, but it was not a direct part of my cultural heritage at all. When in my '20s and '30s, I kind of self-identified as a Jew, but there was really something bogus about it, I now think. What was I laying claim to—the fact that I kind of liked Woody Allen? Or that I was clever? I just reviewed this book by Shlomo Sand, How I Stopped Being a Jew, and I think he's nailed a lot of this stuff. I do think that an awful lot of secular Jewish identity, for people of Jewish heritage like me, there's nothing to it, really; what it amounts to is that we're the sort of people the Nazis would kill first, that's all. I resigned as a Jew, anyway, in 2006, handed in my resignation; I'd had enough, really.
M.D. — I want to double back to your transcendental idealism, and how it harmonizes—or doesn't—with the thoroughgoing corporeality of your work. I was fascinated by your review of The Sick Rose, a history of medical illustration whose images of diseased or dissected flesh had, for you, a "grotesque beauty." Can you talk about the importance of corporeality in your writing and, more broadly, your worldview? I'm thinking of your almost Ballardian use of metaphors drawn from pathology and anatomy.
W.S. — Of course, Ballard studied as a medical student at Cambridge and one of the most beautiful passages in his autobiographical novel The Kindness of Women is the scene where he discusses what his dissecting class was like. I studied the intellect rather than the body, at university, and am not actually a terrific medical voyeur whether in formaldehyde or on the operating table. I'm not exactly squeamish but I have no more appetite for either, I would imagine, than the average person.
I think my preoccupation with imagery drawn from physical pathology is really autobiographical. The experience of long-term drug addiction is one of discorporation being played out over months and years; of contemplation of the wasting flesh. I think it mostly comes from that.
M.D. — I suppose the locus classicus for drug-induced alienation from one's own body is Burroughs's description, in "Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness," of not having "taken a bath in a year nor changed my clothes except to stick a needle every hour in the fibrous grey wooden flesh of terminal addiction," existing in a state of such disembodiment he could stare, mesmerized, at the tip of his shoe for eight hours. So there is this sense in which consciousness comes unmoored from the body. But isn't what Burroughs is talking about, and what you're talking about, not so much the alienation of mind from body as the reduction of our sense of ourselves to gross anatomy, in both senses of the word?
W.S. — I think that's very well put. I think it's simultaneously the opening up of a gulf in the pseudo-objectivity of the mind in relation to the body and a collapsing of the distinction into (to quote Burroughs again) the "algebra of need"; the body dependent on these substances becomes a kind of totalizing capability. And the seesaw between the two states is of course dramatic and exalted, painful, pitiful, bathetic. It contains within its subtleties and extravagances of torque everything that you could wish or not wish to feel about the body.
M.D. — Listening to you anatomize the "algebra of need," it occurs to me that Burroughs's heroin gothic is partly about the triumph of matter over mind, the body conceived of as dead meat or alien Other, as in the "Talking Asshole" routine from Naked Lunch, a kind of Wittgensteinian horror story—language, which is usually in the service of the mind, overmastered by the ravening orality of the anus, itself a kind of inverted mouth. I don't see your work as fraught with body loathing or body horror, in a Burroughsian or Cronenbergian way, but I do see it as profoundly corporeal.
W.S. — If Wittgenstein were reading Naked Lunch, he might say, "Well, if an asshole could talk, we would be able to understand what it said, by definition, since it's a part of us. And I think that kind of gives me the 'in' for my particular approach. I see my corporeality in my work as only really just redressing a balance. The majority of literary considerations of the human subject are curiously disembodied. In fiction, I tend to see one of the major flaws at literary naturalism being a disregard for what I call "the indigestion factor"—the fact that having an upset stomach can completely affect your attitude toward everything. Far too many characters in novels are almost willfully disconnected from that, and I can't help but think it's a reflection of the residual absorption of Judeo-Christian problematics that creates the omniscient and impersonal narrator in fictional texts because it's a worldview that privileges the psyche above the body, sees the psyche as connected to God in a way that the body isn't; the body is sinful by definition because it's born, and I think that carries on in fiction to this day.
M.D. — I love it: the omniscient, disembodied narrator as a lineal descendant, philosophically speaking, from Saint Paul, with his contempt for the world and the flesh.
W.S. — Yes, and look at the literature that is highly valorized, even in the modern period—you know, the subtle velleities of Henry James or Proust. These are not embodied characters in any meaningful sense; only with Joyce do you have any real attempt to render the state of being embodied that we all enjoy.
M.D. — What about Beckett?
W.S. — Yessss, but funnily enough, surely Beckett's work, particularly toward the end, is exactly the extent to which we can understand the talking asshole. If you think of the mouth in Not I, what is it but a talking asshole, in a way?
M.D. — Is corporeality quantifiable? Arguably, you've lived a moreembodied life than most, whether it's being diagnosed with the dreadful, Surrealist blood disease, polycythemia vera, or your long and gothic history of drug abuse, or being on suicide watch during your institutionalization as an adolescent, or on a lighter note the more mundane fact of your astonishing height. We all have bodies, but it seems to me that you've fully owned your embodiment, for good and ill.
W.S. — I think that when we're content, it's not exactly that we're disembodied, it's that our embodiment is frictionless in some sense, and I suppose that what has given birth to an exaggerated sense of corporeality, on my part, is that I've seldom been content, for all of those reasons. But I still would argue that that easeful state of embodiment is much less common than literary fiction would suggest. It privileges that state because it means that the body can be put to one side and we can get on with the troublesome business of considering ideas and interpersonal relationships—largely interpersonal relationships—and if the bodily is to be brought back in, it's only often in preordained and aestheticized images of interpersonal contact. So I would still make the case that though I may be somebody who's been more bodily aware than most, that sensibility is still a timely corrective.
M.D. — In this light, isn't the act of writing, and for that matter the act of reading, the devil's handmaiden? Isn't language the original technology of disembodiment? And the book pretty nearly finishes the job, doesn't it? It's a commonplace that fiction is at its best when the author immerses us so thoroughly in an imagined world that we forget our bodies, or rather feel that they're not here but there, in the world of the text.
W.S. — That's a very good point. I think books are just one of the many ways culturally in which humans abandon their physicality in search of other forms of enjoyment. So no change there: instead of identifying with what are effectively avatars in narratives that are transmitted to us through paper, we're abandoning ourselves to pixelated avatars onscreen. Same difference.
M.D. — So you're not one of those writers who fetishizes books or, rather, The Book, in the Gutenbergian sense?
W.S. — I'm not a conservative by nature; I absolutely accept that the codex is over, as a technology and, frankly, anybody who can't see that is purblind. They ask me to join these campaigns, here, to save libraries and save bookshops and save the book and I'm afraid I'm not really minded to get involved because I think it's pointless, it's just not gonna work, and what would it be like anyway, to preserve this otiose technology? I think that the cloud and the Web will bring with them new literary forms, I'm perfectly confident of that, but it's not me who's going to be creating them.
M.D. — Returning to your review of The Sick Rose, I was struck by the parallels between what Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. called "the pathological sublime"—the terrors and raptures of seeing beauty in the diseased and the deformed—and your thoughts on the depiction, in medical illustration, of pathological conditions, and how such illustrations are affected by the aesthetics of their age. I'm thinking of passages like this one: "These are 'the beauty of the coats of the stomach laid bare' and they seem to anticipate the computer-generated fractals and pixel-painted inscapes of our own futurological imaginings. One illustration of a diseased kidney calls to mind the fig Rupert Birkin bites into in D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love, and which causes him to rhapsodize the female genitals; another carbuncle, prized out from a diseased heart, resembles a huge red effulgent pearl." I wonder if that's a sensibility that you've migrated into your fiction—casting an aesthetic eye onto things that are commonly seen as repellent and seeing in them if not beauty at least fascinations.
W.S. — Yes, and I think where it's gone most markedly in my work is into considerations of the urban environment, to which I often apply pathological metaphors drawn from the human body. I think that a lot of my descriptive writing is aimed at not simply valorizing but in some sense retrieving a lot of the environment we live in from a kind of gray area where we don't consider it as capable of being an aesthetic object. I worry sometimes that that's perceived as a kind of nostalgie de la boue, which I don't think it is; I think it's something rather more sophisticated than that and rather more radical than that. Nor do I think it's simply "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with." I think it's a rejection of the paradigms of the picturesque, the sublime, and the romantic in favor of an actualization of the human subject in the context that he or she really does occupy. You know, Be Here Now, and if you're gonna be here now, look at what's around you, and look at it as both familiar and defamiliarized.
M.D. — And that's where you've appropriated psychogeography from the Situationists, isn't it? You're a man of the Left, so you don't shrink from their critique of capitalism, but you do have fun with the Situationists' starry eyed visions of the radically destabilizing effects of the psychogeographic drift, or dérive, through the city, fondly mocking the notion that by "buying a few bottles of red wine and tottering pissed from the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont down to the Ile de la Cité [you can make] capitalist society…magically disintegrate." I do think you've done something with psychogeography that both extends Debord's vision, perhaps crosses it with the Ballardian aesthetic, and makes it wholly your own. Not to harp on Ballard's influence, but it does seem that Ballard has pointed the way for your version of psychogeography with his ruminations on the psychosocial effects of concrete islands, freeway flyovers, multistory parking garages, office parks, high rises, and exurban communities, not to mention urban ruins and edgelands—environments most writers had previously dismissed as beneath comment, if they noticed them at all.
W.S. — Very much so, and the problem for psychogeographers is that they're a distinctly fissiparous group; most of the prominent ones in England don't even like to be called psychogeographers; they feel that it's been appropriated by disheveled pseudo-creative types, they don't want to be associated with people who navigate their way around Florence using a map of Toronto. I think a writer like Iain Sinclair feels that psychogeography has become a kind of anorak-ish pursuit, as we would say in England. Somebody like Patrick Keiller, who I think is probably the most significant person working in this field at the moment, rejects it because he feels it is impossible to use psychogeographic techniques to enact the kind of paradigmatic Debordian revolution that I think Patrick would quite like to see; he worries that his own work is futile in terms of being an engine for social and political change.
So those are some of the reasons they reject the ascription. I think they're wrong to. One of the things we can do is to hang onto and try to understand what it is and explain a better version of it. And I also think that, while I'm not a Marxist myself, there's great truth in the adage that history is made by the great mass of individuals. If you've got a lot of individuals who are psychogeographically attuned, then by definition you will have a changed society. So I think there's no cause for pessimism on that score. And I also think that the English tradition, which is founded much more in utopian socialism than Marxism, is decoupled from concepts of historical determinism and that makes it a much, much more free-floating ideology for people in England to latch onto.
As to Ballard, yes, you're absolutely right; Ballard was far more influential than Debord, who I was scarcely aware of at that time, in terms of my psychogeographic thinking in the mid-1980s, when I was mostly driving but walking as well around the periphery of London and seeking out those kinds of locales and interrogating them as to what they could tell me and how they could affect me. Ballard was undoubtedly the presiding spirit.
M.D. — Not to grind the subject into the ground, but doesn't this lead us back to the politics of embodiment? Neurocognitively, psychologically, somatically, the experience of moving about on two feet is so profoundly different from driving; it affects us on all sorts of levels, only some of which we're aware of. I remember you saying, in one of your lectures, that looking through your windshield, as you drive, amounted to viewing the world as moving images on a screen. "Windscreen-based virtuality," I think you called it.
W.S. — That's right, and of course there are different cognitive effects; Rousseau said, "We think at walking pace." That's all well and good, and I think people can be recalibrated through the act of walking—I think they can learn to be much more credulous about questioning the way the man-machine matrix orders their experience of topos—but they need to be guided. Interestingly, I now teach this as, if not a subject, a practice for young people, and it's amazing how liberating they find it. I mean, they really do change. We give them a 14-week course of dérives and this kind of thinking and they come out of it significantly changed.
M.D. — At the opposite end of the political spectrum from the radically defamiliarizing dérive is the English country walk. Chesterton's ramble in "A Piece of Chalk" is a prime specimen.
W.S. — The problem with the English conception of the country walk is that it's readily turned into a consumable artifact. So it's a right, tight little island and the way since the interwar period in which the walk has been conceived in terms of English culture is as something that you can purchase—a network of national parks, waymarked walks, the Ramblers Association, the activities of the National Trust and English Heritage. All of them are designed to make of that [the walk] something that is part of The Spectacle, in the Debordian sense, not divorced from it and certainly not attacking it.
The distinctive character of English psychogeography comes from the fact that people who are heavily educated in the Romantic tradition then apply that kind of thinking, apply the idea of the solitary walker (again, Rousseau is probably the key thinker on this, in his "Reveries of a Solitary Walker") to the reality of England, which is a patchwork of brownfield development, a kind of gallimaufry of exurban dormitory settlements, edgelands, strip malls, et cetera.
M.D. — Does your psychogeographic practice seep into the pages of your fiction?
W.S. — Well, it's not as obvious as something like Walser's The Walk, I suppose, but the last few novels have all had walking quite central to them, really, going back over a decade; there is always a long walk in the books. In The Book of Dave, the cabbie abandons his life in London and walks out of the city; that's the epiphanic moment for him, the beginning of sanity. In Umbrella, one of the key scenes is when Audrey, the protagonist, walks across central London with her father and discovers this kind of strange awareness of the inchoate city. And in Shark, there's the character Kins who takes this very long night walk over successive nights from rural Lincolnshire down into London, which is quite important. And then in the writing I've done about my own walking, it [psychogeography] came most strongly into Walking to Hollywood, where I did this eight-day circumambulation of the Los Angeles basin and in the same book I kind of fictionalized this strange walk I took down the east coast of Yorkshire. So, yeah, it's there.
