Review: The Confusions of Young Törless

'A thought—it may have passed through our brain long ago—comes to life only at the moment when it is joined by something that is no longer thought, no longer logical, so that we feel its truth beyond all justification, like an anchor tearing from it into blood-filled, living flesh...'

The Confusions of Young Törless is one of those rare, incendiary books that reframes remarkably diverse avenues of thought without sacrificing an inner-cohesion: here we can find winding, tortured examinations of subjects as diverse as social anxiety, epistemology, mysticism, morality, sexuality, sadism, classism; if the novel succeeds, though, at weaving such disparate threads into a symmetrical whole, it is because the titular Törless' journey from naïveté to young adulthood remains isolated as a single point in both time and experience—The Confusions of Young Törless is, expressly, a life examined: but it is a life as difficult to dissect in circumstance as in totality. That it is simultaneously an eerily prophetic cautionary tale (to a point) capable of deftly illustrating the wanton cruelty and corrupting influence of power upon the youth of a pre-Fascist Europe and also a haunting profile of adolescent homosexuality is a testament to Robert Musil's unique talents for subtlety, depth, and hypnotically inward-peering honesty.

Törless, a thoughtful boy, is sent away to a prestigious boarding school, where he finds himself in the company of two other young men (proto-Fascists, both), Reiting and Beineberg; the former idolizes Napoleon and aspires to high authority while the latter possesses a noxiously parochial mystic strain (a remarkable bit of precognition on Musil's part, given the obsession with Occultism that the Nazis, decades later, would fixate upon). Törless, meanwhile, spends much of his time consumed by a kind of inner anarchy, ruminating at length upon the paradoxes and slippery formlessness of his own philosophical, near-existential, obsessions—namely, highly contentious questions surrounding the 'what' and the 'why' of the confusing dualities of the rational and irrational (particularly well-illustrated by a meditation on imaginary numbers). A relatively trivial crime—a theft—committed by a further adolescent, the lithe and attractive Basini, sets in motion a series of shockingly debauched episodes in which the three young men—Törless chiefly (though hardly exclusively) in the role of observer—brutally rape, defile, and lambaste the meek, effete, and troubled Basini. Over the course of these debasements, Törless' confusion over his mingled attractions and repulsions regarding the vicitimzed youth, as both an object of disdain and almost transcendent beauty, forces Törless to confront more openly both the anomie of his peers and his own curiously all-encompassing weltschmerz, all the while professing an ultimate indifference towards the fate of the long-suffering Basini.

It is within this last that much of the novel's complexity develops: Törless is concerned with his own development and self-understanding, without exception; and while impulse forces upon him a more magnanimous view of Basini's plight (inasmuch as it amounts to torture), when the dust clears, his repudiation of the barbarism of his peers is more a byproduct of his dismissal of petty arrogance, 'mysticism,' and incongruities of logic than a defense of the abused. He loathes the idea of Basini as much as he finds cause for ridicule in the credos of Reiting or Beineberg, which effectively neutralizes the situation, amid his exhaustive meditation; the highly-immoral persecution of Basini is only disturbing to Törless inasmuch as it distracts him from concrete direction within his own life. Törless never fully disavows or approves of the crimes central to the novel's plot: though it can be argued that by reducing the aggressors to the same feeble folly as the victim, Musil illustrates the hypocrisy and inanity of authoritarianism through the omnipresence of narration.

Robert Musil is chiefly noted for his unfinished The Man Without Qualities, an influential text of Modernism; but it is in The Confusions of Young Törless, his first novel—penned at a mere twenty-six-years-old and highly influenced by his own years in boarding school—that Musil bridges the gap between the Symbolist and Decadent modes contemporaneous with his youth and the Postmodernism that was to evolve in the aftermath of the political and social movements (only in their infancies at the time of publication) that the novel, arguably, presages. Reiting and Beineberg have their analogues in various political figures of the coming decades and it takes little imagination to see these remarkably human characters—here described in their youth with all its folly, naïveté, arrogance, and pretension—as the seeds of later Hitlers, Francos, and Mussolinis. Given the themes, accents, and dubious moralities of The Confusions of Young Törless, then, it is hardly surprising that the Nazi government that came to power in the latter years of Musil's life saw fit to burn it: a circumstance as decidedly bereft of justice as the conclusion of the novel itself.

