This 1821 book introduces one of the most famous and well-loved heroes in fiction. It stars in Junky by William Seward Burroughs, Trainspotting by Irving Welsh, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson, and Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby, and countless others besides.
You’ll find our book’s hero in a green pod behind the amaranthine petals of a Papaver somniferum poppy plant. The resin inside the pod is called opium, and it contains the analgesic alkaloid known as morphine. When this alkaloid is ingested, injected, or snorted, it attaches itself to receptors in nerve cells, inhibiting neurotransmitter release, and giving you a pretty good weekend in Vegas.
Opioids have uses – try facing a root-canal without one – but they’re also dangerous. Take enough, and you forget to feel pain. Take too much, and you literally forget to breath.
“Among the remedies which has pleased the Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium” – Physician Thomas Sydenham (1624-89)
Opium was the cat’s pajamas in Romance-Era Britain. Everyone from Byron to Keats composed under the magistration of a pipe or a glass of laudanum. It was one of the only drugs they had that worked, and additionally, and it was fashionable: opium was seen (particularly by Romantic writers) as a gateway to a mystical oriental experience that only a cultured and wordly mind could appreciate.
But many opium users were clearly addicts. Confessions of an English Opium Eater is a rare bird: a Romantic account written by an ex-addict with the self awareness to know it.
It’s not packed with outrageous sin and depravity. Nor is full of incoherent drooling about the divine fractal oneness of the cosmos (etc etc). It’s a conventional narrative, and some of the most fascinating parts don’t involve drugs at all. You’ll learn a lot about how things were in England at the time, or at least I did.
The beginning section describes the author’s early life and matriculation, followed by his descent into poverty and homelessness that’s basically self-inflicted (he picks a fight with a bishop who he believes has insulted him, and loses his lodgings). He subsists at the margins of society, eating berries and earning money by writing love letters for illiterate young people. Apparently you could make a living doing that at one point.
De Quincey writes affectingly of the conditions affecting London’s lower classes, particularly orphans and prostitutes. A lot of the book could be viewed as proto-Dickensian. There’s a terrifying sense of atomization to this dark gaslit world that has no modern parallel – once De Quincey loses track of a person, he can usually never find them again. Friends just disappear, like they were never there. These people have no fixed address, no way of receiving mail, and sometimes not even a surname. But they’re loyal to each other – often De Quincey gets out of trouble with the police because a helpful urchen or streetwalker vouches on his behalf.
His fortunes improve at the intercession of some moneylending Jews, and while trying to establish a trade, he winds up on Oxford Street, buying opium to help the pain of a toothache (ironically, he becomes an addict perfectly legally, and only after he escapes the underground). He describes his first dose like this:
I took it—and in an hour—oh, heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished was now a trifle in my eyes: this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me—in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed.
“Abyss of divine enjoyment” is both paradoxical and religious in tone. But drugs are paradoxes, combining the holy and the foul. They midwife beautiful literature, midwife insanity and necrotizing fasciitis. And the religious suggestions aren’t strange: religious ecstasy and drug trips look very similar to the outsider (and maybe to the insider, too).
Across the Atlantic, the Civil War was brewing, where countless tons of opium would be used to treat battlefield injuries. It would be called “God’s Own Medicine”. Later doctors would refer to opium’s primary alkaloid as morphine, after Morpheus, Ovid’s God of sleep and dreams. The last and most devastating of opium’s children is heroin, derived from hero, who were traditionally men with divine ancestry. Drugs are debased spirituality inside a dirty needle.
De Quincey’s tail leads us on in familiar directions. Higher dosages. Higher thrills. He takes 1,000 drops of laudanum a day! He reads Kant, and actually understands him! There’s some great writing about his drug-created hallucinations. These have potential to drag, but they’re kept brief enough that they don’t. If the first section is proto-Dickens, the second is proto-Timothy Leary.
But things start going bad. The dreams become extremely disturbing nightmares.
The waters now changed their character—from translucent lakes shining like mirrors they now became seas and oceans. And now came a tremendous change, which, unfolding itself slowly like a scroll through many months, promised an abiding torment; and in fact it never left me until the winding up of my case. Hitherto the human face had mixed often in my dreams, but not despotically nor with any special power of tormenting. But now that which I have called the tyranny of the human face began to unfold itself. Perhaps some part of my London life might be answerable for this. Be that as it may, now it was that upon the rocking waters of the ocean the human face began to appear; the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces upturned to the heavens—faces imploring, wrathful, despairing, surged upwards by thousands, by myriads, by generations, by centuries: my agitation was infinite; my mind tossed and surged with the ocean.
De Quincey might have actually killed a man in this period. While on an opium trip, a Malaysian gentleman knocks upon his door. Neither of them can talk to each other, but as a show of brotherhood, De Quincey hands him a large slab of opium.
I was struck with some little consternation when I saw him suddenly raise his hand to his mouth, and, to use the schoolboy phrase, bolt the whole, divided into three pieces, at one mouthful. The quantity was enough to kill three dragoons and their horses, and I felt some alarm for the poor creature; but what could be done? I had given him the opium in compassion for his solitary life, on recollecting that if he had travelled on foot from London it must be nearly three weeks since he could have exchanged a thought with any human being. I could not think of violating the laws of hospitality by having him seized and drenched with an emetic, and thus frightening him into a notion that we were going to sacrifice him to some English idol. No: there was clearly no help for it. He took his leave, and for some days I felt anxious, but as I never heard of any Malay being found dead, I became convinced that he was used to opium; and that I must have done him the service I designed by giving him one night of respite from the pains of wandering.
Was the Malaysian man really “used to opium”? Or was this a self-serving fiction to ease a guilty conscience? Whatever happened to the Malaysian man, he returns to haunt De Quincey’s nightmares, along with a host of other spectres.
The inevitable part where he hits rock-bottom is dealt with only briefly. That’s my main issue: the tale feels lopsided and front-heavy, giving too much weight to his lodging disputes while neglecting the story’s main thrust of addiction. In a later edition, he expands his experiences, but apparently the earlier version is the better one. More words doesn’t always equal more meaning, as any reader of Stephen King can tell you.
So, an interesting read, and an educational one, but perhaps not always a truthful one. I’ve always wondered how much of a drug experience comes from the user, instead of the drug. Thanks to the placebo effect, drugs can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Haven’t we all seen someone at a party drink one beer and suddenly start slurring his speech and groping girls’ asses? He’s not drunk. He just thinks he’s drunk. He’s granting himself permission to let go. The beer could have been tablewater – all it really did was act as an emotional go sign.
De Quincey didn’t know of the placebo effect, but he was aware that drug experiences are idiosyncratic toward the user.
If a man “whose talk is of oxen” should become an opium-eater, the probability is that (if he is not too dull to dream at all) he will dream about oxen; whereas, in the case before him, the reader will find that the Opium-eater boasteth himself to be a philosopher; and accordingly, that the phantasmagoria of his dreams (waking or sleeping, day-dreams or night-dreams) is suitable to one who in that character.
Roland Fisher famously described Aldous Huxley’s 1954 drug book The Doors of Perception as “99 percent Aldous Huxley and only one half gram mescaline”. The same might be true for De Quincey’s adventures, over a hundred years earlier. The fault, in the end, lies not in our doors, but in ourselves.
The God, uneasy ’till he slept again,
Resolv’d at once to rid himself of pain;
And, tho’ against his custom, call’d aloud,
Exciting Morpheus from the sleepy crowd:
Morpheus, of all his numerous train, express’d
The shape of man, and imitated best;
The walk, the words, the gesture could supply,
The habit mimick, and the mein bely;
Plays well, but all his action is confin’d,
Extending not beyond our human kind.