M.D. — I'm guessing you've read the Ray Bradbury story "The Pedestrian," in which a resident of the Los Angeles of 2053 is arrested for the crime of strolling? As a former Los Angelino, I'm astonished, first of all, that you survived, and secondly, that you weren't arrested.
W.S. — Well, you say that but my half-brother's father Robert Adams, a professor of English at UCLA and a noted critic, once said of Los Angeles, "Everything they say about it is true." And I think that evocation of the polymorphous perversity of L.A. should give the lie to [Bradbury's] perception because the truth of the matter is that if anybody does anything weird in this world, it's been done in Los Angeles. I mean, when I did walk for eight days around L.A., I decided to treat my sojourn as if it were a conventional visit to L.A., so, you know, I went to Sony Pictures and took a meeting with Michael Linton, the head of Sony. And he wasn't in the least surprised when I chipped up having walked there, because, you know, it's a city where people do wacky things. In fact, people were much more surprised in London than in Los Angeles because in London of course they have the stereotypic perception of L.A.
M.D. — Ballard again, I'm afraid: Ballard rightly understood that it's L.A. that's the capital of the future, not New York; the centrifugal city, as opposed to the centripetal one.
W.S. — Jim really didn't know the States at all, though; he'd barely been there.
M.D. — Which is what made his writing about it so marvelous, I think; it's like Kafka's America. Ballard's America isn't findable on any map; it probably owed a greater debt to Baudrillard's America than to his impressions of coming here.
W.S. — Jim's partner, Claire Walsh, told me that one of the books that most influenced [Ballard's novel] Hello America and a lot of his other writing on America was one that she sourced for Jim, Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. The thing about Banham's conception of Los Angeles and why it chimed so strongly with Ballard and perhaps with me as well is that he proposes Los Angeles as a sort of test bed for the collective psyche in which these kinds of experiments in the built environment can be conducted. It is a romanticized vision and I think its appeal for Americans rests in defamiliarizing. Defamiliarizing can be very exciting: instead of being stuck on the Santa Monica freeway, thinking, "This is just shit and I'm becoming like Michael Douglas in Falling Down; instead, you can look around you, see an example of googie architecture, or meditate on the way the freeway creates its own Interzones – in a nutshell (or a carshell), you can have this epiphany: I may be condemned to look at all this through a screen, but my mind is still free.
Of course, the irony of Falling Down is that it's just more evidence of the way in which film distorts our perception of topographical reality because he starts in just near downtown and then the next scene he's suddenly way to the west in Pasadena and then he kind of leaps over that and he's in Venice but of course it's depicting a continuous walk in a city but with no reference to the real topography. The enactment of it as a film is exactly the syndrome that's driving the man insane in the first place.
M.D. — What's in a name? Do we become the names we're given? What does being a Self do for, or to, your self?
W.S. — I think it's very difficult to avoid issues around nominative determinism because in the realm of the emotions, contiguity is always causal; you'd have to be a very strange person if you didn't respond in some way to having my name, if only to disavow its effects. And particularly since I read philosophy at university, it's always been kind of an issue to some extent and when I started publishing many people said it was a nom de plume, other people said that I'd been invented Martin Amis because he had John Self in Money, so, yeah, I've thought about it and I am fairly egotistic, as many people are, so I've got plenty of opportunities to think to myself, "Oh, you're just like that 'cause that's your name!"
M.D. — To me, you don't seem egotistical so much as pitilessly clinical about anatomizing the self, and not just your self but the self as an object of knowledge, which I guess is the philosopher in you.
W.S. — I think one of the advantages that writers of my generation have is that there's a really epistemic break in our understanding of what writers are. My suspicion is that writers of my generation do not receive the same kind of reverence as even the half-generation before us—you know, the Rushdies, the Amises, Thomas Pynchon, DeLillo. The thing about those guys is that they were in a paper world and people perceived their quiddity—not just people who read them but the wider culture—as being to do with writing. And the advent of the Web means that writers now are viewed in the same form as the codex itself; we're viewed as frayed and subject to breaking up into different forms of mediatization and I think that means that writers of my generation don't tend to suffer from the delusion of posterity, which afflicted the generation immediately before us. For writers now in their mid-'60s, there's a point in their careers at which they're on syllabuses, and they think that they've made it, and you see it happen to them—you see the delusion of posterity, and it normally takes the form of narcissism, and I think that's just a kind of occupational disease of that generation of writers, although there were those of course who were in some ways immune from it, like Ballard. But on the whole I think younger writers, now, we know we're kind of fucked.
M.D. — Are you saying you're utterly disinvested in self-mythologization?
W.S. — Yeah, pretty much; it doesn't interest me, and since the culture that supported it is undergoing radical change, it's difficult to see whether there's any space to squeeze oneself into the pantheon; the pantheon is now encapsulated in time, it's full up, the club isn't taking any more members, and I think that's kind of liberating, actually.
M.D. — How is it liberating?
W.S. — Well, it just sort of frees you to accept the real terms of one's existence, which is that literary immortality isn't the same as psychic immortality, whatever people pretend; your books aren't gonna give you a cuddle when you're dying.
M.D. — If posterity doesn't matter, what matters? What confers meaning on the act of writing, writing you obviously put great care into, and are clearly invested in, presumably because you want to reach out to a reader who reads deeply? What if not the sense that it may live on after your consciousness, the you you call you, is gone?
W.S. — It's a form of praxis, for me. The act of writing is the way I understand the world; I mix my labor with it. It exists now, for me. Not even the idea of people reading me is of particular importance to me, I'm afraid. It's not really about that. Obviously, I like to be read and I love it when people get something from my work but I have to say it's not really what animates me.
M.D. — What does animate you?
W.S. — Just trying to create something that I think is just, that does justice to the conundrum that every writer wrestles with, which is how can I use unwieldy language to express these very, very evanescent intimations and apprehensions about the world?
M.D. — So it's all just an attempt to shake off a Wittgensteinian migraine, so to speak? You've read philosophy, so you're far better briefed on this than I am, but aren't you talking about the linguistic, epistemic, and ontological conundrum of stepping outside language, into unmediated communication—effing the ineffable, so to speak?
W.S. — Yes, or at any rate, so skillfully applying language as if it were some sort of papier-mâché that by molding it around the shape of the world you can create a simulacrum that reflects this fundamental paradox that all we know is phenomenology and yet phenomenology seems completely irrelevant to the thing in itself.
I increasingly think that even things like perceiving the individual subject as having a unique location in spacetime is a kind of delusion or at any rate it's part of the virtuality of consciousness because in fact consciousness is eager to be transcendent, it seems; it's constantly essaying forms of transcendence or relaying apprehensions of transcendence. If you were to say to your consciousness, "Now, hang on a minute, consciousness; you know you are tied to a body, you are in one space and time," a lot of our intimations would suggest that a much apter image for who we are, in a way, is that we're a kind of energy field rather than something that's imprisoned in a small bone globe.
You look at the great writers of the 20th century who really ran up against this problem, Joyce and Beckett, Beckett threw his hands up and said I've reached the limits of language, so I'm going to deconstruct human phenomenology by fraying and distressing language, so you have one approach, which is to take stuff away, and then you have the Joycean one of superfluity, of overplenitude, throw in the bathroom sink, try to convey this strange conundrum through a kind of superabdundance of the itemized. It's like Stalin, you know: "Quantity has a quality of its own." If I can just get enough quantity in, then I can somehow express this ineffable inexpressibility of language.
I think my approach lies somewhere between the two and I'm kind of getting there, which is to somehow convey the idea that language is a two-way mirror between phenomenology and the thing in itself and to make it finally wrought enough that that sensation we have of a kind of semi-permeable membrane between psyche and world is rendered on the page.
M.D. — You've set yourself a tough task because you so clearly love language. It would be one thing if you wanted to pare it down to this Giacometti-like anorexic figure, like Beckett does, where every line, although beautifully shaped, proclaims its profound distrust and exhaustion and dispiritedness with language. By contrast, you have a clear love of language, specifically of vocabulary; a ludic delight in words. Isn't your own logophilia going to be a high hurdle to clear in addressing the philosophical conundrum you've just articulated?
W.S. — No, because I am actually powerfully ambivalent towards language. The formal properties of declarative sentences really upset me a lot.
M.D. — What do you mean by that?
W.S. — Michael Hoffman has a brilliant essay on Kafka in which he says, you know, in Prague German, it isn't the big words that matter, it's the little ones, and actually there aren't many of them in Kafka because of the unforgiving nature of German syntax itself. It's the little words that bother me a lot and the way in which they articulate and provide the tensioning for sentences. I can reach a point in writing a book and usually do nowadays where, not necessarily conjunctions, it can be adverbial forms, it can even be prepositions, start to appall me. When I was finishing Shark, the word "that" started to really bother me; I started to feel nauseated by the word "that."
M.D. — It sounds like the literary equivalent of excoriation disorder, that pathological condition caused by obsessive, neurotic scratching or picking at your skin. Something that's normally invisible to us, once we notice it, is magnified by our maddening consciousness of it into a neurotic fixation.
W.S. — Yeah, it's like a kind of linguistic psoriasis, and I want to pick away at it. But I understand that if I pick at the "that" too heavily, the whole dermis of language is going to start to tear and disintegrate, so even in my pathological fugue I'm still consciously struggling back to some form of health by concentrating on "that." I remember when I was writing Walking to Hollywood, it was the word "even"; in fact, I—even—wrote a passage in the book about my hatred for the word "even." The last month or so it's been the word "valorize"; I'm absolutely fucking stricken with "valorize"! So there is an ambivalence there, a Beckettian mistrust of language's claims to do anything, very much.
Joanna Ebenstein has been known, on occasion, to wear a black dress with a white Peter Pan collar, which, given her fascinations—death masks, decapitation, books bound in human skin, conjoined twins, wax models of pathological anatomy, that sort of thing—invites the inevitable comparison to Wednesday Addams. This makes her cringe, I suspect: morbid interests notwithstanding, Joanna is determinedly not a goth. She is, as Flaubert advised, understated in dress and demeanor—"as ordinary as a bourgeois" at first glance; it's what's in her head that's "violent and original." She wears old-fashioned, wire-rimmed spectacles and parts her cornsilk-blond hair on the side; the combined effect is a scholarly studiousness, and the no-nonsense air of a librarian, which she is. A confessed "book hoarder" from the age of 13 on, Ebenstein conceived and created the Morbid Anatomy Library, a contemporary cabinet of curiosities that began in 2007 as an exuberant, inexhaustibly curious blog; evolved into a lecture space and a sort of Masonic Lodge for suitably morbid souls; and is now a full-fledged museum in Brooklyn's Gowanus neighborhood.
A diminutive woman, Joanna would fit neatly, now that I think of it, into one of the larger specimen jars. At the very least, the contents of her mind should be preserved for the rest of us to rummage through with awestruck delight; the Museum is a step in that direction, exteriorizing the Baroque jumble of curiosa she's been amassing in her head for years. Who else but Joanna Ebenstein would recall, of her early childhood, "If I saw a dead bird I was fascinated. I think at a certain age, especially if you're a girl, you realize that's not seen as cool anymore; you're seen as creepy and disgusting, and unfortunately—or fortunately—I just never made that switch"? Who else would claim as her muse the 17th-century Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch, who used pickled body parts to create morally uplifting memento mori?
Who but Joanna would author a book on the Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter's creepy-cute tableaux of stuffed animals in human attire, acting out dollhouse versions of human life, an exquisitely designed study that epitomizes her interest in things that confound neat philosophical binaries (in this case, the charming and the unsettling)?
Who else (besides Colin Dickey, co-editor, with Ebenstein, of the Morbid AnatomyAnthology) is drawn to stuffed humans, anthropomorphic mouse taxidermy, and the death-themed cabarets in 19th-century Paris? Who but Joanna would insist that the only thing more morbid than dwelling on death is not talking about it at all, as our thanatophobic culture attempts to do? "My whole life I've been called morbid because I think about death," she says, "but I think it's way more morbid not to think about it. It's like childhood wish-fulfillment, like somehow if we don't think about it, it just won't happen."
1. The Horrors of Sprawl, and How to Survive Them:
Concord, the miserable land of my childhood, is a land of concrete, mini-malls, and stoplights. None its architecture is older than the 1950s. My memories of growing up there in the late 1970s and early '80s revolves around clove cigarettes in parking lots, wine coolers in the park, kids stealing stuff out of other peoples' cars or trying to beat me up. Books and the world of ideas were, to put it mildly, not well regarded and I—who started a club where the members wrote essays!—did not fit in at all.
I was a voracious reader as a child; our house was filled with books–we were, after all, Jews–and I would read everything and anything I could get my hands on. The first special book in my life was E. B. White's Charlotte's Web. It was a very meaningful book in my household, ceremonially presented to me in a special hardback edition as a reward for passing my first elementary school reading test; my mother read it aloud to me when I was a young girl. I also have vivid memories of an oversized volume called something like 100 Great Masterpieces of Painting, which I would spend hours poring over on our living room floor. I don't remember too much about it, except for a few of my favorites: a Eugène Delacroix horse rearing in a lightning storm, a Henri Rousseau landscape, and a painting by El Greco. I guess I always liked dramatic, baroque effects.
Another important influence in my young life was British new wave music. The videos of Duran Duran's "Planet Earth" and Adam Ant's "Prince Charming," with their casts of heavily made-up, androgynous New Romantics, led me to I-D Magazine, which I would source monthly from my local Tower Records. I-D provided me with evidence of a better, stranger place beyond the confines of my circumscribed world of McDonalds and 7-11s, bowling, V.C. Andrews novels, and trying to get adults to buy us alcohol.
2. Learning to Love V.C. Andrews:
I really loved V.C. Andrews as an adolescent! There was a dog-eared version of Flowers in the Attic that was furtively passed around my Hebrew school. That book, and Forever, by Judy Blume, were very important books for young girls; in our Reagan-dominated "just say no" era, they provided our first detailed glimpses of sex. We all knew sex existed, and spent lots of time telling dirty jokes, but what sex really was was a complete mystery. I think that's a large part of the furtive lure of books like that.
