Tag Archives: Spring 2015

Am I An African?

Camera 360by D. M. Aderibigbe

My uncle was happier that Saturday than other Saturdays, which were usually his happy days: they were the only days he never had to go to work or church; the only days he got to eat his favorite meal—pounded yam and egusi soup—all fashioned to the shape of his appetite with my grandmother’s fingers. But usually this happiness didn't manifest on his face: we usually only knew he was happy from his voice and actions. However, that particular Saturday I saw his cheeks dance to every word that fell off my mouth and I knew happiness could actually show on his face. Why was he happier than ever? A new sports show was to kick off that Saturday. Of course there had been sports shows aired on different TV and radio stations; my uncle was not happy because of that particular show, but because of the theme song that accompanied it: Peter Tosh's "You are An African."

Many years after that Saturday, the lyrics of this song would haunt me like guilt: “Don’t care where you come from, as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African." Throughout these many years, I thought about what it meant to be black, and what it meant to be African. The ultimate question was: Could blackness equate Africanness? This question bobbed in my heart for about a decade. When I came across Afrocentric scholars such as Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, and Léopold Sédar Senghor in the university, these philosophers would untie knotted thoughts in my heart with their voices. At the end of the class, the professor asked some fundamental questions: What would you call a white-skinned individual who is ingrained in African culture and shares the African beliefs and experience? On the other hand, what will you call a black person who has spent all his life in the West and knows nothing about Africa? The professor suggested that Africanness as a concept or as a way of living has more to do with the heart than the skin.

The first time the picture of Africanness as blackness ever came to my head was in high school reading the famous Sierra Leonean poet and novelist, Syl Cheney-Coker. My high school literature teacher’s thoughts were a thorough departure from what I would later learn from my socio-political philosophy class in the university. He concerned himself with the following lines of Cheney-Coker’s poem “Freetown”:

but all calling you mother womb of the earth
liking your image but hating our differences
because we have become the shame of your race
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
and I think of my brothers with “black skin and white masks”
(I myself am one heh heh heh)
my sisters who plaster their skins with white cosmetics
to look whiter than the snows of Europe
but listen to the sufferings of our hearts

According to my literature teacher, these lines were directed toward Africans who used bleaching lotions and cosmetics in a bid to turn their skin to white, while at the same time still keeping faith with the belief in Africanness: the struggle for a better destiny for Africa and Africans. His explication of the poem yielded some pictures in my head, pictures of the people I knew who had bleached their skins but still professed their love for Africa, such as Michael Jackson. I had some such people around my house: their skin got lighter as their self-proclaimed Africanness got louder. My literature teacher disbanded the class with the question: How would you describe this group of people, patriotic Africans or not?

It's been many years since that literature class—so many years that I have grown to the point of articulating my own thoughts. Recently I decided to read the poem again and came to the conclusion that Coker was saying that yes, Africans who bleach their skins while professing their love for Africa are genuine. Africanness transcends the skin and goes deeply into the mind. But then there is another important motif heralded by Coker, which is that of Africans who fled the continent because of their disillusionment with the concept of Africanness—Africans who may return one day, when they realize what they have missed:

but we African wandering urchins
who will return one day
say oh listen Africa
the tomtoms of the revolution
beat in our hearts at night
make us the seven hundred parts of your race
stretching from the east to the west
but united inside your womb

Meanwhile, this question continues to haunt me. Last year, a white man of Scottish origin named Guy Scott emerged as the new president of Zambia after his predecessor Michael Sata died, making him the first white leader of a democratically elected African government and the first since F. W. de Klerk in Apartheid South Africa. On the radio, two specialists in anthropological studies argued on why Scott is and isn't an African. I was alone in the room and I knew no one could hear or respond to my question, yet I kept screaming: If Scott isn't an African, am I an African? Am I? Am I?

D.M. Aderibigbe is a proud native of Nigeria. He graduates in 2014 with an undergraduate degree in History and Strategic Studies from the University of Lagos. His poetry appears in Poet Lore, Asheville Poetry Review, Hotel Amerika, RHINO, Grist, B O D Y, Vinyl and elsewhere.

I’m Very Into You: Correspondence 1995-1996

imveryintoyouKathy Acker and McKenzie Wark
Edited by Matias Viegener
Semiotext(e) ($13.95)

by Spencer Dew

Writing defies death in that “to work in this world and to matter,” as Kathy Acker put it, is to leave behind words that outlast the body, the corpse. This is not, of course, to say that writing somehow transcends the play of power, that it can’t be seized and manipulated, as an object, for various ends (whether capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, or of a leftist critique that, in the act of remixing, cranks up undercurrents, stripping bare the otherwise subtle ideology). But to speak of—and with—Kathy Acker is to speak of a more ideal mode of reading, a more ideal mode of community. Acker, drawing on the work of the paired thinkers she here refers to as “my favorite old shoes,” Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille, held that such community, a community of “friendship,” must be predicated on recognition of and maintenance of difference—“Real difference. Not fucking games. That’s what makes friendship,” she writes in these pages.

There are some fucking games between McKenzie Wark and Kathy Acker, though maybe some authentic encounters too—and certainly, in this collection of emails, some potential for Acker’s words to live again, to transcend the grave. There is what one might call a plot: girl meets boy, boy jerks her around, girl is brilliant, boy less so. Boy waxes in favor of the image of girl; girl bitingly and mournfully deconstructs the image and the dependence of culture producers on such images—on celebrity, on product, the name on the marquee, the portrait on the paperback cover—for their physical survival.

But one does not read Kathy Acker for the plot; rather, one reads her for the community woven together in her references, for the visceral and prophetic rage she (un)articulates, for the demonstration of and invitation to engage in artistic process, for thoughts on and words that gesture toward the bodily and the sexual, and for theory and exemplification of that ideal of community to which she was such a devout believer and selfless experimenter.

So here is Acker talking about Shaivite Hinduism and its theories of sexuality more explicitly than she does when she uses such material in Pussy: King of the Pirates, and here, too, is Acker musing on Nietzsche’s “permanent revolution” (“that lovely myth”), but also on The X-Files and her fondness for professional wrestling as a manifestation of a charming American “stupidity” as well as, simply, “The best performance art.”

And here is Acker on the wider realities of American society: “It’s homelessness and AIDS and a society that’s in the process of killing off the middle classes.” She speaks of driving through small towns and talking to people, of the backgrounds of her students, of the ubiquity of abuse and oppression, of what she calls the “big black hole” of the sacred at the center of America (fuelling a thirst for fundamentalism, for instance). “I just can’t bear seeing the world I live in,” she writes. “I have to hide in overwork. I can’t bear seeing what I’ve become. My friends. I guess when there’s no hope, what you do is come and fight. So that’s what’s happening, who we are. We’re fighting the only ways we know how, through culture and no one wants culture, and it’s war.” We have an intimate voice here not unlike the voices in her novels—“I come up for air and who am I . . . lonely and scared”—but we also have the voice of the writer, speaking outside of the curtain, putting plain words on the historical material conditions that define her life and will lead to her death: “We’re rats walking tightropes we never thought existed. No medical insurance; no steady job; etc.”

