Fuzz Against Junk & The Hero Maker

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This is another of those posts in which I brag about finding an old book in a charity shop for a lot less than you’d have to pay for it online. But it does give me the opportunity to say something about American writer/artist Norman Rubington and his alter ego Akbar Del Piombo, something I was sure I’d done already. One of the weekend posts linked to an article about Rubington’s work but my discussion of his collages is in the essay I wrote about Wilfried Sätty for the Strange Attractor Journal, a piece which isn’t available here.

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The engraving collages of Norman Rubington (1921–1991) were probably the first to use the form developed by Max Ernst for explicitly humorous purposes. They’re certainly among the earliest to take the lead from Ernst while aiming themselves at an audience outside the art world. There is humour in some of Ernst’s collages, of course, but it tends to be the black variety favoured by the Surrealists (and actually defined by them; André Breton’s 1940 Anthology of Black Humour was a pioneering study). Rubington’s small books exploit the comic potential of antique illustrations by repurposing them as the primary content in a series of absurd narratives; these aren’t “graphic novels”, they’re more like heavily-illustrated comedy routines. There were four books in the original series—Fuzz Against Junk (1959), The Hero Maker (1959), Is That You Simon? (1961) and The Boiler Maker (1961)—with a fifth title, Moonglow, appearing in 1969. Olympia Press published the books in France, with US editions appearing around the same time under the Far-Out imprint used by Citadel Press. My charity purchase is the 1966 New English Library reprint of an Olympia Press collection of the first two volumes. The olive-green Olympia covers always provoke a Pavlovian grab response when I see one on a shelf although I’ve yet to find a copy that wasn’t an NEL reprint.

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The hashish eaters of Monte Cristo

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Illustration by Pierre-Gustave-Eugène Staal.

I mentioned at the weekend that my current reading is the Dumas père doorstop The Count of Monte Cristo. One of the things I enjoy about reading novels like these that “everyone knows” (ie: everyone knows mostly from truncated film or television adaptations) is finding something surprising about the story that you’ve never seen mentioned before. The following passage from chapter 31 turns out to be quite well-known as it happens, but only to those who’ve read the original text, not the Reader’s Digest version.

The story so far: Baron Franz d’Épinay has hired a boat to take him to the uninhabited Mediterranean island of Monte Cristo where he hopes to do a spot of hunting. On reaching the island Franz and his crew discover a small group of bandits camped there, with a leader dressed in Arabian clothes. This man—our hero, Edmond Dantès—insists on concealing his identity with a pseudonym, “Sinbad the Sailor”, and suggests that Franz might wish to do the same. The latter chooses the name “Aladdin”, and the pair retire to a sumptuously decorated cave for an evening meal. When the meal is over “Sinbad” offers “Aladdin” a special treat:

“You cannot guess,” said he, “what there is in that small vase, can you?”

“No, I really cannot.”

“Well, then, that green preserve is nothing less than the ambrosia which Hebe served at the table of Jupiter.”

“But,” replied Franz, “this ambrosia, no doubt, in passing through mortal hands has lost its heavenly appellation and assumed a human name; in vulgar phrase, what may you term this composition, for which, to tell the truth, I do not feel any particular desire?”

“Ah, thus it is that our material origin is revealed,” cried Sinbad; “we frequently pass so near to happiness without seeing, without regarding it, or if we do see and regard it, yet without recognizing it. Are you a man for the substantials, and is gold your god? taste this, and the mines of Peru, Guzerat, and Golconda are opened to you. Are you a man of imagination—a poet? taste this, and the boundaries of possibility disappear; the fields of infinite space open to you, you advance free in heart, free in mind, into the boundless realms of unfettered reverie. Are you ambitious, and do you seek after the greatnesses of the earth? taste this, and in an hour you will be a king, not a king of a petty kingdom hidden in some corner of Europe like France, Spain, or England, but king of the world, king of the universe, king of creation; without bowing at the feet of Satan, you will be king and master of all the kingdoms of the earth. Is it not tempting what I offer you, and is it not an easy thing, since it is only to do thus? look!”

