Monday, September 29, 2008

Camp Concentration 010 - The Libyrinth

(Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution, Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

“What the place lacks in windows it makes up for doors: there are infinite recessions of white, Alphavillean hallways”. (CC, p. 23, June 3 entry).

“I have been walking the corridors, corridors, corridors”. (CC, p. 66, June 15 entry).

Louis Sacchetti and the other inmates in Camp Archimedes are given physical confinement and mental liberty. What is best than a solitary confinement, a place so small that the prisoner inside it is barely able to move? The answer is: a place with infinite passageways, infinite doors, infinite corridors, where the prisoner may flee forever without ever leaving the prison itself. (There would be only one prison better than this: the desert, the labyrinth without walls in Jorge Luis Borges’ parable: “…my labyrinth, in which you won’t have stairs to ascend, nor tiresome corridors to explore, nor walls to block your way” (“The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths”).

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Camp Concentration 009 - Indestructible Mind

(Vintage - 1969)

One of the themes in Camp Concentration is The Intangibility of Intellect. The body may be destroyed, but the Mind -- not the Soul, not the spiritual soul -- can somehow survive. (Or so it believes.)

(Mordecai Washington):
"In my worst moments, with my head in the pisser, retching, the old brainjelly goes right on fermenting, oblivious to the low soma. No, not oblivious, just indifferent, aloof, a spectator."

The Mind believes that it can survive the destruction of the body. Maybe it can´t, but when the Mind is busy thinking, it doesn't care if the body is dying. The present of the Mind is more important than the future of the body.

In this context, "the Mind" doesn't mean just intellectualism, but the Ego drive that tries to affirm the power of Man over Nature. Sacchetti and Mordecai are two examples of the intellectual Mind; General Haast and Dr. Aimée Busk are two examples of the pragmatic mind.

(Sacchetti on General Haast:) "He carries to an extreme the maniacal American credo that there is no death. And he is probably a garden of cancers. Isn't that so, H.H.?" (CC, p. 23, June 3 entry).

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Camp Concentration 008 - Sylph portrait

(Treponema Pallidum)

The feeling of being watched:
“There is a feeling that all four off-white walls are of one-way glass, that every drooping milky globe of light masks a microphone”. (p. 24, June 3 entry)

(Dr. Busk to Louis Sacchetti):
“Under the microscope, Pallidine looks much the same as any other spirochete. It is, as the name suggests, spiral in shape, with seven coils. The average Treponema pallidum is much larger, though it may have as few as six coils in rare instances. If you’d like to see one, I’m sure… No? They’re really rather pretty. They propel themselves by stretching out lengthwise, concertina-fashion, then contracting. Very graceful. ‘Sylphlike’ is what the textbooks call it. I’ve spent entire hours just watching them swim about in plasma”. (CC, p. 61, June 13 entry)

Syphilis as sylph:
“Mordecai, the alchemist, winked. ‘Abracadabra,’ he said meaningfully. Then, quick as a sylph, he was gone”. (CC, p. 46, June 7 entry)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Camp Concentration 007- Some words on Dr. Busk

(Turkish edition)

Are characters’ names hidden messages? Do they hide encrypted meanings? Are they always symbolic, allegorical, referential? Is a name (any fictional name) a riddle which leads to a single, hidden answer?

When we choose a name for a character in a book, we choose two words that cross each other (so to speak) like the latitude and the longitude axis. The character is the intersection point. This may be a conscious or unconscious process.

Take, for example, “Dr. A. Busk”, the Susancalvinesque scientist who runs the show at Camp Archimedes. “Busk” means “a stiffening device: a strip of wood, steel, or whalebone used to stiffen the front of a corset”. Do I see a dry, stiff, haughty Victorian spinster behind this name?

She looks (to Louis Sacchetti) forty or forty-five years old, but later the General tells him that she’s thirty-seven. (Which reminds me of Maggie’s Mother, in Bob Dylan’s song “Maggie’s Farm”:

Well, she talks to all the servants
About man and God and law.
Everybody says
She's the brains behind pa.
She's sixty-eight, but she says she's fifty-four.
I ain't gonna work for Maggie's ma no more.

Louis Sacchetti asks the doctor what the “A” means, and she says: “Aimée”. Why does she hide her first name? Because “aimée” in French is the feminine form of “the loved one”, but she (according to H. H., the General) “still keeps her cherry”, and therefore is not worthy of her own name. A name which Sacchetti echoes, in Italian, when he exclaims: “Ahimé!” (“Alas!”).

