Weird Fiction Review #10: On the Apollonian and Dionysian in Weird Fiction Today–Piranesi and Unlanguage

My original intention for this post was to close a series of contemporary weird novel reviews with an analysis of Michael Cisco’s Unlanguage, published in 2018 by Eraserhead books. This oddly shaped (9 x 9”), self-described “workbook” in the arts of “unlanguage” promised to be, as I mentioned at the end of my previous post,  “the weirdest novel of 2018.” Then two things happened: I found Unlangauge, true to its name, nearly impossible to read, and I heard a Weird Studies podcast extolling the strangeness of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, published in 2020. I resolved to swallow the one with the other; and indeed, they present such an interesting contrast that the differences between them prove more fruitful than either would be on its own.

The difference between the approaches to weirdness presented in these novels suggests Nietzsche’s distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian styles. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche argues, with “the immediate certainty of intuition,” that Attic tragedy reconciles these aesthetic modalities, which are otherwise involved in “perpetual conflicts” throughout “the continuous develop of art” (21). The Apollonian style emphasizes “the beauteous appearance of dream-worlds,” in which “all forms speak to us; there is nothing indifferent, nothing superfluous”—save the whole edifice, which has, “glimmering though it, the sensation of its appearance” (21). A superficiality haunts the perfection, a phantasmal supplement that maintains the totality by assigning each part its place. Thus, we are left with “a measured limitation,” “freedom from the wilder emotions,” and “that philosophical calmness of the sculptor-god” (p. 24-5).

Against the singular perfection of sculpted Apollo, Nietzsche describes a Dionysian aesthetics of “drunkenness” and “the narcotic draught”—the “emotions awake” and “the subjective vanishes to complete self-forgetfulness” (26). The music of Dionysus counters Apollo’s “pictorial world of dreams” with “drunken reality, which likewise does not heed the unit man, but even seeks to destroy the individual and redeem him by a mystic feeling of Oneness” (28). Subjective ideals are sacrificed on the altar of the more primal intersubjectivity they annul. Nobility and idealism give way to Delphic “ecstasies” that celebrate those moments when “pain beget[s] joy” and joy “sounds the cry of horror […] over an irretrievable loss” (31). The dream of an objectified and idealized self is torn to pieces by the ecstasy and horror of ritualized carnality. Joy and horror mingle in an ego-destroying voice that gives expression to the singularity of “nature,” which “must sigh over her dismemberment into individuals” (31).

Although the Dionysian partakes of “that detestable mixture of lust and cruelty which has always seemed . . . the genuine ‘witches’ draught,’” it would be a mistake to assign weirdness to this modality alone (30). Apollonian and Dionysian forms of weirdness are equally attainable, and the best works in this genre—like the tragedies Nietzsche analyzes—reconcile these tendencies, fusing subjectively rich pictorial fantasies with the “thrilling,” subject-destroying power of “rhythmics, dynamics, and harmony.” Unfortunately much contemporary scholarship of the weird tends to normalize the Apollonian and therefore seek weirdness only in the grotesque, abject, and dreadful, forgetting the eeriness of the ‘good’ life.

The novels under review fail to synthesize these tendencies in interesting ways. Each develops weirdness according to its particular modality with real virtuosity. Clarke’s dream world mines Apollonian aesthetics for what weirdness can be found in such a “measured limitation.” And Cisco’s genre-mixing jumble attempts a Dionysian illegibility: a dismembered nonnarrative in the “unlanguage of unknowning,” also referred to as “lingua obscura, enigmatica, oraculo, youming yuyan (language of the quiet depths), lugha al lughz (language of riddles), bhasa sammudha (bewildering language), confusion, phantasmagoria, parabolica, eavesdropia” (p. 7).

