"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The reader will pardon me for beginning this essay with a book that discusses a “society of bladders” and blames war, bad marriages and totalitarianism on “lack of genital gratification in masses of people.” But it seems a fit place to begin. Psych majors may recognize the phrases as those of “sex-economist” Wilhelm Reich, one of the foremost of the theoreticians I would here dub the crackpot authorities. They can be found in Reich’s autobiographical treatise, “The Function of the Orgasm,” without which any survey of crackpot authority literature would be incomplete. But we will leave the bladders for now, although — as any good crackpot authority would put it — there will be more to say about them later.
“Reich was a brilliant psychoanalyst,” my own former analyst told me, “but he did go into a psychosis later in his life.” Substitute any discipline for “psychoanalyst” in the preceding sentence, and you have a fair description of the philosophers and scientists whose praises I hope to sing here. Brilliant theorists all, the crackpot authorities apply wide-ranging intellects to fascinating postulates that are, if sometimes out of left field, at least plausible enough to merit discussion. And though there is something a bit south-of-sane in the works on my personal summer reading list, most of them impart valuable insights — leavened, as well, with more than a few laughs.
As a crackpot authority, Reich is exemplary. Both readable and convincing, he is also, the reader suspects, more than a little confused about certain tenets of what constitutes reality. Take his 1939 discovery of “orgone energy.” This is the stuff responsible for the aurora borealis (at least, according to Reich’s theory), but it is also a form of measurable energy released by the body during sexual stimulation, which must be kept in balance if we are to lead happy, fulfilling lives.
What makes Reich’s book a pleasure is not that he might have stumbled onto some heretofore-undiscovered “biophysical” force in the world (he didn’t), but that he displays such genius in getting there. His psychoanalytic thesis holds that pent-up orgone energy is responsible for all manner of psychic disorders, from depression to anxiety to schizophrenia and so on. Only through achieving “orgastic potency” can one hope to cure one’s ills. Orgastic potency is different from “erective” or “ejaculative” potency. It means more or less the ability to surrender oneself to a full-body orgasm.
“The pleasure of living and the pleasure of orgasm are identical,” Reich says. No argument there. In fact, Reich’s early work is still taught to students of psychoanalysis. It’s only when he reaches the bladders that he starts to go off the rails. And when, in the last six pages of the book, he finally wraps his musings into his fully formulated “orgone theory,” you know you have a crackpot authority on your hands.
As Reich amply illustrates, the crackpot authority is no mere delusional theorist. Really, it’s the second term of the genre’s title that carries more weight. These are some heavy hitters, some really smart guys. It’s just that their genius has led them to some strange conclusions. “Orgone theory” itself may be outlandish, but there is clearly some wisdom in the thinking that preceded it. Forgive the crackpot authorities their foibles and they can provide quite an education — even if it is not always on the subjects they intend.
No crackpot authority I’ve come across makes so beautifully compelling a case for so cracked a theory as does Julian Jaynes. A psychology professor at Princeton from 1966 until 1990, Jaynes wrote the bestselling masterpiece “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” It was nominated for a National Book Award in 1978 and is still taught to fortunate university students here and there.
Jaynes postulates that human consciousness as we know it — the ability to “metaphorize” in mind-space — is a relatively recent development. And we’re not talking geologic time here; we’re talking 1250 B.C. Until then, the two halves of the brain worked independently of each other. The motor centers in the left brain — which could not function on their own and needed to be told what to do — got their instructions in the form of “auditory hallucinations” (i.e., they heard voices), which emanated from the now-dormant speech centers in the right brain.
To help illustrate how this might have worked, Jaynes points to vestiges of the bicameral mind in modern life, and trots out some fascinating case studies of schizophrenics (who commonly hear similar voices) to back up his arguments. He also explains a surprising number of phenomena through his theory. Here, he argues, is the origin of the gods humanity has worshipped throughout history, including those we know today. To what else would early modern man ascribe such voices? And what other rational explanation is there for the belief in these beings, present in every civilization that’s ever existed? (Note how rationality slips in to support an irrational thesis.)
