Going beyond the zero

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“But it is a curve each of them feels, unmistakably. It is the parabola. They must have guessed, once or twice—guessed and refused to believe—that everything, always, collectively, had been moving toward that purified shape latent in the sky, that shape of no surprise, no second chances, no return. Yet they do move forever under it, reserved for its own black-and-white bad news certainly as if it were the Rainbow, and they its children….”

Reader, I read it. It isn’t an admission of great achievement to announce that you’ve reached the last page of a novel after a handful of stalled attempts, but when it’s taken me 36 years to reach this point it feels worthy of note; and besides which, Gravity’s Rainbow isn’t an ordinary novel. Umberto Eco is partly responsible for my return to Pynchon. I’d just finished The Name of the Rose, a book I’d avoided for years even while reading (and enjoying) a couple of Eco’s other novels, and was wondering what to read next. Maybe it was time to try the Rocket book again? The thick white spine of the Picador edition—760 pages in 10pt type—would accuse me every time I spotted it on the shelf: “Still haven’t made it to page 100, have you?” For many people this happens with novels because a book is “difficult” (which I didn’t think it was), or boring (which it isn’t at all), or simply too long (page count doesn’t put me off). Back in 1985 I was looking for more heavyweight fare after reading Ulysses, something I’ve now done several times, so I wasn’t going to be intimidated by a novel which is misleadingly compared to Ulysses on its back cover. If anything the comparison was an enticing one. Pynchon at the time exerted a gravitational pull (so to speak) for being very mysterious, although this was a decade when most living authors, especially foreign ones, were mysterious to a greater degree than they are today, when so many have their own websites and social media profiles. Pynchon’s works were also referred to in interesting places, unlike his less mysterious contemporaries. I may be misremembering but I seem to recall a mention of the W.A.S.T.E. enigma from The Crying of Lot 49 in Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus!; if it is there then it’s no surprise that a writer so preoccupied with conspiracy and paranoia would find favour with the authors of the ultimate conspiracy novel. (And that’s not all. I’m surprised now by the amount of coincidental correspondence between Illuminatus! and Gravity’s Rainbow. Both novels were being written at the same time, the late 1960s, yet both refer to the Illuminati, the eye in the pyramid on the dollar bill, Nazi occultism, and the death of John Dillinger. Both novels also acknowledge the precedent of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, another remarkable conflation of conspiracy, secret history, and wild invention.)

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Pynchon had other connections to the kind of fiction I was already interested in. One of his early short stories, Entropy, had been published in New Worlds magazine in 1969, although editor Michael Moorcock later claimed to have avoided reading any of the novels until much later. And, Pynchon, like Shea & Wilson (and Moorcock…), made pop-culture waves. I think it was Laurie Anderson who put Gravity’s Rainbow in the centre of my radar when she released Mister Heartbreak, an album whose third song, Gravity’s Angel, refers to the novel and is dedicated to its author. As for the novel itself, in the mid-1980s this was still Pynchon’s major work, the one that fully established his reputation. Nothing new had appeared since its publication in 1973; Vineland, and the subsequent acceleration of the authorial production line, was six years away. The final lure was the refusal of the Picador edition to communicate very much of its contents: what was this thick volume actually about? The back cover is filled with praise but doesn’t tell you anything about the novel at all, while the cover illustration by Anita Kunz suggests a scenario connected with the Second World War but little else. (“This was one of the most complicated books I ever read,” says the artist, “and really hard to get the germ of the idea. Pynchon kept going off in tangents. I mixed up the art the same way the writer did and made an image that can be read in all directions.”) It’s only when you start reading the book that you find the connection between the novel’s dominant concerns—the development of the V-2 rockets used by the Nazis to bomb London, and the erotic compulsions of Tyrone Slothrop, an American lieutenant at large in war-ravaged Europe—subtly reflected in the illustration, much more subtly than the cover art on the edition that preceded this one.

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The art of John Thompson

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Cosmic Trigger: Final Secret of the Illuminati (And/Or Press, 1977).

John Thompson’s detailed, mystical and erotic illustrations gained prominence in the San Francisco comic scene in the late 1960s–early 1970s, appearing in a handful of titles drawn in their entirety by Thompson or done as collaborations with local artists including Robert Crumb. But it’s as an illustrator of Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger that Thompson is probably best known, something I was reminded of recently with the opening of Daisy Campbell’s play based on Wilson’s book. Wilson had seen Thompson’s comics work, and approached him as illustrator of his (ostensibly) non-fiction sequel to the very popular Illuminatus! trilogy, an encounter that Thompson elaborates on in this interview.

