(Ponderosas, lodgepole pines, sugar pines, incense cedars, manzanita and bitter cherry and rabbitbush. Steller’s jays and dark-eyed juncos and mountain chickadees and kestrels. In the morning it snowed, and then misted as the temperature edged above freezing, and a hard wind blew out of the west. Every tree was frosted glittering white on only its west-facing side: each green needle gloved in white ice. In the afternoon, the sky was wide-open clear and the sun hot on your skin, and in the stony forest there was a sound like a rushing stream, like the clicking, chiming rustle of a room full of typewriters, like a gamelan orchestra: millions of sheaths of ice melting and sliding off and falling and bringing others down with them. Under the boughs of the trees the air was filled with a curtain of glittering, clattering hail; in the open it was gin-clear, hot, and dry.
In the desert the unusual rains brought out blooms: desert willow, indigo bush (like an optical trick, ghost-white behind a cloud of searing violet blossoms), brittlebush, monkey flower, lupine – and with them enormous caterpillars. The dust of the arroyos was covered criss-cross with tracks that look like the tires of road bikes left by the hustling hornworms, so many in some places that you have to take every step carefully to keep from crushing a few. It’s hard to imagine the clouds of massive, striped-wing sphinx moths they’ll be later this year. They nestle on stems, long as your middle finger and fat as carrots, gleaming and colorful in the sun like freshly waxed cars. The arroyos and wash canyons, the badlands and walls of sand and ancient mud feel for a few hours like the ocean floor they once were: tall swaying red-tipped ocotillo, carpets of color, bright invertebrates, stony ridges and canyons, deep blue overhead.
Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain started writing thrillers together for the motor-car racing magazines and rags about bicycle adventures and trucking for which Paris in the early 20th century had a limitless appetite. They knocked out a novel together in 1909 (monkey-men, tire ads, electric corselets and flying bat-suits) and two in 1910 (including a proto-fotonovela of adventure in the theatre), and then they found their lightning bolt, the main line: Fantômas. They wrote a four-hundred-page Fantômas novel every month for almost three years. The books were so cheaply printed that whole pages of the minuscule type were smeared or unreadable, but they were throwaway cheap (65 centimes, about the cost of a week of the daily paper) and sold in the hundreds of thousands of copies. The rules were simple: Juve, the cop, would pursue Fantômas, and Fantômas, l’insaisissable, the uncatchable and elusive, would always escape to wreak fresh havoc.
Fantômas was the ultimate industrial criminal: he was the crumbling gothic castle for an age of masses, cities, shopping, and machines. Always in disguise, the faceless genius of disaster could look like anyone and disappear into the metropolitan crowds he would occasionally massacre. Is he one person with countless assumed identities, or many people operating under a single interchangeable identity? “Fantômas is always someone, sometimes two persons, but never himself.” His iconic image was inspired by an ad – a poster of a masked man looming over Paris, distributing pills – and Fantômas had the potent shallowness of consumer capitalism: no master plan, no secret essence, just disruption, chaos, publicity, and money. He thrived by perverting modern spaces: releasing plague rats onto luxurious ocean liners, lining gloves with toxic chemicals and chic shoes with broken glass and filling department store perfume atomizers with poison, dumping sleepers off moving locomotives into the canyons outside, opening gas valves to asphyxiate victims. He did his evil on a mass production basis, sinking ships, crashing trains, and packing so many victims into a building that the walls started bleeding. Crowds gathered at the scene of some new outrage were showered in blood, jewels, and banknotes; chaos reigns.