Very seldom are novels written from places of personal experience without collapsing, even if only briefly, into the motions of maudlin nostalgia or self-defense. This is not one of those novels—from first page to last, this affecting and disturbing account of anxiety, decadence, and the liberation of the intellect is almost clinically concerned with the candor of its narrative. Lacking heavy-handed leitmotif or obvious allegory, indifferent to the attractive glimmer of intellectual or emotional trifles, The Confusions of Young Törless—a century onwards—remains both a classic of Expressionist literature and a strikingly effective indictment of subjugation and violence, even if only through the lens of its protagonist's detached and highly-abstract inquisitions.


Review: Severin's Journey into the Dark

    ‘The gaunt man looked at him searchingly from behind his round glasses, and held Severin’s hand in front of his face longer than he had any of the others.
    You have experienced a destiny – he said when he looked up again – a great destiny, what was it?
    I haven’t experienced anything – Severin said, and pulled his arm away.
    Then it will come – You have a hand 

                                         to be feared.’

Paul Leppin, alongside Kafka and Gustav Meyrink, was one of the 20th Century’s great writers of urban fiction; and, like Kafka and Meyrink, he took as his muse the city of Prague. Leppin’s Prague, like Rodenbach’s Bruges, is a city of insistent gloom, lassitude, and decay. Severin’s Journey into the Dark, perhaps Leppin’s most widely-regarded novel, is the sort of corrosive, suffocating book that could only have been written by the sort of wandering soul it seeks to paint a portrait of. And while the titular Severin (a reference, of course, to Masoch’s Venus in Furs—which connotation could be argued, perhaps, to suffuse the entire novel with an air of claustrophobia and pain) walks the deceptively well-lit pathway to decline, his ‘journey into the dark’ often takes second-billing to the atmosphere of pestilential deterioration Leppin conjures under the namesake of ‘Prague.’ But the city, decorated with wounded souls, is a mirror of the man: and its rain and filth and languor and gloom is as much an extrapolation of the inner decay of Severin himself as it is a symbol of anonymity and brooding fog.

The novel has a plot, but it consists solely of episodic interactions with the ghosts that comprise Severin’s circle in Prague; and we wander with him, through the soul-crushing ennui of office work, the effete salon of a withered aesthete, the private armory of a mad anarchist, the personal residence of a rakish occultist, a filthy old man's bookshop, cafes of languid dissipation and perversion: this is a Prague that knows no innocence, and hence only harm. Along the way, Severin wounds two women, damages irreparably a third, and nearly destroys a fourth. He is not an innocent caught in the sickly puddle of sludge that is leaking from the heart of Prague; if anything, his own ugliness serves its perpetuation—which makes our sympathy for this lonely victim of terror and taedium vitae all the more distressing. Leppin’s genius manifests itself when it tickles the strings of universal experience, chiefly through painting an extreme and then allowing those on the other side to identify intimations of their own potential ruin in the journey towards perdition undergone by one particularly envenomed soul.

But Severin is seeking redemption. His nihilism, anxiety, selfishness, detachment, and dirt must absolutely be viewed in this context; the complexity of Severin’s Journey into the Dark develops within its ironies: a product of the Decadence, it displays a marked indifference to the fate of prior heroes of these sorts of fictions (Des Esseintes, Athanasius Pernath, etc). There is no ultimate awakening or absolution fated for Severin: his ruin is inevitable, as is the destruction wrought at his hands. This cynical world-view, common enough in Decadent literature, is particularly poisonous and all-consuming in the work of Paul Leppin.

Severin’s Journey into the Dark haunts me in lonely moments, as I step off a bus and into the intestines of a city or as the fog begins to roll in from the sea, carrying with it the acid, agony, and oily soot of voices crying out the praises of degeneracy, sex, and sloth. I recommend it to those who can handle it: like anything caustic, a high pain-tolerance does wonders at insulating one from its destruction. For a time, that is.


Review: The Golem

(Via 'The Realm of the Unreal')

Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem has, in a very literal sense, rewritten who I am as a person. The labyrinthine philosophy and mystical power of this novel have shaped me as if I were clay: as if I were, in past life, a Golem—but, upon finishing Meyrink’s masterpiece, a tangible soul: no longer a thing of clay: awake, now, while before I was a sleeper, dreaming the dreams of previous symbols and identities—but now The Hanged Man, seeing the miracle of the mystery of Death: the great Death that brings the great Transformation, which is reflected, finally, in the mystery of Resurrection: in the cosmic alchemy—but this alchemy played out, now, on the human stage: within my own flesh. Meyrink’s work has—more than anything else I have ever encountered—impacted me to a degree that is at times almost uncanny: when I read The Golem, you see, there are times where I feel as if I were reading the work of my own pen: dreamy visions and meditations written in the foggy presence of my God and spelled out in hieroglyphs of fire.

