Friday, August 17, 2012

Strange Forces

My summer reading plans have been thrown into fantastic disarray by posts on the St. Orberose blog concerning Jorge Luis Borges’ lists of some of his favorite works. Some names that were completely unknown to me led me to lay aside my regularly scheduled programming, and I soon found myself swarmed by short stories of the surreal, bizarre, and fantastic by Giovanni Papini, Lord Dunsany, Ramón Gómez de la Serna (about whom I’ve already written), and the Argentine writer Leopoldo Lugones, in a translated collection entitled Strange Forces.

The twelve tales that make up Strange Forces fall into two loose camps. The first essays a wild, poeticized invocation of mythological or biblical scenes. Lugones seems to be drawn particularly by the punitive and catastrophic. One story weaves a modern tale of Sodom and Gomorrah involving destruction by fire from the sky. Another, delving into the kind of religious fanaticism one finds in Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Anthony (which surely must have been an influence), turns the screws on a lonely, eremitic monk’s faith and sends him into the charred desert ruins to pursue a legend that Lot’s wife still lives within her pillar of salt. There’s a story of martyrdom during the Crusades in which the severed hand of a saint acquires a life of its own. One of these pieces, “Origins of the Flood: Spirit Narrative” appears at first to be a free-form narrative experiment describing the primordial origins of life using a weird mélange of elements of hard science with lavish imagination:

The entire globe glistened like a monstrous silver ball. The atmosphere was of phosphorous with vestiges of chlorine and fluorine. Flames of sodium, of silica, of magnesium shot forth, the luminous progeny of metals. The atmosphere glittered like a star, outspread across a span of many millions of miles. On the continents and in their contiguous seas, organized life already flourished, if in guises inconceivable today; calcium phosphate didn’t exist, and these beings had no bones.

But the extravagances of the piece are reigned in at the end by a return to realist narrative and short story format; we realize we’ve been listening to a medium attempting to summon forth the earliest human beings. In a typical Lugones ending, a charge of charlatanism by one of the séance’s participants produces an eruption from the occult that combines horror and humor in the face of the “strange forces” before which we humans can merely scratch in the dark.

“Origins of the Flood” bridges the mythological/Biblical stories in Strange Forces with the second category of these tales, which consist of portraits of scientific experiments into which Lugones settles, like a malignant, impish spirit, in the murky niche between scientific risk-taking and madness. These Frankensteinian tales – which inject a heavy dose of science into their fictions – depict science pushed to the point of pathology. Lugones’ formidable erudition ranges into details of medicine, biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, engineering – a remarkable cornucopia of scientific interests replete with references to scientists, theories, and granular details of basic science richly seasoned with those of an invented nature.

In one story a composer seeks the meta-musical spectroscopic signature of the solar system by inventing a complex device to generate both an audio and visual “music of the spheres,” resulting in quite an epiphany when his meta-music elicits the light of the sun.  In another, a scientist perfects an “etheric wave” capable of exploding matter, a rather dangerous undertaking in a small lab. In “Psychon,” a physicist attempts the distillation of thought into liquid:

Calculate, if you can, the enormous radiation which must be produced by the daily expenditure of thought. What happens to all the useless or strange thoughts, the creations of the imagination, the ecstasies of the mystics, the dreams of hysterics, the projections of illogical minds, what becomes of all those forces whose action is not manifest for lack of immediate application? ...thought is immaterial; but its manifestations must be fluid…

A whiff of the uncorked liquid sends the narrator and physicist – and a poor Siamese cat – sailing into the air, where “for more than an hour, we committed the most extravagant escapades, to the complete stupefaction of the neighbors whom the tumult attracted.”

All of these stories are narrated by a skeptical observer and communicated with an outlandish flirtation with believability; repeatedly I paused to reread some of Lugones’ riotous paragraphs, which often test the limits of credulity. His stories almost invariably culminate in what appears to be a trademark Lugones ending; a morbid “punch-line” in which the mad side of science or the inexplicability of nature dominates, with grievous consequences imbued with a cartoonish black humor of the sort Charles Addams might employ.

