Chance encounters on the dissecting table

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In times of great uncertainty about our mission, we often looked at the fixed points of Lautréamont and De Chirico, which sufficed to determine our straight line.

André Breton, Surrealism and Painting, 1928

1: The metaphor, 1869

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You can’t read the history of Surrealism for very long before encountering some variation of the most famous line from Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont/Isidore Ducasse: “beautiful as a chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella”. Translations vary, as do misquotations; the page above is from the Alexis Lykiard translation where you can also read the surrounding text. The context of the description is seldom mentioned when the quote is used, and reveals that the words are describing the attractiveness of an English schoolboy living with his parents in Paris. The insipid Mervyn is stalked, seduced and finally murdered by the villainous Maldoror. Lautréamont’s metaphor, like so much else in the book, carries a sting in its tail.

2: The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse, 1920

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Man Ray, like Mervyn, was a foreigner living in Paris when he created this artwork. The “enigma” may be taken as referring both to the wrapped object (a sewing machine sans umbrella) as well as to the mysterious author of Les Chants de Maldoror, who died at the age of 24 after writing his explosive prose poem, and about whose life little is known. I first encountered Ducasse’s name in art books showing pictures of this piece which is one of the earliest works of Surrealist art. For a young art enthusiast the enigma was more in the name itself: who was this Ducasse, and why was he enigmatic? The original of Man Ray’s piece was subsequently lost, like many of his pre-war sculptures, but may be seen inside the first issue of La Révolution Surrealiste. Editions of the work that exist today are recreations made in the 1970s.

3: An illustration for Les Chants de Maldoror, 1934

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Salvador Dalí created 30 full-page etchings and 12 vignettes for an illustrated edition of Lautréamont’s work published by Skira in Paris in 1934. Dalí must have seemed an ideal match for a book whose prose descriptions offer copious atrocities and mutations but, as with many of Dalí’s illustrations, the pictures owe more to his obsessions than to Lautréamont’s text, and could easily be used to illustrate something else entirely. Plate 19 does, however, feature a sewing machine.

4: Electrosexual Sewing Machine, 1935

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A Surrealist painting by Oscar Dominguez which emphasises the sexual nature of Lautréamont’s metaphor, or at least the Freudian interpretation of the same. Breton and company took the sewing machine for a female symbol, while the umbrella was male; the dissecting table where their encounter takes place is, of course, a bed.

[In Electrosexual Sewing Machine] the dissection appears to be under way. There is a strange abusive surgery being undertaken, the thread of the sewing machine replaced with blood which is being funnelled onto the woman’s back. The plant itself may even echo de Lautréamont’s umbrella. Domínguez has taken one of the central mantras of Breton’s Surreal universe and has pushed it, through a combination of painterly skill and semi-automatism, in order to create an absorbing and haunting vision that cuts to the quick of the movement’s spirit. (via)

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Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey

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Cover design by Jim Tierney; photo by Richard Corman.

When so many current biographies are recounting the lives of those about whom we’ve already heard a great deal (see the new biography of Oscar Wilde by Matthew Sturgis), a book exploring the career of a previously undocumented yet worthwhile figure is especially welcome. Such is the case with Born to Be Posthumous, Mark Dery’s life of the elusive Edward Gorey: artist, writer, illustrator, book designer, book creator, bibliophile, theatre designer, cat lover and balletomane.

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The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963).

Gorey’s small books have long been one of the more curious fixtures of American culture: many of them look like children’s books but aren’t (unless the child is Wednesday Addams); others look like comic books but they aren’t comics either. The books are sometimes (but not always) Surrealist fables; or brief accounts of irreducible mystery; or sombre inexplicabilities; or camp ripostes to the pieties of Victorian morality; infrequently spiced with black humour and with lurches into outright horror. Gorey delivered his miniature tales in an idiosyncratic drawing style that combines a cartoon-like stylisation with the density of shading found in old wood engravings, a blend that would prove influential as his popularity grew. As Dery notes in his book’s introduction, without Edward Gorey’s work there would be no Lemony Snicket, while Tim Burton would be a skeletal shadow of his present self. (Given the latter’s current output, this might do him some good. But I digress.)

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The Doubtful Guest (1957).

In Britain, however, Gorey remains a cult rather than cultural figure, still overshadowed by better-known contemporaries such as Maurice Sendak and Charles Addams. Until the publication of the Amphigorey story collections Gorey’s books were produced in small editions with such a limited availability you were more likely to encounter his art on the cover of another author’s book than within the pages of his own. I became aware of Gorey’s work by gradual osmosis. The first substantial piece I read about him was his entry in Philip Core’s Camp: The Lie that Tells the Truth (1984), in which Core’s mention of an art style “recollecting Victorian engravings” marked Gorey as an artist to be investigated. Two years later he received a longer entry in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural edited by Jack Sullivan. (Camp and horror: how many other artists sit so easily in both worlds?) But Gorey is absent from many books about 20th-century illustrators, and despite the sequential nature of his work you won’t find him in histories of comic art.

