“The Mysteries of Freemasonry revealed by Léo Taxil.” Circa 1892-1897.
1890s flyer for a talk in Paris by Léo Taxil, part of a lengthy campaign in which he “exposed”– or in truth, made up– connections between Freemasonry, Satanism and other esoterica of the kind that still exercises simple-minded conspiracy theorists to this day. Taxil or his printer has appropriated occultist Eliphas Levi’s already iconic image of Baphomet (not Satan).
One pretty obvious tip-off should have been that he was already well-known as a disillusioned former Catholic who’d written satirical, mocking books about the evident absurdities, incongruities and logical errors present in Church doctrine and in the Bible, particularly if one took the Bible literally. One of his books was called The Amusing Bible. In the 1880s he alighted on some already existent conspiracy theories about Freemasonry, then spent over ten years puffing them up into grand accusations about the worship of Satan in modern Paris. He had a huge and lasting influence on popular Western culture, though unfortunately most people don’t know that he was making fun of the credulous and didn’t for one moment believe that evil fraternities ruled the world in cahoots with Satan. Taxil’s still sometimes cited in crank texts as an “authority” on occultism or Masons. The image of Baphomet was re-appropriated to Anton La Vey’s little club of genuine Satanists in the 20th century via Arthur Waite, via Taxil; many of their Satanist practices were actually made up originally by Taxil as well. Future founder of Scientology L. Ron Hubbard, Aleister Crowley and the pioneering rocket scientist Jack Parsons were also involved to various degrees in Satanism or occultism created in reality from Taxil’s fiction. I think I need a flowchart or something. Probably not until H.P. Lovecraft was there another individual who so inadvertently and yet so thoroughly provided a gateway for fiction to seep through into the real world.
Taxil was nearly lynched by a Catholic audience in Paris when he revealed that he’d been taking the mickey, thereby finding out that satire and subtlety are wasted on most people; even he had underestimated the gullibility and confirmation bias of the ostentatiously religious, and also their fury at having their pet conspiracy theories attacked with logic. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Awkwaaaaaaard… ‘Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife’ by John Singer Sargent, 1885.
John Singer Sargent painted Robert Louis Stevenson three times, but never so oddly as he did in this picture that also (half) includes Stevenson’s wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, while decisively excluding and marginalising her. Stevenson wrote of the painting:
“… too eccentric to be exhibited. I am at one extreme corner; my wife, in this wild dress, and looking like a ghost, is at the extreme other end… all this is touched in lovely, with that witty touch of Sargent’s; but of course, it looks dam [sic] queer as a whole.”
Stevenson had also once told a friend that his marriage to Fanny had left him “as limp as a lady’s novel”, and it seems Sargent agreed. He painted Stevenson as an awkward prisoner in his own home, “the caged animal lecturing about the foreign specimen in the corner.”1 Fanny’s view of the painting or of Sargent calling her a “foreign specimen” seems to be unrecorded, but I think it’s safe to guess that her first sight of this painting was probably a bit awkward and left poor Louis with some explaining to do.
The strange case of Mr Stevenson and Mr Hyde
It was around the time of this painting that Stevenson came up with his most famous and enduring work, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He apparently did so while delirious and bed-ridden, although most likely not while completely whacked out on drugs as has sometimes been suggested. We’ll probably never know for sure, but it certainly seems that in his delirium Stevenson inadvertently outed himself in ways that Sargent already understood but Stevenson possibly didn’t, otherwise he wouldn’t have allowed Jekyll and Hyde to be published at all. This painting certainly portrays several memorable and salient features of the story: there is schizoid compartmentalisation, visually it recalls the dirty, neglected back door “with no knocker” that only Hyde ever uses (no, Louis, I don’t think you need to be any more obvious), and its staging evokes a sense of profound alienation from domesticated heteronormative life.
Via the always interesting and inspiring Letters of Note, a site that I can’t recommend enough: A 1970 letter from the Naked Lunch deviant to the Breakfast at Tiffany’s / In Cold Blood author. Burroughs had a long-running ambient feud with Capote for various petty and legitimate reasons, but Burroughs seems to have been particularly incensed by Capote endorsing the idea that the police should be able to get results by any means necessary, legal or otherwise.
