Thursday, October 30, 2008

Camp Concentration 024 – More on "The Squirrel Cage"

There is a number of parallels between the short-story “The Squirrel Cage” and Camp Concentration. Here are some snippets, taken from the short story, that sound just like fragments of the novel:

“I am getting fat. Disgustingly fat.”

“(…) I know there is someone watching. Once I was convinced it was God, I assumed that this was either heaven or hell.”

“I have been wondering whether, if I were living in that world, the world of The Times, I would be a pacifist or not. It is certainly the central issue of modern morality, and one would have to take a stand”.

“The Squirrel Cage” is a typical modernist, experimental short story. In the Anti-Story anthology it is placed in the “Against Subject” section, which the editor Philip Stevick justifies thus:

“Is it possible to have a fiction which is coherent on its own terms but so tentative and exploratory that its writer seems never entirely clear what its center is, not even at its end?”

The end of "The Squirrel Cage" is worthy examining, because it presents one of those reversals that only modernist, experimental fiction seems capable of. This is the last paragraph:

It’s not terrifying. How can it be? It’s only a story, after all. Maybe you don’t think it’s a story, because you’re out there reading it on the billboard, but I know it’s a story because I have to sit here on this stool making it up. Oh, it might have been terrifying once upon a time, when I first got the idea, but I’ve been here now for years. Years. The story has gone on far too long. Nothing can be terrifying for years on end. I only say it’s terrifying because, you know, I have to say something. Something or other. The only thing that could terrify me now is if someone were to come in. If they came in and said, “All right, Disch, you can go now”. That, truly, would be terrifying.

Suddenly, that anonymous and faceless narrator, in a blank room, becomes someone we know (or al least someone we may assume is a real person), namely Thomas M. Disch, the writer. When I first read the story, a few days ago, I had at that point the same jolt I had, as a reader, when in Camp Concentration I read the lines: “Haast, I said. “Are you…?” “Mordecai Washington,” he said. By the magical utterance of a name, a person becomes another person, and an impossible transposition of identity has taken place.

The nameless narrator of “The Squirrel Cage” is no one, means nothing to anyone, unless we assume that he is, in fact, the writer Thomas M. Disch giving us a slightly exaggerated portrait of the culs-de-sac he gets into as a writer – the duty to type, to type anything, every day, in order to justify his presence in the world and his right to keep on living. From this viewpoint, the story is a metaphor for a writer’s life, and the final call (“All right, Disch, you can go now”) means Death. It is not a prisoner being released from prison, but a living man being released from life. It’s as if the writer said: “Look, I’m not complaining about the absurd, meaningless life I live. It is not terrifying. It is the ending of that life that, truly, would be terrifying”.

In Camp Concentration, that change of identity works for another purpose. Mordecai Washington and General Haast have tried a preposterous electric-alchemical experiment in order to attain eternal life: Mordecai died, and Haast survived. In the end of the book, when Louis Sacchetti notes the strange behavior of Haast, he asks him, and the General says that he is in fact Mordecai Washington. The utterance of this name is the dramatic peak of the whole novel, as much as “Disch” is the most significant word in the short story, the one that gives it a deeper and more personal (as well as universal) meaning.

"The Squirrel Cage" is a modernist short story which implies that all lives lead to Death. Camp Concentration is a pulp-ish novel (albeit an intellectual one) which, through a high-tech, sense-of-wonder, mumbo-jumbo contraption, gives us hope (at least I fiction) that it’s possible for a sane mind to abandon a diseased body and, maybe, survive indefinitely.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Camp Concentration 023 – The Squirrel Cage

While “reading around” Camp Concentration, I came across a short story by Disch which I had not read before. It is “The Squirrel Cage”, in Anti-Story – An Anthology of Experimental Fiction, edited by Philip Stevick (New York, The Free Press, 1971). The anthology registers that it was first published in New World (1967), which is certainly the British New Worlds, where Disch published much of his work at that time.