As a story, The Golem is familiar: it utilizes the archetypal Gothic conflict of Jekyll and Hyde and, to a degree, the influence of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. These tropes, though, are redistilled through the lens of Jewish myth and modern urban horror to weave a twilight-colored narrative that startles and disturbs more than it terrifies or appals. The Golem’s terror is a terror of the soul—Meyrink’s bottomless mysticism so suffuses the novel with grace, that by book’s end we have found ourselves enchanted by his dark, haunted Prague simply because we have seen the hand of God cross over its baleful sky and lend light (and shadow) to the troubled lives of its curious inhabitants. The Golem’s protagonist, Athanasius Pernath, is the archetypal Hanged Man made flesh; he attains the level of symbol in a reader's mind: he is a parallel to our own fight against the madness of night, and his awakening is a mirror of our own journey to spiritual integration, universality, and alchemy.

It is exceedingly difficult to write about this novel, considering the almost unfathomable depths of its impact upon my own life. I relate to it in the same capacity as I relate to other texts of spiritual significance: the Tao Te Ching, the Qur’an, Ecclesiastes, Job, the Bhagavad Gita. It has so affected the very fabric of my identity and world-view that attempting to deconstruct it would, for me, be an exercise in the most profound of futilities. Consider this, then, less a review and more of a bit of personal show-and-tell: The Golem is a compass by which I can navigate the churning waters of spiritual vanity, to land, at last, upon a shore that is safe and supplied with the provisions of the soul: it is the light that beckons me away from the terror of night and to the rock that is, beyond the fog, the lump of fat my soul has sought so painfully through the tortures of waking life and the formless vapor of hollow ‘epiphany.’

This novel is Truth, and it has given me my freedom: Meyrink tore the shackles from my eyelids—he taught me how to see.


Review: Tales of Mystery and Imagination

(Via 'The Realm of the Unreal')

Edgar Allan Poe is the savior of Gothic literature: not only is he largely responsible for salvaging the Gothic imagination from a deeply stagnant mire of clichéd melodrama, over-rehearsed motifs, and unreservedly bad writing, he is also the father of two genres that, in essence, did not exist before he put pen to paper: the detective story (chiefly) and what we refer to today as the ‘psychological’ horror story. His use of Gothic devices, though, ensured that the mode did not entirely disassemble: rather, it took on new shapes and meanings—new colors: without Poe, there would be no Bierce and no Lovecraft, no Turn of the Screw or Picture of Dorian Gray; it can even be argued that, without Poe, there would be no Melville or Conrad—no Heart of Darkness, no Moby-Dick. Our literary debt to this single, sui generis figure is so significant that, a century and a half after his death, he remains one of the most widely-read and influential of all American authors, both here and abroad—particularly in France, where he was the immediate muse of Baudelaire, and, by extension, the Decadent movement. This is no small feat for a man whose common leitmotifs include premature burial, decomposition, disassociation, anomie, mourning, insanity, and a general repudiation of the more common Romantic applications of allegory and moral. Much of his reputation in his own day relied as much upon his poetry, numerous satires, humor pieces, and scathing critical reviews as upon his ‘tales of the grotesque and arabesque,’ but I will limit this review to the latter.

Among the varied output of of a highly variable man,'The Masque of the Red Death' makes an especially compelling case for a unique philosophy in art. A formative influence upon the Symbolist movement, the familiar comeuppance of ‘happy and dauntless and sagacious’ Prince Prospero at the hands of a ghastly plague he has sought to avoid through reclusion can be viewed as a sort of Á Rebours in miniature. Those seeking an allegory or final moral in this profoundly symbolic piece will find none: it is a fable, but it owes very little to Aesop. In common with Poe’s other out-right horror-work (‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ ‘The Black Cat,’ ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ and the remarkably gruesome ‘Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’), ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is more an examination of the limits of the psyche: and these limits, in ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’ are examined, chiefly, through a reader’s inability to refrain from attaching any ultimate ‘meaning’ to the story presented. To this end, Poe demonstrates what is, perhaps, the totality of his vision: that ambiguity itself can become a theme in literature, particularly when this ambiguity mirrors its own content (as in ‘The Assignation,’ ‘Silence,’ ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ or the mingled horror/humor of ‘King Pest,’ which Poe claims contains an ‘allegory,’ but which, of course, contains none at all). For Poe, symbolism can exist outside of allegory—this was what Baudelaire and the Decadents responded to most intensely: a scent can have a color, a sound a feeling. Poe invented this system of correspondences, even as he distanced himself from the idea of ‘correspondence.’

