Jorge Luis Borges: blindness. Tango poetry.
The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary . . . More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books.
— Jorge Luis Borges
A First Encyclopaedia of Tlön
Independently Published in Memphis, Tennessee, 1824-1914.
A masterpiece of philosophical apocrypha, the First Encyclopaedia of Tlön is the clandestine work of a secret society of scholars, philosophers, scientists, artists, and writers who dedicated themselves to the awesome task of inventing an entire planet. Inspired by the seventeenth-century writer J.V. Andreä, who coined the name “Tlön” to describe an imaginary realm, the project was instigated by the American millionaire Ezra Buckley, who wanted to “prove to a nonexistent God that mortals could conceive and shape a world.” Published in English over a period of ninety years, the 40-volume Encyclopaedia was limited to a run of 300 copies, intended to be distributed only to members of the society and a few select “friends.” The whole set is reputed to consist of forty octavo volumes, each with 1001 pages bound in yellow leather, and filled with color engravings, drawings, and diagrams. Each volume — quite mysteriously — bears no signs of origin or date, except for the inscription “ORBIS TERTIUS” in a blue oval stamp on a silk sheet covering the illustrated title page. According to some reports, Volume XL is said to contain an extensive index; but this was denied in an anonymous letter sent to the 1920 MLA Convention, carefully typed on white paper with the blue oval stamp as a signature. (Postmarked from Brazil, the letter contained a photograph of a page numbered 998 and detailing the “Zynemorg,” a typographical symbol used to represent the various degrees of belief an author has in a word or statement.)
Often considered to be among the world’s rarest books, all extant volumes of the Encyclopaedia are believed to rest exclusively in the hands of private collectors. Indeed, so rarely does a volume make an appearance, more than a few bibliophiles have declared the entire project to be as apocryphal as Tlön itself. This confusion is only made worse by persistent hoaxes and spurious fragments, such as the Thessaloniki Manuscripts, Sean Kernan’s faux set of “Early Plates on the Morphology of Insects of the Axa Delta,” Markus Fahrner’s Zweite Enzyklopädie von Tlön, and of course the recently “unearthed” Volume IX, sold for an undisclosed sum over the Internet and unmasked as a hoax by Laura Barnes of Glenn Horowitz Booksellers. (Who, by the way, are rumored to be in possession of no less than six complete genuine sets!) Aside from these various forgeries and imitations are the many outlandish claims and conspiracy theories put forth by so-called Tlönists. (For a complete listing of Tlönist stories, fakes, and forgeries, see Suzanne Nixon’s “A Con’s-Piracy of Sirens,” Spiral-Bound, No. 13, Fall 1999, pp 23-34. A personal favorite of mine is Trevor Ravenscroft’s contention that over half the 300 sets were sunk with the Lusitania in 1915; apparently Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger of U-20 had misunderstood his orders to “retrieve” the shipment of volumes for some dire cabal of Germans!)
Of course, this sense of mystery only increases the fascination the First Encyclopaedia of Tlön holds for artists and writers alike. The Encyclopaedia is the subject of numerous stories and artistic projects, including Richard Behrens’ novel U-20, Mark Gustavson’s 11-movement symphony Eleven Hrönir, and of course, Borges’ celebrated short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in which the world of Tlön slowly consumes our own reality. Although most biographers agree that a copy of Volume XI was once in the possession of Borges, it has never been discovered, leading many to believe that it was tragically misplaced or even stolen. More than a few, however, including both Willis Barnstone and Ivan Almeida, have rather quixotically suggested that it was actually given as a present to Adolfo Bioy-Casares, whose “flawed” copy of The Anglo-American Cyclopedia was used as the fictional germ for Borges’ original story. Their evidence for this is unfortunately slim — a brief mention in conversation with Borges’ first wife of a letter from Bioy-Casares; this letter, however, was apparently lost during the second Perón regime, and like so many other things involving Tlön, its existence is generally considered apocryphal. (See Traces & Letters: Early Notebooks of Borges, edited by Willis Barnstone, 1975, published by New Horizons after Borges’ death in 1986.) But whether or not Bioy-Casares ever saw a volume of the First Encyclopaedia of Tlön, his actual copy of Volume XLVI of The Anglo-American Cyclopedia can be viewed in the Buenos Aires Writer’s Museum. Its black leather binding and faux gold leaf trim seem to leap right from the pages of Ficciones, serving to remind us of the unique way Borges viewed the interchangeable nature of reality and fictive illusion.