“The Squirrel Cage” may be seen as “a pendant” to Camp Concentration. The story is about a prisoner in a cell, a man who doesn’t remember who he is, or why he’s in prison. He writes all day long, in a typewriter; he never makes direct contact with his captors; he eats well; he is given The New York Times to read, on a daily basis; nobody ever talks to him or give him any kind of instruction. He can only keep himself alive… and write.

“I’m free to write down anything I like, but (…) no matter what I do write down it will not make any difference”.

The typewriter he uses is rigged in such a way that he can’t read what he has just written. There is a normal keyboard, but:

“There is not, however, either a margin control or a carriage return. The platen is not visible, and I can never see the words I am writing. What does it all look like? Perhaps it is made immediately into a book by automatic lynotipists. Wouldn’t that be nice? Or perhaps my words just go on and on in one endless line of writing. Or perhaps this typewriter is just a fraud and leaves no record at all”.

(In some aspects, this sounds like the first impressions of someone using a computer and registering its differences from a mechanical typewriter. It is an alternate machine, and the possibility of “automatic lynotipists” is a sort of avant-la-lettre steampunk.)

This is a type of story much discussed in literary workshops, called “The Empty Room Situation”. It always features an amnesiac person in an empty room, and this is just how most writers feel when confronted with the blank page or the blank screen. It is also a cliché of modernist, experimental fiction, in which the important thing is to examine the very act of writing, of creation through literature.

The narrator of “The Squirrel Cage” says that he’s being observed, because every time he tries to hurt himself in the hard edges of his stool and his typewriter they are withdrawn into the floor. But nobody makes contact with him, and he can only imagine who “they” must be. In brief paragraphs, Disch evokes some clichés of popular fiction.

“I think everybody is dead. I think I may be the only one left, the only survivor of the breed. And they just keep me here, the last one, alive, in this room, this cage, to look at, to observe, to make their observations of, to—I don’t know why they keep me alive”.

“Aliens? Are there aliens? I don’t know. Why are they studying me? What do they hope to learn? Is it an experiment?”

“But maybe they are only scientists, and not aliens at all. Psychologists at M.I.T., perhaps, such as frequently are shown in The Times: blurred, dotty faces, bald heads, occasionally a moustache, certificate of originality. Or, instead, young, crew-cut Army doctors studying various brainwashing techniques. (…) Are you reading this, Professor? Are you reading this, Major?”

It seems that this last hypothesis served to Disch as a basis for the development of the Camp Concentration plot.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Camp Concentration 022 – The Mind Reciprocator

(Francis Bacon Remix)

Mordecai Washington is a leader who can be alternately funny and cruel, sympathetic and haughty, admirable and ridiculous. We may take at face value his ressurrection through “The Mind Reciprocator”. He was pronounced dead and his body was buried, but in the end we discover that his soul survived and now inhabits another body. Thus he gains the dimensions of a Christ-like figure, even if he doesn’t exhibit some of the noble qualities we expect from it.

Sacchetti is a Catholic. He believes in the immortality of the Soul, he believes that his body is just a corporeal shell which must be discarded sooner or later if he wishes to ascend to Heaven. He believes that even if the Universe doesn’t seem to make sense for us, it makes sense for God, who oversees everything.

Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled
Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field.
A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring
Said, "Son, this ain't a dream no more, it's the real thing."

Señor, Señor, you know their hearts is as hard as leather.
Well, give me a minute, let me get it together.
I just gotta pick myself up off the floor.
I'm ready when you are, Señor.

Señor, Señor, let's overturn these tables
Disconnect these cables,
This place don't make sense to me no more.
Can you tell me what we're waiting for, Señor?

(Bob Dylan, “Señor – Tales of Yankee Power”, 1978)

The characters involved in this Bob Dylan song suggest two narrative contexts. The first is a Western movie, like those by Sam Peckinpah, in which an American master and a Mexican servant enter together in some obscure, bloody and purposeless adventure. The servant if faithful, is compliant, is brave, but he’s a bit of a simpleton and doesn’t have access to the master’s plans. He’s prepared to die for him, nevertheless. He is a servant for the Yankee power.

