The Long View 2006-10-30: Premonitions and Dark Arts

Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (18 November 1871 – 19 October 1914)

Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (18 November 1871 – 19 October 1914)

There is an interesting premonition of the Eurozone financial crisis here. Monetary union between Germany and Italy and Germany and Greece devastated the economies of the smaller, less productive countries. Some people saw this coming a long time ago.

There is a kind of analogy to be made to the monetary union between the several States of the United States of America. One hundred years ago, this kind of thing was current in domestic politics.

Let’s look and see how the European economies compare to US states:

  • Germany’s per capita income is $48,111 (PPP)

  • Greece’s per capita income is $26,669 (55% of Germany)

  • Italy’s per capita income is $36,833 (77% of Germany)

In the US:

  • California’s per capita income $59,796

  • Mississippi’s per capita income is $37,903 (63% of California)

  • Ohio’s per capita income is $46,732 (78% of California)

Overall, pretty comparable. I don’t know whether the EU has the kind of transfer that we have in the US of taxes from richer states to poorer states. If not, that would be a big difference.

John Reilly also mentions Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson’s 1909 novel The Necromancers. Because John Reilly mentioned it more than once, I read it. This is one of the most terrifying books I have ever read. Monsignor Benson took spiritualism, then in vogue in England, very seriously indeed. This book, plus Last Call by Tim Powers, put me off anything of the sort forever. If you want to scare yourself for Halloween, read The Necromancers. You can get a Kindle version or a Gutenberg version for free.


Premonitions and Dark Arts

Arson does not make an Intifada, but apparently the security situation in parts of France really is deteriorating. Mark Steyn has this to say to Hugh Hewitt about where it is all headed:

HH: I hate arsonists. They're not only at work here...that's because my grandfather was a fireman for 60 years. But in Paris today, two buses are torched with ten people on them last night, barely got out with their lives. It's starting again in Paris.... MS...You know, these are countries that can be very coercive, and very unpleasantly so, when they have to be. And the danger is that you provoke them, you provoke them, you provoke them. You don't get a reaction. Then when you do get a reaction, it's a kind of nuclear one. And I think that is the situation that...whether that's actually any more effective in the long run is of course an open question. But I think that actually is the situation they're heading towards now in France.

Note that Steyn seems to be hedging his assumption in America Alone that Europe in general and France in particular will simply surrender.

* * *

Speaking of the miseries of Europe, real and imaginary, here's a bit of "I told you so" from the London Times about the euro:

The Iraq invasion, disastrous though it has been, may not go down in history as the greatest political blunder of the past decade. That dubious honour will probably belong to an event most people still regard as a triumph: the creation of the euro. What we see today, not only in Italy and Hungary, but also in the other relatively weak economies on the southern and eastern fringes of the EU, is the beginning of the end of the European project....

But what does the euro have to do with the political troubles in Hungary and Italy? And how can I compare the technocratic financial problems connected with the euro to a moral and humanitarian disaster such as Iraq? These two questions have a very clear answer: democratic self-government — or, more precisely, its denial.

What we see in Eastern and Southern Europe today are the consequences of the EU’s transformation from a union of democratic countries into a sort of supra-national financial empire in which the most important decisions affecting EU citizens are no longer subject to democratic control.

I still think the euro is a good idea; the problem is that the charter of the European central bank is a sort of mutual suicide pact. In any case, these complaints remind me of nothing so much as the agitation in the United States at the end of the 19th century against the Treasury's "hard money" policies. See, for instance, William Jennings Bryan's famous 1896 address that ends, Thou shalt not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!:

* * *

Speaking of agitation, James Lileks has drawn our attention to the discussion at the Huffington Post Blog about what to do if the outcome of next week's Congressional election is not all the Democrats might wish. Lyn Davis Lear favors us with this advice:

When I asked Gore Vidal at dinner why the White House seemed so serene and at ease about the vote, he replied that, this time around, the Bush-Cheney henchmen could simply call on martial law. ...We all know the neocons won't cede power easily. They have to be aware that if the tide of Congress turns, Bush's last two years will be mired in gridlock and perhaps even be punctuated by several embarrassing congressional investigations....Therefore we should all be on alert. If for whatever reason we don't win back Congress in November the only real answer will be to take to the streets.