Another, birds, and beasts, and dragons apes,
And dreadful images, and monster shapes:
This demon, Icelos, in Heav’n’s high hall
The Gods have nam’d; but men Phobetor call.
A third is Phantasus, whose actions roul
On meaner thoughts, and things devoid of soul;
Earth, fruits, and flow’rs he represents in dreams,
And solid rocks unmov’d, and running streams.
These three to kings, and chiefs their scenes display,
The rest before th’ ignoble commons play.
Of these the chosen Morpheus is dispatch’d;
Which done, the lazy monarch, over-watch’d,
Down from his propping elbow drops his head,
Dissolv’d in sleep, and shrinks within his bed.
The Metamorphosis, Book the Eleventh 11:891 Ovid
Apocalypse Culture is a 1987 survey of “fringe” culture. It’s not a book, it’s a pointing finger. “Hey, were you aware of this satanic cult? This serial killer? This illegal medical procedure?”
But we have the internet now, and the 2edgy4u info junkies in Parfrey’s target audience just answered “Yes, yes, and yes.” And even if you didn’t know these things, a print book isn’t a good way to learn about them. Books are good but also bad: you can’t drill deeper into an interesting topic by clicking a hyperlink, can’t look up the definition of an unfamiliar word, can’t view a comment challenging the author’s theory and positing a different one, etc. Dives into the tangled parts of the world are better done online, and publications like Apocalypse Culture (including Russ Kick’s Psychotropia, V Vale’s Re:Search, David Kerekes’ Killing for Culture, Jim Goad’s Gigantic Book of Sex, etc ad nauseam) are obsolete, no longer worth buying, reading, or writing.
Or, if you buy and read them, it won’t be for their original purpose. They’re interesting as historical documents: the late 80s and 90s are occupy a fuzzy position in society’s light cone: too recent to be historiographed like the 1960s, too old to be reliably archived by the internet. There’s a lot about the specific weltanschauung of 1995 (for example) that is largely forgotten except by the people who were there.
Millenium psychosis, for example. Kids often find it hard to believe that a lot of people thought the world was going to end in the year 2000. They were counting down the days until 1/1/2000, when computers would explode, the banking system would crash, and the human race would be dragged back to the Middle Ages. I had a friend ask me if I owned a pet, I said yes (a cat), and he advised me to emotionally prepare myself for the day I killed and cooked my pet for food. Twenty five winters ago.
A lot of this “not long…not long…” mentality is found in Apocalypse Culture, – more accurately, it saturates the text, like a layer of salt or spice. Every aberrant sex act and laceration is adduced to the fact that the end is coming, and we deserve it. JG Ballard describes the book as “terminal documents” for the 20th century. That sort of fits. The world didn’t end in 2000, but if it had, this book’s contents could be filed under Cause of Death.
In The Unrepentant Necrophile: we meet Karen Greenlee, “an American criminal who was convicted of stealing a hearse and having sex with the corpse it contained”. She explains the appeal of necrophilia (without success, it must be said), as well as the mechanics – for example, how does a woman perform a meaningful sex act with a corpse (answer: with a strong imagination). Necrophilia isn’t what it was in the 70s. Once, one of Karen’s signature moves was straddling a corpse and making it purge blood from its mouth into her own. In the age of HIV, it’s no longer safe to do this.
There’s a rare pre-arrest interview with Peter Sotos, who offers some typically sensitive thoughts on the gender issue (“Homos are a bit more attractive than women when they’re on top but disgusting when they’re on bottom. That sort of submissiveness stinks of femaleness.”)
Much of the book assumes you’re already ass-deep down one intellectual rabbit hole or another, and is inaccessible to newcomers. The Cosmic Pulse of Life is a discussion of psychoanalyst UFO researcher Wilhelm Reich’s work, and slings around terms like “orgone energy operation” and “kreiselwelle functions” without the slightest clue that the reader might need a guiding hand. The article gets silly at the end, with Reich zapping UFOs hovering over his lab with orgone-powered laser weapons. It might have been written as a joke.
There’s a bit of 1488, if you catch my meaning. Another reason books like Apocalypse Culture are out of vogue is that even fans of edgy media don’t really want to platform Nazis. Parfrey (who, under the Amok Press name, published a novel by Goebbels) didn’t give a fuck. One of the longest pieces in the book is his surprisingly well-read histography of eugenics, which he concludes is a good idea that should be practiced again. He paid the social price: a lot of contemporary discussion of (half-Jewish) Parfrey and his works consists of rebarbative arguments about whether he was a Nazi or not.
There are some unreadable things by Hakim Bey and Anton Szandor LaVey, who probably got in the book because of their names. Famous names are dangerous: they tend to open doors that should have stayed shut. The Invisible War ranks as the stupidest thing in the book. It reads like it was written by your 80 year old hippy aunt who just got into QAnon. I’m convinced Parfrey would have published the High Priest of Satan’s grocery list.
Maybe my favorite thing is Every Science is a Mutilated Octopus, by Charles Fort.
Every science is a mutilated octopus. If its tentacles were not clipped to stumps. it would feel its way into disturbing contacts. To a believer. the effect of the contemplation of a science is of being in the presence of the good, the true. and the beautiful. But what he is awed by is mutilation. To our crippled intellects. only the maimed is what we call understandable, because the unclipped ramifies into all other things. According to my aesthetics, what is meant by beautiful is symmetrical deformation.
This is bad writing but an interesting perspective, and one that’s withstood the years better than LaVey’s talk of subsonic earthquakes triggered by the government. Science is dangerous. Not as a side effect, but as a direct product. The more science we do, the more danger we expose ourselves to.
Think of the things we’ve gained since Fort died in 1932. Nuclear weapons, defoliants, Biopreparat. The future holds worse. A superintelligent AI with goals misaligned with humanity would conceivably eliminate us with the unthinking inevitability a land-grader crushing an anthill. Science must be mutilated if we’re to survive it. Science with its tentacles intact might be more than just an octopus. It might be Cthulhu.
Books take the wild flux of changing times and freeze a snapshot of it. A lot of the past looks strange now, but was compelling when you were in the midst of it, and Apocalypse Culture brings it all back. And perhaps tomorrow, these alien fears and obsessions might become relevant once again. The universe is the site of a neverending apocalypse, and we’re standing in the middle of it, wondering how everything can be exploding all the time without the sky ever going dark.
Mick Norman (the pen name of Laurence James) wrote four Angels from Hell novels in the 1970s, and this 1994 collection from Creation rescues them from out-of-printness.
The rescue effort was worth it: they’re fast, brutal, addictive novels about biker gangs, set in a dystopian 1990s Britain. Petrocarbons are burned, laws are broken, women are deflowered. The novels are short and were clearly quickly written (why didn’t Creation fix the copy errors?), but they’re loaded with energy, heart, and humor, and have hardly aged at all. There are read-in-one-go books; this is practically a read-in-one-go series.
Disillusioned vet Gerald Vinson becomes a patched-in member of the Last Heroes chapter of the Hells Angels, where his intelligence, training, and leadership abilities soon see him in command of the charter. But when you ride a tiger you can’t ever get off, and Gerry is enmeshed in wars against rival chapters, switchblade-wielding football hooligans, crooked journalists, and a neo-fascistic British government that seeks to destroy the Angels (given the hundreds of homicides the Angels are involved in over the course of the series, one doesn’t feel too outraged).
The main character, of course, is almost the bikes themselves. They serve the same function as horses do in Westerns – partly a method of transport (you can go almost anywhere on a bike, and very quickly), and partly a symbol of masculinity. One surefire way to know shit’s about to go down in the books is that a biker has his “hog” sabotaged or destroyed.