On process, the view of the artist rather than the art is intimate and sometimes surprising. The emails collected here are predominantly from early in the morning or late at night. “I’m such a schedule slob,” she says. She speaks of the energy and momentum of production: “You just write and write, work, I know work, and then shape it down, rework it, and extract the hot stuff. If you do enough, there’s hot stuff.” And she reflects on her collaboration with the Mekons for the album that accompanied Pussy: King of the Pirates: “I’m never having a book that isn’t sung again.”

The talk on sex is charged, because in these exchanges—most from August of 1995, with one short follow-up from February of 1996—Acker is trying to figure out what Wark wants of/from her, and she doesn’t appreciate his power plays or his seeming lack of recognition regarding the basic politics of sexual/romantic relations. In her communications with him she is clear and direct in terms of her desires both relational and physical. “To me, top/bottom is just stuff that happens in bed,” she writes. “Who fistfucks whom. Outside the bed, I do my work and you do yours. I fucking hate power games outside the bed and have no interest in playing them.” She goes on to say that “I love being someone’s object. I love being wanted. My body wanted. And wrongly. ‘Come here, slave.’ It’s one of the sexiest things I know. Totally not equal to ‘You’re a victim.’” Sexual politics is politics, sexual relations one arena for broader modes of relation, either oppressive or utopian. Thus, when Acker speaks of sex, she’s always also speaking of something else—community through transcendence of the self? Acker here describes sex as “that fabulous not knowing” as well as “this danger whose name is sex.”

In these pages we have something like a summary or walking-through of an as-yet unpublished lecture of Acker’s, on Bataille and Blanchot and community and Wuthering Heights, available in fragmentary notes and a fragmentary audiotape in the Acker archive at Duke University. It is an important document, a formulation of Acker’s central philosophy, and the pages here are likewise important—from the insistence on approaching Bataille as a thinker concerned, foremost, with community, to Acker’s joining in Bataille and Blanchot’s struggle to imagine community in the wake of fascism and communism, “this possibility which, one way or another, is always caught in its own impossibility,” a community predicated on “recognition of radical difference.” Here is Acker, writing to Wark but surely also just writing:

So Bataille, and through Bataille, Blanchot turns to the self-other (relation?!) as the possible ground for community. Remember, we are talking about the ground of radical difference. Let’s see if I can find one of the essential (essential!?) passages: “A being does not want to be recognized, it (notice the “it”) wants to be contested: in order to exist, it goes toward the other, which contests and at times negates it.” (91)

This notion of difference as contestation, as always difficult; this recognition of encounter as risk, a risk of self and of (fabulous) not knowing—these key aspects of Acker’s thought and practice are tall orders, while the flip-side (othering as reduction, as fetishization; that safe egotism of treating others as objects to be used and manipulated outside of the bedroom zone of play but in the world always) is easy, even reflexive. Acker is famous for appropriation, a tactic she engages as part of her quest to instantiate and illustrate a community of radical difference. But recent days have illustrated the flip-side to this utopian approach of “no fucking games”—the games played by Kenneth Goldsmith with the body of Michael Brown when he claimed that body as a work of art, say—and have led to widespread recognition of the ease of collaborating in deep patterns of oppression while also sparking discussion about the baffling way in which people (poets, conceptual artists, thinkers!) can remain blind to their own privilege and exercise of power, even while explicitly entering into specific histories.

Acker’s words need to be heard in these contexts, and these critiques of appropriation and the power play of seizing the other offer some tension for considering the project of this posthumous anthology of emails. Matias Viegener’s introduction begins by describing how an unnamed novelist declined to write an introduction to the volume, saying, “it felt too much like rooting around in someone’s underwear drawer.” This is the second such volume of posthumous correspondence from Acker to be published, though the first, Spread Wide (Dis Voir, 2005) was explicitly framed as an ongoing collaboration, Paul Buck and Rebecca Stephens and John Cussans writing around and in honor of Acker, even as their texts were arranged around an array of notes from and photos of the bookshelves of Acker. That volume eschewed the move of pushing forth from the emails into more voices, using Acker’s text in order to create more communication and thus new community; rather, the contents in I’m Very Into You are framed with forensic stamps of date and time sent, subject line, to and from addresses, and further framed with tenuous academic conceits of an introduction and an afterword. There are no notes, and only some names have been changed, plus some mistakes have slipped past the editors (Stephen Phofl’s Death at the Parasite Café is here “Paradise Café,” for example.)

The “Afterword,” by John Kinsella is a letter to Wark and, like Wark’s contributions throughout, is simply mismatched with Acker’s texts, heightening that sense of something sordid at play in this little book, these emails from a dead woman presented in a publishing “collaboration” as one-sided as the flirtation they partly detail. That such imbalance would characterize a volume that delves into and attempts to make clear the ubiquity and consequences of imbalance of power is perhaps ironic and certainly poignant, heightening the reader’s sense of loss. Sure, it feels at times like rooting around in someone’s mail, which it is, but the mail of an artistic and intellectual figure taken too young from a society that needs her, that needs her thoughts and her desires, her perceptions and her hopes. What we have, instead, is her writing. I’m Very Into You, problematic as aspects of it might be, contributes to that oeuvre in a useful way.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead

nosimplehighwayPeter Richardson
St. Martin’s Press ($26.99)

by Ryder W. Miller

The Grateful Dead seem to be calling it quits again, having announced that their last show will be this summer in San Jose following three concerts in Chicago at Soldier’s Field—the last place they played with frontman Jerry Garcia, who died in 1995. They will be bringing it back home to the Bay Area where it all started, and where most of the band members have their roots. This year happens to also be the 50th Anniversary of the band, and it is unlikely that anybody who has seen them live will ever forget them. They have created a fandom that is unmatchable, and they are now old rockers who didn’t burn out or fade away—they still pursue creative ideas and ideals.

Gone, however, is Garcia, who was central to the creative output of the band. There was a time when there was something akin to a religious fervor about this man, who had lost a finger but could still strum a guitar like a genius. Like Bob Dylan, he declined the position of authority and just wanted to play music. The psychedelic experience for some, though, was more than entertainment: it could also be transcendental for those willing to take the risk. The partying was not for everybody, though, and the Grateful Dead could be fun and profound even without altered states of mind. They were also improvisational, so one did not know exactly what to expect from each show—some say they never played a song the same way twice. There have also been new band members over the years that brought new energy and creative ideas with them.

