Haunting Ourselves

“My drug is myself.”

– Henri Michaux

The Oriental style+ in drugs died a long time ago. Today’s fentanyl crowd has no use for the Old Man of the Mountains or the Kufic smoke of a wistful nargila. Ritual has evaporated into a simple base price and narcotic love-death visions add up to a clerical figure of 64,000 US ODs in 2016 – sans Hanging Gardens and Houri’s ankle, not under Isfahani blue but in staid emergency-room turquoise. Even the old colonialist picture of a dreaming, sensual Orient has been erased by the puritan snuff of our ISIS assets: Everything is true; everything is forbidden. The latest reprint from RKS-Process Media digs up Victorian weeds from a bygone Wild East drug-world: sepia Mouresque chez belle, Tavern of Ruin and djinn companion, the small dope cult before Big Pharma and these cold methadone clinic days.

Thomas Coakley’s 1897 novel Keef concerns a Jewish Moroccan émigré artist, Abecassis, who falls in love with the feminine specter which appears to him in the clouds of keef, the high-THC content cousin of hash. After he paints this perfect vision, he is given a copy of The New Pygmalion, an anonymous epistolary work addressed to an ideal woman a la Beatrice. Abecassis soon becomes convinced that his keef-dream is communicating to him through this roman a clef (a real book, actually by William Hazlitt, first published in 1823). When the painter visits a rich boor from his club and is introduced to the man’s wife, he is finally confronted with his etheric love in the flesh. She faints before him and, holding her in his arms, he realizes that there is a deadly symbiosis between his keef habit and her declining health: the clearer she becomes to him, the closer to death she becomes in real life. In typical tragedian fashion, he keeps puffing, with the predictable end result. After she dies, her husband offers the painter his entire fortune as commission for her portrait. Abecassis produces the portrait he had painted earlier and burns it in from of him for daring to suggest such a sacrilege, sending the maddened brahmin into a murderous rage. After being rescued in time by his trusty giant servant Hassan, Abecassis decides to return to the Maghreb now that his love has departed forever. On board a steamer, he learns of her husband’s suicide and reflects that even this facile man must have also deeply loved her. He is last seen in a keef oblivion on his rooftop in old Fez, pleasantly pining away toward his own death in inscrutable Moorish fashion. Tammam.

Keef is a riff on Poe’s Oval Portrait (nicely reprinted here in its ur-text as Life in Death), with grafts taken from the cautionary drug confessional and the Nervalesque Eastern maudit.  An inspired pulp practitioner, Coakley also muses on Corot and Constable and Islamic history, gets in a dig at the corrupt elite (the heavy is based on an Astor scion), and references modish tech and philosophy (newspapers, transport, Theosophy), all with the unselfconscious zip of the early locomotive American potboiler. Far from being the work of a neurasthenic obsessive, Keef’s main drive comes from a sense that it was skillfully assembled after whatever ‘original’ material had been hoovered-up by a hive-like mind, like the best Golden Age sci-fi debris, and then rushed out without precious waste in order to capitalize on a contemporary trend. Books like this hold lively secrets; they are repositories of the archeological junk of their times. They can also provoke rather eerie suggestions.

Under the Orientalist dope chic of Keef is another theme which seems even more archaic today: the vision of an idealized feminine. By Coakley’s time, visions and hallucinations had migrated from the solitary initiate to the general public. Mass occult spectacles via new mediums like the camera reproduced outer and inner worlds, projecting them onto the physical area of a blank screen before a new kind of giddy spectator. The states of Abecassis’ apparition recall the nascent art of film as well as slightly earlier pre-cinematic gadgets such as the kinetoscope, magic lantern-like pop entertainments that connected the séance with vaudeville kicks, carnival distortions, and the touring panoramic travelogue show. Coakley’s sylph isn’t so much ghostly as fitful, flickering to focus: the shape of the beloved as a boardwalk familiar got up in fantasy harem garb.

