CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|From The New Encyclopedia
Polycyathus (Fifth century BCE). Little is known about the pre-Socratic philosopher Polycyathus, and that little unlikeable: he was born at Dodona, and was old when Socrates was young (Plato reports that Socrates once tried to question Polycyathus, but that the latter quickly “succumbed to wine-sleep”); he taught the doctrine that “nothing is good”; he believed that, of all the forms of governance, tyranny was best, because “it breeds monuments.”
Although they never discoursed, Polycyathus is sometimes mentioned as an antithesis to Socrates: if the latter was incapable of intoxication, the former was incapable of sobriety. This may follow from another Polycyathic doctrine (alluded to by Aristotle) that argument “strains the organs,” and must be balanced by the relaxing influence of wine. Accounts of his other teachings are scarce and contradictory. On cosmology, he held that the universe is made of urine; on logic, that all statements are false; on metaphysics, that the soul lives on after death, but that the afterlife is a kind of eternal hangover. (Elaborations on this last theory are at odds. Porphyry reports that in Polycyathus’s afterlife all souls are equally hungover, while Diogenes Laertius says that some are more hungover than others, and that a few are still drunk.)
His ethics is relatively clear: “The good is nothing, and nothing is good.” Because inaction was still something, it was judged to be no alternative: everything is bad. If it were possible to achieve nothing, that would be good, but it is man’s destiny to be and do things, which are bad: only the gods do nothing. We know little else of Polycyathus. Legend tells that he drowned himself in a bowl of water (or, alternately, in a gourd of palm oil). He left no disciples, although later thinkers found something to remark on in what was reported of his philosophy, notably the obscene sculptor Gago, arguably the New Sussex novelist Noel Harried, and certainly the Epicurean poet Menoeus (who disagreed that nothing is good, since wine is good, and “wine is something”).
Olisbophoros (in the Greek, Oλισβοφορος, or Dildo-Bearers) (Gago, c. 430 BCE, National Archaeological Museum, Athens). The tendency toward naturalism in classical sculpture may have reached its zenith with the Canon of Polykleitos, but did not reach its terminus there. Some would say it should have. A few Athenian master sculptors carried their devotion to lifelikeness still further, to the chagrin of moralists. One such was Gago. Born in Delos, Gago is said to have drawn early inspiration from the archaic sculptures there, such as the monumental stone phallus.
What we have of his bronze sculpture comes to us through Roman copies in marble, and these are surprisingly frank. His Olisbophoros is the best known. It depicts a trio of young women engaged in the sale and demonstration of sexual aides. The central figure carries a generous woven basket, brimming with olisbos; art historians believe that her two friends demonstrated some applications. Here the naturalist tendency has reached its logical destination, or perhaps bypassed it: rather than idealized gods and generals, Gago depicts mere merchants. The central figure’s short chiton not only drapes naturally from her hips, but seems to be lifted by a stiff breeze to reveal an unathletic thigh. Her stance, with its exaggerated sway of the hips, is beyond contrapposto. The figure on the left bends at the knees and holds an olisbos suggestively behind her own rump: her direct gaze is all that remains of archaic frontality. The figure on the right sports pustules and missing teeth. Her arms have been lost, and we must rely on accounts to imagine them: the Roman historian and social commentator Merula, who saw the statue at one of Nero’s palaces, tells us that she “dangled an artificial member near her rotting maw.” Careful examination reveals the precision with which Gago treated his subject: each marble olisbos is rendered with thick folds as of leather, rolled at the edges and joined with individual stitches.
