During the late 1960’s/70’s Dorothea Tanning creating her ‘soft sculptures’, pieces of fabric sewn together to create eerie cuddly toys from hell, resulting in perhaps the final masterpiece of Surrealism, the truly unsettling installation Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202.
In a seedy hotel room with wallpaper that emanates despair (remember the only thing going on in Tanning’s childhood was the wallpaper), soft but disturbingly visceral bodies burst from the wall or merge with the furniture. Inspired by a song from her childhood about the gangsters moll Kitty Kane who poisoned herself in Room 202 because the walls were talking, I don’t ever want to check-in into that room at the Poppy Hotel. The whole malevolent atmosphere is reminiscent of David Lynch, though Lynch wasn’t to make Eraserhead until 1977.
Even by the standards of David Lynch the Surrealist sit-com (with Noir accents) Rabbits from 2002 is startlingly bizarre. First released as a digital web series of 8 short episodes with a total run-time of 50 mins and later edited and re-released as a DVD of 42 mins, Rabbits features Scott Coffrey, Laura Elena Harring and Naomi Watts as Jack, Jane and Suzie, a family of humanoid rabbits who reside in a nameless city deluged with constant rain and who live with a fearful mystery.
The setting is a dismal living room which we will never leave. Suzie is ironing a piece of clothing which she will constantly iron throughout the movie, apart from the times when she leaves to summon (or exorcise) a demonic presence that appears in the wall and talks in a harsh and unintelligible language. Jane wears a dress and sits on the couch. Jack wears a suit and is the only one to regular leave the apartment. Whenever a character enters the apartment canned applause bursts out. Another alienating device is the use of a laugh track at random and often wildly inappropriate moments. The dialogue is oblique, to say the least. Clipped phrases, both banal and portentous, reminiscent of Samuel Beckett or Alain Resnais’s art house classic Last Year In Marienbad, are followed by long pauses then a non sequitur, which gives the impression that if it was ordered just so everything would fall into place. All three characters have a solo piece where they recite abstract poetry that has tantalising references to dogs and dark smiling teeth.
Rabbits is short movie where nothing happens yet is redolent with atmosphere, helped by a dank soundtrack by frequent Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti. Oppressive, shot with a dark humour, sometimes boring but always terrifying, Rabbits was used in a study by University of British Columbia to induce a feeling of existential crisis in subjects.
In my post on the enigmatic French architect Jean-Jacques Lequeu I mentioned two other Utopian revolutionary Neoclassical architects whose visions remained largely on paper, Étienne-Louis Boullée and Claude-Nicholas Ledoux. As both architects produced interesting work in their own right and help situate Lequeu in the correct historical, intellectual and aesthetic context I felt follow up posts were necessary, starting with the originator of visionary architecture, Étienne-Louis Boullée.
Born in 1728, Boullée reacted against the frivolous decadence of the Rococo by returning to Classical forms (hence Neoclassicism), removing all unnecessary ornamentation and developing an abstract geometric style. Boullée stated that regularity, symmetry and variety were the golden rules of architecture. Another defining feature of Boullée’s projected work was it monumentalism, designed to invoke the sublime.
Boullée’s most famous work is the Cenotaph for Newton, a gargantuan monument consisting of a sphere taller than the Great Pyramid, to the idol of the Enlightenment. He also planned other Cenotaphs and tombs.
Peter Greenaway’s 1987 film The Belly of an Architect centers on an American architect staging an exhibition in Rome on Boullée. At one point a character remarks that Boullée’s work seems like a vision of Hell and I have to agree, though Boullée remains something of a hero of the Age of Reason.
Below are images of planned projects, including the Cenotaph for Newton, and two pieces of music from The Belly of an Architect.
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes.Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks.
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring,
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.
T.S Eliot The Waste Land 1922
It is no surprise really that the Tarot are mentioned at length in the masterpiece of Modernism, T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land from 1922. The notes alone are a treasure trove of esoteric references, making mention of the Cumaean Sibyl, The Golden Bough of James Frazer, the study of Arthurian legend From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston, Buddha’s Fire Sermon, Gérard de Nerval’s densely hermetic sonnet El Desdichadoand the Upanishads.