QUOTE: (Dr. Aimée Busk to Sacchetti): “You are a prisoner, and I am... what? I am the prison”. (CC, p. 31, June 6 entry)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Camp Concentration 006 - A Cracked Vellum

From the inventory of Mordecai Washington's worktable:

"...a cracked vellum sheet with a crude drawing on it, in colored inks, not much superior to an average men's room graffito. That part of the drawing I could see represented a crowned and bearded man holding a tall scepter upon which were mounted, one above the other, six further crowns. The king stood upon an odd pedestal that grew flowerlike from a vine that branched, above the king's head, into a sort of lattice. At the interstices of this lattice were six other male heads, lower, lesser types, and beside each head a letter of the alphabet, from D through I. The left-hand portion of this head-bearing vine curled out of sight into George's closed book".
(CC, p. 74, June 16 entry)

This is the cover illustraton of the novel's first edition (see below).

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Camp Concentration 005 - Melancholia

From the inventory of Mordecai Washington's worktable:

"Several color plates torn from Skira art books, chiefly of works of the Flemish masters, though there was a detail from Raphael School of Athens and a tattered print of Dürer's woodcut Melancholia". (CC, p. 74, June 16 entry)

Camp Concentration 004 - The Nausea

Camp Concentration is written in journal form, which produces a more immediate impression of reality, of facts being experienced and commented upon along the way. (A novel in the past tense sounds like a bundle of recollections put together long after the fact. Journals are better to chronicle the near-imperceptible changes the protagonist goes through, as he jots down his feelings and his thoughts in a day-by-day basis.)

A story in the past tense, told in the first person, is the product of a single mind who tells it at some moment in the future, when everything has already happened. A journal is written by several minds, so to speak, and the reader can trace the successive changes from one to the other.

The journal structure is one more thing in common between Camp Concentration and "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes (1959), the other classic SF tale about super-inteligence scientifically produced.

Novels in journal form, SF or not, are many, but one that comes insistently to my mind when I think of Disch’s book is The Nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre (1938).

In The Nausea, Antoine Roquentin goes to the city of Bouville (a thinly disguised Le Havre, as I recall) to work on his biography of the Marquis of Rollebon. There, his love affair with a woman comes to an end; there, he encounters a man, whom he calls The Autodidact, who is reading all the books in the library in alphabetical order.

Roquentin is prone to accesses of what he calls “the nausea”, a mental state in which he sees all things devoided of names, concepts and labels. He sees the things existing by themselves, without the slightest link to his own conceptual world. Sartre’s language excels in the descriptions of those moments, and it is generally accepted that this novel is an after effect of his own experiences with mescalin, which he did in 1935 (long before Woodstock, long before Huxley’s own experience which resulted in the book The Doors of Perception).

In Sartre’s novel, there’s no mention of drugs – the Nausea arrives at random, unannounced and unexpected. Roquentin, eventually, gets used to it, accepts it, and with it accepts the fact – which is at the core of Sartre’s Existentialism – that there isn’t a Plan, there isn’t a Meaning, there isn’t an Essence in the Universe. It is pure existence, and Man is an accidental consciousness that becomes aware of it.

The connection between Camp Concentration and The Nausea is not without a reason. The first title Sartre suggested for his novel was Melancolia, in a reference to Albert Durer’s famous engraving, a print of which is seen by Louis Sacchetti on Mordecai’s desk. (CC, p. 74, June 16 entry). Disch is alluding to alchemy (Durer’s theme), but may also be alluding to Sartre.

I found here a comment of the novel with mention to the print:

Ce livre paru en 1938 n'a cessé d'être pour plusieurs générations un évènement dans la conscience d'exister. En cela, il est une espèce de "mythologie". A l'origine, Sartre l'avait intitulé Melancholia, en référence à une gravure de Dürer qui évoquait le doute existentiel, le doute devant la science mais qui était aussi une réflexion métaphysique sur le besoin d'engendrer, Dürer qui n'avait pas eu d'enfant et qui a construit cette oeuvre justement à la mort de sa mère. On pourrait à partir de ce roman, retracer à la fois la période de l'année 1935 où Sartre avait traversé une grave crise dépressive en arrivant au Havre, où il avait également pris de la mescaline, et tendre le livre comme un miroir à des lecteurs ou créateurs de tous âges (écrivains, cinéastes, poètes).

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Camp Concentration 003 - c-AMP

(a Polish edition)

Talk about serendipity, talk about statistical fate. Some coincidences are inevitable, and being so, are they really coincidences?