3. Telltale Signs That Your Child May Be At Risk:
As a kid, I was always also drawn to books where the a main character died, such as (spoiler alert!) A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith and Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.
As a pre-teen, I was ravenously into the books of Lois Duncan, which we'd now call "young adult supernatural." I also loved Stephen King until I reached the end of It and was so disappointed I could never go near his stuff again. I should also mention that my mother was a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock; she woke me up to watch The Birds with her when I was probably around five or six because she was afraid to watch it alone, and the film Rosemary's Baby was in high rotation in my house.
Also, my grandfather was a doctor, and I have a vivid memory of one of his oversized medical books, which had an insert of semitransparent pages where you could leaf through pages of a human figure in a sort of virtual dissection, beginning with a naked man and ending, after many pages of muscles and arteries, at a bare skeleton. I spent a lot of time with that. I remember being really fascinated by it, but don't remember feeling it was forbidden; my grandparents were Viennese doctors, very matter-of-fact about the body.
The publications that really sent me down a recognizably "Morbid Anatomy" path came late in life, around the time I was in college. I was lucky enough to happen upon Sleeping Beauties: Memorial Photography in America, by Stanley Burns–the first book on post-mortem photographs–at my local independent bookstore, and it blew my mind. Soon after, a friend gave me a The Mütter Museum calendar by Blast Books as a birthday gift, which opened up the world of medical museums for me. Later, I was somehow lucky enough to find Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads by Stephen Asma, which directly inspired my first trips to Europe to photograph anatomical museums.
In high school I discovered the work of Oscar Wilde, via an excellent English teacher, and became completely obsessed. Via Wilde, I went down the Decadent rabbit hole, predictably: Fleurs de Mal by Baudelaire, Maldoror by Lautréamont, The Yellow Book , Against the Grain by Huysmans, and the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, whom I discovered via his illustrations for Wilde's Salome. (I also got into the Parisian realists Zola and Balzac.) Soon after, I became obsessed with the Symbolists and then the pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement. I also got into the Surrealists, which led me to Dali's autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. In time I discovered Edward Gorey, whose world of Edwardian Anglo-fantasy influenced me greatly.
Other influential books included the short stories of Poe, Hawthorne, Steven Millhauser and James M. Cain, as well as The Magus by John Fowles, The Monk by Matthew Lewis, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, Robert Graves's I, Claudius series, Crime and Punishment and The Devils/The Possessed by Dostoyevsky, The Secret History by Donna Taart, and Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Favorite poems included The Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti, The Lady of Shallot by Tennyson, The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot and La Belle Dame sans Merci by Keats. As for non-fiction, Grand Guignol by Mel Gordon; Sweetness and Power by Sidney Mintz; Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen; Tastes of Paradise by Wolfgang Schivelbusch; and Carl Jung's Man and His Symbols really blew my young mind.
The publications that really sent me down a recognizably "Morbid Anatomy" path came late in life, around the time I was in college. I was lucky enough to happen upon Sleeping Beauties: Memorial Photography in America, by Stanley Burns–the first book on post-mortem photographs–at my local independent bookstore, and it blew my mind. Soon after, a friend gave me a The Mütter Museum calendar by Blast Books as a birthday gift, which opened up the world of medical museums for me. Later, I was somehow lucky enough to find Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads by Stephen Asma, which directly inspired my first trips to Europe to photograph anatomical museums.
4. How to Anatomize a Philosophical Binary:
The things that really fascinate me—really draw me in–are things that flicker on the edges of categorical divides such as life and death, education and spectacle, science and eroticism. Things from the past that now utterly bizarre to the contemporary eye and, as a result, encourage one to rethink the present, to contemplate how much we've changed since the time they were created. All the things in the Morbid Anatomy constellation have that quality, I think.
5. Something for the Morbid Anatomist Who Has Everything:
The Library's most treasured book is its original copy of Frederik Ruysch's early 18th century Thesaurus Anatomicus, though I revere it so much that I'm almost afraid to touch it. What book would I most want to own? Hmmm. Maybe an original Jacques Fabian Gautier d'Agoty? He was a pioneer of early color printing who created these amazing, unintentionally surreal anatomical mezzotints in the 18th century. He is probably best known today for his "flayed angel"–a portrait of a beautiful woman whose back, turned to the viewer, has been skinned to the waist, revealing layers of muscle and bone, gorgeously rendered in highly saturated colors.
For me that would be "Gentleman's Erotica," which is my term for books that frame erotic interest as a noble, dispassionate pursuit of the scientifically-minded gentleman. You'll find a variety of such works on the "sexology" shelf of the Morbid Anatomy Library; a few of my favorites are The Secret Museum of Mankind, A Private Anthropological Cabinet of the Hermaphrodite, and Private Anthropological Cabinet of 500 Authentic Racial-Esoteric Photographs and Illustrations. On the same shelf is another great addition to this list: Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies, a compilation of entries from a popular 18th-century guide to the prostitutes of London; it's a ridiculously great read. Also of note: Kraft-Ebing's 19th century Psychopathia Sexualis and Freud's Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. They have a novelistic style that seems ill-suited to the material; Dora, in particular, seemed to be as much about Freud and his misguided theories of female sexuality as it was about that poor girl.
7. Confessions of a Bibliophile:
I'm not just a book collector and consumer, but also a designer. When I was a child I wanted, more than anything, to be an author/illustrator; both, not either/or. I have a special love for illustrated books, and this concern—the ways in which text and image can combine, within the framing device of design—informs everything I do, from the Morbid Anatomy blog to my exhibitionsthe Morbid Anatomy Museum. I'm especially drawn to idiosyncratic self-illustrated books that really challenge what a book can be; authors who create, as it were, their own completely realized worlds using the book as a medium.
The prime example for me is of this, of course, Edward Gorey; I discovered him in High School and he completely changed my life. Gorey uses images, handwritten text, and scale to create his own unique, suggestive, absurdist, self-contained universe. Along those lines, I also love William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience and am a huge fan of the books of Barbara Jones, especially Design for Death and The Unsophisticated Arts, which are both quirky paeans to humble, unappreciated arts, illustrated with her own heartfelt, scratchy pen-and-ink illustrations.
The Unsophisticated Arts
I also love George du Maurier's Trilby, which I just read this year; it's an idiosyncratically bizarre thing, written as a first book when the author was 50 and illustrated by him; it also introduced the idea of Svengali to popular culture.
From Charles Addams's Dear Dead Days.
I have a special love, too, for books that use found images in unusual ways, such as Charles Addams's Dear Dead Days (A Family Album) and, of course, Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip. Also noteworthy is Adam's Synchronological Chart or Map of History, an enormous tome I purchased at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, showing all of human history in graphic form, from what would now be called a Creationist perspective. It's an enormous, three-foot-tall, fold-out timeline that begins with Adam and Eve and continues–with increasing, dizzyingly ordered, graphic complexity–to trace all of human history seen as fit to print circa 1871. It's a work of startling design genius, and an amazing object in its own right. <class="caption"> From Adam's Synchronological Chart of Map of History.
8. A Dinner Party of the Mind:
Of course I'd invite Edward Gorey: I have always wanted to meet him. In college, my friends and I made our own, hand-illustrated, customized version of the board game Clue, and planned a road trip to his home to invite him to play it with us. The trip never came to pass, sadly. Oscar Wilde: Who would not want to meet Oscar Wilde, possibly the greatest wit who ever lived? He would probably rip me to shreds, but it would be worth it. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald: They were the first historical figures to completely captivate my youthful imagination, after I'd read This Side of Paradise in high school. My interest in them led me to obsessively learn everything I could about them and the 1920s more generally, which was probably the first sign that I might go on to study intellectual history.
Matthew Lewis, author of The Monk. I would be so curious to meet the man who created such a startlingly perverse, over-the-top book in the 18th century!
Barbara Jones: I think she might be one of my favorite people if I met her.
Haruki Murakami. Again, he just seems like an utterly lovely and inspiring person. I would love to have a proper conversation with him.
9. Desert Island Books:
1. The Great Gatsby. I reread that book every few years and get something new out of it each time.
2. The Annotated Oscar Wilde. A favorite in my early teen years, full of all of Wilde's published work, as well as tons of illustrations and marginalia.
3. Amphigorey: a good collection of Gorey to while away the hours.
4. The Windup Bird Chronicles. Haruki Murakami. Something tells me this is a book that would keep giving back.
5. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750: Lorraine J. Daston, Katharine Park. A book I've always wanted to read in its entirety but have never had the time to.
9. The Zone Decadent Reader, edited and with great intros from Asti Hustvedt.
10. The Bible: On a desert island, I'd have time to read it, which, to my great shame, I never have!
10. Paradise Lost: I don't know what it is about Gatsby. I didn't like it in high school—preferred This Side of Paradise and some of his short stories–but as I get older, I just feel there is so much in there; so much of America, of yearning adolescence, of a desire for more than life can provide. I guess I identify with that.
Whether she's insisting, in a discussion of her book Meat is Murder!: An Illustrated Guide to Cannibal Culture, that "we're all cannibals" in the sense that mothers' milk is our first food and "it's just a short step…from ordinary erotic kissing and nibbling to devouring"; pleading the case, in her just-published book The Great Grisby, for that object of fond contempt, the childless, middle-aged Woman Who Loves Her Dog Too Much—"Why can't we let ourselves take dog love too seriously? (Is it because, if we did, we'd have to think seriously about other nonhuman animals, including those on our dinner plates?)"; or declaring herself, in her animal-studies classic Hyena, unequivocally on the side of a creature universally reviled as a "filthy, snickering trickster…lurking in the back alleyways of the animal kingdom," Mikita Brottman is never less than joltingly original. Her style of mind borders on a kind of Outsider intellectualism, even though she holds two PhD's, one in English from Oxford—she co-directs the MA Program in Critical Studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art—and another, in psychoanalysis, from Heed University.
Her academic bona fides notwithstanding, she's blessedly free of the intellectual timidity and cap-doffing obeisance to the household deities of academe that makes so many professors so guffawful when they turn their attentions to pop culture or the transgressive fringe, as Brottman often does. Rarer still for an academic, she's freaking hilarious, in her wonderfully dry way.
Here she is doing drive-by Freud on the unimprovably anal Art Garfunkel, who maintains an online list of all the books he's read:
What are we to make of the fact that … he claims to have read through the entire Random House Dictionary of the English Language—all 1,664 pages of it? Or that, according to those who've conducted interviews at his New York home, each book in the Garfunkel Library, after being read, is wrapped in protective plastic and shelved in the order of reading? Without venturing to psychoanalyze Garfunkel's unconscious fixations, I'd say there are times when you can, in fact, tell a book by its cover—and one of them is when it's covered in protective plastic. … This is not just rigid, it's anal (and Garfunkel might even agree—after all, in August 1973 he read Irving Bieber's Homosexuality, a Psychoanalytic Survey, and in June 1987 he read Freud's The Ego and the Id).
And here she is ventilating about some of the less lovably eccentric specimens of nutty professor:
[T]he new hire revealed himself to be an abstemious hermit and hypersensitive to imaginary slights. He was also a compulsive hoarder and frugal to an unusual extreme, regularly to be seen pocketing food from the buffet lunch at faculty meetings. He was finally discovered to be actually living, Bartleby-like, in his departmental office.
Of special interest, for our purposes, is Brottman's wry polemic, The Solitary Vice: Against Reading. The subtitle is tongue-in-cheek: Brottman is, after all, a professor in MICA's Department of Language and Literature, and has been a voracious reader all her life. Even so, she casts a skeptical eye on the class anxieties and unrelenting mania for self-improvement that permeate Mortimer J. Adler's "Great Books" series, sold door-to-door in the 1950s; the eat-your-roughage earnestness of literacy programs like the "Reading is Fun-damental" campaign of the 1960s; and the intellectual insecurity that gnaws at those of us who agonize over not having read Proust, War and Peace, and the Interminable Bard, God rot him. In The Solitary Vice, Brottman questions declinist assumptions that we're reading less; challenges the literacy-drive orthodoxy that reading is an unalloyed good, regardless of what we're reading; and wonders, using herself as a case study, about the psychological costs of bibliomania taken to morbid extremes. Growing up gloomy and reclusive and socially awkward in Sheffield, England (when the Yorkshire Ripper was terrorizing the county, she likes to point out), Brottman spent her teenage years, not at dances or on dates, but lost in Victorian literature, horror comics, H.P. Lovecraft. "When I think about my teenage years," she writes, "I think of myself lying on my bed in the attic reading (shot from above, with a wide-angle lens). … I don't have many 'real' memories of my teenage years…because I spent so much time reading." To be buried in books, she suggests, is to be buried alive, oblivious to real time, real experience, real life. It's a wistful, powerful, probing book and, in a textbook definition of irony, an irresistibly good read.
Mark Dery: Tell me about the first book that really stayed with you after you closed its covers.
MB: My mother read me Alice in Wonderland when I was too young to read, and I remember being enchanted. But when I was old enough to read on my own, it seemed a lot darker. So many of the characters I'd considered kind were, in fact, irrationally cruel. I was disturbed by the Tenniel illustrations, which I hadn't seen before. Some of them struck me as quirky or fanciful, but many of them gave me an uneasy chill. I was especially put off by the image of Alice with a horribly stretched neck, the flowers with human faces, and the frog footmen. The Mad Hatter, whose face was the same size as his torso, frightened me; I was disturbed that, like the Carpenter and the White Knight, he had a grotesquely swollen nose. I saw the Duchess as a mustachioed monster, the Queen of Hearts as an imperious harridan, and Humpty Dumpty as an egg-shaped nightmare. Most terrifying of all were Tweedledee and Tweedledum—two fat, middle-aged schoolboys.