At these words he uncovered the small cup which contained the substance so lauded, took a teaspoonful of the magic sweetmeat, raised it to his lips, and swallowed it slowly with his eyes half shut and his head bent backwards. Franz did not disturb him whilst he absorbed his favourite sweetmeat, but when he had finished, he inquired:

“What, then, is this precious stuff?”

“Did you ever hear,” he replied, “of the Old Man of the Mountain, who attempted to assassinate Philippe Auguste?”

“Of course I have.”

“Well, you know he reigned over a rich valley which was overhung by the mountain whence he derived his picturesque name. In this valley were magnificent gardens planted by Hassen-ben-Sabah, and in these gardens isolated pavilions. Into these pavilions he admitted the elect, and there, says Marco Polo, gave them to eat a certain herb, which transported them to Paradise, in the midst of ever-blooming shrubs, ever-ripe fruit, and ever-lovely virgins. What these happy persons took for reality was but a dream; but it was a dream so soft, so voluptuous, so enthralling, that they sold themselves body and soul to him who gave it to them, and obedient to his orders as to those of a deity, struck down the designated victim, died in torture without a murmur, believing that the death they underwent was but a quick transition to that life of delights of which the holy herb, now before you, had given them a slight foretaste.”

“Then,” cried Franz, “it is hashish! I know that—by name at least.”

“That is it precisely, Signor Aladdin; it is hashish—the purest and most unadulterated hashish of Alexandria—the hashish of Abou-Gor, the celebrated maker, the only man, the man to whom there should be built a palace, inscribed with these words, A grateful world to the dealer in happiness.”

“Do you know,” said Franz, “I have a very great inclination to judge for myself of the truth or exaggeration of your eulogies.”

“Judge for yourself, Signor Aladdin—judge, but do not confine yourself to one trial. Like everything else, we must habituate the senses to a fresh impression, gentle or violent, sad or joyous. There is a struggle in nature against this divine substance—in nature which is not made for joy and clings to pain. Nature subdued must yield in the combat, the dream must succeed to reality, and then the dream reigns supreme, then the dream becomes life, and life becomes the dream. But what changes occur! It is only by comparing the pains of actual being with the joys of the assumed existence, that you would desire to live no longer, but to dream thus forever. When you return to this mundane sphere from your visionary world, you would seem to leave a Neapolitan spring for a Lapland winter—to quit paradise for earth—heaven for hell! Taste the hashish, guest of mine—taste the hashish.”

Franz does as requested and thereafter passes the night in an erotic delirium. The whole sequence is an example of the personal preoccupations of the author entering his fiction, Dumas having been a member of the Club des Hashishins in Paris, whose monthly “séances” took place at a hotel on the Île Saint-Louis. Other members of the club included Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, Gérard de Nerval, and Honoré de Balzac. The “magic sweetmeat” which Franz is offered was just that, a greenish paste from Algeria known as Dawamesc which disguises the bitter taste of the hashish with honey, pistachio and spices. (This page has a recipe should you require it.) Reading about the history of the hashish club I see that the hotel was located on the Quay d’Anjou, the river-facing street which is also the location of Baroness Ungern’s occult library in The Dumas Club by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. The Dumas thread in that novel (which is omitted from the film adaptation, The Ninth Gate) concerns rare manuscript pages of the “Anjou Wine” chapter from The Three Musketeers yet I don’t recall any mention of the Club des Hashishins in the story. I wish now I’d known all this before I spent a week in Paris; the Île Saint-Louis was one of my favourite places in the city, and I walked along the Quay d’Anjou one evening, photographing the river views.

Further reading: Franz d’Épinay’s night of dreams is recounted in The Green Jam of Doctor X, an essay by Mike Jay which explores the history of the literary hashish club.

