The heresy within

Yesterday I said I was writing about Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, but that’s not strictly true. I was really writing about “Notes from the Neogene,” “unquestionably one of the most precious relics of Earth’s ancient past, dating from the very close of the Prechaotic, that period of decline which directly preceded the Great Collapse.” The “Notes” are so precious because they were written on paper, and at the time of the writing of the introduction to Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, most paper records have been lost.

That’s what precipitated the Great Collapse: the papyralysis. Now, archaeologists and historians have less to go on in interpreting the Neogene than they do for truly ancient cultures, which left behind artifacts that weren’t made of now-disintegrated cellulose. And imagine the possibilities of that interpretation; what would you say about 20th-century civilization without being able to read anything that explained it?

The functional and ritual roles of papyr in the folklore of that time (the catastrophe took place when Prechaotic Neogene was at its height) have yet to be fully catalogued. While we do know the meaning of some expressions, others remain empty phrases (cheks, dok-ments, ree-seets, etc.). In that era one could not be born, grow up, obtain an education, work, travel, marry or die except through the aid and mediation of papyr.

Much of the introduction consists in amusing, not-super-original explications of “ancient beliefs,” (e.g., “Any connection, however, between the cult of Kap-Eh-Taahl and the graven images of the elephant and the ass found here and there throughout Ammer-Ka does seem somewhat doubtful.”) but I really like this idea of mediation through paper. I like a lot of the other stuff too. It’s funny.

As we know, the epoch of global cybereconomics was preceded, at the close of the Neogene, by the rise of sociostasy. As the cult of Kap-Eh-Taahl, mired in complex corporational rites and intricate institutional rituals, began in the course of time to lose one territory after another to the followers of secular sociostatic management, there arose a conflict between the lands still ruled by that antiquated faith and the remaining world.

If only it were called “secular sociostatic management” in real life. The censors really could have taken some lessons from Lem here. But I don’t think they were reading very closely…

The introduction goes on to explain where the “Notes” were found. A rogue Histognostor hypothesized that a second, shadow Pentagon existed in the Rocket Mountains, sealed off from the outside world during the Chaos. To explain why the holdouts in the Last Pentagon did not attempt to gain control over the anarchy outside:

He did not think, however, that the collective military brain of the Last Dynasty was capable of any offensive or even diversive action. It certainly could not have attacked or engineered a coup against the Federation, for once the colossus had buried itself in rock and severed all ties with the future course of history, it was imprisoned not only by impenetrable walls but by the very nature of its internal organization. From that time on it thrived exclusively on the myth, the legend of the glory that was Kap-Eh-Taahl, and investigated, rooted out and waged bitter war against heresy—the heresy within.

The Histognostor was right: “The reader will witness how the fanatical servants of Kap-Eh-Taahl created the myth of the Antibuilding, how they spent their lives in mutual surveillance, in tests of loyalty and devotion to the Mission, even when the last figment of that Mission’s reality had become an impossibility and nothing remained but to sink ever deeper into the pit of collective madness.” And that’s just what the reader will witness, too.

But where is all this historiographical background leading? To the text, of course. Which our introduction-writer suddenly thinks should stand on its own. And it’s going to have to, because…

Our historiography has not yet passed final judgment on the “Notes,” commonly called, for the location of their discovery, “Memoirs Found in a Bathtub.” Then too, no agreement has been reached as to when and in what order certain parts of the manuscript were written. The Hyberiad Gnostors, for example, consider the first twelve pages apocryphal, an addition of later years. But the reader will hardly be interested in such technical matters. Let us then be silent and allow this last message from the Neogene, the Era of Papyrocracy, to speak to us in its own voice.

That appears as the last paragraph of the introduction. On page 12 of the book. Hat tip to Jason Kuznicki, whose post on this book made me know I needed to read it right then. The implications are delicious—I mean, not at all delicious, except for the fact that I love reading shit like this. I’ll let Kuznicki explain:

In other words, the space opera, the papyralysis, the siting of the story in America, and the future historians themselves — all are apocryphal. …

The most important thing to understand about Memoirs Found in a Bathtub is that it isn’t science fiction at all. It’s a straightforward description of the mind of a present-day individual under a militarized totalitarian government. This government is also not fictional.

Now just imagine how many ways you’ll be reading the absurd events of the book after getting thrown for that loop.

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub by Stanislaw Lem

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub is a real feat of absurdity. How trite to simply describe it as Kafkaesque but there’s no escaping it. A nameless narrator wanders around “the Building” on a Mission he doesn’t understand, for days on end, meeting no one who makes sense, seeking refuge in bathrooms, wondering all the time whether any of it is real or it’s all just staged as part of his training. Wondering a lot more besides:

…in fact, I had suspected for some time now that the Cosmic Command, obviously no longer able to supervise every assignment on an individual basis when there were literally trillions of matters in its charge, had switched over to a random system. The assumption would be that every document, circulating endlessly from desk to desk, must eventually hit upon the right one. A time-consuming procedure, perhaps, but one that would never fail. The Universe itself operated on the same principle. And for an institution as everlasting as the Universe—certainly our Building was such an institution—the speed at which these meanderings and perturbations took place was of no consequence.

That disturbing image of randomness hangs over everything, and the more that happens to the narrator the more likely it almost seems. What else could really explain the convoluted sequence of events, meetings, suicides, killings, interrogations, confessions?

Memoirs Found in a BathtubThere are a few other explanations, entertained by the narrator, developed when he sneaks away to the bathroom to think, put forth by the freelancer or the priest. Some more likely than others, some more disturbing than others. Perhaps the most seductive is the theory of double, triple, quadruple agents, with its myths of even higher -tuples, where everyone in the Building works for the Antibuilding, but it’s okay because everyone in the Antibuilding works for the Building.

The Building, for all its passes, guards, and secret agents, is fortunately not simply the setting for bare, tedious totalitarianism, or anything like that. It’s much more about surreal and dream-like happenings, disturbing in a different way. Jokes and codes and hidden identities and non sequiturs and unmaskings. And no answers.

Lem’s language, at least as brought to me by his translators (Michael Kandel and Christine Rose), is not spectacular, but there are bright points. The names of the first agents our narrator meets, a few jokes, and once in a while some real play: “What in heaven’s name was I doing here among these loathsome lowlifes, participating in this revolting, pitiful binge of petty bureaucrats, this crude carousal of clerks?”

Tomorrow I’ll tell the real secret of Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, the thing that made me read it: the introduction.