MD: I couldn't agree more—which is why I love the Tenniel illustrations! They give us a peek at the lump under the carpet: the Freudian Uncanny that seems to haunt Carroll's Wonderland in the same way that libidinous energies, not to mention sexualities of all sorts, and class and gender resentments percolate beneath the starchy bourgeois propriety of the period.
Have you come to like the Alice books for their thinly veiled grotesqueries and perversities, manifested in Tenniel's etchings, or do they still give you the creeps? And, given what I suspect was an active visual imagination, were there other books whose illustrations had a lasting impact on you, for good or ill, whether their texts did or not?
MB: The Tenniel etchings still give me the creeps, but I've loved the Alice books ever since I discovered their "dark side." Aleister Crowley apparently identified Lewis Carroll as a holy man of the occult art, and required his acolytes to read both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. He even devoted a chapter of his treatise Magick: Liber ABA to occult secrets concealed in common nursery rhymes and children's stories, explaining that "deep contemplation of nonsense" can lead to a trance state, and thence to illumination.
Another bizarre interpretation of the stories can be found in a book called The Agony of Lewis Carroll by Richard Wallace, a psychotherapist. According to Wallace, two years after publishing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, a child friend asked Carroll what the book was about, and Carroll replied with a single word: "Malice." Wallace's reading of the Alice books is notably dark, but he isn't alone in this; John Goldthwaite in The Natural History of Make-Believe regards Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as a "bout of rancor" directed at Lewis's miserable home life and thwarted ambitions.
Wallace goes much further. In The Agony of Lewis Carroll, he makes the case that the Alice books are crammed with secret confessions in the form of anagrams which, when decoded, show Carroll as a rage-filled, father-haunted pedophile obsessed with prostitutes and bestiality. (He published a sequel in 1997 "proving" that Lewis Carroll was actually Jack the Ripper!) For what it's worth, the original version of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a commonly used psychological test, included a query in which the respondent was instructed to answer "true" or "false" to the question, "I enjoyed reading Alice in Wonderland" (the question was dropped in 1989).
MD: To those of us who grew up in the States in the 1960s, the fantasy literature of our elementary-school years seemed to be an English franchise, in many ways, its imaginative landscapes mapped by Carroll's Wonderland, Milne (and Ernest Shepard's) Hundred Acre Wood, Tolkien's Shire, Lewis's Narnia, Graham's Wild Wood and its environs, the London of Mary Poppins and Sherlock Holmes and Oliver Twist. Growing up English, were you as aware of the Englishness of the books on the nursery shelf? You note in The Solitary Vice that you were drawn, in what we'd now call your YA years, to American fare, but I'm wondering if that was equally true in your pre-teen days.
MB: I was aware that many of the children's books I read—especially those by Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne, Kate Greenaway, and Enid Blyton—were set in a world that had absolutely no resemblance to the bleak, gray industrial landscape of Sheffield, where I grew up. They contained a fantasy of an idyllic English childhood, with its nurseries, tea parties, orange marmalade, and treacle sandwiches. There's something about this world of cucumber frames and vicarage gardens that speaks to me, as it obviously does to many people, yet at the same time, I know it's a world that didn't exist and never did, even for the children of Victorian aristocrats. These books are adult fantasies of childhood, fuelled by regressive yearnings.
MD: What's your most treasured book? And what's the book you'd most like to own but don't, because it's pricey beyond reach, or lost to posterity, or never existed in the first place: The Encyclopedia of Unimaginable Customs, mentioned in Edward Gorey's Curious Sofa, or the "nightmarish" Book of Sand from Borges's story of the same name, or The Dynamics of an Asteroid by James Moriarty, referred to by Conan Doyle in The Valley of Fear?
MB: I don't have any really rare treasures, but I have a collection of occult publications put out by University Books, which was based in New Hyde, New York. They're beautiful old books with an Egyptian Eye of Horus on the spine. Every book in the series is of the highest literary quality. My collection includes Human Animals by Frank Hamel, Encyclopedia of Occultism by Lewis Spence, Alexandra David-Neel's Magic and Mystery in Tibet, and the fascinating Poltergeists: an Introduction and Examination, by Sacheverell Sitwell.
A book I'd like to own is The Phantom Prince—My Life With Ted Bundy, by Elizabeth Kendall, Bundy's girlfriend during the early years of his killing spree. There are always copies available online for around $200, but I've never been able to convince myself to pony up.
MD: Okay, I'll bite: why The Phantom Prince? You talk, at some length, in The Solitary Vice, about the obscure charms of true-crime literature, noting, for example, that it offers a borehole into the homicidal unconscious, where we're startled to find minds a little too close to our own, in many, unsettling ways. Moreover, as you point out, nonfiction chronicles of crimes afford a peephole view of everyday lives, which are every bit as banal as we'd expect, yet, paradoxically, stranger than we know. But why Bundy, I wonder?
MB: Most mass-market true crime is awful, just unreadable, so it's rare to come across an intelligent and literary analysis of a case. One exception is The Only Living Witness, by Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, on Bundy. Ever since I read that I've been curious about the book by his girlfriend, because it would be interesting to read a book about a serial killer that doesn't discuss his crimes (since she knew nothing about them), his trial, or the court case. I'm curious about the ordinary, mundane details of Bundy's life. But maybe I'm especially curious just because the book's so hard to come by (at least, for less than $100). It might well be rubbish.
MD: You mentioned Crowley, earlier, and your occult books with the Eye of Horus on the spine. I'm intrigued by your interest in occultism. The Aesthetes and the Decadents flirted with occultism, mostly with tongues firmly in cheek, finding it useful as a transgressive alternative to mainstream religion, a reliable way to scandalize the bourgeoisie. But in your writings and lectures about Ted Serios (an unemployed, alcoholic Chicago bellhop who enjoyed brief celebrity for his purported ability to materialize "thoughtographs" on Polaroid film), you maintain a neat epistemological balancing act in which you raise an ironic, drily funny eyebrow at Serios's claims, his allegedly "sociopathic" behavior, and the credulity of those taken in by him, while at the same time leaving open the question of the scientific possibility of thoughtography. My sense is that your interest in the occult is, at its roots, ideologically motivated. I'm guessing your refusal to dismiss such claims on empiricist or positivist grounds is an oblique critique of scientism, the quasi-religious perception of scientific authority as omniscient and infallible.
MB: You'll think I'm being faux-naïve when I tell you that what I'm always looking for—in terms of occult phenomena, crime, and everything else—is something that gives me a certain frisson. Nabokov says, in his in lecture on Bleak House, "that little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle." Whether it's Bundy's abduction of a woman in the 10 feet between the elevator and her hotel room, Serios's impossibly haunting "thoughtographs," levitating tables, or apparitions of the dead, I'm drawn to anything that gives me that telltale tingle in the spine. At those moments, I feel as if the ground opens up underneath me and I see all the cracks in my ordinary, everyday assumptions about the way things are.
MD: I was fascinated by your reading, in The Solitary Vice, of Freud's case studies of hysteria as Victorian hauntology, or gothic fiction. The British writer of speculative fiction, J.G. Ballard, famously championed the idea of "invisible literature": writings not intended as literature that, from the parallax view of the insurgent intellect, can nonetheless be seen as literature. Ballard singled out Gray's Anatomy as a textbook example of his imagined genre, calling it "the greatest novel of the 20th century." What nonfiction tomes—psychological, criminological, forensic, or whatever—would you nominate for literary status based on their compelling style, engaging narratives, delicious turns of phrase, unforgettable insights, or other virtues? Put another way, what scientific books or journal articles or essays have you come across, in your studies, that stand out for literary reasons, as opposed to purely scientific ones?
MB: I'm currently spending much of my time listening to audio files and transcripts of court cases. As well as court transcripts, I like reading psychological case histories and crime scene reports. They're surprisingly easy to get hold of (medical records are more difficult). Court audio and transcripts can be ordered by phone from the clerk of any circuit court for a fee. There's a lot of good stuff to be found digging around in National Criminal Justice Reference System. I use search engines like PubMed and PsychInfo and keywords like "bizarre" and "unusual." I've developed a private radar for the little nuances of tone and inflection in police reports that subtly imply superiority or disbelief. Sometimes, the most banal statement will be phrased in a way that gives it an odd kind of weight and momentum, so it sounds like a sentence that could have been written by Conrad.
My favorite sources for invisible literature are The Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, The Journal of Forensic Science, The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, and The Archives of Sexual Behavior. There are some good compilations that are more accessible, too. I'd particularly recommend The Murder Trial of Wilbur Jackson, published by the Criminal Justice Series. There are also some fascinating court transcripts and police reports available at The Smoking Gun website. My book Thirteen Girls is a collection of semi-fictionalized documents of this kind.
MD: Give us the juicy details. What are some of the most memorable articles you've excavated from the journals you've mentioned? What qualities does a case study have to have to pique your interest? Do you read them as scientific studies or short stories? If the latter, what aesthetic movement or specific writer do they most closely resemble, when read through a literary-critical lens?
MB: Some of my favorite journal article titles: "Post-mortem decapitation by domestic dogs: three case reports and a review of the literature." "Unusual intracranial stab wounds inflicted with metal tent stakes for a case involving a family murder suicide." "Foreign object ingestion in complex suicide: A case report and review of the literature." "An Unusual Death due to the Impalement of a Gear Stick into the Brain Stem through the Nasal Cavity: A case report." They are sui generis, redolent of no aesthetic movement (or perhaps a new kind of poetry), though the strange distance and formality of the language puts me in mind of Conrad, as I say above. I'm compelled by the way they allow us to see everything from a dissonant perspective; they show us how utterly bizarre human beings can be, while at the same time reminding us that, as the saying goes, nothing human is alien to us. What I find most engaging is the contrast between the matter-of-fact, totally objective prose and the information that prose is conveying.
MD: On a related note, some of the most bravura passages in The Solitary Vice, for my money, are what I'd call your felicitous misreadings of texts—a sort of perverse hermeneutics that is related to, by not exactly synonymous with, the Barthesian strategy of reading against the grain. You do this with Freud, as I've mentioned, and with true crime, and with the courtroom transcripts and psychoanalytic case studies we've been talking about. I've long been a fan of this sort of thing, compiling a mental list of felicitous misreadings, foremost among them Gore Vidal and Orson Welles's hilarious deconstruction of Rudy Vallee's autohagiographic memoir, in Vidal's essay "Remembering Orson Welles." Can you talk about any specific books or articles you like to read from an oblique angle, willfully misreading them to perverse, subversive, or simply idiosyncratic effect?
MB: I live in an old hotel, and I've recently been researching old newspaper items about the suicides that happened here, and the notes people left. However brief, I find them infinitely suggestive. They're little vignettes of private tragedy, windows onto the changing century. They contain snippets of peripheral history—the introduction of automobiles, the development of telegraph and telephones, the advent of Great Depression, the injustice of segregation, and the changing nature of the hotel trade. There are also insinuations about social class, alienated parents, sons with too much money, businessmen suffering from existential ennui. There's a sense of nostalgia in these little case studies as well—of a Baltimore that was both genteel and bohemian, whose kings were society men, tobacco lords and bootleg emperors. Another interesting feature of these vignettes is their reliable supporting cast, consisting of desk clerks, bellboys, maids, doctors and coroners. I find the suicide notes especially touching, with their polite, self-deprecating apologies, often expressing regret to the hotel staff for the necessary cleanup job.
MD: Let's end with a thought experiment or two: you're trained as a psychoanalyst, well-versed in the legendary literature of your field (by which I mean Freud, primarily) and, I imagine, the clinical side of things as well. Which fictional character would you most like to analyze, and what do you imagine would be some of the more fruitful areas of inquiry in his or her psyche?
MB: The first character that comes to mind is Melville's Bartleby. But on second thought, I realize I'd be looking for an explanation for his behavior—something more, that is, than the story of his past in the Dead Letter Office—and any explanation would ruin the story. It's better, I think, that we don't understand Bartleby at all. His inner world is inviolable and inaccessible; he remains "alone, absolutely alone in the universe."
MD: Desert Island Books?
MB: All I want is Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Just as certain pieces of music can't be understood until you've heard them over and over again, some books need to be read many times. Every time I read Heart of Darkness, I stumble on something new, or recall something I'd forgotten. It seems magically self-renewing, like the loaves and fishes. I could read it indefinitely.
When I first encountered Heart of Darkness, I thought you could take out nine of every 10 sentences, and the story would still get told. I found the style repetitive and overbearing, the protagonist unsympathetic and inscrutable. Yet whenever I come back to it, more of the "in-between matter" makes sense, and previously invisible pictures start to take shape—images that eventually become more intriguing to me than the surface plot. My early struggles to make sense of these images were full of misunderstandings, and partly because of this, it took me time to feel comfortable with them. It took many re-readings to appreciate the book's complexities and come to terms with Conrad's difficult prose; even now, I'm not sure how much I fully "understand" the book, and to what extent my "understanding"—any "understanding", perhaps— is essentially a confused projection.
Bearing this in mind, I think the book would be useful, for the marooned, in a practical sense. For one thing, it would remind me focus to on getting things together, building a shelter, catching fish, keeping out of the sun, just as Marlow has to drag his half-submerged steamer out of the Congo mud, repair the damage and make it seaworthy. He has to keep the boiler stoked and the pipes from leaking. While he doesn't necessarily enjoy all this toil, he knows it's crucial. The work absorbs his attention, keeping his mind from dwelling on the violent cruelties perpetrated by the colonizers. In other words, he's dedicated to his work not for itself, but for what it precludes. "What saves us is efficiency," he claims, "the devotion to efficiency." Marlow believes work can bring you a sense of purpose, a kind of order and stability that can keep you grounded and out of trouble. For Marlow, life is tragic only at the rare moments when he becomes conscious of its meaninglessness. He occupies himself in his work with dignity and authenticity, he's engaged not by any particular outcome or desired result, but by conscious immersion in the struggle itself.
