Friday, August 23, 2019

The Widow's Son Reading Group: 1

Mary Magdelene. Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi

Week One: Pages 1-20, Chapter One and Chapter Two

By Gregory Arnott
Special guest blogger

I believe we can begin our conspiracy on the first page. The Gospel of Mary was an early Christian writing that was first rediscovered in the late nineteenth centuries. After reading it I can’t find the quote, although the translations I looked at mentioned that the first pages of the manuscript were missing when it was found. I would recommend reading the Gospel if you have the time and inclination: here is the translation I preferred.

“The stone that the builders rejected” is a phrase that is derived from the 118th Psalm of the Old Testament, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the capstone” (KJV), and is used repeatedly throughout the proper Gospels, Acts, and the first epistle of Peter. It is relatively well known, or as well known as any of these things are, that the phrase is a part of Masonic ritual and symbolism. I can make a crack at what the mysterious phrase might mean but I’d enjoy everyone else’s interpretation more -- please share in the comments! Later this line will be of particular importance to Sir Babcock’s story.

The next page begins with an authenticable quote from one of Robespierre’s letters. One of the more controversial figures in French history, Robespierre did have some pretty good ideas but is mostly, or at least it seems to me to be the case, remembered as an example of bloody demagoguery. The novel begins with an example of the wretchedness of most of the French citizenry in the years preceding the Revolution and in Chapter 3, which we will read next week, the reader is introduced to Luigi Duccio, a former compatriot of Robespierre. The historical ambivalence of Robespierre, and the fatalistic sentiment of this excerpt from his letters, is another piquant flavoring to the novel.

The quote from de Selby, whose works we’ll be visiting, isn’t in any of the studies by Flann O’Brien that I have on hand. Here is a quote from the philosopher that begins O’Brien’s The Third Policeman for comparison:

“Human existence being an hallucination containing in itself the secondary hallucinations of day and night (the latter an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air) it ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusory approach of the supreme hallucination known as death.”

This is a novel concerned with the cycles of life and death, great mysteries, and hallucinations --hopefully this quote gives some context to why RAW spends so much time exploring de Selby’s ideas throughout.

The final quote is a sadly benighted sentiment from Professor Hanfkopt’s Werke that suggests man should aspire to be disinterested and objective- anyone familiar with Wilson’s work can go ahead and laugh. On RAWilsonFans an article written by Hanfkopt is available “Art as Black Magick and Moral Subversion” from 1988. Two letter writers who must have been very real wrote back in response and both give some helpful analysis of the Professor’s name:

“By the way, HANFKOPF is a rather unusual German name. HANF is the German expression for the now illegal substance you can use for making paper, cloth or joints. KOPF just means head.”


“My elation felt over the new shape of “Critique” Journal was shortened by finding in it the deplorable article by “Hanfkopf” “Art as Black Magick.” Well, what can you expect from a “Hanf-” (cannabis, hemp, hashish, marijuana) “-kopf (head), an “acid head” plain and simple.”

Another essay at the site, “The Persistence of False Memory,” contains another one of Wilson’s cracks at de Selby, here classified as a thinker of the Pataphysical School of writers, and a brief mention of Professor Hanfkopt and his book The CIA: Pawn of the Interstellar Bankers.

Finally we can read another account of Wilson’s of an ominous meeting he attended with J. R. “Bob” Dobbs, Professor Timothy Finnegan, and de Selby in “The Horror on Howth Hill” from Email to the Universe (pg. 193 Hilaritas Press) where Hanfkopf is identified as a foe of de Selby’s and a particularly rabid member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, CSICOP, which is now known as CSI or the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. The current name of the organization is truly hilarious since they certainly seem to have no need for skepticism, considering how they’ve figured everything out.

Which brings us to the narrative proper:

Armand, Georges, and Lucien seem like a cheerful lot, don’t they? Wilson analyzes each peasant present in the opening scenes, including the innkeeper, over the first two chapters. It’s a good thing we’ve progressed so far since this time since people are no longer paranoid, hold those in power as unassailable, blame problems on foreigners and women, or live their lives without ever realizing how hard the boot on their neck is pressing down. Our President certainly doesn’t sound like an advanced syphilitic who spouts dangerous nonsense all the time. (As de Selby says in Golden Hours “an idiot who has found people more ignorant than himself and knows how to bewitch them.”)

“But the fuck, you know, everything is scary in this world. Guys like us, we don’t get hanged for one thing, sure as shit we get hanged later for something else, maybe something we didn’t even do, you know?” As the recent history of the death penalty and Texas can indicate, no one from the lower classes is ever killed for crimes they didn’t commit anymore. Nor do we have a class of people desperately clawing their way through an uncaring world. Thank God for our glorious civilization.