Interest in all matters esoteric and occult had become a feature of the avant-garde ever since the later Romantics, especially Charles Baudelaire and the above-mentioned Gérard de Nerval. Later in the 19th Century there would be Arthur Rimbaud with his theory of ‘the alchemy of the word’, the Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s stint in Paris as a practising alchemist, known as the Inferno Period, and various writers and painters connected to the Symbolist and Decadent movements, most notably J.K Huysmans and my personal favourite Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (see To the Dreamers, To the Deriders).
As the century progressed the Tarot became increasingly esoteric itself. This was quite a recent development, previously the Tarot had been a card game popular in Italy, France and Switzerland, though it also undisputedly used in cartomancy as well. However it was a theologian and Freemason, the Count Gébelin who first advanced the theory in 1781 that the Tarot was a repository of lost ancient knowledge, a theme developed at length by that strange figure known as Etteilla, who added that it was initially conceived by Hermes Tristemegistus himself and was actually ‘The Book of Thoth’. When the man responsible for the French Occult Revival, Eliphas Levi incorporated the Tarot into his magical system and tied the 22 cards of the Major Arcana with the 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet, the occultation of the Tarot was complete and it became an essential tool for any would-be magician. A quick comparison between any of the older versions of the Tarot with the most famous deck, the Rider-Waite-Smith of 1910 makes this clear, the Rider-Waite-Smith is self-consciously more “mystical”, with an over-abundance of symbolism.
In certain respects the Tarot was tailored-made for Modernism and Post-Modernism, with its emphasis on chance, interpenetration and the shifting, elusive nature of meaning. I have written previously on the Surrealist take on the standard deck of playing cards, Le Jeu Du Marseille-A Surrealist Pack of Cards, and both Salvador Dali and Ithell Colquhuon produced Tarot decks. The Italian post-modernist fabulist Italo Calvino wrote The Castle of Crossed Destinies where the entire plot is told through the Tarot. The Chilean-French film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky has written eloquently on the Tarot de Marseille and weaves the arcana throughout the acid western El Topo (The Mole) and The Holy Mountain.
In Douglas Cammell’s and Nicholas Roeg’s midnight classic movie Performance, the on-the-run gangster Chas Devlin (James Fox) turns up at the Notting Hill home of the reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) claiming, somewhat inexplicably, to be a juggler. The first numbered card of the Major Arcana is sometimes called The Juggler, though it nowadays most commonly referred to as The Magician. This hermetic figure points both downward (to the underworld) and upwards (to the stars), a perfect illustration of as above, so below, and prefigures the merging identities towards the end of the movie. Turner seems to realise the import of Devlin’s claim to be a juggler as he immediately comments, ‘You’re a performer of natural magic’.
A quick word on the selection of images; there are thousands of variants on the Tarot available so I have limited myself mainly to the classics. My own preference is for the Tarot De Marseille and the Swiss 1JJ, however the most recognisable is the Rider-Waite-Smith. I have included selections from Dali and Colquhuon as well as the deck designed by Lady Freida Harris for Aleister Crowley. For a contemporary rendition Ulla Von Brandenburg’s excellent deck shows that Tarot continue to fascinate and inspire.
… while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men.” Jorge Luis Borges
Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg’s 1970 film Performance is a goldmine of counter-culture and avant-garde influences. References to Anger, Artaud, Bacon, Burroughs, Crowley and Genet abound, however the greatest acknowledged debt is undoubtedly to the Argentine fabulist and writer of philosophical fictions; Jorge Luis Borges.
Early on in the movie we glimpse one of the gangsters reading A Personal Anthology, while later on reclusive rock star Turner reads out aloud an excerpt from El Sur (The South) from the same volume. The second part of the movie set in Turner’s decaying Notting Hill mansion, (long before the gentrification of the area), is particularly redolent of Borges with its themes of identity, doubles, labyrinths and the constant, disorientating use of mirrors. One of the final scenes in the movie is of a bullet travelling through the brain that shatters an image of Borges. Legend has it that when the director Donald Cammell committed suicide, by a shot to the back of his head in 1996, that he didn’t die instantaneously and while he waited to die he requested his wife to fetch a mirror so he could study his reactions and repeatedly asked her if she could see the picture of Borges yet, a particular eerie and grim instance of life (or rather death) imitating art.
