Thursday, October 30, 2008

Camp Concentration 024 – More on "The Squirrel Cage"

There is a number of parallels between the short-story “The Squirrel Cage” and Camp Concentration. Here are some snippets, taken from the short story, that sound just like fragments of the novel:

“I am getting fat. Disgustingly fat.”

“(…) I know there is someone watching. Once I was convinced it was God, I assumed that this was either heaven or hell.”

“I have been wondering whether, if I were living in that world, the world of The Times, I would be a pacifist or not. It is certainly the central issue of modern morality, and one would have to take a stand”.

“The Squirrel Cage” is a typical modernist, experimental short story. In the Anti-Story anthology it is placed in the “Against Subject” section, which the editor Philip Stevick justifies thus:

“Is it possible to have a fiction which is coherent on its own terms but so tentative and exploratory that its writer seems never entirely clear what its center is, not even at its end?”

The end of "The Squirrel Cage" is worthy examining, because it presents one of those reversals that only modernist, experimental fiction seems capable of. This is the last paragraph:

It’s not terrifying. How can it be? It’s only a story, after all. Maybe you don’t think it’s a story, because you’re out there reading it on the billboard, but I know it’s a story because I have to sit here on this stool making it up. Oh, it might have been terrifying once upon a time, when I first got the idea, but I’ve been here now for years. Years. The story has gone on far too long. Nothing can be terrifying for years on end. I only say it’s terrifying because, you know, I have to say something. Something or other. The only thing that could terrify me now is if someone were to come in. If they came in and said, “All right, Disch, you can go now”. That, truly, would be terrifying.

Suddenly, that anonymous and faceless narrator, in a blank room, becomes someone we know (or al least someone we may assume is a real person), namely Thomas M. Disch, the writer. When I first read the story, a few days ago, I had at that point the same jolt I had, as a reader, when in Camp Concentration I read the lines: “Haast, I said. “Are you…?” “Mordecai Washington,” he said. By the magical utterance of a name, a person becomes another person, and an impossible transposition of identity has taken place.

The nameless narrator of “The Squirrel Cage” is no one, means nothing to anyone, unless we assume that he is, in fact, the writer Thomas M. Disch giving us a slightly exaggerated portrait of the culs-de-sac he gets into as a writer – the duty to type, to type anything, every day, in order to justify his presence in the world and his right to keep on living. From this viewpoint, the story is a metaphor for a writer’s life, and the final call (“All right, Disch, you can go now”) means Death. It is not a prisoner being released from prison, but a living man being released from life. It’s as if the writer said: “Look, I’m not complaining about the absurd, meaningless life I live. It is not terrifying. It is the ending of that life that, truly, would be terrifying”.

In Camp Concentration, that change of identity works for another purpose. Mordecai Washington and General Haast have tried a preposterous electric-alchemical experiment in order to attain eternal life: Mordecai died, and Haast survived. In the end of the book, when Louis Sacchetti notes the strange behavior of Haast, he asks him, and the General says that he is in fact Mordecai Washington. The utterance of this name is the dramatic peak of the whole novel, as much as “Disch” is the most significant word in the short story, the one that gives it a deeper and more personal (as well as universal) meaning.

"The Squirrel Cage" is a modernist short story which implies that all lives lead to Death. Camp Concentration is a pulp-ish novel (albeit an intellectual one) which, through a high-tech, sense-of-wonder, mumbo-jumbo contraption, gives us hope (at least I fiction) that it’s possible for a sane mind to abandon a diseased body and, maybe, survive indefinitely.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Camp Concentration 023 – The Squirrel Cage

While “reading around” Camp Concentration, I came across a short story by Disch which I had not read before. It is “The Squirrel Cage”, in Anti-Story – An Anthology of Experimental Fiction, edited by Philip Stevick (New York, The Free Press, 1971). The anthology registers that it was first published in New World (1967), which is certainly the British New Worlds, where Disch published much of his work at that time.

“The Squirrel Cage” may be seen as “a pendant” to Camp Concentration. The story is about a prisoner in a cell, a man who doesn’t remember who he is, or why he’s in prison. He writes all day long, in a typewriter; he never makes direct contact with his captors; he eats well; he is given The New York Times to read, on a daily basis; nobody ever talks to him or give him any kind of instruction. He can only keep himself alive… and write.

“I’m free to write down anything I like, but (…) no matter what I do write down it will not make any difference”.

The typewriter he uses is rigged in such a way that he can’t read what he has just written. There is a normal keyboard, but:

“There is not, however, either a margin control or a carriage return. The platen is not visible, and I can never see the words I am writing. What does it all look like? Perhaps it is made immediately into a book by automatic lynotipists. Wouldn’t that be nice? Or perhaps my words just go on and on in one endless line of writing. Or perhaps this typewriter is just a fraud and leaves no record at all”.

(In some aspects, this sounds like the first impressions of someone using a computer and registering its differences from a mechanical typewriter. It is an alternate machine, and the possibility of “automatic lynotipists” is a sort of avant-la-lettre steampunk.)

This is a type of story much discussed in literary workshops, called “The Empty Room Situation”. It always features an amnesiac person in an empty room, and this is just how most writers feel when confronted with the blank page or the blank screen. It is also a cliché of modernist, experimental fiction, in which the important thing is to examine the very act of writing, of creation through literature.