The book would also help me to live alone, and to remind me that communication with other people is basically a sham. When Marlow tries to describe Kurtz to his listeners, he realizes he can't do it. He says, "He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream…" He's talking about how language gives the illusion of bringing us closer but it actually cuts us off from one another. Marlow actually says it explicitly at the end of this passage: "We live as we dream: alone."
Conrad has a way of twisting words out of shape until you start to see them in a new way and think differently about what they do, how they work. It's the outsider—the foreigner like Conrad, the loner like Marlow—who can make us see who we are. Ironically, if anything in this obscure tale is made more lucid by words, it's our inability to make each other understand our experiences. I see Heart of Darkness as a study in existential despair, and in this sense it might not sound like the most appropriate book for life on a desert island. But if Marlow faces despair, he also learns to distract himself from it, and that's a vital lesson for everybody.
MD: You once said to me, "I tend to get obsessed with particular examples rather than patterns. There are books that I read constantly, teach regularly, return to again and again, like Heart of Darkness, but I'm not especially interested in Conrad's other work, colonial literature or anything like that; it's just a specific obsession with that particular book. I'm drawn to specific details, taxonomies of types, such as dogs in literature, or cats, or kangaroos, items of furniture, breakfast table scenes, descriptions of shoes—anything like that. Individual types, details, incidences: I like making those kind of taxonomies." What, exactly, did you mean by that?
MB: Why taxonomies? I don't know if I can put my finger on it exactly. Partly it's a way of keeping things tidy, in control, compartmentalized. It's also a way of finding secret, private underground connections between ostensibly totally different texts. Put another way, looking at texts in this way opens up a level of connection transcending that of the "ordinary surface," allowing for a much deeper style of unconscious communication between texts in the same way that dreams, free associations and prophecies often rely on the smallest, seemingly irrelevant details. In the occult, as in psychoanalysis, what matters most is always on the periphery.
In the annals of centipede phobia, William S. Burroughs stands alone. The man loathed the beasts, loathed them with a loathing that would not die. Had he lived to see Web videos of pet centipedes with pinkies (hairless baby mice) in their death grip—a thriving subgenre, on YouTube, of what might be called predator porn—Burroughs would surely have emptied his beloved .38 (a snub-nosed Smith & Wesson, which he slept with every night) into his computer.
In Burroughs's novels, centipedes are the emissaries of a Venusian fascism, a mind-controlling horror so virulently opposed to free thought, racial tolerance, gay rights, and other mile-markers of human progress—in fact, so hostile to mammals in general and Homo sapiens in specific—that they are literally from another planet. Like the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Jack Finney's bad dream about the loss of individualism (whether to suburban conformity or communist infiltrators, we're never quite sure), Burroughs's centipedes don't just want to knock us off our perch as evolution's crowning achievement; they want to parasitize us, puppeteer us. From his novel The Place of Dead Roads (1983):
Kim realizes the dwarfs…are being processed into centipedes. The centipede eyes are already in place. Eventually the centipede will emerge from the forehead, leaving the dead gray hulk behind.i
At one point in Burroughs's hallucinogenic shoot-'em-up, The Western Lands (1987), we join a scientific expedition to the fictional South American island of Esmeraldas, ostensibly to obtain venom samples from giant centipedes but equally "to ascertain to what extent the centipede merits the horror and loathing in which he is, so far as I know, universally held." ii Our narrator, the expedition's chronicler, makes no secret of his distaste for the beast. He speaks for Burroughs when he says,
Let me confess that I hate centipedes, above all other creatures on this horrid planet. And I am not alone in this aversion. Many others have confessed to me that they hold a special antipathy for this creature, which is so far removed from the mammalian mold. … There may be people who like centipedes. I have seen people handling tarantulas and scorpions, but never a centipede handler. Personally, I would regard such an individual with deep suspicion. … Now what sort of man or woman or monster would stroke a centipede on his underbelly? 'And here is my good big centipede!' If such a man exists, I say kill him without more ado. He is a traitor to the human race.iii
Burroughs's fiction is famously a genre unto itself—a literary mash-up of "routines" modeled on the wisecracking patter of petty criminals; Conradian accounts of colonial depravity; Kafkaesque visions of nightmare bureaucracies; block quotes from scientific literature, such as the lengthy excursus on centipede venom in The Western Lands; and, most obviously, genre gimcracks lifted from boys' adventure tales and westerns and, above all, the hardboiled detective stories and pulp science fiction of the '20s and '30s: deadpan voiceovers, corrupt politicians, cops on the take, viruses from outer space, mutants, alien invaders.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Burroughs's Venusian centipedes share their arthropod DNA with the bug-eyed aliens in pulp SF. (The monstrosity incubating inside the dwarves in The Place of Dead Roads is from "Planet Venus, where else.")iv
But they could just as easily have clambered up out of the oil-scummed sump where the bodies are dumped in Raymond Chandler's noir novel, The Big Sleep. Like Chandler's oil mogul General Sternwood and his jaded, dissolute daughters, Burroughs's centipedes reek of moral rot and the corrosions of power. At the same time, they're emblems of a more general decay. Like the unspeakable eldritch gods in H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, they rise at a moment of Spenglerian decline, a degenerate age whose symptoms are atavistic behaviors and belief systems such as the bizarre cult of the centipede in The Western Lands.
Burroughs's centipede cultists are Max Nordau's worst nightmare, devolutionary obscenities who aspire to the lowest rung on the Darwinian ladder: the bug. "Faces squirming and crawling on the skull, eyes dilated to black mirrors reflecting a vile idiot hunger," they congregate naked, wearing nothing but centipede jewelry; their sacrament is a human offering, "a naked man bound to a couch with leather straps."v Burroughs sets the scene: in an amphitheater crowded with worshippers, a trapdoor opens. "The head of a monster 'pede emerges, with a stink like a vulture shat out rotten land crabs. The man on the couch begins to scream as the centipede inches out. The 'pede lifts its head now, with a seeking movement…"vi
Obsession, more than character, plot, or scene, structures Burroughs's fiction; centipedes are a recurrent motif throughout his work, unchanging as the Mayan codices and temple friezes that fascinated him. In his literary debut, Junkie (1953), the thinly fictionalized "confessions of an unredeemed drug addict," the smack-addled narrator recounts a heroin daydream in which centipedes and other arthropods rule the ruins of a derelict, post-anthropocene world—a cynic's eulogy to human potential. "One afternoon, I closed my eyes and saw New York in ruins. Huge centipedes and scorpions crawled in and out of empty bars and cafeterias and drugstores on Forty-Second Street. Weeds were growing up through cracks and holes in the pavement. There was no one in sight."vii A lifetime later, Burroughs still has centipedes on the brain: in a journal entry written in 1997, the last year of his life, he mutters to himself, "What hideous dead-end led to the creation of the centipede?"xviii The centipede's reason for being, he decides, is to remind Homo sapiens of the "fall"—evolutionary, not biblical—"we might have taken."ix
Over all the intervening years, the obsession abides. In Naked Lunch (1959), the centipede is associated with depraved pleasures of the flesh, appetites so monstrous they make the mind heave. Devotees of the Black Meat—"the flesh of the giant aquatic black centipede," a putrid delicacy that "like a tainted cheese" is "overpoweringly delicious and nauseating"—gorge themselves, vomit, then pig out again until they collapse, a study in debauchery that crosses the Banquet of Trimalchio, in Satyricon, with junk sickness.x In The Place of Dead Roads, the centipede is the devolutionary fate of those who succumb to their basest impulses: Burroughs's gunslinger protagonist Kim Carsons is tormented by "centipede nightmares" and "wakes up shivering with horror because he knows these hideous…giant centipedes were once (an evil old-woman voice tinkles in his brain) 'silly little boys like you.'"xii
Leo [Stein, brother of Gertrude] went to Harvard in 1892 to study philosophy but soon got distracted. He described his problem: "There would be that same irresistible tendency to find out one day the truth about the Battle of Vicksburg, another the most recent determination for the date of the second Isaiah, then perhaps Hertwig's answer to Jennings' paper and on a fourth the relation of recalled future time to the possibility of a logically complete induction … I'm all too easily distracted. If somebody asks me about the habits of giraffes I'm strongly inclined to look up their anatomy, physiology, and embryology. The amount of time I've wasted because foolish people asking foolish questions have started my mind off on things it hadn't any business to monkey with."
— Gertrude and Alice, Diana Souhami
Is there such a word as "xenogastronomy"? (There should be; now there is.) While chewing over a stranger-than-fiction reference to mouse on toast in Gordon Grice's Deadly Kingdom, I find myself thinking of strange cuisine.
How can I not think of ortolan, the thumb-sized songbird prized by gourmands in France, where the endangered animal—whose sale is illegal but whose consumption, perversely, is not—is force-fed to the point of delectable plumpness? Poetically dispatched by being drowned in Armagnac (there are worse ways to go), it is roasted whole and, ultimately, eaten entire, under cover of a napkin draped over the diner's head "to preserve the precious aromas and, some believe, to hide from God" (not to mention the disapproving gaze of any PETA activists at nearby tables).
When prostate cancer handed Francois Mitterrand a death sentence, he hosted a fabulous Last Supper whose pièce de résistance was ortolan; shielded from the all-seeing eye by the traditional napkin, Monsieur Le Président had two. (The atheist in me loves the presumption that our omniscient, omnipotent Heavenly Father, who has numbered the hairs on our heads and can see from here to infinity, is defeated by a napkin.) "[T]here's a lot of contemplation that goes on underneath that cloth napkin," says the journalist Michael Paterniti, who has eaten the dish. He compares the experience to "being in a confessional. You have to own up to the fact that you're not only eating this bird, but you have to own up to your own mortality. And I think that's what Francois Mitterrand was most attracted to; trying to achieve some immortal gesture, [he] felt that this bird was the perfect ending of his life." Paterniti claims Mitterrand "ate not another bite of food" until he dropped off the twig eight days later, an act of aestheticism Oscar Wilde would envy. (Presumably, he made a full confession before the celestial bench.) François Simon, the restaurant critic for Le Figaro, has called the experience of eating ortolan "monstrous" but sublime nonetheless: "Crunching the bones was like munching sardines or hazelnuts. I chewed a long time. When I finally had to swallow, I regretted the end of a very sensual experience." Would roast mouse be equally toothsome? Who knows what monstrous sublimities we're missing?
Which makes me think of the HBO series Rome; in one episode, a soldier chowing down at an unprepossessing osteria declares the dormouse on offer the best in the city. By all accounts, this little detail is historically accurate: the ancient Romans farmed the rodents, fattening them on walnuts; the bill of fare at the "Dinner of Trimalchio" in Petronius's Satyricon includes "dormice sprinkled with poppy-seed and honey…served on little bridges soldered fast to the platter." (Apparently, the Italian appetite for the Edible Dormouse, as it is helpfully named, didn't die with the Caesars. Despite the fact that Glis glis is now a protected species in Italy, food inspectors discovered, in 2007, dormouse casseroles for sale from multiple restaurateurs at a festival in the Calabrian region of Southern Italy. Facing criminal charges, the suspects offered a novel defense: the "dormouse" in their dishes, they claimed, was actually rat.)
Talk of mouse-phagy makes my thoughts return, naturally enough, to mouse on toast. In Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler meditates on mouse on toast, eaten "fur and all," as a remedy for bedwetting (who would, after that?) and mouse pie as a cure for childhood stammering. That leads—how could it not?—to Salvador Dali's 1939 "readymade" Freud's Perverse Polymorph (Bulgarian Child Eating a Rat), an innocuous photo of a smiling baby, accessorized by Dali with a half-gnawed cartoon rat dangling from the child's mouth, oozing gore. Dali offered little in the way of explanation for this image, whose leg-pulling outrageousness is pure punk rock, although he does claim, in The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali, that at the age of five he "all but" bit the head off a bat. (The "all but" is a nice touch.)
(Dali, by the way, was an ortolan fan. In his autohagiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, he enthuses, "How wonderful to crunch a bird's tiny skull! How can one eat brains any other way! Small birds are very much like small shellfish. They wear their armor, so to speak, flush with their skin. In any case Paolo Uccello painted armor that looked like little ortolans…" And so on, in the usual Dalinian fashion, delivered with impeccable comic timing and a perfectly straight face. Exit through the gift shop, please.)
Salvador Dali, Freud's Perverse Polymorph (Bulgarian Child Eating a Rat) (1939). All rights reserved.
From there, it's just a free-associated hop, skip, and jump to the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-'71, when rat was on the menu. ("People are making rat pâté," Victor Hugo noted, matter-of-factly, in his memoirs. "It is said to be quite good.") A menu from the Jockey Club, touting delicacies such as Salmis de rats à la Robert, lives on in weird-food legend. (A salmis is a rich ragout; in his Diary of the Besieged Resident in Paris, the journalist Henry Du Pré Labouchère pronounces salmis of rat "excellent—something between frog and rabbit," adding, philosophically, "The older one grows, the more tolerant one becomes.")
English translation of a menu from a dinner in Paris during the siege of the city, which lasted nearly five months, from September 19, 1870 to January 28, 1871. Found on FoodReference.com; all rights reserved.
Speaking of Robert, could there be a connection, here, to William Burroughs's scabrous satire on haute cuisine in Naked Lunch? In the Burroughs novel, the "Transcendental Cuisine" served by a snooty restaurant called Chez Robert goes downhill by degrees until it is literally "garbage, the clients being too intimidated by the [restaurant's] reputation…to protest." Judging from Robert's spécialités de la maison, its chef must have trained at the Jockey Club: the restaurant's menu includes siege-of-Paris-style offerings such as "After-Birth Suprême de Bœuf, cooked in drained crankcase oil, served with a piquant sauce of rotten egg yolks and crushed bed bugs." No mouse, though.
