“Language is only a means of understanding and of not understanding”
Back in May 2016 I translated ‘Pin’, a collaborative Dada-Merz poem by Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters first published in 1962. The poem, however, is dated 1946. PIN was a projected magazine that Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters worked on before the latter’s death in 1948. I translated the poem almost certainly because May 2016 was around the 100th anniversary of Dada. 11 years before 1957 the poem can be considered a bridge between the respective practices of Dada and Merz, and the soon to be instituted experimental practice of the situationist international. An anticipative plagiarism:
“You prefer to use language in order to understand platitudes that everyone already knowns by heart. We prefer language that will procure for you a new feeling for these new times”.
CHRISTAMS time has come. Consider this a follow up to ye olde taile of Santa Rosso. (Who is Santa Rosso? Check back here on the dark one’s birthday.) Consider this me hateful anti-christams card as anticipative Doctor Shamass.
All italics and spelling errors are intentional.
A fanfan thing
Seize the right thing
The world has need of new tendencies in poeting and paintry
The old junk can no longer fool us
The Muses must fanfanter if humanity wants to survive
The cocky sprits fell pretty low during the war
We want farfader sprit, because we see with our ears and hear with our eyes
Our drsls and rlquars ghosts are full of fatatras. They surpass “modern poetry” with their new taste
Their content is so very direct that they place themselves above language entirely
Language is only a means of understanding and of not understanding
You prefer to use language in order to understand platitudes that everyone already knowns by heart. We prefer language that will procure for you a new feeling for these new times
Leave behind your controlled feelings and look, if you please, over here at our fanfan and you will see that it is worth it
The right fanfare to know
—Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters, 1946
PIN was a project that Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters worked on before the latter’s death in 1948. “Fanfan La Tulipe” is a French “larrikin” character. According to the Vincent Perez Archives, he is the personification of the French hero, a chronic jokester, ladies man and free spirit who refuses to surrender to a forced marriage and instead finds himself persuaded to enlist in Louis XV’s regiment of Aquitaine by the enchanting Adeline. The character of Fanfan La Tulipe has evolved through the times into playing a central role in the French national identity, originating from the tale of a French soldier who triumphed against the British in 1745, and later evolving into a character in numerous songs and plays who made fun of his superiors and somehow always got away with it through his wit and a quick draw.
Joachim plants his flag firmly in the camp of recursive sf:
‘I am far more interested in the way “Death of the Spaceman” interacts with pulp science fiction— i.e. “drivel written in the old days” about the “romance” of space (16). Donny negatively contrasts his own experience with the stories that are told about the stars and adventure.
‘Miller doesn’t set about smashing it all with a bludgeon (like Malzberg would at the end of the next decade), but rather presents future experiences as prone to the same moments of painful self-reflection as life comes to its end. He charts the emotional roller coaster that waffles between moments of calm and the growing tension/anger/helplessness…. and after Donny tells all his “rotten messes” to the priest (20), he comes to the realization that we make who we are, sins and failure and sadness and all.’
This is the key to Anglo-American sf in the 1950s and 60s.
I like the idea that Malzberg’s bludgeon is seen as the continuation and maybe even culmination of Miller’s more self-consciously literary crafting of pulp SF themes. Guy Debord spoke about the decomposition of the arts as their trajectory under the solvent pressure of capitalism and commodity relations. “From Miller to Malzberg” could be the title of a book dealing with the high period of the decomposition of Anglo-American sf: 1950-1970. Surely a timing to generate scholarly disputes by…
I am intrigued by the idea that SF recapitulates a trajectory followed by European poetry, painting and literature in and around avant-garde circles through the 19th and early 20th centuries—and find it suitably weird too, as if I am reading a science fiction account of a future history. I often like to imagine alternative versions, science fictional anticipations of the decomposition of SF, a vision of a bizarre and cracked future 21st century written in the 1950s. One of my favourites is Walter Miller’s story of a robotic theatre in the early 21st century. The Darfsteller is a peek foreseen of the society of the spectacle in diesel punk attire. See some of my related comments on the science fiction spectacle here.
Incidentally, I continue get a kick out of the fact that in The Darfsteller, Miller even got the timing of the emergent collapse of the old Soviet Empire right: the late 1980s!
SF as decomposition.
In the early 1960s the Situationist International hailed the arrival of self-conscious decomposition in modern cinema (for more on the situationist notion of decomposition, see here). In passing they noted that the so-called nouvelle vague, Truffaut, Godard, et al, were not the source of this. By the situationists lights this cinema ‘new wave’ was more of a marketing strategy of mutual aid rather than an avant-garde project unified around a program (like the surrealists and dadas). Unlike contemporaries such as Godard’s mannered and derivative À bout de souffle, and Truffaut’s riff on Zéro de conduite, the situationists saw in Hiroshima Mon Amour by Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras a film of real import. Here was ‘the appearance in “commercial” cinema of the self-destruction that dominates all modern art’.
