“The Madhouse” by Francisco Goya [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
So brilliant: an implicitly ironic but outwardly straight-faced reading of the DSM-5 as a dystopian horror novel, complete with a quasi-Ligottian assessment of the book’s narrative voice and view of humanity.
Great dystopia isn’t so much fantasy as a kind of estrangement or dislocation from the present; the ability to stand outside time and see the situation in its full hideousness. The dystopian novel doesn’t necessarily have to be a novel. . . . Something has gone terribly wrong in the world; we are living the wrong life, a life without any real fulfillment. The newly published DSM-5 is a classic dystopian novel in this mold.
Here, we have an entire book, something that purports to be a kind of encyclopedia of madness, a Library of Babel for the mind, containing everything that can possibly be wrong with a human being. . . . DSM-5 arranges its various strains of madness solely in terms of the behaviors exhibited. This is a recurring theme in the novel, while any consideration of the mind itself is entirely absent. . . . The idea emerges that every person’s illness is somehow their own fault, that it comes from nowhere but themselves: their genes, their addictions, and their inherent human insufficiency. We enter a strange shadow-world where for someone to engage in prostitution isn’t the result of intersecting environmental factors (gender relations, economic class, family and social relationships) but a symptom of “conduct disorder,” along with “lying, truancy, [and] running away.” A mad person is like a faulty machine. The pseudo-objective gaze only sees what they do, rather than what they think or how they feel. A person who shits on the kitchen floor because it gives them erotic pleasure and a person who shits on the kitchen floor to ward off the demons living in the cupboard are both shunted into the diagnostic category of encopresis. It’s not just that their thought-processes don’t matter, it’s as if they don’t exist. The human being is a web of flesh spun over a void.
. . . The word “disorder” occurs so many times that it almost detaches itself from any real signification, so that the implied existence of an ordered state against which a disorder can be measured nearly vanishes is almost forgotten. Throughout the novel, this ordered normality never appears except as an inference; it is the object of a subdued, hopeless yearning. With normality as a negatively defined and nebulously perfect ideal, anything and everything can then be condemned as a deviation from it. . . . If there is a normality here, it’s a state of near-catatonia. DSM-5 seems to have no definition of happiness other than the absence of suffering. The normal individual in this book is tranquilized and bovine-eyed, mutely accepting everything in a sometimes painful world without ever feeling much in the way of anything about it. The vast absurd excesses of passion that form the raw matter of art, literature, love, and humanity are too distressing; it’s easier to stop being human altogether, to simply plod on as a heaped collection of diagnoses with a body vaguely attached.
. . . For all the subtlety of its characterization, the book doesn’t just provide a chilling psychological portrait, it conjures up an entire world. The clue is in the name: On some level we’re to imagine that the American Psychiatric Association is a body with real powers, that the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual” is something that might actually be used, and that its caricature of our inner lives could have serious consequences. Sections like those on the personality disorders offer a terrifying glimpse of a futuristic system of repression, one in which deviance isn’t furiously stamped out like it is in Orwell’s unsubtle Oceania, but pathologized instead. Here there’s no need for any rats, and the diagnostician can honestly believe she’s doing the right thing; it’s all in the name of restoring the sick to health. DSM-5 describes a nightmare society in which human beings are individuated, sick, and alone. For much of the novel, what the narrator of this story is describing is its own solitude, its own inability to appreciate other people, and its own overpowering desire for death — but the real horror lies in the world that could produce such a voice.
MORE: “Book of Lamentations“
For more on the DSM-V and the controversy it has elicited, see this.
Jill Tracy’s Diabolical Streak has been a favorite album of mine for the past decade — see the video above for one of the many reasons why — and in this 2009 interview for Tor.com, the always-mesmerizing Ms. Tracy explains some of the philosophical-aesthetic worldview that informs her lush world of musical darkness:
We all want to believe in magic. It keeps hope alive. Sometimes I feel that magic and the suspension of disbelief is the only thing that matters. I think that’s why my music resonates with people on such a deep level.