The only Roman marble copy of Olisbophoros resided in the collection of Castello Zzaragoza (near Alvito) when that castle was damaged by the French in 1789. The statue still contains embedded grapeshot. Pierre Beauchamp, a master of ceremonies for the notorious Zzaragozan debauches, reports in his Latin diary that one of the detached olisboi was present at the infamous Banquet of Hazelnuts. Renaissance art historian Vincente di Padua was also patronized by the Zzaragozas, in which capacity he likely encountered the statue. Di Padua believed that Gago was a follower of Phidigonias (whose cult worshiped integers), and speculates that the number of olisboi, thirty, had a spiritual significance, since it was considered by the Phidigonians to be a sacred number, corresponding to the number of hexagons on the back of a turtle, and to the number of faces of an icosidodecahedron, which is the shape of the cosmos. Critics in our own time are more skeptical. Feminist theorist Asimwe Archer argues, in her Masks of the Zangbeto, that male Greek artisans depicted olisboi because they could not imagine female sexuality without the presence of the phallus: “What we are told that we ‘know’ about the Olisbophoros … is simply an apotropaic, another forbidding gesture of the nightwatchmen to prevent us from probing further into sexuality’s fecund haystack.”
Annelina Maximillian, Seventh Lady Sotheby (1832–1897). If the Victorian Age was replete with upperclass mystics, it was short on female scientists; Lady Sotheby was both. Daughter of noted naturalist Sir Edgar Neal (discoverer of the now-extinct Neal’s deep sea turtle, whose size was insular) and Daria Broughton Bix, Sixth Lady Sotheby (matron of the esoteric Catholic Order of the Blood-Lily), she combined her father’s curiosity with her mother’s eccentricity. She is credited with the discovery, in 1837, of the famed Sotheby Problem, whose precise formulation required the invention of a new system of numbers and whose correct solution has yet to be demonstrated. A recluse, she divided her time between decrypting the mathematics of the ancients and long sessions of meditation on certain geometric figures, whose contemplation she claimed provided direct insight into the hidden thoughts of God. At age thirty-six, she rejected the discipline of mathematics and founded the Thulian Astrothaumatic Society. The Thulians (whose original ranks included poet Darius Elgin and infamous eugenicist Paul Norsex) secretly elaborated a “metaphysical” cult which blended the polygon worship of the Phidigonians with an elaborate system of ritual orgies that rivaled the Zzaragozas. In the Thulian heyday of the late 1910s, the society could claim dozens of influential members: of the seventeen heads of state present at the signing of the short-lived Seton Downs Agreement, thirteen were Astrothaumatics, and their emblem, the “No-Pointed Star,” still appears clandestinely on the currency of several Western nations.
GAGO. Developed at Pell Laboratories in 1976 by engineer Walter Norwich, this high-level programming language originated as a more efficient way to analyze fractal patterns in aerial photographs of the coast of the People’s Republic of Fuega. According to engineers who worked with Norwich, GAGO is a recursive acronym which stands for “GAGO Always Grows Orthogonally,” although Norwich admitted in interviews that he was fond of unsparing statuary. GAGO has gained narrow adoption in the development of hyperrealistic three-dimensional military simulations, but otherwise has never caught widely on: critics cite, as one of the language’s barriers to adoption, its requirement that static variables be assigned in Sotheby numbers. GAGO formed the basis for the controversial poststructuralist programming language
Vincente di Padua (1512–1574). Hardly read today, di Padua was once canonical in certain sectors: the Astrothaumatic Chelson Blanbred called him “The Holy Critic,” and his central work, In Interconfiguratio de Plures Canonum, once formed the keystone of the seventeenth-century Enigmatic school of art history. A wave of Counter-Reformational zeal brought condemnation on di Padua’s work as a voluminous heresy; di Padua himself was imprisoned by the Zzaragozas after a treatise of his unwittingly revealed the origin of their ill-gotten art objects. It was actually during this three-decade imprisonment, in a Milanese tower, that di Padua composed his Interconfiguration.
This work proposes a simple yet vertiginous hypothesis: that, granting Socratic doctrine, all artists proceed under the blind tutelage of divine inspiration, it follows there must be some intelligence which connects the multiform images and objects that result. Di Padua’s procedure was to record the various works of art known to him as though they were glyphs in some divine message—and to decode that message. His efforts spanned various media: in the Phrygian mode, he identified an invective against sin; in the carved bowsprits of the Norsemen, a narration of the cosmogony; in each gem of each cloisonné bracelet of each warlord of each third of Gaul, he read a single digit in the infinitely long number that is the unpronounceable name of God. The Paduan had a remarkable memory, and annotated long passages of the Septuagint he had by rote, since his long captivity denied him access even to a Bible.
