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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

'Illuminatus' and neo-Baroque aesthetics, by Vittorio Frigerio

The Illuminatus! Trilogy and Bacchelli’s Il Sommergibile: Literary Synchronicity and the Case of the Disappearing Anarchist


(Originally published in Paradoxa:, Vol. 4, No. 8, 1998)

[I think I have something interesting here: An article about Hagbard Celine and the Illuminatus! trilogy from Paradoxa, an academic journal that publishes articles on genre literature. (The latest issue is about current science fiction.) 

The article is written by Vittorio Frigerio, a professor in the Department of French at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. Dr. Frigerio is an expert in 19th century French literature (particularly Alexandre Dumas père). He has written several books on French authors, in French. He also has written short stories and fiction. Full biography is here.

The article is reproduced here with the permission of Dr. Frigerio and David R. Willingham, the journal's editor and publisher. Thanks, much, to Andrew Crawshaw for obtaining the PDF and calling it to my attention. 

I've done my best to preserve the footnotes in the original article: I have boldfaced the number for each footnote, like this (1) ; page down to find the footnote. This is very interesting essay; please take time to read it. I spent hours trying to get the formatting right. Please tolerate any remaining mistakes.  — The Management.]

Vittorio Frigerio

In the midst of the extremely complex plot of the science-fiction cult classic the Illuminatus! trilogy, one character stands out as the “fil rouge” that connects and gives meaning to the actions of the numerous secondary figures around which the intrigue revolves. In spite of his postmodern attitudes, Hagbard Celine – a wryly humorous Anthony Quinn look-alike – displays some typical characteristics of the adventure hero of mid-19th century popular romanticism. His mephistophelian manner and, more importantly, his lack of an identifiable national origin allow him to present himself as a free agent, unfettered by any attachment to a specific country, and therefore not subject to any of the rules of law that restrict the freedom of common mortals. From Dumas’ Count of Monte-Cristo onward, cosmopolitanism is the inevitable defining mark of the rebel-hero who puts himself on the same level as the oppressive state structure, and insists on playing the game of life strictly by rules of his own creation. The half Norwegian, half Sicilian origin of Celine clearly represents, in this particular intertextual context, a symbolic declaration of independence, a union of opposites whose product defies description. However, Hagbard Celine displays a fundamental peculiarity that sets him apart quite radically from the earlier classical example of Schiller’s Raüber or, perhaps more appropriately, of Robin Hood. He has wealth: an immense, uncounted and uncountable wealth that allows him to travel throughout the world as he pleases, aboard a huge, technologically hyper-advanced, yellow (or rather, golden) submarine.

These unlimited financial resources would not of themselves suffice to provide the character of Celine with the modicum of originality needed in order to set him sufficiently apart from other fictional Nabobs with an axe to grind and money to burn, such as, once again, the former sailor Edmond Dantès or the more immediately evident reference, Captain Nemo and his Nautilus. What distinguishes Celine from his earlier counterparts is that the self-proclaimed leader of the “Legion of Dynamic Discord” has not only huge financial resources, but, more importantly, a theory to justify their use and his possession of them.

In his long discourses to George Dorn – the hapless, left-leaning, pot-smoking writer for the alternative magazine Confrontation, who becomes, quite unwillingly at first, a draftee in Celine’s “Legion” – Celine defines himself and his organization as anarchist, or at least anarchist-inspired. Words, however – as it becomes readily apparent when trying to make sense of the paradoxical declarations of this original character – do not necessarily have the same meaning in his world as they do in everyday life. Another character attracted in Celine’s sphere of action, Joe Malik, tries to locate the L.D.D.’s ideology in the traditional spectrum of anarchist thought, and in so doing provides the reader with an ironic, but essentially correct, tripartite division:

“Gradually, he began to identify the conflicting positions expressed: the individualist-anarchists, who sounded like right-wing Republicans (except that they wanted to get rid of all functions of government); the anarcho-syndicalists and Wobblies, who sounded like Marxists (except that they wanted to get rid of all functions of government); the anarcho-pacifists, who sounded like Gandhi and Martin Luther King (except that they wanted to get rid of all functions of government)[...].” (Shea and Wilson, 111)

Unwilling to be pigeonholed into any precise categories, Celine offers a statement that – while apparently equating his beliefs with a pure, undefinable revolt against everything, including existence itself – actually places him in the direct line of an historical “anarchist” school of thought, which originated from the German philosopher Max Stirner:

“We’re anarchists and outlaws, goddam it. Didn’t you understand that much? We’ve got nothing to do with right-wing, left-wing or any other half-assed political category. If you work within the system, you come to one of the either/or choices that were implicit in the system from the beginning. You’re talking like a medieval serf, asking the first agnostic whether he worships God or the Devil. We’re outside the system’s categories. You’ll never get the hang of our game if you keep thinking in flat-earth imagery of right and left, good and evil, up and down. If you need a group label for us, we’re political non-Euclideans. But even that’s not true. Sink me, nobody on this tub agrees with anybody else about anything, except maybe what the fellow with the horns told the old man in the clouds: Non serviam.” (Shea and Wilson, 86)

This declaration of extraneousness from any accepted ideological distinction, complete with the suggestion of a non-authoritarian form of association where free individuals join forces in spite of – or rather, because of – their differences, together with the apparently improbable cocktail of radical revolt and refined luxury that seem to be the hallmark of the adherents to his organization, mark Celine as an uncommonly coherent follower of Stirnerian principles.

