The Rex nemorensis in the context of Benjamin’s “aura” from “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

Gaius turned his hairy frame from both Jupiter and his forefathers to take up the worship of the Moon goddess with his usual goat-like impudence. For the moon dappled orchards of the Huntress Diana are tended by me, a former slave who gained his office with sword in hand, and one who will lose it in that posture. Ask any Romans who haven’t been torn from their natural reason by the threat of Caligula’s hooks, and they’ll tell you the same.

In an important sense, Gaius has lost a freedom I will carry to my death at the hands of another claimant of my title as King of the Grove. Hardly anything else could be expected from a man who ascended to the status of Princeps after being raised on an island of decadence by Tiberius, the man he believed responsible for the death of his father (1). Gaius Germanicus Caesar Augustus orders his name and likeness stamped on statues and pipes in all the workshops; he twists and extends his name so distantly that it will cease to bear any good currency before long.

1. ‘people talked of the old goat’s den – making a play on the name of the island’. – Suetonius, Twelve Caesars


Ritual Conservation in Ancient Rome

In a short aside mentioning Caligula’s penchant for envy towards anyone, Suetonius records that “(he) sent a stronger man to challenge the current King of the Grove”. This Grove turns out to be somewhat different* from the many sacred groves scattered throughout the ancient world. The Romans were not averse to destroying forests for civil or military engineering needs, but they also held piety as one of the highest virtues.

Thus they were the ones to record this act of Gaius Caligula as an insane crime. Given the Roman obsession with auguries, I wonder if anyone made the claim ( in much later years, and under the right Emperor) that this act was a portent of the dreaded year of 4 Emperors to come. The Romans believed that avian auguries were superior to any other for divining matters of state, so perhaps it was overlooked. The practice of bird calling for ritual purposes is still practiced by Tibetan Buddhists today.

* From the revised Robert Graves translation- “In Latin: Rex nemorensis; the priest of Diana at her sacred grove (nemus) near Aricias, south east of Rome. The position was held by an escaped slave, who killed his predecessor and would in turn be killed by his successor”.

Compendium of Tuna Scales

He tried to out-drink the Emperor and found more than his tongue tied.

I once swam with a horse, a noble horse indeed.

Objectification? I always clothe the statues of my favorite horses!

Is it not art when you carve statues out of reluctant servants?

Objectification? I’ve smashed more statues than you could carve!

We must flood the city to cleanse it of my predecessor’s perversion and filth. Will you not maintain silence near the royal horses, or are you eager to be flogged?

A Conversation Today

TW- Vulgar parody and foulness

The voice droned through the foggy night and seemed to dissipate like dust from long shuttered halls and galleries. It intoned words with a portentous severity. In my weakened and disheveled state, I found it easier to listen through the floorboards. It droned, “Listen bucko- it’s not enough to be some hot young fuck anymore, not in this world. Do you think that fancy pants dancing stuff you wanna show off like a tasseled helmet is something that qualifies you as a man?”

“Get your act together”.

The immense sound of a brick wrapped in microphones thundered and drowned the nasal baritone of the lecturer’s voice. Then I was jolted into stark panic as a blaring shriek ripped through the phantom auditorium beneath the floorboards—

“Those little ninnies who think it’s all about putting some tush and tits into their walk and fashion spreads had better think again—that might work on a few bozos but any man who qualifies as the genuine article wants a woman who would never lower herself to man-like strutting , who can walk home pregnant and deliver on her own without complaint, then raise that little dripper into a genius ready for private school a week after his cord’s snipped!” . “Here here”, came a weak croak. “Are you going to sit around as the world goes by? What about when the night is so black that it cooks in darkness? ” shuddered the droning voice.

The “Cut-Up” and Writing

Ligotti has expressed his distaste for Burroughs’ “cut-up” method, which strikes me as unusual for someone of his generation ( that technique being the most obvious influence of Burroughs on the culture at large ) and completely apt for him as a writer. In the “Essence of Aesthetic”, Croce wrote on how the adherence to a “scheme” for art is a mistake:

“What displeases us in the false and imperfect forms is the struggle of several different states of the soul not yet unified, their stratification, or mixture, their vacillating method, which obtains apparent unity from the will of the author, who for this purpose avails himself of an abstract plan or idea, or of extra-aesthetic, passionate emotion.”