El Sur is a particularly appropriate choice as it foreshadows themes present during the movie and certain elements of the ending. Borges rated it as his best story and suggests that it could be read in an entirely different way, without clarifying of course which is the correct reading.
The man who landed in Buenos Aires in 1871 bore the name of Johannes Dahlmann and he was a minister in the Evangelical Church. In 1939, one of his grandchildren, Juan Dahlmann, was secretary of a municipal library on Calle Cordoba, and he considered himself profoundly Argentinian. His maternal grandfather had been that Francisco Flores, of the Second Line-Infantry Division, who had died on the frontier of Buenos Aires, run through with a lance by Indians from Catriel; in the discord inherent between his two lines of descent, Juan Dahlmann (perhaps driven to it by his Germanic blood) chose the line represented by his romantic ancestor, his ancestor of the romantic death. An old sword, a leather frame containing the daguerreotype of a blank-faced man with a beard, the dash and grace of certain music, the familiar strophes of Martin Fierro, the passing years, boredom and solitude, all went to foster this voluntary, but never ostentatioous nationalism. At the cost of numerous small privations, Dahlmann had managed to save the empty shell of a ranch in the South which had belonged to the Flores family; he continually recalled the image of the balsamic eucalyptus trees and the great rose-colored house which had once been crimson. His duties, perhaps even indolence, kept him in the city. Summer after summer he contented himself with the abstract idea of possession and with the certitude that his ranch was waiting for him on a precise site in the middle of the plain. Late in February, 1939, something happened to him.
Blind to all fault, destiny can be ruthless at one’s slightest distraction. Dahlmann had succeeded in acquiring, on that very afternoon, an imperfect copy of Weil’s edition of The Thousand and One Nights. Avid to examine this find, he did not wait for the elevator but hurried up the stairs. In the obscurity, something brushed by his forehead: a bat, a bird? On the face of the woman who opened the door to him he saw horror engraved, and the hand he wiped across his face came away red with blood. The edge of a recently painted door which someone had forgotten to close had caused this wound. Dahlmann was able to fall asleep, but from the moment he awoke at dawn the savor of all things was atrociously poignant. Fever wasted him and the pictures in The Thousand and One Nights served to illustrate nightmares. Friends and relatives paid him visits and, with exaggerated smiles, assured him that they thought he looked fine. Dahlmann listened to them with a kind of feeble stupor and he marveled at their not knowing that he was in hell. A week, eight days passed, and they were like eight centuries. One afternoon, the usual doctor appeared, accompanied by a new doctor, and they carried him off to a sanitarium on the Calle Ecuador, for it was necessary to X-ray him. Dahlmann, in the hackney coach which bore them away, thought that he would, at last, be able to sleep in a room different from his own. He felt happy and communicative. When he arrived at his destination, they undressed him, shaved his head, bound him with metal fastenings to a stretcher; they shone bright lights on him until he was blind and dizzy, auscultated him, and a masked man stuck a needle into his arm. He awoke with a feeling of nausea, covered with a bandage, in a cell with something of a well about it; in the days and nights which followed the operation he came to realize that he had merely been, up until then, in a suburb of hell. Ice in his mouth did not leave the least trace of freshness. During these days Dahlmann hated himself in minute detail: he hated his identity, his bodily necessities, his humiliation, the beard which bristled up on his face. He stoically endured the curative measures, which were painful, but when the surgeon told him he had been on the point of death from septicemia, Dahlmann dissolved in tears of self-pity for his fate. Physical wretchedness and the incessant anticipation of horrible nights had not allowed him time to think of anything so abstact as death. On another day, the surgeon told him he was healing and that, very soon, he would be able to go to his ranch for convalescence. Incredibly enough, the promised day arrived.
Reality favors symmetries and slight anachronisms: Dahlmann had arrived at the sanitarium in a hackney coach and now a hackney coach was to take him to the Constitucion station. The first fresh tang of autumn, after the summer’s oppressiveness, seemed like a symbol in nature of his rescue and release from fever and death. The city, at seven in the morning, had not lost that air of an old house lent it by the night; the streets seemed like long vestibules, the plazas were like patios. Dahlmann recognized the city with joy on the edge of vertigo: a second before his eyes registered the phenomena themselves, he recalled the corners, the billboards, the modest variety of Buenos Aires. In the yellow light of the new day, all things returned to him.