The second context is that of a man alone, and the “Lord” whom he addresses is God. The man is lost and left to himself in a time of war, a time of technology gone awry. He is enslaved, mistreated, misled; he doesn’t know what is expected from him. But he is always asking: “Tell me, Lord, will this make any sense, in the very end?”

Sacchetti is capable of many harsh words against his Lord, but when is ressurrected himself, he reverts to the most basic affirmation of faith: the Bible. It is in item 94 of Book Two (p. 167):

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

Sacchetti remains in character even in this most glorious moment of one’s life, the moment of ressurrection from a certain death – he compares his own happiness to “some gigantic benevolent steamroller”. But the Biblical quotations and the joyful, almost childish happiness are understandable. He feels as if his Lord had, at least, taken him by the hand.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Camp Concentration 021 - I Await the Ressurrection of the Dead

I am not a connoisseur of classical music or erudite contemporary music. What I listen to, mostly, is Brazilian popular music, traditional blues and folk-rock (by which I mean Dylan, The Band, Neil Young and other dinosaurs). But I have in my shelves some CDs of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc., besides modern composers such as Debussy and Erik Satie. I listen to their music and it gives me pleasure, although I have not the training or the knowledge to enjoy it more deeply. But I like it. I think it’s beautiful.

In Item 49 of Book Two, Sacchetti mentions his conversations with Schipansky, and says:

“Yet when I admitted to being unfamiliar with Et exspecto resurrectionem murtuorum, he showed a quite missionary zeal in dragging me to the library to listen to it. And what a wonderful new use for ears this music is! After Et Exspecto, I heard Couleurs de la Cité Celeste, Chronochromie, and Sept Haikais. Where have I been all my life? (In Bayreuth, that’s where.) Messiaen is as crucial for music as Joyce was for literature. Let me say just this: Wow.”

I went to the E-Music website and downloaded the CD shown above. And for me, a layman in contemporary music, this was quite an experience. The music is strange, unpredictable, dissonant, angst-ridden. It is not much melodic and rhythmic in the traditional sense. Sometimes it sounds disjointed, full of non-sequiturs, but it maintains the same spirit from beginning to end. There’s a sense of purpose and of emotion that never wavers. It is alternately creepy, joyful, menacing; now delicate as a birdsong, now overwhelming as a tsunami.

The title of the piece translates as “I await the ressurrection of the dead”. I read somewhere that Et exspecto… was composed in 1964, to commemorate the dead of the two World Wars. It was first performed in 1965, in Paris, so it was quite a novelty at the time when Disch was writing his novel. The piece has five movements, named thus:

I - From the depths of the abyss, I cry for you, Lord: Lord, hear my voice!
II - Christ, ressurrected from the dead, will not die anymore; Death has no power over him anymore
III - The hour is coming when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God
IV - They will ressurect, glorious, under a new name, in the joyful concert of the stars and the acclamations of the children of Heaven
V - And I heard the voice of an immense crowd

The prisoners of Camp Archimedes are the dead; from their underground prison, they claim for life. After their leader discovers a way to ressurrect from Death, all of them will be delivered, one by one. Each of them will live again “under a new name”, and they will be able to return to the world.

There is an evident connection between this dramatic piece and Disch’s story. Its religious spirit is in tune with the fact that Sacchetti is a Catholic and that his spiritual crisis in prison makes him oscillate between belief and disbelief. There is also a slightly sarcastic touch (typical of Disch’s irony) in that the “ressurrecting Christ” figure is Mordecai, a black man, who is (in my view) more a Trickster than a Christ-like figure.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Camp Concentration 020 - Stairway to Paradise

(Ladder of Heaven, by John Klimakos, 12th Century)

Camp Concentration is divided in Book One and Book Two. Each Book is divided, loosely, in two parts, which makes for a total of four structural parts.