No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead from San Francisco State University scholar Peter Richardson is one of at least three books about the band published this year. (Other books include So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead by Rolling Stone writer David Brown, and Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead by Bill Kreutzmann, which is a personal firsthand account.) No Simple Highway gives a broader cultural history of The Dead, who were influenced by many of the famous icons of the 1960s and were bohemians before the term “hippie” was widely accepted. There are many famous people in this tale about who and what inspired the band members. Although they lasted well beyond the 1960s, for many they were representatives of that time, a way to remember that cultural forces that brought an end to the Vietnam War and created new art forms and styles.

Richardson’s book explores the key elements of The Dead’s enduring appeal, including ecstasy (transcendence), mobility (nomadism), and community (tribalism and utopianism). One could find these things by going on tour with the band. As Richardson shows, going to a Dead concert was more than just an evening out—for many it was religious. (Bassist Phil Less called it “A pretty far out church.”) The show could be a place to disappear into a different world and return the next day a little wiser. Richardson explains:

Like most forms of shamanism, the Dead’s version emphasized four broad themes: The universe’s interconnectedness, altered states of consciousness, sharing those experiences through ritual and symbolism, and employing the insights gained after returning to ordinary consciousness.

Like most rock & roll narratives, the story of The Grateful Dead also has its tragic parts, but most of the members have survived to see Richardson’s assessment, which also offers a great deal of information about the time and place in which the Dead began. The book can be slow going in parts, but it is an astute exploration of what has survived from the 1960s and why. The Dead would argue that they are not solely a 1960s band, having continually adapted to the times—a high point being their reaction to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. They needed to be on their toes to survive in a complicated world. As a group they took on that challenge, and Richardson shows how they fit into the bigger American picture.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Women Who Make a Fuss: The Unfaithful Daughters of Virginia Woolf

Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret
translated by April Knutson
Univocal ($24.95)

by Kelsey Irving Beson

Women Who Make a Fuss: The Unfaithful Daughters of Virginia Woolf could be described as a “difficult” work, as problematic as that term is. The book, which takes its premise from Three Guineas, Woolf’s 1938 treatise on academia and the feminine, is a response to and an extension of the latter’s imperative: “Think we must.” Although Woolf pondered gender and philosophy over three-quarters of a century ago, her essay provides a solid framework for a timely exploration of modern issues such as identity politics, assimilation, and the role of a liberal arts education. In addition to discussing their own experience as women philosophers, authors Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret also incorporate the responses of several female scientists, historians, and academics “on the subject of what ‘women do to thought,’” giving Women Who Make a Fuss the feel of a varied and occasionally contradictory dialectic rather than a cohesive, explanatory essay.

Although Women Who Make a Fuss is overflowing with complicated ideas, Stengers and Despret take a radically non-didactic approach—they don’t profess to know what the answers are or even what questions to ask; rather, the book is about why and how to formulate those questions. Rather than drawing any fixed resolution, the authors advocate for a constant reworking in which answers (and their questions) are precarious, ever-changing, and marked by “permeability.” Moreover, they assert that any fixed verdict would be antithetical to the project: “here is the material, it’s up to you to see . . . if you can make it compatible with your questions.” It’s crucial to keep “the space of hesitation open”—as one contributor puts it: “I cannot foresee what [the reader] will be able to do with my text and therefore I must leave room for unforeseen connections.” This epistemological strategy is incompatible with many prevailing conceptions of knowledge, such as the traditional masculine model of academic self-determination (“one exists because one crosses swords”) or the newer, neoliberal-tinged, “competencies”-based incarnation of the university. Consequently, readers that visit this book looking for pat answers—or even questions that could possibly give rise to them—are bound to be dissatisfied.

Although they discourage the reader from static conclusions, the authors are far from wishy-washy—their position may have relativist overtones, but it’s an almost aggressively interrogative relativism. Most controversially, many of the contributors are unflinching in their assertion that academia continues to demean women’s work. Nourished by both “anger and laughter,” they drop scathing feminist bon mots worthy of Andrea Dworkin (“good female students . . . know they are tolerated as long as they remain inoffensive”). Stengers and Despret confirm that the hierarchical academy may be right in its longstanding paranoia, that it was “perhaps not wrong to mistrust women, these traitors, incapable of taking seriously the great problems that transform thought into a battlefield.”

This acknowledgement of the continuing marginalization of women as a class is satisfying, perhaps even more so because of the lack of a prescription (or, for that matter, proscription) for what to do about it. In the context of rampant “polemicists (who think that the world is waiting only for their argument)” and a left that has identified itself into infinitesimal, ineffectual factions, Women Who Make a Fuss feels both old-school and innovative. Stengers and Despret implore us to reject post-feminism, with its “abstraction of an amnesiac equality,” in favor of an ever-ripening philosophy: “feminism, this adventure which must be again and again reprised anew.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

The First Bad Man

fisrstbadmanMiranda July
Scribner ($25)

by Erin Lewenauer

Encountering Miranda July’s art for the first time, whether through her films, stories, or voice, one feels the shock of being challenged and exposed. July now conquers a new creative form—the novel. The First Bad Man displays her strength and particular delicacy, echoing character qualities and themes that will be familiar to July fans. Readers will be absorbed by a story in which all betrayals are as large as the painful ways that we are connected and disconnected from each other.

With poetic and precise prose, July brings to life forty-three-year-old Cheryl Glickman, who lives alone and works for a typically quirky women’s self-defense non-profit in Los Angeles. Cheryl refers to herself as pear-shaped, with neat hair and unremarkable shoes: “the spaces between my features are in perfect proportion to each other. So far no one has noticed this. Also my ears: darling little shells. I wear my hair tucked behind them and try to enter crowded rooms ear-first, walking sideways.” A carefully devised “system” keeps Cheryl’s life in order:

At its best, my system gives me a smoother living experience. My days become dreamlike, no edges anywhere, none of the snags and snafus that life is so famous for. After days and days alone it gets silky to the point where I can’t even feel myself anymore, it’s as if I don’t exist.

Cheryl’s an obsessive, a quality she shares with many of July’s other characters. She’s overcome with the fear of believing in other people, and even in her own life. Her attention is fully focused on seducing Phillip Bettelheim, a self-involved, entitled, immature board member in his sixties; finding Kubelko Bondy, the soul of a baby she knew as a child; and curing a lump in her throat (“Globus hystericus”) through “chromotherapy.” She feels that her romance with Phillip is serious, but he’s mainly interested in flirting and playing a game “imitating crass people” (for example, he’ll unzip her dress at work without permission). But soon Phillip confesses that he’s dating a sixteen-year-old, and via persistent texts asks Cheryl’s permission to perform various sex acts.

Cheryl’s disappointment in Phillip and stifled life are loosened, then shaken free when her bosses insist she work from home and allow their twenty-year-old unemployed daughter Clee to move in. The last time Cheryl saw Clee, “her pale hair was pulled back into a very tight ponytail, lots of eyeliner, big hoop earrings, pants falling down. She looked like she was in a gang.” Still blond, big-boned, and commanding, Clee disturbs Cheryl’s sterile home with dirty shoes, weird smells, frozen dinners, irreverent behavior (“[Clee] was scanning her calves for ingrown hairs and picking them out with her nails”), and eventually, fights. The women begin a sort of “fight club,” reenacting the assaults in episodes of self-defense DVDs. July fans will immediately recognize this hallmark of hers—revealing the fantasy that lies just a scratch below the surface of reality.

