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Derangements

The other morning I awakened from dreaming about a band called Satan’s Elbow. I can’t remember what sort of music they played (metal?), or any other details, except for that name. Upon consulting the Gull of Goo, I find that there doesn’t seem to be such a band in existence, but there is a detective novel by John Dickson Carr entitled ‘The House at Satan’s Elbow’ (some sort of Scooby Doo-esque locked room mystery with fake ghosts, by the look of it).

You know what, I think Satan’s Elbow deserves to be some sort of surreal horror story. Let’s avoid the 70s rustic-occult style (à la ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’): let’s have it be something starkly weird and filled with symbolic pantomime. I just finished reading ‘René's Flesh’ by Virgilio Piñera, which is certainly that kind of thing. If it were a film, it’d be a banned Expressionist meisterwerk: all kohl-eyed tense-limbed anguished Response against a jagged backdrop of elongated shadows, soundtracked by insane cackles. It is pleasant to imagine the young Conrad Veidt in the title role. The book follows late-flowering ingénu René as he is buffeted from one extreme to another under the careless, catlike control of family, acquaintances and society. The scenes of suffering and sensation tease the reader by stopping well short of full-on gruesomeness; in some, Piñera practises the deft trick of tripping up horror so that it topples over into farce. Throughout, the protagonist is in a lonely minority of one: he is as horrified by notions of pleasure as he is by invitations to pain. He would like to elude his flesh entirely. Unfortunately for René, his abhorrence is a symptom of denial; in the world of Piñera’s book, and perhaps also in our world, life may be partaken of via the flesh or not at all.

René, incidentally, is forcefully identified with St Sebastian. That saint tends to function as a sort of blank, a mannequin, on which spectators (voyeurs) are liable to project their desires, expectations and prejudices. He is conventionally portrayed as utterly passive. And yet, he was not martyred by the arrows that customarily pierce him in artistic depictions. He not only survived that treatment but went on to publicly tell off the Emperor to his face. (Martyrdom followed swiftly and ignominiously; of course, being clubbed to death and dumped in a privy is not so artistically pleasing as complaisantly suffering the slings ’n’ arrows of outrageous fortune… image, people, image!) It’s this inconvenient, rebellious side of Sebastian that René often epitomises, much to the chagrin of his peers.

I enjoyed reading it. I liked very much the air of mischief, the stylised feel and the grotesque silliness. I even didn’t mind the slightly unfinished mood: there is plenty of space here to accommodate the reader’s thoughts, to make the reader an accomplice in the act of telling the story. What you imagine, in the thoughtfully-provided gaps between episodes, demonstrates neatly where your personal locus lies on the spectrum of flesh: will you wield yours in the service of pain or of pleasure? What value do you place on a human life? What value do you place on (I promise this is important!) chocolate? Or are you, like René, frozen in appalled ambivalence?

Reading (supping on) ‘René's Flesh’, I was reminded (for the umpteenth time) how very crucial turn of phrase is, and also métier, objective, when it comes to storytelling. The same scene, told two ways, with two intentions: how wide the gulf of difference that can separate two ostensibly similar scenarios. I am thinking in particular of the difference between a literary exercise and pornography. Admittedly, I am not well-read in either category, but I suppose I would distinguish the one from the other by the following means: pornography is unrealistically real, whereas literature is realistically unreal. (Plus, literature is a little more inclusive, forgiving, tolerant of analysis; conversely, pornography permits one point of view only, and if the reader does not happen to agree with that point of view, the whole thing - uh - deflates, so to speak.) Be assured: ‘René's Flesh’ is not pornography. It has too much humour and not enough crudity to be that. But the pen of someone with different intentions could have piloted it in that direction.

I am now reading (trying to read) ‘The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole’ by Frederick Rolfe. This is tough going, for several reasons, some of them personal. Alas - grr, aarrgh - I have to read it: it has Relevance to my own endeavours. But it makes me very melancholy… more than I was already, that is; I have lately been visited by the kind of angst that makes one feel horribly reckless. One of these days I shall solve the equation in which fear and desire find their equilibrium. For now, there is thought and dread and foolishness and loneliness, and thinking myself an object poorly fitted for this world. …How very, very selfish I am.

There are probably lessons to be learned in another recent read: ‘Mad Princes of Renaissance Germany’ by Erik Midelfort. The impressions that remained with me after reading it were as follows: First, I think the title a little sensationalist. Most of the princes surveyed were not ‘mad’ in the gibbering-eccentric-high-jinks sense; more like blighted (in ways recognisable to modern minds) by anxiety and depression. And second, just like today, back then there was considerable disagreement about how to help with these afflictions. During this period there seems to have been a three-way tug of war between Galenic medicine, Paracelsian medicine and good old fashioned prayer. The Galenic tradition was much in favour of baths, special diets, blood letting and poultices. The Paracelsians - controversially - prescribed strong chemical medicines. The church favoured intense theological mentoring (and occasionally exorcism, but not nearly as often as movie makers would like us to imagine). Nothing much really seems to have helped, especially in those cases where there was an obvious and unavoidable situational cause for the prince’s malady (fears of being disenthroned, worries about siring heirs, trouble with overbearing parents, passionate religious disputes… you name it, they had to put up with it!). Let’s not forget also that sometimes it was politically expedient for certain factions to accuse the incumbent prince of incompetence (physical and/or mental, which were often thought of as one and the same thing).

It was interesting to see how attitudes to mental disquiet evolved during the period. Mr Midelfort shows that at the start of the period, the (scanty) evidence implies an emphasis on containment rather than treatment; as the decades progress we see more indications (and sometimes the records are brilliantly detailed) of curative attempts of divers kinds. Midelfort does, however, remind us that what is furnished to princes is not necessarily bestowed unto the ordinary citizen. We can’t know what kind of treatment (or lack thereof) was meted out to the Village Idiot or Mad Old Meg. But it was interesting to read that even all those centuries ago, serious scientific effort was being expended (at least in court circles) in the attempt to cure melancholy. It is easy to smile at Galenic and Paracelsian hokum - well, we think it hokum, but at the time these methods were at the cutting edge of clinical innovation. That makes me wonder just how far off the mark we are today in our medical approaches to mental wellbeing… some day, our drugs and our dialogues might well seem like laughable quackery. But for now, it’ll have to do.

Eavesdrop, snoop, and sigh with yearning...

This journal is not a private diary, it is more like an occasional, imaginary column. Therefore, much of it is on public display. However, if you want to read my occasional attempts at creative writing, my Caution Elf tells me I should only show that stuff to my friends. You know what to do. :-)

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