“There are some truths in this world that one cannot see unless one unbends one’s posture.’ (Also Mishima).”
Reading Geoffrey Morrison and Matthew Tomkinson’s collaborative debut poetry/ experimental short-fiction collection Archaic Torso of Gumby, I was reminded of the duck-rabbit illustration in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. This illustration, which you can easily view via a quick google search, can be perceived as either the head of a duck or the head of a rabbit, yet is ultimately both. Put another way:
It’s a duck! It’s a rabbit! No, it’s a duck-rabbit!
The point of the illustration for Wittgenstein, so far as I understand it, is that whether a person sees a duck or a rabbit has less to do with a change in the formal properties of the illustration, and more to do with the person’s own perception, that is, way of seeing things. Consequently, two or more people can observe the exact same object and perceive it in different, seemingly mutually exclusive ways. One person sees a duck; another sees a rabbit. Yet another may see something else entirely, but for the purposes of this review, let’s stick with duck-rabbit.
Archaic Torso of Gumby occupies itself with this difference of perspectives and posits that collaborating with others to traverse the distance between these differences, including collaborating with other texts and the observed object itself, facilitates a shift in an individual’s perspective that promotes a broader and deeper understanding of whatever it is that is under observation. In ATOG, these differing perceptions are always valid, co-existing and sticking to each other like goo. The world of the text is imagined as a succession of duck-rabbits that destabilize the borders between subjects and objects, rendering their delineating characteristics porous and malleable.
Consider “Shoals of Herring.” In this short story, Brendan gives mass on a whale and contemplates the theological question of whether the eucharist undergoes transubstantiation during the ritual of mass or if it is only symbolically the body and blood of Christ:
Brendan asserts the ambiguity of the eucharist’s meaning through the use of language. He substitutes “flesh” for “Body” and “drained veins” for “Blood,” the former terms referring to more specific attributes that lack the full capital alliterative metaphysical transformation of the latter, mirroring the distinction between transubstantiation and symbolism. Language remains a potent vehicle for the expression of such ambiguities with both metaphors and puns suggestive of a transformation in the perception of an object that ultimately remains static. Presumably, whatever the eucharist does, it always does it, with its possible interpretations and meanings dependent on the perspectives that observe the object. That the Catholic church was built upon a pun, a fact that previous artists critical of the Catholic’s superciliousness have been all too happy to point out, destabilizes the borders of certainty delineating the intentions of those responsible for the administration of the religion and the correct interpretations of a given canonical text.
If this all sounds a tad academic and postmodern, well, that’s because it is. ATOG mobilizes a kaleidoscope of influences, histories, and literary styles, not to mention a bifurcated, symbiotic authorship, to fashion from form and content and method a text that repeatedly replicates the thought experiment of the duck-rabbit illustration. I liken the experience of reading this book to the kind of synesthesia sometimes experienced while under the influence of LSD. The depth and range of references sometimes gave me a mild case of vertigo while reading, not unlike many a modernist and post-modernist work from times past and times present.
Luckily, there’s a handy notes section at the end that divulges some of the primary sources used in the composition of the different stories. These notes help ground the reading experience, revealing the connective sinews that unite and bind the stories’ muscles and bones together while providing useful starting nodes for background research and googling.
For all that, the experience of reading can be beguiling, even as patterns emerge in themes and topics presented throughout the book. That the stories are riffing on each other like a music suite, and approximate the shifts in perspective that preoccupy the narrative, came as something of a revelation to me even as this structure announces itself at the start of the book with the William James quotation responding to the Susan Sontag quotation. These quotations represent two different perspectives that ordinarily would not be considered to be in conversation with one another: they occur at different times chronologically and the William James quotation is addressed to his brother Henry James in a letter.
This structure lays bare the narrative architecture of the book, its juxtaposing of literary references irrespective of chronological time encouraging the creation of new meaning and shifts in perspective. The persistent emphasis on differing perspectives becomes an increasingly demanding imperative to change one’s life and unbend one’s posture from a single, fixed position. The result of this narrative exploration is the acknowledgment and blending of one’s perspective with that of another, opening new possibilities of engagement with whatever it is one is engaging with along with the broader interpretive community.