The narrator of “The Squirrel Cage” says that he’s being observed, because every time he tries to hurt himself in the hard edges of his stool and his typewriter they are withdrawn into the floor. But nobody makes contact with him, and he can only imagine who “they” must be. In brief paragraphs, Disch evokes some clichés of popular fiction.

“I think everybody is dead. I think I may be the only one left, the only survivor of the breed. And they just keep me here, the last one, alive, in this room, this cage, to look at, to observe, to make their observations of, to—I don’t know why they keep me alive”.

“Aliens? Are there aliens? I don’t know. Why are they studying me? What do they hope to learn? Is it an experiment?”

“But maybe they are only scientists, and not aliens at all. Psychologists at M.I.T., perhaps, such as frequently are shown in The Times: blurred, dotty faces, bald heads, occasionally a moustache, certificate of originality. Or, instead, young, crew-cut Army doctors studying various brainwashing techniques. (…) Are you reading this, Professor? Are you reading this, Major?”

It seems that this last hypothesis served to Disch as a basis for the development of the Camp Concentration plot.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Camp Concentration 022 – The Mind Reciprocator

(Francis Bacon Remix)

Mordecai Washington is a leader who can be alternately funny and cruel, sympathetic and haughty, admirable and ridiculous. We may take at face value his ressurrection through “The Mind Reciprocator”. He was pronounced dead and his body was buried, but in the end we discover that his soul survived and now inhabits another body. Thus he gains the dimensions of a Christ-like figure, even if he doesn’t exhibit some of the noble qualities we expect from it.

Sacchetti is a Catholic. He believes in the immortality of the Soul, he believes that his body is just a corporeal shell which must be discarded sooner or later if he wishes to ascend to Heaven. He believes that even if the Universe doesn’t seem to make sense for us, it makes sense for God, who oversees everything.

Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled
Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field.
A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring
Said, "Son, this ain't a dream no more, it's the real thing."

Señor, Señor, you know their hearts is as hard as leather.
Well, give me a minute, let me get it together.
I just gotta pick myself up off the floor.
I'm ready when you are, Señor.

Señor, Señor, let's overturn these tables
Disconnect these cables,
This place don't make sense to me no more.
Can you tell me what we're waiting for, Señor?

(Bob Dylan, “Señor – Tales of Yankee Power”, 1978)

The characters involved in this Bob Dylan song suggest two narrative contexts. The first is a Western movie, like those by Sam Peckinpah, in which an American master and a Mexican servant enter together in some obscure, bloody and purposeless adventure. The servant if faithful, is compliant, is brave, but he’s a bit of a simpleton and doesn’t have access to the master’s plans. He’s prepared to die for him, nevertheless. He is a servant for the Yankee power.

The second context is that of a man alone, and the “Lord” whom he addresses is God. The man is lost and left to himself in a time of war, a time of technology gone awry. He is enslaved, mistreated, misled; he doesn’t know what is expected from him. But he is always asking: “Tell me, Lord, will this make any sense, in the very end?”

Sacchetti is capable of many harsh words against his Lord, but when is ressurrected himself, he reverts to the most basic affirmation of faith: the Bible. It is in item 94 of Book Two (p. 167):

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

Sacchetti remains in character even in this most glorious moment of one’s life, the moment of ressurrection from a certain death – he compares his own happiness to “some gigantic benevolent steamroller”. But the Biblical quotations and the joyful, almost childish happiness are understandable. He feels as if his Lord had, at least, taken him by the hand.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Camp Concentration 021 - I Await the Ressurrection of the Dead

I am not a connoisseur of classical music or erudite contemporary music. What I listen to, mostly, is Brazilian popular music, traditional blues and folk-rock (by which I mean Dylan, The Band, Neil Young and other dinosaurs). But I have in my shelves some CDs of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc., besides modern composers such as Debussy and Erik Satie. I listen to their music and it gives me pleasure, although I have not the training or the knowledge to enjoy it more deeply. But I like it. I think it’s beautiful.

In Item 49 of Book Two, Sacchetti mentions his conversations with Schipansky, and says:

“Yet when I admitted to being unfamiliar with Et exspecto resurrectionem murtuorum, he showed a quite missionary zeal in dragging me to the library to listen to it. And what a wonderful new use for ears this music is! After Et Exspecto, I heard Couleurs de la Cité Celeste, Chronochromie, and Sept Haikais. Where have I been all my life? (In Bayreuth, that’s where.) Messiaen is as crucial for music as Joyce was for literature. Let me say just this: Wow.”

I went to the E-Music website and downloaded the CD shown above. And for me, a layman in contemporary music, this was quite an experience. The music is strange, unpredictable, dissonant, angst-ridden. It is not much melodic and rhythmic in the traditional sense. Sometimes it sounds disjointed, full of non-sequiturs, but it maintains the same spirit from beginning to end. There’s a sense of purpose and of emotion that never wavers. It is alternately creepy, joyful, menacing; now delicate as a birdsong, now overwhelming as a tsunami.

The title of the piece translates as “I await the ressurrection of the dead”. I read somewhere that Et exspecto… was composed in 1964, to commemorate the dead of the two World Wars. It was first performed in 1965, in Paris, so it was quite a novelty at the time when Disch was writing his novel. The piece has five movements, named thus:

I - From the depths of the abyss, I cry for you, Lord: Lord, hear my voice!
II - Christ, ressurrected from the dead, will not die anymore; Death has no power over him anymore
III - The hour is coming when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God
IV - They will ressurect, glorious, under a new name, in the joyful concert of the stars and the acclamations of the children of Heaven
V - And I heard the voice of an immense crowd

The prisoners of Camp Archimedes are the dead; from their underground prison, they claim for life. After their leader discovers a way to ressurrect from Death, all of them will be delivered, one by one. Each of them will live again “under a new name”, and they will be able to return to the world.