I was given the book The Mysterious World when I was a child and when I first opened it, there was a picture of spontaneous human combustion. I had never heard of such a thing in my life. There’s that wonderful old photograph of Dr. John Irving Bentley who suddenly burst into flame. There’s a bit of his leg, with his foot still in a slipper, his walker, and cinders everywhere. And I’d read about toads and frogs and blood raining from the sky. Or Count Saint Germain, who was recorded to have lived for hundreds of years. He said his secret to immortality was to eat oatmeal and wear velvet encrusted with gemstones. To this day, no one knows exactly who he was, where he came from and if indeed he was immortal.
Unfortunately, these days of internet and technology have murdered “the legend.” That breaks my heart. Monsters, marvels, lore, and legend — these are the things that make us feel most alive. The most wonderful questions of all are the ones for which there are no answers. One of my favorite quotes is, “In the end, it is the mystery that prevails, never the explanation.” Sadly, the world has gotten to a point where everybody’s demanding an explanation. But after the info, they’re still bored and unfulfilled.
I think it’s my purpose to perpetuate the long-lost magic, allow people to slip into the cracks, to pry up the floorboards and search deeply. Believe. Imagine. It’s so important to hold on to that childlike sense of marvel.
In line with these sentiments, also see Ms. Tracy’s appearance as an interviewee in a recent, and excellent, in-depth article about Ouija boards and other spirit-communication devices, where she offers some perceptive observations about Victorian Spiritualism:
Jill Tracy — a San Francisco singer and composer who, with violinist Paul Mercer, performs a touring improvisational-music show called “The Musical Séance” — says that Victorians were more open about loss of life and honoring the dead than we are now. At The Musical Séance, she and Mercer will spontaneously compose pieces based on sentimental objects the audience brings in — from antlers and dentures to haunted paintings and cremated cats to swords and a lock of hair from a drowned boy — not to call in spirits so much as memorialize the audience’s loved ones.
Tracy says even as a parlor pastime, Victorians had a sweet, romantic side to them. “A séance brought people together,” she says. “It enabled them to face their fears because it was being pitched to them as a form of group amusement, instead of a frightening experience where one sits in their house alone and tries to talk to a spirit. A séance was also sensually charged, the true definition of arousing the senses. Men and women would sit in the dark in close contact, often holding hands or touching, and they would have no idea what was going to happen. For Victorians, it was almost an acceptable moment of abandon.”
Here are some powerful, moving, and beautiful words from Ursula K. Le Guin at the recent National Book Awards, where she received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and used the opportunity to talk about the value of visionary literature and the ugliness and danger of treating books as pure commodities:
I rejoice at accepting [this award] for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction — writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries — the realists of a larger reality.
Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)
Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)
Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art — the art of words.
I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want — and should demand — our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.
Lest we forget, Ms. Le Guin spoke about this same “realism of a larger reality” back in 1973 at the very same venue, when she was accepting the National Book Award for The Farthest Shore:
Sophisticated readers are accepting the fact that an improbable and unmanageable world is going to produce an improbable and hypothetical art. At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence. A scientist who creates a monster in his laboratory; a librarian in the library of Babel; a wizard unable to cast a spell; a space ship having trouble in getting to Alpha Centauri: all these may be precise and profound metaphors of the human condition. The fantasist, whether he uses the ancient archetype of myth and legend or the younger ones of science and technology, may be talking as seriously as any sociologist — and a great deal more directly — about human life as it is lived, and as it might be lived, and as it ought to be lived.
For even more, see this recent (August 2014) interview with Le Guin in which she expounds on the same theme:
“The genres” were ignored altogether [from the 1940s to the turn of the century] and realistic fiction alone was left as literature, in the minds of the men who controlled criticism and teaching. Realism is of course a tremendous and wonderfully capacious literary genre, and it has dominated fiction since 1800 or before. But dominance isn’t the same thing as superiority. Fantasy is at least as immense as realism and much older — essentially coeval with literature itself. Yet fantasy was relegated for fifty years or sixty years to the nursery.