And yet, and yet…. Perhaps one of the strangest theories about Borges and the Encyclopaedia predictably comes from Umberto Eco. In an article in PoMo Praxis (June 1988, pp. 34-36) the Italian semiologist speculates, tongue somewhat in cheek, that Borges himself was actually a late member of the secret society responsible for the First Encyclopaedia of Tlön, a circle which included his granduncle, Silas Haslam. Recruited by Xul Solar in the years following its publication, Borges’ principle assignment was to write a story about himself finding Volume XI — a trick designed to make any rogue copies of the Encyclopaedia seem to be the work of a Borges imitator, and consequentially completely fictional. Eco also ventures that Néstor Ibarra’s “now classic” refutation of the Tlön project in the Nouvelle Revue Française was ghost-written by Borges, who permitted his friend Ibarra to believe it was just another literary joke.
Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien
Johann Valentin Andreä
Strassburg, Lazarus Zetzner, 1641.
A very rare work of which only seven original copies survive, this fictional travelogue was written by J.V. Andreä, the purported author of Chymische Hochzeit Christiani Rosencreuz and “accidental” founder of the Rosicrucian movement. Author of several works involving imaginary communities and mystico-Christian utopias, including the Reipublicae Christianopolitanae Descriptio, Bemerkungen was an expansion of ideas first expressed in the Christianopolis, now projected onto an abstract philosophical country situated within the borders of present-day Iraq. While certainly of interest to Borges scholars and modern Rosicrucians, Bemerkungen is most notorious for its chapter on the ideal community of Vheissu, the major inspiration behind the infamous Zweite Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft. Better known to history as the Commune of Prague, the ZFG was an isolated group of philosophers, Rosicrucians, and Lutheran radicals who attempted to recreate the ideals of Vheissu by establishing a closed community outside Prague in 1773. Their experiment was a disaster, ending two years later in a spiral of cannibalism, violent orgies, and mass suicide. (For further details, see “Rosiges Glühen, Blutiges Kreuz,” by Kristoph Gross, Der Annalen Metakarus, 1934, pp. 345-78; or “The Prague Commune and its Influence on DeSade’s The 120 Days of Sodom,” by Josephine Pinto, Lingua Franca, Vol 10/No. 3, April 2000, pp. 22-25.)
Bemerkungen is not an easy work to read, filled with arcane references to the Qabalah, idiosyncratic prose structure, and bizarre, almost absent-minded lapses into Latin. Most difficult of all are the numerous German terms and compound-expressions, many of which were specially coined by Andreä to describe the philosophy of Uqbar and its fantastic literary realms of Mle’khnas and Tlön. (To provide two of my favorite examples: Ketherursprache, which means “the primal (pre)language of fire and creation,” and Ding-nicht-Ding, an expression nearly anticipating Kant, used to represent “an object that is simultaneously there and not yet present.”) Despite the tortuous prose and abstract philosophical formulations, there is an amusing satiric slant to the work, and once in a while it even topples over into genuine comedy. In fact, the entire section devoted to the Heresiarchs of Uqbar — which informed the encyclopedia entry famously misquoted by Bioy-Casares in Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” — takes the form of a comical debate between duelling philosophers, and parodies Plato’s Republic with surprising wit. (Kathryn Hume once jokingly referred to the book at “The work of a seventeenth-century Pynchon.” Given that Thomas Pynchon uses “Vheissu” to describe a mythical land in V., it is certainly plausible that he was familiar with Andreä. See Hume’s study, Pynchon’s Mythography, Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.)