What we have of his once-lengthy work is fragmentary and, like dreams of the Library of Alexandria, does more to inflame the imagination than to inform the mind. For his secular betrayals he spent his old age in a dungeon; for his spiritual crimes, the church doctors ordered his works banished to that other oubliette, the flame.
Noel Harried, DONS, GDE, OBC, QQ (1890–2016). In an obituary in the New York Moon, book critic Noam Bronzeman wrote, “To say that Harried was the greatest living female writer in New Sussex would be to say that Paris is the French city with the best access to rail: that is, to comically understate the truth. We cannot even say she is the greatest writer in any language living or dead. We must simply say: she is the best.” Likewise, to say that Harried was a famous hard-luck case is to understate the sad facts: if Job had been a woman, she’d have pitied Noel Harried. The only child of a large family to reach adulthood (her hometown of Babley, New Sussex, was an important gradium mining center and her siblings and parents all succumbed to severe cases of black spine), Harried married at twelve to the first of at least seven husbands (whom she later described en masse as “a pod o piss-drunk marmaloos”) and began giving birth to her nineteen children, each of whom she sadly survived. She suffered throughout her very long life from a rare form of synaesthetic neuralgia, in which bright colors registered as sensations of intense physical pain. This condition may have driven her to live out most of her many years in a small house on Cadmer’s Islet, a Pacific New Sussex hamlet where it has been raining continuously since the spring of 1956.
Harried’s production of prose, like her production of people, was prolific; fortunately, the former survived. Her lifework, the autobiographical novel Precipitation, consists at the time of this writing of over seventy thousand pages, and her publisher Norwick Shambly Fimbler & Sons has announced that they will be bringing forth “several dozen” posthumous volumes. Praise for Precipitation is wide-ranging. Harried received almost every international literary award: the Kleiber Prize, the Ringer Prize, the Morton Mooker Award, induction into the Ordre des Chevaliers de la République des Lettres, the Ribbon of Eternal Peace, the Crystal Goblet (shared with Zôrba Dnvlbsk), and the Delf Medal. Harried’s fellow writers share the sentiment. Translator Will Flanagan called Precipitation “a hundred Finnegan’s Wakes”; Poet Ye Ye wrote, in her dedicatory verse for the inscription of the recently erected Harried Monument in Beijing, “Before we read from her Precipitation / we did not know / we did not know what rain was.” Fuegan writer Manuel Luis Zaragoza, in his 1972 essay on Harried entitled “The Invention of Rain,” described Precipitation as “that sad and infinite novel whose influences are secret and whose only imitation is the universe.” Her critics point to the novel’s elaborate deployment of the New Sussex dialect and lack of punctuation as obstacles to understanding. In a rare 1996 interview in her Cadmer’s Islet home, Harried responded at length to this criticism, but attempts to transcribe the interview have so far failed.
Harried died in 2016 when she was hit by a satellite-misguided missile during a coastal weapons test by the New Sussex Sovereign Self-Assertion Force. It seems appropriate to the present author that, as the past author wrote in the two-dozenth volume of her drizzly opus, she long suffered from nightmares in which she continued to give birth to children in the grave; given the amount of forthcoming postmundane print, we can certainly expect to meet more of her literary progeny, even now that that decorated and disconsolate dame has been long-listed for her last award.
Ogives & Odalisques is a fantasy tabletop roleplaying game created by former military warplanner Billy Brut. The game rules and universe first appeared in Seven Harems of Aži Dahāka (Omaha, Viziers of the Midwest, 1975), and continued in popular gaming source books such as Corsairs of the Invisible Gulf (1978), Escape from the Incense-Redolent Mosque (1981), She-Slavers of the Sepulchral City (1985), and The Daeva Dictionary (1987, 1988, 1992, 2001).
