In the 2nd installment of the new Death and Taxes series “Cabinet of Subversive Books,” we profile Dr. Seuss, JG Ballard, Jean Baudrillard, Louis Aragon and Aldous Huxley.
My new series “Cabinet of Subversive Books” profiles fiction and non-fiction, both popular and underground, children’s and transgressive, poetry and tomes, comic books and even romance novels. And if you don’t see one of your favorites now, don’t despair, for it might well make an appearance in due time.
Reading these books won’t get you arrested, but they will bend and distort one’s mind with wonder and titillation, and hopefully radically shift one’s thinking about civilization.
Feel free to make suggestions—I will read them and report back. But some favorites will have to be kept to myself, folks (even if suggestions are made), because an artist never reveals his most important sources.
Nevertheless, the books to be found in this series will send readers off in a number of fruitful tangents, by which they might (might!) come across my more secret hoard.
In this installment, we take a look at some of the work by authors J. G. Ballard, Dr. Seuss, Jean Baudrillard, Aldous Huxley and Louis Aragon.
1. “Paris Peasant” by Louis Aragon
Louis Aragon is best-remembered as a member of Dada following his service in World War I, and as a founding member of the Surrealists, along with Phillipe Soupault and André Breton. Lesser known is that he wrote one of the first Surrealist novels—that is, a novel growing out of the movement itself. The novel was “Paris Peasant.”
“Paris Peasant” can be a frustrating read in the first section “Preface to a Modern Mythology,” just as the opening segment of André Breton’s “Nadja” can annoy. It’s bursting with a youthful arrogance and intelligence reaching for the stars. Of an artistic underground screaming into the dark void of modernity.
The book is a hardly even a novel at all, but more of a mental and geographic stroll through ideas and the streets Paris, with particularly emphasis. It’s most certainly one of the starting points of what later was termed “psychogeography” by the Lettrist International and Guy Debord with the Situationist movement. And this alone makes it worth reading.
Psychogeography is the idea that to experience a city, one must set stroll aimlessly through its architecture and geometries, and only then will the city unfold in one’s imagination. In essence, the mind influences the character of the city and vice versa.
As the Situationist said, “All space is occupied by the enemy. We are living under a permanent curfew. Not just the cops – the geometry.” Meaning: The architecture of the city is inherently a creation of power. To walk throughout the city body, along its arteries, into its organs, without destination, would help reclaim it from that power.
As Aragon writes in “Paris Peasant”:
I felt the great power that certain places, certain sights exercised over me, without discovering the principle of this enchantment. Some everyday objects unquestionably contained for me a part of that mystery, plunged me into that mystery. I loved this intoxication which I knew how to put into effect, although ignorant of its causes. . . Slowly, a desire sprang up in me to find out what was the link between all these anonymous pleasures. I felt sure that the essence of such pleasures was entirely metaphysical and involved a sort of passion for revelation with regard to them.
And this is what Aragon did in “Paris Peasant,” particularly in the second and longest section “Le Passage de l’Opéra,” in which Aragon writes of the Boulevard Hausmann Building Society attempt—with the help of Paris’ administrators—to demolish the arcade full of small traders and businessman, where all manner of interesting happenings occurred.
Aragon would wait in the Passage with the only purpose being to see if strange things would happen and he heroically tried to defend its demolition by power.
It is, in a way, an early modern example of how areas populated by artists, poets, prostitutes and all manner of other personalities are eventually either leveled to the ground and rebuilt or cosmetically leveled by the infusion of money and opulence.
2. “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss
Most of us can recall “The Lorax” and may remember something about its environmentalist subtext, but many might miss what I believe was Seuss’s more vital point. Indeed, readers might miss the forest for the trees, even after several readings.
“The Lorax” recounts the tail of the Once-ler’s devastation of the Truffula Forest. That is only the first layer, however.
One must remember that the story begins with a arriving in a desolate town, where he meets the Once-ler, a mysterious being who tells the story. If one isn’t paying attention while reading, one would miss the fact that the Once-ler charges the boy 15 cents, a nail and the shell of a great, great, great grandfather snail). Here, Dr. Seuss illustrates that the Once-ler’s greed knows no end.
Indeed, Dr. Seuss’s subtext seems rather more focused on the fact that natural resource exploitation involves a sort of psychopathy and sociopathy peculiar to the free market, in which the desire to grow has no end, but that this almost viral impulse has only one end—the exhaustion of all resources.
3. “Simulacra and Simulation” by Jean Baudrillard
Jean Baudrillard has long been a controversial and hip philosophical voice, owing to the fact that he was French post-structuralist and cited as a primary influence on the Wachowski Brothers’ “The Matrix.” However, Baudrillard’s work is far more interesting than “The Matrix.”
