By Gregory Arnott, guest blogger
“Law isn’t supposed to make sense. It’s just supposed to make us frightened of the government.” Robert Anton Wilson, Cosmic Trigger II
The Horror on Howth Hill
Howth Castle and environs is famously mentioned in the first line of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake
, it is mentioned at numerous points throughout the timeless day of Ulysses
, I believe it first comes up in “Proteus,” and is also the location of a small fishing village where Bob and Arlene lived for part of their residence in Ireland. Considering the time frame I think we can assume this piece was written during the mid-to-late Eighties.
In one sense this is a primer on the conspiracies that Wilson was most fond of at the time of the writing, including: the Illuminati, Priory of Sion, Knights of Malta, and Discordians, along with the leitmotif of his dissection of the Catholic Church’s Kong-sized phallic obsession in the form of short fiction. Like many of the essays in this book we are re-treading familiar territory but the exploration is being carried out in a different manner. In the same manner we witness the shifting views of Monterey Bay in the haiku sequence, or witness the many versions of Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire, we are looking at the “same” set of ideas throughout the collection with RAW in a slightly different space-time and/or stylistic position each time.
Timothy X. Finnegan seems to be a character RAW devised mostly to support the Committee for the Scientific Investigation for the Normal and is heavily based upon the de Selby of Flann O’Brien’s creation. de Selby originates from the novels The Third Policeman
and The Dalkey Archive
...perhaps his most famous theory is that night does not exist and is instead caused by an expulsion of dark air from inside the Earth. To give those readers who haven’t made the acquaintance of Mr. O’Brien I’d like to provide an excerpt of one of the footnotes in The Third Policeman:
“Le Fournier, the conservative French commentator (in his De Selby- Lieu ou Homme?) has written exhaustively on the non-scientific aspects of de Selby’s personality and has noticed several failings and weaknesses difficult to reconcile with his dignity and eminence as a physicist, ballistician, philosopher, and psychologist. Though he did not recognise sleep as such, preferring to regard the phenomenon as a series of ‘fits’ and heart-attacks, his habit of falling asleep in public earned for him the enmity of several scientific brains of the inferior calibre. These leeps took place when walking in crowded thoroughfares, at meals and on at least on one occasion in a public lavatory….Another of de Selby’s weaknesses was his inability to distinguish between men and women. After the famous occasion when the Countess Schnapper had been presented to him (her Glauben ueber Ueberalls is still read) he made flattering references to ‘that man,’ ‘that cultured old gentleman,’ ‘craft old boy’ and so on….Du Garbandier (in his extraordinary Historie de Notre Temps) has seized on this pathetic shortcoming to outstep, not the prudent limits of scientific commentary but all known horizons of human decency...It is now commonly accepted that Hatchjaw was convinced that the name ‘du Garbandier’ was merely a pseudonym adopted for his own ends by the shadowy Klaus…”
And so on for seven pages. Le Fournier, du Garbandier, Hatchjaw, and Klaus are just a fragment of the scholars who have made their largely ridiculous careers off of de Selby studies discussed in the inner dialogue of the protagonist of the novel. All this is happening after the protagonist has murdered an old gentleman, is now trapped in a hellishly ridiculous and repetitive dimension, and is mixed up in a case of a missing bicycle. Great fun. (The titles of the books roughly translate as “de Selby- Location or Man?,” “Belief About Everywhere,” and “History of Our Time.” )
To those of us interested in Crowley it is notable that the murdered subject of The Third Policeman
is named Mathers.
De Selby is namechecked on the first page of the essay as the author of Wilson’s Teratological Ontologicum. Although the obvious influences upon this work are Joyce, O’Brien, and Lovecraft I also am able to find another connection of RAW to the gnomic Argentinian fabulist, much beloved of Sixties mystics, Jorge Luis Borges.
The only place I could locate the words teratological and ontologicum together was a book entitled Other Inquisitions 1937-1952
which is a collection of literary essays by Borges. I’ll reproduce the paragraph wherein we find the word teratological which is itself from an essay on Chesterton (When the British science fiction author Michael Moorcock was asked about his meetings with William S. Burroughs and Borges, his primary living literary influences, he replied that Burroughs was what you would expect and Borges was “an old man who liked Chesterton.”)
“Poe and Baudelaire proposed the creation of a world of terror, as did Blake’s tormented Urizen; it is natural for their work to teem with the forms of horror. In my opinion, Chesterton would not have tolerated the imputation of being a contriver of nightmares, a monstrorum artifex (Pliny, XXVIII, 2), but he tends inevitably to revert to atrocious observations. He asks if perchance a man has three eyes, or a bird three wings; in opposition to the pantheists, he speaks of a man who dies and discovers in paradise that the spirits of the angelic choirs have, every one of them, the same face he has;1 he speaks of a jail of mirrors; of a labyrinth without a center; of a man devoured by metal automatons; of a tree that devours birds and then grows feathers instead of leaves; he imagines (The Man Who Was Thursday
, VI) “that if a man went westward to the end of the world he would find something—say a tree—that was more or less than a tree, a tree possessed by a spirit; and that if he went east to the end of the world he would find something else that was not wholly itself—a tower, perhaps, of which the very shape was wicked.” He defines the near by the far, and even by the atrocious; if he speaks of eyes*, he uses the words of Ezekiel (1:22) “the terrible crystal”; if of the night, he perfects an ancient horror (Apocalypse 4:6) and calls it a “monster made of eyes.” Equally illustrative is the tale “How I Found the Superman.” Chesterton speaks to the Superman’s parents; when he asks them what the child, who never leaves a dark room, looks like, they remind him that the Superman creates his own law and must be measured by it. On that plane he is more handsome than Apollo; but viewed from the lower plane of the average man, of course—Then they admit that it is not easy to shake hands with him, because of the difference in structure. Indeed, they are not able to state with precision whether he has hair or feathers. After a current of air kills him, several men carry away a coffin that is not of human shape. Chesterton relates this teratological fantasy as a joke.