The bodily and visual experience of Saint Ginés de la Jara of Spain in “The Cephalophores” spotlight this blending of perspectives. The word “cephalophore’ is a Greek word that roughly translates to “head-carrier” and is used in English to describe artistic representations of Christian saints who have lost their heads-- frequently through martyrdom. These artistic representations depict bodies of saints who carry their severed heads in their hands while their halos appear hovering above either their beheaded bodies, their severed heads, or else clutched tightly in one of their non-head holding hands. Ginés de la Jara is one such martyr, and his quest of finding a permanent resting place for body and head dramatizes the diversification of perspectives represented by the duck-rabbit illustration that is so ubiquitous in the book.
Initially, Ginés de la Jara suffers from a lack of dancing spirit and a heavy head, and so decides to rest in a spot that, according to the narrator, is less suicide and more proper burial:
Here, “suicide” indicates a death intentionally inflicted upon one’s self while a “proper burial” indicates the ceremonial farewell to another person with the associated rituals of ashes to ashes, dust to dust, etc…. The Christian context positions suicide and a proper burial as mutually exclusive to one another, and the judgement in determining to which category the death belongs to is dependent upon the perspective of an officiating authority. Of course, aside from the fact that these characters persist in the liminal state of the already-dead-yet-still-living-and-moving-in-the-mortal-realm-way-of-being, the mutual exclusion of “suicide” and “proper burial” is undone by the very Catholic notion of Ginés de la Jara being both one yet more than one, which, in this case, is two.
As a result, Ginés de la Jara buries and is buried; ends his existence while simultaneously commemorating his own existence following his own end. Ginés de la Jara’s head dramatizes this shift in perspective by looking up at the body as it sits by the pool’s edge. His final resting place has effectively become synonymous with both suicide and proper burial, thereby becoming the duck-rabbit.
And of course, this is all lost on Gumby, Pokey, and the other headless saints during their encounter with Ginés de la Jara’s body. The aforementioned group perceive Ginés de la Jara’s headless body sans head and assume that Ginés de la Jara’s head is missing and that the body must be searching for it. Only upon discovering and conversing with the head does the group recognize the limitation of their perspective and how there’s another way of seeing Ginés de la Jara: a fellow saint who has decided upon his resting place and who had intended to say his final farewells without considering the difficulty of a body’s headless navigation. The separation of body and head, and the group’s interaction with both, highlights the shifting perspectives that promote a greater shared understanding of Ginés de la Jara’s intentions and what the split between his head and his body means.
Additionally, there is an underpinning of melancholy that permeates the action and reveals itself to the reader through these shifts in perspectives. For one, Ginés de la Jara and his fellow saints are by necessity of their status as saints already dead, having been martyred for their religious beliefs, or else cosigned by Dante to the eighth circle of hell as in the case of Bertran de Born. For another, the headless saints live in a liminal state, frolicking yes, with a possible pun on the Grateful Dead in another story, but with the ultimate purpose of selecting a final resting place. Ginés de la Jara’s dissatisfaction with dancing and holding his head all the time encourage him to fulfill the purpose of selecting a final resting place, betraying a melancholy with the materiality of this life after death in a hermit’s cave.
This materialist centric melancholy pervades ATOG, hanging over the characters’ heads like a storm cloud. Stories such as “The Sad Creature: A Bestiary of Melancholy,” “The Lourdes CyberpilgrimageTM,” “A Rock of Prodigious Smoothness,” and “A Rough History of the Stairway to Heaven in Several Stressful Artefacts,” feature protagonists attempting to transcend material conditions through the use of technology and other materials. These attempts provide mixed results, with the technology, being of course another form of materiality, unable to match the intentions of the protagonist. The cyber pilgrimage has many physical side effects and is ultimately an approximation of a given experience rather than an experience itself. Humans are perceived to be a fount of negativity that may or may not influence animals. A rock resists reaching the utmost smoothness pursued by its protagonist, leaving the protagonist unsatisfied and at odds with the rest of a class who have taken the rock sculpting directives in other directions. Artifacts that were once cutting edge have more prominent flaws with the passage of time, undermining the power of those initial revelations expressive in the object itself.