Part 1:
The handwritten portion of Louis Sacchetti’s journal, written in the Springfield prison. In my copy of the novel, this runs from page 11 to page 19, and from May 11 to May 19.

Part 2:
Sacchetti’s typed journal, which runs from his arrival at Camp Archimedes to the “dream” scene, when he finally realizes he’s been infected with Pallidine too. This runs from page 19 to page 107 (June 2 through June 22) and finishes Book One.

Part 3:
The “asterisks” notes, written after Sacchetti, in despair, refuses to maintain a formal journal. This is the first part of Book Two, and runs from page 111 to page 120.

Part 4:
The numbered entries written by Sacchetti under Haast’s threats; they run from number 1 to number 100, and from page 120 to page 175, the end of the book.

Another way of describing the novel’s structure is that it begins and ends in “countable”, “timetable” form: first a diary, and then a series of numbered items. But, sandwiched between them, there are the “asterisk” notes, a dizzying allusive sequence, full of quotations and allegories, that reproduces the first stages of Sacchetti’s acceptance of the idea of death. It echoes the last entry of his journal, in the end of Book One: the dream sequence in which Sacchetti sees himself as Saint Thomas Aquinas (immensely fat) and in the guise of Aquinas he tells himself that he is infected with Pallidine. That dream, and the asterisk notes that follow it, are heavily allegorical and obscure, and express the refusal-cum-acceptance of Death.

But then comes the interference of General Haast (ultimately, Mordecai) who presses Sacchetti, forcing him to compose himself. He demands facts. Sacchetti refuses to maintain a diary, but he concedes in producing numbered items; they are a return to Time and to life, although Sacchetti doesn’t realize it at first.

It can be said that the journal entries in the beginning of the book show that Sacchetti is bound to Time, and thus he is bound to Death too. The asterisk notes are his descent into Hell and timelessness. Thought is amorphous, non-directional, static, entropic.

The numbered items in the last part of the book, from item 1 to item 100, are a return to Time and (now) to life again. They are the ascent journey. Sacchetti, led by Haast/Mordecai, begins a slow, step by step, journey back to the world of the living. During this ascent, he sometimes thinks he’s going downward. This is a traditional feature of so many mystical processes which bring purification and life through suffering and near-death. It also echoes the ancient motif of the necessity to pass through Hell to reach Paradise.

I'll build a stairway to Paradise
With a new step ev'ry day!
I'm gonna get there at any price;
Stand aside, I'm on my way!
I've got the blues
And up above it's so fair.
Shoes ! Go on and carry me there!
I'll build a stairway to Paradise
With a new step ev'ry day.
(George Gershwin – “I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise”)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Camp Concentration 019 - Decamp

(Susan Sontag in Petra - photo by Annie Leibovitz)

“When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it's often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn't attempted to do anything really outlandish. ("It's too much," "It's too fantastic," "It's not to be believed," are standard phrases of Camp enthusiasm.)"—Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp”

This can be a good starting point for discussing the “camp” aspect of Disch’s book. It looks like Disch, who was a harsh critic of most SF, tried to attain in his novel the problematic synthesis between high literature and pulp drama. Camp Concentration is made up from a series of SF clichés: mad scientists, the Army’s secret projects, superpowers, underground shelters, Gothic technology, a miraculous escape. It’s just as if the writer had told himself: “This is an impossible task: to write a great book from this sort of material. If I succeed, I must be a genius. If I don’t, well, that is just what I was trying to prove in the first place”.

Camp Concentration is Jean-Paul Sartre and Thomas Mann innoculated in a Van Vogt plot. Most of the criticism I have read against the novel concerns the “coup de theatre” in the last pages, which in a certain sense spoils the seriousness of the rest of the book. Those commentaries say (without any enthusiasm): “It’s too much. It’s too fantastic. It’s not to be believed”.