*Amplifying a thought of Attar (“Everywhere we see only Thy face”), Jalaluddin Rurrri composed some verses that have been translated by Ruckert (Werke, IV, 222), which state that in the heavens, in the sea, and in dreams there is One Alone; that Being is praised for having reduced to oneness the four spirited animals (earth, fire, air, and water) that draw the cart of the worlds. “
I think there’s enough eerie resemblance between this excerpt and “The Horror on Howth Hill” to intrigue the attentive reader: herein we have connections to the violent revolutionary prophetic works of William Blake, the dank recesses of Poe and Baudelaire, the Sufis, and the work The Man Who Was Thursday. The transformation of Professor Finnegan into Abdul Alhazred eventually into Cthulhu is echoed throughout the excerpt.
A Copy of Chesterton's “The Eye of Apollo” selected by Borges’ “Library of Babel” book series. I’d encourage everyone to check out his other inclusions.
RAW on Chesterton and marijuana: “ Whether one is transported out of one’s habitual Reality Tunnel to the multiple-choice labyrinth of Virtual Reality by marijuana or Charlie Parker or orgasm or meditation or by Picasso or by King Kong or by the Wicked Witch of the West the experience has a quality of timelessness and liberation about it. One feels less mechanical and seems on the edge of grasping what the mystics meant by “Awakening”; sometimes, especially with Beethoven, one almost feels that one will never forget the “absurd good news” (as Chesterton called it) of that Awakened state.” (Cosmic Trigger II pg. 193-94)
The appearance of ontologicum is found in an essay on Wells. Therein Borges recounts the quote from Oscar Wilde (who RAW was also fond of quoting) that “Wells writes like a scientific Jules Verne” is of interest in particular because of the citation of Verne’s membership in the Priory of Sion on pg 196. The work Jules Verne, initie et initiateur is in fact a real work unlike de Selby’s Teratological Ontologicum. Sense Teratology is the study of physiognomical abnormalities (thanks, Google!) and ontologicum is a form of ontology, the study of reality, we can loosely translate de Selby’s opus as “the deformities of reality.”
Elsewhere in the Borges book, which I have happily been reading, there is a reference to the arguments of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Anselm of Canterbury. On pg. 202 there is a repartee between Professor Finnegan and J.R. “Bob” Dobbs where Kong goes from being viewed as a 24 foot gorilla to a Fertility God and consequently his penis grows from a mere two feet to the appropriately divine twelve feet; anyone who is confused by this act of biological to theological feat of logic would be well advised to revisit both of those philosopher’s arguments for the existence of god. So really the patalogical approach (cribbed from absinthe-fiend Alfred Jarry, who was/is incidentally perhaps the first surrealist) suggested by de Selby humorously owes more to the Catholic fathers than it does to French silliness. (Appropriate for the discussion and concluding revelation of this story, no?)
I regret to inform you that the “There was a young lady from Sidney” limerick wasn’t actually written by T. S. Eliot who was a rather dry man.
I should also point out that Professor Sheissenhosen, member of the illustrious board of CSICOP along with James Randi and Carl Sagan, has a name that translates from the German as Professor “shit-pants.”
Thus we are back the Jarry with a humor very similar to his play Ubu Roi. (The first word of the play is “merdre” which loosely translate from the French as “shitter.”) Merde and its uses was another interest of RAW’s that has already been brought up in this collection with the words of General Canbronne. (Which is also used as the name of an “intelligence” agent in RAW’s Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy)
I think after this book we will all be intimately re-familiarized with the dimensions of the holy phallus if nothing else.
The ending of The Horror on Howth Hill
follows a common trope from Lovecraft’s fiction where the up-till-now horrified protagonist accepts and even rejoices in their damnable state is originally derived from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” which I like to argue is the actual archetypical Cthulhu Mythos story instead of the comparatively dull “Call of Cthulhu.” Interestingly while Lovecraft was inextricably entwined into occult consciousness by the works of Kenneth Grant, which greatly affected RAW’s initial understanding of magic, Wilson also notes that he has at times though of “HPL as ‘he poet of materialism’- the man who could really make his readers feel Melville’s ‘colorless allcolor of atheism.’”
For another narrative driven by a mysterious author and a tangle of interpreters I would recommend Roberto Bolano’s 2666
which, along with the macabre elements that invade human life*, focuses on the quest of four academics to find the mysterious German author von Archimboldi.
*reference Cosmic Trigger II pg. 160