idealism

THE OTHER SIDE BY ALFRED KUBIN

For years I had been toying with a story about a social experiment, in which a scientist, or psychologist, sets up a dream community. The idea was that a group of volunteers would be given the opportunity to live, for a time, in an environment resembling the world of dreams, where, to be specific, the normal, or comprehensible, coexists with the strange and inexplicable. Initially, this environment would be strongly regulated and controlled, with the help of dream-actors. However, the philosophical heart of the story was that the inhabitants would, after a period of acclimatisation, act out themselves, which means that they would, once they realised that they essentially have the freedom, without consequences, to do as they please [because their world is a dream], turn the dream community into a nightmare.

I thought this story of mine was really quite clever, until, as is often the way with one’s best ideas, I found out that someone had already written something very similar, which is to say that my enthusiasm was considerably dampened by the discovery of Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side, a novel, published in 1908, in which a man establishes a Dream Realm. The man in question is the mysterious, and exceedingly rich, Claus Patera, who was once the childhood friend of the narrator. The novel’s action is set in motion when a representative of Patera’s arrives at the narrator’s residence with a near-unbelievable tale and an invitation.

The invitation is, of course, to join Pearl, a place described as catering for those who are unhappy with modern civilisation, and where the aim is to give life ‘the deepest possible spiritual dimension.’ It is, therefore, a kind of sanctuary; but more intriguing than that is the suggestion that it is for those with an aversion to progress or with a passion for the past. Indeed, we are told that physically the place is made up of imported old buildings, various antiquities, classic artworks, even such things as ‘a broken old chair.’ There is, moreover, a large wall surrounding the community, in order to keep the outside [modern] world away. At this stage one is not sure how exactly this situation, this way of life, relates to the concept of dreams. Does it mean simply that Pearl is ideal for its inhabitants or is there actually something dream-like about it?

This question is soon answered when the narrator and his wife arrive in the Dream Realm, and the novel veers away from popular adventure story dynamics and becomes strange and sinister. Immediately, the narrator notes how ‘conditions there were most bizarre.’ One way of understanding this is in relation to the inhabitants. The community was recruited from ‘creatures of excessive sensibility’, those whose manias had ‘not yet got out of hand,’ and numerous hysterics, drunkards, criminals, spiritualists, and so on. They are all, then, not only what you might call abnormal, but also clearly vulnerable in some way.

In any case, the point is that if you gather together thousands of people with various manias, people who are socially or mentally abnormal, or unstable, what you are likely to find is that living among them will be something like being in a dream, in that their behaviour will be unpredictable. One instance of this is when a man addresses an audience that is not there. Furthermore, you will likely find that ordinary social arrangements, such as buying and selling, will break down or change in character; and this is what happens, so that, for example, the narrator sometimes pays a lot for very little, or nothing for an item that would, in the outside world, have been expensive. I thought that all this was fascinating.

Yet there are also elements of the inexplicable or [potentially] supernatural. The sky, we are told, was permanently dull, ‘the sun never shone,’ and the moon and stars could not be seen at night. This, of course, has nothing to do with the mental aberrations of the community’s inhabitants. However, one might argue that the narrator and his wife are themselves mad or go mad, in a kind of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest confrontation with the madness of others. Indeed, it is worth pointing that the narrator, towards the beginning of the book, describes himself as someone who is emotionally unstable, who is prone to ‘abrupt changes of mood.’ Therefore, even some of the more alarming aspects of life in Pearl – such as the housekeeper who appears to change into different people, the blind white horse, and so on – could be explained in this way.

Regardless, there is a large, gripping section of the novel that is simply great, pure horror writing. The narrator’s wife, for example, makes a pronouncement about how she feels, as they approach the Dream Realm, that they will never leave. There is also the constant wailing and moaning; and the hissing and knocking coming from the well; there are numerous references to hauntings and ghosts; there are doppelgängers and horrific deaths; there is a relentless atmosphere of terror, paranoia, and unease. It is wonderful, creepy stuff, and was perhaps influenced by the work of Edgar Allen Poe, which Kubin had previously illustrated.