On page 17-18 you can see the bane of my copy-editing: the incredibly detailed footnotes. However, this is highly indicative of how O’Brien documents de Selby’s ideas and controversies.

We know less about Pierre who seems to dislike his charges and dogs. As he enters the inn he puts the speculation about the King’s pox and Sartines mouches temporarily to rest with a more urgent complaint about dogshit on his shoe. It reminded me of this passage from Masks of the Illuminati:

“We were talking about socialism when I went to the bar," Einstein remarked, "and now we are flying perilously close to the clouds of solipsism. Jeem, at once now, no cheating: What do you really believe is real?"

"Dog shit in the street," Joyce answered promptly. "It's rich yellowbrown and clings to your boot like an unpaid landlord. No man is a solipsist while he stands at the curb trying to scrape it off." Le bon mot de Canbronne.” (pg. 9 in my 1981 edition) 


Eric Wagner said...

It begins. I ordered Bergman’s Magic Flute to watch with my music history class and read a bit in Mozart and Masonry to prepare me. Happy 23td.

Rasa said...

Wonderful start, Greg! I've just started reading O'Brien's The Third Policeman. I finally want to get a leg up on De Selby! BTW, Hanfkopf is normally translated as "Pothead," a popular slang I heard Bob use from time to time.

Rasa said...

BTW, Greg did the initial formatting for our new Hilaritas Press edition of The Widow's Son, so when he says he struggled with the copious footnotes, know that was no small endeavor! Many thanks to Greg for that careful tedious task!

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

A couple of observations:

(1) There are all sorts of ways to introduce a protagonist; it seems to me that telling the reader about him by making him the object of an assassination plot is one of the more unusual and intriguing ways to do it. It also suggests the influence of mysteries on RAW. The beginning of Illuminatus! makes the reader think he is reading a detective novel with a policeman as the main character.

(2) One of Robert Anton Wilson's projects was to convince people they should not spend their lives making themselves miserable. The concrete examples in the beginning of "The Widow's Son" of what life was life in the 18th century for many residents of a relatively advanced nation -- soap is a luxury, living to the early 40s is living to a ripe old age -- is a good reminder to Wilson's readers that almost all of them live very well compared to almost all of the people who have lived through history.

Oz Fritz said...

"The Widow's Son" references assassination in the first sentence. "The Earth Will Shake," begins with an assassination. Both books immediately confront death. The first two words, Armand Daumal, the name of a character being hired to kill, has the initials AD, a well-known abbreviation for "after death." "The Widow's Son" implies a death in it's title. Gregory shows us the brilliant opening quote by de Selby from 'The Third Policeman" about death that appears quite relevant.

The first words in the book, spoken by Armand, is the name Georges said 3 times. Among other things, this reminds me of King George III, the king of England at the time. The word "king" appears in the previous sentence. This suggests multiple levels of meaning in Wilson's prose.

Oz Fritz said...

Some people may recall my earlier essays and comments regarding RAW's use of the number 68 in his fiction. The opening quote of our current adventure feeds this myth:

" ... The corner-stone that the builders rejected is the place from which I came ..." Cornerstone is hyphenated in the edition I have - Bluejay Books, 1985.

We soon discover that the subject of the assassination being plotted is our hero, Sigismundo Celine.

On p.11 we discover that de Selby's secondary literature appears quite cosmopolitan beginning with the Irish, "The de Selby Codex and Its Critics." Then we get titles in Dutch, French, Irish or Celtic again, Welsh, Irish again, Scottish, Chinese, German etc.

Some readers may also recall a post on my blog explaining how Aleister Crowley used common words as a kind of code to signify metaphysical/qabalistic concepts, or as I called it, magical formulas - mostly found in "The Book of Lies." The word "it" gives one example. Beginning with the last paragraph on p. 5 of the Bluejay edition of "The Widow's Son," a paragraph that begins, "It's them houses...," Wilson uses the word "it" frequently, capitalizing this word each time. This continues through the first complete paragraph on page 6. These two paragraphs also allude to the Scarlet Woman, another important concept in Crowley's mythos.

p. 6: "Some diego sailor from Palermo gives It to a girl ..." Palermo is the nearest city to the Abbey of Thelema that Crowley established in the village of Cefalu in Sicily. Crowley would sometimes go there when he got bored with life in the village. "Diego" reads as an interesting, Joycean-like pun, to me, and recalls the maxim put forth by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, also the title of one of their books: "Here to Go."

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Good observations, Oz!

I read the Gospel of Mary and I couldn't find the quote, either. What do you guys make of that?

Unknown said...