Previously on { feuilleton }
More trip texts
The Art of Tripping, a documentary by Storm Thorgerson
Haschisch Hallucinations by HE Gowers

Art on film: Space is the Place

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Mescaline Woods (1969) by Gage Taylor.

Continuing an occasional series about artworks in feature films. This is more of a trivial example than the epic study of Providence but it seems worth mentioning when the art and the film in question aren’t so familiar.

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Encounter (1971) by Gage Taylor.

Last week my friend Jay Babcock was asking on his Substack newsletter for other examples of the utopian hippy landscape art that flourished in the 1970s. I recommended the paintings of Gage Taylor (1942–2000), an artist who was part of the loose movement known as the Californian Visionaries during that decade; paintings by the group were showcased in the Visions book published by Pomegranate in 1977, and shortly thereafter could be found in the early issues of OMNI magazine. Taylor was a prime exponent of slightly fantastic, idealised landscapes with titles like Mescaline Woods, painted in a style which, for the most part, he managed to prevent from becoming too saccharine. Encounter is a typical example: a quartet of naked hippies wandering through an Arcadian scene bordered by decorative cannabis leaves. The painting is definitely utopian in asking us to accept a clothes-free hike along a trail with no concern for sharp stones or injurious plants and animals.

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Looking through Visions again, and at this painting in particular, I was struck by the foreground group of floating alien creatures which I belatedly realised are the origin of the aliens from the opening scenes of Space is the Place (1974), the Sun Ra feature film directed by John Coney. And after watching those scenes again, details from Taylor’s paintings (including Mescaline Woods) turn up as brief establishing shots of the planet where Sun Ra has landed his spacecraft, something I’d missed entirely. Taylor is credited as one of the set decorators so I’d guess he made the alien creatures himself. I’d have been happy with more of the cosmic weirdness and less of the Blaxploitation clichés that pad out the later scenes but with films as unlikely as this we have to be thankful they exist at all. At its best Space is the Place approaches the delirium of The Holy Mountain, albeit on a much lower budget; Sun Ra and the villainous Overseer even play a game to decide the fate of the Earth using a unique pack of Tarot cards.

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Another more obvious external reference in the opening scenes is the cowled and mirror-faced individual that Sun Ra talks to, a figure taken from Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon. Deren’s film in 1974 wasn’t the cult item that it is today so this is an opportunistic swipe on the part of the film-makers, but the borrowing allows us to regard Mirror-face as the same character in both films. Watch them together.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Art on film: Providence
Art on film: The Beast
Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren

Weekend links 624

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An alphabet designed by Ben Griffiths. Via.

• “From the cellular to the galactic, via Paleolithic cave markings to the trace impressions left by drone photography on our mind’s eye, incorporating dancing plagues, communist psychedelic witches, hyper-sexual fungi, chthonic descents, and skyward ascents, The Neon Hieroglyph weaves together a series of painterly and poetic considerations on a feminized history of the rye fungus Ergot, the chemical basis of LSD.” Coming soon from Strange Attractor: The Neon Hieroglyph, a book, LP and folio of prints by Tai Shani.

• “3rd From The Sun was the last album of Chrome’s imperial phase, and it cemented their status as one of the most inhuman and superhuman rock bands that America ever produced. More people need to recognize.” Agreed. (previously)

• “People often say, ‘How can you be so disciplined?’ It’s easy. Otherwise, I would have to go work for somebody else!” John Waters (again). Also here.