There is an evident connection between this dramatic piece and Disch’s story. Its religious spirit is in tune with the fact that Sacchetti is a Catholic and that his spiritual crisis in prison makes him oscillate between belief and disbelief. There is also a slightly sarcastic touch (typical of Disch’s irony) in that the “ressurrecting Christ” figure is Mordecai, a black man, who is (in my view) more a Trickster than a Christ-like figure.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Camp Concentration 020 - Stairway to Paradise

(Ladder of Heaven, by John Klimakos, 12th Century)

Camp Concentration is divided in Book One and Book Two. Each Book is divided, loosely, in two parts, which makes for a total of four structural parts.

Part 1:
The handwritten portion of Louis Sacchetti’s journal, written in the Springfield prison. In my copy of the novel, this runs from page 11 to page 19, and from May 11 to May 19.

Part 2:
Sacchetti’s typed journal, which runs from his arrival at Camp Archimedes to the “dream” scene, when he finally realizes he’s been infected with Pallidine too. This runs from page 19 to page 107 (June 2 through June 22) and finishes Book One.

Part 3:
The “asterisks” notes, written after Sacchetti, in despair, refuses to maintain a formal journal. This is the first part of Book Two, and runs from page 111 to page 120.

Part 4:
The numbered entries written by Sacchetti under Haast’s threats; they run from number 1 to number 100, and from page 120 to page 175, the end of the book.

Another way of describing the novel’s structure is that it begins and ends in “countable”, “timetable” form: first a diary, and then a series of numbered items. But, sandwiched between them, there are the “asterisk” notes, a dizzying allusive sequence, full of quotations and allegories, that reproduces the first stages of Sacchetti’s acceptance of the idea of death. It echoes the last entry of his journal, in the end of Book One: the dream sequence in which Sacchetti sees himself as Saint Thomas Aquinas (immensely fat) and in the guise of Aquinas he tells himself that he is infected with Pallidine. That dream, and the asterisk notes that follow it, are heavily allegorical and obscure, and express the refusal-cum-acceptance of Death.

But then comes the interference of General Haast (ultimately, Mordecai) who presses Sacchetti, forcing him to compose himself. He demands facts. Sacchetti refuses to maintain a diary, but he concedes in producing numbered items; they are a return to Time and to life, although Sacchetti doesn’t realize it at first.

It can be said that the journal entries in the beginning of the book show that Sacchetti is bound to Time, and thus he is bound to Death too. The asterisk notes are his descent into Hell and timelessness. Thought is amorphous, non-directional, static, entropic.

The numbered items in the last part of the book, from item 1 to item 100, are a return to Time and (now) to life again. They are the ascent journey. Sacchetti, led by Haast/Mordecai, begins a slow, step by step, journey back to the world of the living. During this ascent, he sometimes thinks he’s going downward. This is a traditional feature of so many mystical processes which bring purification and life through suffering and near-death. It also echoes the ancient motif of the necessity to pass through Hell to reach Paradise.

I'll build a stairway to Paradise
With a new step ev'ry day!
I'm gonna get there at any price;
Stand aside, I'm on my way!
I've got the blues
And up above it's so fair.
Shoes ! Go on and carry me there!
I'll build a stairway to Paradise
With a new step ev'ry day.
(George Gershwin – “I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise”)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Camp Concentration 019 - Decamp

(Susan Sontag in Petra - photo by Annie Leibovitz)

“When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it's often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn't attempted to do anything really outlandish. ("It's too much," "It's too fantastic," "It's not to be believed," are standard phrases of Camp enthusiasm.)"—Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp”

This can be a good starting point for discussing the “camp” aspect of Disch’s book. It looks like Disch, who was a harsh critic of most SF, tried to attain in his novel the problematic synthesis between high literature and pulp drama. Camp Concentration is made up from a series of SF clichés: mad scientists, the Army’s secret projects, superpowers, underground shelters, Gothic technology, a miraculous escape. It’s just as if the writer had told himself: “This is an impossible task: to write a great book from this sort of material. If I succeed, I must be a genius. If I don’t, well, that is just what I was trying to prove in the first place”.

Camp Concentration is Jean-Paul Sartre and Thomas Mann innoculated in a Van Vogt plot. Most of the criticism I have read against the novel concerns the “coup de theatre” in the last pages, which in a certain sense spoils the seriousness of the rest of the book. Those commentaries say (without any enthusiasm): “It’s too much. It’s too fantastic. It’s not to be believed”.

And yet… and yet… This final twist (the revelation of what really happened between Mordecai and Haast, and Sacchetti’s salvation) is just what made me adore the book when I first read it. Pulp clichés are, usually, a short and easy way out from a narrative corner in which the writer has written himself. Abracadabra! And the eruption of a vulcan destroys the mad scientist’s lab, or the hero is saved from death thanks to a newfound drug which hadn’t been mentioned so far.