This assumption is confirmed later in the novel, when Celine signs one of his messages with the quintessentially Stirnerian pseudonym, “der Einzige” (1)(Shea and Wilson, 495).

Thus, the man who presents himself as the only possible saviour of the world from the dark and unholy conspiracies of the “Illuminati” provides a relatively rigid frame of reference that may help in defining his position, his ideology and his goals. This seems to allow his fictional allies – and the reader with them – to make some sense of a character that had been until that moment a remarkable but unsettling jumble of contradictory statements and unpredictable, incomprehensible actions. A more thorough analysis of the relationship between the anarchist individualist world-view and Celine’s own reinterpretation of it will prove useful to define the role of this character.

An ostensible key to Celine: Max Stirner and individualist anarchism

Individualist anarchism is generally considered to be the creation of German philosopher Max Stirner (1806-1856), whose theories are expounded in his major work, Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum (The Ego and Its Own, 1844). The definition “individualist anarchism”, however, is not of Stirner’s own choosing, but was rather imposed upon his work towards the end of the century, when it was rediscovered by the anarchists and posthumously adopted as a precursor. (2) 

Described more appropriately as a “raw anarchism that does not refer to any ideology, supporting absolute freedom and the rejection of any power of any nature” (Richard, 9), Stirner’s individualist anarchism differs from the collectivistic anarchism of Proudhon, Bakunin or Kropotkin essentially in that it negates the altruistic, social human nature that these philosophers assume as the foundation of their systems, and states that the individual’s ego – its needs and desires – is the only veritable force motivating human action. Egoism – the realization that everything we do and think is filtered through our own individuality, that there is no such thing as an objective reality – becomes the ideal state to be reached by anyone who wants to achieve true freedom. Very close to a form of practical solipsism, Stirnerian philosophy postulates that nothing truly exists outside of one’s own self, or at least that everything that exists is a projection of the self. Outside of any ethical dimension, this school of thought sees personal pleasure as the only possible goal of life, and exhorts the individual to withdraw from the social contract, arguing that all oppressive structures (church, state, etc., equated with “ghosts”) will collapse on their own once men decide to take back the power and the energy that they lend them and upon which they thrive. Only when these structures have disappeared, will voluntary, perpetually shifting forms of free association between individuals become truly possible.

In opposition to the leftist forms of anarchism (Proudhon most notably), Stirnerian thought sees private property as a guarantee of personal freedom, so long as it is not considered sacred or untouchable and remains dependent upon the balance of power between individuals.

The opinions expressed by the members of Hagbard’s “Legion” reflect the most basic tenets of this ideology. For them, as for Stirner, there is no contradiction between luxury and revolution:

“You’ll find this submarine is opulently furnished. I have no need to live in monklike surroundings like those masochists who become naval officers. No Spartan simplicity for me. This is more like an ocean liner or a grand European hotel of the Edwardian era. Wait till you see my suite. You’ll like your stateroom, too. To please myself, I built this thing on the grand scale. No finicky naval architects or parsimonious accountants in my business. I believe you’ve got to spend money to make money and spend the money you make to enjoy money. Besides, I have to live in the damned thing.” (Shea and Wilson, 85)

This notion also entails that property itself is simply an illusion, that can be dispelled by an act of willpower:

The land belongs to the landlords, right now, because of magic. People worship the deeds in the government offices, and they won’t dare move onto a square of ground if one of the deeds says somebody else owns it. It’s a head-trip, a kind of magic, and you need the opposite magic to lift the curse.” (Shea and Wilson, 113) 

Similarly, the fight against the forces of oppression can only be won if it is shifted onto a different terrain, of the individual’s own choosing:

“Anarchism remains tied to politics, and remains a form of death like all other politics, until it breaks free from the defined ‘reality’ of capitalist society and creates its own reality.” (Shea and Wilson, 112)

As an inevitable consequence of this position, “objective” reality loses all meaning:

“This [the world] is the Abyss of Hallucinations. This is where our attention is usually focused. It is entirely constructed by our senses and our projected emotions, as modern psychology and ancient Buddhism both testify – but it is what most people call ‘reality’. They are conditioned to accept it, and not to inquire further, because only in this dream-walking state can they be governed by those who wish to govern.” (Shea and Wilson, 716)

In total agreement with Stirnerian analysis, no other action is needed in order to progress from slavery to freedom but a deliberate change in perception, which will cause a subsequent and logical change in the relationships that constitute “reality”. Miss Portinari’s twenty-three-step path to enlightenment shows an identical understanding of the individual’s relationship to outside forces; nothing else is required to change it but an attitudinal transformation. The situation is the same, but seen under a different light: “No,” Miss Portinari said, “Tarot is an anagram on rota, remember? The extra t reminds you that the Wheel turns back to rejoin itself. There is a twenty-third step, and it’s right where you started, only now you face it without fear.” (3)

Celine, this peculiar modern-day knight, could therefore be understood – on one level at least – as a freethinking, tough-talking contemporary incarnation of post-hegelian unfettered individualism, with a touch of Tucker and, for good measure, a memory of Ayn Rand’s mystical faith in the all-healing properties of the free-market. (4)

The apparent identification of Celine with Stirner’s “Ego” fulfils as well another essential role in the economy of the novel: a structural-ideological role of deeper significance than the simple, ostensible justification of a character’s complex and disturbing personality, and of the ideologies behind the ultimate battle between good and evil that the novel purportedly recounts. It is this role that I will now endeavour to examine.