Apollonian Weird: Susanna Clark’s Piranesi

Published by Bloomsbury in 2020

Let us begin in the cool, clear light of Clarke’s fantastic narrative. Piranesi is Clarke’s second novel; Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, published by Bloomsbury in 2004, is decidedly weird, being concerned with magic and a genre-bending “alternative history,” features of weird fiction since Otranto. It’s popularity and critical acclaim, like that enjoyed in recent years by, say, China Miéville or George Saunders, should put to rest any doubts regarding the marginality of weirdness today. The weird is both popular and critically esteemed in twenty-first century cultural markets. Nearing the top of best-seller lists, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel and praise from the Man Booker Prize committee. It was adapted by BBC One into miniseries that the British Film Institute regarded as one of the best programs of 2015. Piranesi has won several awards, including The Women’s Prize for Fiction and an Audie for the audio-book narration by Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Here we enjoy a kind of hyper-legibility. Within a few pages, it’s clear that we are reading a journal organized according to an unfamiliar but meaningful calendar: “Entry for the first day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the south-western halls.” The second entry is for the seventh day of this same month, the third for the tenth day, and so forth. We learn that the journal belongs to the explorer of a strange but not illegible world: an impossibly vast, apparently deserted series of galleries and staircases, the walls of which are lined with statues. Such information is conveyed with child-like simplicity:

I am determined to explore as much of the World as I can in my lifetime. To this end I have travelled as far as the Nine-Hundred-and-Sixtieth Hall to the West, the Eight-Hundred-and-Ninetieth Hall to the North and the Seven-Hundred-and-Sixty-Eighth Hall to the South. . . . No Hall, no Vestibule, no Staircase, no Passage is without its Statues. In most Halls they cover all the available space, though here and there you will find an Empty Plinth, Niche or Apse, or even a blank space on a Wall otherwise encrusted with Statues … (5)

Thus, we enter an alternative reality with as little confusion as possible. The first dozen entries describe the world and the narrator’s routines – they appear to be ‘shipwrecked,’ living on the marine and avian life that also inhabits this impossible place, recording their observations with diligence worthy of Crusoe.

Our immediate perception of the dreamworld is aided by the novel’s title, which evokes Giovanni Batista Piranesi’s Le Carceri: a series of etchings made between 1743 and 1745 that depicts the fantastic interiors of an apparently endless prison, small parts of which are viewed from various angles. But Clarke’s labyrinth is less threatening—it is more human in scale, despite the impressive size of some of its statures, and resembles a pantheon more than a dungeon. This world is more manageable, more sanitized than Piranesi’s massive, elaborate structures, which sometimes disclose throngs of people (and include many friezes but only the occasional glimpse of a statue). Although our narrator appears condemned to wander these halls, they are a marbled, if not exactly gilded, cage.

XI: Carcere, with a Central Hanging Lantern

The initial effect is wonder, one of the most prevalent weird affects in the Apollonian mode. The thing is unique, singular: an exotic world. Yet not a world: an enlarged fragment of something else, a cosmic ruin. The Apollonian pleasures of the dream world are beautifully evoked by our narrator, whose mixture of curiosity and pride we share. The immediate disclosure and narrative simplicity cast this world in a benevolent light; whatever dangers it may contain, our narrator trusts their capacity to master them. We therefore join in the pleasures of exploration, craning our imaginations to take in the splendors of this inward-facing edifice.

The thrill of exploring a fantastic world—a “contained” (i.e., alternative, or wholly fantastic) world, as this one appears to be—is perhaps most obvious in children’s books and the fantasy genre, but of course this pleasure is inimical to fiction at the most basic level. Clarke’s narrative begins with a fantasy that goes back to Defoe’s novel; we are reading the journal of an isolated survivor in an exotic yet self-contained world; an implicit sense of personal sovereignty undergirds the novel’s weirdness. The sun god’s soothing light burnishes reality, polishing the fantasy of a personhood radically separated from the world it inhabits. Consider such passages as, “Fear and hunger forced me to explore the House and I discovered that fish were plentiful in the Drowned Halls. Their Waters were still and I was not so afraid. The difficulty here was that the Drowned Halls were surrounded by Dereliction on all sides. To reach them it was necessary to go up to the Upper Halls and then descend by means of the Wreckage through the Great Rents and Gashes in the Floor” (36). Numerous fantastic pleasures entwine in such sentences. We learn about the world by learning how the narrator survives in it; but our knowledge is filtered through the first-person narrative. To what extent does the strangeness belong to the narrative voice and to what extent does it belong to the world being described?