The core of Fantômas’s criminal project is a kind of psychopathology in modern technology itself: in the trucs, the gadgets and elaborate machines he employed. A rigger of trick techniques and special effects, a cheater, a fixer of loaded dice and stacked decks, he turned the world into a movie set. Cryptic parallel houses with doubled rooms, mirrors and chairs into which the sitter disappears, corpses standing in for people and people doubling for each other with makeup and costume changes – Fantômas dodged death by tricking the actor who played him on stage into being executed in his stead, and made gloves from hands to leave other people’s fingerprints. The settings are the new spaces of factories, dockyards, urban streets, railroad cars, clinics, surgical theaters, tenements, courtrooms, and offices, awaiting their weaponization by one who belongs to them so completely that he blends in everywhere and can find the secret panel built into every wall.
How to publish another four hundred pages of this stuff every month? In the first week, Souvestre and Allain would outline, choose chapter titles, sketch out the plot, and send the skeleton to Gino Starace to create the cover illustration (his splendid, go-for-broke pulp style is well worth a look). For the next two weeks, the co-authors would dictate alternating sections into Edison cylinders to be transcribed; they’d exchange their text, write the transitions into and out of each other’s chapters, and send the whole thing to be set into type. (They plagiarized like mad, from their own work and from the gruesome, sardonic news items of the faits divers.) Every novel was a sweating-bullets deadline sprint, which gave the finished product a delirious, dreamlike atmosphere (the Surrealists adored the Fantômas series as anticipations of automatic writing and humor noir). Especially the identities. Fantômas can, in disguise, pass as Juve, and Juve as Fantômas. The master villain can seamlessly assume the identity and the life of a banker, a surgeon, an English infantryman, a German diplomat, a tramp named Ouaouaoua, an American detective named Tom Bob, and an elderly concierge (sometimes in the same day); a single person plays both the master and servant in the same house; Fantômas’s awesome daughter Hélène (smoking opium, limitlessly resourceful and always packing heat) and Juve’s Tintin-like assistant Fandor likewise turn up as each other and many other people. In a moment of sublime weirdness, both Juve and Fantômas take on the identity of Valgaulame (murderous blackmailer and accordionist) without anyone noticing either the disguises, or that two different people are pretending to be the same person.
Already a kind of free-floating evil – a way of looking delectably askance at electricity and electric light, photography, telephones and telegraphs, industrial equipment and the glittering city – Fantômas was perfectly suited to new formats. There were five French silent films, then a twenty-part American serial; there were translations, knockoffs, and pirate editions of both the books and the character – Belphégor, Tenebras, Judex, Phantomas, Diabolik, Ultus, Za la Mort. The Surrealists created suites of fan fiction devoted to what Blaise Cendrars called “the modern Aeneid”; Alain Resnais made 8-mm test films towards a Fantômas movie in 1934. There was a sound movie, then another, and then remakes after the war and in the 1960s, three of which had a strange cultural afterlife playing over and over in Cuban movie theaters for more than a decade. There was a TV series in the 1970s. He had an enormous parallel career in comic books in Mexico.
Julio Cortázar wrote a wonderful novella in 1975, “Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires,” where an investigation into human rights abuses in Latin America is mixed with a Mexican Fantomas comic the narrator finds on the train. In it, Fantomas, now the hero, the man of the crowd, is fighting a conspiracy to destroy the world’s museums and libraries – a conspiracy to make the memories of what had happened disappear. (“If you love art, do something, Fantomas!” urged Octavio Paz in the comic.) Even Susan Sontag showed up to get a cameo with the master criminal of the modern age: still elusive, still faceless, the perverse disaster of modern life plotting his daring escape from the twentieth century.
Eyvind Kang’s Sweetness of Candy from The Story of Iceland: the spin of the stellar heavens around Polaris through the long night in waltz time. (The whole album is a treasure.) (We get the word “cynosure” from the Greek for a dog’s tail: Cynosura was their name for Polaris, when Ursa Minor was a dog rather than a bear, the center around which everything turns.)
“We examine the possibility that Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) originate from the activity of extragalactic civilizations”: Fast Radio Bursts from Extragalactic Light Sails
Thousands of images and analysis of pattern in Islamic art
(Thanks for reading, as ever.)
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