Neo-baroque aesthetics and the dismantlement of ideology

Shea’s and Wilson’s novel appears to be practically a textbook example of what the well-known Italian semiotician Omar Calabrese calls “neo-baroque aesthetics”(5)

 According to this critic, contemporary mass-oriented culture (be it literature, art or music) can be identified through a number of virtually unchanging specificities, dictated by the extremely rapid mode of production and of dissemination of cultural creations through the media. In contemporary society, the oversaturated, culturally adept consumer finds himself in the position of having to transform the received canons of taste and his mode of fruition of the cultural product, switching from the search for novelty and originality generally associated with “classical”, highbrow creation, to an increased sensitivity for and appreciation of repetition, and, more importantly, of variation within repetition.

Modern, neo-baroque aesthetics appears thus as a cultural field where intertextuality is the text itself, where references, clins d’oeil [winks], allusions to other works, form the main body of the cultural object being created, in an unstable, hectic and shifting collage comprising disparate elements from all genres and time periods. (6) The Illuminatus! trilogy stretches this conception of aesthetics nearly to the limit, in its endless, hypnotic rehashing of the same story line, every time from a different angle and with a different interpretation (the L.D.D. and the Illuminati are enemies; they are the two sides of the same coin;they really are the same organization; the Illuminati do not truly exist; and so on...). It obeys quite strictly the rules identified by Calabrese in its deliberate refusal to adopt for any length of time the tone of a specific, recognizable genre,switching rapidly from science-fiction to detective story, to thriller, to pseudo-philosophical treatise and back again. The narration itself, often changing focus between several different focalizers (7) situations or time periods within a single page, displays a typical neo-baroque appreciation for both fragmentation and excess (Calabrese, 19-20). The whole narrative ballet thus revolves around three basic elements: organized variation (the story consists mostly of the characters themselves trying to make sense of the story, “rereading” both “History” and their personal experiences in successively different and contradictory manners), polycentrism (a constantly shifting narrative angle), and controlled irregularity (extremely rapid rhythm with sharp – and only apparently random – breaks).

The novel presents itself quite deliberately as an exercise in virtuosity, going as far as to provide its own ironic literary self-criticism: Confrontation, Joe Malik’s magazine, publishes a book review of the novel and thoroughly thrashes it.

In accordance with neo-baroque aesthetics, the Illuminatus! trilogy operates consistently on two complementary levels. On the one hand, the novel recycles, reuses and transforms an endless series of historical, mythological, political or literary events or figures (the assassination of JFK; the myth of Atlantis; John Dillinger; Pop music; The 60s student movement; Dutch Schultz and 1920s gangsterism; UFOs; Hitler; Leviathan, and so on and on to infinity), creating a virtually endless number of explicatory cause and effect relationships between them, with the inevitable result of compacting both time and space and consequently annulling any actual individuality these characters and events may at one time have possessed. The rapid-fire switches between time periods and locations, the constant discoveries of “secrets” behind “secrets”, the flashbacks and fast-forwards, create a chaotic effect that tends to deny the possibility itself of the existence of an objective truth. Randomness and disorder reign supreme at this level.

On the other hand, a new type of conceivable relationship slowly emerges, suggesting the possibility of the existence of a different universal order, where chaos simply corresponds to an intricate logic, essentially non-euclidean and therefore difficult to identify in what is generally perceived as “the existing order of things”, but nonetheless present and real. The “Sacred Chao” (8) that, as is suggested in the novel, symbolically represents the elementary underlying pattern of organization in the functioning of the universe, corresponds in orthodox neo-baroque fashion to modern “Chaos Theory”: a series of phenomena ruled by extremely complex laws (and therefore appearing to be outside of all control), that can be approached only through such means as, for example, fractal geometry or, in the novel, the enthusiastic consumption of large quantities of acid.

The book proposes a progressive, radical fragmentation of reality that shows a total correspondence between its aesthetic formula and its ideological position. In exactly the same way as time and action are destroyed as means of comprehension of the world – progressively creating a sense of total existential futility – all political and philosophical ideals are shown to be devoid of any autonomous value through Eichmann’s and Calley’s interminable debates, when the two former policemen, dressed as clowns, discuss systematically day after day the pros and cons of any imaginable subject until both positions are thoroughly destroyed and shown to be meaningless in isolation.

The result (apparent chaos and senselessness) has far-reaching consequences, including for the authors’ typically neo-baroque approach to the definition of their work: “All categories collapsed, including the all-important distinction [...] between science fiction and serious literature.” (Shea and Wilson, 714)

As could be expected, however, this final flattening of opposites, this assured mutual ideological self-destruction as between matter and antimatter, only represents a new starting point: the tabula rasa from which yet another theory can rise and aspire to provide the integrating, satisfying solution that can restore a sense of purpose and order to a world fallen prey to absolute chaos.

Thus, after the theatrical destruction of the evil pop singers of the American Medical Association, the dominating, charismatic figure of Hagbard Celine recedes for the first time into the distance. This character, who seemed to acquire progressively more and more power and importance – being revealed as the last “Illuminatus Primus”, as basically eternal or undying, and acquiring nearly Christ-like status – is shown to be barely more than a tool in the hands of the secretive, all-knowing Dealy Lama (whose real name is Gruad, last survivor of Atlantis and a close relative of Lucifer, if not Lucifer himself, understood in true romantic fashion as bearer of knowledge and light).

