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There is No Vacation Anymore

“But the beauty is in the walking. We are betrayed by destinations.”

– Gwynn Thomas

Covid has made a mockery of scheduling. Its new order of hibernation or death caught the Republic unawares, despite two months of international warnings and as many afternoons of mediocre golf. Shucks, accidents will happen! But I suspect that in the nursing homes, VAs, slum high-rises, and Shatila-like neighborhoods, something was clearly on the wing if only because nothing was different. Prophecies are the voice of the present, clothed in future tense for personal safety and for parody. Thus did John the Revelator talk about the Roman Empire and Domitian (currency number 666) using seven-headed dragons, whores on shining beasts, seas of blood. John also used plague-ravage as metaphor. Death is a new master from a besieged body. Pathogen or bust? The host is the soft, radical center – or the Seven Churches, corrupt with the day.

What’s John writin’? Ask the Revelator

A book of the seven seals.

– Blind Willie Johnson

Along with the three month lockdown, we have a joust on the horizon between two old men most people despise. However, this may not happen if the incumbent gets his coup or if Old Man #2 forgets about it. The daily news is a gallery of grotesques – Pompeous Maximus threatening Australia, pro-Covid death cults, Bolsonaro screaming and Johnson running (I can’t hide you, the rock cried out) – punctuated by a frigid daylight where a black teenager gets murdered again and again. This is the sport of would-be Count Zaroffs, escapees from suburban bungalows, pensions adrift, pushing forward their own slow suicides with Southern gothic murder.

Vacation, Childhood, Haircuts… all things of the past. Victims of the leisure hives of SARS-CoV-2, a dark series of Oriental capitals and dashes by which Simon Magus calls. It resembles more those MK acronyms used by CIA, or a drop in the sea of QAnon at the Gates of Pizza. China Did It, like Russia Did It. The American is innocent and innocently he kills. Item: It has been announced that the Department of Homeland Security is currently subterranean. But is there an enclave where our unelected elected leaders can go for respite? If so, may it resemble the pits of Rogomelec.

Leonor Fini, the great painter (see here), wrote and illustrated her brief novel Rogomelec in 1979. By then, she had outlived most of her old friends: Éluard, Bataille, de Chirico and Ernst. Most of them, Fini the Argentine included, led nomadic, scattered lives. Her protagonists in paint and page are also wanderers in sentient landscapes where mind makes a black scrawl, a cat-infested tree, a circle of tyrants. Rogomelec is about Rest Cure but is more black mass than Magic Mountain. A century of fad health cures and Yoga Nazis are satanically attacked, as well as religious orders and loopy Grail lore. The closest thing to this book is probably Raúl Ruiz’ 1978 flick Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, which was scripted by Klossowski whose own petrified kabbalism has much in common with Fini’s. Both understood that pomp is numerically seductive and that eternal children love costumes and magic wands (see also the Michigan Militia). The occult is unsparing; the ridiculous is the most sinister brand of sinister. Verily is Zuckerberg an unholy cross between the Muppets’ Beaker and gaudy Dr John Dee.

An unnamed narrator arrives on the titular desolate isle, where a group of very heretical monks run a sanitarium out of a crumbling monastery. The prelates administer a regimen of bizarre, very physical pseudo-Aquarian health treatments and also seem to be anticipating the manifestation of a Fisher King-like idol. As the narrator – who is possibly a hermaphrodite and possibly unaware of it – prowls through the underground ruins of the keep, a hanged man in tableau announces the resurrection of this secret monarch. In the masked ball (or military parade) thronging above, the narrator then searches in vain for this superman amid metamorphosed, wildly celebrating monks and patients. All ends well enough, though – fears that the narrator may be the intended vessel of sacrifice turn out to be baseless. A rowboat takes off from the sunny island port unhindered: But I was quite far out and could no longer see anyone.

Symbols are liberated from the junk of symbolic meaning. The monks move like allegories who have lost their point and have only rite, smoke and evil eyes to remember – much like the bodiless heads and gibberish ‘analysis’ currently on display in Covidistan, USA. William Kulik and Serena Shanken Skwersky render this initiatory tale in droll, tight English with great skill and poetry. Wakefield Press can add yet another beautiful piece to its fine gallery of neglected dream books.