The history of translating Bemerkungen is almost as convoluted as its style. Poorly translated into French in 1783 by an anonymous Freemason, this flawed version was subsequently rendered into English in 1817 by Immanuel St. James, an associate of De Quincey, who first introduced De Quincey to Andreä’s work. No great linguist himself, St. James introduced countless additional errors to his Clear and Worthy Observations on Uqbar of Asia Minor, further diluting the humor and complexity of Andreä’s original. Silas Haslam was working on a more authentic English translation based directly on the German text at the time of his death in 1914, but literary legend contends that his wife Anna burned the manuscripts. Seven years later, the 1641 text was updated into modern German by Catholic theologian and historian Kristoph Gross. Using Gross’ new German edition, the book was finally translated into modern English in 1990 by Markus Fahrner. Titled A Few Literary Remarks Regarding Uqbar of Asia Minor, this version is now published by Phranes Press, with an introduction and annotations by Rosicrucian scholar Adam McLean.
History of a Land called Uqbar
Ippwich & Beckett, London, 1874
This book is remarkable for several reasons. Not only is it the first work penned by the inimitable poet and historian Silas Haslam, but it could very well mark the beginning of a literary heritage which came to full flower in Jorge Luis Borges — Silas Haslam was the younger brother of Frances Haslam, Borges’ paternal grandmother. In many ways, Haslam was a precursor to his grandnephew, bestowing upon him a love of mazes, wordplay, and, unfortunately, blindness.
In true “Borgesian” fashion, Haslam’s first book is a fictional history of an imaginary place, the philosophical utopia created over two centuries earlier by J.V. Andreä. While living in Berlin with German cousins, the young poet was introduced to Andreä’s Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien by Jacquelyn Lindhurst, an American artist and occultist who was working on a series of illustrations for an Andreä Compendium. Fluent in German and possessing a rare copy of the original text, Lindhurst shared her delight in Andreä with the young poet, who eventually moved into her studio as their relationship developed along more intimate lines. Utterly enchanted by the very notion of “Ukkbar,” Haslam acquired both the Masonic French and St. James English translations of Bemerkungen, slowly working through the original text with the help of Lindhurst. His imagination fired, he began recreating his own version of Uqbar, expanding it and adding his sense of poetic grandeur to Andreä’s complex philosophical games.
Often compared to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, The History is a brilliantly inventive book, clearly displaying the eccentric black humor and linguistic playfulness that would later become Haslam’s trademark. In chronicling Uqbar’s countless wars and religious persecutions, Haslam created his own “stone mirror,” creating a dark and sharply polished reflection of the European forces of imperialism, colonialism, and religious intolerance that he would later satirize openly in his epic poems. As would be expected of the author of such labyrinthine works as Gannymeade & Europa and Love Song for a Minotaur, Haslam describes the philosophies of Uqbar with meticulous detail, spinning the threads of multiple nuance into an expanding web of complexities that engage and entangle the reader on every page. Unlike Andreä, Haslam surprisingly avoids exploring the languages of Uqbar; but his fabrications and explanations of its strange cults and endless rituals mark a profound insight into the pyschology of “modern man,” and his ability to parody the rivalries of subtly differing systems of thought remains unparalleled.
Unfortunately, the Andreä Compendium never materialized, and after Lindhurst drifted into Theosophy, Haslam moved to Vienna where he met and eventually married the artist Anna Mondaugen, the “muse” to whom he would dedicated the rest of his work. In 1967, Haslam’s biographer, A. Buell Rooke, discovered thirteen of Lindhurst’s illustrations in the possession of her grandson, a Rosicrucian living in San Jose. Seven of these where subsequently included in the 1974 Grove Press centennial edition of History of a Land Called Uqbar; though the hardcover is now out of print, black-and-white versions of the plates are still included in the Grove Press paperback. Additionally, it should be noted that Haslam’s work has generated quite a few books of commentary. By far the most complete analysis is The Hydra Remerges, by Jon Fetter of the Hess Language School in Taiwan, which tracks the “many heads of Uqbar.” (1988, San Ming Press.) I would also recommend the section titled “Victorian Postmodern” in Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction, Routledge, 1987, pp. 7-9; and of course, Borges’ lecture “Haslam and his Mazes,” available by reprint from the University of Texas. Although Borges has — perhaps deliberately — never discussed the subject, it’s almost unthinkable that his father’s library would not have held a copy of Haslam’s History. From this, Borges would have learned of Andreä’s text; finally deciding in 1940 to try his own hand at reinventing Uqbar in the pages of Sur. (For details, see my own “Evolving Tlön,” by Allen Ruch, Variaciones Borges, No. 1/1996, pp. 121-131.)
