• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal


Is it time for our Spring fundraiser already? If you enjoy what we offer, and have the means, please consider donating. The sooner we reach our modest goal, the faster we can get back to business as (un)usual. Please, stay safe and we’ll see you down the road.

The Gothic and the Idea of a ‘Real Elite’

Where human eyes have never seen, where human beings have never been, I build a world of abstract dreams, and I wait for you.

– Sun Ra

An author is only truly immortal when his expression is so famous that it is anonymous. Such is the case with Otto Julius Bierbaum, whose quip, ‘Humor ist, wenn man trotzdem lacht’ (Humor is when you laugh anyway), is proverbial in Germany, though his name and works have been completely forgotten. A bon vivant well-known for his sardonic wit and biting satire in the roaring ‘teens, Bierbaum was praised by Max Brod, played an important part in Franz Wedekind’s influential cabaret The 11 Executioners, and published a dizzying array of monographs, song lyrics, novels, children’s books, journalism and travel writing – all to popular success in his day. Yet by the time of his death in 1910, he had already drifted into obscurity.

Samalio Pardulus is the first of his writings to appear in English, translated by the brilliant W C Bamberger. It is a funny little shocker, dripping with incest, Satanism, bestiality, and every delirious gothic trope imaginable. By gothic, we mean a kind of archaic pastiche used to sift through the bombastic remnants of the past. It was passé as parody by the early 1800s but stayed awhile. What the late, late period of pre-photographic goth added was enough genuine nihilism to make you occasionally wonder if the author may be more serious than he is letting on (or crazier) – for other examples, see Maturin, Potocki, Vathek and Gus Meyrink. Bierbaum’s 1908 is a sickly Victorian hangover with glimmers of electric light.

The novella concerns the titular Faustian painter and the man his rich father hires to tutor him deep in the Albanian mountains. Like many other books of the time, it is written as a found diary with commentary. The older man soon realizes that not only is Samalio already a master artist, but he is also a kind of mediumistic demiurge whose gnostic mission involves a violent liebestod with his own sister – she has somehow been transformed into Isis/Madonna/succubus, maybe with the help of a witch – and long monologues in trendy Neo-Augustinian cant. Pardulus’ Symbolist paintings, done in the Redon style full of centaurs, demons, and prostrate women, are by the great Alfred Kubin. They are handsomely reprinted in this Wakefield Press edition, and well worth the modest price alone.

Despite all the loopy salvific philosophy, Bierbaum’s book is pure entertainment done in the Rosicrucian pulp of the times. But there is something in a passage like the one below, a riff on Nietzsche’s concept of ‘untimeliness’, that has other implications:

All intellectual movements prepare for their emergence by first showing themselves, to some degree, in anachronistic individuals. Before they become a destiny of a time, before they become an epoch, they manifest themselves in some measure as a sort of ferment in the destines of individuals who are thereby condemned to solitude and, usually with no apparent positive impact, fulfill a purpose the meaning of which we do not grasp.

Here we are close to mysticism and hidden saints, a kind of ‘real elite’ which stands in contrast to a worldly elitism that regards its lofty position as a sovereign debt owed by a public it despises. The establishment’s philosophy is not an ideal or even an allocation of forces, but an economic fact. It cunningly concocts tradition to valorize itself until pure terror is enough; it reproduces by mirrors and hoarding. But a ‘real elite’ is marked by a Quixotic will to substitution, physical and mental, for the world around it. A silent ‘aristocracy’ that speaks in nonsense syllables, homelessness, inappropriate laughter and the grace of obscene extravagance. Truly singular and always temporal – it operates in a time sealed off, a loop where the leper stares back at the world.

In Jean Rouch’s great 1955 documentary La Maitre Fous, the shop workers and laborers of the Nigerian Hauka movement send-up the pomp and brutality of their former British colonial masters. In a trance similar to Vodou possession, they wobble and froth and roll around, deliver absurd orders, ‘review’ parades, bestow honors and generally mimic the far more ridiculous colonizers who were finally driven out. Though the exoticism of Rouch’s film has been criticized by some African critics – and they doubtless have a point – the film seems to me to show a healthy and extremely sophisticated society superior to the so-called West. And one that retains an antecedence without being reactionary, without rejecting the living present in favor of a glorious past. The Hauka used psychological and theatrical techniques far beyond the crude therapy and catharsis theories of ‘developed’ societies. They create a real elite in a fixed Saturnalian time by showing the old imposed elite to be a bunch of wonky buffoons whose ghastly rites are now relegated to carnival rather than an empire able to govern from the past. Colonization is played almost as an accident, and certainly as a dirty joke.

Parody and irony also exist in our less enlightened climate. They are manifest in the solitaries you see on the buses with mad epaulets, Martian attractors, homemade wizard robes, speaking syncretic languages – strangely quiet figures, no matter the noise. This ‘real elite’ is usually feared, tolerated at best, accepted only in the most run-down of neighborhoods – though thin versions of it occasionally appear in the odd strains of inherited wealth, movie personalities, and the studied artist-type. But the latter are eccentric, rather than crazy or sanctified. They give off a certain security by haut self-expression, easy for any good bourgeois to place. Politically, they may even be Fascists.