The Rest Cure as laughing nightmare also finds brilliant expression in Franziska zu Reventlow’s 1917 collection, The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe, narrated in the royal wir (we) of suzerains, prophets and the Legion-possessed. This raving plurality of professional interlopers moves over a country of dysfunctional inns, Potemkin villages and mysterious spas. Life for them is a series mad, hysterical dashes from interim to interim, resort to last resort, “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we…”

The Countess’ anti-stories are peripatetic puzzles that simply cease as if the author became bored with them, with no resolution of facts other than fever and riot. She favors transformation and pun, anthropomorphism as Fate: a man called ‘Otterman’ is murdered because of a particularly insane collusion of names and events from the past (‘Mister Otterman’). Magic is prominent, but the séances and shimmering figures are in the techno Jules Verne vein, rather than Rhenish batcave. These fantasies are persistently giddy and girlish, afternoonish and bright, even while half crazy. After some episode of chance and agony, the nattering milieu is caught in an incomprehensible strait-jacket every time, tight as a magic pentagram (the pentagram points downward but will not drain, repeating but never quite concluding in intersecting lines – open and jawing, sardonic, incomplete). The Guesthouse is a sidereal modernity, neighbor to Kubin’s Other Side and Kafka’s Amerika, pulsing with expulsions of people, clatter, and collapse.

One of the maddest characters in the 1900 German arts scene, the Countess Fanny “Franziska” zu Reventlow/ Fanny Liane Wilhelmine Sophie Auguste Adrienne was an aristocrat, single mother and marriage abolitionist, translator, gonzo journalist, and occasional prostitute. Her friends included Klages (who called her a ‘Pagan Saint’), Rilke, Wedekind, the great anarchist Erich Mühsam and other heavy players in entartete Munich who formed part of a loose group called the Cosmic Circle. Her reactionary brother Ernst later went total Nazi, befriending the notorious Dietrich Eckart (an early mentor of Hitler and noted bourgeois occultist). The Countess remained outré.

At the end of her life, the Countless lived near Carl Jung but managed to duck the Aryan Christ’s inner orbit. There in Ascona, she also met Lenin, Klee, Trotsky, and her fellow noble, Prince Kropotkin, and added Martin Buber and Franz Hartmann to her clan. Rudolph Steiner’s compound was also in the vicinity, which made the whole mystic-crowded area very similar to her stories. Her diaries of the time show an amusing list of penis metaphors: cudgel, sausage, pencil, bratwurst… These were applied to her many men, some of whom appear disguised and subsumed as part of the Guesthouse’s majestic we. War was an inconvenience to her. She died a little over three months before the November 1918 Armistice.

We remember the past in the plural because we shared it with friends – at least outwardly, which upon reflection, is also inwardly. A plurality also marks those dreams wherein our oneiric double moves omnipresent, sometimes in dark company, through several lifetimes at the speed of REM. The Countess daily glided along on her bike on the south side of the Alps near Lake Maggiore, until she crashed one afternoon in July. She succumbed to the injuries several days later. As only an heiress can, in genuine late style in late youth, the ‘Heathen Madonna’ exited in poverty at age 47. Her old friend Emil Ludwig spoke at the service.

Hölderlin wrote: No created world ever hindered the course of lightning. The Countess’ stories carry this same doomed realization, common to old childhood pledges. Pacts made in a cruel summer that become ever more binding for the last one out – for this one, who has watched everyone disappear and must now fulfill an ancient pledge alone. At all costs the milieu-world must be upheld, but even dying young is no real defense against corruption. War or another disaster comes, corrupting and making everything so predictable. Kaiser and Czar seemed as comical as the lunatics walking their crocodiles, a polished figure no one can see except the chosen, the living luggage that follows its owners that the Countless relates with such élan in this book. Clinging to echoes, the plural wild ride goes on waiting for its carousel to the stars. People live hard off this kind of ferocious joie de vive. I suspect there is a hidden warning here, similar to the inarticulate cry of the Prophet Joseph Smith when he realized the guns below him would actually open fire.

The late Victorian rest cure or colonial trip or wandervogel escapism is today the occupation solely of refugees, who move from border to border as borders shift and lapse backward. Global lockdown has changed this not at all. Sentimental visions of The End from McCarthy’s The Road to seminars on how to protect yourself from your own security guards show a mercenary idea of The Fall most of us can’t afford. Which is why these two books seem apropos, as dreams and corruptions shrink and sit in the corner like a little dog rather than a roaring bestselling demon. Friends in New York City say they can’t sleep for the sirens and lights, orange like prison garb or bodybags, blue like Oxycodone, which also distort the view of the distant Chrysler Building and King Kong’s martyrdom.

Endnote:

The Guesthouse, in James J. Conway’s miraculous translation, is part of Rixdorf Edition’s exciting project of publishing crucial and forgotten Weimar texts in English. These include: Magnus Hirschfeld’s Berlin’s Third Sex, an important sexological study and early defense of gay rights; August Endell’s Beauty of the Metropolis, which tries to rescue urbanism from Haussmann and his reactionary inheritors; Ilse Frapan’s We Women Have no Fatherland, a vital Feminist salvo; Herman Bahr’s Antisemitism – an extraordinary mea culpa by a former bigot turned anti-anti-Semite and defender of the Berlin avant-garde.

 

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Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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