The political incorrectness is high. Mick Norman doesn’t seem to like homosexuals: his villains are flamboyantly gay far more frequently than chance would predict. I also don’t believe there’s one female character who isn’t killed, raped, threatened with rape, beaten to a pulp, or some combination of the previous, aside from the old lady at the start of Guardian Angels, who merely has a man’s severed head flung through her car’s front windshield. There’s one British-African character that I can recall. He provides help to Gerry, and he and his family get burned to death by Gerry’s enemies for their trouble.
If I had a complaint, the books get smaller in scope as they progress, instead of bigger. The first one (Angels from Hell) is Gerry vs the government. The second (Angel Challenge) is Gerry vs a rival chapter. The third (Guardian Angels) is Gerry vs a couple of hoodlums. The fourth (Angels on my Mind) is Gerry vs a single psychotic cop, who (in a scenario reminiscent of Stephen King’s Misery, which it precedes by fifteen years) has illegally detained him and chained him in his basement, where his even more batshit psychologist wife seeks to “study” him.
They’re fine tales, but the first has an exhilarating sense of “us against the world” that is never quite recaptured, replaced instead by weary Ballardian nihilism.
The bikers = cowboys metaphor I posited above breaks down quickly. Cowboys in the paperback Westerns always had pro-social goals – saving towns from bandits and cattle rustlers is a noble deed. But none of Gerry’s men and women are good people. Their world has no use for good people. Nice guys don’t just finish last, they finish in body bags. But they also don’t have any long-term goals; everyone seems to be staring into the same black pit. Their battles and rides lead to more battles and rides. What’s the point? But then, what’s the point of a biker gang in real life? To have brothers? A brother that’s going to squeal on you at the first scent of a plea bargain?
How do you write a novel about a bad person and persuade the reader to care? Typically, by making the other characters even worse – gangster films traditionally pit “good” criminals (honorable men, bound by loyalty and brotherhood) against “bad” criminals (unprincipled lunatics). It’s sort of like making your worst-smelling clothes smell good by rubbing your nose in shit. Norman’s approach is different: he makes the “straights” equally bad, just in a different way. One of the books ends with an open-ended question: who is to blame for the Angels? They didn’t fall out of the sky. Our society made them. Our society will make more of them.
The best book is Angel’s Challenge, which features an absurd premise that at least gives the story some anchoring: two biker gangs agree to a scavenger hunt across London, with the losers being forced to disband and burn their colors. But in the third book, an existential loneliness sets in. The fascistic government is out of power. There’s nothing left to do, and Gerry’s bikers end up working as roadies for rock bands (echoes of the legendary Altamont Free Concert in 1969, where a Hells Angels security detail ended up fracturing skulls and stabbing people). They are empty men inside. It’s a miracle that they don’t shatter like eggshells when they crash.
They have their freedom, at least. Freedom to do what?
In this 1933 novel, a young woman called Doris gets laid. Too bad that’s only half the sentence, and the second half is “off from work”.
Wearing a stolen fur coat, she journeys to Berlin, intending to make it big as a Glanz – a film star.
“I want to become a star. I want to be at the top. With a white car and bubble bath that smells of perfume, and everything just like in Paris. And people have a great deal of respect for me because I’m glamorous.”
Her plans fail, and she ends up increasingly far from the high life, working as a maid, a pickpocket, and eventually a “girlfriend experience” (to use a modern euphemism). She’s following her dreams, but they’re leading her backwards: like a riptide where swimming harder means drowning faster. All she has is the fur coat, reminding her of the possibility of dreams. But the coat doesn’t belong to her. It’s someone else’s.
Keun writes a character who is stupid and smart at the same time: given to psychological monologues worthy of a tenured psychiatrist while completely unaware of how and when she’s being manipulated by others – men, institutions, and society. Being an actor is hard. You need to be focused, hard-working, very, very lucky, and at the end of the day you either have “it” or you don’t. Before coronavirus hit, Hollywood and West LA were stacked tens of thousands deep with aspiring actors, bussing tables and mowing lawns and firing out headshots like despairing messages in bottles. They won’t all succeed. Supply outstrips demand a hundredfold. “Why does New York have lots of garbage and Los Angeles have lots of actors? Because New York got to pick first.”
The Artificial Silk Girl is a kind of Grecian tragedy – a narrative that moves on towards an inevitable unhappy conclusion, while having a bitchy, funny air that makes it readable ninety years later. It’s seldom depressing or sad: Doris has a bulldog’s tenacity, and never gets kicked down for long. This, ironically, makes her into her own worst enemy: a more realistic girl would have gone home long ago.
The period setting is as much a character in the book as any of the people. Germany’s Weimar years (1918 to 1933) are often viewed as a kind of modern-day Flood parable: an orgy of decadence preceding disaster. There’s hints of political events unfolding, but Doris is blind to them: she’s trying to hustle rich men and get film roles.
She herself is apolitical, but the author wasn’t. When the NSDAP came to power, books The Artificial Silk Girl became unacceptable, and were burned on massive bonfires. Irmgard Keun (living dangerously, one thinks) actually attempted to sue the Gestapo for loss of income.
But Das Kunstseidene Mädchen is most successful not as a political or feminist polemic, but a cautionary tale of the dangers of following a dream. Sometimes ideas are just bad, and it’s almost better for them to fail immediately than to continue on: just as it’s better for a jet plane engine to break down on the runway than at an altitude of 5,000 feet.
Doris’s momentary successes seem almost cruel, because they perpetuate a fantasy. Just when she’s at the end of everything, a ray of light appears…just enough so that she keeps chasing her dream, and remains impoverished, starving, and wearing stolen clothes.
And now we speak of a defining trend in 20th century literature, the Animal Book.
They’re earnest and naturalistic accounts of an animal’s life, usually set in rural England. You can’t push a pendulum without having it swing back the other way, and the industrial revolution (and World War I) provoked a renewed interest in pastoralism, naturalism, traditionalism, and so forth.
Animals were seen as the noblest savages: unspoiled by civilization. Books about them flooded the market, even as the animals inspiring them became fewer, and were driven to the edge of extinction. It’s as if the books were absorbing the souls of animals falling slain on fen and veldt and savannah. Was this the Victorian English version of mind uploading? “The African elephant is dead, but we have preserved its immortal essence in Babar.”
Nearly everyone tried their hand at at an Animal Book, but you couldn’t use the same animal as another famous author, and soon the good ones were taken. Wolves? White Fang. Horses? Black Beauty. Deer? Bambi. Dogs? The Call of the Wild. Tigers? The Jungle Book (not as a POV character). Sheep? Who wants to read a book about sheep? The Decennary Brits got greedy, burned through all the good animals in a few short years, Peak Animal occurred, and now authors are left with options like An Earwig’s Life and Odyssey of the Tardigrade. The future looks bleak.
Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson is in the middle of the pack of Animal Books. It’s not brilliant, but it’s readable, and frequently moving in its evocation of the English countryside. It’s probably the best book you can write about an otter.
The story is simple and not very consequential. Tarka is born in Devonshire, learns to swim, feed, and clean himself, makes some friends, goes on adventures, and battles repeatedly with the hound Deadlock, who has a Terminator-esque fixation upon him.
Tarka dies at the end. Don’t feel bad: he lived a very full life. Animal Book authors were never afraid of downer endings: it’s the circle of life, and so forth. Many of them were almost indecently eager for you to know that the animal dies: this novel’s full title is Tarka the Otter: His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers.
What will stay with you is the descriptions, which immerse you in sights, scents, and sounds.