The plot expands when we learn about another character, whom the narrator unimaginatively refers to as the Other. The Other refers to our narrator as Piranesi, which is not their actual name. When reading the record of their interactions with this second person, we begin to doubt the narrator’s reliability. When they mention that “much of my time is taken up by my work with the Other (I refer of course to our search for the Great and Secret Knowledge),” our faith in their rationalism wavers (41). The narrator’s rationalism is reaffirmed by passages that express their skepticism of the Other’s mysticism. Our narrator is the doubtful disciple, politely raising their hand to ask innocent yet damning questions about the Other’s attempt to create various, silly-sounding rituals. But the Other also casts doubt on our narrator’s perception of reality, telling them, “the labyrinth plays tricks on the mind. It makes people forget things. If you’re not careful it can unpick your entire personality” (68). Has our narrator’s personality been unpicked? Perhaps the notebook is recording a delusion? This trope is foundational to weird fiction (from Don Quixote onwards), but blossoms most memorably in the modern period—Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” (1835), Poe’s “The Black Cat,” (1843), Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground” (1864), Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), Blackwood’s “The Listener” (1907), Ewers’ “The Spider” (1915) are notable examples of the weird diary; in these stories, journal entries record apparently impossible events which may be interpreted as delusions. The postmodern or “New Weird” twist on this narrative, efficiently done in Piranesi, is to set the delusional narrator in a fantastic world. (It’s a similar doubling of the psychological and supernatural narratives that makes VandeerMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy so good.)

The journal’s veracity unravels. There is a sort of narrative sleight-of-hand around the narrator’s discovery that their journals have been renumbered and they don’t remember writing the earlier entries, including a capacious index, which they now re-read. In the middle third of the novel, the narrator’s research into their own past propels the plot forward.

Spoiler alert! Skip the next paragraph is you prefer to encounter the mystery for yourself.

This is the story of an intrepid young reporter who has become trapped in an other-world labyrinth by a cultist whose knowledge of the dark arts consists solely of access to this world. It becomes clear what must have happened rather too soon, and the notion of a diary is strained to the utmost, with the narrator recording passages from their own earlier texts in order to fill us in on the missing details. As they discover what happened, the book abandons the weirdness of the dream world for weird-adjacent enjoyments, such as deciphering codes, following clues, and discovering whodunit. Like many New Weird narratives, this one genre-shifts, ultimately leaving the fantastic for a more “realistic” mystery adventure story, seasoned by the hallmarks of “true crime.” Our narrator survives their sojourn in the impossible world.

Weird fiction in the Apollonian mode presents us with a fantasy world that may be parallel to but is not separate from our real world. Since Radcliffe, weird novels have meditated upon the psychological effects of absorption into the fantasy space and the ethics of the reading practice: what it means to become the imaginative subject who spends so much time in the lands fiction creates. The Apollonian brings us to such a world, giving us scenes (of imaginary or real/imaginary) fantastic otherness, the view through the looking glass. To do this, it pays the price of genre: each of its worlds upon worlds succeeds inasmuch as they are momentarily complete; each is an idealized fragment of a world in which everything is in its place.

Piranesi conveys this Apollonian idealization brilliantly, if perhaps too efficiently. The partial world is grotesque in its simple, neglected grandeur—a beautiful labyrinth. Its alchemical nature is explained, sort of, and it becomes the occasion for meditations on how environments shape our perceptions of ourselves. Ultimately, it presents the fantasy world as a transition object; a safe space (there is no minotaur) where, despite the trauma, the narrator eventually learns how to leave the fantastic behind (defeating the Other who has trapped him there). Its fantasy is mostly harmless and inevitably just. Hubris is punished, humility and self-integrity rewarded. It’s set in a weird world, but isn’t in itself a weird novel, at least in comparison to what comes next. As exemplar of the Apollonian weird, it’s notable features include an emphasis on images; the centrality of individual identity; a simple, clear narrative; the ‘containment’ of the fantastic world within a larger ‘real-world’; the absence of violent or disgusting images; and craftsmanship as elegant as the statues it contains.

Dionysian Weird: Michael Cisco’s Unlanguage

Published by Eraserhead Press in 2018

Michael Cisco‘s first novel, The Divinity Student (1999), received considerable attention in the world of horror/ weird/ fantastic fiction small press publishing. In 2013 it was serialized by the Weird Fiction Review. Unlanguage is, I believe, his twelfth publication, and his stories and essays have appeared in Lackington’s, The Weird,  Lovecraft Studies, New Directions in Supernatural Horror Literature, and other haunts familiar to fans of the contemporary weird.