Clee provokes and bullies Cheryl, but she merely feels the warm sensation of being chosen. “No one had ever talked to me like this before, so cruelly. And yet so attentively.” And then Cheryl’s hooked; even the bruises fill her with hope. “This was the opposite of getting mugged. I’d been mugged every single day of my life and this was the first day I wasn’t mugged,” she remarks.

When the object of desire in Cheryl’s explicit sexual daydreams transfers from Phillip to Clee, Cheryl’s afraid of alienating her. Instead, Clee becomes pregnant by a mystery man, and seduces Cheryl, who falls deeply in love with her. “Each time the scenery changed we were brand-new all over again,” Cheryl says. “It’s like wearing something beautiful and eating something delicious at the same time, all the time.”

July excels at capturing the fantastical elements of relationships and the sharpness of experience: “On the last day of the month a blanket of heat descended in the middle of the night, waking every living thing and setting them against each other.” She describes crying as “nose and eyes . . . pierced with that beautiful stinging sensation, a million tiny pins, culminating in a giant salty rush.” And she remarks on the thin veil between her protagonist and other characters with telling accuracy: “I walked out of the lobby into the street. The sun was blinding. People were striding past thinking about sandwiches and feeling wronged. Where was I parked? Parking garage.”

Saturated with “exotic revelations,” The First Bad Man serves as naked evidence of July’s belief that loneliness can be cured, at least temporarily, by holding dear all the moments pointing to forever. Showing an intense appreciation for the romance and ridiculous humor of life, even if it is filled with tragedy, this stunning novel presents us with the child we didn’t want to leave behind and the adult we can almost see. It reminds us that there should be many words for “friend” and “love,” and it is pleasantly over-imagined—much like our relationships with ourselves.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015


bombyonderReb Livingston
Bitter Cherry ($15)

by John Parras

Ever since David Shields unsettled the distinction between fiction and nonfiction in his Reality Hunger, the novel has been in its newest state of siege. Will Self declared the genre dead in The Guardian, while William Deresiewicz, reviewing Michael Schmidt's biography of the novel in The Atlantic, reminded us of its historic and continuing vitality. Writers such as Sheila Heti and Karl Ove Knausgaard have been quoted in The New Yorker as saying that they are fed up with the fabrications of realism, although in that same magazine Adelle Waldman has earnestly defended the tradition of the realistic novel.

All this literary hand-wringing brings to mind another key moment in the history of fiction—the birth of the then-inscrutable Modernist novel. How did a reading public weaned on H. G. Wells and John Galsworthy respond to the novels of Franz Kafka, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf? In her 1925 essay “Modern Fiction,” Woolf famously wrote that the novelist of her time was enslaved

not by his own free will but by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has him in thrall, to provide a plot, to provide comedy, tragedy, love interest, and an air of probability embalming the whole so impeccable that if all his figures were to come to life they would find themselves dressed down to the last button of their coats in the fashion of the hour . . . Is life like this? Must novels be like this?

Woolf’s response to both questions, of course, was a resounding no, and her unique novels reflect her belief that “life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged” but rather “a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” Woolf did not seek to write non-realistic fiction per se; she sought to alter the concept of realism so that it would include the strange workings of the mind, “this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit” of living. She did so by pioneering a lyrical yet politically sensitive fiction, lush with poetic rhythm and rich with stream-of-consciousness, that remains unparalleled to this day.

In contrast, many contemporary responses to the so-called death of the novel take the form of what is sometimes called the non-novel—works by writers such as Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk, and the aforementioned Knausgaard and Heti. In most cases these autobiographical novels attempt to solve our dissatisfaction with the stilted fabrications of plot and character by steering fiction toward the realm of memoir. But Reb Livingston's extraordinary novel, Bombyonder, shows us how timid such a solution is. One doesn't heal the ailing novel form by disguising fiction as memoir, Bombyonder forcefully suggests; one heals the novel by fearlessly transfiguring long fiction. Rather than assuaging supposed readerly anxieties, Livingston reinvents fictional character and narrative pattern while embracing the perplexities of prevarication, the imaginative value of absurdity, and the delights of wild artifice.

Despite its avant-gardism, Bombyonder bears an uncanny resemblance to Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller, Gone Girl. Both books feature a female protagonist trying to find herself, suppressing some aspect of her personality, and navigating complicated amorous relations with men. Both books incorporate diary entries as a central device, reflect on the questionable influence of parents on their children, and involve complex mysteries of disappearance and reappearance. And both books contemplate murder, though in radically different manners. While Gone Girl adheres to the conventions of the realistic thriller, Bombyonder teeters on the opposite end of the fictional spectrum: it is innovative in the extreme.

Hiding away in a motel after having staged her death, Amy Elliott Dunne, the main character in Gone Girl, explains, “I'm not sure, exactly, how to be Dead Amy. I'm trying to figure out what that means for me, what I become for the next few months.” In contrast to such comprehensible discourse, Bombyonder treats similar themes esoterically:

Maybe the concern is being alone in a hotel room, waiting for the waiting to stop, maybe murder is the concern, maybe she'll be prosecuted for her crimes, maybe the death should be recreated in a bathtub, there might be concern as to whether a person can ever truly be dead, somebody take away her orb, tell her she can't participate in this expedition anymore, tell her she wasn't pulling her weight, tell her that we hate her so very bad.

To move from Gone Girl to Bombyonder is akin to moving from The Great Gatsby to The Journal of Albion Moonlight. Livingston’s book is built of scrap-metal reflections, out-of-context memories, letters and text messages, diary entries that resemble free-writes, random lists, surreal images, and dreamlike anecdotes. The book might best be described as a bazaar of beautiful literary figures—startling sentences, scintillating word-play, and mind-bending ideas. It contains, for instance, unique descriptions of setting:

Bombyonder looked like a bomb leveled an entire world created as a backdrop for a far-off science fiction novel that took place in an outlet mall.

challenging sentential paradoxes:

Like a school teacher educating hoards of young lovelies who didn’t know their own loveliness, I pointed out their squalor.

gorgeous tropes:

My heart beat like a dying whale’s sonar, unable to tell the difference between a fish and a torpedo.

curious lists that defy set theory logic:

. . . making chandelier earrings out of telephone wire and cough drops, noises, unidentified squeals, dumb comments.

odd counsel:

Check for the hat that feels like a joke threatened by an algorithm that doesn’t obey order.

and inscrutable analogies:

People with decomposing faces acting normally, like they're not from around here, like they have to graduate from someplace before their jaws collapse.