Returning to Murinae (the mammalian subfamily comprising mice and rats), rats must have been plentiful and frolicsome in the Missouri of Mark Twain's childhood, since they scamper through the novels he sets in the antebellum South. In Tom Sawyer, when Tom cons the neighborhood boys into trading their prized possessions for the opportunity to take over his whitewashing chore, Johnny Miller antes up "a dead rat and a string to swing it with"; later, Huck Finn has a premonition of disaster in the form of "a rotten bad dream last night—dreampt about rats." In Huckleberry Finn, a country woman bemoans her poverty, lamenting that the rats in her shanty "was as free as if they owned the place"; deriding Huck's easy-as-pie plan to free the recaptured runaway slave Jim, Tom groans, "Why, cert'nly it would work, like rats a-fighting."
My favorite rat reference in the Twain canon—an arcane category, admittedly—is Tom's blissful inquiry in Tom Sawyer, while spooning with Becky, "Do you love rats?" Is there a more perfect expression, in all of American literature, of the joys of carefree youth? Ever since I first clapped eyes on that line, its happy-go-lucky perversity has been a source of inexhaustible pleasure to me, surpassed only by the exchange that follows: "No! I hate them!" says Becky, to which Tom replies, reasonably enough, "Well, I do, too—live ones. But I mean dead ones, to swing round your head with a string." Oh, to be young again, with all the time in the world, and a dead rat, and a string to swing it on!
Aunt Sally versus the vermin in Huckleberry Finn.
That rats scurry and squeak in the Victorian unconscious, popping up in fact and figure of speech in Twain's novels, and others of the period, should come as no surprise. The 19th century was a good time to be a rat; hygiene and sanitation, or the lack thereof, favored rats, and they were fruitful and multiplied, especially in the squalid, overcrowded cities. Knee-deep in garbage, with overworked horses left to die at curbside, streets in the slum districts were a rat's idea of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Slaughterhouses and bone-boilers' shops, too, were a gift to vermin, as were the crammed tenements with which they often sat cheek-by-jowl.
A rat's only regret was the rat-killer (whose dogs, traps, and poisons weren't exactly an existential threat in those innocent days before state-of-the-art rodenticides) and rat-baiting, the most popular betting sport of the period. (At a time when tickets to illegal prizefights went for 50 cents, the price of admission to a ratting match could rise as high as five bucks, depending on the number of rats a dog was to face.) The seedier drinking establishments in New York and London turned a handsome profit from their basement rat pits, where upper-class swells rubbed elbows with lowlife, placing bets on how many rats a terrier could dispatch within a given time.
The contests took place in open enclosures whose wooden walls were over four feet high, too high for rats to leap, and lined with polished zinc or tin, too slippery for rats to climb. Henry Mayhew, in Volume III of his London Labour and the London Poor (1861), sets the scene: "When [the rats] had been flung into the pit, they gathered themselves into a mound which reached one-third up the sides, and which reminded one of the heap of hair-sweepings in a barber's shop after a heavy day's cuttings. These were all sewer and water-ditch rats, and the smell that rose from them was like that from a hot drain." Set loose, the dog tore into the squealing rodents, seizing them, snapping their necks with a quick shake, and tossing them aside. A good ratter "could kill a hundred rats in half an hour to 45 minutes," Luc Sante writes, in Lowlife: Lures and Snares of Old New York, "although the modern record was set by Jack Underhill, a terrier belonging to one Billy Fagan, who slew his hundred in 11 and a half minutes." There was a brief vogue, in the late 19th century, for pitting rats against men in heavy boots. And Mayhew, in his portrait of "The Rat-Killer," quotes his subject's somewhat shamefaced admission that, wagering he could beat a bulldog's time, he climbed into the pit and took on the rats "like a dog."
There was a bull-dog a-killing rats, so I says, "Oh, that's a duffin' dog; any dog could kill quicker than him. I'd kill again him myself." Well, then they chaffed me, and I warnt goin' to be done; so I says, "I'll kill again that dog for a sov'rin." The sov'rin was staked. I went down to kill eight rats again the dog, and I beat him. I killed 'em like a dog, with my teeth. I went down hands and knees and bit 'em. … On the hind part of my neck, as you may see, sir, there's a scar; that's where I was bit by one; the rat twisted hisself round and held on like a vice.
Rats scurry down the bolt holes of my unconscious. They've always inspired in me a mixture of revulsion and fascination, the tension between the two perfectly calibrated. In New York, where a sizeable number of the city's two-legged denizens embrace the city's grime as proof positive of its street-tough authenticity, I fit right in. New Yorkers have a perverse relationship with rats: they shudder at the sight of the vermin gorging themselves at garbage-bag buffets, they gasp in appalled fascination at "track rabbits" gamboling on subway tracks, yet, at the same time, they evince a kind of hometown pride in the rat as Manhattan's unofficial mascot, fair warning to tourists that they aren't in Kansas anymore. A sardonic T-shirt appropriates the logo for Cats, the sort of schlocky Broadway musical beloved by out-of-towners, retitling it Rats and replacing the pupils in the iconic cat's eyes with rat silhouettes; another hacks the ubiquitous "I (Heart) New York" slogan, replacing the cartoon heart with a prancing rat. To a certain species of New Yorker—aging Lou Reed fans, prototypically, who grouse about the Disneyfication of Times Square and groan at the irony of the Met's "Punk: Chaos to Couture" show—the rat is the totem of the city's underclass, too tough and too streetwise to be eradicated completely by the real-estate developers and other forces of upscale gentrification determined to price them off the island. It's no accident that Dustin Hoffman's two-bit Times Square con man in Midnight Cowboy goes by the nickname "Ratso" Rizzo.
The rat as pet, though: that's groaningly overdone—a mall goth's idea of shock treatment for the squares, as the rat owner profiled by Jerry Langton in his book Rat: How the World's Most Notorious Rodent Clawed Its Way to the Top makes resoundingly clear. A die-cut nonconformist who calls herself—what else? —Raven, she sports the regulation-issue tattoos and pierced tongue; her pet rats are named—what else? —Lucifer and Bela and Bubonic and Aleister (after Aleister Crowley, the notorious occultist, naturally).
Then again, the Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, as charmingly unselfconscious an iconoclast as ever there was, exhibited a lifelong fondness for rats, and kept them as pets as a boy and again in later life, when at one point his rat collection exploded, as rat collections will, to 40. In his autobiography, My Last Sigh, he quotes his sister's reminiscences of their childhood pets, most memorably "an enormous rat, as big as a rabbit, a rather filthy beast with a long, rough tail" who nonetheless "was treated like one of the family," accompanying the Buñuels on trips in a bird cage. "The poor creature finally died, like a saint, showing obvious symptoms of poisoning." The Buñuels had five servants; none would admit to dispatching the creature.
The murderer, whoever he was, has all my sympathies. Pet rodents—hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, mice, rats—have always made my flesh creep. I make an exception for Leporidae, whose association with Trickster figures like Bugs Bunny and Harvey, the invisible six-foot rabbit in the Jimmy Stewart film of the same name, charms me. Not so rodents, who've always impressed me as depraved in some way I can't quite put my finger on. Maybe it's their long yellow incisors, their manic production of droppings, their nocturnal squeaking, their frantic rooting in their nests of cedar shavings, their obsessive sniffing, their neurotic twitching, their hardwired compulsion to gnaw. There's something of the furtive fetishist about them, the unsatisfied masturbator, the clammy palmed deviant; if rats were human, they'd be Peter Lorre in M, Dylan Baker in Happiness, John Malkovich in anything. Urban myths about "gerbiling," the entirely imaginary practice of inserting, for sexual pleasure, small rodents into your rectum—one's rectum, I mean, not yours—only heighten the vague sense of unsavoriness that clings to small rodents, the baselessness of the libel notwithstanding.
Of course, it's what rats have in common with us that accounts in no small part for their creepiness. To be sure, our commensal friends are repugnantly Other in some obvious ways—their habit of cannibalizing their neighbors' newborns, for starters—but they're uncomfortably similar to us, too, an inconvenient truth underscored by their ubiquitous use as human surrogates in laboratory research. Their neuroanatomy and internal organs resemble ours; like us, they're social animals, and live in communities. They display a disquieting cunning—ask any exterminator—and problem-solving abilities (famously, in mazes and in B.F. Skinner's "operant conditioning chambers") that while no threat to Homo sapiens's inflated sense of himself as the crown of creation are nonetheless impressive. True, they lack our capstone achievement, language, but they do communicate, in their own ratty way, through pheromonal messages coded in their urine, feces, and scent and decoded with a specially evolved olfactory tool called the vomeronasal organ. As well, they signal each other with a repertoire of squeaks and squeals. Dale Peterson, in his book The Moral Lives of Animals, quotes a team of neuroscientists who have discovered that rats, when tickled, let loose with ultrasonic chirps, which the researchers believe is a form of "primitive laughter."
(They may in fact have the last laugh: musing on the possibly apocalyptic consequences of global warming, Jan Zalasiewicz, a paleobiologist at the University of Leicester, thinks rats will inherit the Earth. If he's right, the Anthropocene, as some climate scientists call the period of anthropogenic climate change that began with the Industrial Revolution, will be succeeded by a posthuman age that will witness the rise of Rattus. Some species, Zalasiewicz speculates, may evolve to be the size of the world's largest rodent, the capybara, which can tip the scales at 176 pounds. "Rats are one of the best examples of a species that we have helped spread around the world, and that have successfully adapted to many of the new environments that they found themselves in," he said.
Rats, he thinks, are well-positioned to come into their own, "in the mid to far geological future," asserting their claim to the "ecospace" where Homo sapiens once strutted and fretted his hour upon the Darwinian stage.)
Rats are like us in other, less flattering ways: they like to eat, and they like to have sex, and they indulge in both as often as they can, with gluttonous gusto. When it comes to dietary preferences, rats are amusingly Bubba-esque, shunning raw vegetables for Elvis-approved fare like mac and cheese, white bread, fried chicken, peanut butter, and beer (which gets the better of them, because as one exterminator tells Robert Sullivan, in the New York-centric Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants, "they drink a lot and then they can't throw up"). Also like us, they're supremely adaptable: Sullivan quotes an exterminator who theorizes that New York rats come to like the signature dishes of the ethnic neighborhoods they call home, an opinion borne out by scientific studies, which call this adaptation "local food dialect."
As for sex, they engage in it constantly—a dominant male may mate with as many as 20 females in six hours, Sullivan claims—and they don't scruple at niceties: rats mate with underage rats, pregnant rats, and even dead rats caught, headfirst, in snap traps. Male rats' testicles are enormous, and are thus the subject of much merriment among rat fanciers; according to Langton, a 400-pound gorilla's are less than half the size of a rat's.
Let's play the Association Game. (Which I've been playing from the beginning, of course). What does the word "rat" bring to mind? I think of the 1971 horror movie Willard, about a Norman Bates-ian dweeb who exercises a mesmeric power over a pack of homicidal rats. Which makes me think, naturally, of Freud's Rat Man, plagued by obsessional thoughts of rats gnawing their way up his fiancée's anus, as well as his father's—a gothic vision, if ever there was one. Of course that doesn't hold a candle to the scene in Francis Ford Coppola's criminally underrated Dracula, where the blood count shapeshifts into an enormous man-bat, sneering down the crucifix Van Helsing is shakily brandishing. "I, who served the Cross," the monster thunders. "Look what your God has done to me!" When the vampire-hunters empty their pistols into him, he simply spreads his wings into a grotesque parody of Christ on the cross, then metamorphoses into a crucifix made of rats; the image hangs on the wall for an instant, mocking God and man, then collapses, exploding into a squeaking, skittering horde when the rats hit the floor, scrambling over the men's feet.
Dracula transfigured into a cross of rats, from Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Critics who insist on psychological depth or intricacies of plot or Big Ideas miss the point that, in cinema, surface is depth; images are ideas. Coppola's Dracula is a gothic rebus, a dreamlike procession of signs and symbols worthy of Fuseli and Klimt and the ghosts and ghouls conjured up by Japanese woodcut artists of the Edo period. If a movie gives us even one unforgettable image, a vision that does an end run around language and strikes a responsive chord in the unconscious that never stops echoing, isn't that enough? For whatever inscrutable reason, the image of Coppola's Dracula mocking the God who promised eternal life but gave him living death, aping the crucifixion then dissolving into a cross of rats, is deeply satisfying to this aging atheist. I like to revisit it, from time to time, in my memory palace, and am always happy to discover its power undiminished by age.
Right beside Coppola's cross of rats, in the galleries in my head, is the Rat King, that fabled phenomenon in which rats become inextricably entangled by their tails. The result is a circle of outward-facing rats, held fast by the knot of tails in the center of the ring. Enshrined in European folk belief, the existence of the Rat King is substantiated, in some eyes, by relics such as the mummified specimen on display at the Mauritianum Museum in Altenburg, Germany, a skin-crawling clump of 32 rats still tethered to one another in death, like some chain gang from pest-control hell.
To the skeptical inquirer, the Rat King has a whiff of the cryptozoological about it, but both Langton and Sullivan treat the phenomenon as established fact. "There have been Rat Kings ranging in size from three rats to 32 rats," Sullivan claims. "Sometimes the rats die, sometimes they are fed by the other rats and stay alive for a time in the nest." It bears pointing out that neither Langton nor Sullivan is a biologist; the assumption that an animal capable of chewing through concrete, with a bite force of 7000 pounds PSI, would resign itself to starvation rather than just gnawing its tail off requires a greater suspension of disbelief than I can manage. (As any pest-control professional will tell you, finding hind legs in glue traps, chewed off by a rat desperate to free himself, is far from uncommon.)