Every Argentine knows that the South begins at the other side of Rivadavia. Dahlmann was in the habit of saying that this was no mere convention, that whoever crosses this street enters a more ancient and sterner world. From inside the carriage he sought out, among the new buildings, the iron grill window, the brass knocker, the arched door, the entrance way, the intimate patio.
At the railroad station he noted that he still had thirty minutes. He quickly recalled that in a cafe on the Calle Brazil (a few dozen feet from Yrigoyen’s house) there was an enormous cat which allowed itself to be caressed as if it were a disdainful divinity. He entered the cafe. There was the cat, asleep. He ordered a cup of coffee, slowly stirred the sugar, sipped it (this pleasure had been denied him in the clinic), and thought, as he smoothed the cat’s black coat, that this contact was an illusion and that the two beings, man and cat, were as good as separated by a glass, for man lives in time, in succession, while the magical animal lives in the present, in the eternity of the instant.
Along the next to the last platform the train lay waiting. Dahlmann walked through the coaches until he found one almost empty. He arranged his baggage in the network rack. When the train started off, he took down his valise and extracted, after some hesitation, the first volume of The Thousand and One Nights. To travel with this book, which was so much a part of the history of his ill-fortune, was a kind of affirmation that his ill-fortune had been annulled; it was a joyous and secret defiance of the frustrated forces of evil.
Along both sides of the train the city dissipated into suburbs; this sight, and then a view of the gardens and villas, delayed the beginning of his reading. The truth was that Dahlmann read very little. The magnetized mountain and the genie who swore to kill his benefactor are – who would deny it? – marvelous, but not so much more than the morning itself and the mere fact of being. The joy of life distracted him from paying attention to Scheherezade and her superfluous miracles. Dahlmann closed his book and allowed himself to live.
Lunch – the bouillon served in shining metal bowls, as in the remote summers of childhood – was one more peaceful and rewarding delight.
Tomorrow I’ll wake up at the ranch, he thought, and it was as if he was two men at a time: the man who traveled through the autumn day and across the geography of the fatherland, and the other one, locked up in a sanitarium and subject to methodical servitude. He saw unplastered brick houses, long and angled, timelessly watching the trains go by; he saw horsemen along the dirt roads; he saw gullies and lagoons and ranches; he saw great luminous clouds that resembled marble; and all these things were accidental, casual, like dreams of the plain. He also thought he recognized trees and crop fields; but he would not have been able to name them, for his actual knowledge of the country side was quite inferior to his nostalgic and literary knowledge.
From time to time he slept, and his dreams were animated by the impetus of the train. The intolerable white sun of high noon had already become the yellow sun which precedes nightfall, and it would not be long before it would turn red. The railroad car was now also different; it was not the same as the one which had quit the station siding at Constitucion; the plain and the hours had transfigured it. Outside, the moving shadow of the railroad car stretched toward the horizon. The elemental earth was not perturbed either by settlements or other signs of humanity. The country was vast but at the same time intimate and, in some measure, secret. The limitless country sometimes contained only a solitary bull. The solitude was perfect, perhaps hostile, and it might have occurred to Dahlmann that he was travelling into the past and not merely south. He was distracted form these considerations by the railroad inspector who, on reading his ticket, advised him that the train would not let him off at the regular station but at another: an earlier stop, one scarcely known to Dahlmann. (The man added an explanation which Dahlmann did not attempt to understand, and which he hardly heard, for the mechanism of events did not concern him.)
The train laboriously ground to a halt, practically in the middle of the plain. The station lay on the other side of the tracks; it was not much more than a siding and a shed. There was no means of conveyance to be seen, but the station chief supposed that the traveler might secure a vehicle from a general store and inn to be found some ten or twelve blocks away.
Dahlmann accepted the walk as a small adventure. The sun had already disappeared from view, but a final splendor, exalted the vivid and silent plain, before the night erased its color. Less to avoid fatigue than to draw out his enjoyment of these sights, Dahmann walked slowly, breathing in the odor of clover with sumptuous joy.