At the other end of the spectrum, Poe’s detective stories—he deemed them tales of ‘ratiocination’—remain among his most immediately influential: without Poe, as in so many other cases, there would be no Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or Mystery of the Yellow Room. Poe mapped the modes of this method of storytelling through the introduction of his ingenious C. Auguste Dupin, who unravels the mysteries of the widely-read ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ alongside its sequel, ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget,’ and ‘The Purloined Letter.’ Poe tried his hand at similarly ordered tales of mystery unraveled, as in ‘The Gold Bug,’ but it was to be his construction of a central detective character—now a stock type, near-universally possessed of a justified arrogance, clarity of vision, and uncanny fastidiousness—that would have, arguably, the greatest impact of all Poe’s literary inventions.

Poe was famously haunted by recurring themes of grief, beauty, and decay, and his characters, particularly those mourning dead lovers, can often be viewed as surrogates for Poe himself—whether intentional or unintentional—and this idea of self-insertion would be a further influence upon Decadent literature, from Baudelaire to Mallarmé, Wilde, Huysmans and beyond. There is little predictability to this set of motifs, however, as Poe's characters, so often taken to particularly poisoned states of mourning, behave in dramatically different ways: the only dubiously-bereaved narrator of ‘Morella,’ with his near-hatred for the object of his affections, stands in striking contrast to that of ‘Ligeia,’ whose intensely unhinged state (as much a product of opium as of sorrow) is responsible for an ending that can be viewed as either dream or reality, depending upon a reader’s interpretation. In further contrast is the narrator of the horrifying ‘Berenice,’ whose obsession eventually centers upon one, solely physical, feature of his cataleptic lover, with gruesome results. Catalepsy is a recurring motif in Poe’s work, particularly within this variety of story, but premature burial itself was less a particular obsession of Poe’s than a general, widespread paranoia of Victorian audiences as a whole. Poe helped to crystallize the idea, however, and our notion of premature burial is, today, less informed by actual incident than by the trappings of Poe’s fictions: chiefly, this is due to the fevered detail of ‘The Premature Burial,’ but the motif is also present in ‘Berenice,’ ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ and others.

Remarks on Poe’s poetry, essays, and only novel (The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym) will demand further entries in this journal. By way of conclusion, some personal reflection: Edgar Allan Poe was the first author I discovered as a child: a collection titled The Poe Reader was both my first exposure to his work and the first adult book I ever owned, purchased at the tender age of nine. My immediate obsessions centered on ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ and his enchanting poem ‘Ulalume,’ leading to further examinations as I grew older, in turn revealing both more famous pieces and some strange odds-and-ends, like his treatise on interior design, ‘The Philosophy of Furniture.’ Further exploration yielded the gorgeous, otherworldly pen-and-ink drawings of Harry Clarke (several of which are scattered throughout this review) and from there the astonishing breadth of Poe's influence on disciplines as diverse as literature, painting, cinema, music, and fashion.

Perhaps more than any other influence, Poe has impacted my thought processes, particular obsessions, and even the direction of my life: for without Poe, it seems, I would not write; his work emphasized that by responding to our visions, as opposed to merely describing them, the products of an artist's toils become more palpable—more real and more affectingly beautiful. And it is through this message that Poe, the perfect alchemist of American letters, remains one of the chief ambassadors of our literature—a poet and storyteller for all times and all places, forever.


Review: À Rebours

Joris-Karl Huysmans—sybarite, mystic, rake, oblate, and (of all things) civil servant—published what has been referred to as ‘the bible of the Decadence,’ À Rebours (often translated under the title of ‘Against Nature’ or ‘Against the Grain’), in 1884, setting in motion a literary movement that would come to include such icons as Mirbeau, Wilde, Rachilde, De Sa-Carneiro, and Beardsley. There had been earlier precursors who wore the mantle of ‘Decadent,’ sometimes with pride: Baudelaire, Poe, Gautier, Hugo; but it was Huysmans, with his callous disregard for convention, who established the motifs we refer to as ‘Decadent’ today. À Rebours has been viewed as more a catalog of tastes than a novel, considering that it is entirely devoid of a plot in any real understanding of the word; but the psychology of its central character, Des Esseintes, is a constant source of illumination, and remains as instrumental to defining the trappings of Decadence as the flamboyant catalog of literature, interior decoration, perfume, painting, and aesthetic experience that comprises the bulk of its pages.