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Here in the UK the comics published by Last Gasp et al weren’t always easy to find (imported comics were still being seized by UK customs into the 1990s), so Cosmic Trigger was my first introduction to Thompson’s art via a sighting of the US edition in a London shop in 1978. The UK paperback was a disappointment when it appeared a year or so later: Thompson’s cover art had been replaced with something more generic but they did at least retain the interior illustrations, albeit shrunk to fit the smaller book size. Many of the drawings in Cosmic Trigger had appeared already in Thompson’s comics which may seem surprising when they don’t resemble typical comic pages, but Thompson’s comics are unusual even compared to the undergrounds of the time. The undergrounds were most obviously radical in the wildness and excess of their content, especially where sex and drugs were concerned. But there’s a smaller subset of underground strips whose approach to narrative is so far removed from typical comic storytelling as to verge on the abstract. Victor Moscoso’s comics exemplify this style but even an ostensible traditionalist like Robert Crumb could experiment with the form (see his Cubist Bee Bop Comics in XYZ, 1972). Thompson’s comics are of this type at all times, blending motifs from a variety of myths and religions with Tantric yoga, astrology, alchemy and pop culture. When speech balloons appear they often contain allusive, esoteric phrases along with untranslated Greek or Hebrew text. It’s a beguiling mix which shows the ability of the comic book to do more than simply ape the stories of film or television. As with many other things from the late 1960s it’s a direction that hasn’t been pursued very much since.

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The interview with Thompson explains why he seemed to vanish after the work for Cosmic Trigger: he says he quit comics and illustration to become a therapist although he still creates private work. The examples here are from The Kingdom of Heaven is Within You (1969), Kukawy [sic] Comics 1 (1969; “Kukawy” is actually a Greek word meaning Cyclops), Tales from the Sphinx 2 (1972) and Eternal Comics (1973).

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23 Skidoo

1: A slang phrase

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Postcard via.

skidoo, v. N. Amer. slang. (ski’du:) Also skiddoo. [Orig. uncertain, perh. f. skedaddle v.]

2. In catch-phrases. a. Used as an exclamation of disrespect (for a person). Esp. in nonsense association with twenty-three. (temporary.)

1906 J. F. Kelly Man with Grip (ed. 2) 99 As for Belmont and Ryan and the rest of that bunch, Skidoo for that crowd when we pass. Ibid. 118 ‘I can see a reason for ‘skidoo’,’ said one, ‘and for ‘23’ also. Skidoo from skids and ‘23’ from 23rd Street that has ferries and depots for 80 per cent. of the railroads leaving New York.’ 1911 Maclean’s Mag. Oct. 348/1 Surrounded by this conglomerate procession as I went on my way, the urchins would yell ‘Skidoo,’ ‘23 for you!’

b. spec. as twenty-three skidoo: formerly, an exclamation of uncertain meaning; later used imp., go away, ‘scram’.

1926 C. T. Ryan in Amer. Speech II. 92/1, I really do not recall which appeared first in my vocabulary, the use of ‘some’ for emphasis or that effective but horrible ‘23-Skiddoo’—perhaps they were simultaneous. 1929 Amer. Speech IV. 430 Among the terms which the daily press credits Mr. Dorgan with inventing are:…twenty-three skiddoo (go away). 1957 W. Faulkner Town iii. 56 Almost any time now Father would walk in rubbing his hands and saying ‘oh you kid’ or ‘twenty-three skidoo’. 1978 D. Bagley Flyaway xi. 80 This elderly, profane woman…used an antique American slang… I expected her to come out with ‘twenty-three, skidoo’.

From the Oxford English Dictionary

2: An esoteric poem by Aleister Crowley

23

SKIDOO

What man is at ease in his Inn?
Get out.
Wide is the world and cold.
Get out.
Thou hast become an in-itiate.
Get out.
But thou canst not get out by the way thou camest in. The Way out is THE WAY.
Get out.
For OUT is Love and Wisdom and Power.
Get OUT.
If thou hast T already, first get UT.
Then get O.
And so at last get OUT.

From The Book of Lies (1912/13)

3: A film by Julian Biggs

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23 Skidoo (1964).

If you erase the people of downtown America, the effect is bizarre, not to say disturbing. That is what this film does. It shows the familiar urban scene without a soul in sight: streets empty, buildings empty, yet everywhere there is evidence of recent life and activity. At the end of the film we learn what has happened.

4: 23 Skidoo Eristic Elite by William Burroughs

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International Times, issue 18, Aug 31–Sept 13, 1967.