Such solutions are forbidden in a serious novel. There must be no easy way out. High literature doesn’t admit the impossible, especially when used to solve problems of narrative. If you have an underground prison in which the narrator has been innoculated with a mortal disease and is slowly dying, well, he has to die. Not because there is no escape from underground prisons, but because there is no escape from high literary conventions. And this is just the prison Camp Concentration escapes from: a genre convention, a cliché of the mainstream. The astounding mindswap that frees the prisoners is a victory of Pulp resources against mainstream constraints.

Curiously enough, had Disch’s novel been written in a pedestrian prose, with cardboard characters and run-of-the-mill situations, the same ending would not be a triumph – it would become equally weak. What makes the success of Camp Concentration for this reader is that the novelist achieved this most improbable of balances, between the sophistication of high literature and the sense of wonder (the sense that “anything is possible”) of Pulp, a sense of wonder that most high literature has lost, because it has become too tightly bound by the Principle of Reality.

Camp Concentration is the story of the impossible escape of a prisoner, and of a writer who finds a spectacular way of extricating himself from two literary imprisonments, simultaneously.

“The act of genius is simply the bringing together of two hitherto distinct spheres of reference, or matrices – a talent for juxtapositions”. (CC, p. 62, June 13 entry)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Camp Concentration 018 - Now that I know

A question that has been raised about the novel is: “Does Sacchetti’s portrait in the novel reveal an increasing intelligence? Do you feel he’s really becoming more intelligent? If so, why doesn’t he realize that he has been innoculated with Pallidine like everyone else?”

A possible answer is: Intelligence is, in a sense, “more of the same”. More intelligence doesn’t necessarily imply more and deeper self-knowledge. If you’re a moron and you become “more intelligent” you are not a moron anymore, but if you’re a consummate liar and you become more intelligent you don’t necessarily give up being a liar. Intelligence doesn’t provide an automatic change in personality for the better.

Different people have different intelligences. All the prisoners are becoming more intelligent; nevertheless, a Mordecai’s journal would be very different from Sacchetti’s, and Gerald Wagner’s too, and Barry Meade’s, and Skilliman’s... The story told by Sacchetti is his personal way of seeing things. “Increased intelligence” means, sometimes, increased complexity of vision, but not necessarily increased lucidity or increased problem-solving capabilities.

One of the tragic aspects of Sacchetti is precisely his pathetic blindness to an evident truth. This is one more example of The Intangibility of The Mind. The Mind wishes to be eternal. It knows that it’s tied to a disposable body, so it denies the body. I think that the moment of Sacchetti’s “execution”, the moment when he’s injected with Pallidine, is at the Springfield prison, when the doctor shows him the review of his book in a literary magazine:

“While I read the review the good doctor injected what seemed like several thousand cc’s of bilgy ook into my thigh; in my happiness I scarcely noticed. A review – I am real!” (CC, p. 15, May 16 entry).

This is a cruel example of the narcissism of The Mind and its indifference to the body.

(I am nort certain that the Pallidine innoculation would be made in Springfield; logic tells me that they would choose Sacchetti, bring him to Camp Archimedes and only then proceeding with the innoculation. I didn’t find an evidence of this, but maybe I didn’t search carefully enough. Anyway, the scene works metaphorically, if not literally).

Sacchetti is not a moron. He knows he has Pallidine. He just denies it, as so many intelligent people deny being seriously ill, till it’s too late to do something about it. After The Dream Scene, when Saint Thomas Aquinas bring him the terrible truth, he says:

“Haast, under pressure, confirms what it is no longer in any case possible to conceal, which had been kept from me this long only by my own desperate, deliberate blindness. Now that I do know it, now that I know I know it… (…) Everyone here had known but I, and I, though I would not listen to the whispers until they were a bellowing that filled the world, I had known too.” (CC, p. 107, June 22 entry).

Friday, October 10, 2008

Camp Concentration 017 - Mordecai Washington

“The name sounds vaguely familiar, but I can’t place it”. (CC, p. 35, June 6 entry)

The name “Mordecai” comes from the Bible, but in Camp Concentration it provides a link to another sf novel: Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7. Roshwald is professor emeritus of humanities at the University of Minnesota, and his book appeared in 1959, eight years before Disch’s. It is the claustrophobic tale of a group of military in a subterranean shelter where they are in charge of the “push button” task, in the event of a nuclear war. They cannot return to the surface and to normal life anymore; in fact, their families receive a message from the Government stating they they have died in service and did not leave any remains. Officially “dead”, and buried in the underground bunker, they have no hope of returning to life whatsoever, and as the nuclear conflict develops, they are the last human beings to die.

The name “Washington” has obvious and ironic ressonances for anyone, and even more for an American. But maybe it was chosen, as well, because of the mirror image it provides for the character’s initials: MW. Two triangles pointing upward, two pointing downward. This pair of letters encapsulates the idea of mirror, of reversal, and also the alchemical motto of “as above, so below”. It also provides a kind of “logo” for the central (in a sense) character in a novel about people entombed in a catacomb above sea level, and also of people who (in the last pages) have to go down to the World of the Dead in order to ressurrect to the World of the Living.

That pair of letters also indicates, alchemically, the Mystical Conjunctio: Man on top, Woman at bottom. This interpretation has ominous consequences, because the only man/woman intercourse which is mentioned in the story (albeit hypothetically) is that between Mordecai and Dr. Busk, through which Pallidine, eventually, is smuggled away from Camp Archimedes and reaches the world at large. (One also muses on the significance of Washington taking Dr. Busk’s “cherry”).