There follows a new, Buddhist-style interpretation of life as an eternally turning wheel, and of history as a recurring sequence of periods that change into one another with the passage of time, only to start over and over again.

The anarchist individualist activism of Celine, this “walking contradiction” (Shea and Wilson, 101), is thus portrayed by the Dealy Lama as essentially misguided: as a fundamentally naive attempt at restoring a perceived imbalance that does not truly require external intervention, since the wheel of life can know no wrong course. The increasing doubts of Hagbard himself as to the rightness of his actions seem to lend more weight to the Lama’s irrefutable conclusions:

 “I was trying to show them that it’s possible to get involved in this world without being corrupted by the crimes of this world. And I failed. One by one, I resorted to all the vices of governors: deception, carnival magic to impress the gullible, and finally, outright murder. Once again, the cynics have been proven right.” (Shea and Wilson, 730)

Through the intervention of the Dealy Lama, serving as Deus ex machina to provide a degree of closure to the narration, the final chapters succeed in sidelining entirely the anarchist-individualist philosophy that had been presented up to that point as the determinant motor behind the L.D.D. and its creator and as the philosophical counterpoint to the “neo-baroque” sensibility of the novel. Even more, this ideology is virtually put on the same level as the occultist-Nazi beliefs of the “enemy” – the Saures – and this notwithstanding a lingering touch of sympathy for the demoted hero, and the Dealy Lama’s own vague and rather unconvincing doubts about Hagbard’s role. (9)

The final, sudden negation of the “cosmic” validity of the anarchist-
individualist world-view, that reverts to immobility and stasis, shows the structural reasons that had been underlying its narrative choice as ostensible key to the meaning of the characters’ motivations. Stirnerian philosophy fulfilled that particular role in the economy of the novel not so much as a legitimate means of social analysis and knowledge, but rather as a “neo-baroque” symbol of the union of opposites, as an heterogeneous assembly of contradictory positions, required for their aesthetic effect far more than for their presumed logical or analytical qualities.

Within a deliberate representation of the world as a binary structure gone mad, where apparent formal difference always hides fundamental sameness, anarchist-individualist philosophy functions as a symbol of the coexistence of extremes, of contradictory, illogical thinking constructing itself into a system, as opposed to a legitimate ideological alternative to the present – and avowedly defective – functioning of society. Its initial recuperation appears therefore to be dictated not by its strengths but by its perceived weaknesses, not by its attempt to integrate into a coherent philosophical framework the divergent forces that Stirner saw at work, with destructive results, within society and within the human spirit, but in order to build up yet another castle of cards, yet another illusion that will eventually self-destruct and leave the stage to the Dealy Lama’s final presentation of history as an endlessly turning wheel where individual choice plays no role.

The dismantlement of the anarchist world-view, obeying as it does the dictates of structural, narrative necessity, raises however a vexing question. The sympathy with which Celine – undoubtedly the most positive character in the novel – is depicted, in spite of the obligatory denunciation of the error of his ways, begs the question of knowing whether the fictional representation of Anarchism may somehow imply as a necessary, inevitable development, its ultimate negation. In other words, is there such a thing as a predetermined structural-ideological role for the literary anarchist? Is the fictional rebel condemned to failure by a narrative fate he cannot avoid?

Of Anarchists and submarines

A brief analysis of a novel by a well-known Italian author may prove useful to develop a working hypothesis. Riccardo Bacchelli’s Il Sommergibile (10) exhibits at least one major resemblance to the Illuminatus! The plot revolves around the fate of an anarchist-individualist in a submarine. By an interesting case of literary synchronicity, the opening scenes of the novel show the submarine surfacing beside an impressive pyramidal structure, bringing of course to mind the Atlantean pyramid at the bottom of the sea in Shea’s and Wilson’s epic. (11) This particular pyramid, however, proves to be made of a material far less resistant than that of its science-fictional counterpart. (12) It functions as a symbolic opening statement playing on the opposition between appearance and essence, and condensing in one image the thesis of the book: “[...] a reef covered in guano; a pyramid, until the first storm will wash it away; a guano pyramid. For the common people: shit.” (13)

Quite apart from these striking similarities, it should be noted that Il Sommergibile belongs to a literary tradition worlds apart from that of the authors of the Illuminatus! trilogy. Bacchelli makes no mystery of his Catholic, conservative ideology, and sees himself as belonging to a school, both in style and thought, to which the “neo-baroque” virtuosities of the American authors would seem virtually incomprehensible and utterly pointless. In spite of these fundamental differences, however, the role played by the anarchist in Bacchelli’s novel is in many ways identical to that we have identified in the Illuminatus! trilogy: helping to build up an artificial confrontation that will eventually be defused in order to underline the correct ideological conclusions to be drawn from the adventure. Quite simply: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

Bacchelli’s anarchist, a misfit for whom ideological belonging grows out of an unfortunate personal experience, as opposed to a deliberate intellectual choice, infiltrates a submarine crew as a spy working at the same time for three or more governments (the inevitable cosmopolitanism). He is discovered and “tried” by the crew, following the order received by radio to execute him or otherwise dispose of him before returning to port.

