[I continue my sabbatical from long-form criticism as I write my novel, Major Arcana, which I am now serializing in both text and audio format for paid subscribers on my Substack, Grand Hotel Abyss. The novel’s Preface, not paywalled, is here; it provides everything from a plot summary to an explanation of the paywall logistics to a preemptive defense of the soon-to-be controversial fiction’s ideological character. Also on the same Substack, but for all subscribers, you can subscribe to my free weekly newsletter on literature and culture. For now, a brief catalogue of my last month’s reading, minus The Winter’s Tale, about which I did write, in case you missed it, my annual essay for Shakespeare’s birthday.]
Roberto Bolaño, 2666
The correspondents who urged me to read this said it might be the best novel of the 21st century. I can’t quarrel with that. I find it a difficult book to write about, since I’m not sure how it achieves its power. As with early embarrassed English commenters on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, we have to cast aside the formal vocabulary of literary criticism and begin to speak of ineffables like “soul.” We find a constant joyful inventiveness, a proliferation of life in the midst of the death that is the novel’s overwhelming theme and was its author’s onrushing destination. When I was halfway through the vast labyrinth, I wrote a little sociological analysis of the canny way Bolaño conflates passionate political concern with experimental literature to enhance the dignity of both. This is true but doesn’t capture the gravity of the achievement, as sociological analysis never does. Let me rebut a hostile critic to see if that will get us any closer to this heart of darkness. The late Jean Franco, Marxist doyenne of Latin American literary studies in the U.S., censured Bolaño because he “often sounds like romantic anarchist.” Bolaño hardly denies it. In the novel’s fifth section, we read of a Russian writer and holy fool named Ansky who sets himself against “semblance,” a mission that inspires the German author, Archimboldi, at the novel’s literary center:
Only Ansky’s wandering isn’t semblance, he thought, only Ansky at fourteen isn’t semblance. Ansky lived his whole life in rabid immaturity because the revolution, the one true revolution, is also immature.
A conventional leftist like Franco, whose political tradition makes a cult of state power, obviously finds this unacceptable, a critique Bolaño anticipates in 2666 by satirizing Soviet literature with its conviction that the writer should be a solid citizen. Bolaño likewise shows the state, not only the bygone Soviet and Nazi states but also the extant Mexican and American states, as anywhere between systematically brutal or criminally negligent toward not only its citizens but all people passing though its domain. In my own early review of By Night in Chile, I likewise questioned an anarchism so thoroughgoing that it manages to stigmatize as semblance not only the modern state but also most of what we might call living. It won’t work as theory; I am about to demolish it again in theory at the end of this post when I go on the attack against David Lindsay’s gnostic fantasy A Voyage to Arcturus. It can only prove itself in practice. Bolaño’s practice can’t be improved. He imagines life wildly against the descending darkness. He cultivates, grows, and plucks the flowers of evil, to press them between every black page of this mausoleum of a book where all the cast-off victims of worldly maturity have been interred and therefore immortalized, as much a permanent elegy as a permanent revolution. When the dance is death—and it is—romantic anarchism never sounded so good.
François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, The Invisible Frontier
This is the most recent in IDW’s new translations of the Franco-Belgian Cités obscures graphic novels set in a fantastical world that hazily refracts our own; I wrote about some of the others here. First published in two volumes in 2002 and 2004, and presumably conceived earlier against the backdrop of the Balkan wars, The Invisible Frontier is a characteristically oneiric deconstructive-postcolonalist parable from Schuiten and Peeters: Kafka plus Borges plus steampunk in tone and genre. The narrative concerns a mapmaker besieged by futurists who would displace his art with technology and by politicians who demand that nationalist priorities should overwrite precise cartography. Our beleaguered hero undertakes his own quest to find the nation’s original contours in the birthmark on the body of his consort, a prostitute in the cartographers’ outpost. Artist Schuiten and writer Peeters tell us not only the obvious truth, flattering to artists and humanists: that technology is complicit with nationalist and military power. They also show that artists and humanists themselves seek their own mastery over the feminized landscape, a landscape that finally circumscribes them as it circumscribes all its ephemeral (masculine) interlopers. This is just the type of story we might expect from Peeters, not only a comic-book scripter but also the biographer of Jacques Derrida; Schuiten illustrates the narrative with a lushness that recalls the turn of the prior century—Arts Nouveau and Deco—rather than this one.