. . . . The thing to remember, however exotic or futuristic or alien the mirror [of a given type of literature] seems, is that you are in fact looking at your world and yourself. Serious science fiction is just as much about the real world and human beings as realistic novels are. (Sometimes more so, I think when faced with yet another dreary story about a dysfunctional upper middle class East Coast urban family.) After all, the imagination can only take apart reality and recombine it. We aren’t God, our word isn’t the world. But our minds can learn a lot about the world by playing with it, and the imagination finds an infinite playing field in fiction.
Finally, and perhaps in slight correction to Ms. Le Guin’s last two sentences above, here’s a key quote from Terence McKenna that rests and resonates well with the mix of ideas presented here:
The real secret of magic is that the world is made of words, and that if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish
A Google Books preview of my mummy encyclopedia is now available. At least from my end — and I know these previews tend to shift and alter sometimes — it shows the full table of contents (two of them, actually, one alphabetical and the other topically organized), the full preface and introduction, portions of the master timeline of mummies throughout history, and a few snippets of the book’s A-Z entries. For those of you who have been following my updates about this project over the past couple of years, here’s a glimpse of the final result.
The book is scheduled for publication on November 30. You can order it from the publisher or from all of the usual retail suspects (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.). You’ll probably also find it in a library near you. And remember, you can view a full list of the book’s contributors with brief bios here.
Dr. James Fadiman
Just published and now available here at The Teeming Brain: my interview/conversation with Dr. James Fadiman, one of the pioneers of transpersonal psychology and modern research into the spiritual and therapeutic applications of psychedelics. This has been a long time in coming, for reasons that I explain in the interview’s introduction.
The interview is ten thousand words, so be prepared to settle in. A lot of what we talk about focuses on the practical and philosophical inadequacies of dogmatic scientific materialism in dealing with things like anomalous and paranormal experiences such as inspiration and perceived communication or encounters with supernatural entities. Here’s a key excerpt:
JAMES FADIMAN: The reductionists eventually paint themselves into a corner. Consider the people who talk about the neurophysiology of dreams. They say, “Look, here’s this little part of the brain that turns on when you’re dreaming, and therefore dreams are psychophysiological in nature.” Then we ask, well, what generates a sex dream, a dream where a dead person appears with information, and a dream where you’re seated before a large pizza? And of course they say, “Why don’t you just go away.”
MATT CARDIN: I think you’re raising the basic question of phenomenology as it relates to ontology.
JAMES FADIMAN: But if you take the position that the brain is the place through which consciousness moves, so that it acts kind of like a radio, then all of those different dreams are much more understandable, because we can say they’re coming from different channels, different stations, different gods, different muses. And that makes much more sense. . . . Science’s fundamental error is a religious sort. Science says, “Certain data (since we know it does not exist) you shall not look upon.” Science holds up the story of the church and Galileo to emphasize how dogmatic the church was in its refusal to look at evidence. But if you say to scientists, “What do you know about telepathy? What do you know about clairvoyance? What do you know about near-death experiences?” they say, “Those don’t exist, and I’ve never spent a moment looking at the evidence, because they can’t exist” . . . . Scientism — science as a religion — and science are quite far apart. You see, I think I’m a scientist. That means that anything that happens, whether subjective, objective, sensory or whatever, I look at it. That may be due to my psychedelic experiences, which reminded me that, “Whatever you think the world is made of, James, you have a very limited view.” My muse chimes in and says, “Obviously, if you look at the size of the universe and contrast it with the size of your brain, the chances of your being able to know everything are statistically almost non-existent.”