The crew includes a naval engineer, a biologist, (this is an experimental trip) and the captain, an “old salt” who boasts he never disobeys orders, but never obeys without discussing them. The “trial” of the anarchist and the varied intellectual specialties of the crew members offer an occasion for a number of disquisitions on human nature, history and science. The sailors, who have grown attached to the anarchist (he is an excellent mechanic and that commanded their respect) want to disobey the death sentence and set him free on some deserted coast. However, by the end of the submarine’s voyage, the positions are completely reversed. The anarchist, won over by the camaraderie of the crew and happy to finally be able to belong somewhere, has seen the error of his ways, and demands to be handed over to the authorities to get his just desserts and settle his score with society. On the other hand, the captain and his friends review together the gamut of human weaknesses and come to a series of conclusions that smack of the most orthodox Stirnerian philosophy: force rules the world, law is an illusion, good and evil are determined exclusively by personal convenience:

... The gulls above – laughed the boatswain – the fish underneath; us in the submarine: I eat you and you eat me! ... It’s the rule – said the Biologist – to kill and be killed: but in the water it’s clear and honest; on land it’s hypocritical and deceitful. Who knows what it will be outside of the earth’s gravitational orbit?” (14) (Bacchelli, 42)

And also:

“And as for ourselves, what gives us the right to tell good from evil, and bad people from good, and then to count ourselves among the good? Our convenience, our appetites, our sadness and sorrow [...]” (15) (Bacchelli, 131)

Bacchelli’s synthesis is only superficially different from the pseudo-Buddhist “wheel” of the Dealy Lama. If everything proves to be illusion, the only possible safety resides in God, as “If the sky is not the so-called God, we are on this world only for a futility that defies thought, but not fear.” (16)(Bacchelli, 56) In both novels, the practical conclusions the reader cannot but draw, are virtually identical. If Hagbard’s action is useless, the Dealy Lama’s inaction is the only wise course, since the order of the universe is such that nothing can make it stray from its predetermined course. Similarly, if only God is real, Bacchelli’s captain can continue obeying the orders he is given, aware as he is of their arbitrariness, since they have no bearing and no influence on what truly counts: the afterlife. In both cases, therefore, the anarchist analysis of social ills and individual dissatisfaction only serves as a fragment of a complex puzzle, whose main interest resides in the figure it helps put together once all the pieces are assembled, and once the apparent chaos and contradiction of the initial state of affairs are shown to derive only from an incomplete, partial perception of the whole.

The same mechanism can be seen at work with strikingly similar results in other works dealing with similarly constructed artificial confrontations involving fictional anarchists, all dissolving in a neutral, ethical no-man’s-land that will ultimately be claimed by whatever political philosophy the writer subscribes to. The virtually perfect example is offered by G.K. Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday, where the story of an anarchist plot and of the Secret Police Service that is supposed to unmask it ends with the revelation that all of the anarchist terrorists are actually members of the “The New Detective Corps for the frustration of the great conspiracy” (Chesterton, 64) and vice-versa. Chesterton’s conservative, religious moral bears more than a passing resemblance to Bacchelli’s. (17)

At the other end of the spectrum, Winter Hall, the hero of Jack London’s Assassination Bureau, manages, by a swift use of rhetoric and logic, to turn the ideology of the leader of another anarchist terrorist organization back against him. Dragomiloff’s “assassination bureau” takes it upon itself to physically eliminate people who have been proven to be enemies of society, such as brutal police chiefs and corrupt, predatory businessmen. Hall persuades Dragomiloff that his organization itself works against society’s best interest, and the logical-minded Russian proceeds to dismantle what he so painstakingly built, killing his former associates, with the firm intention of committing suicide once his work is finished. Once again, the anarchist analysis is turned inside out and negated, and its influence carefully and completely erased. This time, London’s hero’s socialist convictions carry the day, and the distant hope of the proletarian revolution replaces Bacchelli’s and Chesterton’s God as the final horizon. (18)

Somewhere between these two positions, R.L. Stevenson’s heroes in his novel The Dynamiter fail to find the haven of faith – be it religious or political – at the end of their moral struggle, but reject nonetheless the global transformation proposed by anarchism, portrayed as futile. In this comical odyssey, where a band of incomparably incompetent revolutionaries, headed by the aptly nicknamed “Zero”, wander around London in search of the ideal target for the bloodiest possible bomb attack, it is something deeper and more universal than belief that condemns both society’s failures and the anarchists’ radical attempt at correcting them. This force is quite simply “honour”, an innate ethical sensibility that shrinks from excesses, no matter what their motives.