Jaynes displays a hallmark trait of the crackpot authority in drawing from widely disparate disciplines to back up a hypothesis that would never even occur to most scientists, let alone to laymen. Whether he’s right or not, though, his book is a fantastic tour of primitive societies, of the history of literature and of thought itself. In recounting the earliest examples of writing, from cuneiform inventory ledgers through “The Iliad” and the Bible (the Old Testament is really the story of the loss of the bicameral mind and its replacement by subjective consciousness), Jaynes shows that not until surprisingly late in the development of the written word do terms appear that even begin to describe consciousness. Why would humanity’s first authors omit those terms in describing the world, Jaynes asks, unless consciousness wasn’t part of the world they were describing?
Besides being a true joy to read (who else would refer to “the many-poemed comparison of love to a rose”?), Jaynes’ book is a marvelous example of inductive rhetoric. Few book-length essays surpass it in the elegance with which it lays out its material. And where else can you read the word “extispicy”? (No, it’s not on the menu at Kentucky Fried Chicken.)
The case of French theologian Denis de Rougemont, who, in 1938, answered just about every question you’d care to ask on the nature of romance, is more complex. The thesis of de Rougemont’s “Love in the Western World” is sound (sort of), but it’s in his singular explication of the myths and conflicts that have fed the modern conception of love — “formal” love ended with World War I, he asserts — that he ascends to the crackpot stratosphere.
What Western culture has inculcated in us, from the Tristan and Iseult legend through “Runaway Bride,” is that love is not worth having without passion, de Rougemont writes. And since marriage is not worth having without love, we are stuck searching for the “passionate marriage” — a condition known everywhere to be exceedingly rare.
Though less than optimistic, D. de R., as he signs himself, offers an eye-opening opinion as to just what we in the West should expect from romance. His book begins with a 12th century heretical sect in France whose desire to be united with God — a unity possible only in death, if then — gave birth to the idea of “passion” as distinct from “love.” In good crackpot-authority style, de Rougemont goes on to delve deeply into the arts, borrowing from Petrarch, the Marquis de Sade and Wagner to make his case, and even managing to conflate D.H. Lawrence and Hitler along the way.
Though it’s a pleasure to follow him through nine centuries of literature, war and trysting — right down to our penchant for “the slim lines of the open-air girl” — it is hard to fully credit de Rougemont’s contention that our desire for both heated passion and sublime love is really a death wish that is fallout from the Albigensian Heresy. On the other hand, if it’s true, as de R. seems to argue, that we subconsciously want marriage to lead to our deaths, that might help explain the high divorce rate. The solution? Disentangle passion from the idea of love and marriage, and lower your expectations, de Rougemont says. But before you do, enjoy his book.
On a close read, de Rougemont is almost too reasonable to be classed as a crackpot authority — though the way he appropriates everything from poetry to police tactics in support of his argument qualifies him in my eyes.
The genre, not surprisingly, suffers constantly shifting boundaries, and weeding the crackpot authorities from the mere cranks is no easy task. A good crackpot authority will have dreamed up a thesis that explains virtually all of our everyday experience at one shot. And he will manage to do it with style.
A favorite read that didn’t make the cut was “Holy Blood, Holy Grail,” by Michael Baigent, et al. Though there is certainly an entertaining conspiracy theory here — that the history of Christianity is a big lie and that Christ’s descendants went on to form secret societies that exist to this day — the book is not ambitious enough in its scope to warrant inclusion as the work of a full-fledged crackpot.
Not all crackpot literature takes the essay form, however. Special mention must be reserved for an author like Henry Watson Fowler, whose efforts have led me to include a reference book on my crackpot bookshelf. His justly famed and quietly acerbic “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage” — not to be confused with the recently published “New Fowler’s,” which substantially waters down the original — has provided my circle of friends with hours of read-aloud fun, and not only because we are amused to find the word “otherwise” described as “now having very curious experiences.”