Ernst Jünger, On the Marble Cliffs
Alta Plana is a metropolis in Schuiten and Peeters’s aforementioned Cités obscures graphic novels; it is also a place in this dreamy and brutal 1939 novel. Apparently nobody writing in English has made the connection, even though Jünger’s prose manifestly shares elements of tone and style with the comic. Anyway, as the most sophisticated of the American literati withdraw from the quasi-Maoist cultural politics of the last decade, Jünger, with his elite quietism, is en vogue, as indicated by NYRB Classics publishing a new translation of this novel. It was famous in its own time because it seems, daringly, to criticize Hitler—this, when he was at the height of his power, and from the political right, from the perspective of an aristocratic reserve no less disdainful of petit-bourgeois barbarism than was, for example, the Frankfurt School. Nevertheless, through the novel’s fantastical and timeless setting, Jünger keeps his political allegory calculatedly non-specific. In our own era, an explicitly right-wing reviewer sees in the brutality of Jünger’s Hitleresque Chief Ranger an anticipation of Justin Trudeau’s pandemic policies and BLM’s not-always-totally-peaceful protests, while an implicitly left-wing reviewer detects in it instead Trump and the rioters of January 6, two basically beside-the-point interpretations. Any sensitive, bookish reader will be attracted to the lushly evoked withdrawal of our monkishly botanist heroes in the eponymous fastness—I found the belatedly Decadent prose cloying, in fact—until it is overtaken by the uncontrolled corruption and violence loosed by the Ranger. The novel provides a credo for the artist or thinker exhausted by political contention:
While evil flourished like mushroom spawn in rotten wood, we plunged deeper into the mystery of flowers, and their chalices seemed larger and more brilliant than before. But, above all, we continued our study of language, for in the word we recognised the gleaming magic blade before which tyrants pale. There is a trinity of word, liberty and spirit.
I hope there is. Jünger narrates the conflagration of the final pages with an entranced, nearly erotic precision. I was reminded of Alejo Carpentier’s roughly contemporaneous The Kingdom of This World, the inaugural novel of Latin American magical realism, despite the superficial divide between Carpentier’s New-World proletarian communism and Jünger’s Old-World aristocratic libertarianism. In the public library I could only get my hands on Stuart Hood’s 1947 translation, not the new NYRB one by Tess Lewis, but the old Penguin Twentieth-Century Classic, long out of print, carries the eloquent rebuke of an introduction by George Steiner, written in 1969, judging the novel “a tragic failure of nerve.” In conclusion, I quote Steiner at length, intending the grim paradox that Jünger’s quietism, the correct aesthetic stance, could not generate major art:
Ernst Jünger’s fairy tale is as cold and inert as its haunting title. Though composed of short sentences which are characteristic of his manner, it achieves the laboured solemnity of a slow-motion film. No shaft of humour dents its burnished panoply. The tale is brimful of pain and violence. Yet they are seen in a distancing light. The battle of the great hounds is one of the cruellest set-pieces in modern fantasy. The narrator himself compares the scene with the pit of hell. Nevertheless, the dominant note is one of unreality, or ceremonious stillness. It is as if all the maddened, wildly moving shapes were transfixed in the heavy cadence of a dream. Where have we seen that murderous chase before, that ornate blaze of spears and torches in a night-forest? In the paintings of Ucello. Ucello is an arresting painter; but he is also a minor master, or one whose brilliant work is marginal to the main energies of Renaissance art. Eroded by sentimentality and middle-class taste, his hard enamelling, his static violence, re-appear in the Pre-Raphaelites. Jünger’s eye is strikingly akin to that of Millais and Rossetti. Both aesthetics register the same minute details of flora and fauna, the same tints of precious stones and woven silk. […] The dandy confronts the sum of life but keeps it at a gauntlet’s length. Like his counterparts in the dramas of Montherlant, there is one temptation only which Jünger finds it really difficult to resist: die Versuchung zur Menschenverachtung, the temptation to despise human beings. Now I suspect this attitude is more current among highly cultured men than one supposes. But Jünger makes a virtue of what is, essentially, a grave defect of consciousness, an atrophy at the vital centre.