Can there be an elite without hierarchy? Of course. Would such an elite then belong to everyone? Naturally. Yet if a ‘real elite’ is a question of power, then why is it always crippled by its own weight, by its monstrous giving over in the face of the ruthlessness of everyday life? Because to meet the world, certain people must become a kind of autarch (to borrow and twist Ernst Jünger’s concept) driven by solitary courses to conserve energy: riddles and visions, masks and strategies that work until they can no longer deceive. In contrast, the power elite – appointed by a firmly corporatist history, brutal and even expert, of necessity racist and woman-hating – depend on a guarded separation from secret weakness.

The idea of such a Real Elite can never be far from the issue of class. It is not a thesis, but an interruption. It is not an apparition – it is an appearance above all. And it does not want to explain what everyone really knows (hence it is cast out). As a survival tactic, elitism down below has its own traps. No one could deny it. After a man went mad and shot his boss downtown and was then himself shot by the cops, a woman on the subway said to me intently: You’ve got to have a strong mind. She was referring sympathetically to the marauder, to the traps. Wisdom in compulsive thought – thinking on revolutionary suicide.

To say anymore here risks the worst romanticism (it couldn’t risk envy, not if we are honest). In other words, this ‘real elite’ does not exist except in the procession of a community that can never be called a community. We must also stop before the question of medical or psycho-medical theories: it is beyond Bierbaum’s quote and belongs to another place.

Now that Bierbaum’s book has been reprinted in this century, its phantasmagoric trappings fade away just as they did before but in a modified world. The Gnostic legend of an outrageous baron wandering in a shattered nightside landscape is clear as day, common to the back of the bus.


More articles by:

Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

May 27, 2020
Ipek S. Burnett
The Irony of American Freedom 
Paul Street
Life in Hell: Online Teaching
Vijay Prashad
Why Iran’s Fuel Tankers for Venezuela Are Sending Shudders Through Washington
Lawrence Davidson
National Values: Reality or Propaganda?
Ramzy Baroud
Why Does Israel Celebrate Its Terrorists: Ben Uliel and the Murder of the Dawabsheh Family
Sam Pizzigati
The Inefficient and Incredibly Lucrative Coronavirus Vaccine Race
Mark Ashwill
Vietnam Criticized for Its First-Round Victory Over COVID-19
David Rovics
A Note from the Ministry of Staple Guns
Binoy Kampmark
One Rule for Me and Another for Everyone Else: The Cummings Coronavirus Factor
Nino Pagliccia
Canada’s Seat at the UN Security Council May be Coveted But is Far From a Sure Bet
Erik Molvar
Should Federal Public Lands be Prioritized for Renewable Energy Development?
R. G. Davis
Fascism: Is it Too Extreme a Label?
Gene Glickman
A Comradely Letter: What’s a Progressive to Do?
Jonathan Power
The Attacks on China Must Stop
John Kendall Hawkins
The Asian Pivot
May 26, 2020
Melvin Goodman
Trump Administration and the Washington Post: Picking Fights Together
John Kendall Hawkins
The Gods of Small Things
Patrick Cockburn
Governments are Using COVID-19 Crisis to Crush Free Speech
George Wuerthner
Greatest Good is to Preserve Forest Carbon
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
The Covid-19 Conspiracies of German Neo-Nazis
Henry Giroux
Criminogenic Politics as a Form of Psychosis in the Age of Trump
John G. Russell
TRUMP-20: The Other Pandemic
John Feffer
Trump’s “Uncreative Destruction” of the US/China Relationship
John Laforge
First US Citizen Convicted for Protests at Nuclear Weapons Base in Germany
Ralph Nader
Donald Trump, Resign Now for America’s Sake: This is No Time for a Dangerous, Law-breaking, Bungling, Ignorant Ship Captain
James Fortin – Jeff Mackler
Killer Capitalism’s COVID-19 Back-to-Work Imperative
Binoy Kampmark
Patterns of Compromise: The EasyJet Data Breach
Howard Lisnoff
If a Covid-19 Vaccine is Discovered, It Will be a Boon to Military Recruiters
David Mattson
Grizzly Bears are Dying and That’s a Fact
Thomas Knapp
The Banality of Evil, COVID-19 Edition
May 25, 2020
Marshall Auerback
If the Federal Government Won’t Fund the States’ Emergency Needs, There is Another Solution
Michael Uhl
A Memory Fragment of the Vietnam War
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
Make a Resilient, Localized Food System Part of the Next Stimulus
Barrie Gilbert
The Mismanagement of Wildlife in Utah Continues to be Irrational and a National Embarrassment.
Dean Baker
The Sure Way to End Concerns About China’s “Theft” of a Vaccine: Make it Open
Thom Hartmann
The Next Death Wave from Coronavirus Will Be the Poor, Rural and White
Phil Knight
Killer Impact
Paul Cantor
Memorial Day 2020 and the Coronavirus
Laura Flanders
A Memorial Day For Lies?
Gary Macfarlane – Mike Garrity
Grizzlies, Lynx, Bull Trout and Elk on the Chopping Block for Trump’s Idaho Clearcuts
Cesar Chelala
Challenges of the Evolving Coronavirus Pandemic
Luciana Tellez-Chavez
This Year’s Forest Fire Season Could Be Even Deadlier
Thomas Hon Wing Polin
Beijing Acts on Hong Kong
George Wuerthner
Saving the Lionhead Wilderness
Elliot Sperber
Holy Beaver