Camp Concentration 016 - The Electrical Wizard

(David Bowie as Nikolas Tesla, in The Prestige)

From Wikipedia:
In 1891, Telluride's L.L. Nunn joined forces with
Nikola Tesla (Nunn's home can be found at the corner of Aspen and Columbia Streets, next door is the home he purchased for the "pinheads" to study hydro-electric engineering) and George Westinghouse and built the Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant, the world's first commercial-grade alternating-current power plant, near Telluride. The hydro-powered electrical generation plant supplied power to the Gold King Mine 3.5 miles away.

Writing about Telluride, Disch couldn’t ignore the relationship between that city and Nikolas Tesla, and I am sure that “The Alpha Pickup”, the electrical device to which Mordecai and General Haast submit themselves, is inspired as much by Tesla as by the alchemist Nicholas Flamel.

Tesla has become a sort of Electrical Wizard in recent science fiction. In Christopher Priest’s novel (and later Philip Nolan’s film) The Prestige Tesla makes a brief appearance as a sort of wizard. The plot revolves around a feud between two stage magicians, Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, in 19th century London. They become enemies and do what they can to sabotage each other’s shows. When Borden seems to have perfected a trick to teleport himself from one point of the stage to another, Angier travels to the US and goes to Colorado Springs in order to meet Nikolas Tesla and ask him: “If electrical energy may be transmitted, could physical matter also be sent from one place to another?” Then, they join forces to accomplish this.

Disch’s question to himself, while writing the novel, may have been: “Couldn’t they have someone like Tesla, doing some Tesla thing in order to build a mind reciprocator?…”

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Camp Concentration 015 - Fat Men

"And thus, as through the years the imaterial intellect expanded like some godlike, moist squash, my material and fleshy aspect, my body, by its crapulence, did swell and magnify to... this!" -- Saint Thomas Aquinas (CC, p. 106, June 22 entry)

"I'm always pleased to meet people fatter than myself". -- Louis Sacchetti (CC, p. 47, June 8 entry)

Camp Concentration 014 - The Ladder

“I imagine Haast still does twenty push-ups in the morning and rides a few imaginary miles on his Exercycle. The wrinkly crust of his face is crisped to a tasty brown by a sun lamp. His sparse and graying hair is crew cut.” (CC, p. 23, June 3 entry)

General Haast insists in being called H. H. Why? Initials are a convenient shorthand to refer to people, especially in the case of one who sometimes, like Sacchetti, is just jotting down brief notes about a day’s events. Sacchetti is fond of creating nicknames for guards whose real name he doesn’t bother to ask, like Rigor Mortis (who is shortened to R.M.) and Assiduous (who is sometimes called just “Ass.”).

Disch once admitted that the title of his novel The M. D. was partially inspired by his own initials, T.M.D.

So, why he did choose “H. H.” for that character?

I submit here that he did so because those letters represent, visually, two stairs of a Ladder, the mystical ladder which bridges the space between Heaven and Earth, between the Spirit and the Matter. Disch, of course, was wholly aware of this meaning.

“To make the transition easier. That’s my Function”. (CC, p. 20, June 3 entry)

(Ladder -- from Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi)

Throughout the novel, Haast occupies the position of a mediator between two worlds. He is in charge of Camp Archimedes, he’s a military man, he’s a leader; nevertheless, due to his addiction to astrology and his dreams of “the elixir of life” he is easy prey to Mordecai and the inmates’ ellaborate alchemical charade. His symbol is The Ladder, but it could be, as easily, The Door or The Bridge. He is the way through which a dead man can live again and the prisoners can be taken from the Subterranean world to the world of the living. (The final revelation of his identity takes place in the open air).

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Camp Concentration 013 - Jewels and Jaws

I didn’t read Samuel R. Delany’s collection of critical texts The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (1977), which includes, I have heard somewhere, an essay on Camp Concentration. The title of Delany’s book always sounded strange and beautiful to me – the right mixture of the anatomical, the mechanical and the exquisite. One could call it “old weird”.

Now, re-reading Disch’s novel, I found this quotation of Sacchetti’s poem, “The Hierodule”:

Behold! Behold the black, ungrainèd flesh,
The jaw’s jeweled hinge that we can barely glimpse…

No doubt that image haunted Delany so much that not only he adapted it for the title of his book of essays, but also created a title of his own for a 1969 story, that somehow echoes Disch’s: “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones”.

Sacchetti doesn’t seem to know what his poem is about (“the fog is thick”) or if it’s of interest to anyone else (“I’m too giddy yet to know if the damned thing scans, much less whether if it’s publishable”). He admits looking up the OED to ascertain the meaning of “hierodule” – “a temple slave” (or, variously, “holy whore”, “sacral prostitute”, etc.).

But his long (110 lines) poem was written in the course of a feverish night after the “Doctor Faustus” essay during which the young inmate, George Wagner, had a crisis onstage and was carried away (to die the following day). And Sacchetti also quotes these lines from his poem, which sum up somehow the fate of all Camp Archimedes prisoners:

While, within, the poison’d hierodule,
Dying, whispers what the god had meant…

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Camp Concentration 012 - The School of Athens

The School of Athens is mentioned by Louis Sacchetti (CC, p. 74, June 16 entry) among the many reproductions of paintings he saw on Mordecai’s worktable.