On the whole, the Democrats probably have cause to regret the motif of election fraud that they deployed during the recounts of the Election of 2000. There was enough genuine confusion then to make it plausible, though the evidence did not in the end back up the charge. They deployed it again in 2004, when the result was not even very close. They did so, apparently, for no better reason than to excuse an embarrassing loss. The Democratic problem now is that they have succeeded in convincing a large fraction of their constituency that the elections really are rigged. Such a belief does not encourage high voter turnout.

Paranoia can be put to sophisticated uses, however, as James Boyce later demonstrated on the same blog:

Voters have absolutely had enough of claims and counter claims and yard signs - only one question remains for us to ask ourselves- will every vote count next Tuesday?...Despite passing laws designed to guarantee that the votes be counted, there is no guarantee that next week, we will know the outcome of the races that ...I fear for the Democrats because we have not yet learned to fight until the fight is won. The reasons for this are many but the fundamental flaw lies in the basic structure of where political power exists within our part[y]..Who is leading the charge to make sure that when the cry of 'fraud' is raised, as it most certainly will be, we will have the team to fight. Sure, the DNC and others will issue statements "we will fight to make sure every vote is counted." But are there teams of lawyers at the ready? ...the increasing cooperation between online and offline power circles these past few weeks has been encouraging. This new detente will fall quickly, and perhaps permanently, apart if yet again, a Democrat is advised to 'do the right thing' and concede. The online community will demand a fight. And we can not fight this fight alone....We need to work with our elected leaders and top donors. ... We have failed to prepare....Where are our leaders?

You see what is going on here? There is no reason to doubt that the Democrats will do reasonably well. If they don't, however, the faction represented by the Netroots believe they will be in a position to make a bid for the control of the party.

* * *

I have federal jury duty on Halloween, so I may not be able to blog. However, I submit for your consideration this short excerpt from The Necromancers, by Monsignor Hugh Benson (1871-1914). The Monsignor was a Catholic priest who was once a well-know popular novelist. This book is about spiritualism, which the author both deplored and took very seriously. In this scene, a young Catholic who has been experimenting with spiritualism and who has suffered an out-of-body experience goes to a medium for an explanation of what happened to him. This medium is dangerous because he is honest:

"Very well, Mr. Baxter, I will take you at your word.... Have you ever heard the phrase, 'The Watcher on the Threshold'?"

Laurie shook his head.

"No," he said. "At least I don't think so."

"Well," said the medium quietly, "that is what we call the Fear you spoke of.... No; don't interrupt. I'll tell you all we know. It's not very much."

He paused again, stretched his hand for the matches, and took one out. Laurie watched him as if fascinated by the action.

Outside roared Oxford Street in one long rolling sound as of the sea; but within here was that quiet retired silence which the boy had noticed before in the same company. Was that fancy, too, he wondered...?

The medium lit his pipe and leaned back.

"I'll tell you all we know," he said again quietly. "It's not very much. Really the phrase I used just now sums it up pretty well. We who have tried to get beyond this world of sense have become aware of certain facts of which the world generally knows nothing at all. One of these facts is that the door between this life and the other is guarded by a certain being of whom we know really nothing at all, except that his presence causes the most appalling fear in those who experience it. He is set there--God only knows why--and his main business seems to be to restrain, if possible, from re-entering the body those who have left it. Just occasionally his presence is perceived by those on this side, but not often. But I have been present at death-beds where he has been seen--"

"Seen?"

"Oh! yes. Seen by the dying person. It is usually only a glimpse; it might be said to be a mistake. For myself I believe that that appalling terror that now and then shows itself, even in people who do not fear death itself, who are perfectly resigned, who have nothing on their conscience,--well, personally, I believe the fear comes from a sight of this--this Personage."

