5 minutes reading time (1057 words)

Dream or Drudge?

An irresistible sleeping sickness had Perl in its grip.

Hard to imagine two more different people than Alfred Kubin and Eric Basso. Kubin: print maker, illustrator of the works of Poe and E.T.A. Hoffmann, sometime associate of the Blaue Reiter. Basso a novelist, poet, playwright and critic, a modernist in the best sense of the term, a man located far off the mainstream. Yet, they've both offered visions of societies collapsing under the grip of plagues of sleeping sickness. In Kubin's 1908 novel, The Other Side (quoted above), the sickness gradually overruns the city of Perl, a strange, failing utopia located outside customary space and time. In Basso's 1977 cult classic, The Beak Doctor, the sickness has already consumed an unnamed town whose deserted streets are choked by swirling fog and which teeters on the verge of collapse:

Silence. Staring down into the billowing white set diaphanous wing-flutters pulsing at the corners of my eyes… On either side of the bridge planks extended less than three feet into blank space. Without top or bottom… Centre depth. The footbridge seemed more and more to be hanging without support over an unsoundable gulf.

In Kubin's book, written at a time when war and the collapse of the old order seemed ever more likely, the sleepers become both the victim of and the medium for violence and the rapid disintegration of ordered reality; Basso is more ambiguous, yet it's difficult not to see the ranks of sleeping patients, more or less left unattended in a railway yard's roundhouse, as being members of the TV Nation, insensate and passive.

I found a curious parallel to these stories in the novel, The Green Face, Gustav Meyrink's 1916 follow-up to his darkly mysterious debut, The Golem (first published in book form in 1915). A Czech who, like Kafka, wrote in German and who felt himself an outsider in his own culture, Meyrink's mixture of the visionary and the occult makes his writing a fine companion to Kubin's novel (the artist's only work of fiction, Kubin using illustrations intended originally for The Golem in his own novel).

The Green Face is set in the period immediately after the end of the First World War, when Europe is jaded with exhaustion and ennui and, it becomes increasingly clear, on the brink of a cataclysm every bit as profound as the one which overtakes the city of Perl and the unnamed location of Basso's novella. Hauberrisser, a world-weary engineer (and his profession is significant: it's hard to conceive of a more rational and materialist calling) stumbles into a spiritual quest that might lead to transcendence itself. Along the way, he receives this advice:

Wakefulness is all… Man thinks himself secure in his belief that he is watchful and yet, in truth, he is caught in a net he has woven himself from sleep and dreams. The more closely meshed the net, the stronger the power of sleep; those that are caught in it are they that sleep, that go through life like the lamb to the slaughterhouse, unknowing, uncaring, unthinking.

Difficult not to find parallels to our own time and culture in these three disparate and yet powerfully connected works. Ours is a time when fatalism has supplanted the optimism of the not so recent past; a time of impuissance and the blind acceptance it brings; a time where we are encouraged to dispel ennui in a hedonistic orgy of stuff and sex and the vacuous spectacles of the entertainment industry. We are to told accept the dissolution of our culture because there is "no alternative".

The drive to acceptance has become entrenched in our very language. The Dadaists, sickened by the cant and lies of their respective governments and national media, developed a profound distrust for "official language". In his novella, Story of Your Life (cruelly neutered in its gormless Hollywood adaptation), Ted Chiang posits that language moulds our perception of reality. It's not simply the twisted worldview of a Daily Mail flat-earther that lends credence to both positions; the common use of managerial hugger-mugger such as "leveraging" (in the context of exploring possibilities and exploiting existing strengths) or "dynamic" (in the sense of exciting or new) is as disturbing as it is irritating. But it is not that these terms impoverish our spoken language, it is that they help shape how we see ourselves and others. I read an article recently that encouraged writers to think of themselves as corporate brands: not creative individuals, not human beings with a diversity of moods and interests, but homogenised entities with a predictable and unvarying presence that conforms to a range of preconceptions. A small change meant only to offer some semblance of security in a difficult and insecure walk of life, perhaps, but this is not an isolated case. We are frequently encourage — exhorted, in fact — to shed our humanity and embrace the habits and mannerisms of worker drones. Because, don't forget, "there is no alternative".

Should we accept any this? Is it, perhaps, the case that the decline of profits and the dotage of Capitalism are not givens we must persevere through, grateful for whatever scraps our culture has left to give us? Is it, rather, not only for their incompetence and cretinism that we should condemn our political classes, but for their bankruptcy of imagination, incapable as they are of entertaining any possibility of alternative? The power of the imagination is cruelly curtailed in our culture. Miserly notions of "intellectual property" reduce creativity to mere figures on a balance sheet and shackle our capacity to dream and to invent. Imagination is Protean; money is not. So, we must train our imaginations to run further, faster, wilder, to leap and expand. We must abandon convention, forge new words and new conceptions. As readers, we must no longer accept what is foisted on us by mainstream media and corporate publishing — we must take chances, follow instinct, search for those writers who are fired by imagination's power. As writers we must strive to be those very same authors, dare to write what has not been written or which we are told is not wanted: champion the individual, embrace the unexpected, revel in the non-conformist. And as human beings, we must, above all, strive to a state of wakefulness.

Image: Golem Town © A. Craig

Don't Find Your Purpose, Create It
2017 Debut Novel/Novella Prize — The Results
 

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Saturday, 23 March 2019