Time flowed with the sunlight of the still green place. The summer drakeflies, whose wings were as the most delicate transparent leaves, hatched from their cases on the water and danced over the shadowed surface. Scarlet and blue and emerald dragonflies caught them with rustle and click of bright whirring wings. It was peaceful for the otters in the back-water, ring-rippled with the rises of fish, a waving mirror of trees and the sky, of grey doves among green ash-sprays, of voles nibbling sweet roots on the banks. The moorhen paddling with her first brood croaked from under an arch of streamside hawthorn, where the sun-shafts slanting into the pool lit the old year’s leafdust drifting like smoke underwater. The otter heard every wild sound as she lay unsleeping, thinking of her lost one. The cubs breathed softly, but sometimes their nostrils worked and their legs moved, as though they were running.
The countryside is pretty, but also deadly. The giant otters of South America are apex predators, but European otters such as Tarka are not, and there are a lot of things in Devonshire trying to eat him.
I’ve often felt that the success of Animal Books rely on fear: convincing human readers to be scared of things an animal is scared of. A slithering movement at the water’s edge. An unexpected shadow darkening the sun. Tarka handles this better than most. There’s a vivid scene where otters have to cross a brightly-lit field like soldiers storming an enemy position, hugging shade, because the sunlight will catch on their glossy coats and turn them into a flashing light for predators. Richard Adams’ rabbits have a thousand enemies, but Henry Williamson’s otters have a couple hundred of their own.
By the way, “drakefly” is an archaic term for “mayfly”. The book is written using old and odd words, and my copy includes a dictionary. “Appledrane” is a wasp that has burrowed into an apple. “Oolypuggers” means bulrushes (I’m a bit skeptical that this is a real world – Google has no record of anyone using that word outside of Tarka).“Aerymouse” is a common British bat, and frankly, I rather like that word. Why did we stop calling bats aerymouses?
Also, why Animal Books? This reverence to nature has sinister undertones today, because it reminds of certain parts of fascism (organic state, blood and soil, etc). Tarka the Otter is one of many books that seems to be disappearing from public memory. After I read Henry Williamson’s Wikipedia page (“He had a ‘well-known belief that Hitler was essentially a good man who wanted only to build a new and better Germany.'”) it occurred to me that it’s deliberately being forgotten, and with a quickness.
Wally/Waldo is a man in a red striped jumper and bobble hat, hiding somewhere in a complicated picture. Why does he wear such a distinctive outfit? Why not wear black clothes and blacken his face and hide in a coal mine?* Because Wally’s not actually hiding. You’re supposed to find him.
The appeal of games – from Martin Gardner puzzle books to Super Mario Bros – is that they invite you into a universe that wants you to win. Reality isn’t like that, and people addicted to games are often addicted for good reason.
But Where’s Wally puzzles are fascinating even when you’re not an addict. They carry a magical enchantment – one glance sucks you in, and then you’ve spent five minutes looking for a ridiculous bobble hat. Or ten minutes. Or however long it takes. I’ve heard disturbing stories of people posting edited puzzles online with Wally removed. And you thought you didn’t support the death penalty.
I wonder how many children were subconsciously influenced to become programmers by these books. Finding Wally takes skill as well as luck: it’s fundamentally a search problem, and there are several ways to find Wally.
The most obvious method is a blind fishing algorithm; let your gaze wander around on the page until you spot the striped jumper by chance. This is a poor method: it’s hard to remember the places you’ve already looked and you’ll probably check the same place multiple times. Also, the human eye is a biased sampling tool. It’s drawn to busy, high-interest areas, which won’t necessarily contain Wally.
A better method is to cut the page into a 10*10 grid of tiles (either with your eye or a knife), and examine it square by square. You’ll find Wally eventually, but it might take a long time: if you start looking top-left and Wally’s at bottom-right, you’ll have to check every single tile.
Is there a faster way? Yes. Remember that not every tile is equally likely to contain Wally. Some contain empty water or empty sky. More fundamentally, you’re not looking for Wally; he doesn’t exist, you’re looking for an illustration on a page containing red ink. Any square without red will ipso facto not contain Wally, so throw all of them away.
You are now left with a small number of tiles that maybe contain Wally. Speed up your search still further by remembering that Where’s Wally is a book, and the author rarely puts Wally on the edge of a page (because you’ll look there when you turn the page), or in the top left corner (because there’s a text box there describing the environment). Arrange your tiles so that the unlikely ones are on the bottom. Using this method, you’ll have tiles sorted high-probability to low-probability, and you’ll probably find Wally after picking up just a few. That is, if you don’t suffer a fatal heart attack from EXCITEMENT.
It’s possible to solve a Where’s Wally puzzle quickly, just as it’s possible to eat an ice cream in ten seconds, but part of the appeal is taking your time and enjoying the art. Where’s Wally pictures are packed with more detail than a Persian carpet, containing so many people that they don’t even look like people: they’re objects, like a strew of spilled jellybeans. Author Martin Handford owes a debt to horror vacui, an art approach that relies on filling everything with something.
Despite occasional verisimilitude (a tiny exposed breast on page 2 has earned Where’s Wally repeated bans from bookshelves), the overall effect is to distance you from life. Everything becomes a sea of human-shaped noise, as dead as a TV screen tuned to static…but you have to find a man in the static.
Again, there’s a weird vocational training aspect to Where’s Wally, turning kids into private eyes. Can you find a certain person who’s identical to the rest…except for a bobble hat? How much noise can you sift through to find a signal? There could be a Where’s Wally to programmer pipeline. There could also be a Where’s Wally to NSA analyst pipeline. Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange had the misfortune of becoming Wally in real life.
I remember an animated Where’s Wally cartoon that missed the point: they turned Wally into a heroic protagonist who goes on adventures, which is necessary for dramatic purposes but destructive to the spirit of the books. He’s supposed to be a face in a crowd. He could be any of us. He’s not special – or is he? How would we even tell? Are we Wally to someone else? If so, how easy should we make it for them to find us?
We live in a Where’s Wally puzzle as wide as the Earth. We’re born knowing nobody except a few family members. From the remaining 99.99999% of the human race, we’re supposed to locate friends, associates, and romantic partners. Some people find Wally with instinctive ease. Others struggle, and rely on sorting algorithms such as dating sites and social media. And still others don’t try at all, because failure is terrifying.
Climb up to a high place in a busy city, and look down at the thousands of people flowing in pulses, as if a great beating heart is driving them. Think of how little you know about them. Some of them rescue pets from burning buildings. Some of them rape and strangle children. The world is a huge inscrutable horror vacui of saints and sinners. Do these people want to help you? Harm you? You don’t know. You’re forced to guess based on tiny signs, small clues. Instead of a striped jumper it might be a word, a gesture, or an insincere smile that doesn’t reach the eyes. Perhaps this is why Where’s Wally is eerily compulsive: we hear the echo of our lives inside it.
Where’s Wally is training.
(*obviously, this is blackface, Martin Handford would be #cancelled and branded an international hate criminal, and Wally himself would become a symbol of racism, starring in new books such as Where’s Wally at the Nuremberg Rally, Where’s Wally at Auschwitz-Birkenau II, and Where’s Wally at the 2021 Academy Awards.)
This is a book of nightmares. It can be read online, but should it? You might regret it. It’s up there with “Loving Your Beast” (a zoophile’s guide on how to have sex with your dog) as one of the most excruciating things on the internet.
Who do you love more than anyone else in the world? Think of that person. Now picture being chained to their bloated corpse- forever. What was once my beloved body is now a corpse. I can only describe the feeling it gives me as supernatural revulsion. It’s unthinkable. Flabby, misshapen, atrophied, etiolated. When my legs kick and jerk me around, they seem to me like something indescribably loathsome. Not warm and mammalian or even reptilian. It’s like a crab or a spider. Like the twitching and jerking leg pulled off of a spider. A thing with no soul. Cold and hideous, harrowing, ghoulish. A grotesque, obscene, and hideous thing. It horrifies me and tears at my sanity. Everything inside of me screams to get away from it. How would you feel chained to your beloved’s ghastly, distended corpse? Sometimes when I am around others I feel as if I am struggling not to flinch with tarantulas crawling on my neck in my efforts to hide from everyone the torture I’m enduring.