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As we reach this point in this very long review you are perhaps wondering what exactly the book’s themes are, especially in view of its reputation as an allegory or sophisticated satire. Well, part of me is reluctant to get into all that. I have written before about my dissatisfaction with readers and critics who insist on there being, in certain kinds of novels, a single, consistent idea behind the surface action that explains the work, that magically transforms what you are reading into something else entirely. Take The Plague by Albert Camus, which, for me, is not only more impressive when taken on face value, but is frequently subject to interpretations of a tenuous nature. Kafka, of course, suffers the same fate. Indeed, it seems as though the stranger the work is, the more we, perhaps understandably, strive to find the normal, which is to say the comprehensible, in it.

I am not, of course, suggesting that allegory does not exist, or that it isn’t a genuine literary technique, but that it is important, first of all, to ensure that the work itself supports the theory. Secondly, some books can, maybe should, be enjoyed as they are; confusion is ok, weird is ok; there does not always have to be an explanation, a broader significance, a single underlying target. Bearing this in mind, it is my advice to read The Other Side without worrying too much about figuring out what the real story is. Some would tell you it is about German idealism, or religion, or capitalism, or anarchy, or numerous other things, all of which certainly play a part in the text, but really none of these interpretations stand up to scrutiny if one is looking for a coherent and unifying authorial statement.

There is, for example, no doubt that Kubin sets up Patera, who is frequently called ‘Lord’, as a God figure, and Hercules Bell, an American who creates The Lucifer Club, as Satan. One could see the Dream Realm, which is created by Patera, as representative of the earth, or even the Garden of Eden, over which these two figures fight; or at least one might say that Bell, as the Devil, attempts to wrest control of it. Indeed, at one point the narrator references that famous argument for the fallibility, or even non-existence, of God when he asks why, as Bell brings anarchy to the realm, Patera does not seek to intervene; he must not, he muses, be powerful enough. However, Pearl is, prior to Bell’s arrival, far too odd, damaging and unstable to be an Eden, and it seems rather pointless to create a surreal dream realm as a stand in for earth, when one could simply have set the novel in an ordinary community, if one’s intention was to write a religious allegory about the battle between good and evil.

As for capitalism, Bell is certainly a capitalist, a millionaire who believes in the power of money. But he doesn’t stride into Pearl and ruin it, for it wasn’t a utopia to begin with. In terms of German idealism, I don’t know enough about the subject, but, once again, wouldn’t it be a more powerful statement to begin with a utopia before showing it being destroyed? Perhaps the point was to argue that a utopia is impossible? Well, yes, but then what is the purpose of Bell? Isn’t his role, his impact, diluted by the fact that Pearl was never a competently functioning society?

“His eyes were like two empty mirrors reflecting infinity. The thought crossed my mind that Patera was not alive at all. If the dead could look, that is what their gaze would be like.”

If there is anything in all this it is as a warning against the dangers of Demi-Gods or false Gods. Both Patera and Bell are powerful figures, who attract followers; they are authority figures, to whom the general population of Pearl look for guidance, or by whom they are influenced. Indeed, the narrator spends much of the novel in pursuit of Patera, in the belief that he will help him or at least be able to provide answers to his questions. Yet the great man is always out of reach, he, although he extended the invitation to live in Pearl, provides no support. So, one has two main players, one who does nothing, who is absent, and one who is all-action, but brings chaos in his wake, and neither is worthy of faith. If The Other Side deserves to be called prescient, which it sometimes is, it would be in relation to this, to characters such as Hitler or Stalin, who wanted to be viewed as God-like, and who appeared to promise new worlds or new, better ways of living, but who ultimately turned out to be psychopaths, human and dangerously flawed.

One final thing before I finish. For me, the key to Kubin’s novel, to understanding it, or appreciating it, is not in relation to allegory or satire; its strength is not in politics or social science but in imagination. One must remember that the narrator is an artist, as is the author, and it is partly what motivates him to go to Pearl. The artist, one might argue, strives for new experiences, is drawn to the unusual, but it is more than that. The realm of dreams, isn’t that the artist’s realm? The world of the imagination, where anything is possible…this is where the narrator goes to live, and this is where Alfred Kubin himself lived. Now, if you will excuse me, I am off to work on my new story idea about a man who wakes up one day to find himself arrested for a crime he hasn’t committed. I’m thinking of calling it The Trial.