One especially fanciful aspect of the Rat King myth is not in dispute, however: it's certifiably a fiction that "the rats' tails were tied together by other rats to form a sort of living throne for the Rat King, whose regal paws they supposed were far to important to touch the ground" (Langton). While rats are highly social creatures who live in colonies, they have no leader, although according to Langton a dominant male "will usually emerge as the rat that mates most often and gets the most food." But his dominance is lightly worn, more nominal than the brute authority exercised by the Alpha male in, say, a wolf pack.
"Rat king in the scientific museum Mauritianum, Altenburg, Germany." (Wikipedia)
Katharina Fritsch,Rat King, 1993, polyester and paint.
The Rat King's enthralling horror owes much to the Dantean awfulness of the creatures' plight, and to the instinctual revulsion the rat inspires. The scourge of humankind since civilization first put down roots, rats are harbingers of pestilence and death. The Black Death of the 14th century, spread by contagion-bearing fleas riding on rats, cemented that association; Dracula movies, from Nosferatu (1922) to the 1931 Bela Lugosi classic (in which Dracula's thrall Renfield has a vision of "Rats! Rats! Rats! Thousands! Millions of them!" controlled by the vampire) to the Werner Herzog remake (1979) to the Coppola film, ensured its survival in the age of mass media. Herzog's film testifies to the post-traumatic echoes of the rat-borne plague that ravaged Europe from 1347 to 1350, killing as many as 75 million: in one scene, Nosferatu's army of rats overruns a town square where, amid coffins stacked high, a handful of townspeople mock death by banqueting amid the horror, apparently oblivious to the rats underfoot, on the table, everywhere.
A last supper amid the rats, from Nosferatu (1979), directed by Werner Herzog.
The Rat King's repulsion distills the essence of one of the rat's more queasy-making traits: its characteristic tendency to merge with the seething mass, to lose whatever individuality it has in a fast-running tide of squeaks and scrabblings whose only thought is to gnaw and whose only direction is toward you. Langton describes a corn farmer lifting a piece of plywood to give the author a sense of his rat problem: "The horde of rats underneath, temporarily blinded by the sunlight, ran around and into each other in the confusion—the overall effect was that of a bubbling, flowing carpet of brownish-gray fur." It is this engulfing multiplicity, as much as the rat's associations with disease and filth, that inspires our primordial loathing; like the demon that calls itself Legion, and the centipede with its numberless, frantically wriggling legs, the onrushing wave of rats has no identity, other than that of a faceless, mindless mass. Worse yet, it threatens to obliterate ours, swallowing us up figuratively, then literally. To be drowned in a living flood, then devoured: that is the special horror the rat holds in store.
Ultimately, however, the Rat King's occult power has more to do, I think, with its inscrutability. The Rat King is a semiotic black hole, infinitely dense with apparent meaning but, at bottom, an enigma. It's open to all the Freudian or Jungian or Lacanian or Derridean readings you're clever enough to balance on its knot, right where the Rat King himself is supposed to squat, carried by his underlings like an emperor in his sedan chair. We can read it as a dream symbol of the futility of human existence, or of our tendency to cage ourselves in prisons of our own making, psychologically speaking, or of the black comedy of human relations, in which we sometimes find ourselves caught up in what our 12-step culture likes to call mutually destructive codependencies. But why read it at all? Why not regard it, rapt, as a message written in an inhuman script, a cipher in fur from the scurrying world beneath the floorboards of our minds, a tangled tale of tangled tails whose meaningless meaningfulness we'll never unriddle? Like Meret Oppenheim's fur-covered cup or Duchamp's bicycle wheel grafted onto a kitchen stool, there's a perfection to its Surrealist logic. On first encounter, we're boggled by its logical impossibility—a wreath made of rats!—but on second thought it seems ineffably right, somehow: nature imitating art, and doing it with whimsical perversity. Lusus naturae, as they used to say of marvels and monstrosities: nature's jokes.
This is the house at Terror Street and Agony Way. From the outside, it looks innocuous enough, a stucco-clad box in the Spanish Colonial Revival style ubiquitous in '20s L.A.
Don't be fooled: it was "the house of horrors, the house of agony, the house where I was almost done in," the poet Charles Bukowski says, in the documentary Born Into This—almost done in by his (almost) comically sadistic father, a German-American of grim mien who beat his son with a razor strop weekly, if not daily, and condemned the young Hank, as his schoolmates dubbed him, to social purgatory by dressing him in lederhosen and giving him the short-back-and-sides haircut favored by the Prussian military class.
Standing in front of his childhood home, Bukowski tells the camera the "horror story" of his Depression-era childhood. A blocky, big-bellied man with a face like a topographical map of the moon, pocked and seamed by the ravages of acne and dominated by the bulbous nose of an aging barfly, he points toward the rectangle of lawn in front of the house.
This is the lawn that I manicured. I had to mow it both ways, this way first, then this way; then I had it get all the hairs with the shears. If I missed one hair, I got a beating. One hair. It's very hard not to miss one hair, you know. Try it sometime. So I always got a beating.
In his barely fictionalized autobiography, the novel Ham on Rye, Bukowski milks the moment for its nightmare hilarity. On his hands and knees, Bukowski père examines the lawn his son has just mown.
"AH HAH!" He leaped up and ran toward the house.
"MAMA! MAMA!" He ran into the house. "What is it?" "I found a hair!"
"Come, I'll show you!" He came out of the house quickly with my mother following. "Here! Here! I'll show you!" He got down on his hands and knees. "I can see it! I can see two of them!" My mother got down with him. I wondered if they were crazy. "See them?" He asked her. "Two hairs. See them?" "Yes, Daddy, I see them…" They both got up. My mother walked into the house. My father looked at me. "Inside…"
Tolkien, perhaps rightly in marketing terms, though with the insistent literalism that makes writers writers (which is to say: not artists), demanded, of Barbara Remington's cover art for Lord of the Rings, "What has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why a Lion and emus? And what is the thing in the foreground with the pink bulbs?"
"Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? Or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don't bark, and they don't gobble up your monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn't mad!"
— Gérard de Nerval, when asked why he kept a lobster as a pet and walked it on a leash.
"Le rêve est une seconde vie," declared Gérard de Nerval.i The dream is a second life.
Before Rimbaud, before the Surrealists, there was Nerval (1808 – 1855), living his life as if it were a lucid dream. Of course, it didn't hurt that his mental skies flickered with the chain lightning of madness—bouts of insanity that condemned him to periodic stays in asylums and, ultimately, self-murder.
Mapping the psychogeography of Paris in all-night peregrinations that reconciled the flâneurwith the somnambulist; indulging in the hashish-dream Orientalism expected of any self-respecting 19th-century bohemian by dressing up in Arab garb and drinking drug-laced Turkish coffee with Balzac, Baudelaire, and the rest of the Club des Hachichins; chronicling, in Voyage en Orient (1851), his travels in Turkey, the Holy Land, and Egypt, where he supposedly bought a slave girl in the bazaar, only to absent-mindedly leave her behind when he returned home; consorting with radical bohemians such as Petrus Borel, who perfumed his beard and went by the nickname "the lycanthrope," and Théophile Dondey, who wore spectacles to bed, the better to see his dreams;ii declaring God dead yet claiming adherence to 17 religions, many of them dead; seduced by the occult and firmly convinced that if we could only unriddle "the magic alphabet, the mysterious hieroglyphs" transmitted by antiquity, the doors of the "spirit world" would swing wide, Nerval died by his own hand at the age of 46—hanged from a window grate with an apron string that he believed to be the Queen of Sheba's garter. iii
He was wretchedly poor. To make matters worse, the lunacy that had tormented him all his life was back, scrabbling at the basement door of his mind. The only photo we have of him, taken days before his death by the celebrated portrait photographer Nadar, captures a balding man with a careworn face, his mouth—what we can see of it, behind the overhang of his moustache—set in a rueful expression somewhere between resignation and defeat. Yet he regards us with intensity; in his fixed gaze we see the dying flicker of defiance and, if we insist, the glitter of madness. "Poor Gérard's face, said Nadar, was marked equally by the memory of lunatic asylums and the foreboding of his tragic death."iv At long last, the Black Sun of Melancholia, as he put it in his poem "El Desdichado" ("The Disinherited," written in a "state of supernaturalist reverie"), had gone nova.v"Don't wait up for me tonight," he wrote, in a cryptic note he left for his aunt, "for the night will be black and white."vi
Setting the scene of Nerval's death, in A Century of French Verse (1895), William John Robertson gilded the lily just a little, one suspects: "One chill grey dawn in January…Gérard's body was found by a rag-gatherer, hanging in the gutter near the foot of a narrow staircase which led up from the squalid little rue de la Vieille-Lanterne, one of the filthiest courts of old Paris. The stones were sprinkled with snow, and on the steps a tame raven was hopping about."vii (On loan from Poe, no doubt.) In The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, Clifton Fadiman adds a too-perfect touch, claiming that the raven—someone's pet, apparently—kept repeating the only phrase it knew: "J'ai soif!" ("I'm thirsty!")viii
T.S. Eliot sampled him in his modernist mash-up The Waste Land. Proust thought he was one of the most important French writers of the 19 th century. Yet Nerval lives on in the collective unconscious of the Google Age not as the visionary Romantic who wrote the hallucinatory sonnet sequence Les Chimères but as the eccentric's eccentric: the boulevardier who took his pet lobster for a walk, on a leash made of blue ribbon, in the jardins of the Palais-Royal. (Its name was Thibault, for those who are curious about such things.) News of his (calculatedly outrageous? certifiably cracked?) stunt made the rounds; what was it all about: inquiring minds wanted to know. Nerval's response, handed down to us by his friend Théophile Gautier, is funny and sweetly melancholy and strangely moving all at once, flickering irresolvably between Surrealist bon mot and philosophical feuilleton:
Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? Or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don't bark, and they don't gobble up your monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn't mad!ix
("Monadic," incidentally, derives from "monad," Goethe's term, borrowed from Leibnitz, for his conception of the soul as an irreducible, indestructible metaphysical atom.) Strolling in the park, Nerval stepped into history. His lobster walk has given rise to a thicket of theories about what happened and why, the art—historical equivalent of the Kennedy assassination's Grassy Knoll industry. Richard Sieburth, translator of the poet's Selected Writings, calls the anecdote a "piece of disinformation" concocted by Gautier, "a harmless hoax to épater le bourgeois," then hedges by adding, "I don't want to claim that Nerval's lobster is completely false: it has the truth that accrues to stereotypes, to clichés, to commonplaces, the truth of ideology or of repetition."x
By contrast, Nerval scholar Richard Holmes finds Gautier's account credible in light of the poet's well-documented fascination with odd or exotic animals; they recur, as symbols, in his work and life. "Often, on his wanderings through Paris, he would leave messages for his friends in the form of animals," Holmes informs, in Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. On more than one occasion, unsuspecting writers were greeted, on returning home, by flustered concierges bearing lobsters or parrots—calling cards from Monsieur de Nerval. xi
Embroidered or not, the story invites close scrutiny, and not just Talmudic readings by literary critics but hard-eyed analysis by marine biologists: how long can a lobster survive out of its element? Could a decapod, stranded on dry land, really have kept pace with its master?
Among the scientists I spoke with, opinion was divided regarding the likelihood of Thibault's stroll. xii Bob Steneck, a professor at the University of Maine's School of Marine Sciences, was doubtful. "Lobsters out of water can walk a bit," he allowed, though it's "very tiring" for them. "They are more likely to get stressed and rapidly flip their tails" than traipse along amiably, taking the air. (Lobsters are designed for rapid backwards movement underwater, propelled by a flip of the tail.) And speaking of taking the air, "prolonged exposure to air will kill lobsters," said Steneck, since "unlike crabs, who have gills sealed within their [bodies], lobster gills are exposed." As a wry afterthought, he added, "I'm no expert, but I bet taking lobsters for a walk in the park is not the first un-truth uttered by a Romantic poet."
Jeffrey Shields, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William & Mary, flagged the problem of temperature. If the weather is congenial—say, 15 degrees Celsius or below, with "relatively high humidity" moistening their gills, enabling them to breathe—a lobster "might survive up to 30-40 minutes" in the gardens of the Palais-Royal, "maybe longer."
Diane Cowan, executive director and senior scientist at The Lobster Conservancy, elaborated on the locomotion problem: "On dry land, a lobster of the size humans typically eat simply can't walk with legs extended. Large lobsters crawl on their bellies on dry land, if they have the stamina." If you insist on following in Nerval's footsteps, she said, avoid hot days, since the blazing sun will "turn the lobster vibrant red, making it look cooked because it will be cooked." Cowan wasn't charmed by the Romantic whimsy of the thing: "Taking a lobster for a walk in the park is a cruel and sadistic idea. Please do not even think about it."
Brian Beal, a professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine at Machias, was more sanguine than his colleagues. Lobsters are closer kin to cockroaches than anyone who's ever worn a lobster bib likes to contemplate—both are members of the world's most populous family, Arthropoda —and can scuttle at insectlike speed, Beal insisted. Fishing off the coast of Maine, he's seen them escape, when hauled aboard, and "quickly walk into a dark corner of the stern and hide." (Jelle Atema, a professor of biology at Boston University, told me he's seen "unsupervised lobsters drag themselves off the dock back into the sea.")xiii
Mindful of his colleagues' objections, Beal argued,
It is not too far-fetched to imagine that if de Nerval had methods [of keeping] a lobster in captivity (not an easy thing because it requires a large tank with relatively cool seawater and it would have needed some kind of aeration), then the lobster most likely would have [needed to be] taken out of its tank from time to time for cleaning [the tank]. What do you do with a lobster when it isn't in its tank? Take it for a short walk, if conditions permit. A short walk on a cool, damp day or at dusk? Sure. It wouldn't have walked a great distance, but as long as it was not out in the hot sun for any great length of time, I can see this happening. Certainly do-able, and why not? We should all extend the boundaries of what we think is possible, and lobsters as pets taken for short walks (with or without a leash) is a boundary we can step over!