In “Simulacra and Simulation,” Baudrillard theorized that our modern world, or postmodern world, was full of simulacra—copies without originals. That something such as Disneyland is a perfect simulacram for reality: a place where the real world loses all meaning and is replaced by a double.
Of Disneyland, Baudrillard said:
Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America that is Disneyland (a bit like prisons are there to hide that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, that is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation.
Baudrillard also wondered, “Is any given bombing… the work of leftist extremists, or extreme-right provocation, or a centrist mise-en-scène to discredit all extreme terrorists and to shore up its own failing power, or again, is it a police-inspired scenario and a form of blackmail to public security?”
And most notably in “Simulacra and Simulation,” Baudrillard theorized that power now only engages in the production of nothing but the idea of its own power.
This is a very, very, very brief smattering of the ideas that Baudrillard advances in “Simulacra and Simulation.” It’s definitely a must-read.
4. “The Atrocity Exhibition” by J. G. Ballard
This experimental novel subverts the concepts that play in what we call “reality”—sex, violence, geography, sanity, societal roles, dreams, fantasies, death and power.
As William S. Burroughs writes in in his preface to the RE/Search edition, “The whole random universe of the industrial age is breaking down into cryptic fragments.” Bodies become landscapes. Mental patients paint the apocalypse. Sex and violence are paired. The gray area of sanity and insanity that has bloomed in the modern age. All of these ideas and more swirl through “The Atrocity Exhibition.”
One might say that we live in a truly Ballardian world, trapped in labyrinths of our own making (or power’s devising) such as gated communities, the simulacra of life such as films, amusement parks, pornogoraphy. Sounds very much like Baudrillard’s aforementioned ideas. In fact, the two writers were great fans of each other’s work.
One of the more interesting Ballard annotations deals with a reference to the Zapruder film in the section “The University of Death.” It reads:
The Warren Commission’s Report is a remarkable document, especially if considered as a work of fiction (which many experts deem it largely to be). The chapters covering the exact geometric relationships between the cardboard boxes on the seventh floor of the Book Depository (a tour de force in the style of Robbe-Grillet), the bullet trajectories and speed of the Presidential limo, and the bizarre chapter titles—”The Subsequent Bullet That Hit,” “The Curtain Rod Story, “The Long and Bulky Package”—together suggest a type of obsessional fiction that links science with pornography.
Then, of course, there is the fantastically titled section “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” written before the Reagan presidency, with the classic line, “Motion picture studies of Ronald Reagan reveal characteristic patterns of facial tonus and musculature associated with homo-erotic behavior.” If only Christian conservatives could read that line.
And Ballard foresaw the emptiness behind Reagan’s cinematic veneer in the following excerpt:
The conceptual role of Reagan. Fragments of Reagan’s cinetized postures were used in the construction of model psycho-dramas in which the Reagan-figure played the role of husband, doctor, insurance salesman, marriage counselor, etc. The failure of these roles to express any meaning reveals the non-functional character of Reagan. Reagan’s success therefore indicates society’s periodic need to re-conceptualize its political leaders. Reagan thus appears as a series of posture concepts, basic equations which re-formulate the roles of aggression and anality.
Ballard was also particularly interested in how sexual stimulation could result from atrocity films; which, could be related in a way to our fetishism with violence in the news, such as the constant replay of the 9/11 plane crashes.
The book’s style and narrative are subversive enough, but what rates “The Atrocity Exhibition” so highly in the entire catalog of subversive books it that reveals the psychological processes at work behind the collective hallucination of modernity. We might not be willing or able to consider it ourselves, but Ballard was more than happy to show it to us like a carnival barker beckoning us into a freak show.
5. “The Doors of Perception” by Aldous Huxley
I first read this as an 18 year old and forever changed my way of thinking.
Aldous Huxley describes his experience of being supplied with 4/10 of a gram of Mescaline by a British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond and having his perceptions recorded by the good doctor. Huxley had offered himself as research subject because he’d for some time been interested in meditation, mystical experiences and the shamanic psychedelic experiences of Native Americans.
“The Doors of Perception” is Huxley’s attempt to write of the experience, which comes in great detail, filtered through Huxley’s tremendous intellect and ability with the pen.
Huxley noticed that objects like a vase of flowers or a chair take on the appearance of a Vincent Van Gogh painting, and that perhaps Van Gogh was seeing the world as it really was, unfiltered, and that he was not suffering from some form of insanity.
Huxley theorized that there was something in all of us called “Mind at Large,” which he developed from the ideas of C.D. Broad. Huxley’s Mind at Large is essentially the unfiltered mind. Everyday life requires a filtration to occur so that we can handle what we perceive as reality, and have all of the essentials that our useful to survival.
It was Huxley’s belief that psychedelic drugs could temporarily remove this filter, allowing us to see to ourselves and the entire universe as it exists.
For this reason it is one of the most subversive books ever written.
Read the Volume 1 of Cabinet of Subversive Books.