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Edward Gorey’s Dracula: A Toy Theatre (1979).

In a way it’s fitting that the work of a man who was adamant in his determination to avoid being pinned down should be so difficult to find. But it’s also a shame that the work of an ardent Anglophile should be hard to find in the country that fuelled his imagination. Among Gorey’s literary favourites Dery lists Jane Austen and Agatha Christie together with Ronald Firbank, Saki, and EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels. (The latter trio are all present in Core’s book on camp, which no doubt makes Gorey camp to the core. Whether he would have approved of being labelled as such is another matter.) I wasn’t surprised by the mention of Saki when so many of Saki’s story titles (The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope) sound like Gorey books, while many of the stories themselves are like Gorey scenarios in prose. Not all Gorey’s work is camp or comic, however; the 32 drawings that comprise the wordless masterpiece of The West Wing (1963) are closer to David Lynch or the “strange stories” of Robert Aickman, the latter an author that Gorey illustrated on several occasions. Dery emphasises how Gorey’s love of silent cinema contributed to The West Wing and other pieces, especially the serials of the Surrealists’ favourite filmmaker, Louis Feuillade.

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Being PrEPared

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I don’t know when I first noticed that the word “introvert” contains the word “invert” but if I require a shorthand self-identification beyond the vocational then “introvert invert” is a suitable candidate. Being an introvert isn’t always easy in a resolutely extrovert world, but being an introvert invert has considerable drawbacks, such as how you meet anyone like yourself when the available meeting places—club and bars—inspire severe loathing. Clubbing is no longer the only option now that we have online dating (and gay clubs have been dying off in any case…) but the options were few in the 1980s. It’s impossible for me to think about any of this without considering that if I wasn’t such an introvert I might not be alive today. I was 20 in 1982 when the AIDS epidemic was starting to travel the world; had I been more gregarious I might have been investigating all those wretched clubs and bars instead of sitting at home, listening to music and drawing pictures.

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The Thatcher government only started to get serious about HIV/AIDS in 1987 when this information leaflet was delivered to every household in Britain. (See scans of the whole thing here and here.) There was also an accompanying public information film narrated by John Hurt, and directed by Nicolas Roeg, of all people. It was quickly replaced with other films that were less apocalyptic.

Whatever your attitude to nightlife, if you were gay in the 1980s then AIDS was omnipresent even before it became an issue that politicians dared to discuss in public. I remember when Patrick Cowley died (November 1982); I remember when Klaus Nomi died (August 1983); I bought the Panic/Tainted Love single by Coil when it was released (May 1985), the profits of which went to AIDS charity The Terrence Higgins Trust (the first record release to make such a donation). Coil’s doom-laden Horse Rotovator album from 1986 was shaped by the group’s experience of watching many of their friends succumb to illness and death. There were many other such responses, one of the greatest being the monumental Masque Of The Red Death album cycle by Diamanda Galás, dedicated to Galás’s brother and her friends who were killed by the epidemic. I can’t think of artist and writer Philip Core without remembering the interview he gave to The Late Show from his hospital bed in 1989, a hollow-eyed ghost of his former self. The accumulated fear and paranoia of a dark decade lingered into the 1990s even after condom-use had become widespread and HIV became manageable with drug treatments.

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More from the fun decade. A government health ad from The Face magazine, February 1987.

The paranoia of the 1990s is one of the first things that Evan J. Peterson discusses in The PrEP Diaries, an account of growing up gay in America at a time when HIV was treatable but still something to be worried about. Evan is a friend whose previous books have been mentioned here (one of which I contributed to), but this is his first non-fiction title, a witty and enlightening combination of erotic memoir and public service declaration. “PrEP” refers to the drug marketed in America as Truvada, a pre-exposure prophylaxis anti-viral medication which has been gaining use in the US as a preventative treatment for HIV. The drug’s use is recommended primarily to partners of those who are HIV+ but it’s also being recommended to gay men with active sex lives as an additional safeguard against HIV. I’ve been aware of Truvada for several years but since it still isn’t easily available in the UK I’ve not followed the discussion around its use or effectiveness very closely.