Unlanguage presents itself as a textbook, but the Dionysian is difficult to summarize. It is not a simulacrum, although it includes mimetic elements. It is broken into the kind of sections one might find in a language textbook, such as “UNIT THREE: Negative Voice,” “Unit Three Reading,” “Notes,” “Exercises,” “Questions,” and so forth. But often the text under these titles describes the book, rather than its subject, disclosing a narrative in which unlanguage is studied in a grotesque academy. The narrative, in which the book itself is discovered and used, weaves in and out of the workbook structure, or rather, seeps through it.

Contra Clarke, Cisco confronts us with near total bewilderment. It is an endlessly opening totality one moment, the writhing immediacy of a particular sensation the next. The textbook is practically impossible to understand, and its structure is quickly interrupted by a narrative, which itself soon decays into passages of daydream and nightmare. This radical disorganization of novelistic narrative can be traced to dada and surrealist works; in English, fragmentary, non-linear writing of this kind emerges in the modernism of Stein and Joyce. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels, which combine Joycean fragments and playful language with a Gothic setting and sensibility, may have influenced Cisco, but the imagery and tone of Unlanguage are more reminiscent of William S. Burroughs’ Nova Trilogy.

With the Dionysian experience in mind, rather than trace the book’s literary genealogy, we might consider an analogous experience in music. Music is immersive, enveloping, subjectivizing. You enter it and it enters you. Unlanguage is organized like compositions I first heard when listening to John Coltrane, the Velvet Underground, Destroy All Monsters and Sonic Youth, in which the lead instrument enters in a frenzy, placing all the energy of the rock-n-roll climax at the beginning, then bringing us back to the place that inspired it, often ironically. Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is the modernist musical equivalent to Stein or Joyce. What begins as near total chaos slowly resolves into something like a story. The Dionysian demands this passage through bewilderment; the bacchanals have already begun; we must enter the frenzy, which does not invite us—like Nijinsky’s choreography, it is inward facing—or walk away. It’s not a matter of beginning in medias res, but of plunging into apparent chaos, hoping that you’ll find something to hold onto in the maelstrom.

The primary disorientation is our introduction to an impossible language, a language designed for speaking what can’t be uttered. This passage, from “UNIT FIFTEEN: Primary Antitense,” is one of the most easily quotable “lessons” in the textbook:

Beside the verb tenses in the preceding sections, there exists another category of tenses whose use is reserved for some of the less commonly required grammatical possibilities afforded by unlangauge. Each antitense reflects a s different reflex of actions, which the student may find difficult to conceptualize. Contrarieties of logic do, however, occur in everyday experience. Keeping strictly to an antinomial grammar is essential if one is to avoid certain commitments which lead in turn to extremely dangerous pitfalls. Escaping such pitfalls may itself become a form of confinement. Therefore, antitense express action as undoings. [. . .] The primary antisense is employed for that which is both continuing to take place and also finished; the verb “to live,” for example, when applied to the current existence of spectres. There are some events in the past which have never happened, and which continue into the present; the negative form of the primary antitense is to used in relating the occurrence of such events. (89)

To immerse ourselves in this book, we must study unlanguage. The lessons are not easy. At times, as in the above passage, unlangauge sounds tantalizingly like the language of the Lacanian unconscious, the impossible language of the Real, in its non-symbolic immediacy. This makes it, of course, a purely fantastic invention—language as the apparition, the thing that can only be gestured toward, hinted at, talked around. The deconstruction of grammatical lessons, or more precisely their reconstruction into a nonsensical zombie grammar, presents many delightful turns of phrase, gestural glimmers of ideas, much as music might do. As text, these passages may best be understood in the context of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement of the 1980s and 1990s, which deconstructed the first-person lyrical I. Poets including Susan Howe, Tom Raworth, Leslie Scalapino, Charles Bernstein, Rae Armantrout, Bob Perelman, Harryette Mullen and many others played with passages from instruction manuals, historical and sociological texts, legal testimony, advertising and popular culture, creating hybrids that exposed the subjectification at work in the original documents. Endlessly self-referential, at one point Unlanguage describes itself as “a shallow garbled and fragmentary bullshitnarrative congealed from the poachings of web films televisions bad books and magazines” (77). `The continual code switching, with narrative elements emerging like a pattern in the wallpaper, does to a conventional horror narrative what the Language poets did to confessional verse.