And yet… and yet… This final twist (the revelation of what really happened between Mordecai and Haast, and Sacchetti’s salvation) is just what made me adore the book when I first read it. Pulp clichés are, usually, a short and easy way out from a narrative corner in which the writer has written himself. Abracadabra! And the eruption of a vulcan destroys the mad scientist’s lab, or the hero is saved from death thanks to a newfound drug which hadn’t been mentioned so far.

Such solutions are forbidden in a serious novel. There must be no easy way out. High literature doesn’t admit the impossible, especially when used to solve problems of narrative. If you have an underground prison in which the narrator has been innoculated with a mortal disease and is slowly dying, well, he has to die. Not because there is no escape from underground prisons, but because there is no escape from high literary conventions. And this is just the prison Camp Concentration escapes from: a genre convention, a cliché of the mainstream. The astounding mindswap that frees the prisoners is a victory of Pulp resources against mainstream constraints.

Curiously enough, had Disch’s novel been written in a pedestrian prose, with cardboard characters and run-of-the-mill situations, the same ending would not be a triumph – it would become equally weak. What makes the success of Camp Concentration for this reader is that the novelist achieved this most improbable of balances, between the sophistication of high literature and the sense of wonder (the sense that “anything is possible”) of Pulp, a sense of wonder that most high literature has lost, because it has become too tightly bound by the Principle of Reality.

Camp Concentration is the story of the impossible escape of a prisoner, and of a writer who finds a spectacular way of extricating himself from two literary imprisonments, simultaneously.

“The act of genius is simply the bringing together of two hitherto distinct spheres of reference, or matrices – a talent for juxtapositions”. (CC, p. 62, June 13 entry)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Camp Concentration 018 - Now that I know

A question that has been raised about the novel is: “Does Sacchetti’s portrait in the novel reveal an increasing intelligence? Do you feel he’s really becoming more intelligent? If so, why doesn’t he realize that he has been innoculated with Pallidine like everyone else?”

A possible answer is: Intelligence is, in a sense, “more of the same”. More intelligence doesn’t necessarily imply more and deeper self-knowledge. If you’re a moron and you become “more intelligent” you are not a moron anymore, but if you’re a consummate liar and you become more intelligent you don’t necessarily give up being a liar. Intelligence doesn’t provide an automatic change in personality for the better.

Different people have different intelligences. All the prisoners are becoming more intelligent; nevertheless, a Mordecai’s journal would be very different from Sacchetti’s, and Gerald Wagner’s too, and Barry Meade’s, and Skilliman’s... The story told by Sacchetti is his personal way of seeing things. “Increased intelligence” means, sometimes, increased complexity of vision, but not necessarily increased lucidity or increased problem-solving capabilities.

One of the tragic aspects of Sacchetti is precisely his pathetic blindness to an evident truth. This is one more example of The Intangibility of The Mind. The Mind wishes to be eternal. It knows that it’s tied to a disposable body, so it denies the body. I think that the moment of Sacchetti’s “execution”, the moment when he’s injected with Pallidine, is at the Springfield prison, when the doctor shows him the review of his book in a literary magazine:

“While I read the review the good doctor injected what seemed like several thousand cc’s of bilgy ook into my thigh; in my happiness I scarcely noticed. A review – I am real!” (CC, p. 15, May 16 entry).

This is a cruel example of the narcissism of The Mind and its indifference to the body.

(I am nort certain that the Pallidine innoculation would be made in Springfield; logic tells me that they would choose Sacchetti, bring him to Camp Archimedes and only then proceeding with the innoculation. I didn’t find an evidence of this, but maybe I didn’t search carefully enough. Anyway, the scene works metaphorically, if not literally).

Sacchetti is not a moron. He knows he has Pallidine. He just denies it, as so many intelligent people deny being seriously ill, till it’s too late to do something about it. After The Dream Scene, when Saint Thomas Aquinas bring him the terrible truth, he says:

“Haast, under pressure, confirms what it is no longer in any case possible to conceal, which had been kept from me this long only by my own desperate, deliberate blindness. Now that I do know it, now that I know I know it… (…) Everyone here had known but I, and I, though I would not listen to the whispers until they were a bellowing that filled the world, I had known too.” (CC, p. 107, June 22 entry).

