From the opening pages of Louis Levy’s gloriously-titled Kzradock the Onion Man or the Spring-Fresh Methuselah, the meticulously constructed plots of the lingering Victorian age seem as distant as the Ptolemaic system. A vegetal mechanism which sucks up its surroundings with all the discernment of an Electrolux – early psychiatry, Spiritualism, megalopolis paranoia, the fin de siècle prose-poem, criminology and androgyny – Kzradock is the revenge of the wreckage of the prior century’s obsessions jammed into that most modern of forms, the detective procedural. Author Louis Levy is best known for an early anti-fascist tractate, The Truth About France, and for his still-popular nursery rhymes. He wrote quite a lot: plays, novels, puppet theater and journalism. First serialized in a Danish paper in 1909, then translated as a novel into German (where it was praised by Gershom Sholem and Walter Benjamin), his masterpiece now has an Anglophone audience at last, thanks to Wakefield Press.
Like Caligari, it begins in a madhouse. The patient Kzradock has channeled a mysterious feminine spirit named Lady Florence, who gives him a vision of several women being torn apart in their sitting room by a puma. Immediately after, Dr Renard de Montpensier, the ostensible narrator, gets a call for help from the police and cryptic instructions for a rendezvous. He meets the cops at a run-down film theater and they all watch a film where several women are being torn apart by a puma. Via a kind of Pirandellian reuse, they manage to snare the mysterious Lady Florence, but ‘she’ turns out to be an American detective in drag who is also tracking her. Everyone is suddenly notified that the doctor’s asylum is on fire. This happens not to be true: the crisis is actually an institutional uprising lead by the clairvoyant-prophet Kzradock. De Montpensier attempts to control the rampaging patients using an inexplicable mesmeric remote-control dance routine, which only hastens his own mental collapse and the revelation that he is himself the madman Kzradock.
In the second part, a partially-cured Montpensier tries to clear up the puma killing, locate the shadowy Lady Florence, and find out the real identities of the dramatis personae, especially Kzradock, who is no longer Montpensier, and who reappears as a skeleton in a cave (and ultimately, as the American detective). There is also a talking cat, the possibility of the transmigration of souls, two sinister ladies á la Don’t Look Now (both of whom are Lady Florence’s mother), a house which is half laboratory and half theater set, and the ghost of a dead child. Any questions?
True to his (perhaps clowning) role as a potboiler-maker, Levy adds tons of exclamation points into his tell-all dialogue, and intersperses it with observations on the character of Americans, the efficacy of fire-hoses, descriptions of decaying neighborhoods and dire philosophizing. He also seems to get a kick out of injecting absurd details into the locomotive-speed story: for example, in an otherwise swooning description of Lady Florence, she is given ‘ape-like’ hands. Translator W. C. Bamberger takes in the whole agglomeration and spits it back out in delirious perfect-pitch like an insomniac telegraph operator. His superb Afterward is a model of Afterwards: curious, diligent, and hospitable.
The final chapter of the book is a ‘rational’ explanation of the whole outlandish construct. Usually this is an irritating ploy, but it works well here because it acts as a treatise rather than a cheap cop-out. As you might have guessed, the action has all taken place in the cell of the ‘author’ – or we have only been given that half of the story which occurred in the world of madness. It turns out to be irrelevant either way, because the real perp is identified beyond the shadow of a doubt: The locked-away soul will murder, will commit any crime to maintain its illusion. The locked away soul fashions, within itself, its own opposite.
The trusty old Soul turns out to be a con-artist Cortez which can only be suppressed by unrelenting doubt. Doubt also haunts the invention of the Personality, a Renaissance animation which can be seen as the colonizer of earlier unconscious systems, analogous to the imperial conquest of native ways of life (my title above comes from one of Levy’s chapter sub-headings). After its descent from the skies, the Soul became the master of an internal factory, a House of Pain which hides behind shimmering personality-forms just as it once hid behind the battlefields of God and Devil. The previous warden of Souls, the church or religious guide, vanishes in the apparently-logical structure of forward progress, mechanization, and the psychology of the modern world. Logic is at the center of all detective mysteries, tales which always appear illogical in order to push the concepts of logic – or laugh at them.
