Flip Your Wig
No one reads German polymath Paul Scheerbart (1863-1915). Yet during his prolific career his eccentric fiction, art, and poetry influenced a range of intellects, from architect Bruno Taut to writer Walter Benjamin. It’s a testament to Scheerbart’s prophetic vision that his fiction has attracted such lasting attention: he wrote mostly outer-space novels and utopian stories about things like glass architecture.
Beyond the quirky concepts, however, Scheerbart’s work has a revolutionary, philosophical zeal and the image of him that arises is that of a steampunk Ralph Waldo Emerson with imaginative powers equal to those of Thomas Edison and Jules Verne.
Some major university presses have published a handful of Scheerbart’s work in English. MIT Press brought out his glass architecture novella, The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White: A Ladies’ Novel, and University of Chicago Press published The Light Club (the full title is The Light Club of Batavia: A Ladies’ Novelette), about an underground utopia created by a group of wealthy humanists. These are enjoyable books, optimistic, ironic, and, as the titles indicate, pro-feminist for their time.
The most recent Scheerbart in translation is Lesabendio: An Asteroid Novel, and kudos to Wakefield Press (in Cambridge) for creating a wonderful illustrated edition of Scheerbart’s short novel about brainy humanoid worm-aliens, dreamers who float around and consider their place in the cosmos. Using the basic tropes of sci-fi, Scheerbart creates a sharp social satire of European salon culture, industrial ambition, and the groupthink of his day, including offhand musings like this about quantum mechanics and string theory that are startlingly accurate:
Lesabendio fell asleep. He dreamed of an enormous solar system—and it appeared to him like a system of millions of rubber bands that were continuously being stretched apart and then rebounding back together again.
My favorite Scheerbart in English so far is The Perpetual Motion Machine (Wakefield Press). The central question seems to be—is success or failure better for the imagination? Translator Andrew Joron did great work capturing Scheerbart’s wonderful range of raw emotion as he struggles to tell “The Story of an Invention,” as the book is subtitled. The diary of intense frustration hits innumerable highs and lows as Scheerbart tries, fails, and fails again to invent a real perpetual-motion machine (he and his wife needed the money). “I’m getting nowhere with my prototype,” he says. “This has not in the least hindered the outpouring of my imagination.”
(The book also shows off Scheerbart’s impressive skills as a draughtsman: it includes 26 schematic diagrams of prototypes for a real perpetual motion machine, which will prove humorous for anyone familiar with, say, gravity, or the concept of friction.)
Eventually, Scheerbart uses failure as a route to revelation, and revelation as an engine for belief in infinite creativity. The diary gives way to several short stories, including “The Astral Direction,” in which Scheerbart mentions “the significance of the Earthstar.” His failures have yielded a vision that “The Earth itself is a perpetual motion machine” and if his “perpet” (his nickname for a perpetual motion machine) could actually harness gravity’s power it would cause a “sublime revolution,” bringing about the “obsolescence of labor,” freeing humanity from “nation-states” and “militarism.” He imagines great changes ahead. “We are standing, then, before a cultural earthquake. A great many old arrangements will be undone.”
He was right, but unfortunately wrong about the nature of the impending earthquake—World War I would soon break out. The mass death would reveal how earnest Scheerbart was about his dreams for utopia and peace: Joron states in his introduction to The Perpetual Motion Machine that Scheerbart is said to have killed himself in a hunger strike protesting the war.
Charles and Ray Eames’ Case Study House No. 8
The living room in early 1950, with a circa 1944 three-legged molded-plywood side chair (the couple made one with two legs in the front and one in back, and vice versa). Early on, the pair often laid down Japanese goza mats on the concrete floor, before they had the tile put in.
The stories of R. A. Lafferty are returning to print*, though in small editions: Centipede Press will publish his collected stories as limited-edition hardcovers — up to 12 volumes — starting with The Man Who Made Models. Centipede says:
In a career that began in 1959 and continued until his death in 2002, R.A. Lafferty garnered the admiration of authors and editors including Robert A.W. Lowndes, Harlan Ellison, A.A. Attanasio, Gene Wolfe, Michael Swanwick and many, many others. His body of short fiction is comprised of well over 200 stories and, despite his vast popularity, there was never a concerted effort made to produce a comprehensive collection of his short fiction, until now.
