The vegetative soul or the bio-survival circuit
The Widow’s Son Week Seven (pg. 81-94 Hilaritas Press edition, Chapters 13&14 all editions)
By Gregory Arnott
Special guest blogger
Welcome back to the 18th Century. We begin with Sigismundo fleeing from Captain Loup-Garou while performing some pretty impression deductive thinking all the while.
When Sigismundo breaks in the couple’s bedroom he thinks of another couple from a famous joke. While I found plenty of jokes about couples being caught in flagrante none of them seemed to demonstrate much savoir-faire as the jokes were along the lines of National Lampoon fare and none seemed to date from before the late nineteenth century. I tried to think of RAW’s favorite comedians, as he was no stranger to anachronism, and I racked my brain for a memory of something similar in a Marx film and looked through jokes from W.C. Fields and George Carlin. Sadly, I still didn’t find anything that fits the bill. I’m hoping someone will know what it is and make me look like a fool. I stopped searching after I found the following quote from Fields: “If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damned fool.”
Much like everyone else in this novel Sigismundo is supremely comfortable making judgments about wide swaths of people. After being squealed upon by the man his rumination that “women get skittish at times like this” cites a similar judgment on the differences between men and women by de Selby. (I was always told danger excites women. And that they don’t like it really. I’ve been told a lot of things, most of them incorrect.) Humorously, it is revealed that the woman de Selby loved was a lesbian which goes a long way to explain his apprehension of the female sex drive as “intermittent, interruptible, and inchoate.” That de Selby’s love(r?) is identified as a lesbian brings to mind another famous power-couple of continental philosophy, Sartre and de Beauvoir. Their relationship was controversial because of their public openness and the fact that de Beauvoir entertained lovers of both sexes. Though it lasted until his death, Sartre and de Beauvoir’s relationship was tumultuous. Like de Selby, Sartre churned out pages of incomprehensible ideas of which he seemed to be certain, albeit Sartre is much less entertaining and stimulating than de Selby.
Sigismundo’s pursuit continues as he tries to remember what he has been taught and escape. However, after the bedroom scene, the acrobatics and detours Sigismundo takes brought to mind the famous scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where he races to get home before his parents and I couldn’t get the damn song out of my head.
As Sigismundo realizes he has multiple enemies in Paris, Jean Jacques Jeder makes a return appearance to remind us of the eternal “merde.”
While running Sigismundo curses that “And the cry of that voice and the song of that strange northern bird in the field were part of the music only he could write, if the damned mechanical Newtonian universe were not forever pushing and shoving him from one crazy melodramatic situation to another, if he only had time to sit down and write the music, if murder and insanity and suicide and magicians with evil drugs were not always swarming around him: And now false arrest and professional assassins again (as at the beginning), and he knew there was a mystery beyond all the mysteries he had solved in Napoli, a horror behind all the horrors he had endured and survived.” (pg 85 Hilaritas) I have to note that Sigismundo has better excuses for not getting his work done than I do.
Sigismundo is stopped at gunpoint, takes flight for one brief moment, and is caught again. This time Loup-Garou uses every precaution to make sure Sigismundo is deposited into the Bastille. The Captain notes that some prisoners would attempt to jump into the moat surrounding the Bastille in a last ditch escape attempt; perhaps if the French had simply filled it with alligators and snakes that could have been avoided altogether.
The chapter closes with another vast judgement as Loup-Garou takes his experience with Sigismundo to be indicative of the abilities of all Neapolitans.
The tower marked “F” is the Tower of Liberty on this map of the Bastille.