You can (and should!) read the whole thing, but the part that particularly impressed me was Burroughs’ curse on Capote for– as Burroughs saw it, anyway– misusing and squandering his talent. I would tend to agree that this is a cardinal sin of the talented, one that’s disappointingly often committed by precisely those successful writers, artists, film makers, musicians (etc.) who have reached the stage where they probably could put their foot down and take a stand, or gone beyond that to the stage where they needn’t compromise at all, but do it anyway. Unfortunately many of them get greedy, or complacent, or they start operating as autopilot pastiches of themselves, or paradoxically their success actually cuts them off from the place their talent originally sprung from.
Anyway, here’s Uncle Bill: Continue Reading
Photomontage by Alistair Gentry, 2011.
I’m writing a book set in the Nineteenth century, so I’m delving into lots of obscure stuff while researching it. Not that I don’t read obscure (and frankly sometimes stupid and ridiculous) books under normal circumstances, but sometimes a man in my current position just has to avoid actually writing anything because he’s wasting a lot of time finding out what those excessively huge candelabra in the middle of an upper class dinner table were called… it’s an epergne, by the way. You’re welcome.
And so at last to the point, via the houses: in Folkloristics: An Introduction (a textbook published by Indiana University Press, written by Robert A. Georges and Michael Owen Jones) the authors quote in turn Stith Thompson’s The Types of the Folk-Tale (2nd revision, Helsinki 1961) and provide a seemingly complete but not really complete taxonomy of traditional story categories. Now you know that when I say obscure I mean it.
I’m interested in taxonomies, whether they’re sensible and help our understanding of things, or completely nuts and actually make matters more confusing. I think the following list lies somewhere between the two in some kind of quasi-academic, Borgesian territory; that’s why I liked it. It starts sensibly and logically (“Fish”), veers off into the insanely specific (“Stupid Ogre”), then just gives up and shrugs with “2400-2499 Unclassified Tales.”
I note also that “Numskull Stories” is probably more of a thriving sub-genre than it’s ever been thanks to the proliferation of the media, paparazzi, scumbag phone-tapping so-called journalists, and the internet in general. What are Hello! magazine, tabloid gotchas and sites like Gawker or FAIL Tumblrs if not an endless torrent of Numskull Stories? In the case of Hello! and its ilk, however, the new and distinctively 21st century development is that we’re presumably meant to approve of the numskulls and aspire towards being numskulls ourselves… as many people quite evidently do. Continue Reading
I made this picture of Emily Dickinson. I can only apologise.
In which I manage to discuss the poetry of Emily Dickinson, cosmic horror, Superman, Morrissey and Steve McQueen without exerting myself unduly.
Recently I was perusing a laughable book about- well, it’s hard to say exactly. Just sort of general things that might be called inexplicable or mysteries if anybody actually gave a shit about them or they weren’t clearly the result of somebody suffering from a bout of delirious, drunken stupidity or mental illness. Like Fortean Times, but even more random. Is there a turkey in the Bayeux Tapestry? It’s not really a mystery if nobody cares about the solution.
It’s the sort of book that usually costs a few pounds in a remainder shop, or is for sale in what my esteemed colleague Kid Carpet calls Mystical Shit shops (Seriously, I am a huge fan of Kid Carpet. Download his song Mystical Shit for a start), alongside dream catchers, rag rugs and crystals to unbung your chakras. My local library has loads of these books, for some reason. And a very comprehensive but never used section on things like irritable bowel syndrome, drug induced psychosis, anorexia and whatnot. For obvious reasons I’ve never made any effort to befriend the librarians.
Anyway, there was one interesting thing in the aforementioned book: an account of some strange jelly that apparently fell out of space in 1819 and landed in Amherst, Massachusetts. It seems not to have occurred to the author that this (at the time very small) place was the lifelong home of the poet Emily Dickinson and her family, although she wasn’t born for another 11 years. Continue Reading