Greetings from the cyber-silence, Teeming Brain readers. As you may have noticed, this site has been on a long pause — unplanned and unannounced — for about four months now. A number of factors piled up to bring this about, including the necessity for me to devote all of my spare time to fulfilling the main portion of my editor’s duties in bringing together Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics: The Paranormal from Alchemy to Zombies (a project that I’ll say more about in coming weeks). But now the mega-wave of busyness is starting to subside, and there is time once again for the brain to teem.
I have quite a few items lined up for publication here in coming weeks, including my long-in-coming conversation with Dr. James Fadiman, the final installment of Dominik Irtenkauf’s “Sounds of Apocalypse” article series, a new installment of Stuart Young’s column Sparking Neurones (this one about an interesting angle on Captain America), and a whole slew of links to worthwhile items of interest that have come across the transom during the hiatus.
For now, I’d like to direct your attention to the above just-published audio reading of Conrad Aiken’s classic and wonderful short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” about a boy who becomes progressively more lost in the blissful isolation of an inner world or otherworld of spectral snowfall, until his disappearance is complete. The reader is my good friend Jon Padgett, who has been acting and performing in various creative capacities for many years, and his performance here is simply exquisite. The opening and closing music is composed and performed by me, specifically for the purpose of accompanying this story. I hope you find the whole presentation as enjoyable and deeply emotionally affecting as I do. There’s a downloadable version of the audio file at Thomas Ligotti Online (which Jon founded nearly two decades ago).
The Starry Wisdom Library, to be released some time this year by PS Publishing, is a unique anthology project, and I’m happy to say that I will have a story — or rather, an essay or sorts — featured in it. The project is the brainchild of rare books expert Nate Pedersen, whose rather brilliant conceit is to publish an authentic-looking facsimile reproduction of the original 1877 “lost” auction catalogue for the library of occult books that Lovecraft once described as residing in the abandoned Church of Starry Wisdom in Providence, Rhode Island:
In a rear vestry room beside the apse Blake found a rotting desk and ceiling-high shelves of mildewed, disintegrating books. Here for the first time he received a positive shock of objective horror, for the titles of those books told him much. They were the black, forbidden things which most sane people have never even heard of, or have heard of only in furtive, timorous whispers; the banned and dreaded repositories of equivocal secrets and immemorial formulae which have trickled down the stream of time from the days of man’s youth, and the dim, fabulous days before man was.
– H. P. Lovecraft, “The Haunter of the Dark”
Each “story” in The Starry Wisdom Library is written in the form of a (completely made-up) scholarly description of, and essay on, one of these fictitious texts. The full list of them was determined by Nate and gleaned from the entire bristling universe of Lovecraftian fiction. For my part, I wrote the entry on the Daemonolorum, a tome of “nightmare arcana” invented by Robert Bloch for one of his stories.
The book with its faux facsimile design will have quite a charming and handsome appearance, as evidenced by the title page:
Here’s the full list of contributors, along with the titles of their respective entries. As you’ll see, Nate has managed to assemble a pretty amazing roster of Lovecraftian and weird horror writers.