Laurie licked his dry lips. He told himself that he did not believe one word of it.

"And ... and he is evil?" he asked.

The other shrugged his shoulders.

"Isn't that a relative term?" he said. "From one point of view, certainly; but not necessarily from all."

"And ... and what's the good of it?"

The medium smiled a little.

"That's a question we soon cease to ask. You must remember that we hardly know anything at all yet. But one thing seems more and more certain the more we investigate, and that is that our point of view is not the only one, nor even the principal one. Christianity, I fancy, says the same thing, does it not? The 'glory of God,' whatever that may be, comes before even the 'salvation of souls.'"

Laurie wrenched his attention once more to a focus.

"Then I was in danger?" he said.

"Certainly. We are always in danger--"

"You mean, if I hadn't prayed--"

"Ah! that is another question.... But, in short, if you hadn't succeeded in getting past--well, you'd have failed."

The genteel people in this novel get up to more scary stuff than can be found in all the torture dungeons in Slovakia. And look: it's available free from The Gutenberg Project!

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Last Call Book Review

The one-eyed Jack

The one-eyed Jack

Last Call
by Tim Powers
Perennial 2003
$15.95; 535 pages
ISBN 038072846X

Last Call is one of my all time favorite books. I can return to this book again and again, and find something different in it each time. According to LibraryThing, the last time I read this book was in May of 2011, almost exactly six years ago. Which probably explains why I find the father/son relationships of the book so gripping now.

But I get ahead of myself. Tim Powers is a long time favorite author, and this was one of the first books of his I ever read. I am amazed that I persisted, because on first read, the book is bizarre. Who is the Fisher King? Why does Bugsy Siegel feature so prominently? Why does everyone keep quoting T. S. Eliot? What about the fractals and chaos theory? How does this all fit in with poker?

That very first reading, I was very, very confused. But I was also deeply intrigued. I immediately read the book again, and I tried to put the pieces together into a coherent whole. I didn't get there, but I started looking into the mythology of the Fisher King, and the historical events referenced in the book. I learned about the history of playing cards, and how they related to the Tarot. I tried to read The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot

That last proved too dense and esoteric even for me. But I persisted. Last Call is the first book of a trilogy by Tim Powers, and reading the other two books did actually help fill some of what is going on, but I think Last Call is by far the best of the three. I got quite a bit of help from the collected works of John J. Reilly, who while not a Tim Powers fan, was conversant with Jung, comparative mythology, and the Fisher King.

I learned that all of the things about Bugsy Siegel actually happened. When I first read Last Call, I wasn't familiar with Powers' secret history style of writing, but his fastidious research paid off in hooking me forever. I learned about the Arthurian legend of the wounded King who ate nothing but fish and represented the health of the land and its people, and how this figures into the legitimacy of the Emperor who rules the Earth.  I learned of the way in which the Tarot cards had morphed into the playing cards we use today. Finally I understood why early Protestants were so opposed to card games. I was intrigued by the sacramental imagination of Powers, who made the Eucharist real to me.

Last Call is part of the reason I mostly read fiction. Many people otherwise like me mostly read non-fiction, but I find that I learn the most about the world from fiction. This is probably a function of the kind of fiction I read. And probably the kind of person I am. Last Call is also the reason I deeply distrust Tarot cards, and all forms of fortune-telling and gambling. It just isn't worth the risk.

Also, Las Vegas will never, ever be the same to me after reading this book. I've never really been the kind of person who enjoyed the spectacle and excess of Vegas, but now that I've seen Las Vegas as the fortress of a bad King and a shrine and sacrifice to the gods of chaos and randomness, I really don't like it. Which is unfair to the people who work and live there, but what has been read cannot now be un-read.