The situationists continued:
‘The film’s admirers do their best to find admirable little details wherever they can. Everyone ends up going on about Faulkner and his sense of timing […]. In fact, the reason they insist on the fragmented rhythm of Resnais’ film is so that they don’t have to see any of its destructive aspects. In the same way, they talk of Faulkner as a specialist — an accidental specialist — of the dissipation of time, accidentally encountered by Resnais, so that they can forget the time that has already passed, and more generally the literary works of Proust and Joyce. The timing — the confusion — of Hiroshima is not the annexation of cinema by literature: it is the continuation in cinema of the movement of all writing, and first of all poetry, toward its own dissolution’. (Cinema after Alain Resnais, Internationale Situationniste no. 3, December 1959)
I suspect that much of what passed for the ‘new wave’ in SF in the 1960s was akin to the corporate avant-garde of French cinema’s nouvelle vague. Like Godard and his band apart, the newness of the SF avant-garde was asserted more than signifying something truly new in the way dada and surrealism were new in 1916 and 1924. Nonetheless, one wonders what are the Hiroshima Mon Amour’s of SF, in which the ‘self-destruction that dominates all modern art’ appeared in ‘commercial’ form—but then, isn’t all pulp commercial? Here, ‘commercial’ is better translated as mainstream. I would argue that the Hiroshima’s of the sf new wave were books like Stand on Zanzibar (Zanzibar my love…), Dick’s Ubik or A Scanner Darkly, or Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo (to name only a few of the better known and hopefully uncontroversial instances of what I term the decomposition of science fiction). Stories like Miller’s Death of a Spaceman, or Cyril Kornbluth’s Altar At Midnight can be re-conceived as akin to avant-garde steps in the emergence of more self-conscious expressions of decomposition and self-destruction in science fiction (albeit often more self-consciously literary, in the practice of particular authors who aspired to make of SF a realm of artistic dignity and renown, such as Kornbluth). Any number of Philip K. Dick short stories and novels in the 1950s and 60s can be conceived thus, or works of other, lesser known writers (Wyman Guin and Kris Neville come to mind).
Where does this get us? And what the hell am I talking about anyway!? Decomposition? Avant-gardes? Science fiction? Are you kidding me!?
Dystopia as consumer will and science fictional representation.
By comparing the progression of Anglo-American SF in the 1950s and 60s to that of the avant-garde arts of 19th and 20th century, I equally want to draw attention to the way Debord and others conceived of this progress as in fact a limit or impasse rather than merely the expression of an experimental flourishing—even if it is also the latter. Indeed, the experimental nature of the SF new wave has often been overstated—mostly by its hucksters—considering that their experiments were in truth the application of a preexisting (anti) tradition of formal experimentation already thoroughly practiced throughout the arts of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Science fiction, born of capitalism and industrialism, is at best a herald of the coming future, no matter whether it is disaster or eutopia. Ultimately, SF has no place in the future it conjures. Like all literature and the arts, it shares in the estrangement and creation of the everyday. Unlike them, it foregrounds this estrangement, makes the true bizarrerie of the present explicit by drawing attention to its essential conditions and making them its materia prima: change and ephemerality.
To the extent that we still have SF—and it is an even larger part of contemporary culture than it was 60 years ago—is evidence not so much of the health of science fiction than it is an expression of our failure to build eutopia in the present. As I have argued elsewhere, SF invaded and submitted the utopian literature of the 19th century by building an empire on the wager that utopia will always be revealed as dystopia. SF’s triumph as a genre is intimately bound up with this wager, as much as its ability to best express the dystopian capitalist frenzy of accumulation and expansion which chases itself across the globe and on into the cosmos.
The following first appeared as A Christmas Tales of H. B. Shamass, 1921, in print December 2017. Since then the meandering misadventures of that equivocal figure have been relaunched under the title of A Shamass New Year. As the day approaches for this years Shamassian missive, and amidst the percolating expectations I regularly have to navigate, I thought it would be wise to look again into the singular role Doctor Shamass played in one of the twentieth century’s pivotal moments. Indeed, revealed below is the gruesome truth that lies at the heart of that quixotic attempt to storm the heavens and refashion human nature once more.
* * *
He stood upon my doorstep. I had not seen him since that business with the underground Taborite sect in southern Bohemia—almost fifteen years.
In southern Bohemia Svobada had saved us, dragged us unconscious from the grip of the tele-ideomat in the town of Tábor. When we had found a cell of Clockwork Men at the heart of these machinations, buried in a hidden labyrinth near Žižka Square, Svobada alone had briefly seen through their mechanised visions of barracks like happiness. Now he was lost to us—blind, mad, wailing.
On the doorstep Shamass pulled at his roll-neck sweater beneath pale sunken eyes. The rain undercut his silent face, his imploring eyes. So I helped the Doctor into my study.