We can also identify several new laws in the idea of a modernized supernatural, far removed from the Gothic spooks of Otranto and The Monk. A new rule of materialist haunting is that the recognition of a desired object via an artificial intermediary form leads to the death of the seer, but in a double-exposure where the medium form is both a ghost and seer’s ‘true’ self. The seer is ultimately self-killed – also the destiny of the modern paranoid (this is what links Poe’s Lenore with his William Wilson). The idealized form is an instantaneous memory called up by an event or a chance affinity – say, a color or a reflection, by recognition in a crowd, by media – a replica whose productive force has no need of a return from any afterlife. The seer has himself created the ghostly object in order that the subject may be visibly recognized apart from himself, to himself, for no other. And for death to join the seer and his own ghost, ghost and seer must cancel each other out, but without either of them losing their own unique presence.

Whereas the prior mode of haunting came from a sidereal world of others, a reflection of the world’s countless dead come back, the modern spirit world is a ‘schizophrenic’ zone of duplicitous singulars. Hence the use of portrait paintings in this kind of half-supernatural tale as an representation and a separate entity at the same time, a preoccupation of fin de siècle theories about art (and hence also the earlier ‘prohibition’ of the image as intermediary in Judeo-Islamic tradition, rejected as the crude temptation to confuse the object with its first expression; in other words, simply as bad art). Forms and images had become compromised entities with different relations to their makers and audiences; avatara that almost seemed to be confused about themselves, shipwrecked, cut loose from their old role in the institutional order of visions and things. Early filmgoers felt this confusion as they tried to gauge their own position before the projected scenes, vis-à-vis images that were not quite before them any longer but rather in a new relation toward them.

The modern face of haunting is an endless reproduction of images no longer bound to the seer, a free market generated by medial production mills that grow ever closer to a centralized system. Artificial intelligence is probably impossible (and certainly ridiculous), but its ghosts have been with us for quite some time. As finance was liberated from industrial chains and investment was freed from liquidity, so too must the nomadic images of a former world enter into the strange hinterland of derivatives, revenants, off-shore heavens, troll farms, multiple identities, surveillance upon surveillance, seer upon seer. Nothing else proves better the nature of an evolution in the supernatural. At long last, we are able to haunt ourselves.

The old Oriental style in dope matched a still-popular view of the Mediterranean: sleepy, timeless, languid – while Europe is rather excitable and wide awake (except when it sleepwalks, as they say it does, from time to time). Sleepless Europe needed somewhere to import its dreams from, just as England needed somewhere to export its Indian opium surplus, a byproduct of the Yorkshire cloth glut. Many Orients were created and it is typically strange that the only place where the West – obsessed with itself until the end, with all those cruel and stupid questions about its own being – thought that it could gain spiritual salvation was in its own vigorous inventions, superimposed by conquest over a living East.

Finally, there is the heretical question of the ancient violence done to the feminine image. Perhaps it even predates the violence done to her flesh. It would take an Evelyn Reid or a Wilhelm Reich to uncover the rigor of this original terrorist campaign, the imprint of which can just barely be made out in Keef. Who can even find it conceivable now that certain saints once chose to embrace her as the only acceptable giver of death? It sounds utterly ridiculous to quote that old ‘Oriental’ poet Sa’adi: For even though you refused me your love/ You have given me a vision of You / Which has been the confident of my hidden secrets.

This beautiful new edition of Keef is done in the usual RKS Library manner of creating a constellation around an obscure reprint. There are contemporary images, excerpts from the works of fellow-travelers (Poe, Paul Bowles, Mohamed Mrabet, Tennessee Williams, Delacroix, French colonial postcards), and whatever else clusters around the newly-resurrected body. It always works, allowing the reader to wander around the scrap and stop a while when inclined. Editor Ronald K. Siegel, PhD, contributes important notes throughout, as well as an excellent introduction, all with the kind of light touch needed for a book haunted by the hazards of exposure, haziness, and illumination.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.