Des Esseintes, a libertine, grown weary with the sordid pleasures of fin de siècle Paris, retreats into solitude; purchasing a house, and filling it with countless objects that reflect an ornate, languid, and near-hallucinatory preoccupation with aesthetic excess, Des Esseintes begins a personal quest to seek out higher and higher avenues of experience, cloistered away in effete seclusion from the insipid trivialities and tedious ennui of modern life. Here, in reclusion, he is free to experiment with lavish predilections and whimsical pursuits not afforded by his previous circumstances: from fatally bejeweling a tortoise to surveying the degenerate concerns of authors and artists as varied as Petronius, Verlaine, Apuleius, Baudelaire, and Gustave Moreau; in a typical episode of À Rebours, Des Esseintes, who had before found more beauty in the patent artificiality of paper flowers than in their natural counterparts, decides that the ultimate in sensation would involve procuring natural flora that possess the curious and almost ridiculous distinction of appearing more false than their artificial analogues.

This preoccupation with the supremacy of artificiality is, perhaps, the chief concern of À Rebours, illustrated with particular élan when Des Esseintes, who desires to travel to London as respite from the regularity of his life in seclusion, chances to dine, before embarking, at an English restaurant located in his abhorred Paris: after his meal, Des Esseintes promptly cancels his trip to England, returning to his country estate, having satisfied his desire to experience England by enjoying the artificial, Parisian notion of ‘England’ presented to him over dinner. On one hand, Des Esseintes is sure that he will be underwhelmed by the ‘real thing,’ as the beauty of a lover devoid of cosmetics cannot approach the painted opulence of an affected image; more subversively, however, our world-weary libertine is aware that the experience he seeks is of a uniquely ersatz variety, and that subjecting his ‘heightened tastes’ to the dismal, pedestrian pleasures of European society would dull, and perhaps corrupt, his delicate sensibilities.

This rationalization is archetypal, in that it examines one of the key paradoxes of the Decadent world-view (a world-view which, it should be noted, revels in the charms of a good paradox): that, while the Decadent soul may seek redemption from his patent artificiality and adulterated perversions, he remains well-aware that the ‘purity’ of these notions of contrition is threatened chiefly by his own surfeit of experience: for how can gauche, prosaic 'reality' ever compare to the sumptuous unreality created by the Decadent imagination? And how can confessing the sins of the Decadent soul be a worthy pursuit when these sins, in and of themselves, illustrate the absurdity of both ‘confession’ and ‘sin?' Far more intriguing to the Decadent would be the affected comforts of a life of religious rigor, entirely devoid of the moral reflections that generally accompany it: the architecture of the church, to the Decadent, is far more paramount than the goings-on inside of it; the ephemeral, sensual allure of the incense and wine and costume and resonance of the organ can never be matched by the rituals for which they have been appropriated.

Barbey d'Aurevilly may have been considering this puzzle when he famously portended a choice for the author of À Rebours between ‘the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the Cross.’ Huysmans, intriguingly, chose the latter, applying to the rigorous philosophy of Catholic mysticism the same impassioned dedication his creation, Des Esseintes, applied to his own pursuit of aesthetic experience. Which is to say that Huysmans—author of the ‘bible’ of the Decadence, À Rebours—himself epitomizes the ultimate paradox of the Decadent imagination.


Review: Torture Garden

‘Here and there in the indentations of the palisade, appearing like halls of verdure and flower-beds, were wooden benches equipped with chains and bronze necklaces, iron tables shaped like crosses, blocks and racks, gibbets, automatic quartering machines, beds laden with cutting blades, bristling with steel points, fixed chokers, props and wheels, boilers and basins above extinguished hearth, all the implements of sacrifice and torture covered in blood—in some places dried and darkish, in others sticky and red. Puddles of blood filled the hollows in the ground and long tears of congealed blood hung from the dismantled mechanisms. Around these machines the ground had absorbed the blood. But blood still stained the whiteness of the jasmines and flecked the coral-pink of the honeysuckles and the mauve of the passion flowers. And small fragments of human flesh, caught by whips and leather lashes, had flown here and there on to the tops of petals and leaves. Noticing that I was feeling faint and that I flinched at these puddles whose stain had enlarged and reached the middle of the avenue, Clara, in a gentle voice, encouraged me: “That’s nothing yet, darling… Let’s go on!”’

Octave Mirbeau’s Torture Garden is the most hideously brutal, debauched, splenetic, and disturbing piece of fiction I have ever encountered. It reads, on one level, as a catalog of the most odious, shamelessly rococo sadism known to imagination; but Mirbeau's vision is broader than that: ultimately, the novel is an allegory of political and moral corruption: a seething and merciless satire of the hypocrisies that blight the human race from beneath the sheep’s-clothing called ‘civilization.’ Wilde described it as ‘revolting’ and as ‘a sort of grey adder;’ his assessment is fitting: Torture Garden is an appallingly perverse, venomous, and decimating novel.