Within the plush velvet carpets and thick lining of books he sat and wheezed. I brought him brandy and, when he requested, stimulants. His vision cleared, and he held me in his gaze, his glistening eyes.
“Verity…” he managed.
I held him, cradled his head upon my carriage.
“I have seen …” he said and then drifted away.
Drawing upon a range of stupefacients he returned to us and told us of his various passages, his journey into the depths of what it means to be a human relation.
It was during a Civil War. Shamass had found himself a passenger, sometime actor upon an armoured train. His adherence to the revolutionary faithful became more tenuous with each day. He read the arguments that wracked the International, caught up in the revolution and its bloody conditions of being—accidental and planned.
“In the snow, during an unplanned furlough from battle, I found myself in a lonely corner of the Second State University. I stood on the threshold of the All-Union Experimental Zoological Institute (Annex) with instructions from the Councils.
“The building was more porous shack than stolid structure closed off to the world. One could almost imagine that the snow drifts were important supports, flying buttresses made of water and the ephemeral dreams of tomorrow.
“A single light stuttered above the door. This close we could hear the generators scream each time the light flickered, filling the air with ozone. I hammered on the loose door, it slammed open. The light and a strange humidity struck me as I stumbled beneath the stark light of the interior. A short corridor struck off ahead to a door. Beyond the sounds of machine and animal interpenetrated.
“What we found inside was inhuman—but human, definitely human. I cannot explain it any other way. ‘Nothing that is human is foreign to me’.
“You have perhaps not heard of Ilya Ilyanov, biologist. In those days we still fought out the revolution, defended it from its enemies without and within. What we did not suspect at the time was that the latter would prove more insidious and persistent.
“We had stopped the Allied attempt to destroy the revolution by routing the Whites. Meanwhile other forces buzzed over and amidst the dead and dying body of the armed proletariat. Ilyanov was one of them. Not much later he would clearly ally himself with Djughashvili; but at that moment he was building a monstrous simulacrum of the coming disaster of iron and wrought steel.”
“Ilyanov?” I asked.
“You know him as …”
“… my chief antagonist…
“We found him in the very centre of the building, bent over a creature shackled to an operating table. Part man, part I did not know what—hairy and thin and bent in a peculiar fashion upon a metal surface. Framed in reddish brown hair it’s face looked like no person I’d ever seen, ape like and yet more than ape. No doubt it played the part of transition from ape to man.
“Like all caged animals its terrified eyes bespoke a desire to be free.”
“The fabled Salango!” I gasped.
Shamass nodded. “The very one. A pathetic creature. More itself than any other beast of Earth could claim—and so, so lonely. Jacks, under the guise of Ilyanov, had produced what some would call the ‘perfect worker’—the total man of breeding and the mechanisation of fancy. In the open, under the most orthodox of guises, Jacks confabulated a future—turned the dream of freedom into a nightmare vision of proclaimed efficiency and despair.”
“So what happened?” I asked
“Happened…?” Shamass fixed me with his rheumy stare.
“Nothing happened, so long as you can call the lab being broken up and Salango… disposed of… ‘nothing’.”
There is no need to repeat here what happened to Lord Jacks upon his capture that day in 1920. Like a diminishing few, I swear I ran into him once—Lord Jacks that is—on a tram on Crown Street in the 1950s. I was getting off and bumped into him as he mounted. He looked back at me from his window seat as the tram clattered on toward Oxford Street.
And what of Shamass? No doubt this interests you more, interests us all. In the morning he was gone from the bed I had made up for him amidst the study, little sign of his presence apart from a terse note. “Don’t.” it read—all of his farewells said that. I never saw him again. I last heard talk in an article in the Dreadnought, telegraphed whispers that he had joined up with the rebel sailors of Kronstadt. Did he fight Lev Davidovitch’s murder troops and die?
More than fifty years later, in Sydney of the late 1970s, and aged beyond repair, I received a note, a bit yellowed and tattered no doubt, but recognisable—legible even. The stamps were all wrong. On two of them was repeated the striking image of Great Pyramids floating in ranks that marched off to vanishing. The Pyramids were suffused with a preternatural light. Beneath their bulk, a single craft, little more than an indistinct smudge on the stamp, navigated the waterborne shadows of those impossible structures. These identical, stamped tableaus were marked “Arrival of the Strangers, 1949”. The third stamp was less familiar. The three heads of a generic woman, man, and the necessarily generic Old One overlaid above a single phrase: “The Alliance”. The Pyramids reminded me of my too brief travels across the wastelands of N’lleros. But what of the Old Ones and their gossamer “Alliance” with the humans? Had Shamass really managed to escape death and cross over, to live on in the Other World?
Maybe. Perhaps. I’d prefer not to speculate.
And inside the envelope, written on the letter?
sf & critical theory join forces to destroy the present