Sigismundo finds his quarters in the Tour de la Liberte, which would later house The Angelic Marquis, de Sade. De Sade was transferred to the Bastille in 1784 and would remain there until 1789 -- he was transferred out a mere ten days before the Storming of the Bastille on July 14. While the Bastille was reasonably more comfortable than its horrid reputation, as Sigismundo discovers -- in spite of the cold -- de Sade’s time there was unpleasant. I found that one of the Marquis’ difficulties while imprisoned was constant conflicts with other prisoners, including our friend Mirabeau. It was during his imprisonment in the Bastille that de Sade wrote his most notorious work, 120 Days of Sodom, that “catalogue of perversities,” whose manuscript was hidden in the Bastille. Interestingly Simone de Beauvoir recounts the writings and recovery of 120 Days of Sodom in her influential essay “Must We Burn De Sade?” (For anyone as interested in de Sade as I have been, I can’t recommend reading this essay enough followed by Angela Carter’s The Sadean Woman -- both works critique and defend de Sade from a feminist perspective.)
As the tower had five floors Sigismundo must be occupying a room on the fifth. De Sade would later occupy the second floor. The foundations of the Tower of Liberty still stand, having been uncovered by construction of the Parisian Metro in the 1880s.
The uncovered foundation of the Tour de la Liberte.
The famous “man in the iron mask” and his 34 years in captivity remains a mystery. The terms of his imprisonment; his mask, having only had one jailer, being forbidden to speak with anyone, give plenty of room for the imagination to run wild and many guesses have been made as to who exactly he was. He was proposed to have been Oliver Cromwell’s son Henry, kept imprisoned as a favor to the English monarchy. Voltaire proposed that the person was Louis XIV’s illegitimate brother and seemed to have changed the detail of the mask being made from black velvet to iron. Later, Dumas’ famous novel, Ten Years Later of which The Man in the Iron Mask was one part, would identify the prisoner as Louis XIV’s identical twin. The prisoner’s name was given as Eustache Dauger, who seems to have been a real person involved in French politics in the 17th century. Who knows?
Sigismundo’s psychological analysis of himself and his circumstances is nearly idyllic. His ability to recognize that it is understandable, and therefore forgivable, to experience panic symptoms coupled with his practical efforts to correlate his thoughts and emotions into a workable state of mind is impressive. We can see the negative aspects of the vegetative/first soul or the bio-survival circuit as Sigismundo is left to his thoughts as opposed to the moments where the robot is useful such as when Sigismundo is fighting or fleeing. In this moment of inaction the rational (adult) mind is a better servant than the animal (baby) mind.
Celine recalls that one of the symptoms of the first soul noted by Orfali is a “desire to tell your problems to somebody older and preferably female.” (pg 90 HP edition) This is something I can strongly relate to. Specifically, after reading this passage, I recalled the last time I was hospitalized over night -- I was delirious and extraordinarily anxious. When I arrived at the ER it was loud, bright, and the doctors/nurses had very little time to deal with me. Eventually I fell asleep and woke up to a dark, quiet room where I was being covered in a sheet by an older, female doctor. Her assurances delivered in the wee hours of the morning were worth all of the prior ministrations put together. Later while being picked up by my parents and still rather ill, I described the doctor, who I never saw again, as an angel to my own mother.
On pg. 92 we get a pretty pure example of Wilsonian agnostic “logic:”
“Then he thought: Now wait a minute. That is also an inference, a deduction. Old Abraham Orfali had taught him that the worst fool is he who makes an inference, assumes that it is a fact, and does not go on to consider alternative explanations.”
An entertaining and dense footnote is cited at the end of the quotation beginning with a passage of Golden Hours (I, 93) that “[a]ll perception is inferential; all inference is therefore educated guessing.” One of de Selby’s critics believes that his extreme agnostic-bizarro philosophy was born of reading David Hume under the influence of hashish- a pretty reasonable guess to hazard. This theory is also reminiscent of a passage from The Illuminatus! Trilogy:
“It always starts with nonsense," Simon is telling Joe in another time-track, between Los Angeles and San Francisco, in 1969. "Weishaupt discovered the Law of Fives while he was stoned and looking at one of those shoggoth pictures you saw in Arkham. He imagined the shoggoth was a rabbit and said, 'du hexen Hase,' which has been preserved as an in-joke by Illuminati agents in Hollywood.”