Written at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, Mirbeau’s scathing attack on the sanctimonious sophism of the governing elite is, at times, overpoweringly mephitic: it smells of pus and rotten meat and old urine; it tastes of bile and gall and shit. But intermingled with this miasma of death and miserable suffering, there is the insistent perfume of the countless flowers that Mirbeau has painted in luxuriant, almost indulgent, detail: and this is no paradox: because amid the corruption of life, amid the charnel-house and the devouring flies, there is a kind of haunted beauty that is fertilized by this horror and this filth: the blossoms of the Torture Garden are fed by the same flesh and blood that is flayed, molested, and slaughtered within it; the inescapable fact is that this beauty could not thrive without the repugnance that both envelops and is enveloped by it.

The plot details the exploits of a French debauchee who, after meandering through the vapid hypocrisies of political life in fin de siècle Paris, chances to meet a beautiful, recondite Englishwoman, Clara, at sea; deeply attracted to the veil of innocence that cloaks what he perceives to be a curiously ‘well-educated’ immorality, our narrator sets up house with her in her adopted homeland of China. It is only upon their visit to the Torture Garden, however, that our narrator comes to comprehend the sheer depths of Clara’s iniquity: of her lust, filth, and ultimate evil.

This is an incredibly challenging book; and while it has become a near-cliché to caution ‘the faint of heart,’ it is important to warn prospective readers of Torture Garden that, while nearly one-hundred-and-fifteen-years-old, Mirbeau’s masterpiece remains one of the more luridly depraved novels ever published. I’ve read Sade, Mandiargues, and others of their proclivity: Torture Garden, much more than rakish pornography, reduces their prurience to curiosity. But Mirbeau's novel exists in three dimensions: in Torture Garden we glimpse the malice that flickers within the heart of real evil, as page after page eviscerates the miserable flowers of bureaucracy, social imperialism, xenophobia, and moral hypocrisy while exposing their contemporary roots in the manners and mores of European ideas of 'civilization,' effectively contrasting them against a highly orientalized, 'barbarous' East that is ultimately more a mirror of the West than a foil. Some of the more disturbing episodes in the novel do not play out in the Torture Garden at all: the conversation between a British officer and a French explorer about the disposability of human beings—of Dum-Dum bullets and ‘civilized’ cannibalism, of the imminent goal of entirely eliminating both the physical and intangible existence of an abstract ‘enemy’—remain as strikingly and singularly appalling as any gruesomely reprobate episode detailed from within the Torture Garden itself: and this despite the obvious satire (or perhaps even because of it) with which the scene is suffused. These pages drip with blood, yes—but also with cyanide.

I have discovered that Torture Garden’s ability to shock, stupefy, and disgust loses little upon rereading, even as its message becomes more apparent. It remains unavoidably relevant; and while it may turn our stomachs and challenge our patience for debauchery, the compelling employment of revulsion is a major component of Torture Garden's success as an allegory, underlining repeatedly its express purpose: to awaken us to the moral dilemmas often left unexamined within a 'governed' existence, lest we should forget or—far worse—choose to ignore the half-buried incongruities used to measure deception and truth, murder and inevitability. It is not with mere irony, after all, that Mirbeau prefaced his novel thusly: ‘To the priests, the soldiers, the judges: to those people who educate, instruct and govern men: I dedicate these pages of Murder and Blood.’

With its airy exoticism and heartless cruelty, its juxtaposition of indescribably violent torture and indescribably beautiful flowers, its excoriating anger and its electrifying sensuality, Torture Garden is not merely a classic of the Decadence, but a classic of the human soul. These grotesque and poisonous pages have etched themselves, for both better and worse, indelibly upon my brain: and for the bravest of readers, they will open onto vistas of incomparable truth: for beyond the Torture Garden lies a beauty that cannot be grasped without first glimpsing the barbarity with which it is inextricably bound.


Review: Bruges-La-Morte

‘The faces of the dead, which are preserved in our memory for a while, gradually deteriorate there, fading like a pastel drawing that has not been kept under glass, allowing the chalk to disperse. Thus, within us, our dead die a second time.’

Bruges-La-Morte is the cardinal work of Symbolist literature: a haunted, profoundly intimate novel that explores the sacred obligations of grief, sorrow, and sin—and the way that a place, here the decaying city of Bruges, can inform the rhythm of life (as well as life-in-death) of the scattered, ruined souls that comprise its inhabitants.

