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.


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