A General History of Labyrinths
Silas Haslam (1888)
Written during the first years of his impending blindness, this elegant book is a masterwork of scholarship. Adding to its appeal are the hauntingly beautiful illustrations, all provided by Haslam’s wife Anna, a Viennese art student who was later treated for schizophrenia and died in an English sanitarium three years after his death. Starting with a discussion of labyrinthine symbolism seen in prehistoric cave paintings, Haslam traces the development of the labyrinth through Celtic neolithic spirals to the mythic “lost labyrinth” of the Chinese governor Ts’ui Pen. No stone is left unturned as Haslam skillfully weaves an intricate tapestry of mazes across the warp and weft of time: the Cretan masterpiece of Dedalus, the fanciful hedge mazes of the European aristocracy, the twisting letters of illuminated calligraphy seen in both the Scriptures and the Qu’ran — even the religious discussions of Uqbar, the topic of his first book, are likened to mazes. Haslam expertly displays his particular genius in the way he relates the nature of physical labyrinths to other, more metaphysical ideas, such as religion, philosophy, and the then emerging field of psychology.
One of the more remarkable commentaries on this work is by the Serbo-Croatian Milorad Pavic, who claimed that Haslam’s interest in mazes stemmed from his studies of his wife’s growing insanity and its manifestation in her surreal artwork. He (rather callously) makes the claim that Haslam refused to have his wife treated by a professional, as her deliriums were far too interesting to his work. If he did indeed use his wife as such a dark muse, a theory also supported by Jon Fetter, it would most likely explain her vitriol towards him after his death in 1914. Before she entered a London asylum, she burned most of his papers, which — in a tragic loss to the literary world — included the fully completed manuscript of his first work of fiction, known to have been titled The Maze in the Rose.
Gentle Reader Fred DeWit writes:
I was most intrigued by your brief monograph on Silas Haslim’s “A General History of Labyrinths.” The style of writing is reminiscent of the rumor-mongering of the great Classical writers of antiquity. The observation is not mine, it was made by De Quincey concerning Suetonius in his essay on “The Caesars” for Blackwoods magazine, in which he relied quite heavily on Seutonius’ “De vita Caesarum.” There is one elision that puzzles me though, ipso est, the surprising failure to mention perhaps the first of the ancient labyrinths in Egypt across from Crocodilopolis and north of Hawara in the Fayum. Herodotus’ description of his visit there was mentioned in Book II of the “Histories.” Instead, you mention the Cretan labyrinth, which was based on the Egyptian model, yet according to my digital Britannica, probably never existed (!), although the image of which is still recorded on coins whose luster has become somewhat dimmed. I assume, for reasons of brevity, that you wished to avoid the scholarly debate over whether Flinders Petrie’s discovery of the foundations of the Egyptian labyrinth benefited from his reading of Haslim’s History, much the same way that Schliemann’s discovery of Troy benefited from his readings of the Homeric decriptions and those of Pausanias. It is much like the methods used in archeology of the more ancient sites of Tlön. I assume it was the atmosphere of professional jealousy and the intense competition and rivalry between Petrie and Haslim, a common relationship among the archeologists of the period, that explains Petrie’s slight. He never acknowledges Haslim, yet it seems more than a coincidence to me that Haslim’s exhaustive research was published in the same year, 1888, that Petrie made his discovery, and it would be highly unlikely that Petrie was unaware of Haslim’s work. The telling proof is that an examination of Petrie’s correspondences, fails to mention Haslim even once, yet any scholar of labyrinths, such as you are yourself, Mr. Ruch, would have necessarily been familiar with Haslim’s description of where the labyrinth would most likely be located. My point is an ethical one — those things that are not mentioned are probably the most important ones. Perhaps the best course of action is to know that whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent and (taking to heart Poe’s advice in “How to Write a Blackwood Article”) to remember Seneca’s dictum, “Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio.”