I’ve always thought that literature should be entertaining as well as instructive—a very old-fashioned idea but one that I adhere to. When I set out to write in this way—particularly in this way, a political way, if you want to call it that—I intend to make a donation, to try to give something. There doesn’t seem to me to be any point in giving more misery or exacerbating unhappiness through some kind of hyper-intellectual, pyrotechnical writing about unhappiness and the shit that we all find ourselves in. That’s been done plenty. I think first of all that it doesn’t need to be done any more and second of all there’s a kind of reactionary aspect to it which is that the emphasizing of misery without any anti-pessimism, as you put it, would be simply seduction into inactivity and political despair. In other words, to do politics at all on any level, especially on a revolutionary or on an insurrectionary level, there has to be some anti-pessimism—I won’t say optimism because that sounds so fatuous, futile; but anti-pessimism is a nice phrase. And there’s a deliberate attempt at that in the writing. Then again it’s a matter of my personality, I guess, inclined towards the notion of the healing laugh to some extent. We have an anarchist thinker in America, John Zerzan, who wrote an essay against humour which maybe is one of the things I was reacting against. Even if irony is counter-revolutionary which I think it might be to a certain extent I don’t see any way in which you could say that laughter itself is counter-revolutionary. This doesn’t make any sense to me unless you mean to get rid of language and thought altogether, which is just another form of nihilism. So as long as you’re going to accept culture on some level you’re certainly going to have to accept humour. And as long as you’re going to have to accept humour you might as well see humour as potentially revolutionary.

Peter Lamborn Wilson aka Hakim Bey, who died last month. Many of Wilson’s writings are available at The Anarchist Library. From 2008: A poem for Leonora Carrington

• “It’s such a fundamental question,” says Midori Takada, “why do humans need to make rhythm, and the space that structure creates?”

• “14 Warning Signs That You Are Living in a Society Without a Counterculture” by Ted Gioia.

• A trailer for Earwig, the new film from Lucile Hadzihalilovic, based on a story by Brian Catling.

• New music: Aura by Hatis Noit, and Warmth Of The Sun by Pye Corner Audio.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Spotlight on…SE Hinton Rumble Fish (1975).

• “Hear tracks from the 1980s Peruvian electronic underground”.

Intermittent Eyeball Fodder at Unquiet Things.

West Tulsa Story (1983) by Stewart Copeland | Kála/Assassins Of Hakim Bey (1997) by Coil | Neon Lights (2000) by Señor Coconut Y Su Conjunto

Weekend links 616

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Illustration by Virgil Finlay for The Face in the Abyss by A. Merritt; Famous Fantastic Mysteries, October 1940.

• “The pier was completely outside of the gallery system, which David loved of course. People were just working on the walls, nothing was for sale, nothing could really be bought, although people were coming in and trying to chip things off the walls.” Cynthia Carr on the love letters and legacy of David Wojnarowicz.

• “In pursuit of Pure Form, the Polish artist known as “Witkacy” would consume peyote, cocaine, and other intoxicants before creating pastel portraits.” Juliette Bretan on the artful intoxications of Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz.

• Kino Kyiv: Christopher Silvester compiles a list of notable Ukrainian films. I’ve not seen all of these but Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors is a great favourite.

Onscreen for nearly the entire runtime, [Laura Dern] pulls off the remarkable feat of being in total control of a scenario organized by undermining her identity, obliterating her characterization, and so scrambling the distinction between Nikki and Susan that one eventually comes to view Inland Empire not as a maze to exit, a puzzle to solve, an ouroboros to gawk at, but rather as both a generalized treatise on the enigma of acting and a very specific, exquisitely perverse mash note to one of Lynch’s most formidable collaborators.

Nathan Lee on Laura Dern, David Lynch and Inland Empire. I’ve always thought Dern’s exceptional performance might have been recognised more widely if Lynch hadn’t filmed most of it on low-grade video.

• New music: Golden Air by Sun’s Signature, a new project from Elizabeth Fraser and Damon Reece.

• Miranda Remington explores The Strange World of…Stomu Yamash’ta.

• Steven Heller’s font of the month is Boucan.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Labyrinthine.

Labyrinth (2010) by Chrome Hoof | Labyrinths (2018) by Jonathan Fitoussi / Clemens Hourrière | The Seventh Labyrinth (2019) by Pye Corner Audio