A suitably Nervalian sentiment. So, if Nerval's lobster promenade did happen, was it a proto-Dada prank on the humorless, stuffed-shirt bourgeoisie, as Sieburth would have us believe?
A dissenting view, given credence by the discovery, circa 2008, of a letter to his childhood friend Laura LeBeau, holds that Nerval was an early animal-rights activist. Returning from a visit to the coastal town of La Rochelle on the Atlantic, Nerval recounts a droll dust-up with the locals: "And so, dear Laura, upon my regaining the town square I was accosted by the mayor who demanded that I should make a full and frank apology for stealing from the lobster nets. I will not bore you with the rest of the story, but suffice to say that reparations were made, and little Thibault is now here with me in the city…"xiv On this evidence, some conjecture that Nerval intervened to save a peaceful, serious creature from Death by Lobster Pot and in so doing earned himself a hallowed place in the history of animal-rights activism, well over a century before lobster liberator Mary Tyler Moore.xv
Let's not forget, however, that Nerval was a fervent scholar of the occult, steeped in classical myth, Egyptian magic, medieval fables, Teutonic tales of Lorelei, the Gnostic wisdom of the Druses of Lebanon, alchemy, theKabbalah, the Tarot, the secret teachings of the Illuminati, "the strange legends and bizarre superstitions" of the Valois countryside outside Paris, where he grew up; his work is hermetic, rich in arcane allusions and hidden meanings.xvi Holmes believes Gautier intended the lobster story as an example of Nerval's all-consuming affair with symbolism, a fixation that extended beyond the page, shadowing his daily life with obscure subtexts.
Holmes draws our attention to the Tarot card called The Moon (number 18 in the Major Arcana), which is associated, he notes, with "the Unconscious, the Irrational, the Feminine Mysteries, the Imagination"—perfect for an artist dedicated to blurring the line between dreaming sleep and waking reality, not to mention a man plagued by mental illness who couldn't always tell the difference between the two.
At the foot of this card lies a deep, mysterious pool, out of which a Crayfish or Lobster is attempting to crawl onto the dry land. A path leads up from the pool and twists like a ribbon towards the horizon. The path is guarded by two animals—in most Tarot packs, these are both Dogs, in others they are a Dog and a Wolf. … Above, a full moon hangs in the night sky. Drops of moisture like diamonds float in the air, as if being slowly drawn up from the Pool by the power of the Moon. The Lobster raises its claws from the water, and the Dog and Wolf lift their heads and bay at the Moon. xvii
In the classic Rider-Waite version of the Tarot deck, the Moon card tells an allegorical story about the imagination. According to Waite's Pictorial Key to the Tarot, the road, which winds between two towers, leads to what Waite rather redundantly calls "unknown mystery"—Unknown Unknowns, as Rumsfeld would say. The cold light of the moon is intellectual insight, a pale reflection of the more profound illumination yielded by the imagination, with its access to the unconscious and the irrational. As well, says Waite, the moonlight "illuminates our animal nature…the dog, the wolf, and that which comes up out of the deeps, the nameless and hideous tendency which is lower even than the savage beast." xviii The lobster—Freud's id?—struggles toward enlightenment, clambering out of the black lagoon of our primordial selves, "but as a rule it sinks back whence it came" (Waite). The mind, in the person of the grave, contemplative Man in the Moon, gazes tranquilly "upon the unrest below, and the dew of thought falls. The message is: 'Peace, be still,' and it may be that there shall come a calm upon the animal nature, while the abyss beneath shall cease from giving up form.'"xix
Some sources associate the Moon card with confusion, fear, anxiety, romanticism, sleep, and dreaming. Rather than succumb to a moon-maddened confusion of dream and daylit world, they advise, the seeker should strive to sublimate his turbulent psychic energies into creative expression. Holmes reads Nerval's turnaround, from the quest for illumination in exotic lands to an inner odyssey through memory and madness, as a parable about Romantic excess: "The imagination of the Hero had finally doubled back on itself, and the rivers and mountains, the visions and revolutions had become…those of a purely internal landscape, or moonscape, the world of dreams."xx
At times, Holmes himself seems to teeter on the brink of a hermeneutic rabbit-hole, perilously close to the semiotic madness I've called the Casaubon Complex, after the scholar of occultism and conspiracy theories, in Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco, who, "wanting connections, …found connections—always, everywhere, and between everything," plunging him into a frenzy of intertextuality where "the world exploded in a whirling network of kinships, where everything pointed to everything else, everything explained everything else…" xxi Holmes worries about getting lost in the "labyrinth that Nerval himself made of his life; a maze of fantasy and memory."xxii
I…began to interpret Nerval's life almost entirely in terms of the magic world by which he himself was so fascinated. … Everything in Nerval's life came to have symbolic meaning, full of archetypes, alchemical processes, astrological signs, mystic correspondences and invisible harmonies. … I saw his whole life as a pilgrimage, or journey of initiation, intended to reunite the spiritual and material values of his generation. xxiii
Read through the magic glasses of occult symbolism, Nerval's life does indeed encourage overinterpretation. This, after all, was the man who said, "I like to arrange my life as if it were a novel"; the man whose first breakdown, brought on by the frenzied delirium of the Paris mardi gras in 1841, was marked by manic talk of numerology and astrology and "mystical systems" under his control (a condition his doctors diagnosed as "Theomania or Demonomania," he claimed).xxiv Doesn't his description of the awakened consciousness that follows his mystical epiphany, in his novel Aurélia (1855), sound like a variation on Casaubon's theme? "The talk of my companions took on mysterious turns of meaning which I alone could understand, and formless, inanimate objects lent themselves to the calculations of my mind." xxv Hadn't Gautier noted, in his review of Nerval's magazine dispatches from Cairot, Beirut, and Constantinople, Scènes de la Vie Orientale (1846-7), the author's uncanny ability to penetrate "the profoundly mysterious spirit" of the myths and folklore of the East, "in which each object contains a symbol"?xxvi
One could even say that he took from them certain occult meanings intended only for the neophyte, certain cabalistic formulae and overtones of theIlluminati, which made one believe, at times, that he was writing directly of his own personal initiation. xxvii
Was the lobster walk-initially dismissed as symptomatic of Nerval's nuttiness, more recently historicized as anti-bourgeois performance art—an occult transmission, broadcast to anyone with a working set of gnostic antennae? Is Nerval's famous quote a compressed meditation, informed by the Tarot, on the importance of balancing the rationalism of industrial modernity and the repression of bourgeois society with the creative energies of the unconscious? (Well over a half-century later, Andre Breton would take a page not only from Nerval's writings but from the book of his life, acknowledging his "supernaturalism" as Surrealism's antecedent.xxviii Salvador Dali, never one to miss a marketable trick, would resurrect Nerval's totem in his Surrealist object Lobster Telephone (1936), cannily mystified with the usual Dalinian flapdoodle about phallic symbols and castration complexes.) Were Nerval's barking, ravening dogs the rough beasts of the id, familiar from the Moon card? Was his "peaceful, serious" lobster a Surrealist reconciliation (perhaps even an alchemical or Kabbalistic synthesis) of the Moon's ruminative intellect with "that which comes up out of the deeps," the unconscious? Are his "secrets of the sea" the Hidden Meanings of Things, accessible only through a meeting of our rational and irrational minds, a conjunction symbolized by the primordial lobster scrambling into the sunlight of reason? Is that why Thibault's leash was blue—blue for the marriage of Heaven and Earth; blue for the empyrean and the briny deep; blue for midnight blue, the color of the conscious day when it yields to the dreamworld of sleep; blue for "the real, or rather climate, of the unreal—or of the surreal," as The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols has it? "Blue stands still and resolves within itself those contradictions and alternations of fortune—day following night—which modulate human life," the Dictionary tells us. "Indifferent and unafraid, centred solely upon itself, blue is not of this world: it evokes the idea of eternity," or, for our purposes, surreality.xxix When Nerval says, of the descent into dreams, "I have never been able to cross through those gates of ivory or horn which separate us from the invisible world without a sense of dread," is he also alluding to the twin towers guarding the Moon card's twisting, turning path, perhaps the "royal road to the unconscious" of Freudian dream analysis?xxx
The Lacanian psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva calls the Black Sun of Nerval's melancholia "a dazzling metaphor that suggests an insistence without presence, a light without representation…bright and black at the same time."xxxi For Kristeva, the oxymoronic sun of Nerval's sonnet is that unnamable, unrepresentable "supreme good" of which the depressed narcissist believes he has been deprived. But given Nerval's mystical Surrealism (or, if you prefer, Surrealist mysticism), couldn't it also stand in for the gnostic mysteries that taunted him, a lowly lobster making his painful way along the road to Unknown Mysteries? Could that be why he hoped his last night would be black and white, bright and dark at the same time, closing the curtain on this world and parting the veil to reveal…something, some ineffable truth beyond the symbolic realm?
Then again, the proposition that Nerval expected any sort of posthumous payoff seems dubious in light of his black-humor homily, decades before Nietzsche, "God is dead! the heavens are empty… Weep! children, you have no father now!"xxxii In Aurélia, published shortly after his suicide, he sends one last message, encrypted as always: "I said to myself: eternal night is upon us, and the darkness will be frightful. What will happen when they all realize there is no more sun?" xxxiii
God may be dead, but I can still amuse myself with extinct religions. At the same time, I must beware of staring too long into the Black Sun. My irrational mind and my animal nature are essential aspects of my best self; they should follow me wherever I go (though always on a leash). Each night, I will descend into the abyssal depths of the unconscious without fear, secure in the knowledge that seeking the secrets of the sea is its own reward, even if I don't remember them in the morning. Likewise, I will arrange my life as if it were a novel, even if no one will ever read it but me. As its author, I have the power to edit out people who gobble up my monadic privacy, making room for peaceful, serious types who remind me of arthropods.
About the Author
Mark Dery is a cultural critic who suffers from the Casaubon Complex.
His books include The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink and Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. He edited the trailblazing anthology of digital-culture criticism, Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, and popularized the culture jamming phenomenon through his widely reprinted monograph, Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs. His latest book is the essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams. He is at work on a biography of the author, illustrator, and legendary eccentric Edward Gorey (Little, Brown: 2014).
ii Borel and Dondey, along with Nerval, Théophile Gautier, and others were part of a group of Parisian bohemians, equal parts salon and cultural insurgency, who called themselves the Petit Cénacle. They were Young Romantics, says the critic Richard Holmes, "in effect the literary groupies of Victor Hugo." (See Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (New York: Vintage, 1996), 223.) Soon, the group changed its name to the Jeunes-France and ultimately to the Bouzingos, a slang term that translates, roughly, as "shit-heels." According to the critic and cultural historian Luc Sante, "Most of them were poets; they were fascinated by the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, by upheaval, delirium, and death. They flirted with nudism, smoked hashish, dressed extravagantly, waved daggers, drank from skulls, lived every minute in a state of heightened artifice, as if they were onstage." (See Luc Sante, "Petrus Borel," HiLoBrow, June 26, 2011, http://hilobrow.com/2011/06/26/petrus-borel/.)
iii Gérard de Nerval, Aurélia, in Gérard de Nerval: Selected Writings, ed. Richard Sieburth (London: Penguin Group, 1999), 291.
vii William John Robertson, A Century Of French Verse: Brief Biographical and Critical Notices of Thirty-Three French Poets of the Nineteeth Century With Experimental Translations From Their Poems (A.D. Innes & co., 1895), 75.
viii Clifton Fadiman,The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1985), n.p.
ix Quoted in Madeleine Schwartz, "Lobsters and Lies," The New Yorker,
xii All quotes from scientists taken from e-mails to the author.
xiii Dr. Atema wonders if Nerval's lobster was really a crayfish. In an e-mail to me, he speculated, "People sometimes confuse (marine) lobsters and (freshwater) crayfish. If it were a freshwater crayfish, it could take an occasional dunk in the Palais pond. Crayfish can make short overland excursions across moist terrain as do eels and some catfishes. The European lobster could be one- to two-feet long, a memorable appearance. In Europe, the crayfish would be no more than six inches long, which would not inspire lobster lore." Then again, "as Ovidius said: rumors grow with time, thus turning a crayfish into a lobster," explains Atema, adding, "a crayfish is more likely to have been a 'pet' with a home tank of fresh water and a palace pond to wet his gills, now and then, during strolls on a blue ribbon leash."
xiv Quoted in Scott Horton, "Nerval: A Man and His Lobster," Harper's, October 12, 2008, Harpers.
xv Moore, an outspoken animal-rights activist, is well known for promoting the idea that there's no cruelty-free way to kill a lobster. See the unbylined article, "New Animal Rights Cause Urges, 'Free the Lobsters!,'" The New York Times, December 31, 1995, NYT .
xxiv "I like to arrange…": Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature (Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010 edition of E.P. Dutton & Co., 1919 edition), 69. "Mystical systems": Holmes, Footsteps, 237.
xxviii Breton in 1924: "I believe that there is no point today in dwelling any further on this word [surrealism]…[W]e could probably have taken over the word SUPERNATURALISM employed by Gérard de Nerval. It appears, in fact, that Nerval possessed to a tee [sic] the spirit with which we claim kinship." Quoted in Nancy Frazier, I, Lobster: A Crustacean Odyssey(Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press), 117-18.
xxix Jean Chevalier, Alain Gheerbrant, and John Buchanan-Brown, ed. (London: Penguin, 1996), The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, 103.