Harold Bloom, The Book of J, and the Books of Samuel and Kings
Bloom’s well-known superficial outrage in The Book of J conceals a much deeper provocation. In his commentary on David Rosenberg’s translation of most of Genesis, half of Exodus, and part of Numbers, Bloom claims that this lively narrative stratum of the Torah, long recognized to have been written by a non-priestly author as opposed to much of the rest of the five books, was in fact written by an ironic female courtly poet. This fancied female version of what Biblical scholars call the “J source” wrote, Bloom surmises, at the end of the Solomonic enlightenment and before the inevitable division of David’s monarchy, a fall narrated from the death of David to the Babylonian captivity in 1 and 2 Kings. Our female author was contemporary with the court poet who composed David’s story in the Book of Samuel, Bloom further claims. The two books, therefore, express the same nostalgia for the amoral vitality God treasured in his favorite servant, the beautifully errant king who “danced with all his might before the Lord.” With his rereading of the Hebrew Bible, then, Bloom makes a Nietzschean and Kafkaesque riposte to normative Judaism and Christianity. The deepest layer of the Good Book is a book beyond good and evil, one in which “Yahweh is irony and not just the spirit of irony.” Irony, defined most simply as the irruption of the unexpected, bolsters the principles of life and change enshrined by the book of J:
For J, as I have stressed throughout, Yahweh is not to be conceived as holiness or righteousness but as vitality. If God’s leading attribute is vitality, then his creature, the human, is most godlike when most vital. A monistic vitalism that refuses to distinguish between flesh and spirit is at the center of J’s vision, which is thus at the opposite extreme from either the Gnostic or the Pauline Christian dualism. […] [Yahweh] is in every sense livelier than we are, because he is not to be distinguished from living more abundantly, living more like David, who had exhausted every human possibility yet went on in fullness of being, open to more experience, more love, more grief, more guilt and suffering, more dancing in exuberance before the Ark of Yahweh.
As interesting as his critique of organized religion is Bloom’s implicit self-critique here, in a 1990 book that marks his transition from academic theory to popular criticism: his recanting the gnostic dualism that enchanted him in the earlier part of his career, as we’ll see in a moment when considering his favorite fantasy novel. Bloom disconcertingly but refreshingly uses “elitist” as a term of praise throughout this book, since Yahweh appreciates the individuality of such laughing and intrepid women as Sarah and Tamar, of a troubadour-king like David, more than he could ever enjoy the resentful and murmuring rabble poor Moses has to shepherd through the wilderness; nevertheless, Bloom ends up sounding like the romantic anarchist Bolaño when he concludes of J’s vision, as against those of the priests who have subsumed her,
Learning to read J ultimately will teach you how much authority has taught you already, and how little authority knows.
Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation
If I may, I will reprise here with a few revisions what I wrote about this novel in my newsletter this month. I finally finished one of Ottessa Moshfegh’s books after struggling publicly for years with what I took to be their dull prose despite their audacity of conception. My Year of Rest and Relaxation was my success, of course, probably her consensus masterpiece so far. I still insist this narrative of a woman who withdraws for a year into sleep at the turn of the present millennium could begin more strongly, but I concede it eventually effloresces into a unique poignance. Once I realized how well the novel pairs with DeLillo’s White Noise—both are written in a deadpan first-person about strange pharmaceuticals, both flirt with romanticizing violence as an escape from the enervations of the everyday, both finally counsel a spiritual embrace of the post- or hypermodern quotidian—I navigated straight to the end. And what an end, a pointed recasting not only of DeLillo’s own remarks about terrorism but also a calculated redemption of Stockhausen’s notorious statement after 9/11. This outrage, the ultimate in amoral aestheticism, shouldn’t work, but it does, and very beautifully. Andrea Long Chu has written the canonical hatchet job on Moshfegh to date:
Moshfegh describes her writing process as an ecstatic experience of “channeling a voice,” and she has often expressed a desire to “be pure and real and make whatever is coming to me from God.” The epigraph to Lapvona, “I feel stupid when I pray,” is taken from a Demi Lovato song about feeling abandoned by God. But the phrase also recalls Moshfegh herself, who imagines that her “destiny” is to reach into readers and transmit the divine. “My mind is so dumb when I write,” she told an early interviewer. “I just write down what the voice has to say.” In other words, there’s a reason God isn’t listening: He’s busy praying to people like Moshfegh.