There’s a bemused sort of cynicism in these stories, aimed not simply at playing with the explosive possibilities at the frontiers of faith and science, but coming across as a slightly reactionary dismissiveness and mockery of the manias and excesses of a too passionate enthusiasm. There’s even a degree of gleeful misanthropy in them, well articulated by the narrator of “The Firestorm,” who, while having a slave read him travel narratives, eats alone, because “if I disliked women, as I have told you, you can imagine how I abhorred men.” The degree to which Lugones revels in a mischievous skepticism became acutely apparent to me when I happened to follow up Strange Forces with Novalis’ ardently poetic meditation on nature, The Novices of Sais, filled with yearning, lyrical passages urging the “plucking of strings in search of chords and melodies” that will reveal nature’s secrets and implying a kind of synaesthesia involved in detecting the underlying unity of natural phenomena. Juxtaposed against Novalis’s romanticism, Lugones comes across as a devious, somewhat juvenile sprite, laughing as he tosses a wrench into the celestial clockwork. In other words, Strange Forces is the kind of book that could well become a favorite - at least for the kind of kid who enjoys blowing things up. 


  1. Lovely article!

    I read the book some years ago, influenced by Borges of course. The collection is rather uneven, some of the stories are extraordinary, like the one about the horses of Abdera and the destruction of Sodom, but others left me indifferent.

    If I'm not mistaken, Borges admired his poetry greatly. I should like to read that one day too.

    1. Lugones poetry is really hard to translate, his signature move is to muddle through a pale verse or two to dazzle you with the next couple of stunning lines. So he seems both clumsy and brilliant within the same poem. For example, consider Oceanida:

      El mar, lleno de urgencias masculinas,
      bramaba en derredor de tu cintura,
      y como un brazo colosal, la oscura
      ribera te amparaba. En tus retinas,

      y en tus cabellos, y en tu astral blancura
      rieló con decadencias opalinas
      esa luz de las tardes mortecinas
      que en el agua pacífica perdura.

      Palpitando a los ritmos de tu seno
      hinchóse en una ola el mar sereno;
      para hundirte en sus vértigos felinos

      su voz te dijo una caricia vaga,
      y al penetrar entre tus muslos finos
      la onda se aguzó como una daga.

      The sea being desperate to conquer
      like all men, was clamoring about your waist.
      With its long reach the dark river-
      side protected you. In your braids,

      and in your eyes and in your skin
      white like the stars, the sunset light
      was shining with an opaque decay
      that only in peaceful waters lasts.

      Surging to the beat of your breasts
      the quiet sea lifted you in a wave
      to let your body fall, dazed like a beast;

      its voice caressed you with a dark word,
      and upon entering your closed tight legs
      the wave cut through you like a sword.

    2. Thanks, Miguel, and thanks humblehappiness for the translation. I've not seen Lugones' poetry before, but it's about what I would have expected give the style and content of the stories.

  2. I know Borges dedicated The Maker to Lugones. I remember another translation of the book (called Dreamtigers) has an introduction that discusses Lugones's influence on Borges, but I don't have my copy anymore.

    1. From what little I've read about the back and forth influencing, Borges and Lugones apparently had a rather contentious relationship.

    2. Yeah, it was a love-hate thing.

  3. I've heard of this before - the English translation is on my wishlist - but this post was great for explaining what exactly the book is about besides "fantastic tales." Thanks for the nice post!

    1. Susanna - Many thanks, and thanks too for visiting!

  4. 50 Watts used to post a fair amount of crazy Lugones stuff. Mr. Watts is pals with Mr. Alter-Gilbert.

    1. Thanks, Tom. Though that cover illustration is right out of something 50 Watts would post, I was nonetheless surprised to find Lugones there. Interesting and, indeed, crazy stuff.

  5. I have not read this book but it sounds fantastic. It seems to be a rare thing to combine stories of the occult and science with what seems to be fairly serious cultural threads. The story descriptions sound a little like the work done by HP Lovecraft but perhaps a little more artistically imagined.

    I may give this one a try!

    1. Brian - if you like Lovecraft, you're almost sure to like this. Lugones really puts the "science" in "science fiction."