One of the reasons for Evan writing The PrEP Diaries was to widen the discussion about PrEP/Truvada by showing how his own use of the medication has helped dispel the paranoia he felt about HIV risks, a paranoia that had been with him since childhood. He was born in 1982, the year that AIDS first began to make headlines so he’s of a generation that has never known a time without the risk of HIV. One of the notable things about his book is the way it shows the substantial differences of experience between the gay and straight worlds, differences that persist even as legislative equality grows. Sexual risk is one of these differences, something you’re always aware of if you’re gay or bisexual but which the straight world seldom considers at all. I have a half-brother who’s a few years older than Evan, and two nephews who are a decade younger; all are straight, and I doubt that any of them have given more than a moment’s thought to the idea that sexual activity could have life-changing consequences even though viruses don’t care about your sexuality. HIV can be kept under control today yet it continues to spread, in part because the serious concerns of previous decades are no longer prevalent. You can’t go on any gay dating site without eventually seeing someone with “poz” in their name or some other indication (usually a + symbol) of their HIV status. One of the benefits of PrEP that Evan discusses is its helping people who are HIV+ to find more partners as well as protecting those partners from infection. He also emphasises something you seldom see mentioned in general discussion of HIV, that positive status doesn’t describe a single condition; some people are positive but undetectable, meaning that their viral load is extremely small.

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Weekend links 260

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Bachelor with “demons” (Sleezy) [sic] (2015) by Elijah Burgher. One of a new series of artworks by Burgher showing at Zieher Smith & Horton, NYC.

• The week in HR Giger: Belinda Sallin on her documentary, Dark Star: HR Giger’s World; Ron Kretsch on the unseen cinema of HR Giger; Matthew Cheney thinks the Gigeresque has become too familiar. I can see his point but originality is always in short supply; asking for something new means setting yourself up for a long wait.

Pwdre ser, or Star jelly, is “a pale, foul-smelling jelly traditionally associated with meteorite falls”. The Rot of the Stars at the ICA, London, is an audio-visual art collaboration between Jo Fisher and Mark Pilkington dealing with the mysterious substance.

• Mixes of the week: A Tri Angle Records birthday DJ set by Björk; OreCast 196 mix by Ilius; Secret Thirteen Mix 153 by M!R!M.

To assume that a given group of people would be similar because of birthdate, Ryder thought, was to risk committing a fallacy. “The burden of proof is on those who insist that the cohort acquires the organised characteristics of some kind of temporal community,” he wrote. “This may be a fruitful hypothesis in the study of small groups of coevals in artistic or political movements but it scarcely applies to more than a small minority of the cohort in a mass society.”

Generational thinking is a bogus way to understand the world says Rebecca Onion

The plan for an airport above the streets of Manhattan. Related: Charles Glover‘s similar plan for London.

Errol Morris on how typography shapes our perception of truth.

Michael Moorcock enjoyed The Vorrh, a novel by Brian Catling.

Clive Barker on almost dying, hustling, and killing Pinhead.

• A new Penguin Books website for Angela Carter.

• Callum James on artist Philip Core.

A Beginner’s Guide to King Tubby

King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown (1976) by Augustus Pablo | Star Cannibal (1982) by Hawkwind | Sleazy (1983) by Jah Wobble, The Edge, Holger Czukay

Maximin: ein Gedenkbuch by Stefan George

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This is a strange and beautiful book, a loving paean to a dead boy-poet from another poet, Stefan George (1868–1933), published in 1907. The “Maximin” of the title was Maximilian Kronberger (1888–1904) who was around 14 when he met George; the older man was 34 at the time. George was apparently smitten by the boy, and devastated when he died from meningitis two years later. Maximin: ein Gedenkbuch (A Memorial Book) is the result, a collection of mournful poems, beautifully designed and illustrated by Melchior Lechter in that rectilinear Art Nouveau style which the artist made his own. The memory of the dead Maximin became for George a quasi-religious obsession which makes Maximin the bible of the homosocial cult that George subsequently encouraged.

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What’s most surprising about all this behaviour is that it did nothing at all to harm his reputation, even among the Nazis who later revered his poetry. George was a contemporary of Oscar Wilde but the pair were poles apart in character, George’s chilly, high-minded aestheticism preserving him from the brickbats aimed at Wilde and others. Nonetheless, the inherent camp that results from the combination of such a remote attitude combined with flagrant boy-worship secured for George a place alongside Wilde in Philip Core’s essential Camp: The Lie that Tells the Truth (1984):

Strangely enough his overtly (if classically) homosexual verses, his preference for beautiful youth, and his severe black-clad dignity, all became immensely popular in the land of brüderschaft (brothers’ love). The camp Classicism of his ‘academy’ of the spirit, in surroundings of neo-Classical kitsch, hit just the right middle ground between Edwardian sentimentality and Hitlerian Imperialism.

Maximin: ein Gedenkbuch may be browsed or downloaded at the University of Heidelberg. There’s a more academic examination of George’s homoerotics here. Further page samples follow.

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