Written by a Belgian, Georges Rodenbach, in 1892, Bruges-La-Morte is a key component of the literature of the Decadence—as well as, perhaps, the most moving and acutely poignant work in its canon. Rodenbach’s prose, orphic and sensuous, could be labeled a sort of exercise in hypnotism, the spell achieving its greatest successes when, after coming up from the depths of an opium-dream, we are startled with the occasional interruption of painfully raw, near-caustic laconicism; these short, beautifully-woven sentences linger in the brain like a fever, inducing a rapture of agonized comprehension. This novel, curiously, is utterly empathic to the concerns of even the most jaded and stoic of readers: because it is a work dedicated to the study of human ‘analogies’—the strange, surreal comparisons drawn in the minds of all and torn to pieces within the obsessions, and eager fervor, of an unfortunate few.

The plot is merely a gauze upon which to hang the ghosts of observation: it details the dream-like, funereal existence of a widower who, after ten years of mourning his dead wife—worshiping her possessions, photographs, and physical memories like the reliquaries of a saint—chances to meet a woman who, in outward appearance, is the very mirror-image of his lost love. They begin an affair: one in which our protagonist sees not the intimations of sin and betrayal against the dead so often experienced by the bereaved, but, instead, the literal continuation of his wife’s actuality: he is trying to recreate her existence, as if a thread had never been cut—as if it had only been interrupted. Obviously we can expect little but disappointment and tragedy from so misguided a notion; but the climax of this novel is triply-tragic, because three lives are shattered by the highest intentions of one.

Bruges-La-Morte, as I said, is a novel of analogies; and the highest analogy is between the insistent sentience of the city and the way it mirrors—as a dead wife is mirrored by a stranger—the psyche of a citizen. Rodenbach, of course, illustrates this phenomenon best: ‘Towns above all have a personality, a spirit of their own, an almost externalized character which corresponds to joy, new love, renunciation, widowhood. Every town is a state of mind, a mood which, after only a short stay, communicates itself, spreads to us in an effluvium which impregnates us, which we absorb with the very air.’ And the ‘effluvium’ of dead, gloom-haunted, and weeping Bruges (which, arguably, remains the most important character in this novel) is rich with a paradoxical aura of contagion, comfort, and doom.

Bruges-La-Morte is one of the dozen or so pieces of literature that have been instrumental in defining, refining, and directing my sensibilities as an intellectual and an artist; but it has also served to reflect my perception of the nature of love, sorrow, and decay, by crystallizing my notions of the ‘sacred sin’ that, ultimately, intimates salvation. The protagonist of Bruges-La-Morte is left to his own sins before we can glimpse his absolution: but if the trajectory of my philosophy, that we must rot before we ripen, is accepted as truth, Bruges-La-Morte, with its jarring tragedy and startling pessimism, casts a light upon one of the more troubling intimations of this school of thought: that salvation is relative: that sometimes decay is, in and of itself, the only salvation at all.


Review: Vathek

(Via 'The Realm of the Unreal')

Surely few stranger works of fiction exist in the annals of Romantic literature than William Beckford’s dreamy, opulent, and hypnotically weird Vathek, where an undeniable and outrageous breed of almost slapstick comedy mingles like wine in water with scenes of utter blasphemy and perversion as the eponymous Caliph Vathek, tempted by the sprawling subterranean riches of Iblis (the Islamic demon par excellence), wanders a one-way path to absolute damnation in one of the more meandering and scandalous journeys of self-destruction ever penned. Supreme destination: a climax of hearts exploding into smokeless fire.

Along the way, a parade of droll, chimerical tableaux pepper the narrative with delightful diversions: pious dwarves bearing baskets of fruit and chirping incessantly, to the great annoyance of our Caliph, Qur’anic verses; saucy women tricking eunuchs into flinging about on swings in a perfumed harem; great feasts, examined in exacting detail, of everything from roasted wolves and boiled thistles to pistachio-stuffed lamb and drugged sherbets; an entire city kicking about a goblin who has curled into a ball and taken to rolling about through the streets of Samarra and eventually over a cliff; a woman burning bits and pieces of mummies, rhinoceros horns, and human beings atop a dizzyingly high tower to placate the forces of evil; divining fish; one-eyed deaf mutes getting lusty with ghouls who have risen drowsily from the grave to feast on fresh corpses. This is certainly not Aladdin.