A nuclear weapon test from Las Vegas

A nuclear weapon test from Las Vegas

Returning to where I started, this time through the aspect of the book that was foremost in my mind was Scott Crane and his fathers, both real and adoptive. Fatherhood: real, adoptive, and mystical, is central to Last Call. The King is in a sense a father to us all, and thus the character of the King matters in the same manner as a father's does. Powers sets this up in the prologue, where we meet five-year-old Scott on a fun outing with his real father. They eat breakfast at the Flamingo, and flatten pennies on the railroad tracks. Scott worships his father, as most five-year-olds do.

Cronus

Cronus

Then we learn exactly what Georges is willing to do for power. What he has already done to Scott's older brother Richard. For just a moment, Georges finds his resolve wavering. To his own surprise, he actually loves his son. But he sets his face against his weakness, and proceeds.

Only the rebellion of Georges' wife saves Scott before Leon can consummate the ritual. Which Georges should have seen coming, because his life is an archetype. Scott is thus set up to displace his father in a re-enactment of mythology. The epilogue is a refrain of the prologue, and very bittersweet.

Sci-fi or fantasy novels that have mythological themes are not difficult to find. What makes Last Call remarkable is Powers' ability to make Georges Leon and Scott Crane seem like real people, while still instantiating a type. They seem real to me, rather than characters in a book. Each one, their loves and loss and failings, is like a person. That human verisimilitude is what balances out the craziness of a world where Tarot cards can kill you.

Powers has a fierce love of particular places, specifically Los Angeles and the areas nearby. Since I live across the Mojave desert from LA, and I have family there, I have driven across the Mojave more times than I would like to. 

The highway was a straight line in the twilight, a tenuous line between the dark horizon so far ahead and the red horizon so far behind. The old Suburban barreled along steadily, squeaking and rocking but showing low temperature and a full tank of gas in the green radiance of its gauges. On either side of the highway the desert was pale sand, studded as far as the eye could see with widely spaced low markers that looked like, but couldn't have been, sprinkler heads.

This is exactly what the inhuman vastnesses of the Mojave feel like. I've been to LA and Vegas often enough to validate Powers' descriptions of them. Suspension of disbelief is a lot easier when you've been to all of the places in a book and find the descriptions spot-on. I imagine Tim and his wife Serena taking trips on the I-15 to get it just right.

I am a bit late this year, but I may make this a regular feature of my celebration of Easter. Much like Tolkien, and more inventively than Blish, Holy Week, the week of Passover and Easter, is at the center of the chronology of Last Call.  This week represents an ending and a beginning, and certain things can only happen during this time. Classical allusions are one thing, but to interleave them with Christian sacraments and eschatology and make it look easy is quite another. 

Tim Powers is the only author I know who can do all these things well. And Last Call is one of his best. Read it.

My other book reviews

The Long View 2002-03-01: Black Easter

Black Easter is one of the most terrifying books I have ever read. I too am glad that most Americans' idea of ritual magic mostly centers around Dungeons & Dragons and Harry Potter. They do not know what they are missing, and the world is a better place for it.

Tim Powers once said in an interview:

I suppose I'm always I'm always very sceptical of any supernatural incident anybody ever tells me about. Anybody tells me astrology works or they see ghosts, I'm always terribly sceptical. But at the same time, being Catholic, it's in the rule book. You hope never to be around when it occurs, but it is in the rule book. I'm always tremendously sceptical but at the same time real scared of it, like for Last Call I had to buy a tarot deck, that Rider Waite deck where every single card is an enigmatic picture – two women crying on a beach with three swords stuck upright in the sand and you think what the hell is going on here, you know? And so even though I had to buy the deck in order to look at the cards, I would never shuffle it in the house. I would be terrified.