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DON QUIXOTE BY MIGUEL DE CERVANTES

In the north of England there once lived a middling sort of gentleman, who, due to a kind of cantankerous disinterest in the human race, was very much taken with reading, so much so, in fact, that he believed that he had read every novel that was worth reading. He had, to the astonishment of the online community, read In Search of Lost Time, Anna Karenina, Henry James’ later novels, The Iliad, The Magic Mountain, and so on, multiple times, and as a result the unfortunate man’s brains became addled. It was, however, perhaps Don Quixote, Cervantes’ famous novel about a crazy man who believed himself to be a knight errant, that did him the worst damage. He bought up numerous copies of the book, in multiple translations, and, after reading them all, he started to think himself, not any old knight, but the Knight of the Mournful Countenance, Don Quixote.

To this end, he ordered a helmet from ebay, which to the naked [or sane] eye would have looked like a reproduction Optimus Prime mask. Next, he purchased a sword, a samurai sword, to be exact, from some shady youngster whose acquaintance he had made on a street corner at 3am, and who had initially tried to persuade him to buy a small packet of white powder. These things, though lacking quality, came easy to our hero, but more difficult to acquire was his Rocinante, for there isn’t much call for horses in a busy northern city centre. A solution was found, however, when [P], for that was our hero’s name, spotted a mongrel, homeless dog one evening, which, to him, had the appearance of a magnificent steed. ‘You will be my Rocinante,’ he said to the nervous animal, as he patted its dirty flank. ‘You will accompany me on adventures great, will ride with me into battle.’ The mutt was none too interested in these promises, and so chose to nose its own leg throughout the short speech, but when [P] called it followed, hoping that this mad new master might have as much food in store as strange ideas in his head.

After being well fed and rested, both master and mutt set out the next day in search of chivalrous acts to perform. Early in their journey the pair came upon a man sitting on the ground, his hand out stretched, asking for alms. Of course, any sane person would have passed on by, or nonchalantly let a coin or two fall into the man’s palm, but [P], not being in his right mind, saw not a beggar, but a powerful Genii.

‘O most marvellous and talented Genii’, he said, ‘have you come to grant me wishes?’

‘Wot?’ said the man.

‘What do I wish? I wish…now let me think…’

‘Are you mad, man?’

’Who is Madman? Is he some kind of enchanter?’

The beggar rolled his eyes. ‘’Ave you got any change, mate?’

‘I do not carry a purse, Genii. I am Don Quixote, the Knight of the Mournful Countenance!’

‘You’re an imbecile!’

‘Hold your tongue; for although thou art a Genii I will not take insults from thee.’

At this, [P] drew his sword and Rocinante, not much in the way of a horse, barked excitedly.

‘Help! Police! This man is trying to kill me!’ shouted the beggar.

Fortunately for him, a Policeman was passing, and seeing, not a chivalrous knight, but Optimus Prime wielding a samurai sword, promptly intervened.

‘What is going on here!’ he said.

‘Good Sir fellow knight,’ replied [P], noting the Policeman’s uniform and baton, and thinking them a suit of armour and a lance, ‘this impertinent Genii hath insulted me and I must defend my honour, as befitting a noble and brave knight errant.’

‘I think you’ll be coming with me, sir,’ said the unruffled policeman, who had seen much worse than this whilst on duty.

‘You want me to accompany you to your kingdom? I must assume there is a knight’s council taking place; or perhaps you need my help in fighting some giant, who hath enslaved your beloved? Pray wait until I have taken care of this small business, and I will do my duty and aid thee.’

Our hero made ready to swing his sword, and would have cut the poor beggar in two, had not the Policeman expertly brained him with his baton. As a result of the blow, [P] fell to the ground in a daze, his sword flung far from him; he was bleeding from the head. ‘Ah, foul double-crosser! Thou art in league with the Genii! In fact, thou art probably not a real knight at all, but a vision, a trick of this so powerful magician!’ Full of wrath, he tried to rise to his feet, and so the Policeman brained him again, and gave him a number of hard punches in the mug for good measure.

When [P] came round he found that he had been imprisoned in some sort of castle tower. His head hurt and his legs felt weak, both of which he attributed to having been given a potent potion, famous for sapping the strength of the most chivalrous and hardy knights. After a moment or two [P] collected his wits, and noticed that he was not alone in the cell, for a young lady was sat on the bench beside him.

‘O beauteous lady,’ he said. ‘O Princess, did the bad knight and the evil Genii capture you too?

‘Great. A crackhead,’ she muttered to herself.

‘Why, yes, they attempted to crack my head. You are unharmed, I trust?’

‘Lay off the pipe, man.’

‘Let me introduce myself, Princess,’ said [P] with a flourish.

‘The last guy who called me princess asked for a handjob and then broke my jaw.’