In short, Livingston stretches the form and style of the novel to its utter limits. Bombyonder’s unnamed narrator commits patricide and is put on trial, gives birth-by-regurgitation to birds, and, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, creates a monster—a Terrifyingly Handsome lover who spurns her. When that relationship fails, the protagonist aims to invent a more ideal lover for herself. She does so against the advice of her suppressed alter-ego, Lily, who warns her, "Never create a god no matter how much you think you want to be fucked by an appropriated swan." Ignoring the cautionary message implied by Lily’s allusion to Zeus’s rape of Leda, Bombyonder’s protagonist proceeds, this time opting for a heroic man who is like a brother figure, Rauan. But in embodying the almost perfect male, Rauan succeeds only in boring the narrator, who then seeks satisfaction in relationships with female figures. Indeed, in its treatment of amorous relationships, Bombyonder, like Gone Girl, might be construed as a subversive exploration of cultural assumptions regarding heterosexual love and gender roles.

That said, teasing a plot out of a book utterly lacking narrative sequence is like pulling teeth from a rhinoceros. Even sophisticated readers might react like one of the protagonist's lovers, who writes to the protagonist, "I'm afraid I don't follow your disjointed narrative, this narrative that offers no place for me." In other passages, Livingston seems to reflect on her own novelistic techniques: "She decides to be imprecise because perfection is a perversion. She shall not be perverted by your tyrannical standards. Or maybe later she'll decide to give just a little perversion a try. She becomes fluid, like her conscience and awareness, like a swamp swallowing a swan." And: “THE PANIC IS COMING FROM / INSIDE THE NARRATIVE.” "I am focused on arrangement,” the protagonist claims elsewhere, “I offer an anti-linear historical outline to anyone receptive to a spiral web, I'm offering an offer I can't explain."

Note the caveat here: to anyone receptive to a spiral web. This book is not for everyone. Readers who share Jonathan Franzen's frustration for radically innovative work will soon throw up their hands, but if you are comfortable with the novels of Ben Marcus or Ali Smith, then Livingston’s work might be your cup of experimental literary tea. Bombyonder is capricious; it misbehaves. Like Tristam Shandy, it breaks all the rules of the realistic novel and delights in contradiction and non sequitur. What is character? What is plot? What is the best, most accurate way to represent the human condition in words? Bombyonder reminds us that traditional answers to such questions can be jejune, or at least passé, and challenges us to reformulate them. The observation that subatomic particles do not abide by Newtonian laws led to the creation of quantum physics; faced with long experimental work by Livingston, Mark Danielewski, Ali Smith, Eimear McBride, and others, readers and literary critics are indeed compelled to rethink how fiction works.

Yes, the book has its weaknesses: it often overindulges in wordplay, and it squanders its promising opening sequence by zeroing in a bit too much on the psychic babble of its central dingbat (as the narrator refers to herself). A broader (more novelistic?) scope might have made the text a bit more socially conscious—more akin to Mrs Dalloway. And perhaps Bombyonder’s pretty much absolute dismissal of narrative leads it to underestimate the productive advantages of accumulative sequence and suspense. By rejecting storyline almost histrionically, Bombyonder precludes itself from exploring the larger arcs of plot so crucial to long fiction, the epic gestures that have helped make the novel such an enduring and important cultural form in the modern world.

But for readers who are interested in poetic prose such as that by Chiara Barzini, who appreciate the curious flash fictions of Diane Williams, and who are not intimidated by the complexities of experimental fiction, Bombyonder offers mind-expanding bombs on every page.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Family Furnishings: Selected Stories 1995-2014

familyfurnishingsAlice Munro
Alfred A. Knopf ($30)

by Keith Abbott

Alice Munro’s fiction mostly takes place in Canadian towns rather than cities, and mostly between 1930 through 1960. Suburbs with their feeder freeways rarely show up or lead to metropolitan lives. Trains feature prominently, but often their stations have been removed to make room for bus stops and benches. Few of Munro’s characters achieve higher positions than the middle class. When she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2013, reviewers scrambled to describe why such characters, subjects, and settings attracted such a large following. That answer may be found in Munro’s Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014, which provides 600 pages of reasons.

The first story here, Munro’s classic “The Love of a Good Woman,” perfectly displays how her work requires time, curiosity, and a good memory. Munro begins: “For the last couple of decades, there has been a museum in Walley, dedicated to preserving photos and butter churns and horse harnesses.” This brisk list of such rural curiosities and local items ends when her catalog zeroes in on a red toolbox that belonged to a town’s optometrist who drowned in 1951. Its label records a brief fact of the incident and an attribution to an “anonymous donor”; an assiduous list features the doc’s instruments and ends: “Everything is black, but that is only paint. In some places . . . the paint has disappeared and you can see a patch of shiny silver metal.” What readers might discover lurking in Munro’s homey litany is that when “the anonymous donor” handed over this toolbox, what was probably reflected in that silver patch was a killer’s face.

Such delayed narrative landmines are Munro’s specialty. In her excellent introduction to this edition, Jane Smiley writes that this particular story “is, in fact, a murder mystery transformed into an everyday event, and therefore much more interesting, since the actions and motives of the characters remain unknown to some and consciously hidden by others.”

Munro plies her formidable talents for stage-managing her characters’ public and private lives through happenstance and memories. Their points of view contain unexpected reveries that seem to supply reasonable influences on her characters’ reactions. But toxic surprises may burrow into another related backstory even as that character is clueless of what those details meant for them.

In “The Love of a Good Woman,” Enid, a nurse for the querulous, vindictive senior Mrs. Quinn, overhears multiple crimes but cannot bring herself to act due to conflicting impulses. The reader grows more and more alarmed for her safety, but she senses that “The different possibility was coming closer to her, and all she needed to do was to keep quiet and let it come . . . what benefits could bloom. For others, and for herself.” And readers share that hope.

In most of Munro’s stories, women outnumber the male characters; only a few in this collection are told from a masculine point of view. In her more overtly dramatic plots, the young women are curious and naïve about life outside of their family, social class, and expectations. Unsure as they are about their own prospects and lacking role models, they survey the known outcomes any locals have arranged. Flight from stultifying conditions serves as a common choice for her characters. Such stories are usually powered by getaway marriages.

In “Runaway,” one of Munro’s most riveting and modern stories, a teenage bride, Carla, provides the central point of view. Her husband, Clark, runs an isolated and financially iffy riding stable in a rural province. Carla feels alienated and miserable—her new husband could be a model for a list of a sociopath’s entitlements and resentments. She eventually attempts a solo escape by bus to a safe house in Toronto, only to panic and return to Clark. Munro’s label of “Canadian Gothic” is well earned—if you’ve viewed enough Gothic novel covers, you will know that they often feature a woman fleeing a house.

What is fascinating about Munro’s works are their careful themes and variations on life’s options. For example, in “Post and Beam,” after the main character arrives at a resigned insight, she thinks: “It was a long time ago that this happened . . . When she was twenty-four years old, and new to bargaining.” For many readers, that particular tone and message serves as a shared perception that might even touch off a burst of unruly recollections about the reader’s own losses and disappointments.