Fred de Wit
The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim
Mir Bahadur Ali (1932)
Written by a lawyer from Bombay, this is an unusual novel that combines Islamic mysticism and allegory with a strange sort of detective story. Originally a cheaply published book in Bombay, the popularity of the work brought almost immediate fame to its author. In essence, it is the story of a law student in Bombay who surprisingly commits a murder, and is subsequently drawn into the lower strata of Indian society. There he becomes obsessed with finding a “perfect man,” Al-Mu’tasim, by analyzing the imprint he leaves in others. This book — the original version — is extremely rare, and has never been reprinted beyond the original 4000 copies.
The American composer, Philip Glass, owns a translated copy of one of the originals he got from Constance DeJong; and has often contemplated making it the subject of an opera. If he would ever see this project through, it would do much to bring the original out from the shadow of the more popular rewrite. (See below.)
The Conversation with the Man Called Al-Mu’tasim
Mir Bahadur Ali (1934) — Illustrated version
After the success of his novel in 1932, Bahadur issued a revised and (poorly) illustrated version which was subtitled A Game of Shifting Mirrors. By far the more widely known of the two versions, it has been reprinted several times and translated into English, German, and French. It should be noted, however, that this edition has been criticized for its slick rewrite, and that Bahadur debased his original idea by making the quest for the missing protagonist a too-obvious allegory for a quest for God, inserting several stereotypical characters in a distracting and overly extraneous fashion. Still, the book has its coterie of admirers, including Borges, Heller, Beckett, and Salman Rushdie, who cited it as “the single most influential book I have ever read.”
Urkunden zur Geschichte der Zahirsage
Julius Barlach (Breslau: 1899)
An obscure but well-researched work, “Documents and Tales: the History of the Zahir” is an account of the Islamic myth of the Zahir, the word that signifies “beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.” It is, essentially, a collection of every story, myth, and reference to the Zahir from around the world, from the early eighteenth century to the time of composition. Included are excerpts from Luft Ali Azur’s Temple of Fire, Meadow Taylor’s comprehensive study while in the service of the Nizam of Hyderabad, and the verses from the Asrar Nama which claim that to see the Zahir is to soon see God.
The original book itself is a handsome octavo edition, published first in Breslau, and reprinted in Berlin in 1935 under the direction of Dr. Julius Niemand, a close associate of Dr. Rudolf Steiner, who provided a few illustrations. Dr. Niemand added a few more references, including the celebrated “Weimar Bierstein des Weisen” story, and insouciantly edited a few of the stories out of existence. These stories — all Jewish in origin — were later reintroduced for the third printing in 1953. Dr. Niemand — who would be arrested as a Nazi after WW II, was one of the “Spear of Destiny” conspirators, and can be seen in a famous photograph along with his associates Karl Holz, Julius Streicher, Willi Liebel, Hans von Obernitz, and Dr. Benno Martin. This photo, from the Stadtarchiv Nürnberg, is the only known picture of Dr. Niemand, who hung himself during the trials.
During a lecture at Columbia University in 1971, Borges admitted that he owned a copy of the original, which is where he got the idea for his famous story “The Zahir.” His copy is now on display in the Buenos Aires Writer’s Museum, opened to the page where, across the margin in Borges’s cramped handwriting, this ironic note is scrawled: “The Zahir as a story! — make it a tiger. Stripes all over the walls. Eyes in gemstones. Yellow and gold! It would be impossible to forget a tiger!”
Vindication of Eternity
Jaromir Hladík (1927)
One of this century’s most exhausting, complex, and rewarding works, Hladík’s Vindication has been called everything from a “parlor game” to a “masterpiece unsurpassed in the world of philosophy.” While the subject remains constant — an exploration of eternity and infinity — the style is quite radical, shifting from short fictional stories to complex essays, from haiku poetry to metaphorical dramas in which mathematical formulae take on character roles and debate each other. (In one well-known scene which takes place in the future, the ghost of Pierre Menard debates with Zeno over the progress of the Achilles and the tortoise; meanwhile Lewis Carroll’s Alice slips by and picks their pockets!) The book is today considered less controversial, and many authors have claimed it as a source of tremendous inspiration, from Italo Calvino to Douglas Hofstadter, who recently mentioned it in an interview in Wired Magazine. It has just gone into a new paperback printing from Vintage, where it has found a new audience among the young “digerati” culture, and rumor has it that Knopf will add it to their “Everyman’s Library” new line of 20th century classics. (Supposedly they have secured Hofstadter to write the introduction.)