Chu would prefer to this supposed arrogance, this paradoxical arrogance-by-kenosis, what she calls “politics,” commenting, for example, that “Moshfegh has no interest in class critique,” as if it went without saying that she should, or even as if it went without saying that the novelist’s expert eye for class difference were incompatible with critique just because it’s not didactic. Moshfegh, however, drunk on the words God has whispered just to her, is in the American vein—romantic, anarchist—to which the imaginative impositions of a materialist and collectivist politics could be scarcely less relevant.
David Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus
Conscious that this 1920 cult classic has an underground reputation as one of the 20th century’s great novels, praised for its genius by luminaries as diverse as Frank Lloyd Wright, Alan Moore, and Harold Bloom, I’ve been carrying around a trashy old pulp paperback with an irrelevant dragon on the cover for 20 years. (The creature in the book turns out to be a monstrous insect.) When I read Colin Wilson’s The Craft of the Novel this month—as recounted in my newsletter—and saw that he called Arcturus one of the greatest imaginative works ever written, I decided finally to open the book. Unfortunately, I found it a tiresome, nasty, and clumsily written fable. The novel is an allegorical phantasmagoria about an earthling named Maskull who travels to the planet Tormance in search of novelty. Tormance’s sensual dissipations are under the sponsorship of its pleasurable and creative god, Crystalman, otherwise known as Shaping. Maskull soon sees through the prison of the flesh, however, and quests north across the planet in search of a counter-deity, whom the inhabitants of Tormance consider the devil: an alien god beyond matter who provides all life with its inner spark, a spark toiling in the agonies of nature’s cage. (I would quote a passage, but any quotation will be clogged with Lindsay’s awkward sub-Blakean fantasy jargon.) The novel’s theological upshot is that love, nature, pleasure, art, sex, society, and above all women are to be despised; exalted in their place is pain, since only through pain, and through such painful art as this novel and other such works devoted not to the beautiful but to the sublime, may we attain the gnosis of true divinity. Harold Bloom summarizes the artistic and intellectual genealogy of Lindsay’s latter-day gnostic gospel better than I can in his essay “Clinamen: Towards a Theory of Fantasy,” collected in Agon (1982):
Lindsay, like Pound and Stevens, must have read Pater’s first essay Diaphaneite, where the artist is called a crystal man, transparent and Apollonian, more than human in his perfection. Against Crystalman as Paterian Demiurge, Lindsay sets his most imaginative creation, the grotesque but stalwart god of redemptive pain, strikingly named Krag in what I take to be a tribute to Carlyle’s isolated hill farm in Dumfriesshire, the rugged Craigenputtoch, where Sartor Resartus was written, it being the book from which the religious vision of A Voyage to Arcturus is quarried. In Sartor Resartus, the post-Calvinist Lindsay found most of the ingredients of his Gnostic myth, presented by Carlyle however with his characteristic German High Romantic irony and parodistic frenzy of despair. […] Carlyle had insisted that the poet’s work was to see, a willed seeing that would dissolve the cosmos of the pleasure/pain principle for the sake of the high purpose of bringing the reader under the reign of the reality principle. But Pater, and Wilde after him, subverted Carlyle’s and Ruskin’s moral, post-Calvinist emphasis upon willed seeing as a royal road to reality. Pater’s Crystal or Aesthetic Man swerves away from a seeing that is a reality-testing to an Epicurean perceptiveness that dissolves external realities into a concourse of sensations. David Lindsay, following the northern vision of Carlyle, oddly achieves a fantastic world that indeed is Crystalman’s or Pater’s flux of sensations, but this is a world that Lindsay loathes, and names Tormance, a sado-masochistic amalgam of torment and of romance. The Carlyle-like demigod Krag remarks, with his customary bitterness, that once for all there is nothing worth seeing upon Tormance, an amazing remark that belies both the reader’s experience of the book and also Lindsay’s fantastic achievement. This paradox between disavowal and representation, in my own view, actually constitutes the aesthetic dynamism of literary fantasy.