It began (and ended) with a thread on motorbike forum Adventure Rider. A user with the ominous handle of OZYMANDIAS announced his intent to ride from Seattle to Argentina on a Kawasaki KLR650, his last big hurrah before law school.
He crashed just outside Acapulco, and woke up in a Mexican hospital, unable to move his legs. OZYMANDIAS (real name: Clayton Schwartz) had rolled the dice in the cripple lottery and won T4 paraplegia, meaning his spine was broken below the fourth thoracic vertebrae. Put a finger on the back of your neck, and then walk it down about four inches. Then imagine not using anything below that point – not even the smallest muscle – for the rest of your life.
“I am two arms and a head, attached to two-thirds of a corpse.”
Two Arms and a Head is not a biography but a tortured shriek. It transcends merely uncomfortable and becomes the equivalent of having the contents of a clogged drain oozing down your optical nerves. It’s repulsive and existentially horrifying, like a nonfiction Metamorphosis where Gregor Samsa loses two legs instead of gaining four.
It is not an “inspirational” book…except insofar as it inspires one to never get on a motorcycle. Then it’s the War and Peace of inspirational books.
It’s a wildly successful piece of writing, however, because it accomplishes one of the main goals of the craft: taking an alien experience and making it seem familiar with words. There are things about disability that you’d never think about unless you were there, and Clayton communicates these in unsparing detail.
Losing your body from the armpits down? As bad as that sounds, the reality is worse: Clayton hadn’t lost his body, it’s still there, he just can’t use it. He’s attached to 150 pounds of ballast, a parasitic tumor that makes up 70% of his mass. He repeatedly fantasizes about sawing his useless lower half away. He envies bilateral amputees.
Clayton piles on stomach-turning detail as to how he goes to the bathroom (or shits himself), how he gets into a car (with difficulty), how he deals with with neuropathic pain (he waits for it to stop), etc. He’s a prisoner in his own body. Every activity he used to take for granted is now as mechanically complex as the erection of Stonehenge. Every activity he used to enjoy is now impossible except as a parody of its former self. Going to the beach? That now means sitting on the shore and watching others swim. Building a house? That now means giving advice and passing nails and screws while someone else does the work. Having sex? Denotationally possible, but connotationally not.
The world is designed for the abled. More than that, nature designed us to be abled. He makes a striking analogy: imagine Manhattan was cut in half with a huge saw, and the lower half thrown away. Obviously everyone in lower Manhattan is dead, but upper Manhattan would suffer greatly, too: the fallout from broken power lines, roads to nowhere, destroyed sewage and drainage networks, etc would be colossal. Half a body doesn’t equal half a body, it equals something less, because that half was designed to work as part of a whole.
Most authors from the “disability lit” genre (Nick Vujicic, Sean Stephenson, etc) produce cheerful “I’m disabled and taking life by the balls!” motivational fluff. They’re upbeat, optimistic, accepting of the hand they were dealt, taking each day as it comes, and brimming with peppy slogans. The only disability is a closed mind!
In light of that, it’s genuinely shocking to read a disabled person liken their body to “a living, shitting, pissing, jerking, twitching corpse”. The book’s precis is that disability is a fate worse than death, and that anyone trying to say that this kind of life is worth living is delusionally misguided. He doesn’t want to motivate, just educate. He spends a lot of time kicking disability rights advocates (metaphorically, I mean), who he sees as trying to force a lifestyle – a deathstyle – upon people in his condition, when the most kind thing is euthenasia.
Often there is nothing more unpopular than the truth. I will not make many friends with this book, but that is my lot in exposing many things people would prefer not to see or know about.
Another difference between this and other disability lit books is that Clayton doesn’t really try to be likeable.
I’m sorry to say that, but it’s true. Sometimes he’s insufferably pretentious. The book opens with a literal preamble that name-drops Bertrand Russell, Soren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Then we get an angsty rant about religion that sounds like it’s from an atheist teenager’s Typepad in 2007. “The fawning, sycophantic, unquestioning, swooning, pitiable way so many worship God is enough to make me puke.” A fair amount of the book comes off as one-up-manship over other, less disabled people. “Oh, you think you’re disabled? You have no idea!”
Yes, Clayton was more disabled than some. But less disabled than others. He had some reason to be thankful. He only broke his T4 vertebra. A little higher, and he would have lost his arms as well, then the book would simply be called “Head”, and it would either not exist or be about ten times shorter due to the difficulty of composing.
And quadriplegia would have made it far more difficult for him to enact the final part of the plan. I suppose I should spoil it. Clayton’s case is fairly famous, after all.
This is not a book, but a suicide note. There’s a Wile E Coyote moment when you realise intends to kill himself, where it doesn’t register as real, and then he plunges you off a cliff.
There are things in the final part of the book that I never thought I’d read. He describes the knife entering his stomach in as much detail as he can, which is a lot. Clayton was wrong in the end: his disability did give him something denied to a normal person: he was able to write lucidly about stabbing himself while doing it, without overwhelming or short-circuiting from pain. The book’s final pages are extremely disconcerting: he wavers between nihilism and cheerfulness, sanity and loopiness, and the book simultaneously ends and crashes to a stop.
It’s very rare to see a man’s mental stage fluctuate so nakedly on the page. It reminds me of Louis Wain, who was an artist who drew cats. In his early years, they were naturalistic portraits, and he made a good amount of money selling them as postcards But as schizophrenia took hold of his brain, the cats became twisted and terrifying: resembling owls, monsters, demons. In his final years, they were little more than abstract explosions of light.
…Or so the common story of Louis Wain goes (some art historians now dispute it). But it’s what I thought of as I watched Clayton die: his vocabulary shrinks (or bleeds out), he makes increasingly frequent grammar and punctuation errors, and he becomes preoccupied with the bottom parts of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. He feels hot. He’s sweating. He feels dizzy. And then…
It’s a grim story, but a true one. And most importantly, it’s one that’s going to happen again. Other people are caught in Clayton’s situation. What can and should be done about them? What are the limits of life we should tell people to accept?
If nothing else, it’s worth remembering Clayton, the man who tried to find a silver lining on a cloud that covered the entire sky.
“I’m going to go now, done writing. Goodbye everyone.”
At the risk of sounding like a dril tweet, you gotta hand it to Valerie Solanas. She saw a problem and did everything in her power to fix it. Of all the feminist theorists scribbling about society’s war on women, Solanas was one of the few who truly meant it. She’s in a class with Elliot Rodger, Fred Phelps, and Pol Pot: true believers who make you feel as small as an insect because they bled for their beliefs as you’d never do for yours. Reading SCUM Manifesto is like “reading” the shattering wall of light from a plutonium bomb explosion at ground zero: it’s hard not be blinded by the intensity of Solanas’s faith.
“To call a man an animal is to flatter him; he’s a machine, a walking dildo.”
The disease: men. The cure: no men. In SCUM Manifesto (which is not titled The SCUM Manifesto, the Scum Manifesto, or any of the internet’s misspellings) Valerie Solanas outlines the failings of male-governed society and proposes radical action: Eve needs to take her stolen rib and plunge it back into Adam’s chest, sharp end first.
You may have heard that SCUM stands for “Society for Cutting Up Men”, but Solanas doesn’t want to cut up men, precisely. She feels that men can be rationally convinced of their uselessness, at which point they’ll “go off to the nearest friendly suicide center where they will be quietly, quickly, and painlessly gassed to death.”