One of Stevenson’s young, idle and self-consciously romantic heroes takes upon himself the task of making plain where the middle way lays between the crimes of the opposing powers in society:

“His gods had fallen. He who had chosen the broad, daylit, unencumbered paths of universal scepticism, found himself still the bondslave of honor. He who had accepted life from a point of view as lofty as the predatory eagle’s, though with no design to prey; he who had clearly recognized the common moral basis of war, or commercial competition, and of crime; he who was prepared to help the escaping murderer or to embrace the impenitent thief, found, to the overthrow of all his logic, that he objected to the use of dynamite. The dawn crept among the sleeping villas and over the smokeless fields of the city; and still the unfortunate sceptic sobbed over his fall from consistency. At length, he rose and took the rising sun to witness. ‘There is no question as to fact,’ he cried; ‘right and wrong are but figments and the shadow of a word; but for all that, there are certain things that I cannot do, and there are certain others that I will not stand.’” (Stevenson, 194)

The author’s conclusion is reiterated one more time at the closing of the story by Prince Florizel of Bohemia – the central character in Stevenson’s English version of the Arabian Nights:

“Yes, these are my politics: to change what we can, to better what we can; but still to bear in mind that man is but a devil weakly fettered by some generous beliefs and impositions and for no word however nobly sounding, and no cause however just and pious, to relax the stricture of these bonds.” (Stevenson, 288)

This fundamentally pessimistic view of human nature – fickle, selfish and ill-disposed – finds, however, in man himself the ethical qualities that will keep his evil urges in check. The truth being within, it is only logical that those who seek to achieve it from outside are destined to fail, and that poor Zero ends up being the only victim of his much delayed dynamite attack, vaporized like a bad dream at sunrise.

As the review of these plots dealing with the image of the anarchist in – mostly “popular” – literature has shown, there is a considerable difference in perception between late XIXth and XXth-century literature’s approach to anarchism as a narrative subject, and that shown by earlier authors – during an era when this particular ideology could still count on widespread public support and notoriety.

Anarchism, in its various forms, as a political panacea for what ails society in the face of the brutal repression exercised by bourgeois governments – as it was advanced more or less openly by writers like Louise Michel, Benjamin Gastineau, Félix Pyat, Jules Vallès, and later Georges Darien – changes status entirely. The depiction of a potential political reality fades away and a new role, as an element in a metaphorical representation of the human condition, takes its place. The passing of time and the progressive disintegration of all forms of effective anarchist opposition to the dominant capitalist-communist deologies seems to have been reflected in a narrative shift, where the positive, complex figure of the anarchist that was put forward by essentially militant authors such as Mackay (19) has now entirely disappeared. (20) In its place, the anarchist appears as a symbol of outdated confusion – even when projected in the future and wrapped in a sympathetic and somewhat nostalgic veil of romantic admiration, as is the case for Hagbard Celine – doomed to see his individual self-assertion disappear in the irresistible maelstrom of historical, religious or ethical determinism, and the name of his ideal and the powerful magic it still evokes reduced to an empty aesthetic vessel in a neo-baroque strategy of recuperation of the past.


(1) Indeed, Celine’s “satori” is a furious condensation of Stirnerian principles, and deserves to be quoted in its entirety: “The next day, he had burned his naturalization papers and put the ashes in an envelope addressed to the President of the United States, with a brief note: ‘Everything relevant is ruled irrelevant. Everything material is ruled immaterial. An ex-citizen.’ The ashes of his Army Reserve discharge went to the Secretary of Defense with a briefer note: ‘Non serviam. An ex-slave.’ That year’s income tax form went to the Secretary of the Treasury, after he wiped his ass on it; the note said: ‘Try robbing a poor box. Der Einzige.’ His fury still mounting, he grabbed his copy of Das Kapital off the bookshelf, smiling bitterly at the memory of his sarcastic marginal notes, scrawled ‘Without private property there is no private life’ on the flyleaf, and mailed it to Josef Stalin in the Kremlin.” (Shea and Wilson, 495)

(2) In that sense it may be useful to make a difference between Stirner’s philosophy and that of other thinkers, and in particular Americans like Benjamin Tucker, who are also generally lumped under the collective label of “individualist anarchists”, and to whom Joe Malik was likely referring in the previous quote. For simplicity’s sake, however, we will keep the term “individualist anarchism” when speaking of Stirnerian thought.

(3) Stirner’s brand of individualist anarchism does not strive for a change in the economic and political relations of power within society, since it considers them simple forms without content. Therefore, it is not so much against revolution, as indifferent to it. According to Stirner, the individual needs only lose his fear and respect of authority for it to crumble away. It’s on this basis that his philosophy was criticized by Marx and Engels as being “reactionary”, due to its absolute lack of interest in social mechanics. The voyage of self-discovery of the ego, as in Miss Portinari’s version, inevitably leads back to itself: only the perception of the world changes. Religion suffers the same fate in the novel. The adoration of Lady Eris, goddess of choice of the submarine’s crew, is equally unencumbered by any self-delusion: “Lady Eris, who exists only because we believe in you, give strength to Mary Lou and help her find her own way.” (Shea and Wilson, 727. My italics.)

(4) It must be noted, however, that notwithstanding his love of money, the character of Celine stops short of identification with the more modern defenders of anarcho-capitalism. Ayn Rand herself and her Atlas Shrugged are parodied in the novel as Atlanta Hope, leader of “God’s Lighting” and author of Telemachus Sneezed. 

(5) In Caos e bellezza. Immagini del neobarocco. Milano. Domus Academy, 1991.

(6) It is worth noting that Calabrese gives as a literary example of this type of style Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, described as an assemblage of different texts where the author survives only as the hand that does the assembling. Characteristically, Eco’s next “popular” novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, follows the same procedure, and deals essentially with the same material as the Illuminatus! trilogy, narrating the discovery of a supposedly age-old conspiracy.