Les problèms d’un problème
Pierre Menard (Paris 1917)
A witty and engaging work, this book takes up in chronological order the various solutions of the famous paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. Two editions of this work have appeared, and the second edition contains revisions of the chapters dedicated to Russell and Descartes. Unfortunately, it has not yet been translated into English.
The Garden of Forking Paths
Written by the governor of Yunnan, this work is largely considered to be next to Finnegans Wake in inscrutability. Ts’ui Pen retired from rulership to write a book and construct a labyrinth; and for thirteen years he labored on that task. Upon his death, all his relatives found were the myriad pages to an almost incomprehensible manuscript — no real book, and certainly no physical labyrinth. Saved from the fire by a Buddhist monk, the pages were organized into some sort of form and published, much to the shame of Ts’ui Pen’s family. Virtually ignored in China, the work was finally revised, corrected, and restored to its intended form by the English Sinologist Stephen Albert, who began a translation. To him goes the credit for the discovery of the book’s strange form: the book is the labyrinth. It is a non-linear work in which anything that can happen, does — each possible plot outcome is pursued, multiplying into a seemingly infinite chaos. In this way, the book represents Ts’ui Pen’s view of time: and endless series of possibilities that spread their web through all of eternity.
The restored and translated version had to wait several decades after Albert’s death to finally find a publisher: the book was finally published in 1955 by a small company in New York. Financed by a Dublin philanthropist, the editions were quite beautiful: three volumes, each of 500 rose-colored pages, bound in black leather with golden Chinese calligraphy on the front; illustrated throughout with color plates, they bore a dedication to Stephen Albert and a forward by Joseph Campbell. Unfortunately The Garden of Forking Paths has never been published again, making the surviving volumes quite rare and expensive. (I would like to make this observation: In 1985 the American composer Stephen Albert, a direct descendent of the Sinologist of the same name, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning symphony based on Finnegans Wake. It seems that it runs in the family!)
The God of the Labyrinth
Herbert Quain (1933)
Quain’s first book, this novel tells the story of an assassination and its subsequent solution by a detective — the twist occurs in that the reader is made aware that the solution is incorrect, inviting a second reading of the work with the reader acting as detective and finding the correct solution. As are all Quain’s works, it is currently available through Vintage paperbacks.
Although he has never cited Quain as an influence, this novel makes a brief guest appearance in the writings of Philip K. Dick. In The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick, (Pantheon, 1995) which contains some of his published notes, including a few chapters for a proposed sequel to his masterpiece The Man in the High Castle, there is a mention of the novel. In Chapter Three, Herr Doktor Goebbels is seen casually finishing The God of the Labyrinth, which he considers an amusing little story — and ironically enough, takes it at face value. Subtle, but then after all, it’s Philip K. Dick.
Herbert Quain (1936)
An interesting novel, this book is told in reverse order with several branching paths that invite a set of alternate readings, each possible storyline unfolding around a different narrative style that changes the whole temper of the book; for instance one reading makes it a novel with a blatant anti-communist theme, and another reading reverses this and gives it the characteristics of a piece communist rhetoric; and still another makes it out to be a non-political fantasy novel.
This work, long ignored, has been experiencing a recent upsurge in popularity after an article in Wired Magazine appeared, citing it as an early example of Hypertextual fiction. It also made an appearance on a bookshelf in the movie Slackers. Reprinted by Penguin books in 1994, the novel has recently been converted to hypertext format by Libyrinth scholar Allen B. Ruch, and is available on the Web at: http://www.microserve.com/~thequail/quain/aprilmarch
The Secret Mirror
Herbert Quain (1937)
A comedy in two acts, this play has often been (unjustly) reduced to a “Freudian comedy.” In reality, it is a complex work in which the second act parallels the extensive and romantic first act, using more down-to-earth characters with related names, finally revealing to the audience that the first act is in the imagination of the writer of the second; a fantasia on his mundane and frustrating life. Unfortunately it is rarely performed; however it was adapted to comic book format by DC’s “Vertigo” line in 1994. (Adapted by Grant Morrison and running three issues in “Prestige” format.)