I googled the title “Camp Concentration” in search of jpgs to illustrate these notes, and came across an unexpected response: “cAMP Concentration”. Among esoteric laboratorial procedures, this term appeared insistently, forcing me to fish out a definition for “c-AMP”, which follows:

c-AMP (cyclic AMP) A cyclic form of adenosine monophosphate, formed from ATP (adenosine triphosphate) in a reaction mediated (catalysed) by adenyl cyclase, which has numerous functions in cells. It can act variously as a genetic regulator, as a mediator in the activity of some hormones, as an enzyme activator, as a secondary messenger, and as a chemical attractant.© A Dictionary of Zoology 1999, originally published by Oxford University Press 1999

So, this is the second definition for camp which I submit in this blog. C-amp is something that, once circulating inside an organism, boosts some of its vital functions. As to the specific expression “c-Amp concentration”, I got, among other results, these:

Summary cAMP concentrations in the preoptic region and cerebral cortex were studied in rats during exposure to low ambient temperature (–10 ° C) and after return to control ambient temperature (22 ° C).
Significant changes in cAMP concentration were found only in the preoptic region. On prolonged exposure to low ambient temperature the nucleotide concentration decreased and the circadian rhythm, observed in control conditions, disappeared. Return to control ambient temperature after exposure to low ambient temperature induced a steep increase and a long-lasting plateau in cAMP concentration. The results are discussed in terms of interaction between thermoregulatory and sleep-wakefulness processes.

The effect of NaF on the cAMP concentration in and amylase secretion from rat parotid glands in vitro and in vivo was investigated. In vitro, NaF (0.05 to 10 mmol/l) was found to increase significantly amylase secretion and cAMP concentration in parotid gland slices. In vivo, male rats injected intraperitoneally with 15 mg F/kg body weight as NaF had a significantly lower glandular amylase activity and higher plasma amylase activity than did the control rats injected with 0.9% NaCl. The fluoride concentration both in the parotid gland and plasma was highest at 30 min after injection and decreased with time in the fluoride-injected group. The concentration of the parotid gland cAMP in the fluoride-injected group was significantly higher than that in the control group. On the basis of these results, it is suggested that NaF, both in vitro and in vivo, increases the cAMP concentration, which subsequently stimulates amylase secretion from rat parotid glands.

I paste these examples just to make clear the double-pun nature of Disch’s title. Disch probably came across, in some scientific journal, an article like those above, and couldn’t fail to perceive the hilarious/sadistic connotation of it. Being himself “a psychologist who wouldn’t do awful things to rats”, TMD wrote a novel.

QUOTE: "They've got to break away from the old patterns of thought, blaze trails, explore" (CC, p. 50, June 10 entry)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Camp Concentration 002 - Notes on Camp

(First hardcover edition, 1968)

I notice that the usual English name for prisoner camps, like those maintained by the Nazis in WW II, is “concentration camp”, not “camp concentration”. The former suggest “a camp which is used to concentrate a number of people in a single place”. The latter, “a concentration, i.e., a large density of… camp”.

What is “camp”? The first thing that comes to mind, as “camp”, is the aesthetic of everything artificial, exaggerated, effeminate – movies like The Rocky Horror Show and Barbarella, and everything pop that also borders on kitsch.

This is not (I believe) the case of Camp Concentration. But in 1966, two years before Disch’s novel, Susan Sontag published her essay “Notes on Camp”, in which she gives a list of “items which are part of the canon of Camp”. The list includes such SF mainstays as the King Kong film by Cooper & Schoedsack and the Flash Gordon comics by Alex Raymond. She also mentions “Japanese science fiction films (Rodan, The Mysterians, The H-Man) because, in their relative unpretentiousness and vulgarity, they are more extreme and irresponsible in their fantasy - and therefore touching and quite enjoyable.”

I don’t think I ever read any comments by Disch on his novel; maybe he has already discussed the book from this angle (maybe just to dismiss this theory as preposterous). But…

QUOTE: “Write it as though you were trying to explain to someone outside this… camp… what was happening to you”. (CC, p. 22, June 3 entry)

Camp Concentration 001 - A Journal of My Own

(My copy of the book: Avon paperback, 1971)

I read this book around 1986 and for a long time I used to put it in my lists of "10 Best SF Novels" or the like. I did not read it a second time since then. What impressed me most was, first, the fact that the protagonist was a poet; I have since compiled a small list of "Poets in SF". Then, the fact that Disch manages to convey the idea of the gradual increase of intelligence in a human being, with all the brilliance and all the turmoil that such increase may cause. And then there is the stunning "coup-de-theatre" in the final scenes.

Some friends are putting together a "collective reviewing" of this book in their blogs, and I wish to join them. But I think that instead of writing a review, in the strict sense, I will try to re-read the novel along the next 30 days and to register my impressions in this blog, as in a journal.

QUOTE: "This is my journal. I can be candid here. Candidly, I could not be more miserable" (CC, p. 11, May 11 entry).