(7) We borrow this term from Mieke Bal’s “Notes on narrative embedding”, of which this novel would seem at first sight to be a prime example: “[...] the narrative text is considered to be a triple message, in which each level is defined by a subject, its activity and the result of this activity, and in which each activity has an object, its content, which is the next level. In other words, the narrative speaks the text whose content is the narrative; the focalizer presents the narrative, whose content is the history; the history is acted out by the actors.” (Bal, 45)

FUCKUP, the submarine’s computer, would occupy the first level, the various first-person focalizers present the narrative, and so on. In this case as in any other in the book, however, the wheel finally rejoins itself, and we find out that it is Celine (a character) who programmed FUCKUP to write the novel in which he is a character. The new fourth level meets the first, and the Illuminatus! proves to be quite a nightmare for standard narratological analysis.

(8) “Sacred cow?” Simon asked.“It’s pronounced that way, but you spell it c-h-a-o. A chao is a single unit of chaos, they figure.” (Shea and Wilson, 100)

(9) The Lama declares to Miss Portinari: “Daughter, my path isn’t the only path. Every spoke helps to hold the Wheel together. I believe that all the libertarian fighters like Spartacus and Jefferson and Joe Hill and Hagbard just strengthen the opposition by giving it an enemy to fear – but I may be wrong. Someday one of the activists, such as Hagbard, might actually prove it to me and show me the error of my ways. Maybe the Saures really would have tipped the axis too far the other way if he hadn’t stopped them. Maybe the self-regulation of the universe, in which I place my faith, includes the creation of men like Hagbard who do the stupid, low-level things I would never do.” (Shea and Wilson, 724).

(10) Riccardo Bacchelli (1891-1985), Italian historical novelist of the school of Manzoni. An impeccable and demanding stylist, best known for his epic Il Mulino del Po (The Mill on the Po) as well as for Il Diavolo al Pontelungo (The Devil at the Long Bridge), a novel depicting Bakunin’s last years in his retreat in the Italian part of Switzerland and his failed attempt at organizing an anarchist insurrection in Bologna.

(11) It may be useful to remember that in anarchist iconology the pyramid has always represented the traditional power structure against which free men must fight. See as an excellent example the cover illustration of the book by Hans Ramaer, De piramide der tirannie.

(12) The pyramid of the Illuminati defies the millennia: “It’s made of an imperishable ceramic substance which repels even ocean sediment.” (Shea and Wilson, 255)

(13) “[...] lo scoglio coperto di guano; una piramide, finchè la prima tempesta la laverà via; una piramide di guano, per il volgo: merda.” (Bacchelli, 18. The translations are my own.) This particular approach is typical of Bacchelli’s style. The Devil at the Long Bridge begins as well with an allegorical preface that summarizes metaphorically the mounting threat and the ultimate failure of Bakunin’s revolutionary attempt in Bologna.

(14) “— I gabbiani – disse ridendo il Nostromo – di sù, i pesci di giù; noi nel sommergibile: mangia te che mangio io!— È la regola – disse il Biologo – uccidere ed essere uccisi: solo che in acqua è chiara e sincera; in terra è ipocrita e subdola. Fuori dal campo gravitazionale terrestre chi sa che sarà?”

(15) “E noi poi, che cosa ci autorizza a distinguere buono e cattivo, e dai cattivi i buoni, eppoi a metterci fra i buoni, noi? Il comodo nostro, i nostri appetiti, la nostra tristizia e tristezza [...].” These same reflexions are expressed concisely and in a more positive tone by Celine: “To the creative mind there is no right or wrong. Every action is an experiment, and every experiment yields its fruit in knowledge.” (Shea and Wilson, 248)

(16) “Se il cielo non è il cosiddetto Dio, noi siamo al mondo solo per una inutilità che sfugge al pensiero, non alla paura.”

(17) Chesterton’s anarchists are also placed under the sign of contradiction, both in aspect and in thought: “Each figure seemed to be, somehow, on the borderland of things, just as their theory was on the borderland of thought.” (83) Lucian Gregory, the only true anarchist of the novel, shows quite explicitly this character: “His dark hair parted in the middle was literally like a woman’s, and curved into the slow curls of a virgin in a pre-Raphaelite picture. From within this almost saintly oval, however, his face projected suddenly bored and brutal, the chin carried forward with a look of cockney contempt. This combination at once tickled and terrified the nerves of a neurotic population. He seemed like a walking blasphemy, a blend of the angel and the ape.” (4) Finally, like for Celine’s ethical relativism and Bacchelli’s anarchist’s battle cry of “Down with all that exists!” (Bacchelli, 28) Chesterton’s vision of the anarchist ideal goes far beyond any simple political reorganization of society: “We do not only want to upset a few despotisms and police regulations; that sort of anarchism does exist, but is a mere branch of the Nonconformists. We dig deeper and we blow you higher. We wish to deny all those arbitrary distinctions of vice and virtue, honour and treachery, upon which mere rebels base themselves. The silly sentimentalists of the French Revolution talked of the Rights and Wrong.” (24)

(18) Hall’s first convert, Dragomiloff’s daughter Grunya, explains in these terms her change of heart: “I’m not so revolutionary, Uncle dear. I’m growing up. Social development is slow and painful. There are no short cuts. Every step must be worked out. Oh, I’m still a philosophic anarchist. Every intelligent socialist is. But it seems more clear to me every day that the ideal freedom of a state of anarchy can only be obtained by going through the intervening stage of socialism” (London, 16).