Both Fowler’s crackpot tendencies and his crackpot authority credentials can be seen in the intricate system of cross-references that pepper the book. “Love,” in contrast to de Rougemont’s treatment, is disposed of simply by referring us to two other articles: “hackneyed phrases” and “stock pathos.” A felicitous choice of entry can start the reader on a never-ending tour of Fowler’s nose-thumbing take on written English, as in the following example:
From the entry on whence, whither:
Why is it that substitutes apparently so clumsy as where … from & where … to, can be preferred? It is surely because the genius of the language actually likes the PREPOSITION AT END that wiseacres have conspired to discourage, & thinks ‘Where are you coming to?’ more quickly comprehensible in moments of threatened collision than ‘Whither are you coming?’.
From preposition at end:
… In avoiding the forbidden order, unskilled handlers of words often fall into real blunders (see OUT OF THE FRYING-PAN) …
From out of the frying-pan:
… the slapdash corrector, who should not be in such a hurry, & the uneducated corrector, who should not be writing at all, are apt to make things worse than they found them.
Is that clear, you uneducated correctors and unskilled handlers of words? Happily, Fowler’s genius as an expert in the English language lies in his ability to become almost completely incomprehensible himself — and in his offhand dismissal of such beasts as “the scribbler who has reckoned on our having tastes so primitive.”
Among crackpot authorities, though, Fowler is a mere divertissement. At the other end of the spectrum lies one of the deepest and broadest thinkers of the 20th century, Elias Canetti, without whom no such list would be complete. Canetti’s “Crowds and Power” is one of the most fascinating critiques of modern culture ever composed. Like Jaynes, Canetti looks to ancient and aboriginal cultures to shed light on the course of humankind’s development. Like Reich, he maps onto human behavior a complex but internally consistent set of rules that may or may not have much to do with reality.
Nevertheless, Canetti’s observations are revelatory. His classification of human behavior into types of “crowds” and “packs” provides a nearly plausible explanation for much of modern culture and what Reich would call “the negation of life inherent in social ideology.” And the short passage tracing the origin of both words and artifacts back to the gestures of the hand is, by itself, the mark of a truly original thinker.
What drives the crackpot compulsion to deliver an exhaustive treatment of the unfathomable? For many of the great crackpot thinkers — Canetti, de Rougemont and Reich all fall into this category — it is the deep imprint of the 20th century’s unprecedented world wars. The effect of these cataclysms is apparent in the work of all three of these writers, and probably has much to do with their need to find a universal system to explain the goings-on of their lifetimes. Canetti’s Central European background plays a key role here. While he is a less forgiving writer than Jaynes or de Rougemont, he is perhaps more important than either. The epilogue of “Crowds and Power” is one of the great humanist cries in literature. It is only effective, though, with the weight of Canetti’s tome behind it.
Therein lies another secret of the crackpot authorities: They generally save the best for last. No dummies they, these writers are aware that a skeptical public may not be ready to buy the near-lunacy they seem to be serving up. It is only through the aggregation of facts and observations that they can hope to persuasively make their points. And it is in these facts and observations, if not always in the arguments they support, that the value lies. The reading of such authors should be approached as an exercise in the opening of the mind. Who among us, after all, has not suddenly been gripped by a flash of insight, only to scratch our heads later and wonder just what we were thinking. The crackpot authorities had the courage to follow their insights to their (il)logical ends. It is best, in such cases, to suspend judgment, and observe while a great mind works out the kinks of a questionable theory. Even if nothing is really “learned,” the reader will be greatly rewarded, and not a little entertained.
And then there’s the Fowler ampersand. Of this more will be said in a later work.
Mark Wallace is a freelance writer living in Manhattan. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, New York magazine and the Financial Times.More Mark Wallace.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)