An implicit understanding of the epistemology of Hume brought about in conjunction with hashish, as posited by the maybe-de Selby Le Fournier, reminded me of Crowley’s masterful The Herb Dangerous, specifically the second section, “The Psychology of Hashish.” That essay is a detailed, perhaps-ironically sober assessment of the states of mind brought on by cannabis consumption compared to the Buddhist skandas. As I understand it the skandas are the psychological reactions that the self has to the sensory world. (This is not the dictionary definition.) Here is a passage from the essay, which can be found here or in the very attractive Roll Away the Stone, edited by Israel Regardie:
“This, then, is what happens to the eater of hashish. For each impression he has thousands of glyphs or in the more common effect the images are so multiplied and superimposed that all harmony is lost; the brain fails to keep pace with its impressions, still less to codify and control them. It finds then that from the idea cat to the idea of mouse is a journey through the million dying echoes of cat to the million dawn-rays of mouse, and that the journey takes a million times as long as usual…
"Often, too, most often, one of the 'cat-echoes' will be so loud that the whole chain is shattered; the cat-echo becomes the dominant, and its harmonics (or inharmonics) themselves usurp the throne- and so on and so on- through countless ages of insane hallucination.
"The same criticism applies to space; for in practice we judge space by the time required to pass through it, either by the small angular or focusing movements of the eye or by our general experience. So that if I cross a room, and think a million thoughts on the way, the room seems immense. It is by the tedium of the journey, not by any hallucination of the physical eye, that this illusion is produced.” (Crowley, Roll Away the Stone pg. 108-109)
Compare Crowley’s account of hashish consciousness to Hume’s account of “regular” consciousness in this passage from from Hume’s “Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:”
“It may seem at ﬁrst sight that human thought is utterly unbounded: it not only escapes all human power and authority -- as when a poor man thinks of becoming wealthy overnight, or when an ordinary citizen thinks of being a king--, but isn’t even conﬁned within the limits of nature and reality. It is as easy for the imagination to form monsters and to join incongruous shapes and appearances as it is to conceive the most natural and familiar objects. And while the body must creep laboriously over the surface of one planet, thought can instantly transport us to the most distant regions of the universe—and even further. What never was seen or heard of may still be conceived; nothing is beyond the power of thought except what implies an absolute contradiction.
"But although our thought seems to be so free, when we look more carefully we’ll ﬁnd that it is really conﬁned within very narrow limits, and that all this creative power of the mind amounts merely to the ability to combine, transpose, enlarge, or shrink the materials that the senses and experience provide us with. When we think of a golden mountain, we only join two consistent ideas—gold and mountain—with which we were already familiar. We can conceive a virtuous horse because our own feelings enable us to conceive virtue, and we can join this with the shape of a horse, which is an animal we know. In short, all the materials of thinking are derived either from our outward senses or from our inward feelings: all that the mind and will do is to mix and combine these materials. Put in philosophical terminology: all our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of our impressions or more lively ones.” (Hume, Ten Great Works of Philosophy, pg. 210-211)
Also in the footnote we find that Professor Hanfkopf’s ironic accusations that de Selby is a cannabis fiend were countered by Frau Doktor Turn-und-Taxis and that she consequently ended up the object of his ire. It is humorous that Hanfkopf’s role in the scheme is indicated due to postmarks as the Doktor’s name is a reference to the Thurn-und-Taxis family who are notable for having a postal monopoly in the Holy Roman Empire. Thurn-und-Taxis was made even more famous as the ostensibly object of the early Tristero conspiracy that Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 centered upon.
Finally Sigismundo begins thinking about the future and escapes. He thinks back once more to Orfali’s teaching about speculative masonry and determines he will prove that one can escape the Bastille. Maybe the damn horse can fly.
From the estimable Eric Wagner: “Since Sigismundo contemplates his life in Napoli in this week’s reading, I thought something by his childhood hero Domenico Scarlatti might work, Sonata L23 (of course). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDOLyPqd-cc PS RIP Robert Hunter.”