Vathek is charming and potently hallucinatory stuff meant to be taken in one giant dose, like a short story. Take a couple of hours and give it your undivided attention; Vathek rewards with that glorious sensation of ‘I need to read this out loud to somebody.’ This is certainly not high literature, but it’s not just trash (not even just ‘good trash’) either. Vathek is a sort of world unto its own: equal parts Arabian Nights and Castle of Otranto, and also something unclassifiable and gorgeous and grotesque. The prose, while unashamedly purple, suits its narrative and has an irony about it that never fails to endear. There’s something almost Gogolian in its bizarre sense of humor, and the terror here is both Gothic and admirably understated. A jumble of contradictions, Vathek is as fickle as its author—and just as fascinating: William Beckford, ostracized from high society for his homosexual affair with young ‘Kitty’ Courtenay, was one of the wealthiest and most eccentric men of his generation, and Vathek is, in many ways, the ultimate expression of his own self-indulgent fantasies, here taken to their most far-flung extremes of escapism and ‘oriental’ magnificence. And like so many other curiosities in literature, from A Season in Hell to Melmoth the Wanderer, Vathek is all the more entrancing when this unique and sometimes uncomfortably personal relationship with its author is taken into account.

Vathek's influence on the Gothic movement as a whole is evident from the first paragraph, where we are introduced to our naughty Caliph’s ability to strike men dead with a single ‘terrible’ gaze; and this absurd, and yet ultimately captivating, sense of wonder pervades the entire novel like the cloying, and yet rapturous, odor of heady rosewater. A treat for reflective minds and those interested in literary theatrics both, I count myself an ardent admirer.

Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

(Via 'The Realm of the Unreal')

The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the more elegant novels in the Gothic canon; that it is also one of the more sinister is hardly surprising given Oscar Wilde’s curious aptitude for tempering the macabre with the sensuous and the frivolous with the fatalistic.

A considerable scandal upon its publication in the early 1890s, the novel still reads as slightly homoerotic, even if only in the most clandestine and aphotic of ways. Woven through its themes of beauty, decadence, age, and the nature of art is a thread of shimmering doom that becomes more poignant the longer one spends with Dorian Gray and the more one considers its relationship with its author.

It is a peacock’s fan of luminous wit and glimmering color, dripping with venom and smelling of strange perfumes. We are all familiar with the general flavor of things: an innocent and exceptionally beautiful youth has his portrait painted one fateful afternoon; upon viewing the piece, he is paralyzed by the sudden revelation that one day he will be old and hideous while the painting will retain its beauty and life. In a devil’s bargain, he wishes that it would be the other way around. And then, under the influence of a particularly deleterious gentleman, Dorian Gray begins to change: his innocence gives way to corruption and his beauty seems apt to languish under the spell of opium, cruelty, and languor. One day Dorian notices that the painting has begun to transform, while he himself retains all the beauty of an innocent despite the ever-swelling ocean of his sins…

Few works of literature are as effervescent as Dorian Gray and just as few are as utterly pessimistic; that it is capable of fusing remarkably disparate parts into a whole that is absolutely cohesive is a superior example of its author’s gifts. Like Wilde’s Salome, Dorian Gray is as colorful as it is bleak, and even its weaknesses, in context, seem like strengths.

Seldom is an artist’s most famous work also his most erudite and brilliant: this is one of those works. I have approached it perhaps six or seven times in the last five years, and each reading has left me more enraptured than the last—which is high praise for a novel that relies a great deal on suspense and aesthetic splendour. I consider it one of the finest things I have ever read—daring, sultry, venomous, eloquent, and radiant in its own decay.

Au Lecteur

After two years of writing on the subject of the Gothic via 'The Realm of the Unreal', my readers have requested that I devote a separate journal to the literature of the Decadence...

And, of course, only too happy to oblige any mind as thoroughly poisoned as mine, I present 'A Portrait in Flesh.'

The curious, almost mutually parasitic, nature of the relationship between reader and writer is highlighted supremely in Decadent literature; to that end, expect a more personal set of observations from 'A Portrait in Flesh,' to contrast with the more academic concerns dealt with at 'The Realm of the Unreal.' My definition of 'Decadence,' though, similar to my definition of 'Gothic,' should be expected to be fairly wide-ranging: arbitrary, often academic definitions are much less important to me than the recognition of a collective ethos. To emphasize this distinction, I will be initiating this journal with two entries taken from 'The Realm of the Unreal,' one of which (The Picture of Dorian Gray) would appear on many lists of Decadent literature, whereas the other (Vathek) would appear on only a seldom few...

Please join me in my dissolution by bookmarking this page and checking back often.