In the customary and deeply-rooted division of Italian writers into those from the north and those from the south, the iconoclastic writer Juan Rodolfo Wilcock (1919-1978) might best count as one from the west. Wilcock is that rare figure who led two literary careers in two different languages, the first in Buenos Aires as a member of the group that included Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo; then second, after fleeing the Perón dictatorship, in and around Rome where he wrote exclusively in Italian and moved within the eminent circle that included Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, and Pier Paolo Pasolini (the screenshot above shows Wilcock playing Caiaphas in Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to St. Matthew). Thus the timely republication of Wilcock’s 1977 book, The Temple of Iconoclasts (Sinagoga degli iconoclasti), makes for an ideal bridge between my current explorations of Italian literature and the annual Caravana de Recuerdos “Argentine Literature of Doom” reading event. Though I’d been curious to read the book after learning of it in an interview with translator Lawrence Venuti years ago, it had proven maddeningly impossible to find. I now know why. Venuti, in a new preface, explains that all but some 500 copies of the original edition of his translation were accidentally pulped.
In this new edition, Venuti expands on Wilcock’s improbable life. I won’t repeat the details (far richer than Wilcock’s current Wikipedia entry), but suffice to say that Venuti’s choice to title his preface simply “J. Rudolfo Wilcock,” thus appearing to slot the writer democratically among the 35 names that follow it in the table of contents, is an apt and clever one. The Temple of Iconoclasts consists of brief fictional and semi-fictional biographies, from 5 lines to 25 pages, of equally improbable inventors, metaphysicians, biologists, artists, sociologists, clerics, anthropologists, engineers, chemists, and others who, despite day jobs ranging from clockmaker to gravedigger, pursued fantastic theories, created unusual inventions, or simply asserted their existence in some idiosyncratic way. In Wilcock’s melding of fact, fiction and whimsicality, he subversively lances intellectual pretense and arrogance. His pieces inhabit that murky zone between human intellectual endeavor and madness, a line further muddied by Wilcock’s tossing in actual persons whose names pop into these sketches from time to time, including Thomas Edison, Antoine van Leeuwenhoek, Wilhelm Reich, and even Wilcock’s own great-grandfather.
Nearly all of Wilcock’s brainiacs also write. If only as a source for additions to The Invisible Library, The Temple of Iconoclasts would still provide abundant amusement. There’s hack vulcanologist’s Klaus Nachtknecht’s The Salubrious Magma; philosopher Absalon Amet and his wife Plaisance’s Select Thoughts and Words from the Universal Mechanical Philosophy; Antonine Amédée Bélouin’s The Bélouin Network: Initial Project for an Underwater Railroad;” Franz Piet Vredjuik’s Universal Sin, or A Discourse on the Identity between Sound and Light; and Aaron Rosenblum’s beguiling utopian failure, Back to Happiness, or Joyride to Hell, proposing a return to the purportedly rosiest period of human history, identified by Rosenblum as England under the reign of Elizabeth 1. Like César Aira’s Dr. Aira, with his proliferating screens aimed at excluding everything in the universe incompatible with his miracle cures, Rosenblum attempts to subtract from the present everything incompatible with life in the year 1580. The narrator’s extensive list of the glories and afflictions lost and regained through this mercifully unrealized project is both one of the book’s highlights and an almost irremediable skewering of utopian thought.
In another sketch, Jules Flamart, a lexicologist bored with the typical dictionary, creates a dictionary-novel, La Langue en action, which pairs each word with a narrative connection to the next word. Wilcock creates three entire pages of excerpts that had me wishing he’d gone on to complete the entire 850 page work. This is one of several texts Wilcock creates for his “iconoclasts.” The longest of these, in a piece on radical theater director Llorenz Riber, includes four theater reviews and an entire three-act screenplay, all of which reveal that a neurotic obsession with rabbits, born in Riber’s childhood, has burrowed its way into everything the director has created, including adaptations of Sartre’s No Exit and a Georges Feydeau-inspired, everyone-in-the-closet farce in which Riber has replaced the main characters’ family names with those of Nazi concentration camps. The cringe-worthy critical assessments of Riber's productions, worth the price of the book by themselves, are so are gloriously over the top that they could scare off anyone from creative or critical effort, yet simultaneously create an almost desperate desire to see Riber’s pieces produced on stage (or at the very least, some of Wilcock’s own criticism translated into English). Wilcock’s prodigious imagination is perhaps most amply revealed in a lengthy list of inventions created by Jesús Pica Planas, which echoes Kenji Kawakami’s useless Japanese inventions, and each item of which might well have served as a seed for helping populate an additional volume of Wilcock’s eccentrics.
The Temple of Iconoclasts is strikingly reminiscent of the weird, wild stories of Wilcock’s fellow Argentinian, Leopoldo Lugones, an evident influence even to the point of some of Wilcock’s examples seeming to riff on Lugones’ own extravagant conceits (Roger Babson’s nutty experiments with gravity, for instance, or John O. Kinnaman’s unsuccessful attempt to locate Lot’s wife in mounds of salt near ancient Sodom). In some sketches, the patient and detailed elaboration of Wilcock’s creations echoes those of Raymond Roussel. Venuti also notes as a precursor to The Temple of Iconoclasts Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, and as a descendent Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas. Bolaño acknowledged Wilcock’s book as the key influence on his own, and the handful of references to Nazism in The Temple of Iconoclasts seems even to provide the thematic spark for Bolaño’s homage. But Wilcock’s language possesses a density and expressiveness (no knock on Venuti, but one can scarcely imagine how delightful this book must sound in the original Italian); an affection for his subjects; and above all a fat streak of hilarity that rivals and even surpasses those of these other writers. This is one funny book, filled with glacial understatement, pointed one-liners, and a wit that ranges from tender to withering. Given Wilcock’s great funds of whimsy and waggery, his work also calls to mind Los Angeles artist David Wilson’s enchanting and stupefying Museum of Jurassic Technology, where the visitor is seduced by what appears to be a natural science museum until he or she pauses to reflect on the exhibits on display, which, in a moment of epiphany like a quick intake of nitrous oxide, produce a giddy euphoria. To read Wilcock’s book is to enter the paradise of both the mad dreamer and the wry skeptic, to marvel at the varieties of the human pursuit of knowledge, to feel chastened and humbled in one’s most insignificant mental efforts, and to have an exceedingly good time.