In fact one lady I met at a convention once said, "Let me do a reading of you – tarot cards – it won't take a minute. I just lay it out. You wave your hand," or something, however you connect with it, and I said "No thanks. I don't want to do it. I don't want to do it," and I left and somebody else came up to me after and said, "You were smart to decline that offer. I used to do tarot card readings a lot and I was very pleased with it. I thought of my tarot cards as my movable window which I could focus on any situation I was curious about anywhere. And late one rainy night I was laying out my movable window to check out some situation or other and I suddenly got the very clear impression that something on the other side had blundered past and looked in and now knew where I lived and I instantly knocked all the cards onto the ground, but of course by then it was too late. The thing would know me again if it saw me." And I just though Great God! I wouldn't touch these things. I'd rather have plutonium in the house than have these things in the house!!

Tim and I are on the same page here. I officially don't believe in anything defined as superstition, and I also don't fiddle with it.

This post also features a prediction John got completely wrong. I still think John is largely right about the motives of Hamas and other similar actors in Palestine. However, he thought that destroying Saddam Hussein's Iraq would encourage Syria to stop supporting Palestinian terrorists. At this point, Assad probably has other things on his mind, and the Palestinians seem to be able to carry on without him. Ah well, I suppose we all make mistakes.

Black Easter

Fans of science fiction will recognize Black Easter as the title of James Blish's dismaying novel, published in 1968. (The term has also been used to refer to the days after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Yes, he was shot on Good Friday.) The book deals with the entirely successful attempt by a contemporary magician to raise Hell. Black Easter is actually the first book in a trilogy, but the second two are superfluous. No fantasy writer, perhaps, has ever equaled the impact of the final three words of Black Easter. This is the book you should give to people who think that the Harry Potter series teaches how to do ritual magic. Let them reflect that it has never been made into a film, and then let them count their blessings.

The term comes to mind this Easter and Passover in connection with the accelerating collapse in the Middle East. These events have clarified the situation. Consider these points:

After the Passover Massacre by a suicide bomber, Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Authority called for an unconditional cease-fire, when it was clear that no Israeli government could fail to react. He then claimed that the Israeli retaliation impeded US envoy Anthony Zinni's attempts to restart the peace process.

At the Arab Summit this week, Iraq reconciled with its neighbors, who declared that any attack on Iraq would be a threat to the national security of all of them. They called on Iraq to comply with any uncompleted weapons inspections required by the UN, but left it up to Iraq to decide whether the requirements had been fulfilled. The leaders of Egypt and Jordan were conspicuous by their absence at the summit.

When representatives of the Palestinian Authority are asked why the Authority does not stop the suicide bombings, they answer that, if Israel cannot stop the bombings, even with all its power, then how can the Palestinian Authority be expected to do so?

The place to begin is by understanding just how wrong Mark Shields was on the Jim Lehrer News Hour of March 29, when he said that President Clinton had almost succeeded in negotiating a peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Maybe that is what we were trying to do. It was not what the Arabs were trying to do. With the possible exception of Egypt and Jordan, they are interested solely in negotiating a series of ever more advantageous truces until Israel disintegrates or can be depopulated with weapons of mass destruction.

The Arab front lies all the time. The peace proposal that this week's Arab Summit approved again contained a right of return for the descendants of Palestinian refugees. It is very far from the simple "land-for-peace" deal that the Saudis said they meant to propose, but never actually proposed to anyone but Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. Except with regard to verifiable tactical issues, there is no reason to take what most Arab countries say seriously, whether they say it privately or publicly.

The Israeli-Palestinian confrontation is not related to the Iraqi menace, even indirectly. However, the Arab front is using the former to delay addressing the latter. Some Arabs no doubt believe that, if the Iraqi regime can be preserved for a year or two, it will develop weapons of mass destruction that will make the region invulnerable to Western intervention.

Solving the Iraqi question is not contingent on solving the Palestinian situation. Rather, if there is a regime change in Iraq, practical support for the Palestinian campaign against Israel will collapse. In many ways, the key to the situation is Syria, for whom the sister Baathist regime in Baghdad has always provided a sense of strategic depth. With a pro-American government to their east, the Syrians will stop hosting terrorist activity.

The lesson of these holy seasons is simple: there is nothing to negotiate.


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