So I'm reading the Bluejay copy and noticed after finishing this week's assignment that I have read 2 additional chapters (finishing chapter 4). My questions are A.Am I missing I fair amount of content? B. Is it advisable to read by chapter as opposed to page numbers in order to stay in sych with the group?

Alias Bogus said...

Evocative notes (no conclusions).

In Masonic lore, The Widow’s Son indicates Hiram Abiff, as part of the Third Degree – and he dies at the hands of three murderers, who open this book. They await the arrival of Pierre (stone in French, or rock – as in Peter, the rock on which I build my church, and all that).

Sorry, I don’t feel comfortable with much Christian text/jargon, so enigmatic quotes often just annoy me. I find the cornerstone quote a bit odd (how do you ‘come from’ a stone?) The more common version reads “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”, often interpreted to mean something like The Jews did not recognise Jesus as important - but now he would form the basis of a new religion, although ‘they’ usually list Peter as the Foundation Stone of the Church (see above).

The Widow’s Son also sometimes refers to the bloodline that proves Jesus has royal links, descendants of Ruth the Moabite. I find it odd, to list the family of Joseph going back generations, before saying he didn’t father Jesus! But hey. And talking of bloodlines, if the Sang Real story has any validity, then we might consider Mary Magdalene the widow, and her offspring as possibly the Widow’s Son. That would make “the gate that is not a gate is the source of the Living One” a rather coy reference to the mother as origin of the current, living incarnation of the bloodline.

Because of the Masonic connection, I first assumed the references to stone might have something to do with the rough ashlar, and the perfect ashlar. The unfinished stone representing the ordinary man, and the perfect ashlar (the finished, dressed stone) the end result of masonic training and experiences, which knock off the rough edges, etc. In that sense, the perfect ashlar represents Jesus as the ideal role model. And a stone-cutter will turn up later in the tale.

Further thought made it hard to see how that fitted with “the stone that the builders rejected”. Even the rough ashlar has been chosen, for shaping and finishing. So I began to think of other ‘stones’, like, say, The Philosopher’s Stone. And if we replace the word ‘rejected’ with overlooked, or ignored, then it could make sense, as the raw material (sic), the prima materia, sometimes gets described as unnoticed, even despised, by ordinary folk. Just shit on a shoe, maybe.

This all reminds me of when I first tried to find out about a MacGuffin called The Holy Grail, and after reading half a dozen texts calling it a cup, a plate, a rock, a bloodline, etc I simply felt more confused.

And just as most myths and legends seem to offer echoes, some people point out that the story of Hiram Abiff has parallels with the story of Osiris (murdered), Isis and Horus (The Widow’s Son) from the Egyptian Mysteries. That Solar God thing takes you off in all sorts of directions (Mithras, etc).

People from the MLA may remember that I don’t have any real knowledge/experience of kabbalah, or magick, etc, but [Google research, pinch of salt] it might prove interesting that in Gematria 828 = the Hebrew words BN ALMNH – The Widow’s Son.

Apparently “the stone which the Builders refused” = Ehben Masu Ha-Bonaim (ABN MASV H BVNIM) = 273
ChVRM ABIV = Khurum Abiv = 273 =Hiram Abiff
AVR GNVZ, Aur Ganuz = 273 = hidden light

Some kind of link between the stone rejected, Hiram Abiff and hidden or concealed light?

*And then I feel totally lost, and wander of mumbling to myself*

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

@Unknown, I was hoping to avoid this sort of confusion when I edited Greg's post. Along with the page numbers he listed, I also made it clear (or tried to) that the assignment was the first two chapters. I am myself using the Hilaritas ebook, so I'm trying to make sure everyone can follow along, regardless of the edition at hand.

Unknown said...

Thanks my eagerness to jump headfirst into the deep end, I must have overlooked that detail. Now I know and it should be smooth sailing from here out. Super psyched to read 'the Widow's Don't with this group. Thank you to everyone that's helping out this together.

Oz Fritz said...

If the opening quote doesn't come from "The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene" then I suspect RAW contributed a unique paraphrasing of the masonic myth and attributed it to this gnostic gospel for his own hierophantic reasons. This gospel itself got rejected from the official Christian canon at the Second Council of Nicea when the Church made its power grab. This and the opening chapters further confirms my bias for RAW as an advanced and supremely creative Adept of the line of transformational change Aleister Crowley presented, known as Thelema. Using the form of Qabalah called Notarikon (adding the initials of letters), T+G++A+M+M = 93 an extremely significant number in that system said to represent this current of Magick. When Thelemites write letters to each other, they begin with the salutation 93, a numeric shorthand for 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.' When they close their correspondence they write: 93 93/93, shorthand for 'Love is the law, love under will. Love and will both = 93, an easily googable trope.