This painting may be seen as the bright side of Camp Archimedes. It depicts a closed environment thriving with intellectual activity. There is an almost palpable feeling of intellectual euphoria. Masters and disciples, scientists and philosophers, all immersed in heated discussions, some of them writing, some reading, some deep in thought, some youngsters just staring in awe to an old master who speaks.

I like to think that Louis Sacchetti is the man in the foreground, sitting at a worktable. He seems to be thinking hard, and his right hand, holding a pen, rests upon some scribbled pages.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Camp Concentration 011 - The Golden Tomb

(Thomas M. Disch)

“There is one concept that corrupts and perplexes all others. I am not speaking of evil, whose limited empire is that of ethics; I am speaking of the infinite”. (Jorge Luis Borges, “Avatars of the Tortoise”).

Borges speaks of infinite itself. Disch chooses for his novel a Borgesian version of infinite, and of hell: the labyrinth. His characters are locked in an underground prison which is not infinite, of course, but is claustrophobically organized as a mixture of jail, hospital, research facility and hôtel de luxe. The physical confinement of the body (the clocks; the absence of natural symbols; the cells) is simmetrically opposed to the luxurious living it is offered (the dictates of fashion; the cuisine; movies; other entertainments; team sports). The juxtaposition of such extremes magnify the possibilities of the enhanced mind and is, in itself, a kind of torture..

“We go everywhere we go in elevators” (CC, p. 85, June 18 entry)

They live inside the tunnels of a former goldmine in Telluride, Colorado, which means that Camp Archimedes is located both underground and above sea level (circa 8,700 feet or 2.6 km). They are as much "above" as they are "below".

(Telluride is in the valley below)

“The town was named after the chemical element tellurium, which was never actually found in the mountains of Telluride. Tellurium is a metalloid element sometimes associated with deposits of gold and silver. An alternate theory for the naming of Telluride is that it is a contraction of "to hell you ride". (Wikipedia)

Maybe it is the historical link with gold mining that suggests to Mordecai and the other prisoners the idea of the alchemical for the Magnum Opus, the Philosophical Egg, the Transmutation of Bodies, the Eternal Life. Buried underground, with their bodies rotting and their minds soaring, they are at the very threshold of the Dissociation of Mind and Body, when Mind may be free at last from Space and Time.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Camp Concentration 010 - The Libyrinth

(Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution, Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

“What the place lacks in windows it makes up for doors: there are infinite recessions of white, Alphavillean hallways”. (CC, p. 23, June 3 entry).

“I have been walking the corridors, corridors, corridors”. (CC, p. 66, June 15 entry).

Louis Sacchetti and the other inmates in Camp Archimedes are given physical confinement and mental liberty. What is best than a solitary confinement, a place so small that the prisoner inside it is barely able to move? The answer is: a place with infinite passageways, infinite doors, infinite corridors, where the prisoner may flee forever without ever leaving the prison itself. (There would be only one prison better than this: the desert, the labyrinth without walls in Jorge Luis Borges’ parable: “…my labyrinth, in which you won’t have stairs to ascend, nor tiresome corridors to explore, nor walls to block your way” (“The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths”).

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Camp Concentration 009 - Indestructible Mind

(Vintage - 1969)

One of the themes in Camp Concentration is The Intangibility of Intellect. The body may be destroyed, but the Mind -- not the Soul, not the spiritual soul -- can somehow survive. (Or so it believes.)

(Mordecai Washington):
"In my worst moments, with my head in the pisser, retching, the old brainjelly goes right on fermenting, oblivious to the low soma. No, not oblivious, just indifferent, aloof, a spectator."

The Mind believes that it can survive the destruction of the body. Maybe it can´t, but when the Mind is busy thinking, it doesn't care if the body is dying. The present of the Mind is more important than the future of the body.

In this context, "the Mind" doesn't mean just intellectualism, but the Ego drive that tries to affirm the power of Man over Nature. Sacchetti and Mordecai are two examples of the intellectual Mind; General Haast and Dr. Aimée Busk are two examples of the pragmatic mind.

(Sacchetti on General Haast:) "He carries to an extreme the maniacal American credo that there is no death. And he is probably a garden of cancers. Isn't that so, H.H.?" (CC, p. 23, June 3 entry).

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Camp Concentration 008 - Sylph portrait

(Treponema Pallidum)

The feeling of being watched:
“There is a feeling that all four off-white walls are of one-way glass, that every drooping milky globe of light masks a microphone”. (p. 24, June 3 entry)

(Dr. Busk to Louis Sacchetti):
“Under the microscope, Pallidine looks much the same as any other spirochete. It is, as the name suggests, spiral in shape, with seven coils. The average Treponema pallidum is much larger, though it may have as few as six coils in rare instances. If you’d like to see one, I’m sure… No? They’re really rather pretty. They propel themselves by stretching out lengthwise, concertina-fashion, then contracting. Very graceful. ‘Sylphlike’ is what the textbooks call it. I’ve spent entire hours just watching them swim about in plasma”. (CC, p. 61, June 13 entry)

Syphilis as sylph:
“Mordecai, the alchemist, winked. ‘Abracadabra,’ he said meaningfully. Then, quick as a sylph, he was gone”. (CC, p. 46, June 7 entry)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Camp Concentration 007- Some words on Dr. Busk

(Turkish edition)

Are characters’ names hidden messages? Do they hide encrypted meanings? Are they always symbolic, allegorical, referential? Is a name (any fictional name) a riddle which leads to a single, hidden answer?

