FICTIONAL PORTRAYAL OF A ST. LOUIS HEGELIAN
by Ralph Dumain
White, Curtis. Anarcho-Hindu. Photographs by Donald Stuefloten. Normal, IL: Black Ice Books, 1995. ISBN 1-57366-002-002-7. Paper, $7.95
While far from a literary masterpiece, this little "novel" is of some small interest, both in terms of form and content. White's prose style is very good, in spite of rather than because of its various postmodern conceits likely to annoy all but a select coterie. In terms of form, this is definitely not a realistic tale. Rather, myth, history, contemporary everyday existence, and even meta-commentary are merged into one narrative. There is a brief prologue, in which a scene in a K-Mart in Springfield, Illinois metamorphoses into a mythical landscape rupturing conventional reality. The three "books" or chapters that follow are called "A Sordid Life", "A Sort of Life", and "Assorted Lives". The first book takes place in the suburbs, involving the narrator, his wife Siva, and a friend (and apparently lover of both) named Alex. Siva has a history in which she has undergone several transformations, from archetypal Hindu goddess to street person, porno-queen, and suburban housewife. The second book is a meditation on history, and here we come to my reason for reading this novel.
Book II begins with a noted quotation from Hegel: "America is therefore the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World's History shall reveal itself." Hegel himself gets mentioned only once more in the book:, when Siva pipes up: "Why not just leave Mr. H and the ten metaphysical summersets he'll undertake on the ash heap of history where you found him?" (p. 34) But the narrator and Alex are not deterred. Alex tells the story of the 1848 Revolution and the narrator picks up with the story of Henry Brokmeyer (beginning with his snake-obsessed father) and the St. Louis Commune. There are some bizarre, not entirely coherent tales, some involving Lincoln, before the story of the workers' revolt begins. It befalls to various authorities to suppress the mounting labor rebellion, and Brokmeyer at this point is said to be Lt. Governor of Missouri (coyly asserted as an unverifiable fact), charged with the mission of destroying the very movement with which he is in sympathy. At this point, the theme of the entire book is explicitly stated by Siva: "In America, self-defeat is the guiding principle of everyday life." (p. 64) Brokmeyer seems to be bypassed as the suppression of the St. Louis Commune is organized.
Book III is a meditation on failure, first of all of the narrator's life in Normal, Illinois, and what happens after. Then comes a subsection delineated as "Coda", where the meta-reflection of the book begins. The tale of the St. Louis Commune, in case we couldn't figure this out for ourselves, is a reminder that we live on the site of lost historical opportunities. The narrator then explains why his historical research project and his attempts to engage people in St. Louis fizzled out, describing also his psychological paralysis under the fascist ethos of Reaganism, and linking this to the paralysis of Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita. The narrator meets a pair of young lesbians who debate 1848 and the history of St. Louis. Then a young street person dubbed X tells an alternative story of the "Brokmeister" too bizarre to repeat. The narrator counters with yet another version of Brokmeyer's doings in St. Louis, involving the virtues of telling truths or telling lies. The debate is never resolved.
Yes, this is a pretty thin book in more ways than one. It is tailored to the narrow preciosity of the precious few, a manifestation of as well as meditation on decay. The author vaguely thought of Brokmeyer and the St. Louis Hegelians as representing some forgotten historical possibility, albeit sans sustained attention to real history. This much makes the novel worth mentioning. Perhaps one day someone will make something more substantive out of this idea.
©1999, 2000 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.
To appear in Freethought History.
The American Hegelians
American Philosophy Study Guide
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Uploaded 29 July 2000
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