Herbert Quain (1939)
A strange work, this book consists of eight stories. Each one starts out with what at first appears to be a good plot, but soon founders — deliberately frustrated by the author. Quain reputedly penned the stories to serve as a treasure trove of ideas for other writers, and Borges himself admitted that he took the idea for his story “The Circular Ruins” from Quain’s third story, “The Rose of Yesterday.” More recently, the English science fiction writer Michael Moorcock has indicated that his award winning “Behold the Man” was inspired by the sixth story from Quain’s book, “Ecce Homo Fantasia,” in which an obsessed painter named Klaus Glauber imagines himself as Christ.
Kristus och Judas
Nils Runeberg (Lund 1904)
Published in Lund by Nils Runeberg, the most outstanding member of the National Evangelical Union, this short book contains the ideas that would later flower as a fully developed heretical thesis in his second book. Dedicated to De Quincey, the book explores the relationship between Judas and Christ in a series of dialogues between famous religious figures, from St. Paul to Runeberg himself.
Dem hemlige Fralsaren
Nils Runeberg (1909)
His second and last book, this complicated work is considered his masterpiece. Written over a feverish period of five years of increasing insomnia, it is essentially an expanded — and more heretical — version of his ideas as put forth in Kristus och Judas. Published in Stockholm in a limited run of two thousand red-leather copies, it was immediately either refuted or utterly ignored. The basic heresy of the book, thought out in meticulous detail, is that Judas is truly the Son of God, the ultimate sacrifice that purchased our redemption. The book is more commonly read in its German translation, Der heimliche Heiland, executed in 1912 by Emil Schering.
Runeberg never lived to see the translation; he died several weeks before it was published.
Confessions of a Thug
Meadows Taylor (1839)
This famous novel has been reprinted and translated into several languages, but none are said to contain the power of the original English. Written by Taylor when he was in service of the Nizam of Hyderabad, the novel is a harrowing journey into the world of the Thuggee and the cult of Kali, as told by a protagonist who is “confessing” his life to Taylor, who appears in the book as himself. So startling and realistic are his descriptions, that many people back in England thought that the novel was nonfiction, and feared that Taylor had been actually murdered! (Which was not entirely an unreasonable assumption — the author’s death is ingeniously inferred at the end through the clever use of “editor’s notes” appended to an “unfinished document.”) The book has been widely recognized as the inspiration for a dozen poems, pulp novels, and movies. (George Lucas loaned it to Steven Spielberg after the first “Indiana Jones” movie, obviously providing material for the second.)
An Examination of the Philosophy of Robert Fludd
Dr. Marcel Yarmolinsky (1921)
One of Dr. Yarmolinsky’s earliest works, this small book foreshadows his later writing style quite nicely. While not as detailed as his later works, his distinctive voice shines through the text, illuminating the often misunderstood (and always obscure) philosophies of Fludd with a lucid and reverent light.
History of the Sect of the Hasidim
Dr. Marcel Yarmolinsky (1931)
Another one of Dr. Yarmolinsky’s comprehensive and illuminating works, this large book traces the development of the Hasidim from their origins to the present day. Well illustrated, the book has been hailed the “definitive work” on the Hasidim from the moment of its publication.
A Vindication of the Cabala
Dr. Marcel Yarmolinsky (1938)
A simple and well-written book that explores the Cabala from within a framework of modern Judaism, this work has rightfully earned its place on the bookshelf of most Qabalists. Dr. Yarmolinsky (responsible for an excellent translation of the Sepher Yezirah as well) writes with a clear and lucid style, bringing to his subject a sense of religious authority unmatched by Regardie, Fortune, or Mathers. It is copiously illustrated, although the recent reprint as a Samuel Weiser trade paperback unfortunately changes all the color plates to black and white to save on cost.
Biography of the Baal Shem
Dr. Marcel Yarmolinsky (1940)
A labor of love, this is an exhaustive account of Baal Shem. No stone is left unturned, and all aspects of his life are given a clear analysis, with an obvious emphasis on religion. It was the last book he completed before he was murdered in his hotel room.