When we choose a name for a character in a book, we choose two words that cross each other (so to speak) like the latitude and the longitude axis. The character is the intersection point. This may be a conscious or unconscious process.

Take, for example, “Dr. A. Busk”, the Susancalvinesque scientist who runs the show at Camp Archimedes. “Busk” means “a stiffening device: a strip of wood, steel, or whalebone used to stiffen the front of a corset”. Do I see a dry, stiff, haughty Victorian spinster behind this name?

She looks (to Louis Sacchetti) forty or forty-five years old, but later the General tells him that she’s thirty-seven. (Which reminds me of Maggie’s Mother, in Bob Dylan’s song “Maggie’s Farm”:

Well, she talks to all the servants
About man and God and law.
Everybody says
She's the brains behind pa.
She's sixty-eight, but she says she's fifty-four.
I ain't gonna work for Maggie's ma no more.

Louis Sacchetti asks the doctor what the “A” means, and she says: “Aimée”. Why does she hide her first name? Because “aimée” in French is the feminine form of “the loved one”, but she (according to H. H., the General) “still keeps her cherry”, and therefore is not worthy of her own name. A name which Sacchetti echoes, in Italian, when he exclaims: “Ahimé!” (“Alas!”).

QUOTE: (Dr. Aimée Busk to Sacchetti): “You are a prisoner, and I am... what? I am the prison”. (CC, p. 31, June 6 entry)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Camp Concentration 006 - A Cracked Vellum

From the inventory of Mordecai Washington's worktable:

"...a cracked vellum sheet with a crude drawing on it, in colored inks, not much superior to an average men's room graffito. That part of the drawing I could see represented a crowned and bearded man holding a tall scepter upon which were mounted, one above the other, six further crowns. The king stood upon an odd pedestal that grew flowerlike from a vine that branched, above the king's head, into a sort of lattice. At the interstices of this lattice were six other male heads, lower, lesser types, and beside each head a letter of the alphabet, from D through I. The left-hand portion of this head-bearing vine curled out of sight into George's closed book".
(CC, p. 74, June 16 entry)

This is the cover illustraton of the novel's first edition (see below).

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Camp Concentration 005 - Melancholia

From the inventory of Mordecai Washington's worktable:

"Several color plates torn from Skira art books, chiefly of works of the Flemish masters, though there was a detail from Raphael School of Athens and a tattered print of Dürer's woodcut Melancholia". (CC, p. 74, June 16 entry)

Camp Concentration 004 - The Nausea

Camp Concentration is written in journal form, which produces a more immediate impression of reality, of facts being experienced and commented upon along the way. (A novel in the past tense sounds like a bundle of recollections put together long after the fact. Journals are better to chronicle the near-imperceptible changes the protagonist goes through, as he jots down his feelings and his thoughts in a day-by-day basis.)

A story in the past tense, told in the first person, is the product of a single mind who tells it at some moment in the future, when everything has already happened. A journal is written by several minds, so to speak, and the reader can trace the successive changes from one to the other.

The journal structure is one more thing in common between Camp Concentration and "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes (1959), the other classic SF tale about super-inteligence scientifically produced.

Novels in journal form, SF or not, are many, but one that comes insistently to my mind when I think of Disch’s book is The Nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre (1938).

In The Nausea, Antoine Roquentin goes to the city of Bouville (a thinly disguised Le Havre, as I recall) to work on his biography of the Marquis of Rollebon. There, his love affair with a woman comes to an end; there, he encounters a man, whom he calls The Autodidact, who is reading all the books in the library in alphabetical order.

Roquentin is prone to accesses of what he calls “the nausea”, a mental state in which he sees all things devoided of names, concepts and labels. He sees the things existing by themselves, without the slightest link to his own conceptual world. Sartre’s language excels in the descriptions of those moments, and it is generally accepted that this novel is an after effect of his own experiences with mescalin, which he did in 1935 (long before Woodstock, long before Huxley’s own experience which resulted in the book The Doors of Perception).

In Sartre’s novel, there’s no mention of drugs – the Nausea arrives at random, unannounced and unexpected. Roquentin, eventually, gets used to it, accepts it, and with it accepts the fact – which is at the core of Sartre’s Existentialism – that there isn’t a Plan, there isn’t a Meaning, there isn’t an Essence in the Universe. It is pure existence, and Man is an accidental consciousness that becomes aware of it.

The connection between Camp Concentration and The Nausea is not without a reason. The first title Sartre suggested for his novel was Melancolia, in a reference to Albert Durer’s famous engraving, a print of which is seen by Louis Sacchetti on Mordecai’s desk. (CC, p. 74, June 16 entry). Disch is alluding to alchemy (Durer’s theme), but may also be alluding to Sartre.

I found here a comment of the novel with mention to the print:

Ce livre paru en 1938 n'a cessé d'être pour plusieurs générations un évènement dans la conscience d'exister. En cela, il est une espèce de "mythologie". A l'origine, Sartre l'avait intitulé Melancholia, en référence à une gravure de Dürer qui évoquait le doute existentiel, le doute devant la science mais qui était aussi une réflexion métaphysique sur le besoin d'engendrer, Dürer qui n'avait pas eu d'enfant et qui a construit cette oeuvre justement à la mort de sa mère. On pourrait à partir de ce roman, retracer à la fois la période de l'année 1935 où Sartre avait traversé une grave crise dépressive en arrivant au Havre, où il avait également pris de la mescaline, et tendre le livre comme un miroir à des lecteurs ou créateurs de tous âges (écrivains, cinéastes, poètes).