Lindsay grew up under the aegis of Scottish Presbyterianism, hence his forbidding northern romance with its insight into the gnosticism that Calvinism actually is. A similar but better book influenced by Sartor Resartus, however, is Moby-Dick, structured by its dialectic between Ishmael and Ahab; Lindsay gives us all Ahab and no Ishmael, sinking his craft before the voyage starts. Bloom sees in Lindsay the culmination of a line that begins with Blake and the Shelleys, as well as German Romantics like Hoffmann and Novalis, and then passes through Robert Browning and Lewis Carroll as well as Ruskin and Carlyle before reaching the 20th century where it is comprehensively theorized by Freud. The early Bloom, who had not yet discovered that a woman wrote the best parts of the Bible and that Shakespeare invented the human, pledged his own fealty to this Romantic tradition of gnostic fantasy. On the other hand, Bloom entirely dismisses the northern romance’s milder modern form, tempered by Anglo-Catholicism, that most of us think of when we hear “fantasy”:
That exhaustion, and the textual violence provoking it, are the uncanny or Sublime splendor of Lindsay’s book, and place it, I would argue, at the very center of modern fantasy, in contrast to the works of the Neochristian Inklings which despite all their popularity are quite peripheral. Tolkien, Lewis and Williams actually flatter the reader’s Narcissism, while morally softening the reader’s Prometheanism. Lindsay strenuously assaults the reader’s Narcissism, while both hardening the reader’s Prometheanism and re minding the reader that Narcissism and Prometheanism verge upon an identity. Inkling fantasy is soft stuff, because it pretends that it benefits from a benign transmission both of romance tradition and of Christian doctrine. Lindsay’s savage masterpiece compels the reader to question both the sources of fantasy, within the reader, and the benignity of the handing-on of tradition. Fantasy is shown by Lindsay to be a mode in which freedom is won, if at all, by a fearful agon with tradition, and at the price of the worst kind of psychic over-determination, which is the sado-masochistic turning of aggressivity against the self.
I insist, however, on a third tradition—the tradition, indeed, of Crystalman. In modernity, it begins with Shakespeare, is exemplified among the Romantics by Keats, and passes through Pater and Wilde to modernists like Joyce and Stevens. As opposed to the journeys north in novels by Mary Shelley, Carlyle, and Lindsay, the locus of this tradition’s longed-for paradise is southerly, what Stevens calls “an Italy of the mind,” though he himself found it in Key West: “O for a beaker full of the warm South,” cries Keats. In this tradition, the beautiful becomes the sublime through nature’s self-transfiguration by humans as art: the art itself is nature. No need to hate, then, whatever actually appears on earth, be it nature or art, sculpted stone or living flesh. As for what religious name we may give this third tradition to accompany the other two’s post-Calvinism and Anglo-Catholicism, I can only be suggestive rather than definitive. In invoking Narcissus, Bloom alludes to Shakespeare’s beloved Ovid. Only when I recently read the whole of Ovid’s Metamorphoses did I understand something of what we might call the low-church Catholicism in which I was reared, a creed little akin to what Christians like Lewis and Tolkien had in mind. Ovid, like my maternal line, came from the stony landscape of Abruzzo. This observation would only be sentimental identity politics on my part except that the place had barely developed since Ovid’s time by the year my grandparents fled in the middle 20th century. My late grandmother was, spiritually speaking, the once provincial, eventually urbane, and finally exilic Roman poet’s contemporary. I mention it only because I derived the following idea from reading Ovid: the true name of the maternal goddess my grandmother always used to petition as “Madonna,” the obvious center of her faith rather than the masculine personages of the Holy Trinity, may in fact be Medea.
Images: Paolo Uccello, Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino Unseats Bernardino della Carda at the Battle of San Romano (c.1435–1455); François Schuiten, The Invisible Frontier (2004).