Munro’s ability to write with a clean forensic agility shines best when her characters perform unappetizing and even appalling actions. Cruelty erupts from unlikely people inside bucolic, prosaic, and hincty moments. The playwright María Irene Fornés once remarked, “You have to be an angel on your characters’ shoulder. They can be brutal, mean, but not more malicious than they are. Good, kind, but not more wholesome, more sympathetic than their limits can allow.” Munro does that.

Readers may recognize patterns for how people regard and review their past when they have either employed or mismanaged their talents during changing circumstances. Weaknesses and strengths, flawed and good choices, insights and blind spots that function in someone’s life can undergo a metamorphosis when unforeseen characters, settings, or forces engage new situations. Sometimes, survival instinct may mix with a misplaced benevolence in order to achieve the best outcome. It may also provide a snarky solution, one that stings once and leaves no cause for any further judgment. Munro’s ingredients are due to her tender, precise, and delightfully illicit touch about people’s beliefs while events are going haywire, when an ingrained or even disreputable comportment produces something noteworthy or courageous for that particular moment or need.

“The Bear Came Over The Mountain” is an example of this pattern. This gem features not one mutation of proper ethical principles, but many. The heroine is Fiona, the eccentric daughter of an illustrious, wealthy cardiologist who hosts parties in his big house. She’s a catch, but also has a very contrary and sharp personality. She lists among her suitors “a curly-haired, gloomy-looking foreigner,” “two or three quite respectable and uneasy young interns,” and assorted international visitors. Fiona grows up privileged, with “her own little car and a pile of cashmere sweaters” and maintains a belief that politics and sororities are “a joke to her.” On a windswept beach she proposes to Grant, an unimposing, unpretentious student from a local town. She does it by shouting “Do you think it would be fun if we got married?” He says yes to Fiona because it’s his belief that “She had the spark of life.”

Later, we are shown a much older Grant who is about to drive Fiona to retirement home due to her mounting amnesia. He mulls over her changes of attitude and appearance and then realizes that her hair went from pale blond to white somehow without Grant’s noticing exactly when. His alarms about her recent ominous blackout episodes float into a hope that the retirement home might be “as something that need not be permanent . . . A rest cure.” Because Grant passively waits for someone else to solve any situation, the rest home does the job: Fiona is not allowed to have any visitors for the first thirty days, cutting Grant out of her life.

Back at Fiona’s comfy family home, Grant indulges in reveries about his past choices, what Fiona might be doing now, and her new beau at the rest home. Grant eventually calls the nurse, who only says Fiona is “coming out of her shell” and hangs up. Grant is puzzled: “What shell was that?” Such a remark recalls Munro’s ability to evoke in one sentence a lifetime of someone’s lapses and deficits that may mask a startling sensibility. Grant doesn’t recall decades of how their life together has gone: his disposition is for gliding ahead with minimum bother with the past. However, during the story’s finale, Munro shows that Fiona was right to choose Grant: “‘You could have just driven away,’ she said. ‘Just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken.’”

Grant replies, “Not a chance.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Lupa and Lamb

lupaandlambSusan Hawthorne
Spinifex ($26.95)

by Heather Taylor Johnson

Empress Livia is having a party! While in Rome, her guests take in the sites. Curatrix suggests the Musaeum Matricum, which is “a place of the Muses/a musing place of the [f. pl.] Matrix/Mother/Source,” where she, as curator, has gathered the “lost texts.” These lost texts, places of interest, and partygoers and their stories are classical fodder for Lupa and Lamb, a book that celebrates women and offers an alternative to how history has perceived them. In Australian poet Susan Hawthorne’s imaginary world, Lupa (wolf) is not the predator and Lamb is not the victim:

If x was the sound representing the idea of a wolf,
y a lamb, and z the act of killing,
then xyz or xzy could be a comprehensible sentence,
representing the idea of a wolf killing a lamb.

but I’m a vegetarian and have no wish
to kill a lamb for dinner
or for poetry

(from “Sulpicia’s grammar lesson”)

Hawthorne is a master-weaver. Her sixth book of poetry takes strands of myth, history, and new inventions to make a strong fabric of sisterhood. She uses border crossings like fibres to make a single braid: geographical, corporeal, and temporal boundaries cross each other as women of antiquity contemplate Wikipedia, characters morph into one another, and human becomes animal. As a published novelist and nonfiction writer, Hawthorne also uses the threads of other genres, making a tapestry of narrative form.

Continuing along the lines of Hawthorne’s Cow, which was shortlisted for the Audre Lorde Lesbian Poetry Prize as well as Australia’s 2012 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Hawthorne’s verse mixes the academic with the creative, using marginal notes and providing a bibliography for those wanting to know her sources. These add to the experience of reading Hawthorne’s work; one can expect entertainment, experimentation, and erudition in her art.

Finding the balance between the academic and creative is one of her distinguishing traits as a poet, second only to her feminist refrain. In “crimes of men” she writes about Romulus, who

considers his power celestial
forgets that he started life
in a wicker basket on a river in flood
that he might have been food
that his life took a good turn
because of an alliance between
she-wolf and shepherd.

In this passage, Hawthorne gives her readers the opportunity to revisit the virile history we have come to know as “truth” and question its wholeness by reaching for the feminine, and it would appear the feminine is not hard to find; it has always been there.

Lupa and Lamb is an original book, illuminating and imaginative. To read it is to open your mind to an alternative past and, in doing so, make room for a future full of possibilities.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Citizen: An American Lyric

citizenClaudia Rankine
Graywolf ($20)

by J.G. McClure

If you’re looking for proof of the urgent necessity of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, you might simply look to the cover. The image is of David Hammons’s In the Hood. The severed hood of a sweatshirt—empty, tattered, black—stands against a stark white background. The piece was made in 1993: two years before Trayvon Martin would be born, and nineteen years before he would put on a hoodie, go to the store, and—holding a bag of Skittles and a can of sweet tea—be killed by a man holding a handgun. In the aftermath, newsman Geraldo Rivera would make the absurd and heartbreaking claim that “the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death” as the gunman.

So much is encoded in this cover image: the implicit violence of the severing, the absence of a body inside the hood—evoking death and erasure—and its placement against a jarring white background, bringing to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s statement (which Rankine later cites directly) that “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

Citizen’s cover is but one aspect of the stunning artistry of this book, the careful and powerful decisions behind each facet of its making. Much has been said about the political importance of Citizen—see, for example, the reviews in The New York Times and Slate—while largely glossing over the book’s artistic achievements, as if what it means and how it means were somehow divorced. But the book’s political power should not be seen separately from its aesthetic power. Rankine has created a text that blends poetry, narrative, essay, and visual art, going even beyond the publisher’s “Poetry/Essays” label into something far more complex and moving: an American Lyric.

