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Crackpot Realism

THE TEMPLE OF ICONOCLASTS By J. Rodolfo Wilcock Translated from the Italian by Lawrence Venuti; Mercury House: 190 pp., $14.95 paper

July 09, 2000|MELVIN JULES BUKIET | Melvin Jules Bukiet is the author of "After" and "Signs and Wonders." His latest novel, "Strange Fire," is forthcoming from W.W. Norton

Which of the following individuals were real and which imaginary: Jose Valdes y Prom, hypnotist and telepathy master, who was allegedly able to stroll six stories in midair until he took a misstep and plunged to his death; Alfred William Lawson, eccentric millionaire, who established the University of Lawsonomy and immodestly proclaimed that "in comparison to Lawson's Law of Penetrability and Zigzag-and-Swirl movement, Newton's law of gravitation is but a primer lesson"; Jules Flamart, author of a novel consisting of sentences using every word in the dictionary in sequence; and Charles Wentworth Littlefield, whose psychic willpower was so great that he was able to make table salt crystallize into the shape of a chicken?

J. Rodolfo Wilcock's marvelously bizarre "The Temple of Iconoclasts" contains short biographical sketches of the four above-mentioned crackpots along with several dozen others, some actual and some fictional. Of course, there's no distinguishing among them unless you have certain esoteric knowledge, but that's either entirely beside the point or precisely the point. The real figures are too flaky to imagine and the imaginary ones are just as palpable as the real ones. Wilcock deliberately blurs the already blurry line that tends to define the difference between fiction and nonfiction.

Wilcock, who fled Argentina in the 1950s to live in England and then Italy, came of literary age in the 1940s in the group that included Jorge Luis Borges. Indeed, Wilcock's mock scholarship on mock scholars is intellectually self-reflexive (as opposed to psychologically self-reflective) in the same manner as Borges' stories, complete with dates, occasional genealogies and bibliographical data. Elegantly translated by Lawrence Venuti, some are more overtly fabulist than others, yet they all share a gleefully obsessive quality similar in fact to Wilcock's own endeavor and a willful refusal to accept society's norms and science's principles.

The congregation of this particular temple ranges across the globe, from Franz Piet Vredjuik, a Dutch gravedigger who pursues his notion that sound is merely the degeneration of light, to Theodor Gheorghescu, who preserves 227 Brazilian natives in salt without quite realizing that the process will kill them.

Other scientists include Roger Babson of the Gravity Research Foundation, which assumes "that spiritual forces can modify the pull of gravity," and Klaus Nachtknecht, whose faith in radiation therapy is only slightly fazed by Hiroshima, when "many realized that radioactivity didn't always result in a splendid complexion."

In addition to scientists, Wilcock presents several obsessive authors. Yves de Lalande, a kind of Henry Ford of fiction, develops a novel factory; Carlo Olgiati produces nonsense worthy of the most recent issue of Social Text in his magnum opus, "The Group Struggle Among Fauna and Flora"; and Absalon Amet invents a prose machine that combines parts of speech into statements that may be profound and are more often ludicrous. (Actually, I think I saw such a machine at the Whitney Biennial a few years ago, but Amet didn't, and neither did Wilcock, who died in 1978. In some cases, reality has caught up with imagination.)

Beneath the giddy whimsy of "The Temple of Iconoclasts" lies a profound skepticism about modernity that bleeds through as many of Wilcock's subjects willfully eschew their own time. Charles Piazzi-Smyth, pyramidologist, advocates a return to Egyptian forms of measurement, and Aaron Rosenblum strives to eliminate everything created after the 16th century, from germ warfare to penicillin. It's as if these people cannot bear the pressure of contemporary existence.

Amazingly, these lunatics find adherents, and Wilcock's vision of a world that takes them seriously is scarier than anything in their theories. Masses of followers eagerly adopt the mania of these self-defined leaders, whose ideals frequently turn evil.

Take as one last example Alfred Attendu, director of the Sanatorium for Reeducation. Attendu believes that "the brain is a source of vexatious tedium," and maintains "a hospice for cretins" that attempts--in the name of a return to innocence--to further retard them by "abolishing the patients' contact with language." The doctor's theory that "we are the degenerates and they [the patients] the paragons" could be proven only when, after his sanatorium collapsed, "another interesting scientific detail came to light. Nearly all of the mental deficients found in the sanatorium at the age of 1, 2 or 3 years. . .were his offspring."

Ultimately, Wilcock's iconoclasts' ideas transform themselves and their surroundings in a manner reminiscent of Borges' masterwork, "Tlon Uqbar, Orbius Tertius," in which the encyclopedia of a fictional world created by a secret intellectual society gradually usurps the ostensibly real world. Alas, Wilcock is not Borges, and his sketches--best taken in small doses--have a gossamer quality that tends to evaporate rather than echo in the reader's mind. Still, it's unfair to compare anyone to the Argentine genius, and any friend of Borges is a friend of literature.

By the way, Lawson and Littlefield were real, Flamart and Valdes y Prom were not; Olgiati was Wilcock's great-grandfather.

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