Is the book meant as satire? It could be read that way. The rest of Solanas’s life is a compelling argument that it isn’t. Much of the book is clearly an inversion of Freudian psychoanalysis (it proposes that men suffer from “pussy envy”, and so on). But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Solanas is insincere: serious ideas are often formulated in the shadow of their opposites (Hegelian antithesis, etc.), and it’s likely that SCUM Manifesto contains an extreme or distorted version of Solanas’s true feelings.
As an academic and one-time actress, she would have known of Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty” method: exaggeration; cranking up the volume; overloading the senses; shoving actors and audience alike past their comfort zone. SCUM Manifesto might be a Book of Cruelty, intended to shift the Overton window so that milder versions of SCUM would be politically viable. Or she may have been crazy. Or crazy like a fox. To be a chauvinist pig, she wasn’t a fox in any other sense.
What’s often overlooked about this book is Solanas’s utopian visions of the future. SCUM Manifesto is nearly a misclassified science fiction novel: Solanas foresees a world containing ATMs, electronic ballots, automation, UBI, luxury communism, the end of death itself, and…Tiktok?
“[FOOTNOTE: It will be electronically possible for [a male in the future] to tune into any specific female he wants to and follow in detail her every movement. The females will kindly, obligingly consent to this, as it won’t hurt them in the slightest and it is a marvelously kind and humane way to treat their unfortunate, handicapped fellow beings.]”
That’s no way to talk about Belle Delphine’s subs. Solanas stresses that we (meaning her 1970s readers) would be enjoying all these things already if it wasn’t for men ruining everything. It reminds me of those dubious graphs on atheist message boards, where humanity’s rising progress gets bodyslammed from the top rope by the CHRISTIAN DARK AGES. We’d be colonizing the galaxy by now, if Constantine I hadn’t gotten baptised. Although we are, when you think about it. A one-planet-sized portion of the galaxy.
SCUM Manifesto can also be read as comedy. I’m not joking: Solanas is hilarious. Her prose is a mixture of histrionic sincerity, phrasing as odd as an Achewood comic, and 1960s “groovy, man” lingo that’s impossible to imitate and impossible not to laugh at. Why didn’t anyone tell me it was this funny?
“SCUM is too impatient to wait for the de-brainwashing of millions of assholes. Why should the swinging females continue to plod dismally along with the dull male ones? Why should the fates of the groovy and the creepy be intertwined?”
“The sick, irrational men, those who attempt to defend themselves against their disgustingness, when they see SCUM barrelling down on them, will cling in terror to Big Mama with her Big Bouncy Boobies, but Boobies won’t protect them against SCUM; Big Mama will be clinging to Big Daddy, who will be in the corner shitting in his forceful, dynamic pants.”
Surely Solanas wasn’t totally serious. Nobody could write “forceful, dynamic pants” and actually mean it.
Or could they? This is the most fascinating thing about the SCUM Manifesto: it’s as forceful as an anvil to the face…and nobody’s sure what it means. To anti-feminists, it’s a stick to beat feminists with. To feminists, it’s variously a reactionary horror from the 60s; a brilliant satire like A Modest Proposal; or a work to be approached with sympathy and compassion, containing the howl of a woman pushed to the edge and then far, far, over it.
It’s a radical document. It’s a foundational text of Second-Wave Feminism. Some want to burn it, others want to teach it. Few works mean so many things to so many people.
Sadly (to some people), Solanas’s legacy is one of failure and unfulfilled dreams. SCUM Manifesto will soon be fifty years old: its promised utopia has yet to arrive: men still exist, the fates of the groovy and the creepy are still intertwined, etc. Solanas’s faith could move mountains, but the mountains all moved back.
SCUM Manifesto might never have achieved notoriety at all if had hadn’t come wrapped around a metaphoric and literal bullet – but that’s another testament to Solanas’s willingness to lay it on the line, because her will was all she had. It’s a final irony that her name will go down in history so indelibly linked to that of a man that she might as well have married him.
This is the autobiography of pioneering aviatrix Hanna Reitsch, who set over forty world records between the 1930s and 1950s: first female flight captain; first woman to fly a helicopter; world distance record in a helicopter; winner of the 1938 German national gliding competition; first woman to pilot a military jet aircraft; first et cetera.
Hanna is famous for what she did, and famous for why she did it. From the words German and military and 1938 you’ve probably realised that she was flying for the Luftwaffe in World War II.
“Her flying skill, desire for publicity, and photogenic qualities made her a star of Nazi propaganda. Physically she was petite in stature, very slender with blonde hair, blue eyes and a ‘ready smile’. She appeared in Nazi propaganda throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s.” – Wikipedia
We all have a cross to bear. In Hanna’s case it was an actual cross, made of iron.
März 1941: Adolf Hitler verleiht Flugkapitän Hanna Reitsch das Eiserne Kreuz [2. Klasse]
Mitte: Hermann GöringIn this book, Hanna comes off as apolitical (although all Nazis were apolitical after the war, weren’t they?), and other than some generic, learned-by-rote boilerplate (“I had been brought up to be a patriot”), she offers no commentary on the politics of the time or her own relationship to it. Hanna was only interested in the Nazi party because they allowed her to fly their pioneering warplanes, and much of the book is long, poetry-like meditations on the euphoria of flying.
Now I am shivering, all over, in every tissue of my body, and my bare hands turn blue as, nearly ten thousand feet above the earth, in my summer frock, I sit, basking in rain, hail and snow, my streaming hair tossed like seaweed in a storm.
Flying can be addictive: and the thrill must have been even greater for the men and women who were the first. Hanna flew in the years before the thermals were choked with traffic. She flew virgin airlines instead of Virgin Airlines, and saw parts of the earth from angles and altitudes that nobody else ever had.
When flying a plane, certain things have to be done in a certain order. Auxiliary fuel pump off. Flight controls checked. Instruments and radios checked. Altimeter set. Hanna writes like she’s preparing for flight. While a modern writer would probably try to hook the reader with a dramatic mis-en-scene about a near-fatal crash or something, Hanna tells the story more or less in chronological order: her childhood in Silesia, her dreams of being a flying missionary doctor in Africa, her early experiences flying an unpowered glider, her work as a stuntwoman and flight instructor, her arrest in Lisbon as a suspected spy, and her years of military service.
The book doesn’t have a lot of dates. I often found myself asking “what year is it?” and not getting an answer. It’s clear that Hanna’s obsession with flight made her a veteran at an extremely young age. Midway through the book, a man called Wolfram Hirth hires her as an instructor for his school. I assumed she was in her twenties or thirties, then she casually drops a mention that she needed her parents’ permission to skip another year of school.
While teaching Hirth’s students, she learned an important lesson herself: when in the air, it’s extremely easy to die.
Before this last pupil took off for his test, I went with him carefully, point by point, through every aspect of his flight. He had done well in his “A” and “B” Tests and, seeming now perfectly at ease and sure of himself, would, I had no doubt, pass this last one quite easily.
He took off in his glider normally and then, for a whole two and a half minutes, flew exactly as the book, without a fault. Now he had only to fly one turn, circle wide and land. He tumed — rather steep but quite well — and then, — plunged in one straight swift dive to earth.
I had never heard before what sound a plane makes when it crashes and at first I could not move. Then I ran down the hillside towards the wreckage, knowing, as I ran, that my pupil was already dead.
It fell to me to break the news to his mother, who lived in a nearby village.
I will never forget how I walked to her cottage through the fields, alone, how the poor, old woman saw me coming and called to me before I could speak:
“Ach, Fräuleinchen — ich weiss schon . Mein Sohn! Mein Sohn ist nicht mehr”
How did the mother know her son was dead? Because he’d had a dream that morning of his controls failing and told her. There’s a superstitious, mystical quality to some of these early pilots, as though they don’t fully trust their rational faculties. I suspect that most of them have abnormal psychologies.