Like a fair amount of Language poetry (and nearly all of the “conceptual poetry” that followed it), grasping the concept is more than half the pleasure. Once the idea is established the lessons become tedious. As our student narrator complains, “My notes, exercises, just look like weird English. How can I say I have been taking this class? Is such a class even conceivable? . . . I can’t form a single phrase in unlanguage. So what good has attending these classes done me, if I have?” (91). As a reader, I found myself asking similar questions about the later textbook passages. Many of them provide curious or charming approaches to thinking about this impossible language, but since it is, after all, impossible one is tempted to skim.

In the narrative sections, our protagonist finds a copy of the textbook and joins a school/cult of unlanguage learners. This links the simulacrum to a centuries-old trope of weird fiction: the discovery of profane knowledge. The foundational principle of this trope is succinctly stated by the title of an Algernon Blackwood story, “The Man Who Found Out: A Nightmare.” But the cabbalistic pursuit of profane and esoteric knowledge was already easy to lampoon by the time Jan Potacki wrote The Manuscript Found in Saragossa in 1815; despite a partial resuscitation by the modern weirdos (most notably Blackwood, but also the pulp writers), the discovery and entrance into a cult studying profane texts remains a hackneyed plot device. (Indeed, it is the same basic device that organizes the second half of Piranesi.) As the narrator (in a psychiatric hospital, having been declared insane, perhaps because of their experiences) states, “It’s a story with easily-anticipated outlines that unwind like creeping tendrils of decay back into the past, shaping it to fit the current situation’s needs. The plot is the enemy…” (260). Indeed it is, in this book, which ultimately presents another variation on the diary of a deranged mind–only in this case, the derangement is foremost and the emergence of a narrator/protagonist occurs gradually and partially. The plot, inasmuch as it exists, is difficult to follow; its scenes stutter and jump about in time, repeatedly returning us to certain scenarios.

The most frequently repeated scenario visualizes the decay of corpses in spectacular detail, making decay the book’s dominant visual metaphor for its language of unknowning. Unlanguage is the language of death and new growth. Its power is figured by the grotesque reconfiguration of a rotting body:

 The arms and legs split and tendrils like translucent, whitish kelp bore into the air around her, quivering with nervous energy. Something in her gives way and fluid gushes down the chair to the floor, forming a steaming pool around her curling feet. Stiff, enormous sacs with membranes have grown into her hands; she looks as if she were cradling pale yellow jellyfish. [. . .] Now hanging over the back of the chair, her head is wattled over with heavy rot structures. The lower jaw has vanished into the chest, where her breasts have divided into a profusion of cylindrical, maned blisters like stands of sea anemones, and the bones have broken through the skin and turned to clubs of coral, rough, pitted, and drab. (46)

In its illegibility, Unlanguage invites us to attend to the decay of narrative, the death of meaning, the loss of sense—not as recent social/historical developments, but as the inevitable. Unit 22: Nonsense Voice begins with a discussion of “the Destroying voice” used in “phantasmagoria” to “relay the idea that it is impossible that anything should continue to exist forever, that even the gods will die, that death is complete annihilation, and this appalling reduction to nothing must happen to everyone, eventually” (119). If Clarke invites us through the looking glass, Cisco shatters the glass and invites us to glimpse our own destruction in the fragments. As exemplified in this novel, the Dionysian weird today is recognizable by its emphasis on bewilderment, meta-language, fragmentation, and the grotesque. It is murky and ambiguous, recursive and deconstructive.

The pictorial daydream and the hallucinogenic nightmare, the fantastic image and swirling cacophony are equally capable of generating weird affect in fiction today. Of the novels reviewed in this series, the Apollonian prevails, as it does in fiction more generally. Dionysian elements are most obvious in Lincoln in the Bardo, The Drive-Thru Crematorium, The Night Ocean, and Picnic at Hanging Rock. In this narratives, individualized subjectivity decays, plots become fragmentary, the sensual qualities of language (partially) subvert the sensical, and the grotesque bubbles up.

This brings to the end the initial series of reviews I began several years ago; the book reviews will continue, but the next stop on our journey through the contemporary weird will be at the movies. One of the hallmarks of the “weird revolution” in recent decades is the rise of “found footage” narrative films. While normally (and almost exclusively) labeled as “horror,” this subgenre marks a turn toward the weird in visual narrative. Future posts will explore this strange territory in more detail.