From Burroughs proceed to Illuminatus! (1975) by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, and many subsequent derivations.

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The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, a film by Gerrit van Dijk

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Gerrit van Dijk’s combination of live-action sequences and rotoscoped animation is tangentially related to William Burroughs, it being Burroughs who popularised the deathbed ramblings of New York gangster Arthur “Dutch Schulz” Flegenheimer with a “fiction in the form of a film script” also entitled The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (1970).

Flegenheimer was gunned down in the toilet of the Palace Chop House in Newark, New Jersey, in October 1935. Three of his associates had also been shot but he survived, and he spent two days muttering in his hospital bed while a police stenographer took notes. Burroughs was fascinated by the dissociated stream-of-conscious nature of the transcript which revealed little about his assailants but drifted feverishly through memories and hallucinations. The shooting and the deathbed ramblings were further popularised in 1975 by the publication of the Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson in which some of Flegenheimer’s more surreal pronouncements—”A boy has never wept nor dashed a thousand kim”—acquire occult significance. Flegenheimer and his last words also turn up in Exterminator! (1973), and Burroughs further fragmented the transcript in at least one of his own recordings where he reads out the equally strange phrases from transcripts of so-called electronic voice phenomena over an earlier reading of Flegenheimer’s words; the voices of the (supposed) dead wiping out the voice of the dying.

Burroughs’ Last Words of Dutch Schultz is nicely presented in its original form, the pages being laid out like a screenplay interposed with crime-scene photos from the period, Flegenheimer’s mug-shots and Art Deco graphics. The scene descriptions range through Flegenheimer’s life and mob history; whether they would make a good film or not would no doubt depend on the director. A film based on the script would be feature-length, and the narrative is a very fragmented one. Gerrit van Dijk’s film runs for 23 minutes and takes a similar approach, dramatising the shooting from different angles while juxtaposing the live action with animated sequences that are often anachronistic. Rutger Hauer supplies Flegenheimer’s dying voice. The anachronistic moments don’t contribute much unless we’re meant to regard Flegenheimer’s fever as being some kind of precognitive vision. Given the nature of the material—Depression-era gangsters, hallucinations, the Burroughs connection—I’m sure this won’t be the last film we see on the subject.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Burroughs at 100
Nova Express, a film by Andre Perkowski
Decoder, a film by Jürgen Muschalek
The Burroughs Century
Interzone: A William Burroughs Mix
Sine Fiction
The Ticket That Exploded: An Ongoing Opera
Burroughs: The Movie revisited
Zimbu Xolotl Time
Ah Pook Is Here
Jarek Piotrowski’s Soft Machine
Looking for the Wild Boys
Wroblewski covers Burroughs
Mugwump jism
Brion Gysin’s walk, 1966
Burroughs in Paris
William Burroughs interviews
Soft machines
Burroughs: The Movie
William S Burroughs: A Man Within
The Final Academy
William Burroughs book covers
Towers Open Fire

Design as virus 7: eyes and triangles

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Continuing this occasional series. The above motif is the Golden Dawn‘s Wedjat or Eye of Horus emblem as reproduced in the hardback edition of The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, an “autohagiography”. Crowley was under discussion here a few days ago and the eye in a triangle symbol can also be seen on the sleeve of the single featured in that posting, forming a part of the seal of the Ordo Templi Orientis, the occult order which Crowley joined in 1910. Crowley’s use of the eye in a triangle caught the attention of writer Robert Anton Wilson and the first part of his Illuminatus! trilogy (written with Robert Shea) is titled The Eye in the Pyramid. That latter symbol appears on the reverse of the American dollar bill, of course, and some of the conspiracy theories surrounding that usage are explored in the novel. Wilson went on to make the eye in a triangle something of a personal symbol and his obsessive use of the motif caught my attention in turn when I began reading his books.

All of which leads us to Hawkwind and a person whose name keeps turning up on these pages, designer Barney Bubbles.

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Hawklog cover (detail) by Barney Bubbles.

The booklet which BB designed for Hawkwind’s second album, In Search of Space (1971), featured a version of the dollar bill symbol on its cover. This is the only eye in a triangle design I’ve seen among Barney Bubbles’ work although he was so prolific there may well be others. When I began producing my own significantly inferior Hawkwind graphics in the late Seventies I incorporated eyes in triangles partly as a way of avoiding having to draw hawks all the time but mainly because of Robert Anton Wilson. BB had already established a precedent and it so happens that the eye in the Golden Dawn/Crowley version is the eye of a hawk-headed Egyptian god.

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