Esoterica 49

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“What is especially needed is great sensitivity: to look upon everything in the world as enigma….To live in the world as in an immense museum of strange things.” —Giorgio de Chirico

A few weeks ago I made a list of feature films that might be regarded as having the characteristics of a Thomas Pynchon novel without being based on any of Pynchon’s books. The post prompted several suggestions for other candidates, including recommendations to watch Jim Gavin’s TV series, Lodge 49, an American production that ran for two seasons from 2018 to 2019 before being cancelled due to low ratings. Having now watched the series I can say that I enjoyed it very much, and it is very Pynchonian, unsurprisingly when it not only gestures to the title of Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, but also borrows from its storyline.

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Ernie (Brent Jennings) has just been contemplating a print from the Ars Magna Lucis (1665) by Athanasius Kircher. Near the end of the second series he leaps through an image from the same book.

Lodge 49 presents a unique mélange of alchemy, surfing, secret societies, aerospace engineering, pool cleaning and cryptocurrency, with the added bonus of songs by the much-missed Broadcast being woven into the narrative. The series is consistently funny, humour being another essential Pynchonian ingredient, while the episodes are littered with references to (or correspondences with) Pynchon’s oeuvre: two of the main characters are an ex-surfer and an ex-sailor; the defunct aerospace company, Orbis, is modelled on Pynchon’s Yoyodyne from V. and Lot 49; there’s a trip to Mexico, a visit to an auction, and mention of a Remedios Varo exhibition (Lot 49 again); there are even references to Antarctic mysteries (V.), the Hollow Earth (Mason and Dixon) and the V-2 rocket (Gravity’s Rainbow). And those are only a few of the things I happened to catch as a first-time viewer. This is unusual territory for a small-scale television series, even if American TV has loosened up in recent years to allow a more eclectic range of material.

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Larry (Kenneth Welsh) in the Sanctum Sanctorum with a plate from the Splendor Solis on the wall.

The Lodge 49 of the title is part of a global network of lodges that form the Ancient & Benevolent Order of the Lynx, a cross between a Masonic order and an occult cabal, founded by one Harwood Fritz Merrill, a Scottish alchemist, writer and explorer. (Merrill’s biography and the history of the Order of the Lynx is detailed here [PDF].) Alchemy is a persistent theme in the series but remains in the background for the most part, literally so inside Lodge 49 (Long Beach, California) and Lodge 1 (London) where the walls are decorated with prints of alchemical engravings. It would have been tempting to identify all of these pictures but most of them can be found in Taschen’s excellent Alchemy and Mysticism picture book so it’s easier to direct the curious to the Taschen volume. The prints also seemed to be there more to provide suitable set decoration rather than be significant in themselves, with one notable exception (see below).

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Connie (Linda Edmond) going deeper into the mysteries of Lodge 1. The print is from Cabala, Spiegel der Kunst und Natur: in Alchymia (1615) by Stephan Michelspacher.

More intriguing was the appearance of several paintings which did seem significant although they might equally have been there to generate audience speculation. Film and TV drama is made today in the full awareness that every detail is liable to be screen-grabbed and scrutinised by obsessive viewers, a situation that offers the potential for directors and designers to incorporate details that may have no special significance but are simply there to fuel online chatter. It’s difficult to tell if this is what Gavin and co. were doing, especially when the prematurely truncated series contains so many loose ends and unexplained moments. But paranoia is in part the search for a significance that may not exist outside the mind of the paranoiac so a small degree of concern about being gamed by the creators of Lodge 49 seems warranted here, as well as adding to the general Pynchon factor. Despite all the Pynchoniana mentioned above the series is light on the paranoia that’s a constant in Pynchon’s novels so why not cultivate a little paranoia in the audience itself?

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Le Golem, 1967

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There are always more Golems…

Le Golem is a 110-minute film based on Gustav Meyrink’s novel which hasn’t received as much attention as you’d expect considering the dearth of Meyrink adaptations. The production was for French TV so its obscurity may be a result of unavailability as much as anything else, television being a medium notorious for burying its own history. The DVD I was watching is an official release from INA with no subtitles (merci!), but English subs may be found online.

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Meyrink’s novel isn’t an obvious choice for film or television adaptation despite the popularity of the Golem theme. His story is an uneven blend of mysticism and melodrama related via many digressions and rambling conversations. The title and the Prague setting suggest Paul Wegener’s Der Golem (1920), with the ghetto monster dominating the proceedings, but Meyrink’s Golem remains in the shadows (if it exists at all), being more of a symbol for the mystical and psychological challenges that beset Athanasius Pernath, the novel’s protagonist. Given all this I’m curious to know who decided to adapt the story when there’s so much about the film that would confuse an audience who hadn’t read the novel. The opening scenes move rapidly from a stylised city of the 1960s to the Prague ghetto of the past while omitting the attempts of Meyrink’s narrator to make sense of his situation. A note on the DVD states that the film was broadcast at 8:30pm on the national channel, ORTF, which makes its peculiarities even more surprising.