One of the many difficulties about discussing the pervasive racism of American life, Rankine writes, is that one does not “know how to end what doesn’t have an ending.” Rather than artificially dividing, ending, or resolving these disturbing scenes into discrete, titled poems, Rankine allows one scene to blur into the next—formally enacting the ongoing and always-unresolved experience of racism. The result is an exhausting accretion of microaggressions. Take the book’s first scene, a childhood memory:

When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows. . . .

The route is often associative. You smell good. You are twelve attending Sts. Philip and James School on White Plains Road and the girl sitting in the seat behind asks you to lean to the right during exams so she can copy what you have written. . . .

You never really speak except for the time she makes her request and later when she tells you you smell good and have features more like a white person. You assume she thinks she is thanking you for letting her cheat and feels better cheating from an almost white person.

From the first sentence, the book begins its complicated use of the pronoun “you.” By saying “you let yourself linger,” Rankine establishes a distance from the Self, as if there is a Self that watches the Self act, and dictates what is allowed. Insofar as the “you” is used as a veiled first-person, it creates a further distance between the speaker and her own experience, a distance that Rankine explores throughout the book. But the “you” here can also be the reader, directly addressed, and by casting the reader as the person acted upon, Rankine manages to give him or her a glimpse into the experience of being systematically discriminated against—and even a glimpse is emotionally harrowing. This is one facet of the book’s powerful empathetic project: while reading about the systematic experience of alienation, those of us in positions of privilege are made aware of our alienation from such alienation, precisely because these experiences are not our own.

That Rankine can accomplish such complicated work through the use of a single pronoun is indicative of her strength as an artist. And there is still more—much more—at work in this passage alone. For example, one feels the past as a physical presence, a presence that, “stacked among your pillows,” invades even the most private space of the bedroom. Through unbidden, unexpected associations, the speaker is cast back to a painful early experience: the past, it seems, can attack without warning. What makes the memory especially poignant is how quickly something positive can turn painful: a pleasant smell conjures instantly a memory of racism. Still more troubling, the white girl in the memory apparently thought she was saying something nice: the fact that her intention was not to harm makes the action all the more harmful.

On the next page, we see a photograph of a quiet suburb: white houses, a white car, and a street sign with white letters: Jim Crow Road. The impact is visceral; though one might question the accuracy of memory, the photograph strikes us as unassailable, a fixed record of what is. What could the people who named the street have been thinking? Why hasn’t the name since been changed? Is it possible that those in charge, like the girl in the memory, “mean well”? Have they simply not thought about the harm they’re doing by leaving the name in place—and would such thoughtlessness really be any better than intentional malice? Rankine doesn’t try to guess here; instead, she leaves us to our own conclusions.

This is another powerful theme in Citizen: the inscrutability of intention. Another scene:

You are rushing to meet a friend in a distant neighborhood of Santa Monica. This friend says, as you walk toward her, You are late, you nappy-headed ho. What did you say? you ask, though you have heard every word. This person has never before referred to you like this in your presence, never before code-switched in this manner. . . .

Maybe the content of her statement is irrelevant and she only means to signal the stereotype of “black people time” by employing what she perceives to be “black people language.” Maybe she is jealous of whoever kept you and wants to suggest you are nothing or everything to her. . . . You don’t know. You don’t know what she means. You don’t know what response she expects from you nor do you care. For all your previous understandings, suddenly incoherence feels violent. You both experience this cut, which she keeps insisting is a joke, a joke stuck in her throat, and like any other injury, you watch it rupture along its suddenly exposed suture.

In the face of inscrutable motives by the perpetrator, the victim of racism here begins to doubt herself. In another scene, the speaker wonders if she has “done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having. Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me?” In other words: are your racist remarks my fault? The result is emotionally devastating: we see that not only does the speaker face aggressions from outside, but that these aggressions impel her to be suspicious of herself—and the linguistic distancing of Self from Self that we see throughout the book takes on another troubling dimension. We sense the macroscopic scale of such aggressions: widespread and pervasive, beginning in childhood and continuing every day, they have so thoroughly enmeshed the speaker that even in the moment of resisting the assault she is further pulled into it.

The speaker is poignantly aware of her own ability to do harm. A passage describes a neighbor who calls the police because of a “menacing black guy casing” the speaker’s home. It is, in fact, the speaker’s friend, who is babysitting and has stepped into the front yard to take a phone call. The neighbor does not believe this, and the police arrive. The speaker arrives home to the aftermath, the four police cars already gone:

Your neighbor has apologized to your friend and is now apologizing to you. Feeling somewhat responsible for the actions of your neighbor, you clumsily tell your friend that the next time he wants to talk on the phone he should just go in the backyard. He looks at you a long minute before saying he can speak on the phone wherever he wants. Yes, of course, you say. Yes, of course.

It’s a wrenching moment: in attempting to protect her friend from racism, the speaker has unintentionally participated in his silencing and erasure. With the best intentions, she does the very thing she seeks to prevent. The final two sentences leave us with her realization, her lesson learned—and the damage already done.

The passage reflects the brilliance of Citizen. Rankine never shies away from difficult material, and is never reductionist in her consideration of the knotted complexities of race in our country. From its first page to its last, the book is skillfully shaped to produce a haunting experience. Politically urgent, artistically brilliant, Rankine’s Citizen is a must-read for anyone who cares about literature and anyone who cares about America.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics

aleistercrowleyMarco Pasi
translated by Ariel Godwin
Routledge ($27.95)

by Spencer Dew

Here’s the sticky wicket with the Great Beast 666. On the one hand, Aleister Crowley shines as a star in the firmament of history, champion of individualism, gadfly to hypocrites, proto-punk provocateur and publicity-chasing prankster who donned the mantle of prophet to receive the religious revelation of the present age: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law! Love is the law, love under will! On the other hand, the revelation of the religion of Thelema calls for shaking free of the shackles of “care for the feeling of others” in favor of engagement in “blasphemy, murder, rape, revolution, anything, bad or good, but strong.” The New Aeon Crowley prophesied would finally spell the end to that “nauseating cult of weakness,” democracy, limping along on the “utterly false” premise of equality among humanity. In truth, Crowley declared, humans are either masters or slaves.

Thus, the man who thumbed his nose at restrictive conventions by writing poems about sodomy and incorporating the doodle of a penis into his signature was also the man who recorded dreams of advising Hitler and wrote that Eastern European Jews practiced human sacrifice. The man who described the United States as “the ‘foul oligarchy of the West’ . . . a cesspool of depravity and corruption, founded solely upon the search for individual gain and profit” also said that world peace “depends upon the original idea which aggrandized America in a century from four millions to a hundred: extreme individualism with opportunity.” The man who danced with joy when he heard the news of Queen Victoria’s death is also the man that scholar Marco Pasi, following at least some of the argument of Richard Spence’s Secret Agent 666, believes worked for British intelligence while in the United States. This might explain his pro-German writings during World War I, though, as Pasi notes, when in 1915 Crowley “tore up his passport in front of the Statue of Liberty and proclaimed the independence of the ‘Irish Republic,’” this can’t be read purely as the audacious act of an agent seeking deeper entry into the anti-British underground, since Crowley had been “calling himself Irish and predicting England’s ruin as early as 1900.” This self-described “Sinn Feiner” is the same man who wrote that “Jews and niggers” were “imaginary,” figments of poisonous “submergence of the individual in his class” and reactions between groups of people identified by “class” rather than as individuals. The question is unavoidable as it is disorienting to tackle: What were the politics of the Wickedest Man in the World?