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Camp Concentration 003 - c-AMP

(a Polish edition)

Talk about serendipity, talk about statistical fate. Some coincidences are inevitable, and being so, are they really coincidences?

I googled the title “Camp Concentration” in search of jpgs to illustrate these notes, and came across an unexpected response: “cAMP Concentration”. Among esoteric laboratorial procedures, this term appeared insistently, forcing me to fish out a definition for “c-AMP”, which follows:

c-AMP (cyclic AMP) A cyclic form of adenosine monophosphate, formed from ATP (adenosine triphosphate) in a reaction mediated (catalysed) by adenyl cyclase, which has numerous functions in cells. It can act variously as a genetic regulator, as a mediator in the activity of some hormones, as an enzyme activator, as a secondary messenger, and as a chemical attractant.© A Dictionary of Zoology 1999, originally published by Oxford University Press 1999

So, this is the second definition for camp which I submit in this blog. C-amp is something that, once circulating inside an organism, boosts some of its vital functions. As to the specific expression “c-Amp concentration”, I got, among other results, these:

Summary cAMP concentrations in the preoptic region and cerebral cortex were studied in rats during exposure to low ambient temperature (–10 ° C) and after return to control ambient temperature (22 ° C).
Significant changes in cAMP concentration were found only in the preoptic region. On prolonged exposure to low ambient temperature the nucleotide concentration decreased and the circadian rhythm, observed in control conditions, disappeared. Return to control ambient temperature after exposure to low ambient temperature induced a steep increase and a long-lasting plateau in cAMP concentration. The results are discussed in terms of interaction between thermoregulatory and sleep-wakefulness processes.

The effect of NaF on the cAMP concentration in and amylase secretion from rat parotid glands in vitro and in vivo was investigated. In vitro, NaF (0.05 to 10 mmol/l) was found to increase significantly amylase secretion and cAMP concentration in parotid gland slices. In vivo, male rats injected intraperitoneally with 15 mg F/kg body weight as NaF had a significantly lower glandular amylase activity and higher plasma amylase activity than did the control rats injected with 0.9% NaCl. The fluoride concentration both in the parotid gland and plasma was highest at 30 min after injection and decreased with time in the fluoride-injected group. The concentration of the parotid gland cAMP in the fluoride-injected group was significantly higher than that in the control group. On the basis of these results, it is suggested that NaF, both in vitro and in vivo, increases the cAMP concentration, which subsequently stimulates amylase secretion from rat parotid glands.

I paste these examples just to make clear the double-pun nature of Disch’s title. Disch probably came across, in some scientific journal, an article like those above, and couldn’t fail to perceive the hilarious/sadistic connotation of it. Being himself “a psychologist who wouldn’t do awful things to rats”, TMD wrote a novel.

QUOTE: "They've got to break away from the old patterns of thought, blaze trails, explore" (CC, p. 50, June 10 entry)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Camp Concentration 002 - Notes on Camp

(First hardcover edition, 1968)

I notice that the usual English name for prisoner camps, like those maintained by the Nazis in WW II, is “concentration camp”, not “camp concentration”. The former suggest “a camp which is used to concentrate a number of people in a single place”. The latter, “a concentration, i.e., a large density of… camp”.

What is “camp”? The first thing that comes to mind, as “camp”, is the aesthetic of everything artificial, exaggerated, effeminate – movies like The Rocky Horror Show and Barbarella, and everything pop that also borders on kitsch.

This is not (I believe) the case of Camp Concentration. But in 1966, two years before Disch’s novel, Susan Sontag published her essay “Notes on Camp”, in which she gives a list of “items which are part of the canon of Camp”. The list includes such SF mainstays as the King Kong film by Cooper & Schoedsack and the Flash Gordon comics by Alex Raymond. She also mentions “Japanese science fiction films (Rodan, The Mysterians, The H-Man) because, in their relative unpretentiousness and vulgarity, they are more extreme and irresponsible in their fantasy - and therefore touching and quite enjoyable.”

I don’t think I ever read any comments by Disch on his novel; maybe he has already discussed the book from this angle (maybe just to dismiss this theory as preposterous). But…

QUOTE: “Write it as though you were trying to explain to someone outside this… camp… what was happening to you”. (CC, p. 22, June 3 entry)

Camp Concentration 001 - A Journal of My Own

(My copy of the book: Avon paperback, 1971)

I read this book around 1986 and for a long time I used to put it in my lists of "10 Best SF Novels" or the like. I did not read it a second time since then. What impressed me most was, first, the fact that the protagonist was a poet; I have since compiled a small list of "Poets in SF". Then, the fact that Disch manages to convey the idea of the gradual increase of intelligence in a human being, with all the brilliance and all the turmoil that such increase may cause. And then there is the stunning "coup-de-theatre" in the final scenes.

Some friends are putting together a "collective reviewing" of this book in their blogs, and I wish to join them. But I think that instead of writing a review, in the strict sense, I will try to re-read the novel along the next 30 days and to register my impressions in this blog, as in a journal.

QUOTE: "This is my journal. I can be candid here. Candidly, I could not be more miserable" (CC, p. 11, May 11 entry).