In all this, I detect a materialist worry regarding the temporality of life and finality of death, not to mention the deterministic concerns of free will in a world of materially constructed selves and the schism between our imagined lives and our bodily selves. In ATOG, melancholia is a reaction to the limitations of the embodied world and its impermanence. The mind can, after all, conceive of permanence and perfection in spite of its materiality. But, how are characters to live with this materiality while imagining permanence and perfection if they themselves are material and subject to life’s impermanence and imperfection?
This externalized problem is compounded by how vulnerable characters are to the diverse set of perspectives that may interpret their selves and their actions in uncomplimentary ways. If the duck-rabbit does not like its particular duck-ness and would prefer to highlight its rabbit qualities, there remains the problem of how others perceive and interpret them, thereby creating a schism between themselves and everyone who perceives them. Ginés de la Jara certainly has a time of it in negotiating his departure to his final resting spot when accounting for both his bifurcated self and his fellow headless saints. Notwithstanding, negotiating the perceptual differences between the material world, oneself, and others does lend the book its peculiar humour without sliding into satire and mockery, and the book retains an empathetic stance to its characters that reminds me of the stories of George Saunders.
I hope I have not given the impression that ATOG is bleak or in any way depressing—it's far from it! The book mobilizes its humour to good effect in curtailing the melancholic implications of some of the action and dialogue. Really, there are so many puns, easily discernable and right there, front and centre, gob-smacking the reader from the very beginning with delightful story titles and allusions. Given activities and scenarios find comfort and comedy through a shift in perspective, defamiliarizing well-worn situations and finding a way to crack them open. Following the odyssey of a wayward wallet can only ever be grounds for joy and empathy.
The narration finds refuge in art and imagination to help characters breach the mind body divide that plagues the text’s materialist universe. In “The King of all Injuries: An Extravaganza,” the protagonist overcomes a roaring anxiety involving his death via the swallowing of foreign objects through his imaginative dreaming and reading—admittedly following a night of drinking malt liquor at a house party:
For the protagonist, the anxiety of swallowing foreign objects is a conflict between the mind’s fear and the finality of material death. The dream forces the protagonist to consume a mushroom, thereby allowing the protagonist to confront and work through their fear of swallowing foreign objects. The eating of the mushroom in the dream coincides with the protagonist feeling sick and vomiting in the material world, the literary dreaming creating a set of double perceptions in typical duck-rabbit fashion. Moreover, this sickness is, in fact, caused by the protagonist swallowing a foreign object: whether it be the mushroom in the dream or the alcohol from the previous evening. More importantly, the protagonist survives this ordeal, and goes on to enjoy a well-deserved breakfast of chicken and waffles.
Crucially, Edgar Allan’s Poe’s “The Angel of the Odd,” a literary and imaginative work, remains central to the development of the protagonist’s anxiety and its resolution. The anxiety begins to build as the protagonist realizes that “The Angel of the Odd” owes a debt to a newspaper article, highlighting the materialistic underpinnings of imaginative products, and in turn, the mind and self-actualization. Yet, as the Angel of the Odd influences and manifests in the material world in various, perhaps appropriately called strange and mysterious, ways, the protagonist’s perception shifts, and perceives themselves as the titular Angel, that is, a product of their own imagination.
Which is another way of saying that ATOG positions the language of literature as both imaginative and material: as both invented in the mind and as taking on physical properties when set down as writing or spoken out loud. It manifests itself, self-authored, and calls attention to itself through structure and verbal inflections such as spelling and accents. It also connects us, both with our contemporaries and those who came before. It is one of the only ways out of our individual consciousnesses and into someone else’s. In a word, empathy. And empathy, I believe, is the ultimate aim of ATOG: the purpose of all this duck-rabbiting and word games. The experience of seeing and being seen in language with the opportunity to change your life.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to make some shicken und vaffles.
Peter Szuban is a writer and occasional librarian living in Toronto, Ontario-- a city built on Haudenosaunee, Anishnaabeg, Huron-Wendat, and Mississaugas of New Credit land. He has an MA degree in English from Western University and an MI degree with a concentration in Library and Information Science from the University of Toronto. His fiction has previously appeared in the /Temz/ review.