Friday, October 10, 2008

Camp Concentration 017 - Mordecai Washington

“The name sounds vaguely familiar, but I can’t place it”. (CC, p. 35, June 6 entry)

The name “Mordecai” comes from the Bible, but in Camp Concentration it provides a link to another sf novel: Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7. Roshwald is professor emeritus of humanities at the University of Minnesota, and his book appeared in 1959, eight years before Disch’s. It is the claustrophobic tale of a group of military in a subterranean shelter where they are in charge of the “push button” task, in the event of a nuclear war. They cannot return to the surface and to normal life anymore; in fact, their families receive a message from the Government stating they they have died in service and did not leave any remains. Officially “dead”, and buried in the underground bunker, they have no hope of returning to life whatsoever, and as the nuclear conflict develops, they are the last human beings to die.

The name “Washington” has obvious and ironic ressonances for anyone, and even more for an American. But maybe it was chosen, as well, because of the mirror image it provides for the character’s initials: MW. Two triangles pointing upward, two pointing downward. This pair of letters encapsulates the idea of mirror, of reversal, and also the alchemical motto of “as above, so below”. It also provides a kind of “logo” for the central (in a sense) character in a novel about people entombed in a catacomb above sea level, and also of people who (in the last pages) have to go down to the World of the Dead in order to ressurrect to the World of the Living.

That pair of letters also indicates, alchemically, the Mystical Conjunctio: Man on top, Woman at bottom. This interpretation has ominous consequences, because the only man/woman intercourse which is mentioned in the story (albeit hypothetically) is that between Mordecai and Dr. Busk, through which Pallidine, eventually, is smuggled away from Camp Archimedes and reaches the world at large. (One also muses on the significance of Washington taking Dr. Busk’s “cherry”).

Camp Concentration 016 - The Electrical Wizard

(David Bowie as Nikolas Tesla, in The Prestige)

From Wikipedia:
In 1891, Telluride's L.L. Nunn joined forces with
Nikola Tesla (Nunn's home can be found at the corner of Aspen and Columbia Streets, next door is the home he purchased for the "pinheads" to study hydro-electric engineering) and George Westinghouse and built the Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant, the world's first commercial-grade alternating-current power plant, near Telluride. The hydro-powered electrical generation plant supplied power to the Gold King Mine 3.5 miles away.

Writing about Telluride, Disch couldn’t ignore the relationship between that city and Nikolas Tesla, and I am sure that “The Alpha Pickup”, the electrical device to which Mordecai and General Haast submit themselves, is inspired as much by Tesla as by the alchemist Nicholas Flamel.

Tesla has become a sort of Electrical Wizard in recent science fiction. In Christopher Priest’s novel (and later Philip Nolan’s film) The Prestige Tesla makes a brief appearance as a sort of wizard. The plot revolves around a feud between two stage magicians, Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, in 19th century London. They become enemies and do what they can to sabotage each other’s shows. When Borden seems to have perfected a trick to teleport himself from one point of the stage to another, Angier travels to the US and goes to Colorado Springs in order to meet Nikolas Tesla and ask him: “If electrical energy may be transmitted, could physical matter also be sent from one place to another?” Then, they join forces to accomplish this.

Disch’s question to himself, while writing the novel, may have been: “Couldn’t they have someone like Tesla, doing some Tesla thing in order to build a mind reciprocator?…”

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Camp Concentration 015 - Fat Men

"And thus, as through the years the imaterial intellect expanded like some godlike, moist squash, my material and fleshy aspect, my body, by its crapulence, did swell and magnify to... this!" -- Saint Thomas Aquinas (CC, p. 106, June 22 entry)

"I'm always pleased to meet people fatter than myself". -- Louis Sacchetti (CC, p. 47, June 8 entry)