I find that the aesthetic value of Burroughs’ method lies in his ability to skirt this abyss ( he doesn’t always make it ) with his use of tropes from detective and sci-fi fiction to give a thematic unity when character and plot break apart. It’s been said by an American writer that de-constructive postmodernism’s only fitting home is in France, where the language had crystallized into a prison of formal clarity by the 19th century, and required radical surgery with a chainsaw to escape into new forms.

Burroughs does something similar, but instead of destroying he stitches a new monster from the pieces of literature that end up in his unholy threshing machine– the scenes in “Soft Machine” with “falling postcards” on “dusty swept out streets”, or a meal in a Latin American cafe that gives the reader some insight into a “body swap” racket have an almost elegiac feeling after the horrors described in lurid detail. There is the feeling that he practices a kind of “dream journalism” more than any form of narrative fiction: a figure like Baudelaire’s mordant mistress turns up as the space faring dominatrix “Minraud girl” along with his satire of narcotics agents and criminals ; in the recurring descriptions of landscapes that are paradoxically bleak and colorful the reader is invited to become a “dream archaeologist”, which reflects W.S.B’s interest in that field.

Ligotti’s fiction can be better spoken of as “aesthetic” since he devotes himself to the steady creation of definite images in his stories– whirlwind-like monstrosities that serve as office managers ( from “Our Temporary Supervisor” , and the narrator within Poe’s “Maelstrom” also encountered his natural terror while at work!) , horrifically ethereal flowers and rural towns in his earlier stories. Another writer who plays with the form is Borges, whose stories constantly risk falling into the labyrinth of scholarly experimentalism but finds a steady, disciplined footing that is close to musical.

“Finally, the difference between pleasure and art leaps to the eyes in the relations that are developed between ourselves and works of art, because the figure represented may be dear to us and represent the most delightful memories, and at the same time the picture may be ugly; or, on the other hand, the picture may be beautiful and the figure represented hateful to our hearts, or the picture itself, which we approve as beautiful, may also cause us rage and envy, because it is the work of our enemy or rival, for whom it will procure advantage and on whom it will confer new strength: our practical interests, with their relative pleasures and pains, mingle and sometimes become confused with art and disturb, but are never identified with, our aesthetic interest.” – “Croce, Essence of Aesthetic”

Burroughs’ intuitive vision and Ligotti’s scholarly pessimism

While I mentioned Burroughs as having a “meta-physic of junk” in my last post, that would be more fitting with Ligotti ( whose pessimistic vision includes all of life ), as this post by Marmalade makes clear. Burroughs’ use of words like “junk” and “fix” was sometimes metaphorical– I’m not sure about the centipedes. His vision was more intuitive than a system of thought, and in a future post I’ll write about that from the stance of Croce’s Aesthetic philosophy ( once I’ve digested that! ).

via Burroughs, PKD, and Ligotti

Occasionally I stumble on conservative journals with interesting book reviews.

I am not a social conservative, but I respect a writer like Russell Kirk for examining the poems of Baudelaire next to Burke’s foundational writings in his history of conservatism. This is an example of a critique, within a larger article I can’t agree with. It is titled “Should we be threatening cocaine addicts with execution?” ( the answer is somewhat unclear, since he never discusses that substance), written by a man who is often brought up in discussions of social decline, Theodore Dalrymple.

William S. Burroughs, the famous American who was an even worse man than he was a writer, which is saying something, and who addicted himself to heroin, wrote in his first book Junk, later retitled Junkie, how addicts called the doctors who prescribed their drugs ‘writing fools’, who willingly believed that their patients were unable to stop.

It is more than a little dismaying how easily social conservatives fall into an authoritarian position they would be horrified to see in themselves on any question other than the scourge of addictive drugs. The statesmen and thinkers associated with the founding of modern conservatism continually returned to the reality of evil, and the limitation of human institutions before its existence in this world, in us. No government can do anything about this. It is a part of conservatism that I believe in (while disagreeing with many of the conclusions reached), but is one denied by most of the movement’s voices. Dalrymple seeks to affirm this and ends by proposing state action of immense scope. Perhaps recognizing the inability of the statesman to change the existence of evil is beyond the reach of any political thinker today.

The Gnostic vision in W.S.B.’s strange and unsettling books finds a metaphysic of junk, which he identifies with evil and sin itself. This is especially present in those passages that foreshadow his nightmare visions in his later work; particularly those where he notes the ability of dope to linger as a feeling in the areas it has blighted (” If junk were gone from the earth, there might still be junkies standing around in junk neighborhoods feeling the lack, vague and persistent, a pale ghost of junk sickness.”) But the Gnostic idea of addiction as the totality of life’s pursuits takes a condition that reduces its sufferer to near absolute imprisonment in the material world as an all encompassing theodicy. Addiction as an explanation and a metaphor for all of life’s myriad activities (cuisine, sex, art and politics) is overdone, and the right criticism of Burroughs’ non-fictional ideas should begin here.