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The director, Jean Kerchbron, spent much of his career filming adaptations of classic plays and stories for French television, ranging from adventure serials to Molière and Shakespeare. Writer Louis Pauwels was co-editor with Jacques Bergier of the popular Planète magazine, a journal of fantasy, science fiction and scientific speculation, but had little experience in the film world; Le Golem was his first feature for which he supplied the dialogue and adapted the story with Kerchbron. Pauwels and Bergier are names familiar to Anglophone readers of Fortean literature for The Morning of the Magicians (1960), their discursive treatise on “Fantastic Realism” whose success launched Planète and later gave David Bowie some ideas for lyrics. The pair refer to Meyrink in their book as a “neglected genius” prior to running an extract from one of the author’s later novels, The Green Face. Pauwels and Kerchbron manage to condense the work of the neglected genius without doing too much harm to his story, compressing some sections (a request for an explanation in a later scene is wisely rejected as “too complicated”) while omitting the overly mystical episodes that might have posed problems for a limited budget. Pauwels moves what’s left of the mysticism to Pernath’s philosophical voiceovers. Kerchbron’s direction is lively and much more elliptical than is usual for the plodding television medium. Novel and film only depart near the end when various plot threads are hastily tied together.

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Morning of the Magicians book covers

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Éditions Gallimard, France, 1960.

Yesterday’s post proved popular so it seemed worthwhile taking another look at the book that birthed Planète magazine. The main problem The Morning of the Magicians presents for an art director is how to encapsulate such wildly diverse contents in a cover design. To judge from the examples here, most people seem to have either given up or gone for vaguely symbolic designs which at the most correspond to the contents in a minor way. The biggest surprise for me was seeing the cover of the first edition above, one of those typically sober French titles which gives away nothing of the intellectual fireworks within. Few of these designs have any credits, and this is nothing like a complete list (more editions may be seen at Goodreads). More recent editions have been avoided altogether since they’re pretty terrible.

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Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, Italy, 1963. This edition, which runs to 476 pages, includes three translated stories inserted into the text: The Nine Billions Name of God by Arthur C. Clarke, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr, and The White People by Arthur Machen.

A hardback edition showing an alchemist at work.

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Stein and Day, USA, 1964.

You know a cover is failing when it could easily be applied to any number of other titles.

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Planète magazine covers

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Planète was a French magazine of “Fantastic realism” which ran throughout the 1960s. I’ve never seen a copy but sight of the immediately recognisable covers has always fascinated because this was the magazine established in the wake of the huge success of The Morning of the Magicians (1960), a unique “Introduction to Fantastic Realism” by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier. Rather than enthuse at length about The Morning of the Magicians I’ll simply point you to this piece by the late RT Gault from his now-defunct website.

Pauwels and Bergier’s book was oft-imitated but never equalled during the 1970s. Where later authors such as Erich von Däniken tended to plough a single, narrow furrow, Pauwels and Bergier leapt breathlessly from one subject to another: alchemy in the 20th century, Forteana, a lengthy examination of the occult preoccupations of the Third Reich, speculations about nuclear physics, speculations about biological mutation, Hollow Earth theories, etc, etc, all the time dropping quotes from HP Lovecraft, Arthur Machen and Albert Einstein. It’s a very heady mix which is great fun to read even though there’s nothing like a solid argument that comes out of it all.

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Planète continued the blend of Futurology and fringe philosophy while using the magazine format to print translations of science fiction and fantasy stories; among other things it was notable for bringing the stories of Jorge Luis Borges to a wider audience in France. The magazine’s name may have been science fictional but the magazine as a whole is closer to the kind of borderline sf/art magazine that New Worlds became under Michael Moorcock’s editorship in the late 1960s. I’ve never seen Moorcock or anyone connected with New Worlds mention Planète but the covers at least pre-empt the style adopted by New Worlds during its large-format run: consistently bold typography and imagery that only obliquely relates to the contents.

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All these covers are from Noosfere where the story contents for each issue are also listed. No credits for the designer, unfortunately. If anyone knows who was responsible for the magazine design then please leave a comment.

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Gilles Rimbault revisited

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I posted a few examples of work by French artist Gilles Rimbault last year, and was hoping at the time that further drawings might come to light. We have D.R. Tenge to thank for posting these and other scans from Plexus magazine on the same LJ page where I found some of the earlier works, together with text that accompanied the pictures. “He pursues an endless search in the ‘erotisme fantastique'” Plexus tells us, and that’s a great description of this curious sub-genre which I’ve previously referred to (following Philip José Farmer) as “the pornography of the weird”. From what I know about Plexus it specialised in this typically late 60s/early 70s blend of science fiction, fantasy and erotic exploration, being a spin-off from Pauwels & Bergier’s magazine of “fantastic realism”, Planète; it also wasn’t the only magazine doing so which makes me wish that Taschen (or somebody) would delve into this sorely neglected area.

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Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The fantastic art archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
The art of Ran Akiyoshi, 1922–1982
The art of Gilles Rimbault
The art of Jim Leon, 1938–2002
The art of Sibylle Ruppert
The art of Bertrand