Ogives & Odalisques was clandestinely created at the Cold War Strategic Air Command’s Office of Penultimate Strategies, where Billy Brut worked as a wargame simulator specializing in scenarios of mutually assured destruction. Stationed at Offutt AFB outside Omaha, Nebraska, he developed worst-case scenarios based on high-altitude photographs of Soviet defense networks from airborne reconnaissance projects, including operations MICKMACK, FORMICA, and DUNGAROOS. The scenarios he generated were increasingly bleak, and he became convinced that a nuclear holocaust was a statistical inevitability. Weary of his eschatological estimations, Brut began to turn away from real-world ideological conflicts and to escape, in his spare time, into the ambiguity of fantasy.
Brut was inspired by French fantasy novels, including François-Louis Ziem’s series The Epic of the Intimately Concealed Dagger. He claimed to know these novels by heart; but Brut wished for a possession of these texts greater than memory could provide. Take, for example, Ziem’s masterpiece The Seventh Harem, which inspired Brut’s near-eponymous first sourcebook. The lacunae in the French fabulist’s already labyrinthine novel haunted Brut. Of course, the reader can no doubt recount from memory the names of the seven harems. But what are the names of the veiled odalisques, who are legion? What impossible architecture suspends the inverted gardens in the seventh harem? What mythical or fabular-historic figures do the porphyry statues in that garden refer to, and what forgotten texts contain these myths? What is the Gordian grammar of the dead languages in which these texts are written, and how are their calligraphies woven clandestinely into the richly dyed carpets that sumptuate the marble floors of those seven harems? Brut’s answers to these questions (and countless more) formed the fabric of his fantasy world and of his entertainment empire.
Ogives & Odalisques was, by fantasy-publishing standards, a hit. The success of his game allowed him to retire from the Air Force, and, he hoped, the world at large. But his flight from political struggle, and other realities, was short-lived. A few years hence, in the aftermath of the Iran–Contra affair, numerous conservative commentators brought light to the erstwhile obscure O&O, whose franchise had expanded into comic books and figurines. Their claim: that the Orientalist fantasy game glamorized Middle Eastern autocracies and architectures, and was thereby un-American. Brut eventually appeared before Congress as part of the so-called “Concubine Contra” hearings. Seeing himself on C-SPAN caused Brut a nervous near-breakdown, and it was several months before he could return to work on O&O; CNN host Dora Deplora remarked that on camera, Brut had appeared “wild-bearded and hopelessly wall-eyed.”
By the nineties, when the slow-growing cultural tendrils of O&O had climbed even the high walls of the ivory tower, the response of the academy proved similarly unkind. Dr. Oliver Khalidi, author of the groundbreaking cultural critique Middle of Nowhere, East of Everything, gave Ogives & Odalisques as a typical example of what he called “Babylonization”:
In the fantasy game genre to which [Brut] gave birth, the Babylonizing tradition of French fantasy novelists like [François-Louis] Ziem is expanded exponentially: the Oriental world is not only distorted and idealized, but exploded, until every Arab is a prince of infinite space, structured by numberless and scalloped colonnades, and dense with half-naked setar players.Iranian-American poet Rachel Ali Webster blamed games like O&O for misunderstandings she encountered as a teenager in Texas:
I remember that the computer geeks in high school always asked me these strange questions, like, “Can you really balance the point of a scimitar on a single one of your eyelashes?” or “Have you ever poisoned your husband?” or “Do you fly to school on a priceless carpet?” To them, I was not a person, but an omnipotent and sexualized djinn.Brut, who had for years worked exclusively from his suburban Omaha ranch home, died on April 22, 2002, killed by a letter bomb. The FBI later concluded that the bomb was sent by far-right extremist Dan “Sad Dog” Kleibner, who wrote a manifesto, later published in the New York Moon, detailing his belief that the Ogives & Odalisques game series was part of a Mephistophelian machination to spread Muslim fundamentalism, and that Billy Brut was actually an agent of infamous terror network OPAL. This theory appears in retrospect to be as fabular as any roleplaying game, but this author can only conclude that it was necessary to history: as Brut himself was fond of saying, reality is nothing without fantasy.
Byron Landry’s stories have appeared in the minnesota review and at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and the Tin House blog. He teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University.