Mary Magdelene. Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi
Week One: Pages 1-20, Chapter One and Chapter TwoBy 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)