Kzradock’s fear of the doppelganger had already been identified by Poe and Hoffman as a modern nightmare emanating from the faceless city crowd. The crowd conceals the secret twin of the man who flees it, who is then compelled to follow the one who has recognized him as his Double. This is where the identities of subject and object become confused (Poe’s ‘aristocratic’ contempt for the masses was intimately bound with this paranoiac truth). Photography had made the mass reproduction of images possible which multiplied the Double to an infinite number, not fakes per se but primes with their own trajectories, linked only by resemblance to the initial model and mode of reproduction. At this point, the ‘original’ becomes either a high-value commodity or indistinguishable from the copy, lost in the sea of images, in the flat depth of crowds. In the contorted drama of Levy’s uncertainty fable, both the original model and its Kzradockian avatara have all come to doubt their primitive natures. Prime Numbers are related only so far as they constitute a series of the indivisible, unlike the splintered souls of Kzradock and Kzradocks – yet the idea that a prime number is secretly divisible must haunt the mathematician, who is never free of doubt. After all, doubt produced quantum theory and the fascinating idea of parallel worlds; like Cubism, ideas contemporary to Kzradock. At the same time, doubt that all the old things are done with and all the ancient passions resolved is also the ache of a modern nostalgia, of a looking backward at ruins from a world of speed and light.
The city is speed, light, metal noise and chatter. Ever since 1906, radio broadcasting had the ability to bring a multitude of voices directly into the home thus modifying space and time, just as the railroad had earlier modified production, distance and warfare. Listening to the radio has a strangely active tense, best illustrated by the notoriously paranoid fear of transmitters listening back to the listener (now a reality, thanks to Google and the NSA). To hear is to be heard: Here Comes Everybody. This bodiless company also produced a new kind of isolation via throng, saturation by advertisement and the detective possibility of recording all transmissions. The taped record can be seen as a great well where nothing is forgotten, where every echo is first of all a piece of evidence and no moment is allowed just one witness – we are thrown back against the multiplicity of ourselves, voices and characters arising from media, then drawn on to the ruthless light of a Personality which makes an accusatory demand, as if it had uncovered an legendary crime: You will chose between Self and Others. This is the awful decision faced by Krzadock and his selves.
In 1867, Marx made the analogy between the phantoms of the mind and the phantoms of work to explain his concept of the commodity fetish: “…the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.” The old colonial term ‘fetish’ (Portuguese: feitiço) which meant ‘primitive’ religious objects inhabited by supernatural forces, is ironically used to show how the masses have become enslaved again, not to a deity or ancestor as before, but to their own manufactured doubles (i.e., by making us purchase the product of our own labor at a dual deficit of time and cost). The medium between the worker and his double is the production of daily life, quantified by the endless desire for a created self that is always beyond reach, the violence of space-management and cases of mistaken identity. The Self is the legal point which justifies the courts – for although the law is for all, there is only a single accused.
Despite crypto-trends such as Identity Politics (which is nothing but a voluntary confession), the old obsession with identity is probably dying by its own endless reductions and by bad art. We all finally agree what we are, except a few delirious holdouts, because we wish to save what is left of what has been allowed us. We are again strangely interested in the landscape around us, as indicated by such disparate things as Green politics and the casino skyline of Macao – but in a more personal way which may prove to be another example of crumbling infrastructure. Levy has an obsession with cities and empty seaside resorts, teeming and desolate places that watch the watchers, who can only stare inwardly and so conspire with late emptiness in a public-private initiative of Nowheres. The soul has migrated to a landscape which first produced each soul it wished to form; it fools human construction into hovering over planes and valleys like a dreamer’s hands over his sleep demon. To paraphrase Matsuda Masao: Before we see the landscape, the landscape sees us.
Levy’s final secret is revealed in his postscriptum: The real quarry of the Kzradock investigation is not the many Kzradocks but witchy Lady Florence, an apparition who finally commits suicide. Here, the translator and Walter Benjamin are especially profound: Before the masculine Double can vanish it must seek out its female form: not its opposite but its compliment, because that which is apart from unity is a ghost according to spectral law, just as that which is apart from the unity of civil law is ghostly according to the séance of productive forces. The singularity of the modern personality is constantly attacked by phantoms of the soul arising from its own true suspicions. The fatal woman is the guiding black light in the greatest detective stories, deadly for herself or others, which is the same thing = an equation. And the true detective is a solitary party who investigates his own disappearance from the landscape and the crowd. The mystery is deceptively immaterial.