Introduction by S. T. Joshi
ANIOLOWSKI, Scott David — Massa di Requiem per Shuggay
BARRASS, Glynn — The Book of Azathoth
BERGLUND, Edward P. — Cultus Maleficarum
BIRD, Allyson — The Book of Karnak
BRENTS, Scott — Lewis Carroll / Charles Dodgson Letter
BULLINGTON, Jesse — Il Tomo della Biocca
CAMPBELL, Ramsey — The Revelations of Glaaki
CARDIN, Matt — The Daemonolorum
CHAMBERS, S. J. — Remnants of Lost Empires
CISCO, Michael — Liber Ivonis
CUINN, Carrie — Image du Monde
FILES, Gemma — The Testament of Carnamagos
GAVIN, Richard — De Masticatione Mortuorum in Tumulis
HANSON, Christopher — The Pnakotic Manuscripts
HARMS, Daniel – The Book of Dzyan
JONES, Stephen Graham — The Ssathaat Scriptures
LANGAN, John — Les Mystères du Ver
LEMAN, Andrew – Practise of Chymicall and Hermetickall Physicke
LLEWELLYN, Livia — Las Reglas de Ruina
MAMATAS, Nick — The Black Book of the Skull
MORENO-GARCIA, Silvia — El Culto de los Muertos
MORRIS, Edward — The Book of Invaders
NICOLAY, Scott — The Ponape Scripture
PRICE, Robert M. — The Book of Iod
PUGMIRE, W. H. — The Sesqua Valley Grimoire
PULVER, Joe — The King in Yellow
RAWLIK, Pete — The Qanoon-e-Islam
SATYAMURTHY, Jayaprakash — The Chhaya Rituals
SCHWADER, Ann K — The Black Rites
SCHWEITZER, Darrell — The Nameless Tome
SPRIGGS, Robin — The Dhol Chants
STRANTZAS, Simon — The Black Tome of Alsophocus
TANZER, Molly — Hieron Aigypton
TAYLOR, Keith — The Book of Thoth
TIDBECK, Karin — The Cultes des Goules
TYSON, Donald — Liber Damnatus
VALENTINE, Genevieve — The Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan
WALLACE, Kali – The Tablets of Nhing
WARREN, Kaaron — The Book of Climbing Lights
WEBB, Don — The Black Sutra
WELLS, Jeff — Observations on the Several Parts of Africa
WILSON, F. Paul — Unaussprechlichen Kulten
Rare book cataloging for the anthology conducted by Jonathan Kearns of Adrian Harrington Rare Books.
Featuring six original woodcuts by Liv Rainey-Smith
Dust jacket cover by Andrew Leman of the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society
Item: a new Ligotti interview, this one published at Thomas Ligotti Online and conducted by the site’s founder (and my dear friend), Jon Padgett. The subject is the origin of Tom’s two new stories “Metaphysica Morum” and “The Small People,” which have just been published as the short book The Spectral Link. The details make for a real-life narrative that sounds like a Ligottian horror story, since they explain the specifics of the physical collapse from abdominal agony that Tom experienced in 2012, and that led to a “revitalization of creativity” akin to the one experienced by the character of Grossvogel after he suffers a similar episode in “The Shadow, The Darkness.”
Here’s a morsel to whet your appetite:
The basis for both stories, however, was an incredible sense of alienation I felt following my surgeries, the sense of a reality that could not be denied, a vivid reminder of my already pessimistic view of life, and even an expansion of that view due to my experience of literally unbearable physical pain. I had known long-term physical pain before, but this was different somehow. Essentially, though, that pain ultimately made me feel more myself than ever, both emotionally and cognitively. I couldn’t look away any longer from what I once named “the nightmare of the organism,” despite my elevated mood. It was like the phenomenon of always being aware of my heart beating that goes with having panic-anxiety disorder, which is the state I inhabited while writing almost all of my stories. All in all, it seemed I was even less a part of the world’s prevailing sense of the real than I was before. This was not an unfamiliar feeling for me, but it was massively revitalized after the traumatic events of the hospital episode. What kind of world was I living in that could avert its eyes from the most significant realities such as those I had recently confronted?
Okay, so I’m coming late to the party, since everybody with an Internet connection has now shared this video in the five days since it was released. But “Weird Al” Yankovic has been a musical companion to me since I was in junior high, and lately he’s blowing the roof off with some of his cleverest stuff ever.
Case in point: the video for his new song “Foil,” from his new album Mandatory Fun. It’s a parody of Lorde’s “Royals.” And for those who are either cognizant of or — Adam Weishaupt help us — actual believers in the mass of conspiracy theorizing that has overtaken American popular culture and public discourse in recent years — including the Illuminati craze in the hip hop world — it is a veritable revelation of satirical sanity.
Or maybe it’s actually disinformation put out by the hidden masters of the New World Order!? (For some piquant observations in this vein, scan the comments that accompany the video at YouTube — if the have the heart.)