Eric Wagner said...

The back cover blurb "become the one spoken of in the old texts" makes me think of Anakin Skywalker.

Pg. 9 - I wonder what Bob meant by "moving you-know".

Pg. 12 - the reference to experts makes me think of "F for Fake".

Alias Bogus said...

Looking back over my notes I realise I left out another symbolically important stone, the keystone at the top of an arch. Its position, at the meeting point of two pillars, makes it relevant symbolically, if the Living One comes from the point at which a woman’s legs meet…
It is also an unusual shape, so, until people understood the way it locks the arch into a strong form, it could have been rejected as ‘not square’ I suppose. The keystone, that the Romans apparently introduced to The West, seems like one of the big secrets of masonry.

Oz Fritz said...

I thought your points were spot on, Tom.

Gregory suggests a comparison of Trump to the syphilitic Emperor and the opening mise en scène of the novel to current times and I agree that we do see parallels. Trump spouts even crazier shit, if that's possible, since he wrote that. I also find that relates to the dogshit on the shoe image that we see RAW has used before. Shoe = Malkuth. Also, "Living One" from the opening quote has the initials LO - also could refer to Malkuth and reminds me of Spinoza's 'Nature's God.' I wonder if RAW heard the Rolling Stones when they sang :" ... got to scrape the shit right off your shoes" in the song Sweet Virginia.

Oz Fritz said...

I tried thinking of alternate meanings to "the cornerstone the builders rejected" other than the masonic one. I'm not clear on the masonic meaning, I suspect Alias Bogus got some of it right, and if memory serves, RAW gives an interpretation further on in the adventure. It seems suited to multiple meanings.

It occurs to me that RAW's presentation of magick and alchemy in his writings remains mostly unrecognized and unappreciated including by Thelemites with an avid interest in those subjects, though there appear some notable exceptions. I would call his writings in this area and some other areas - maybe logic, gnostic model agnosticism, etc. - a cornerstone mostly rejected by would-be builders of expanded consciousness.

Simulating and/or confronting Death appears another rejected cornerstone. Practically working with death seems widespread in esoteric circles, often referring to death of the ego. Visionaries familiar to readers of this blog including RAW, William Burroughs, Timothy Leary, Carlos Castaneda, Gurdjieff have explored the subject and presented techniques using it for transformational change. The Golden Dawn and the A.'. A.'. derives several of their rituals and exercises from The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Crowley's attitude toward death seems very much aligned to the de Selby quote given in the blog post above. It seems that people often reactively interpret the subject as some kind of nihilistic, doomsday scenario, hence this cornerstone, a pathway to greater and more vital LIFE, often gets rejected without giving it a chance.

Rarebit Fiend said...

I will have to do a much better job keeping up with the comments- there's too much here to respond to this morning but it's all really great! Thank you everyone for contributing!

Oz, your comments are as enlightening as ever- the way I was taught by one teacher was that in the Aeon of Horus we have to examine our selves from a "solar" instead of "terrestrial" perspective. Death is an illusion just as night is not the Sun disappearing but caused by the turning of the Earth, or de Selby's black air as it were, our True Selves are unchanging and never really die.

Rarebit Fiend said...

Again, I wanted to thank everyone who commented this past week and I'm very sorry I waited until there was too much to meaningfully respond to- I'm planning on checking and responding at least once a day from now on.

Rasa- dear god I promise I am working on Sex Drugs and Magick and wil be done this week. I'll lock myself in the bedroom if all else fails or just send along what I've done. I really love the "sinister" aspects of Hanfkopf's character are undermined in such an elegant manner. I also hope you really enjoy The Third Policeman, when I read it the first time I had the weirdest span of dreams I can remember.

Eric- I love Bergman's Magic Flute and watched it a few times when I was in undergrad. Pedestrian that I am, The Magic Flute is my favorite opera. That or L'Orfeo.

Alias Bogus- Your analysis was a tour de force and incredibly thorough. I'm extremely impressed and thank you for joining the group!

Oz- Naturally everything you wrote was as stimulating as always and I can't wait to hear what you have to say about this week's chapters. I tried to respond a bit to your latest comment in my previous one.

Tom- While I agree that part of the squalid setting is to show how much we've progressed I think the ambivalence I pointed out is very strong. We also see these people thinking that their lives are acceptable, when they're not, and many of the problems that plague the characters are still very real for many, if not most people. The recent dips in life expectancy are alarming. However, I have pessimistic tendencies and RAW would probably want me to cheer up or at least pay attention to what has changed.

Honestly I don't know if everyone will see this but I wanted to touch on some of the great ideas in this thread.