As for Dalrymple’s condemnation of the author with his work, this assumes that the best writing must come from the best character. This is a delusion. Burroughs is among the most disturbing and insightful writers. His later stories of rebellion against homoerotic insects and time travel are a response to his earlier studies of chemical degradation. This most disgusting and insightful writer starts from the bottom of the world, and wades into the gilded pool of Tiberius without hesitation. The place where the blood from the opened veins of noblewomen lingers on the legs of the Imperator-Who-Disdains-the-Title’s toy boys , the Emperor watching the executed fall to the rocks from his dreadful seclusion. The man who is most visible is often the most alone, and while condemned by society the writer shares neither the praise nor infamy of history’s passions. Society’s outrage is a wildfire that exhausts itself on shallow fuel. The true writer observes Caesar’s expression as the condemned are thrown to the hooks below– is he sweating profusely or serenely placid? History demands the description to the minutest detail. Morality only enters into the work as a color to the palette.

And…in this book there is evidence of what, at least in the case of heroin addiction, is obviously the case, namely that withdrawal symptoms from heroin are much more (though not entirely) psychological rather than physical. Burroughs describes how he is relieved instantaneously by drugs that can have had little physiological effect upon his symptoms.

Presumably in the last sentence Dalrymple means the effects of minor tranquilizers, marijuana and improvised opiate substitutes on the withdrawing addict. That he came to this conclusion without the slightest nod to any accounts of how these additional substances relieve the rictus frenzy of withdrawal (much less scientific data, where it is most warranted ) makes all of his following claims questionable at the least.

The notion of addiction as illness cannot possibly explain why, in the 1950s, there were at most a couple of hundred heroin addicts in this country (the UK) , and why now there are perhaps 250,000 of them, 150,000 of them injecting.

Epidemiological studies that chart the spread of the drug and comparing it to other pathogens would be a good start. I’m no scientist, but neither is Dalrymple. The data models used to “prove” this or that notion about the political psychology of social media users might have their proper domain in this area. I’m uncertain; Dalrymple could have investigated this further, but it would require him to add practical rigor to an exercise in moralistic literary criticism.

Pay it all back

Substance addiction induces a creeping isolation beyond the hostility it generates in the presently non-addicted. Addiction is a vaporous Red Death lurking in the shadows around the pit of the world. The slow sink into a cellular vegetative state, the brain all alight like an antique pinball machine, is a grotesque parody of art; “(that) which destroys action”.

The dreadful triumph of frigid vegetative states is also the parody of a renunciate’s solitude, the flesh becoming a locked music box. Dalrymple betrays his contempt for the scruples of any traditional faith when he launches his jeremiads against the addict; any worthy tradition will deal with the reality that life either contains, or is suffering– if you are not suffering presently or buying it off with the introduction of sensuous pleasures, you are not alive in any conventional sense of the word.

Once past his sensationalism about Mao’s drug “treatments”, he makes his strongest claim.

“If you examine the lives of impoverished heroin addicts, for example, you find that their existences are not helpless oscillations between desperately searching for a vein in which to inject themselves to avoid the pains of withdrawal on the one hand and the bliss of the oceanic feeling that comes with injecting heroin on the other. Heroin addicts are very busy people, what with obtaining their drugs from dealers and finding the means to pay for them. (Incidentally, criminality is much more a cause of heroin addiction than vice versa.)”

The fact that the “bliss” is short-lived once addiction sets in (and as Burroughs points out again and again, the euphoric action of dope is not of all-importance to the addict until addiction is reached, and then the diabolical logic of the substance takes hold) is ignored by Dalrymple, while it is commonplace in most drug outreach efforts today. The usual charges against addicts rarely coincide with reality– the ability to commit outrageous acts is near “bled-out” in the confirmed addict. The high is inseparable from the torments of withdrawal, when furtive thievery requires an almost heroic effort.

This is one of Burroughs’ early insights. Dalrymple has taken this much into his claims. But his refusal to look into the depths and unite his literary mind to them is his flaw as a thinker. And his claim about the blood-thirst of a tyrant shining insights into addiction betrays the palpable horror of a man face to face with relentless dis-ease.