Hanna herself would have many encounters with death. She describes being trapped inside a storm, performing a stunt in San Paolo that would have killed dozens if it failed (which it nearly did), and most seriously, a crash in the legendary rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet in 1942.
Nobody built planes like the late-era Reich. Nobody should have built planes like the late-era Reich. With the Eastern Front collapsing, Hitler invested wildly in all sorts of unpromising projects, hoping for a magical technological ticket out of Germany’s inevitable defeat.
The results were a series of ghastly Wagnerian nightmares that look like they’re from a comic book and have names that sound like death metal bands. Planes like the Gotha Go 229 (a jet-powered “flying wing” stealth bomber) and the Bachem Ba 349 Natter (a vertical take-off interceptor that famously had no landing gear, with the pilot expected to either eject mid-flight or commit suicide by ramming an enemy plane) were twenty years ahead of their time technically and six hundred years behind ethically.
But the greatest, or worst, of the Nazi experimental warplanes was the Me 163. A lightning-fast “interceptor”, it was little more than a rocket with a human being attached, shooting up to 30,000 feet within ninety seconds on a 4,500 HP backwash of hypergolic combustants. With its regular test pilot Heini Dittmar was hospitalized due to a broken spine, Hanna was chosen to take his place riding the tiger.
To fly the rocket plane, Me 163, was to live through a fantasy of Münchhausen. One took off with a roar and a sheet of flame, then shot steeply upwards to find oneself the next moment in the heart of the empyrean.
To sit in the machine when it was anchored to the ground and be surrounded suddenly with that hellish, flame-spewing din, was an experience unreal enough. Through the window of the cabin, I could see the ground crew start back with wide-open mouths and hands over their ears, while, for my part, it was all I could do to hold on as the machine rocked under a ceaseless succession of explosions. I felt as if I were in the grip of some savage power ascended from the Nether Pit. It seemed incredible than Man could control it.
The Me 163 could attain speeds of up to 1,130 km/h, which meant that “the smallest error of judgement might mean the loss of the machine and [Hanna’s] own death”. Even correct judgement was no guarantee. Her test flight immediately suffered a crippling technical issue – the exposed undercarriage got jammed – and she couldn’t contact the towing plane to abort the test. She successfully flew the plane for a while, but as she attempted to land, the Me 163 stalled due to the protracted undercarriage, and she lost control and tumbled to the ground at over 240 kp/h.
We plunged, striking the earth, then, rending and Cracking, the machine somersaulted over — lurched — and sagged to a stop. The first thing I realised was that I was not hanging in my harness and therefore the machine was right-side up. Quite automatically, my right hand opened the cabin roof— it was intact. Cautiously, I ran my hand down my left arm and hand, then slowly along my sides, chest and legs. To my thankful amazement, nothing was missing and all seemed in working order.
She was wrong: her skull was shattered in six places, her upper jaw was displaced, and her nose was nearly torn away. “Each time I breathed, bubbles of air and blood formed along its edge.” With consciousness fading, Hanna found a pencil and pad and wrote a message explaining why the crash had occurred. She also tied a handerchief around her head so that the her rescue party wouldn’t see her face. It would be a long time before she would fly again.
Her dramatic crash made her a celebrity within the Nazi party, and it was here that she had her most intimate encounters with the inner machinery of the state. Some of it’s funny, like this sitcom-worthy encounter with Hermann Göring.
[Göring] planted his bulk squarely in front of me, his hands resting on his hips.
“What! Is this supposed to be our famous ‘Flugkapitän’? Where’s the rest of her? How can this little person manage to fly at all?”
I did not like the reference to my size. I made a sweep with my hand roughly corresponding to his girth.
“Do you have to look like that to fly?”
In the middle of my sentence, it suddenly struck me with hot embarrassment that, in the circumstances, my gesture might be considered out of place. I tried to halt it in mid-air, but too late — everyone, including Göring, had seen it and there was a great burst of laughter, in which Göring joined.
But mostly these conversations are unsettling, the way it’s unsettling to read a conversation involving a well-programmed chatbot that knows how to say the right things but is clearly non-human. History remembers most of the NSDP’s upper echelon as high-IQ sociopaths, men skilled at reforging reality using words – words that they didn’t truly mean at all.
As Hanna wines and dines with the inner circle of the Party, I was interested to learn about the rifts dividing Nazi Germany – particularly, the conflict between the “Gott Mit Uns” Protestantianism of the Prussian and Weimar eras, and the odd blend of pagan, atheistic, and social Darwinist thought of Heinrich Himmler.
In our family, we had always avoided mentioning the name of Himmler : my mother saw in him the adversary of Christianity and he could therefore have nothing in common with us.
Hanna eventually meets Himmler, and challenges him both on his anti-Christian beliefs and rumors she’s heard about his social policies. This is one of the few times Hanna expresses a political opinion.
We then turned to another problem, about which my feelings were strong, his attitude to women and marriage. I reproached him for looking at the matter from a purely racial and biological stand-point, considering woman only as a bearer of children and through his directives to the SS, about which, admittedly, I had only heard rumours, tending to undermine morality and destroy the sanctity of marriage.
These are probably references to Lebensborn, an SS-initiated breeding program that sought to improve Germany’s racial purity through abduction, insemination, and selective abortion.
Himmler replied to my charges factually and at considerable length. He assured me that he shared my views entirely. His policy had been misrepresented and misinterpreted, either unintentionally or from deliberate malice. It was very important, he said, that these tendentious rumours should not get about, particularly at the present time.
The real problem, Himmler explains, are people who spread rumors. He ends the conversation by thanking Hanna for her outspokenness (which is hard not to read as “you’re toeing the line, so don’t step across it”), and asking her to report all subsequent rumors to him.
But the elite Nazis aren’t just manipulative, they’re also delusional. At a second meeting with Göring (not long after her crash), Hanna is shocked to learn that he believes the Messerschmitt Me 163 to be ready for mass production. She argues with him at length – the plane is a dangerous toy, more likely to kill its pilot than an enemy – but he refuses to allow reality to disturb his illusions. German might and German industry will prevail. A German failure ontologically doesn’t exist. Certain people remained in this state of mind until Berlin crashed down around them.
To be blunt, I was soon asking the “naive or liar” question about Hanna herself. In 1944, she receives an a document by a friend in Stockholm, alleging something (we’re not told what, but can guess) about “gas chambers” in Germany. She queries Himmler about this:
I telephoned Himmler, obtaining permission to visit him at his headquarters in the field. Arrived there, I placed the booklet before him.
“What do you say to this, Reichsführer?”
Himmler picked it up and flicked over the pages. Then, without change of expression, he looked up, eyeing me quietly:
“And you believe this, Frau Hanna?”
“No, of course not.”
Was Hanna telling the truth here? She knew about Lebensborn. Did she not know about the Holocaust? It seems hard to believe. She was an important figure in the Vergeltungswaffe rocket program, which relied on slave labor in camps such as Auschwitz. For her have no idea whatsoever by 1944 is…interesting.
Whatever the case, 1944 is very late in the game. Soon everyone would know.
With the end fast approaching, Hanna became increasingly land-bound, serving in an advisory role to Luftwaffe forces on retreat from Stalingrad. She was a brilliant flyer but had zero skills as a soldier, to the point where she asks a German soldier to help her distinguish German shellbursts from Russian ones. There’s a pervasive grimness to this part of the book. Cities are falling. Critical resource centers and railhubs are being lost. The Russians are pushing west with overwhelming force. Every possible factor is working against the Reich.
There was only one way Germany could have achieved victory: a technological miracle. This was the last hope, that at the eleventh hour some brave scientist would shatter an atom in an interesting way, invent anti-gravity propulsion, or summon Himmler’s Norse gods down from Valhalla to do battle against the Asiatic hordes. This was what Germany needed to win – a Wunder-wuffe, or miracle weapon.