Here’s how Marco Pasi phrases the conundrum: “What does it mean that “Crowley, despite the apparent radical individualism of Thelema, could look at contemporary totalitarian ideologies and regimes not with horror and downright rejection, as one might have expected, but with interest, or even a certain degree of fascination”? Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics plumbs that fascination, holding that Crowley “can be adequately understood only when placed within the historical context in which his intellectual education took place, and in which his proposed religion was developed.” While this is a truism, the phrasing reveals Pasi’s central concern: Thelema. Pasi presents Crowley’s career a progression with “two main phases,” an “individualistic and romantic” phase followed by a mature phrase devoted to spreading his new religion. Denouncements of democracy and other personal “idiosyncrasies” of Crowley are superseded, in this reading, by a move toward the “democratization of magic” as Crowley evangelizes for his religion’s “universalistic message.” And so we hear that “certain aspects of the Thelemic religious message, as Crowley himself presented them, seem to be in agreement with certain aspects of an elitist and, occasionally, totalitarian ideology,” yet also that

these aspects were not peculiar either to Crowley or, for example, to Nazism; rather, they pervaded to a certain degree English intellectual circles, especially progressive ones before the First World War. The implications of social Darwinism, for example, were discussed not only in radical political circles but also, and primarily, in scientific ones, and were even considered respectable enough before the horrors of Nazism led to a universal, uncompromising condemnation of these ideas.

Pasi is Associate Professor in the History of Hermetic Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, and this book, which began as a dissertation in the early 1990s, still bears traces of wariness about its humble goal of contributing “to the ‘normalization’ of Aleister Crowley as a subject of scholarly research.” Pasi has performed meticulous and multi-lingual archival work, the results of which will be of interest to specialists but may disappoint the general reader. For instance, there is a chapter here on Crowley’s connection with Fernando Pessoa, yet while one gets the sense that Pasi has tracked down all the clues, there isn’t much of a story to tell. On other fronts, Pasi enters the archive to debunk. He parses out various conspiracy theories spun about the magus, like that he staged his suicide in Portugal so he could slip into Germany and serve as Hitler’s occult advisor. While the suicide stunt fits with Crowley’s broader profile of making himself the subject of headlines, Pasi can state plainly that “Neither in Crowley’s diaries from that time nor in the things he occasionally wrote later about Nazism do we find anything to suggest that he had had any personal contact with Hitler or with other members of the Nazi party.” This is a useful contribution to the study of Crowley, to be sure, but, again, not necessarily a great story.

Pasi contributed an essay to the recent academic anthology, Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism (Oxford University Press, 2012), which charted Crowley’s views on magical experience—notably rationalization of such experience via psychological and even physiological lenses, until his “call as prophet of a new religion probably produced a cognitive obstacle that prevented him from taking the process of psychologization to its logical extreme.” Here as well, Thelema takes precedent over all else. Yet Pasi’s narrow subject—Crowley’s claim that his “magick” was empirically verifiable, “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will,” and how this notion fits into broader historical trends of religion and rationality—is one on which he can demonstrate his strength as a historian. Pasi gives attention to some of the same issues in this volume, under the auspices of discrediting “The equation ‘right wing = irrational = esotericism,’ which has been so widespread among left-wing intellectuals after the Second World War.”

This sense of left-wing versus right-wing stances of citizens and governments is how Pasi employs the word “politics,” a term he never defines. Readers expecting a sense for politics more broadly, as human negotiations of desire and power and the expression of recognized or unconscious ideologies therein—“politics” as most contemporary scholars of religion would use the term—will find Pasi’s title misleading. He says, “Crowley did not write much explicitly on politics, but it is my conviction that his body of work is replete with fascinating political implications,” a truism that reveals naiveté but seems also to express some frustration with “politics” as a subject. The question of meeting Hitler is one of fact; the question of sympathizing with Hitler’s politics is murkier, depending upon consideration of multiple, often subtle, tendrils within the Crowley oeuvre. Ultimately, Pasi argues that “politics” posed merely a “temptation” to the Great Beast, all seemingly political statements and actions aside. Pasi holds that Crowley, devoted foremost to the goal of spreading his religious message, did all sorts of things for attention, to draw attention to Thelema. It is prophetic calling—rather than any kind of political leaning—that stands as “the motivation behind some of his choices and behaviours, which might otherwise appear simply extravagant, or dictated by a compulsive need for ‘transgression.’”

This is a soothing thesis, fitting a dissertation geared at “normalizing” a figure that, at the time of its writing, was still taboo. Within this framework, Crowley’s most shocking statements can be “explained . . . by the ‘pragmatic' attitude that he developed in parallel with his messianic convictions.” This also represents a clever defense, smoother than, say, some of the Crowleyite attempts to rationalize the magus’s comments on Jewish blood libel. With Pasi’s thesis, the most outlandish statement or action becomes the early twentieth-century equivalent of click-bait. That time he wrote an open letter to the German air command, urging them to bomb his aunt’s house? That time he urged a goat to copulate with a woman for a bit of magic? His typologies of Jews (active and passive, with different size noses) or the effects of the tropic climate on the sexual drives of Anglo women? All of this is in the service of the gospel of the new age. Pasi is far more parsimonious with his examples, avoiding all of the ones above, but with Crowley the examples are endless—and Pasi’s formula is presented as having applicability across the board. As Pasi puts it, in connection to a piece published by Crowley where he imagines great English poets of the past rewriting a popular patriotic WWI ditty, “Probably, once again, Crowley wished to exhibit his heretical and iconoclastic nature without taking up an explicit position.”

This feels unsatisfying, not to say disingenuous, skipping over critical engagement with Crowley’s statements in favor of the standard explanation of attention-getting. Moreover, to ignore the dynamics of such attention-getting (to what audience was Crowley speaking? How was a given statement or act supposed to draw that audience to Thelema?) returns us to limited conception of “politics” at play in this book, which, like a ceremonial working gone bad, invokes far more than it can control. Simply put, Pasi raises a question he does not answer. His book will certainly be of use as a resource for future academic work on Crowley, but as for the issue of Crowley and politics, the attention given in these pages only exacerbates the problem—leaving this reader, at least, flipping madly back through Crowley’s texts trying to make sense of his statements, increasingly disturbed and increasingly confused.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015