(19) John Henry Mackay, novelist, political activist and the first biographer of Max Stirner, is best known for his novel The Anarchists. On Anarchist writers in France between the end of the XIXth and the beginning of the XXth century, see Thierry Maricourt, Histoire de la littérature libertaire en France (Paris, Albin Michel, 1990). For Anarchist literature in Germany, see Walter Fähnders, Anarchismus und Literatur. Ein vergessenes Kapitel deutscher Literatur-geschichte zwischen 1890 und 1910 (Stuttgart, Metzler, 1987).

(20) The swan song of the positive anarchist in literature can possibly be found in Léo Malet’s novel Brouillard au pont de Tolbiac. In it the author, himself an anarchist in his youth, describes an investigation where private eye Nestor Burma helps capture an industrialist who, among other crimes, is guilty of a murder. Burma was once a militant in an anarchist group; so was the corrupt industrialist, and so was his victim, the only one of the group who had remained true to his ideals, and who can only die in a world where everybody has changed with the times and fidelity to a cause is only a pathetically embarrassing anachronism.

Works cited

Bacchelli, Riccardo. Il Sommergibile. Milano: Mondadori, 1978.

––. Il Diavolo al Pontelungo. Milano: Mondadori, 1965.

––. Il Mulino del Po. Milano: Mondadori, 1970.

Bal, Mieke. “Notes on Narrative Embedding.” Poetics Today 2,2 (1981), pp.


Calabrese, Omar. Caos e bellezza. Immagini del neobarocco. Milano:Domus

Academy, 1991.

Chesterton, G.K. The Man Who Was Thursday. New York: Boni, 1908.

Fähnders, Walter. Anarchismus und Literatur. Ein vergessenes Kapitel deutscher

Literatur-geschichte zwischen 1890 und 1910. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1987.

London, Jack. The Assassination Bureau. New York: Penguin, 1978.

Mackay, John-Henry. The Anarchists; a Picture of Civilization at the Close of

the Nineteenth Century. New York: Revisionist Press, 1972.

Malet, Léo. Brouillard au pont de Tolbiac. Paris: Fleuve Noir, 1983.

Maricourt, Thierry. Histoire de la littérature libertaire en France. Paris: Albin

Michel, 1990.

Ramaer, Hans. De piramide der tirannie. Amsterdam: Wetenschappelijke

Uitgeverij, 1977.

Richard, François. L’anarchisme de droite dans la littérature contemporaine.

Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1988.

Shea, Robert and Robert Anton Wilson. The Illuminatus! Trilogy. New York:

Dell, 1988.

Stevenson, Robert Louis and Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson. The Dynamiter. Toronto: The Musson Book Company, 1907.


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I guess my own assumption was that the Dealy Lama's naysaying represents the authors' habit of offering alternative explanations, but that the reader was meant to side with Celine. After all, Celine's voice returns insistently in the appendices.

chas said...

"It’s the rule – said the Biologist – to kill and be killed: but in the water it’s clear and honest; on land it’s hypocritical and deceitful."

Howard says something almost identical to this in an interaction with Hagbard during the scene with the spiderships when Hagbard eventually pushes the button and assumes his "Experiment" a failure.

chas said...

Much excellent food for thought in this piece, btw. Bob himself said toward the end of his life that his hopes for anarchism were lost, and that the best he could hope for now was a return to constitutional rights. Thanks for the digging up and posting.

Drew said...

Footnote 7 is an interesting aside about the narratological structure of Illuminatus! Trilogy. I think that Vittorio Frigerio, would have not been surprised when (or if) he found out it was cut chaotically after the demands of the publishers to cut it.

Hagbard Celine's defies the determinism (or resigns himself to it) with the comment "just do go on" even despite Dealy Lama's "warnings", and then creates the possibility of the story itself to be told. This is the link he creates by developing Fuck-up and giving the opportunity of the union of organism and technology, this extra element is not understood or prophesied by the Dealy Lama.

Drew said...

I think also that this article has given me a few extra books to add to my "to read" list.

Drew said...

May be it is just me but fight club and The Matrix (especcially the matrix - spiderships, anyone?) have much more than a passing resemblance to Illuminatus!

michael said...

Meine Holey Schnikes! I hadn't seen this. It's fantastic.

Thanks to Andrew Crashaw for the find and to Tom for formatting it and getting it out there/here.

I had taken/made a ton of notes on Hagbard as a certain embodiment of individualist anarchism, but Friggerio reveals me to be a sort of piker at this point. Sobering, wonderful. Thanks you guys!

fuzzbuddy said...

Great find Andrew!
Center for a Stateless Society on Anarcho Capitalism:

Drew said...

Hey, no problem. Just a pity there is not more attention being paid to illuminatus! in such areas.

Drew said...

I think Tom did the heavy lifting though, getting the permission, formatting, and positing etc, thanks to Tom it is actually easier access for public viewing.

Anonymous said...

Center, for stateless anarchy based capitalism. Libertarian government. Freedom Fries from McDonald's. We are walking, talking oxymorons, who can at best only hope to progress toward being straight-up morons, with a more refined sense of humour and empathy. Pikerism may be the most sane and cautious ideology of all. Anarchy is self-serve without franchise. Even RAW could not resist the fun of running for office. What would he have done if he had won that basket of Hot and spicy responsibility wings?

Drew said...

Maybe US would now be run by ostriches.

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