The general store at one time had been painted a deep scarlet, but the years had tempered this violent color for its own good. Something in its poor architecture recalled a steel engraving, perhaps one from an old edition of Paul et Virginie. A number of horses were hitched up to the paling. Once inside, Dahlmann thought he recognized the shopkeeper. Then he realized that he had been deceived by the man’s resemblance to one of the male nurses in the sanitarium. When the shopkeeper heard Dahlmann’s request, he said he would have the shay made up. In order to add one more event to that day and to kill time, Dahlmann decided to eat at the general store.
Some country louts, to whom Dahlmann did not at first pay any attention, were eating and drinking at one of the tables. On the floor, and hanging on to the bar, squatted an old man, immobile as an object. His years had reduced and polished him as water does a stone or the generations of men do a sentence. He was dark, dried up , diminutive, and seemed outside time, situated in eternity. Dahlmann noted with satisfaction the kerchief, the thick poncho, the long chiripa, and the colt boots, and told himself, as he recalled futile discussions with people from the Northern counties or from the province of Entre Rios, that gauchos like this no longer existed outside the South.
Dahlmann sat down next to the window. The darkness began overcoming the plain, but the odor and sound of the earth penetrated the iron bars of the window. The shop owner brought him sardines, followed by some roast meat. Dahlmann washed the meal down with several glasses of red wine. Idling, he relished the tart savor of the wine, and let his gaze, now grown somewhat drowsy, wander over the shop. A kerosene lamp hung from a beam. There were three customers at the other table: two of them appeared to be farm workers; the third man, whose features hinted at Chinese blood, was drinking with his hat on. Of a sudden, Dahlmann felt something brush lightly against his face. Next to the heavy glass of turbid wine, upon one of the stripes in the table cloth, lay a spit ball of breadcrumb. That was all: but someone had thrown it there.
The men at the other table seemed totally cut off from him. Perplexed, Dahlmann decided that nothing had happened, and he opened the volume of The Thousand and One Nights, by way of suppressing reality. After a few moments another little ball landed on his table, and now the peons laughed outright. Dahlmann said to himself that he was not frightened, but he reasoned that it would be a major blunder if he, a convalescent, were to allow himself to be dragged by strangers into some chaotic quarrel. He determined to leave, and had already gotten to his feet when the owner came up and exhorted him in an alarmed voice:
“Senor Dahlmann, don’t pay any attention to those lads; they’re half high.”
Dahlmann was not surprised to learn that the other man, now, knew his name. But he felt that these conciliatory words served only to aggravate the situation. Previous to the moment, the peons provocation was directed against an unknown face, against no one in particular, almost against no one at all. Now it was an attack against him, against his name, and his neighbors knew it. Dahlmann pushed the owner aside, confronted the peons, and demanded to know what they wanted of him.
The tough with a Chinese look staggered heavily to his feet. Almost in Juan Dahlmann’s face he shouted insults, as if he had been a long way off. He game was to exaggerate constituted ferocious mockery. Between curses and obscenities, he threw a long knife into the air, followed it with his eyes, caught and juggled it, and challenged Dahlmann to a knife fight. The owner objected in a tremulous voice, pointing out that Dahlmann was unarmed. At this point, something unforeseeable occurred.
From a corner of the room, the old ecstatic gaucho – in whom Dahlmann saw a summary and cipher of the South (his South) – threw him a naked dagger, which landed at his feet. It was as if the South had resolved that Dahlmann should accept the duel. Dahlmann bent over to pick up the dagger, and felt two things. The first, that this almost instinctive act bound him to fight. The second, that the weapon, in his torpid hand, was no defense at all, but would merely serve to justify his murder. He had once played with a poniard, like all men, but his idea of fencing and knife-play did not go further than the notion that all strokes should be directed upwards, with the cutting edge held inwards. They would not have allowed such things ot happen to me in the sanitarium, he thought.
“Let’s get on our way,” said that other man.
They went out and if Dahlmann was without hope, he was also without fear. As he crossed the threshold, he felt that to die in a knife fight, under the open sky, and going forward to the attack, would have been a liberation, a joy, and a festive occasion, on the first night in the sanitarium, when they stuck him with the needle. He felt that if he had been able to choose, then, or to dream his death, this would have been the death he would have chosen or dreamt.
Firmly clutching his knife, which he perhaps would not know how to wield, Dahlmann went out into the plain.