‘A villain! How could it be!’

‘Occupational hazard. I’m a hooker, love.’

‘Ann Hooker? I have not before heard of thee or the Hooker kingdom,’ replied [P] musingly. ‘I am Don Quixote, the Knight of the Mournful Countenance.’

‘What, as in Cervantes?’

Ah, does her knowledge surprise you? Can a prostitute not read?

‘Cervantes, my father?’

‘No, as in the author who wrote Don Quixote. I have a degree in English literature, you can’t fool me. So where is Sancho, DQ?’

‘Sancho?’

‘Yeah, Sancho Panza, your sidekick, your foil. You have to have a Sancho. He’s the one who you promise the insula to.’

‘Insula?’

‘Yes. An island. At first it seems as though Sancho is stupid, that he is following you out of greed. But it becomes clear that, really, he is doing so out of friendship. To some extent, Don Quixote is a kind of buddy comedy. It’s quite moving, really, in that way. Anyway, you need a Sancho, because he, unlike you DQ, sees the truth of what you encounter, he…Oh oh oh, oh no…I’M YOUR SANCHO!’

‘Friend Sancho, why art thou dressed as a lady?’ said [P], for he now believed that the once-lovely vision he had seen before him was in fact his loyal squire. ‘Are you here to break me out of this castle prison?’

‘Oh no, listen, I expect to be paid for my services.’

‘I have promised you an insula,’ he replied with great seriousness.

‘Look, DQ, I see what you’re doing here. It’s all very quixotic. You know that word came from the book, right? Something excessively romantic. The modern world needs you, I get that. Ideals. Dedication to just causes. Ok. But have you tilted at windmills? That’s important. It’s a very famous scene.’

‘There are no windmills in the city.’

‘Exactly. And who is going to write your history? The real DQ had Cervantes. And, y’know, you can’t just ignore the fact that in the second half of the book he is famous, because the first part, Cervantes says, had spread word of his madness and adventures.’

‘Ah, I have this covered. I’ve set up a twitter account. You must follow me, Sancho!’

‘Right. And I guess you’ve already got the ‘is art dangerous’ angle covered. Uh, clearly it is dangerous; look at you! Y’know, Flaubert used that idea, or stole it if you like, for Madame Bovary. How much can art, books, whatever, influence you? It’s a fascinating question. They burn your books, y’know, your friends do.’

‘They what my what now? This is an outrage. I have a pristine hardcover copy of The Man Without Qualities!’

‘Gone, DQ. That kind of book gives people unsuitable ideas. What about the stories-within-stories stuff? Lots of that kind of thing in Don Quixote.’

‘Well, this was my first sally. I haven’t got around to all that yet. But I did meet this Ann Hooker lady, a beautiful Princess. Her story ought to be told.’

‘But Ann is Sancho, remember?’

‘Stop quibbling, Sancho. And, er, your bra strap is showing, please adjust it. I will tell the most interesting tale of how Sancho met Princess Ann, and persuaded her to swap costumes.’

‘Very good. But, I must warn you, that being DQ is very likely to cause you physical harm. Nabokov called the book crude and cruel, and, well, it is violent. DQ gets beaten up frequently.’

‘One must risk all to win all.’

‘Fair enough. But, y’know, the whole thing becomes repetitious, there’s no denying that. You’ll have to do the same sort of thing over and over again.’

‘Such is life, Sancho. I would rather encounter the same wonderful thing again and again than have terrible variety.’

‘You’ve become a philosopher, DQ.’

‘I am simply a knight, Sancho, but we knights do trust in our brains, as well as our arms, on occasion.’

‘You’re very good at this, I must say. That sounded just right. Ok, but one last thing, if you have read Don Quixote then you must be aware that what the hero of the book thinks he experiences isn’t real, that where he sees giants there are only windmills, and where he sees The Helmet of Mambrino there is only a barber’s bowl.’

‘Ah, Sancho, of course I know that. But isn’t life more beautiful if you approach it with a noble heart, with wonder and awe? I am not advocating that everyone ought to become Don Quixote, because to be him is to be insane, but one should have a little of his spirit in you. Isn’t that the book’s true message? Those batterings that he takes, which grouchy old Nabokov objected to, those are but the workaday world rapping you on the knuckles, telling you to settle, to be reasonable, to give up your ideals, to stop dreaming the impossible dream. Well, I tell you, friend Sancho, I tell all of you, to dream on, dream the fuck on.’