Spoiler: the miracle never occurred. Germany was defeated, and although World War II ended with a mighty science-conjured explosion, it didn’t flash to Germany’s benefit.
Hanna Reitsch was one of the final people to see Adolf Hitler alive. After a harrowing late-night flight into Berlin through heavy Russian flak (the entire city was under siege, and nobody knew if there was even an intact runway left for a landing), she arrived at the Reich Chancellery along with fighter ace Robert Ritter von Greim and then descended to the Fuhrerbunker.
Greim reported on our journey, Hitler listening calmly and attentively. When he had finished, Hitler seized both Greim’s hands and then, turning to me: “Brave woman! So there is still some loyalty and courage left in the world !”
But Hitler didn’t need more loyalty and courage from his followers. It was their loyalty and courage that had brought him to this point. It’s no credit to fight an insane war, nor obey insane orders, and Hanna’s mild questioning of Göring’s miracle planes was a thousand time more useful to the war effort than the blind obedience Hitler demanded from his followers.
He was an utter madman by that point, reality blasted from his brain and leaving only the shifting sand of hope and memory. He was Fuhrer of a nation that existed largely inside his own imagination. He “rewards” Greim by appointing him chief of the German air force…but Germany no longer had an air force to command!
But his life’s final decision was eminently sane: and agreeable to both his supporters and enemies alike.
On our second day in the Bunker, 27th April, I was summoned to Hitler’s study. His face was now even paler, and had become flaccid and putty-coloured, like that of a dotard. He gave me two phials of poison so that, as he said, Greim and I should have at all times “freedom of choice.” Then he said that if the hope of the relief of Berlin by General Wenk was not realized, he and Eva Braun had freely decided that they would depart out of this life.
Hanna ended up not using the phial of poison. She escaped the Fuhrerbunker, and survived well into the 1970s. Her death is a source of mystery and speculation – did she commit suicide using the phial in the end? I’m not so sure. She spent some time in American detention, and they certainly would have taken any means of suicide away from her.
The older ones had been through the First World War, you could tell it from their faces and their scars. After doing their duty for years in the trenches, they had returned home to be insulted and spat upon and have the shoulder-straps torn by hooligans from their uniforms. It was no wonder that their experiences had made them very embittered. “. . . Just as if it was us who had been the trouble-makers,” they said, almost in self defence, “—as if it was a positive pleasure to stop a Lewis gun bullet. . .”
This reminds me of the (possibly exaggerated) stories of Vietnam veterens getting spat on at LAX. It’s a damned sight easier to support the troops when they’re victorious troops. Soldiers from a lost war are often regarded with pity and even suspicion, like broken toys.
This was to be German’s legacy in World War II. Defeat, ruin, national shame, division, and a rebuilding enabled by the erasure of the past. It’s understandable, if only in hindsight, why Hanna cared so much about flying. There wasn’t damned thing worth having on the ground.
The title of the book seems uncannily appropriate. Hanna’s realm was the sky: one that lasted longer than a thousand years.
And now there is silence, everywhere. Earth and sky seem wrapped in sleep. My glider-bird slumbers, too, gleaming softly against the stars. Beautiful bird, that out-flew the four winds, braved the tempest, shot heavenward, searching out the sky, — soaring higher, as I am soon to learn, than any glider-plane has ever flown before.
An 18th century German composer who wrote the theme for a king, with a principle melody that ascends yet remains trapped in tonal space. A 19th century Dutch artist who created maddening and hallucinatory artwork, defying intuition about perspective and reality. A 20th century German mathematician who described the limitations of a formal system addressing itself.
According to this book, Godel, Escher, and Bach were three blind men touching the same elephant: the Strange Loop.
“The “Strange Loop” phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through levels of some hierarchial system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started.”
You get on an elevator on floor 1, go up nine floors, emerge on floor 10, and then take the stairs back down. This is a loop. But imagine taking the elevator from floor 1 to floor 10, and the door slides open to reveal…floor 1. This is a strange loop.
“But things like that don’t exist.” They might not in architecture, but they do in the things that give rise to architecture: math, language, and human consciousness. Statements like “this sentence is a lie” and “I am nobody” are linguistic paradoxes. They’re like MC Escher’s Drawing Hands: destroying and recreating themselves over and over. Idioms like “pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps” are loopy. “This is not a pipe” is loopy. Barbershop poles are loopy.
One of the eye-opening parts of this book is how you start noticing strange loops all around you. The website you’re reading is powered by PHP, which stands for “PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor”. This isn’t a mistake: the language’s name is an acronym containing its own acronym inside it! Like spiders, strange loops exist closer to your body than you think.
But there’s more to strange loops than weird art and logic puzzles. Hofstadter seems to be poking towards a theory of consciousness itself.
In 1996, David Chalmers explicated the two main problems of consciousness. 1) How does a collection of atoms develop a consciousness (meaning a subjective experience, an internal monologue, or whatever). 2) Why does this happen? Why don’t we experience the world the way a robot might?
Hofstadter’s sense (never forcefully argued) is that strange loops are responsible for the consciousness we experience. Just as the three letters “PHP” contains an infinite number of “PHPs” inside them, our three-pound brains are able to “unfold” into something more than the sum of its parts, via iterations of very complicated loops. This doesn’t address the second of Chalmers’ questions, although in a later book Hofstadter compares the soul to a “swarm of colored butterflies fluttering in an orchard” – something attracted by the fruit, but not a part of the fruit. The loops don’t require conscious experience, the conscious experience emerges as a kind of froth when all of these loops combine.
This implies that an algorithm would be capable of introspecting about its own existence. A string of math on a very large blackboard would perceive the color red, and feel pain. It’s a provocative idea, but don’t expect to find this formulated with a QED at the end. As the constant artistic motifs suggest, GEB isn’t a hard science book. This is probably why people actually read it.
GEB is filled with illustrations, games, puzzles, and – most notoriously – dialogues inspired by Lewis Carroll. Some of these are astonishingly creative. The passage about the crab canon made me stop reading for a moment, because it was incredible, and I wanted to be able to remember it instead of immediately forgetting. It was mind expanding. Nearly mind-exploding.
Although GEB contains a primer on the basics of computer language, intellectual rigor isn’t the book’s goal. One of Hofstadter’s many interests is Zen Buddhism, which is our culture’s most potent form of anti-logic and as such is of interest to the student of the strange loop.
When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time. At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free! In commemoration, she wrote a poem:
In this way and that I tried to save the old pail / Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break / Until at last the bottom fell out. / No more water in the pail! / No more moon in the water!
Zen never makes lessons easy for the student: you’re the one who has to do the work and become cosmic. But GEB makes the road far more fun than it has to be. What stands out about Hofstadter’s prose is how readable it is. Hofstadter isn’t a wordsmith, he’s a word alchemist, making dull things sparkle. The prelude to my edition contains a digression in the difficulties he had typesetting the book, which sounds as gripping as Hannibal crossing the Alps. (There’s also a somewhat cringeworthy part self-flagellating about the how the original printing of the book uses the default male voice.)
So is “loopiness” the way a collection of atoms can collectively seem to think, reason, and experience? The book leaves me unsure, as I think it was meant to. It’s the world’s longest Zen koan, fragments of information that never coalesce into a hard idea, but seem to get me closer to enlightenment than I was before.
Interesting aside: Godel, Escher, and Bach are three wise men (initials GEB), also the three wise men of the Nativity tale are Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar (initials GMB), also M is E rotated 90 degrees, also they brought gift of gold, frankencense, and myrrh (initials GFM), also F is the letter after E in the Roman alphabet, also “Godel” is nearly an anagram of “gold”, also I lied when I said this part was interesting.