Welcome to the first volume in a series that will run to a dozen volumes collecting all of R.A. Lafferty’s short fiction. Whether it be well-known stories such as “Narrow Valley” or more obscure work such as “The Man Who Made Models,” all will be collected here in the Lafferty Library. Each volume will feature close to 100,000 words of Lafferty’s fiction and each volume will feature an afterword by series editor John Pelan and a guest introduction by a notable author in the field of fantastic fiction.
These scans are from the 50 Watts hoard (the cover art for Nine Hundred Grandmothers is by Leo & Diane Dillon). No word when or if Lafferty’s novels will be reprinted. I love Past Master (1968) — it’s science fiction but the main character is Thomas More — and my copy is in tatters.
Here also is the bio from Centipede's site:
R.A. Lafferty (1914–2002) was an American science fiction and fantasy writer known for his original use of language, metaphor, and narrative structure, as well as for his etymological wit. He also wrote a set of four autobiographical novels, In a Green Tree, a history book, The Fall of Rome, and a number of novels that could be more or less loosely called historical fiction. Lafferty’s quirky prose drew from traditional storytelling styles, largely from the Irish and Native American, and his shaggy-dog characters and tall tales are unique in science fiction. Little of Lafferty’s writing is considered typical of the genre.
*The first volume is already sold out (at least from the publisher). When I drafted this post last week it was still available. Kind of sad.
Caliban to Victor Frankenstein
Penny Dreadful 'Resurrection' (Dir. Dearbhla Walsh, Writer - John Logan)
And so you fled. The first human action that I experienced was rejection, so do not wonder at my loathing of your species. I waited, but you did not return. Has there ever been a creature so alone, so utterly helpless? Was every newborn creature abandoned the moment they were born? Was this what life was?
That upstairs window became my salvation and my tutor. I learned how people were, what the people of the village valued and despised, how animals were treated. There was no doubt in my mind that I was an animal, how could there be a doubt? Was it not countenance made for predation?
Eventually I learned words, your beloved volumes of poetry were my primers. From your penciled notations I learned that you favored Wordsworth and the old romantics. No wonder you fled from me, I am not a creation from the antique pastoral world, I am modernity personified. Did you not know that’s what you were creating - The modern age? Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold to the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now, we are steam engines and turbines. Were you really so naive to imagine that we would see eternity in a daffodil?
Who is the child, Frankenstein? Thee or me?"
When it comes to collecting, I’m most persistent about tracking down artwork by Luigi Serafini. It has been a constant presence in my life for almost a decade, and I’ve spent hours digging and digging to find his work tucked away under rocks and in obscure corners - especially for an American who doesn’t speak a word of Italian.
So, one of my alerts alerted me to this book series, about which I know nothing except that Serafini contributed illustrations. I contacted the publisher asking for more info, and in the course of emailing about my collecting habit, he asked if I wanted him to get Serafini to sign my copies. Lucky break, right? Well, what I didn’t expect was full-page inscriptions bearing my name, rendered in Serafini’s made-up language from the Codex Seraphinianus. I was literally short of breath when I opened these books and realized what I had. That’s pretty much the moment every collector lives for.
The books are very nice, too - the illustrations are printed on textured paper that is heavier than the rest of the pages, and most of these images are new to me, which is a bonus as well.
Man is the Warmest Place to Hide, 1982. 30x40”, Acrylic and pencil on gesso board
Made for The Thing (Dir. John Carpenter, 1982)
by Drew Struzan
'I came onto it via phone call. “Hey we’ve got this movie, it’s called THE THING. Remember the movie from the 50’s?” “Yeah” I said, “I remember that.” “Well, that’s what it is. It’s just a remake. We need a comp now and a finished painting by morning if we like it,” so I did… I did one drawing. I faxed it to them in the old days and they said “Fine” and I stayed up my 24 hours and painted the picture. In the morning a delivery boy came, picked it up and that’s the last I saw of it.' - Drew Struzan
Blue Train (1957)
by John Coltrane (September 23, 1926 – July 17, 1967)
Marlene Dietrich with her husband, Rudolf Sieber, Paris, May 20th, 1930
Pilgrims in the Waterfall, (undated - 19th Century)
by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)